Discovering Gratitude After Deep Loss


Marcy Villafana Out of Her HeadSheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, gave the commencement address at University of California Berkeley last month and I was moved by her powerful statements on how her life has changed since her husband’s death. She and her 47-year-old husband were vacationing in Mexico a little over a year ago when he suddenly and unexpectedly dropped dead while working out at the gym. The commencement speech was the first time she has publically talked about her experience and I will share a few of the excerpts of her speech:

I was swallowed up in the deep fog of grief — what I think of as the void — an emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even to breathe…I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void — or in the face of any challenge — you can choose joy and meaning. It is the hard days—the times that challenge you to your very core—that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.

As Sheryl so eloquently shows us, we will all have challenges in our lives and her most recent one was a sudden death. Yes, death is a difficult process whether it is a loved one or ourselves. But it is also a beautiful process if you learn to meet yourself and meet Life exactly as it is. Instead of doing that, we live as if we are not going to die. In other words, we try to ignore the truth of death. We warehouse our elderly and spend billions of dollars on youth potions. And yet, we all live in a body that will die one day and we never know when we will take our last breath. Instead of recognizing this, we get lost in all sorts of things in our heads because we think we have time. But we don’t know when our time on earth will end. It could be today, tomorrow or fifty years from now.

Beginning in 1968, Carlos Castaneda wrote a series of wildly popular books which described his training with his teacher, Don Juan Matus. I like what Don Juan once said to Carlos, “If you want to be alive, wear death on your shoulder.”  In other words, when you live as though today could be your last, you are truly alive, grateful for every moment and everything in your life. And as you show up for whatever Life is offering, you recognize that this is the only moment that matters in your whole life.

We will all experience great losses in our lives. It is not just a possibility, it is a reality of living. As you discover how to let the pain in, not getting lost in it but to truly allow it into your heart, loss will actually open you, and heal your heart. True healing comes when you can meet yourself right smack dab in the middle of the loss and that is when you not only survive, you thrive. As Sheryl says, It is the greatest irony of my life that losing my husband helped me find deeper gratitude—gratitude for the kindness of my friends, the love of my family, the laughter of my children. My hope for you is that you can find that gratitude—not just on the good days, like today, but on the hard ones, when you will really need it.

Image of ‘Out of Her Head’ by Marcy Ann Villafaña

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