Give Grace and accept Grace.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Baumgardner and Sarah Simone.
You won’t find a bigger advocate for mental health awareness than Amy. Her marriage to the love of her life, who battled a lifelong Bipolar Disorder, came to an abrupt end when he lost that battle to suicide in 2019. She advocates for those who are overlooked or shamed due to a mental illness diagnosis. This is especially important as she lives with her own diagnosis of depression and anxiety.
Sarah’s degree in Psychology got her initially intrigued by the human mind but the real deep dive began when she was able to put words to her own diagnosis of major depressive disorder and anxiety. Her struggles started early when she lost her brother as a child and her father as a young adult. She faced her own mortality with a breast cancer diagnosis at 36 prompting her to become an advocate for those suffering from trauma related depression and anxiety.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Amy: My childhood for me was pretty typical living with my mom, dad, and younger sister eating dinner every night at 6:00PM and going to the beach every summer for vacation. As a child, I was a worrier and perfectionist, but it wasn’t until college that it shifted into the form of anxiety and depression. This was magnified when my parents divorced because in my childhood eyes, we were the perfect family. My college life exposed me to the world, removing the rose colored glasses to reality.
Sarah: As a child, I found myself an early extrovert, performing for the household and declaring my career as a singing beautician by 3 years old. That child faded away as loss and grief overtook my life when I was witness to a swim team mate’s drowning. A few years later, my brother was killed in a car accident. I withdrew completely and it took a long time to find myself again.
Sarah and Amy: We met through a shared interest as fashion stylists and felt an instant connection. While our paths weren’t immediately fused, they continued to cross almost magically. We were linked by shared trauma and the desire to have a friendship with deeper roots than the ones we had previously experienced. This blossomed into our passion of helping others remove the stigma of mental illness in their own lives.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
In the beginning we survived. Both of us overcame great obstacles: tragedy, crisis, the unpredictable, and the sort of situations you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. We were standing at the end. Bruised and scarred, but alive. We both knew the next step was to not just survive, but now thrive. The way we were going to do that was to share our stories into the world. We were going to let people know that they are not alone and that their stories are powerful. Our podcast has become our passion and our way to thrive in the world. We add in compassion, ridiculous jokes, and sassy style because that is who we are. That is who our stories formed us to be and we are proud to stand in them thriving.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Starting a podcast from scratch takes perseverance. While we were both avid podcast listeners, we did not know the first thing about recording a podcast of our own. We knew that we had a story to tell and had a strong desire to help others share their mental health stories. Once we decided to be mental health advocates via our podcast, we knew we had to make it work. This required a lot of meetings with “Professor Google” to troubleshoot the myriad of issues we came up against with production and technology. There are late nights, tears, and self doubt, but we push through each time and come out stronger on the other side.
Each one of us brings so much for the other and together we feel magical. One of the things that brings us to that place is humor. It’s our coping mechanism in times of heaviness, grief, loneliness, and Tuesdays. Our guests have told us that they immediately feel comfortable and relaxed. Listeners feel the same sense of comfort by our silly laid back vibe while discussing heavy and difficult topics.
Empathy is defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” We understand others from our own experiences, and also with our natural empathetic skill set. Our empathy has been quite a gift. If our guests hurt, we hurt. If they feel joy, we can delight in the light with them. This has created deeply authentic conversations that are nothing short of magical. We are so thankful for this gift and believe we were divinely drawn together by it for this purpose. As Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Holding this space for ourselves and for others has been tied so deeply to our perseverance.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
Yes, absolutely. This is how we believe we all can heal, by sharing our stories.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
Amy: The scariest part of hearing about my husband’s sudden death was knowing I would have to tell our children.
I did not want to tell them that they would never see or talk to their father again. At that moment in time, I felt like the worst thing that would happen to me would be that I couldn’t recover. That I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed and do life ever again. That my children will have lost both of their parents in one tragic event.
