Growing from Pain and Using it to Discover Who You Are

“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” ~Bernice Johnson Reagon

At the age of 37, my beautiful young mother, who I considered my best friend, crashed her car in light rain just around the corner from our home. We will never know what really happened because she woke up from her brain injury a very different person from the one who drove away that morning.

The experience of suddenly becoming a caregiver at the age of 16, along with my 13 year-old brother and the rest of our family, could fill the pages of a how-to manual. I could have benefited from reading something like that during those long years, when we all struggled to adjust to our new reality.

Five years into this new life, our mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, something that she did not fully comprehend because of her condition. Of course it was all too real for the rest of us, and, despite her continued resistance to the cancer, it eventually took her from us.

The ability to look back on a tragedy, a loss, a challenge of any sort and see through eyes that have healed, a heart that has been broken and patched up—this is the ability to grow and become a person who is shaped by the darkness.

It is hard—so, so hard. At times we may want to swat the well-meaning reminders of life like an annoying little insect in our face, close our eyes and our hearts to the new possibilities, and just sit in our paralysis. It’s certainly much easier to do that.

As we know, though, it is not the easy path that leads to the great discoveries.

We discover our real selves on the frightening, unknown path that pushes us outside of the places that feel safe and familiar.

It was a path that I resisted and resented for so long. Brain injury, cancer—it was all too much for me to really comprehend when all I wanted to do was fit in with everyone around me and live the life of a normal young adult.

Looking back I can see the stages of grief so clearly. I ached to stay in the place of denial for as long as possible because I found some comfort there.

The hospital visits, chemo, surgeries, and watching on as the person who’d taken over my mother’s fragile body was slowly fading away—it was like I was walking in a dream most of the time, watching on from far away as my family fumbled through all of this.

I managed to resist the new reality for many years. My body was there at the appointments, in the house cooking meals, and trying to help where possible, but my mind was somewhere else.

Finally, with acceptance and detachment, came the first timid steps toward growth and healing. Looking back now it’s clear that the path opened up for me at just the right time. If I had not been able to let in that light when I did I am not sure where I’d be now.

For many years I escaped to weekend long parties with my friends, drowning out my adult responsibilities with mind numbing music and other activities that allowed me the complete and utter cocoon of a temporary existence far away from that house.

Although I would change so many things if I could, there are pieces of the picture that I would hold onto with all of my might.

But we do not have the luxury of simply extracting the lessons and leaving the pain behind.

It’s through this complete process that we have an opportunity for self-discovery, if we are ready and if we are willing. How do we know if we are ready?

It is at that moment when we are presented with the absolute ultimatum, and this is different for every single one of us. It’s something that some will miss or ignore. For me it was like standing on the edge of my life and realizing that I was not ready to let go of it.

Self-discovery came at what can sometimes feel like an incomprehensible cost to me; but finding the light in the midst of my darkest moments gave me a chance to step up and discover who I really am.

I am constantly evolving, shaped by the tragedy in every moment and in every decision that I make.

My ability to care and my strong sense of compassion seem to have become the most obvious legacy of this experience. I am far from perfect and still human just like everyone else. There are scars and sometimes the anger rears its ugly head when I am least expecting it.

On the other hand, I ache to share and support others with the most burning desire. I have learned about family, with all of its rich imperfections and individual elements. Our little family now shares some of the most heart breaking memories, yet we also share a new appreciation for each other.

Despite the many years of confusion, blame, and uncertainty there is an unspoken respect that we were all doing the best that we could at the time.

I’ve learned that it’s okay to be shaped by pain, but it’s not okay to be defined by it.

I am no longer bitter, angry, or looking for answers. I have found that all of these things are ultimately futile and they chip away at the progress I am making each day to walk a path that gives me a sense of purpose.

My career reflects my experience; through my work in the charity sector I have been able to turn my experience into my existence in a positive way.

I have been able to share my story with other caregivers, coordinate programs to support cancer patients, and also spend time applying my life experience to many projects that have allowed my story to become one of hope for others.

If we are able to discover a calling that has come from a tragedy then we are blessed beyond measure.

Every day I learn more about myself. Through tragedy, healing, love, and now motherhood, I am opening to the discovery of me.

If I could speak to the young woman that I was back then, or anyone else who is going through a tough time, or adjusting to a new reality, I would say that it is so important to remember these things:

It’s okay to ask for help.

