Give yourself grace. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to in that moment. There is no perfect way to heal; you have to do what feels natural to you. It is a process and you have to honor that.
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 Serena Roberts Houlihan.
Serena Roberts Houlihan, Co-Founder & CEO of Le Wren, is a retail executive turned entrepreneur. After graduating from Brown University, she honed her merchandising and buying skills at Saks Fifth Avenue, Coach and Gap. She lost her mother to Glioblastoma in 2009. She now resides in Houston, TX with her husband and three small children while following her dream of building a mission-led retail company.
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?
My childhood was about as happy and content as one could wish for. We were (and still are) a very close knit family and I remember always feeling loved, safe and happy. Except for elderly grandparents passing away, my childhood was free from any sadness or struggle. I realize now how incredibly lucky I was, and also how that strong foundation of love in my early years prepared me for the challenges I have faced since. Family has always been the rock in my life I come back to again and again.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Your story is someone else’s survival guide” (Unknown)
I have clung to this quote for years because it so perfectly illustrates how much we all rely on one another for strength and support. It also gives me the courage to share my story — even the sad and difficult parts — with the world in the hopes that I can help someone else going through a challenging time. On the flip side, I have certainly benefited from hearing about others’ struggles when I needed guidance or support. It is really the foundation for Le Wren’s mission, too.
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.
Thank you for that. When I think about when I’ve been at the top of my game, three key qualities come to mind. The first is compassion. It is an intrinsic human quality that people respond to and are drawn to. Acting with compassion and empathy in my business life has helped me build strong relationships with colleagues, partners and my team. I am always more effective in my role — and in my life — when I have strong partnerships and am not just acting in my own best interests but in that of the greater good.
Next is resilience. I joined the retail world just after the glory years of the ’80s and ’90s. My ability to pivot quickly and be resilient have been a real professional asset in these ever-changing tides of the retail landscape. It also has its benefits on a personal level too.
Finally, a sense of humor. The business world can be a fierce place, so my sense of humor comes in handy when a dose of perspective is needed, which is often. It keeps me level and it keeps me smiling.
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?
Of course. Mine had been a charmed life until May 2008, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She immediately had a radical mastectomy and carried on, like the willful and focused woman she was. Nothing was going to stop her. She would not be done in by cancer. The worst seemed to be behind us, but that Christmas she began seeing things. We took her to the ER, and an MRI detected a brain tumor. We hoped for the best but following the surgery it was clear that she had the most aggressive and terminal form of brain cancer: a Glioblastoma. Within eight months, she was gone.
The diagnosis itself was devastating, but watching her demise was just as difficult. She was such a vibrant, strong presence in the world; to watch cancer take that from her was truly horrible. Thankfully, my brother, father, and I were all with her when she passed. I am eternally grateful that we were able to be there with her at that moment. It was not until very recently, however, that I’ve been able to access that memory. Watching the woman who gave me life take her last breath was traumatic in ways I am only beginning to understand now.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
Frankly, my mother’s death was the worst thing that could have happened to me and it did. We had the ideal mother/daughter relationship. She was my best friend. When we learned that she had a terminal cancer, it felt like the ground had just opened up and swallowed me whole. How could that be? It was just a complete shock. And then after she died, it seemed impossible to just carry on, even as the world continued to do so.
How did you react in the short term?
Immediately following her passing, I felt like I was sleep-walking through a nightmare. Nothing felt real. I had this strange sense of dissociation, like I was watching myself from above and I wasn’t actually in my body. I took some time off from work to be with my father and re-evaluate. A few months later I started a new job at Coach. I worked as hard as I possibly could to quiet the strangeness of it all. I loved my job and new team but worked far harder than was actually necessary. Socially, I scheduled myself to the point where I never had any alone or down time. I didn’t want to feel anything. I just wanted to be busy and preoccupied. It was manic, I realize now.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
It took years for the dust to settle, first of all. I think that is worth noting because typically people assume intense grief lifts after a year or so after someone passes. That was not my experience. It has taken years, and I would say even now (twelve years later) there are moments when I am deep in it, though more familiar with how to wrench myself out of it than I was back then.
There were two major life moments that helped me shift: meeting my husband and becoming a mother. Both events brought hope and the promise of a meaningful future. As my father said at our wedding, when my husband came into our lives it was like a light suddenly turned on. We had been in this dark, dark cave of grief and then — boom — light. A future. A new beginning.
And when my daughter was born four years ago, and made me a mother, my entire perspective on purpose and meaning shifted again. Being a motherless mother is challenging; there are so many things I want to ask my own mother about and share with her about her incredible granddaughter (and now, twin grandsons). But now I have this space to channel my mother and remember so many happy childhood moments whose memories had vanished in the fog of grief. I can reflect on her mothering me with this new perspective as a mother myself and admire her through a new lens. It has created a new way for me to connect to her, despite her physical absence in our lives. My daughter is also named after my mother, so in the most obvious of ways, we are keeping my mom present in our lives every single day.
