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Awakening to Life and Love After a Devastating Loss

Woman with raised arms

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.” ~Ernest Hemingway  

For years I cursed spring.

During that time my heart woke to the bitterness of life. In the harsh frost of winter my anguish and the season were one, a climate where I felt safe, cocooned in a blanket of grief, a camouflage that ensconced me from the world outside.

Like grief, winter brings the bitter cold to our life, and those withered months drenched in sorrow tasted natural.

In the time I lingered frozen in my shroud of despair, spring had arrived, with feathered creatures whistling joyous songs while the leaves danced up our driveway. The warmth of the sun was a charlatan, exasperating my pain while seducing me like a stranger to a foreign place.

Welcoming the signs of spring felt like a betrayal of my grief. For years I remained suspended, cursing the seasons, as if they had something to do with my anguish. Spring represented an unwanted gift, and this rebirth offended me. How could life continue when I stood so raw?

Marooned in a well of grief, I felt alone in a world surrounded by people, a place where I was unable to articulate the wound that clutched at my soul.

My attention oscillated with an assault of questions, an endless loop of uncertainty that blemished my heart.

Feeling guilty for being alive when he was gone, for waking each day, even the shame I felt running out of tears depleted me, until nothing but darkness remained. Each day another upheaval when I woke peacefully until the ambiguity dissipated and exposed me to the pain again.

Meeting with other bereaved families and sharing our lives brought the courage I needed to begin functioning again. Slowly a thaw occurred and the bitter cold that once surrounded my heart began to warm.

The heartache that previously consumed me now unfolded into a treasure of memories and the gifts they bring with the passage of time. Gratitude can nourish us when our heart feels empty. Though learning through loss is difficult, it remains powerful.

Embracing this enlightenment and the growth it provided filled me with love and compassion. Through years of grief, love, and self-examination, I began to find myself authentically whole again, and like the new buds of spring, my heart began to open.

Eventually spring’s return blossomed within me and I looked forward to the new beginnings it would bring—perhaps because of the cold, seemingly endless winter, or the accumulation of snow all around us?

But when I happened upon an old journal from twenty years ago, the place where all this grief began, the year our five-year old son died, the fog began to lift.

Finding a quiet room I sat down and began slowly turning the pages, revisiting the season of loss I had endured. Tenderly I stroked the pages acknowledging that despairing period of my life.

As I read, I recalled the brave woman I was, surviving the loss of my child, and I could not help but honor her and the battle she had forged to survive.

For days I continued reading the journal entries, discovering stories that swelled my heart and welled my eyes with tears. Yellowed pages filled with letters and poetry, notes and emotions bringing the words to life again, reminding me of how far I had come.

Entries I had written cursing the seasons stung at my vision, until suddenly aware of the anger I once held with spring, for it was not the season that hurt; the pain that gripped me was witnessing life moving on without me.

It took me years of unraveling to find myself again, and there are still days when I hear his sweet voice in the quiet of my day and know that he is still with me. Learning to step beyond the loss and share the love I had for my son in positive ways became one of my greatest blessings.

Gratefulness is plentiful when we look beyond ourselves and see the beauty that exists in life all around us.

Ryan’s story became a story of love, one of giving to others the way this small child gave to us. Caring for strangers with random acts of kindness began filling the emptiness that once consumed me.

The power connected to giving is immeasurable, and that influence sustained me. Beginning with small acts that kept me anonymous was the tipping point I needed to shift directions.

Paying at a drive through where I remained nameless energized me, and instead of the melancholy I had previously felt, a new kind of optimism emerged.

Solace can be found in that quiet place of grace when you release a kind deed into the universe and let the laws of nature embrace it.

Over twenty years later I was running a race on Ryan’s birthday and aspired to do something special.

Although I was unclear on how I would present it, I went prepared, picking up two $10 gift cards from a local store. This time I needed to step out of my anonymous comfort zone and be present.

After asking permission, I handed the two gift cards to two young siblings there to run the race. The delight alone was a gratification to witness, but this act gave more.

After sharing Ryan’s story, they all thanked me and I returned to my own daughter, both of us beaming.

Within a few minutes the children bashfully approached me, thanking me again and sharing how special they felt. Smiling, I looked up at their mom who stood watching with tears running down her face.

Allowing Ryan to live on in positive ways is a gift I have given away countless times without regret. Connecting ourselves with others makes the world a more loving place.

Although we try and live with a strategy in mind, planning how many children we want or the house we need, within all of this, there is no immunity from loss.

When we realize that material things are fleeting collections of wants and will not sustain us in tragedy, we begin to embrace the little moments of life.

Giving of ourselves is the most valuable offering we can present, shaping the world in a perfect light. A beautiful sunrise, a child’s laughter, even the smile we bring the elderly neighbor when we stop to visit will be the pause that will anchor us if our ship begins to sink.

Woman with raised arms image via Shutterstock

About Tina Zarlenga

While searching for a reason to go on after losing their five-year old son Ryan, she discovered that giving back could actually save her. Tina Zarlenga is married with two children, sharing stories of inspiration and hope, as well as her journey through grief with emotional essays of life on her website  Unraveling My Heart the Write Way

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  • Susan Mary Malone

    Your openness, your willingness to be vulnerable and share that with us all warms my heart in ways I cannot even begin to say.
    You ARE a brave woman, Tina.
    Thank You

  • Elena Paperny

    Tina, you made me cry. I cannot tell you. This is such a moving story. Your love and unselfishness is something that should be paid forward. And sometimes, I too, make small kindnesses in memory of my parents, as a tribute to them. What a wonderful addition to my day! Bless you and yours.