Oh how I wish I had known to just ask for help. Holding onto our fears and our questions only keeps them burning inside. There are so many people and so many resources now that are available to us as we enter times of sudden change.

There were many times I could have spoken up from my place of denial and waved my hand for help. My own family and my friends may have seen things differently if I was able to speak up and admit that I was drowning.

Take care of you too!

Self-care has become my number one priority. It is absolutely essential, for caregivers especially.

At the time of my mother’s accident and during the 11 years that our family cared for her, I don’t think that any of us ever consciously thought about taking care of ourselves—or each other, for that matter.

Since we now all live with the ongoing impact of our anxiety and depression we have been awakened to the power of self-care.

You are not alone.

It was the most isolating experience, to be at school one minute and then in the hospital intensive care unit the next. It was a routine that none of my friends shared.

Just to hear someone say that I was not alone would have been such a huge relief. Thanks to the power of the Internet we are now only a few clicks away from someone else with whom we can share our experience.

After all of the loss and the indescribable sadness, I find myself more able to find the lessons in the challenges and move on. I hope that by sharing my story I am helping others in need.

Know that you are not alone. If you feel overwhelmed, remember that some of our greatest discoveries come from those times that we would sometimes prefer to forget.

Photo by iamuday

About Lisa Humphries

Lisa Humphries lives in South Sydney and is a single (aka soul-o) mother, blogger, fundraiser, event manager and passionate volunteer for many causes close to her heart. She enjoys cooking, taking pictures, and using social media for good. Lisa blogs about her mission to BE the change at

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  • futbolfan423

    Thank you so much for this post. I’m struggling after having my husband walk out on me after 31 years of marriage, losing my home, watching my kids drift away, seeing so many long term family relationships change. Hearing what you went through at such a young age makes me realize I’m not alone, and am truly blessed. There are many good things happening in the midst of this very difficult time in my life. It’s just hard to focus on good things while acknowledging and working through the difficult emotions too.

  • Pa


  • svc0225

    Wow! This is powerful – To the many people who are going through difficulties now – Hold on to your faith and remember self – care/ love is imperative. Going through such events will make you “feel” inadequate, but remember, we will not get more than we can handle. Ever.

  • svc0225

    I agree – It feels as though it’s impossible. What I liked best was the writer’s words “new reality” Even though we are faced with a new reality – It will become familiar as well as the old one. You need to develop your personal friendships now and never, never, doubt God’s love for you.

  • “It is not the easy path that leads to the great discoveries”. So much depth in this one sentence and in your entire post. Thank you.

  • Animals

    Yes, your words do help others!!!  I’ve been through very difficult times, too, and I keep hearing the same question: How am I going to get through this? You feel shattered and alone, but you are NOT alone. I am currently adjusting to a “new reality” and eagerly awaiting the next crazy turn in Life. Thank you for sharing your difficult experience. 

  • Thank you, Lisa, from another “Soul-o” of a different fabric (not mother or father but, perhaps, a philosopher). Your narrative title evoked one of my favorite quotes, from Anais Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” I am still working from pain, through the darkness, again defining my life. I have been this way before, many more times than I care to count. Yet I know I will come through. Life is not ALL darkness. We have to know that, in our hearts, as we move forward. Thinking farther, light and darkness render definition, of a life, of a world. All of one or another would not create a single page.
    After all, we would be writing none of this had we skated through life without a care.
    ~ Mark

  • urooj shahid

    Lisa ‘ Remember that some of our greatest discoveries come from those times that we would sometimes prefer to forget’  WELL SAID! 🙂 I absolutely loved your post! 

  • desiderata

    Thank you for reminding me I’m not alone. I was crying while reading your post. I’m presently experiencing the same road. I’m trying to accept what my reality is now. It’s almost been 2 years but I’m still in denial which would cause me to feel depress, anger, envy and fear. It’s like I’m always looking forward to the future without living the present moment. I’m afraid nothing will change except that I’m turning my self in bitterness and vanity. I don’t know any person whom I can talk to since I know my family is much more feeling the same way too and I don’t have that many friends. Reading something like this makes me feel better. I recently read the poem Desiderata and I’m making it as my daily inspiration and practice on how to live a happy life plus your post, now I just have to continue living the now moment and make this experience a healthy reminder that “some of our greatest discoveries come from those times that we would sometimes prefer to forget” so I can look back with a smile in my face knowing I overcome tha pains that shaped me rather than defining me. Thank you.

