When All You Can Do is Breathe

Just Breathe

“Don't try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Breathe and let be… in your mind and in your heart, give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.” ~Jon Kabat-Zinn

I watched him breathe. In. Out. In. Out. Sometimes I’d move closer to his tiny body in his hospital bed just to see if I could get him to move a bit, wanting to boost the comfort of in and out with a roll to the side or an eye flicker.

This all reminded me of five years before, when he was a newborn and I’d do the same thing. You know about this if you’re a parent or you’ve ever cared for an infant. Sometimes you just need to watch them breathe.

We say, I suppose, that it’s to make sure they don’t die of SIDS, but I also think that it’s to make sure they actually exist at all. Someone, something, the Universe, trusted me with this little person and here he is. How did that happen?

But of course now I was really watching my son to make sure he didn’t die. In a few short days, he’d gone from seeming a bit under the weather to barely breathing.

We were living in the haphazard capital city of Antananarivo, Madagascar and our son had just been diagnosed with Type I Diabetes. Now all of my greatest fears were being realized in the barely existent space between his body and mine. In and out. In and out.

I’d spent eighteen months in a place where I’d always feared one of my children would get sick or injured or worse. Eighteen months of saying, “Yes, it could happen, but it probably won’t.” Eighteen months out the window because now it was all happening. And we had to wait.

Wait to see if the one doctor in the entire country capable of treating Type I would ever show. Wait for an air ambulance to South Africa. Wait to see if we’d ever go back to our house (we didn’t). Wait to see if he’d keep breathing. In. Out.

And then somehow, at some point, the waiting stopped. Here he was—breathing in and out. Here I was beside him—breathing in and out. I don’t even know when exactly it happened, but somehow the rest of the world began to fall away.

We were just us, in that moment. With nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but wait, we just stopped.

The heavy weight of stress and fear and sadness and loss was with me, but all emotion existed in that moment alone. What was before seemed forever past, what was ahead faded into mystery. And there we were. In and Out.

We made our way from the small, ill-equipped hospital in Antananarivo in an old truck with a siren. We passed our neighborhood and his school.

I saw a friend in her car waiting out the traffic caused by our makeshift ambulance. She looked confused, but resigned. That’s often all you can be in Antananarivo.

At the airport we boarded a tiny air ambulance on a three-hour flight to Pretoria. Eventually, we were reunited with his siblings and father, my other children and husband. Then we were back in the US. And we were still breathing. In and out.

There are so many lessons we’ve learned in the last year since this happened—about health, gratitude, love, friendship, family—but only now am I realizing that what mattered most was simply that we kept breathing.

Because what has happened behind us is gone forever and no matter how much we plan or wish or pray, we’ll never truly know how things will unfold in the days ahead. For those first few hours when my son’s life was on the line, I had a moment of clarity.

There was no time for doubt or self-judgment. The only anchor was his breath. And as his breath moved, and mine with it, we were fully absorbed in what was happening there in that moment.

Now I know for sure that more difficult times will come and also more days of happy, silly bliss. I know sometimes it will rain. Sometimes we’ll feel as though the sun will shine forever. We’ll witness loss. We’ll have gains.

Every day is a series of ins and outs. We think things should stay in a straight line, full speed ahead, but they don’t. They go up and down. In and out.

How blessed I am now to have seen what it’s like to really breathe, to be so fully absorbed in the in and out of breath as to know that it is the most important thing. Not how you do it, for how long or for why, but simply that you breathe. And when you need it most, the rest will fall away and you’ll have the in and out.

Sometimes you’ll find it may be all you really need.

Just breathe image via Shutterstock

About Jodi Harris

Jodi is a mother, wife, world traveler, coach and author of The Expat Activity Book: 20 Personal Development Exercises for Gaining Insight and Maximizing Your Potential Wherever You Are. She works with expat clients all over the world and specializes in reminding expats how capable and amazing they really are. You can learn more about her work at:

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  • Talya Price

    Thank you for sharing your story, really inspiring.

  • And thank you for reading 🙂

  • Hi Jodi, this is an excellent practice for learning to embrace change and surrendering. I used to get really caught up with situations I couldn’t change. I’ve realized over time that sometimes letting go and breathing is all we can do. Breathing is natural but we tend to forget about it when we need to do it the most.

  • I agree completely. And, the journey is ongoing, isn’t it? Even having had this experience, I find that I don’t always remember to just breathe. But at the same time, I know that I can always come back to the breath…even after life causes me, here and there, to forget the importance of breathing. Thank you for reading.

  • Barbara

    Hi Jodi, thank you for sharing your story. It really resonated with me, I am also an expat and have a son who has some serious health issues. Whenever he has been ill, I feel like I go into auto pilot mode, which I now realise is the closest I ever come to being mindful, fully in the moment and just breathing! Take care x

  • Michelle Flannigan

    Great story, Jodi. It has been a long time since I have watched my children breathe in and out, and even lay my hand on their stomachs when I couldn’t see the rise and fall, just to be sure. I hope I never have to go through what you did, and that I am strong enough to keep breathing in and out if I do!

  • Kaja Knudsen

    Small children really know how to breath naturally while they let the stomach out. No tension, just breathing and being and playing or sleeping. In a meditation I learned that you can try to visualize the whole body as a big lung which is filled with oxygen.

  • I love that idea Kaja – the whole body as one big lung.

  • Thank you for reading Michelle. And, you would be…are…strong enough, because really it’s not about strength – it’s just about love.

  • Thank you for reading Barbara. I’m happy my story resonated with you. It’s interesting that you mention “auto pilot mode.” We so often think of being on auto pilot as a sort of zoning out or not paying attention, but it your case it means being completely connected to the reality of what is. I love thinking about it that way – it’s like letting the universe, for just that moment, be the driver and knowing that the only place you need to be is right where you are.

  • Aria

    What you have reflected here is what many great people from the past also echoed. Breathing is the most important way for the physical to connect to the spiritual. It starts with breathing. I found it was the only way I learnt what meditation was. It is something we do everyday. So simple yet incredibly powerful when done properly.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • vivian0942


  • And thank you for reading 🙂

  • Just breathe… so simple but at the same time so hard. Beautiful reminder.

  • Thank you.

  • In and out, just like the primordial om. Inhale is the silence, exhale is the Au O Mm.

  • Just beautiful! As an expat in Saudi Arabia, I can relate to the simplistic yet sometimes challenging task of just breathing. Thank you for the reminder. 🙂

  • Christine, Thank you for reading. And, yes, as expats we deal with this at an even more complex level. Sometimes I think the expat perspective enables us to take these moments in more fully, but just like anyone we’re faced daily with the challenge of remembering to wake up to what is happening all around us.

  • Nadia

    WoW! Beautiful ! <3

  • Thank you Nadia.