Awakening to Life and Love After a Devastating Loss

“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.

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 Books: Contributor to the upcoming book: Loss, Survive, Thrive: Bereaved parents share stories of healing and hope due out fall 2019

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