When Joy and Grief Walked Hand-In-Hand
On October 27, 2019, after months and months of hard work, I crossed the finish line of my first Waco 70.3 Ironman. The sun was shining, I felt unbelievably amazing (considering what I had just put my body through), I was pleased with my finishing time and in short, I was on top of the world. I felt stronger physically and mentally than I ever have in my life in that moment and I remember literally thinking, “there isn’t anything I can’t handle.”
Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the universe took that as a personal challenge and said, “hold my beer,” because that day marked the beginning of an onslaught of loss and sadness that just kept coming.
It started with an unfortunate personal situation that left me picking my self-esteem up off the floor and questioning my worth and value in a way that I hadn’t in years. But before I could catch my breath or process my feelings from that emotional roller coaster ride, I was faced with an even greater sadness—an unimaginably violent crime that took the life of a beautiful young girl who was like family to me. Not long after, our niece lost her battle with brain cancer leaving behind two young boys--and the hits just keep coming. In fact, just last week, I learned that both a dear friend, and my own dog, both have cancer. I mean seriously you cannot make this stuff up, folks!
At the end of last year, during the worst of it, there were days when I couldn’t get off my couch. Days when I couldn’t stop crying. Days when I just didn’t give a damn anymore—and I asked the hard questions: What was the point in trying to be a good person if you just kept getting hurt and misunderstood? What kind of world did we live in where children took other children’s lives? What kind of universe leaves children motherless and fatherless? And my dog? I mean, c’mon! What did he ever do to anybody?!
If you know me at all, you know I am not one to “wallow.” I’ll have a good cry and get on with it. But y’all I’ve been “wallerin’” (as we say in TN) and there have been days where I had to scratch and claw hard to find a bright side.
The biggest thing I learned about grief throughout these challenges is that it manifests in really weird ways. Unfortunately, one of the biggest ways it manifested for me was that towards the end of last year, I couldn’t write. Not a word. While that might not be a big deal to the average person, I write for a living—so it was a pretty big problem. My understanding clients and editors tried to give me time, but the show must go on and eventually I had to tell people I just couldn’t do the work. I couldn’t make words flow—I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t deal with demands and deadlines. I had nothing left to give. I couldn’t find my own voice—much less someone else’s. I’m still struggling with it to be honest, which is why I’ve been blogging so much—kind of like physical therapy for the creative muscle.
So I stopped working for a bit. I stopped trying to make myself do things I didn’t feel like doing. But the one thing I didn’t stop doing was teaching my classes at JoyRide, Texas. In fact, that became a problem for a few people who questioned how, if I was too distraught to do what they wanted or needed, could I possibly show up and be a “cheerleader” to a room full of riders? The answer was that I did it because I didn’t have to think—I could go into that dark room and take my emotions out on the bike, while encouraging other people to feel all their feels too---and boy did they!
I was flooded with messages from riders offering sympathy and sharing experiences, I received a generous serving of grace and love from other instructors, and I received kindnesses from people I barely knew---and from people I had never bothered trying to know. One rider even brought me a hand-written letter!
I found support in the some of the most unexpected places, I found comfort in the familiarity and routine, and somewhere through it all I began to find joy again—and the strength I hadn’t felt since that sunny October day in Waco started to return.
If there is one thing that connects us all it is human experience. Everyone feels grief, pain, and sadness, but we also feel happiness, love and joy. And what I realized is that sometimes you have to be willing to be vulnerable and let other people in without fear-- because they can and will surprise you with how much of that love and joy they can give if you let them.
So when people ask me, “how can you still show up and teach when you can’t focus on anything else right now?” My answer is, “how can I not?” It gives me 50 minutes to redirect my energy. It allows me to try to make other people feel good, which has the delightful effect of making me feel good as well. In fact, there’s a term for that—it’s called “the helper therapy principle.” Google it! But the bottom line is this: In showing up for my classes, I am showing up for myself in a way that reminds me that on the days that feel like too much, we are not alone--- and there is still wonderful joy ahead.