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Navigating Grief: A Personal Journey and the Road to Healing

After months of reflection, trials, tribulation and a self-imposed soul-searching sabbatical, I’m back, although you may not have noticed I ever left. I’ve been here but missing, around but gone, present but absent. I kept up a social presence, posting on our Midlife Road Trip Facebook account participating in Twitter chats and painstakingly searching for just the right Instagram photo that would mask the melancholy and malaise that coursed through my veins. I had to take a breath, a beat. You see, my life was overwhelmed by grief and crumbling in plain sight; but for many years, I simply soldiered on. And that’s where my story: navigating grief — a personal story, comes in.

“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” Rumi

Navigating Grief — The Beginning

I was in Italy when I got the call that my dad was in ICU. My heart sank as I sat on the plane for eight long hours. He remained in the hospital for months, much of it in a coma. My family functioned day-to-day, and he eventually came back to live with my husband and me, in fact, my entire family (my mother, daughter, and 2 granddaughters) rallied around him. And when I say rallied, I mean they all moved in. We collectively took care of my dad, who was in and out of the hospital for 16-months before succumbing to his illness. These were the best and worst of times. Little did I know then, but this would be the beginning of five turbulent white-knuckle years. We kept moving through. We soldiered on, navigating grief.

Not long after my dad died, my mom was diagnosed with a hole in her heart. While waiting for surgery to repair it, she had a stroke. She survived it, but they were no longer able to do the operation. This put a timestamp on her lifespan, and she accepted this fate with a gentle grace. That was her though. Always soft-spoken, never a harsh word and an air of quiet elegance. Even as she weakened and her body slowly failed her, we soldiered on, navigating grief.

Weeks later, my daughter died in a car accident, leaving behind her 2-daughters ages 12 and 17. Stunned and numb, we cried and cried. We were inconsolable. We went to grief therapy. Inevitably, I put my grief on hold and my focus on the girls. The youngest had a really hard time. It was so complicated. We went through the motions. We had no choice. We soldiered on, navigating grief.

Nine months later, my mom died at home peacefully with me and my youngest granddaughter by her side. We sobbed, we mourned another loss, but we soldiered on, navigating grief.

Navigating Grief — And Then There Were Four

And then there were four. Half of our family was gone in just a couple of years. My husband went to work, the kids went to school, I continued to write and travel. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, adoption, graduation, trips from coast to coast, across the pond, on the road, in the air, and at sea. We soldiered on, but it took its toll.

“The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed; The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, Whose charms were broken if revealed.” Charlotte Bronte

When tragedy strikes, everyone reacts differently. But when disaster keeps coming at you, you duck and cover, waiting for the next blow. Perpetual motion, bobbing and weaving through life was how we coped. That was until we just couldn’t. There is no timeline for grief. We all broke at different times in different ways. It wasn’t easy. In fact, at times I didn’t know how we’d get through it. It took years, and I waited until everyone else ‘got through’ before I even faced my own anguish and dealt with my emotions. You never get over it, you just get through it. And we soldier on.

Each one of these life chapters goes far deeper, with layer upon layer of raw emotion. It is so much more complex than this quick synopsis. It is painful to relive and at times a very dark story. So, I shall visit each event in depth at a later date in a new series of articles about family, overcoming adversity, dealing with grief, growing older in a youth and beauty obsessed world, maintaining a sense of humor, reimagining yourself, and triumph over tragedy.

“All you know is what you think you know, but that isn’t always what’s real.” Carrie Vaughn

So what does one do when they’re trying to come back from the depths of despair and find the meaning of life? Well, there were many days that I would sit silently at my keyboard and peruse social media for hours with an envious heart. Talk about pouring salt on an open wound. Why was everyone having such a great time, traveling, eating and gathering with friends or family? Why wasn’t I invited? Was I too old? Too many wrinkles? Had I lost my edge? Did I have nothing to bring to the table anymore? When did I become irrelevant? Was my dismal selfie game my social undoing? Has my spirit been so broken that the cracks were beginning to show? Am I simply not good enough? I used to be the one sharing 5-star meals and exotic locals. Why, in the midst of dealing with my grief head-on, was I measuring my self-worth based on social media invites and likes? What did that have to do with anything?

Navigating Grief — Taking a Breath, Becoming Invisible

And then, as clear as day I realized that the entire time my life was disintegrating around me, my online persona was not. I portrayed myself as “Sandi Golightly” the gal who bounced back from anything without a care in the world, laughing on the outside but hiding the sadness that consumed me on the inside. I was the epitome of everything that was misguided in social media. The internal gut-wrenching pain I felt was buried so deep that I dared not share it. I rarely spoke about it, even with those in my inner circle. After all, nobody wants to hear me lament, or so I thought. But I was wrong. So many people have reached out and have shared with me that they have felt this way, that the social presentation of perfection has left them feeling empty, silent, invisible, their goals unattainable and without value. Take it from me, age spots, wrinkles, heartache and all, there is value in everyone’s journey.

“Everybody has losses – it’s unavoidable in life. Sharing our pain is very healing.” Isabel Allende

I decided to take that breath, take that beat. I became invisible. I had already felt that way, and well, I was right, nobody even noticed. But it was liberating. I also learned a lot about myself. I’m in the autumn of my life, so time has become a precious commodity. I have decided to be selective about where I want to go, what I want to do, with whom I want to do it with and when I want to do it. I’m updating my bucket list to reflect this next chapter. I want to write from a place of truth. Sincerity is my new authenticity. Herein lies the truth. I’m fierce and fired up. Healing. Happy. Healthy. My sense of humor has remained intact. It took me becoming invisible to truly see myself. Now that I have said this all out loud, I promise to write from my soul, share my truth, and my journey with bona fide enthusiasm. I had a lot of baggage, but with travel as my therapist and unbridled hope and optimism as my pilot, I have finally landed safely.

Special thanks to my friend and Midlife Road Trip business partner, Rick Griffin, for doing the heavy lifting while giving me time and space to heal.

How have YOU gotten through difficult times?

This article first published on the Midlife Road Trip blog.

Sandi McKenna

Sandi is the co-host of the Midlife Road Trip. Considered the Lois Lane of social media, Sandi’s natural curiosity combined with 20+ years in marketing and entertainment public relations were the perfect training ground for the MidLife Road Trip.  Add to that a myriad of life experiences and her love of connecting with people everywhere and you get a recipe for laughter, the unexpected and a great time in any circumstance.

With dogged determination and unstoppable spirit Sandi shows you that simply being ordinary can be an extraordinary experience. Sandi was selected to attend the NASA shuttle launch and Tweetup, she was part of Rand McNally/USA Today’s Best of the Road Rally, TechMunch panelist and she was also named one of the Top 10 Travel Experts on Twitter.

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