Sarah: The deaths of my brother and father happened at a time when I had a completely unhealthy way of dealing with loss. It was a “cry, mourn, grieve for X amount of days and then snap out of it and get to living” type of mindset. So, I think that the scariest event was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36 years old. The most dire part of this was the thought of leaving my children and husband behind; of missing their major life milestones; or not being able to live out life with my soul mate. I wasn’t ready to die and it filled me with a dread that weighed me down like a mob victim at the bottom of a river. There was so much unsaid, so much undone.
How did you react in the short term?
Amy: In the short term, I was numb. I couldn’t think any further than the next minute. I had to travel to Arizona immediately after finding out that my husband had died to recover his body and try to figure out what had happened. All of this while writing his obituary, Facetiming my confused children, and planning a celebration of life for my husband of 17 years. This was a near impossible task. The numbness lasted for a few months. I went through the motions as though I was trudging through quick sand. Each day when I woke up, I had to relive the events and retell myself the story of his death to know that this was my reality now.
Sarah: Immediately, I panicked. I would love to say that I was a born fighter and I hopped right up and said “I’m going to beat this” with the enthusiasm of a high school cheerleader. Instead, my first thought was “I’m going to die.” My father had died of cancer. Why wouldn’t I? I went into a rabbit hole that Alice would have envied. I had multiple panic attacks that caused me to legitimately think I was having a heart attack and dying. I went through my days in a frenzied whirlwind with no purpose or end game. I played into people telling me I was so strong and brave even though this was the complete opposite of how I felt. I slapped on a smile for everyone else and then retreated inside for endless tears and anxiety at every chance I got.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
Amy: I sought out other widows and built relationships out of our common tragedy. We say it is the best club you can be a part of for the worst reason. There is an immediate connection and understanding. I read and reread the book, “The Hot Young Widows Club: Lessons on Survival from the Front Lines of Grief” by Norah McInerny. These things brought a lot of comfort to me to know that all of what I was feeling and experiencing, someone else had been there and had made it through to the other side.
Sarah: I read. A lot. Brene Brown’s “The Gifts of Imperfection” was the one book that got me through. I connected with other young women in the area with similar diagnoses. I blogged my experiences to get the words out on virtual paper. As Amy says “after you say it out loud, it’s less scary.” I did yoga and I practiced meditation to move the fear out of my mind and body if only for a while. Most importantly, I let others words flow over me instead of allowing them to sink through my skin and into my heart. It sounds unbelievable, but people can be really weird and mean, when you experience something like this.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
Amy: To be honest, I don’t think I will ever completely “let go” or have complete healing. Grief is not linear. It is like a wave that comes for you when you least expect it. My daughter and I used to say that we were just going to ride this particular wave of grief until it passed. In the beginning, they were overpowering and knocked us under every minute of every day, but now they only show up once in a while. Unfortunately, that once in a while cannot be predicted. The wave will hit out of nowhere. I have spent a lot of time in therapy, in reflection while writing my book, and finding creative ways to help others in similar situations.
Sarah: I think working through the negative experiences of my breast cancer will be a lifelong journey. I’m left with literal and emotional scars that will affect my spirit and my womanhood. I can’t avoid them. They are there every day when I look in the mirror. The reflection has changed so much. However, this is where I begin to heal. I’m pleased my reflection has changed. So much inside of me has evolved. I am who I am because I fought to be here. It would feel dishonest to look like a pristine and delicate woman when I had gone to battle and survived the bloodshed. I am a Warrior, and I look like one.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Amy: There was a decision to be made. I knew that. I knew I had to make a conscious choice to live my next chapter of life. Talking through all the things running through my head with my therapists helped. I was able to get perspective when I felt like I had made the wrong choice to start life again. It felt scary and overwhelming at times so I needed reassurance. Because trauma is stored in our bodies and movement brings healing, I knew I had to keep teaching Buti Yoga classes. The last thing I wanted to do when I was knee deep in grief was move my body. Moving on my own was not an option, but I was able to lead classes for others who needed the movement just as much as me. It was a way I could move through the stuckness and find some freedom. I also chose to have fun again. To do the things I enjoy without guilt. So, I visited the ocean, I went to concerts, and I ate dinner with friends. While I don’t have to make this conscious decision daily, I often need reminders that it is okay to experience joy.