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
Creating Le Wren has been an incredibly healing and cathartic phase of my journey. I think we all struggle to find meaning and purpose when we lose loved ones or traumatic events occur. I have always found release and joy in the act of creation. That has taken on different forms at different stages of my life, but there has always been a sense of positive, forward movement in the act of creating for me. Le Wren is my way of creating meaning from tragedy. Not only do I love my work, but I also hope we help people who are facing similar challenges to what my family went through.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Focusing on the future absolutely helped — and still does — create that emotional shift. Thinking about all the things to look forward to, or plan for, or get excited about creates that positive momentum to help move beyond the immediate grief.
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?
I was so fortunate to have so many supportive and thoughtful people in my life who helped me cope and heal. The standout figure is my own father. I am still amazed by his strength and courage. He had just been through hell, losing the love of his life to brain cancer and still tried selflessly to help myself and my brother through our grief. Theirs was a truly great love story; they married at the age of twenty and had been happily married until my mother’s death forty-five years later. He was also her main caretaker during her illness.
He has given me strength by being present, by always being there to speak about her when I need to, even when it may be painful for him to do so. From the moment she passed, he insisted that we would celebrate her life and not allow the tragedy of her death to pull us down. He gave me space to feel what I needed to feel without pushing me along, but he also has been so supportive and loving when I have dark days.
We remember her legacy, but we try not to despair about what we’ve lost. We tell funny stories about her. We speak of her daily in as joyful a way as possible. He encourages me to keep her memory and spirit alive every single day and remember how her life continues to enrich ours. That has made all the difference.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
I’ve always been an optimist and in this case, I am constantly searching for what good has come from her tragic passing and our experience with her illness and death. So, while I don’t think it will ever be a truly positive situation –how could it be — I have learned a lot about myself in the healing process. That’s a small silver lining.
With that knowledge, I’ve tried to create something special with Le Wren that moves my grief forward and hopefully helps people. My mother believed deeply in giving back and helping others. I know she is proud of the work we are doing. I find a lot of comfort in that and in honoring her legacy by trying to create something positive out of my experience of grief.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
I realized just how incredibly strong I am. There was a moment on a work trip where that really crystallized for me. I remember travelling with some colleagues shortly after I had joined the Gap merchandising team, about five years after my mom passed. I was driving the rental car, looking ahead, and one of the team members asked me a bit more about my background.
Somehow that cascaded into the story of my mother’s illness and death and how I had thrown myself into my career as a way of coping. Once I finally stopped talking, the van was silent. I thought to myself, “oh dear, I’ve said too much.” I looked behind me in the rearview mirror and everyone was crying! One of the team members said “I just can’t believe what you’ve been through. You are so strong.”
This was a really powerful moment when I finally understood the depths of my own strength. I saw through my colleagues’ response the depth of what I’d been through, and seen and felt.
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 yourself grace. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to in that moment. There is no perfect way to heal; you have to do what feels natural to you. It is a process and you have to honor that. In hindsight, I wish I had given myself time to process mom’s loss immediately following her death instead of working furiously and staying out late, but that’s what I needed to do in that moment to survive. And that’s okay.
- Find ways to connect to the one you lost. We have pictures of my mom all over our house, my daughter is named after her, my company is inspired by her. We reminisce about her every day. While she may not physically be present, we have found ways to keep her spirit in our lives and that allows me to still feel close to her.
- Have faith. That means such different things to different people, but regardless of your religion, a level of faith in something is required to heal. In our family, we do believe in a higher being and when my daughter, now four years old, asked me where my mother was, I started sobbing and replied, “She’s in heaven. She’s our guardian angel”. That is how I’ve had to make sense of her death, but it also gives me a beautiful way to talk about her with my daughter and keep her present in our lives. Besides, my daughter thinks it’s really cool to have her very own guardian angel.
- Find ways to connect to your body. For me, it has been through meditation and breath work. I have learned just how transformative deep breathing can be in my healing. When I feel the waves of grief pulling me down, and start to feel myself dissociating from my body, I close my eyes, let the tears fall, and breathe very deeply for no less than ten breathes. I can then usually resume whatever it was I was doing and carry on.
- Depending on what the trauma or loss was, doing something to help others affected by it can be incredibly healing. As with Le Wren, I find a lot of closure and peace in helping others going through what my mom faced in her battle with cancer. It allows me to process my grief in a way that hopefully helps others. It helps give meaning to her death. It is as simple as: We went through this awful thing. People are going through an awful thing now. Let me help them. In turn, it helps me.
You are a person 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?
I would love to see a movement where people were required to complete one random act of kindness towards a stranger each and every day of their lives. Imagine what that world would look and feel like!
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. 🙂
I am an uber fan of Sara Blakely’s. I am amazed by her ingenuity, drive, and candor. I admire her mission to help women with Spanx and also her sense of humor as she does so. She doesn’t seem to take herself too seriously, despite her massive success, and I just love that about her. Plus, she is also a twin boy mom!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
We would love to see your readers on our site (www.lewrencare.com) and also join our community on social media. IG: @lewrencare
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!