  • Frank

    Thanks, it gives me hope that there is a light ahead in the tunnel. It’s not been a year yet since my son Andrew was called home. We were blessed with 24 years of his life. I have my good days and our (my wife and I) deep faith has helped us, but as you stated there is no immunity for loss like this.

  • What a deeply moving post, a tribute to Ryan and to all who grieve for children they lost. What a blessing you are.

  • I literally got chills reading the part about the two children. From afar, you have amazed me with your strength over the years. More so after I became a mother myself and experienced that special love that is like no other. You’ve inspired me to take on RAOK myself periodically over the years including in December in honor of Ryan. Beautifully written piece – congrats on the publication.

  • Hi Tina
    You are a beautiful writer and have an amazing way with words. Thank you for sharing something so personal and intense. For whatever reason, Ryan’s leg of this journey was a short one, and I don’t know if we can ever truly know what each of our souls are here to experience this time around.

    I do believe that we kind of travel in groups and this experience is serving your journey in some way and ‘big’ Tina and ‘big’ Ryan made an agreement he would transition early. Obviously to our human selves, this makes no sense and we would much rather do without these painful circumstances.

    You are clearly helping so many people in similar circumstances and I hope that helps ease your pain.

    Sending you love

  • Tina Zarlenga

    thank you for your kind words, the compassion from others always helps to soften the rough edges of heartache <3

  • Tina Zarlenga

    Thank you Elena, it is amazing how giving to others helps us. It truly has saved me in countless ways. Your comments brightened my day!

  • Tina Zarlenga

    Oh Frank, I am so sorry to learn of the loss of your son, there are no words to express such heartbreak. Do you or your wife journal through your grief? I know that helped me through some of the darker days…

  • Tina Zarlenga

    thank you, your comments are appreciated

  • Tina Zarlenga

    Thank you Sarah for your thoughtful words and for all the years of support with Ryan. It is wonderful how children change our perspective in life

  • Tina Zarlenga

    So true Kelli and thank you. Ryan has lived on for all these years through my sharing his story and compassionate people like you who respond with inspiration!

  • Amazing and deeply moving.

  • Pat Roa-Perez

    I cannot begin to imagine what it feels to lose one’s child, and I’m sorry for your loss. Though Ryan’s earthly journey was brief, his legacy will live on forever in the many lives that you touch with your words of wisdom and inspiration. And I agree that giving of ourselves can make a difference in someone’s life and that it doesn’t require much effort on our part. Thank you for sharing your story, Tina.

  • this is real

    (How i got my husand back with the prayers of Dr Akim )I remember lying in my room when I was in high school and writing in a journal to my future husband. I’d write all sorts of notes and questions and things I’d wonder or ask this man when I eventually met him. I would wonder where he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about me too. It has always been such a strong desire in my heart to find a wonderful man to marry, someone who would love me and cherish me and appreciate me for the person I am. I always thought I would get married right out of college, just like my parents, so when that plan didn’t work out, I started to get discouraged. A school mate snatched my future husband away from my arms just because she had spiritual powers, all hope was lost to me before i came across the help doctor (prayerstosaverelationship@yahoo.com) who i confided in, i told him my long story and he helped me regain back my lover with his prayers which is now my husband today. if you have any problem email the help doctor (prayerstosaverelationship@yahoo.com).

  • Tina Zarlenga

    thank you for reading and commenting <3

  • Tina Zarlenga

    I love how powerful and fulfilling giving can be, and your right it is so easy to do. Thank you for commenting.

  • Sonal

    Amazing….thank you for sharing your story…you are a very strong person

  • laoxinat

    Deep bows to you my darling one. What a heartfelt and inspiring post.

  • It feeds me more to know that my words can let him live on and inspire others <3 thank you for your words, they made me smile, and that is always good!

  • thank you for taking the time to comment, it means a lot

  • Gita KG

    Tina this is beautifful and inspiring. I read that you began looking back 20 years later and am thinking…” I am 6 months into the sudden loss of my 19 yr old beautiful son, is it going to take 20 years to feel the possibility of joy or life?”
    But, reading your piece did help in shining some light today.

  • I am so sorry, oh how I remember how bleak life felt so early in grief, and it can still come crashing down today, but somehow it does lessen. For a long time finding any joy brings guilt. Such a vicious cycle grief is…Journal to him, journal for you, it was a huge part of what saved me!

  • Gita KG

    Thank you Tina, I will. You truly honor your child.

  • mj

    So beautifully written and so sorry for the loss of your son. My husband died 2 months ago and at times the pain is unbearable, reading this gives me some very positive ideas how to deal with the loss of my beloved. Thank you.

  • Teresa

    I lost my daughter. She got cancer when she was 18. She struggled with it for 7 year and had 2 bone marrow transplants. When the cancer overtook her bones, organs, and blood, suddenly she was totally healed. We have a little different view. We decided to walk and trust in the Lord Jesus no matter what. Well, a few years later, she got sick with septic unrelated to the cancer and passed away. I do miss her. But I know that I will see her again. I know our Lord loves her. This world is only temporary. There is so much more. Love to you, Teresa