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Building Back Better

How grief taught me to thrive in the life I was given, rather than the one I left behind

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A simple definition of resilience focuses on the quality of being able to return quickly to a previous good condition after difficulty.  But, if we are honest with ourselves, who wants to return to what you were before, when you can grow into something so much greater?

Nearly five years ago, my brother gave a speech at my wedding recalling the resilience that I had demonstrated throughout my life. Whether it was springing up after getting tackled by his older and much larger friends during a game of tackle football or my ability to rise to meet the challenge of the toughest opponents on my varsity basketball team in high school, he noted that the tougher the game, the better I would play.

Being his little sister, I must admit I was quite shocked as I sat listening to his speech. I had expected some sort of roast but it was nothing of the sort. It was surprising and that made me pause. At the time, I was thirty years old and, up until then, life always seemed pretty easy for me. Resilience wasn’t something that I recognized in myself. That is, until a twist in the story changed everything.

In April 2017, I was 26 weeks pregnant with twins and admitted to the hospital with preeclampsia. Little did I know that three days later – with my briefcase from work still at the side of my hospital bed, a nursery at home waiting to be painted, and no clue what was in store for me or my family, I gave birth to two very premature babies with a rare genetic disease. The moments and days and weeks and months that followed the birth of my beautiful twins, Ryan and Berkeley, were filled with terrible heartache mixed with blinding light.

Right from the very start, Ryan fought for his life incredibly hard. Not one breath was easy for him. My mantra for Ryan was “knock him down seven times, and he’ll get up eight.” However, when Ryan got knocked down that last time, he just landed somewhere else. After eight months on this earth, Ryan went home – not to the home that we had made for him, but rather to the one God had for him all along. After Ryan’s death, I swore to myself I would never laugh again. I didn’t know how I could ever feel whole, or happy, without him here. I truly believed at that moment that life as I knew it was over. And it was – but not in the way I initially thought. While I couldn’t go back to the way that things were, I would learn that I didn’t want to – not when I could be part of a greater love story than I ever imagined.

In a twist beyond all understanding, it was when my son died, that I was born. People expected me to struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  They figured that I would not want to be around others. Friends thought I would decline to show up for their children’s birthday celebrations, their baby showers, or anything else that could be considered a trigger. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I grew more connected to people, to the universe, to the birds, and to God. Through my own grief, I chose to live each day with a greater purpose.

Eight months after my son died, I opened up my own practice Burke Williams, LLC, a family law firm – something that I always put off “for next year.” I also took the time to be there and give back to other NICU families. By creating a life I loved through designing my own career path and helping others navigate their own family struggles along the way, I began to understand who I am at my core.

As I sit here today, I can honestly say that I am happier than I have ever been. Now let’s be clear, being happy does not negate the pain of Ryan’s death, but the two can co-exist – if you allow them to. While I wish more than anything that Ryan could be here, I don’t ever wish to return to the place I was before he arrived.

Right now, I’m sitting in quarantine. Like most of us, I can’t see my extended family and friends – with the further added worry of having an immunocompromised daughter. At this moment in time, many of us are waking up with the hope to be one day closer to going back to the life we knew, while at the same time, fearing that life will never be the same.  My question is why? Why return to the way things were when we can all choose to learn and grow our way into something so much greater? In the confines of quarantine, I had a realization — maybe my brother was right: maybe the most challenging games really are my best.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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