Sarah: The main road to healing began with intensive therapy. It was through this that I finally found the courage to give myself permission to feel it all. As a mom, and a lifelong feelings dodger, I always felt a massive amount of guilt attached to expressing need or my perceived weakness. I had found the ability to be vulnerable through experimentation with different people and different information. I became more and more comfortable with vulnerability and was able to give myself permission to sit in, and work through, my traumas. The final step was letting go of what other people thought about my new found voice. If it was bothersome to others, there was nothing I could do about that and I made a choice at that point of talking through the situation or letting go of the relationship. I had to focus on letting go of unhealthy interactions. Finding my voice then allowed me to have better communication and conversation with those I’m closest to. This deepened current relationships and allowed new and more meaningful ones to bloom.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
Amy: There are so many friends and family members who helped me through this tragic loss. But it wasn’t until the entire country was quarantined that I was able to find peace. When Scott died, I could not understand how the world was still spinning. It baffled me that everyone went on with their daily lives as if it did not happen, as if the love of my life and father of my children was not missing. When quarantine happened, the world felt what I had been feeling for the past 10 months. Everyone mourned the loss of their normal. I had already been living in that space and it felt so good to not be alone anymore. I was on the inside with everyone else looking out collectively rather than alone on the outside looking in. I welcomed them with open arms, name tags, and manuals.
Sarah: My person, my twin flame, my husband. He has done so much more than stand by me. He has held me up, walked me through, and tried to fight off the fires. The absolute most monumental thing he has done though is to learn with me, ask my needs, and actually follow through. A lot of times people are more comfortable staying in their current way of thinking and living. His willingness to evolve in our relationship as we grow through it all is invaluable.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Amy and Sarah: What’s been amazing is that we’ve been able to do this together through our podcast Unqualified Therapists Inc. Our extreme focus on removing shame and stigma from mental health through sharing our stories, as well as others, has been one of the most healing processes for both of us. We were just talking about how much we have blossomed since we started. Our eyes have been opened to our own stories as we feel more and more comfortable opening up. Our eyes have also been opened to the shared feelings and experiences we’re all having, but are too scared or too ashamed to say out loud. Once we’ve spoken it into existence, others hear it and say “It’s not just me. I’m not alone.” If one person out there can find comfort and healing from our wounds and stories of healing then it is all worth it.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
Amy: I learned that I am capable of surviving my worst nightmare. Once I survived, I knew there was more to my story than just that. I was going to thrive. I now had the confidence in knowing that the worst had already happened, so there wasn’t anything to lose. I learned how to be myself; my true self. I learned how to share that person through my podcast and writing. I learned not to be ashamed of her, but to stand proudly in the shoes that had climbed a mountain while fighting off monsters and taking care of two young children. I learned that I can tell my stories honestly and completely to help myself and others heal. I learned that, just like my husband, I do not fit in a box.
Sarah: I have learned to be my biggest advocate. I had spent so many years upset when others didn’t stand up for me or stand with me. I’m embarrassed to say it took me this long to realize that the number one person who should be supporting, loving, and speaking up for me is me.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Give Grace and accept Grace.
Amy & Sarah: This one goes both ways. In undefinable experiences that cause pain, the one in the middle of the hurricane is only trying to survive. Literally. The only things we can think about are “Do my kids have food? Did I put on clothes? Have I eaten in the last 72 hours?” When you’re in a space like this, things like manners and thought filters disappear. We can lash out or flake out or check out. We need Grace for this. On the opposite road, this is most always an awkward situation for those surrounding the hurricane. They see this giant storm, but all they can think to say is “I hope you brought an umbrella” or something equally as unhelpful. They need Grace from us as well because there isn’t a manual for supporting those who are freshly wounded.
