Therapist Ken Druck’s Daughter Tragically Died. Here’s How He Says All of Us Can Emerge From the Unexpected Even Better
My amazing 21year-old daughter Jenna was on the adventure of a lifetime, traveling through India on the seventh week of her Semester-at-Sea study-abroad program, when she died in a bus accident on the Grand Trunk Road. Jenna was only forty-five minutes from the Taj Mahal, writing in her journal about visiting “the world’s greatest symbol of eternal love,” when her life came to a sudden end.
Halfway across the world at my home in Del Mar, California, the State Department called to tell me what had happened. Every cell in my being screamed in unspeakable agony. It was a pain like no other, inescapable, and unbearable.
Jenna’s death not only ended her life, but it also ended my life as I knew it. With a gaping hole in my heart, I was positive, absolutely positive, that even the simplest joy was a thing of the past.
There’s a good chance that at some point in your life you will find yourself in an inescapably painful “What now?” moment, struggling to figure out what to do. A change, challenge, loss, or setback will present a serious threat to your “old normal,” forcing you to come up with a new one. Having had your life turned inside out and upside down, you may be going from the all-too real (“OMG, I have no idea what to do!”) to the surreal (“This can’t really be happening!”). You may even find yourself in survival mode, gasping for air and wondering whether to drive yourself or someone you love to Urgent Care. No matter what we may be going through, there are a few ways we can begin to help ourselves.
Select the steps listed below that fit your situation, add in the things you’re already doing, and create a working draft of a master plan for finding the path forward.
1. Stop and take just one deep breath. Allow yourself to feel as lost, sad, stuck, brokenhearted, upset, confused, angry, or fearful as you are. Reassure yourself that “What now? Moments” are a part of life and we all have them. Naturally, we feel lost, scared, and brokenhearted as we try to figure out how to go on. By allowing and venting these kinds of feelings, we gain confidence that somehow, in some way, we’re going to get through this! Now exhale!
2. Remember to keep your foot off your throat and place your hand on your heart. Self-condemnation, panic, or blame aren’t going to get you to the other side of a crisis. By removing counterproductive self-blame and criticism, you are allowing for calm and clear-minded processing about what has happened, what is happening, and what needs to happen now. Think about what matters most, what the priorities are (your health/safety or that of a loved one) and what decisions are the smartest. Ask yourself, “What do I need to do first?” and ask for a reality check from a trusted confidant if you need one.
3. Surround yourself with people who are willing to help. Having those who love and support you close by can ease the pain, sorrow, fear, and uncertainty. They can also help you summon newfound strength, patience, faith, understanding, and, most important, courage.
4. Show yourself kindness, patience, and understanding. Speak to yourself with compassion, acceptance, calm assurance, encouragement, and humility. Give yourself permission to not have it all figured out. How could you have all the answers, know exactly what to do, or not feel uncertain? You’re human, and like most of us, it’s going to take some time to figure things out.
5. Give your unknowingness, uncertainty, fear, and sorrow a voice to speak without fear of harsh criticism, blame, pressure, or self-condemnation. You may be shaken to the core. Take time you need to rest, heal, recover, and get the care you need. Patiently allow the clarity you need to arise.
6. Talk openly with trusted family members, friends, counselors, coaches, or clergy. Seek out help to consider good options for dealing with important short and middle-term issues and decisions. Discover that you’re not alone and others have gone through similar losses, changes, crises, and opportunities—and they emerged as the stronger, smarter, wiser, and more courageous version of themselves.
7. Embrace your “new normal” by giving yourself ample time to adjust. Postpone stressful activities, interactions, and situations you’re just not ready for. Don’t rush or pressure yourself! Ease back into your life and responsibilities slowly, gently, and self-respectfully.
8. Give yourself permission to write new chapters of your life when the time is right. Giving yourself time to courageously turn the pages of the past, heal and venture out on the path forward takes great courage and a willingness to reimagine the future.
9. Allow yourself to walk with a limp in your heart. There’s no shame in the sorrow that never dies and is tied to the love that never dies. Turning hurt, pain and sorrow back into love, hope, and gratitude takes as long as it takes. Honor yourself and your loved ones by acknowledging your wounds and creating new meaning (The Six Honorings at kendruck.com may be a helpful guide).
How we go on is one of life’s great mysteries, and the source of profound psychological, social, philosophical, religious, and spiritual inquiries throughout human history. Our choices about how to go on as we face life’s simplest and most perplexing matters shape the course and character of our personal lives, our faith, and how we adapt to life’s many transitions. With kindness, patience, strength, courage, and support, we become the better, smarter, more loving, and aware version of ourselves. May you find joy, peace, and meaning on the path forward.
Ken Druck, Ph.D. is an international authority on healing after loss and author of How We Go On: Self-Compassion, Courage and Gratitude on the Path Forward (HowWeGoOn.com).