  • “I’ve learned that it’s okay to be shaped by pain, but it’s not okay to
    be defined by it.” – This was beautiful. Thank-you for sharing this.
    Blessings ~

  • Hi Deborah, thank you for your response, I am so pleased that this resonated with you xox blessings to you too!!

  • OH thank you, for letting me know that this reached you.
    To hear that you feel less alone is the exact purpose for my sharing so openly in my writing and my blog.
    You are not alone, please reach out.
    It is a brave thing to share that you are feeling this way.
    Love and Light xox

  • Urooj – thank you!
    I am so happy that you loved my post and in particular this snippet.
    Love and Light x Lisa.

  • Wind_goddess_27

    Thank you for sharing Xx

  • Jigna11

    Thank you lisa. Few months back, i lost my mother…i can relate with this. I am finding my way through this. Am discovering myself! I look forward to reading tiny buddha every day and that gives me happiness.

  • Gee’s Mum

    Thank you for putting into words many of my feelings after my 34 year old son died suddenly and unexpectly in April 2011. Lots of what you have said has resonance to me and my bereft daughter who had lost her father 6 months before, she sent me the link saying it could help us both. I have at last started counselling which is helping to lift the shutters which slammed shut and have remained so. I now accept it when people say “your child is not supposed to died before you”, I had wanted to scream “I KNOW”, but now I smile and say thank you. As a teacher of teenagers I try to show them how to talk to the bereaved, not to be embarrssed and certainly not ignore or acknowledge the death.  My own personal pet hate is people saying someone had ‘passed away’, stop, use the real word ‘died’. Wrapping it up in another word doesn’t lessen the pain and the loss.

  • Hello, and thank you so much, for sharing your own story.
    I am so very sorry and sad for the loss of your son.
    Some of the hardest parts of my own grieving were and still are for my grandmother who lost her only daughter at the age of 48. As a new Mother myself I cannot even imagine that particular grief.
    I agree wholeheartedly with you on the use of the term ‘passed away’ – we work very hard in several organisations in Australia (not sure where you are from sorry if I seem rude) to change this. People die, they do not ‘pass away’.
    It is beautiful that your daughter shared my story with you and that it found its way into your lives when you needed it most.
    Thank you again for your message and I cannot tell you how much it means to me that my words have helped you with your own feelings.
    Love and Light xox Lisa.

  • You are welcome xox
    I am sorry that you too have lost your Mother.
    Self discovery can be an important step within our grieving.
    Much like yourself I find happiness here in this very special place that Lori has created. x Lisa.

  • Dear Mark,
    Thank you for this beautiful message, that quote you shared is one that I discovered  recently and it really speaks to me as well.
    It is wonderful that you have such insight into your own journey and you seem to have so much hope and belief in yourself 🙂
    xox Lisa.

  • You are so welcome, it is the greatest achievement of my life to know that my words, and the sharing of my own story conveys the meaning that ‘we are not alone’.
    Thank you for taking the time to share your own response.
    Love and Light xox Lisa.

  • Thank you so much xox

  • One of my dear friends said that to me once, that life would not give me more than I could handle and it seems so true to me.
    At times we may doubt that we can handle it all however when we look back with self love and have faith we can survive! x Lisa.

  • You are welcome Pa x Lisa.

  • Thank you for sharing your own story, it sounds as though you have a lot going on and to know that my story has found you at this time gives me such joy.
    You are not alone, and being able to see the blessings in amongst the darkness is an important part of coping for me.
    Love and Light xox Lisa.

  • Thank you, I am so pleased that you found my story and your comment about the ‘new reality’ is really such a big part of it and that of many others. x Lisa.

  • Hey Lisa, It’s Gee’s sister. I was really moved by this post. I read tiny buddha a lot but this resonated so much with me. So I sent it to my Mum… 

    The bit that got me was ‘If we are able to discover a calling that has come from a tragedy then we are blessed beyond measure.’

    I am about to embark on a hypnotherapy and counselling course which is a complete career change for me. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do this had Gee not died. My grief counsellor was brilliant and I feel if I can help one person in the way he helped me then that’s amazing .

