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What It’s Like to Lose Everything and Start Over

An expert weighs in on loss and how to help others through it


(Editor’s note: This essay is the first in a series from author and speaker Ken Druck, based on work in his book Courageous Aging, which is about how all people can make peace with, and find joy in, every stage of life.)

When my daughter, Jenna, died while studying abroad in 1996 at the age of 21, my life ended. Not only had her life been lost to her, a forever reality that shattered my heart into a million pieces, my life as I knew it was over. Jenna was a light in my heart, and in this world. A born lover and leader, she had blossomed into a powerful, radiant, intelligent, funny, creative, fierce and visionary young woman. Jenna was one-in-a-billion. And her life was just beginning. How could this have happened? I just could not imagine going on. My heart was broken irreparably. Everything had been lost, or so it seemed.

What I’ve Learned Since the Tragedy

It’s been 21 years since the tragedy struck my family. I’ve spent every day of it learning what it means to start over when you’ve lost everything. It took every ounce of strength, faith, love and support that I had to survive, and find a path for going on. Not only have I summoned the strength to carry on, I have found a way to fight my way back into life, honor and stay connected to Jenna, and feel joy once again. My heart is still broken that Jenna did not get to live out her remarkable life. But I am also whole. Broken and whole, I’ve made my life an expression of my love, not my despair.

Watching as insurmountable losses have, and continue to be, incurred by people whose lives have been turned inside out and upside down by the ravages of hurricanes, earthquakes, unspeakable acts of violence, illness and addiction, I imagine they feel the way I did. Standing in the ashes of Plan A, grieving their losses, their lives as they knew them have ended. As the shock begins to wear off and reality sets in, they begin to take stock of what has been lost. Some have lost, or are missing, loved ones they fear did/will not survive. Others have lost their homes and are facing the pain of living out the rest of their lives without priceless family pictures and treasures that have been passed down to them through the generations.

How to Help Others Who Have Lost Everything

While we may not be at the epicenter of these tragedies, our hearts aches for them. The questions, “What can I do?” “How can I help?” arise in our hearts as first responders, police and firefighters put their lives on the line, neighbors help neighbors, state and federal agencies mobilize resources and nonprofit organizations swing into action.

From across our nation and the world, food, water, shelter, clothing, boats, music, money and the arms of loving support reach out to help. While the urgent matters of survival and sustenance are the priority and “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers” are much-welcome words of compassion, the kind of support that comes with emergency services on the ground and donations of time, money and supplies are what’s most needed.

In addition to making these kinds of generous donations, there are things we can do to lend our support to those who have suffered life losses or living losses and are starting over. Here are a few of them:

  • Be empathetic and patient with those who have suffered losses. In the early stages of grief, we’re very raw. And distraught beyond reason. This makes us very difficult to be around. We want our lives and loved ones back. And we don’t always want help.
  • Suspend your judgments and check your opinions, criticisms, impatience and politics at the door. Open your heart and show kindness. The people in places like Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Houston and Mexico City are feeling helpless, scared, confused, angry, humiliated and possibly guilty about something they feel they should have done or didn’t do.  Living under a dark cloud of fear, dread, despair and sorrow — everything from their health to their relationships to their work and sense of purpose for living have been compromised. They’re in need of loving kindness and support, not judgment.
  • Show understanding and compassion. The future they had envisioned for their themselves, their children and their families has been obliterated — or is in great peril. In addition to their physical survival, they’re in dire need of understanding and compassion.
  • Mobilize support services. In addition to helping fund and mobilize support services, do what you can to bring survivors together to support one another, learn effective survival strategies from experts and share vital resources.
  • Roll up your pants, pitch in and help. Do whatever is within your ability. This may mean volunteering your time, getting your group to participate in a local or national campaign to help those in need.
  • Help those in your own community who are suffering from living losses. They could be the result of natural disasters, homelessness, the trauma of combat, alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness, Alzheimer’s, ALS or cancer. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa to walk with, and beside, people who feel they’ve lost everything and are broken like I was 20 years ago. Whether they’re lingering in despair or doing everything in their power to stay afloat, you can provide life support and a second chance to someone in need and have a profound influence on their life.

Today we stand with those who have lost their loved ones, homes, places of work and possessions to flood waters and gale force winds, earthquakes and acts of violence. Their loved ones, homes and priceless possessions have perished or been lost and the wind taken out of their sails. Like me 20 years ago, they are trying desperately to stave off a seemingly bottomless despair — and summon the strength to fight their way back into life. They will need a few angels in their midst to start over.

Rising out of the ashes and fighting our way back into life is the perhaps the greatest triumph of the resilient human spirit, and it happens one breath at a time.

Ken Druck
By Ken Druck
Ken Druck, Ph.D., has worked for more than 35 years in coaching and counseling others on resilience, healing after loss and courageous aging. His new book, Courageous Aging: Your Best Years Reimagined, uses examples from his life and work to free readers of the destructive and limiting myths, biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions of getting older. He has appeared on Oprah, CNN and other media.@kendruck

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