Sleep Well//

I Suffered an Unimaginable Loss While Running a Company — Here’s What I Learned

When Sleep Number CEO Shelly Ibach lost her husband of 34 years, she had to make a choice between eternal grief and life. She found her answer in nature.

George and Shelly Ibach in a hot air balloon.
George and Shelly Ibach in a hot air balloon.

The thought of losing George, my constant companion since the age of 19, was unimaginable. It was the worst thing that could have happened to me — and it did.

On Oct. 20, 2017, the man who made me laugh every day for four decades and brought so much joy to everyone around him with his vibrant spirit and big heart, lost a brutal 18-month battle to leukemia.

A highly respected hot air balloonist who traveled the country in commercial balloons, George literally lifted me up every day of my life. He once made an actual replica of the hot air balloon in Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite movies of all time, and we flew happily through the sky together. That was the kind of man he was — someone who made everyone feel special and always infused life with his unique sense of style and fun.

Even the everyday rituals of married life together — making each other laugh by being playful, dancing in the moonlight, talking over a cup of coffee, or going out for an early morning walk on our vineyard in rural Wisconsin — took on a larger than life quality with George.  

His death felt like the end of my life — it crumbled the world beneath my feet. He was taken from me in the middle of autumn, when the rapidly changing leaves and gusty winds seemed to hint at a hard winter to come. In fact, the morning after his funeral, a dense snowfall gathered around my feet, accentuating my loss, and I couldn’t see a life ahead for me. When you lose your life partner, you feel like you lose your future, too.

To protect myself from sinking into the abyss his absence left in my life, I immediately went into survival mode. For me, that meant seeking and finding solace in the restorative power of sleep. I stopped using an alarm clock and allowed myself to sleep whenever I could with no barriers. That set the stage for my healing — and my ability to receive the wisdom that would help me move through my grief with grace and strength.

The priest who presided over George’s funeral, Father James, helped me through the earliest days of my life without George by encouraging me to walk through, rather than away from, my grief. “Shelly, take winter for mourning,” he said, and I did just that. From October to March, I took the season to move through the devastation of my loss.

What I discovered during that time is that even in grief, in the dead of winter, the promise of life appears all around us. I felt close to George on his vineyard. Even though the winter shaved away its lush green beauty, life outside my window was always teeming with deer, turkeys and coyotes. My valley and everywhere around me in our home, beautiful memories created a soft glow that gave me peace in my everlasting love for George.

While working through my grief, a blessing came to me in the form of a conversation I had with another widow, five years into her loss. Shattered by her own grief, she promised me: “You’ll never get over this. It’ll never be the same.” That moment was a gift, as painful as it was to hear those words: It showed me how easily I could become the victim to my grief if I didn’t muster up all the strength in me to seek out life, which is exactly what I decided to do.

Snow piled up all around me, temperatures dropped. It would have been so easy to prolong my withdrawal from the outside world, but I needed to reach out and touch life, almost as if to remind myself that it was still there to be lived.

I returned to Sleep Number after six weeks with a renewed belief in our company’s mission to improve lives by individualizing sleep experiences. Allowing myself the solace of sleep restored me to myself — I have no doubt about that. And continuing to prioritize quality sleep as I transitioned back into life enabled me to fully exist in each moment and authentically connect with my team. Because we’re such a purpose-driven culture that values integrating our whole selves into our work lives, I shared my personal story of grieving with the broad team and spoke about it at various town hall meetings. Being present allowed me to receive the love and support of my family, friends and team — and there’s no greater antidote to grief than that.

At the end of winter, I finally felt ready to take up a friend on an offer to visit her in Hawaii, where natural beauty manifests everywhere: sunny skies, lush green palm trees, majestic mountain tops, and beautiful beaches bustling with happy families. I willed myself back to life by waking up every morning, as I always do, with the rising sun, to the promise of a new day to give thanks for. My daily practice of gratitude anchors me in the present and sustains me. Journaling does, too.

For me, taking time for thoughtful reflection helps me breathe more deeply, stay balanced and grateful for the life I get to live. It allows me to return to the present when an occasional projection creeps into my mind and takes me out of the moment.

I entered spring determined to embrace life and tap into the healing power of nature. Several studies show that exposure to nature, even as little as 20 minutes a day in one recent finding, improves our mental health and cognition, including creativity and memory.

Affirming life — through sleep, through nature, through spirit — was the crucial first step in learning to trust that the adversity I endured, the unfathomably large loss I experienced, had a logic beyond human comprehension. That required acceptance, which I took the spring to embrace. And acceptance eventually brought me back to my faith — faith in something so incomprehensibly vast and transcendent it fortified my soul and filled me with love.

I’ve learned that life runs through and all around death, but you have to be vigilant in your quest to see it — and you have to choose it. I choose life every day. I fight for it and I am grateful for it.

Right before George passed away, he asked me to read a passage by Kubler-Ross that he had written in his journal after his girlfriend died in 1975. It reads, “Learning to reinvest yourself in living when you have lost someone you love is very difficult, but only through doing so can you give some meaning to that person’s death.” With that in mind, I choose to honor George’s life by living my own to the fullest and always seeking joy every day.

Shelly

Sleep Number® setting: 40; Average SleepIQ® score: 82.

Follow me on Instagram @shellyibach and on LinkedIn here.

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