    I know my Mum uses her experiences in the classes she teaches so if the pain that we have been through can help others we are indeed lucky. And I know Gee would be proud of us both 🙂

  • Gemmajam2

    I am the youngest of four children my mother had. She died of colon cancer and of the four of us, I was the one to take care of her. At times I had been resentful of having to take it on all by myself, but there are also times that I am that I could take care of my mother during her last few months.
    I have experienced a lot of what you have so eloquently described here. Thank you for posting this. I am now at a place where I am discovering me, who I really am. I have come to realize that my Higher Power is answering my prayers daily and is giving me the one thing that I have been seeking for years: self-awareness aka spirituality.
    One never knows how prayers will be answered, but if we stand back and truly look at the picture…our prayers are always answered.

  • Wendy


    This is a beautiful and wonderful story of strength, hope
    and perseverance. Thank you for sharing your experience. I too have had many challenges
    in my life that have taught me many lessons and I think you are right when you
    say it is ok to learn from pain and not defined by it. That is how I think; we
    all grow our awareness and achieve inner peace.


  • Jencompher

    I have read and re-read this post since yesterday. Each time I take something new from it. I am currently working through the impact of childhood abuse. About four months ago, I began having triggers that sent me into terrible states of fear, confusion, and revulsion. I found myself drowning. Shoving it down did not work anymore and I have become weary of the numbness. The road seems long and painful. I am not self-compassionate at all and I become frustrated that I can’t just ‘man-up’ and move on. I know something good will come of all of this eventually so I just keep walking and working toward the life I want to live. I could relate to so many things you said. Thank you so much for the encouragement to continue my journey.

  • Michael

    Thanks for sharing your story. We all have our own versions of that story, and yet many of us keep thoughts and feelings inside or push them down so far that we don’t even know it has shaped our life view. Far better to experience the pain and learn from it then avoid the pain through distractions and never really deal with it. 

  • Lv2terp

    Fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!! This game me chills, and just wonderful insight and wisdom to apply to life, thank you for sharing this!!!! 🙂

  • Hi Megan,
    Thank you so much for your message.
    That is wonderful that you are heading into some study that has been driven by your experience, I cannot tell you how much my life changed for the better when I went down that same path.
    It has given me such a powerful sense of purpose and although I would wish for my Mother back in a heartbeat I am so grateful for the direction my life has taken and the growth that I have experienced since she died.
    I hope that you enjoy the study and I agree wholeheartedly that your brother would be so proud of you and your Mum.
    xox Lisa.

  • So happy that you reacted in this way to my story xox Lisa.

  • Thank you Michael, the sharing of my story began as a part of my own healing and over the years has become more of a burning passion and life mission!
    It is so true that experiencing the pain, working through it and recognising the impact that it is having can be a really positive way of coping and learning from the experience. x Lisa.

  • Thank you for this beautiful message Gemma.
    I am sorry that you also lost your Mother, it seems that we share a similar experience of caring although I was not the primary carer for many of the years my Mother was gravely ill. It is a brave and life changing thing that you did for your own Mother.
    It sounds as though you have learned a lot from the experience and your spiritual practice is is helping with the healing 🙂
    Thank you for letting me know that my story reached you in this way.
    xox Love and Light, Lisa.

  • Hi Wendy,
    Thank you, for your kind words about the way I have shared my story.
    Inner peace is a wonderful thing that came for me many years after my experience, it was quite a process to come to that place and I grateful to have reached it.
    Love and Light x Lisa.

  • This is such a beautiful brave message, thank you xox
    It is so amazing to hear that continue to take things from my sharing each time you read the story.
    I am sorry that you are going through such a difficult process, it sounds as though there is a lot going on as you are working through all of this.
    You are so brave, for not ‘shoving it down’ anymore.
    Know that you are not alone.
    Love and Light xox Lisa.

  • Lola

    Hi Lisa,

    I have read and re-read your article numerous times. I think I’m still in shock because your story is extremely similar to my story (eerily so – but in a strange way it is nice to know that someone else out there understands exactly how it feels), however unlike you I haven’t reached the stage of acceptance.

    May I ask, how many years was it before you got to that stage? Where you no longer found yourself consumed by the bitter & angry thoughts? I hope that one day to I will become a person who is shaped by darkness as opposed to defined by it.

    Many thanks for sharing your story.