2. Respect the lack of a definitive timetable.
Amy & Sarah: We hear this all the time, but grief is not linear. It does not have a timetable. When the wave of grief comes through, it doesn’t care what is in its way. It takes time to mourn, to do the work of healing, and to find a new normal. Don’t be afraid to ask others to understand this and to be sensitive to the fact that the healing journey might take more time than one would think. There shouldn’t be guilt attached to your timetable. That includes guilt put on yourself for feeling like you “should be over this already.”
3. Accept help. Ask for help.
Amy & Sarah: Basic survival is not something you can maintain while grieving and healing. We need help: practical help. Ask someone to take the kids for the day, bring dinner, or have groceries delivered. Making a decision, let alone multiple decisions, feels like an impossible task while in the space of healing. Streamline this as much as possible by allowing others to care for you. They legitimately want to, but often don’t know what to do. Write down a list of the things that are stressing you out, but you can’t imagine taking care of (laundry, cleaning, cooking) and refer to the list when people ask what they can do to help.
Amy & Sarah: Your body and heart need rest. This is how you heal. Your mind however, will want you to keep moving to distract you from feeling. Allow yourself to rest. This will take using some tools to help with that. Listen to a guided meditation. Read a book completely unrelated to your story (books related to your story are for another time aside from rest). Put your thoughts in a proverbial box until later and close your eyes to rest. If you don’t allow yourself to do this, the burnout and collapse will happen. It may not happen right away. It may be weeks, months, or even years later; but it will happen. At that point, it is so much harder to stand back up. Take the rest as you need it and refer back to the tools that helped the most. Do not expect there to be a time in which you should be done resting.
5. Seek out a Community of people who have lived through a similar story and made it to the other side.
Amy: When my husband died suddenly, I was 40 years old. There wasn’t anyone in my friend group who could even possibly understand what I was going through. Through social media, a friend of a friend added me to the local Young Widows Facebook group. It was here that I found my immediate solace. I could see those who lost their spouses years ago living their lives, raising children, and having happy moments. I was able to share with them the things I cried alone about at night. My daughter wouldn’t have her dad to walk her down the aisle, and my son wouldn’t ever get to go to amusement parks or play video games with his dad. I was the only human on this planet now fully responsible for caring for our children and that scared me deeply. Through these other widows, I saw a small light. The road was not easy and none of them sugar coated it, but at least I wasn’t on it alone.
Sarah: I agree with Amy. I was added to a Facebook group for young women with cancer. These were the only people who understood what was happening to me. The thoughts that I had been having, and thought I was crazy for having, were suddenly made real and ‘normal’ by these women. It was a relief to know I was living an experience that others were as well. I was not alone, as I had felt before. As we go through our surgeries and treatments and scans, we go through them together. As we fear for our lives and the lives of those we may potentially leave behind, we do so together. There is community, love, support, and solace in finding your tribe of shared experiences.
You are both people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We would want to normalize mental illness. We want to change the conversation from fear and shame to healing and stability. It is crucial that the hospitals find a way to humanize the time that is spent there to get better. We want to help caregivers have easy access to resources that would alleviate their burden when caring for a partner, parent, child, or family member both in crisis and everyday.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Amy: Glennon Doyle, hands down. I have been following her story for so many years and it just gets better over time. Her writing inspires me to write my own books and share my own story. I fell in love with her authenticity, her heart for justice, and the no bullshit way she lives her life. Glennon inspires me to be more me. To come into my own regardless of what the world around me thinks.
Sarah: Brene Brown saved my life. Honestly. There was a time when I found myself in a very dark place. I was at the height of burnout and at the deepest of my depression. I genuinely thought that I was more of a burden for my loved ones and that they would be better off without me. By no accident, I picked up “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown and read it in one sitting. Then I read it again. This was the turning point for me to begin to see myself in a different light and take the steps to speak and heal. Having an opportunity to tell her that, to fangirl, and probably ugly cry in front of her sounds like an embarrassing experience I definitely want to have.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Search “The Unqualified Therapists Inc.” wherever you listen to your podcasts.
- Website: www.unqualifiedtherapists.com
- Instagram: @UnqualifiedTherapists
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!