  • Hi Lola,
    Thank you for getting in touch, I am glad that you have felt some comfort knowing that there is someone who has been through a similar experience and can understand how you are feeling.
    Just to give you some timings that may help with what you are asking.
    My Mother had the car accident that I mention in 1989, I was 16 at the time.
    It was 5 years after that she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
    She died in January 2000 when I was 27.
    I am turning 39 later this year.
    For me I can see now that I was in denial of her brain injury for the years that she lived with that, and even during the 5 years of her cancer.
    I think when she died I began to process it all and it was then that I was officially diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD.
    It has been ten years of processing and gradual acceptance for me.
    Please know that we all experience things differently though.
    My life was hardest during the 11 years that she was sick, there are not a lot of good memories that I can recall during that time.
    The years since then have been hard however they have also been extremely memorable in many other ways. My processing, and unravelling was taking place alongside my conscious decision to be as happy as possible.
    I hope that this helps, I think that the most important thing for me was that I always held onto hope, I had a strong belief in my self and was determined to save my own life.
    Please email me anytime if you would like to chat further:
    lisajanehumphries at gmail dot com
    Love and Light xox

  • Lola

    Thank you x

  • Healingtouchmassge

    Thank you so much for your beautiful words, very recently my mom died. I am in the early stages of grief, and it has been an emotional roller coaster. I love what you said about “you are not alone”.. someone else said these same words to me just today. In my grief, I feel alone.. I know in reality I am not alone. But it feels like that at times.. I’m committed to taking better care of myself, my inner self. It’s been quite a while since I really took ‘care of me’. Thank you so much for reminding me – I’m not alone- To take care of me!

  • Patricia Markow

    Dear Lisa,

    You are a real inspiration and a fantastic writer! Unfortunately, I have had many losses in life as well.. My beautiful 4 year-old nephew, who was like a son to me, was taken in only 12 hours, after contracting meningitis. My younger sister developed anorexia and after weighing barely 80 pounds ( she is 5 7″) was on the verge of dying for a long time. My husband, who was diagnosed with MS when he was only 23, has lost his short-term memory and become disabled at 46 years-old – very sad for an overachiever with a Master degree from Stanford in Electrical Engineering…

    We were also never able to conceive and I was never pregnant, the loss of a dream I had always had.

    I guess I related so much to your post because I too have learned so much from all of these losses. I am a completely different person today because of all that I had to go through. I firmly believe that had I not gone through the loss of my dear nephew, I would not had had the courage to have adopted our beautiful African-American daughter Nyah from foster care, when she was 7. Most people thought we were crazy, but I knew I could do it and am immensely happy today for having listened to my heart. Even my husband’s MS has changed me in positive ways. I now have to work much more than before and have discovered that I actually enjoy my career much more than I thought! I used to be more of a homebuddy and now am always on the run, traveling around ( which I used to be scared of doing!) for work.

    I have also been active in the charity arena… Was a guardian ad litem for years and currently feed the homeless once a month with my family in downtown Miami.

    I believe we all go through suffering in
    life and we all are shaped by it one way or another. My darkest moments have made me realize just how strong I really am to have survived them. Most importantly, they’re a reminder that I should always appreciate life and its simplicity. I have a very loud laugh and nothing could bring me more joy than either playing with my beagle or going to the movies with my husband and daughter ( and a huge bag of popcorn, of course!)
    After all, I know from experience that
    things could always be worse.

    Thank you for inspiring me and reading my mini autobiography!!! You are a beautiful soul 

  • Hello and thank you for responding to my post.
    I am very sorry that you have also lost your Mum and that you are feeling alone at times.
    Grief can sometimes feel very isolating, and even though we may know that many others are experiencing grief too it is hard to imagine that anyone can truly understand how we are feeling.
    I am so pleased that you were reminded to take care of yourself whilst reading my story, that is one of the most important messages that I hope to share in my writing. I learned the hard way that we need to take of ourselves before we can take care of anyone else, or move forward in our lives.
    Take care and thank you again xox Love and Light, Lisa.

  • Kerry

    Amazing, Moving and Inspiring post.

  • Thank you so much Kerry xox

  • lisa

    hi lisa and nice name lol yes your words are well said and iam going thru such trying to get stronger thru pain i have lossed alot since june 2009 my aunt my brother witnessed my brother passing away shock of a lifetime aug 2009 my nana april 2010 my husband feb 2011 my dad. all my family has died iam grateful to have two children left, it is so very hard to be strong with all this pain and loss i will keep reading this thank you
    take care