My husband, Charlie, used to laugh when I called him Eeyore. While I could always find the upside of any situation, he was always looking out for the potential risks and further dangers. He generally held the half-empty philosophy, and I was the half-full perspective. Together, we always made the glass seem full.
When we met in Charlotte in 1985, Charlie and I did not know that we complemented each other in this way. In fact, we barely knew each other at all. It was a love-at-first sight meeting at a backyard party, and it only took 42 more days for Charlie to propose. Within a year of meeting each other, we had wrapped up our whirlwind romance with a wedding. Throughout the highs and lows over the next twenty-five years of marriage, raising four daughters, including a set of twins, we balanced each other—my optimism to his pessimism.
On February 22, 2013, my Eeyore had a catastrophic heart attack that no amount of positive thinking could have pulled me through. By all medical reason, Charlie should have died that day, but a talented surgeon and two stents turned a probable fatality into a second chance. It was particularly shocking to see my husband in Intensive Care because at the time, Charlie was in peak physical condition and did things like heli-skiing for fun.
We would come to learn that it was not heart disease but rare disease that had crashed into our lives. At the time there were only 400 known survivors of SCAD (Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection), and Charlie was only the tenth male known to have made it through his cardiac arrest with this new diagnosis. In SCAD patients, cardiac arteries don’t simply have a blockage that needs to be repaired, they have a “dissection” or a tear and often, this dangerous disease is only discovered in an autopsy. We also learned it is a genetic weakness that causes fragile arteries to split, and it is not only in the heart, but rather, in every artery in a SCAD patient’s body.
This was the biggest shock. Although Charlie had survived, we now understood that any artery in his body could split at any time causing another heart attack, aneurism, clot or stroke. There was no test to predict it and no treatment to prevent it. There was no pill to take or diet to follow. There was no known way to fight SCAD.
We had to just learn to live with the radical uncertainty of knowing that any moment one of Charlie’s arteries could again fail, and this time, there might not be a miracle.
How could we live knowing that at any moment Charlie, my soulmate, might die?
How to Have Hope in Tragedy
For the first three years, all I remember is the fear, the terror really. At night, I would lie awake watching Charlie’s chest for movement, proof of life. If this could happen at any minute, I was certain his cardiac arteries would dissect in the dark of night and I would wake to be a widow at only 49-years-old.
After wasting too many days and nights with worry, I eventually realized it is impossible to live waiting for death. At some point, you come to understand that in allowing yourself to be paralyzed by the fear, you are squandering the very second chance you have been given.
For all of us, death is a certainty, but life is our open-ended question. How will we choose to live?
Maybe you have had face a similar crossroads—a diagnosis, a death or a divorce has shattered your optimism about what you thought you knew or thought you could plan. I have spent more than the average amount of time contemplating life and death and finding ways to hold hope in radical uncertainty. There was not one moment or one strategy that helped me stop lying awake at night steeling myself for expected tragedy. But I have found these five practices help bring me back to hold hope when the despair tries to steal my joy.
1. Cue the Music
In difficult circumstances, our brains like to spiral down dark rabbit holes of terrible “what if’s.” Being a very imaginative person, I excel at creating such bleak scenarios. For me, a sure way to disrupt the despair is putting on earphones and listening to music. Some days it is the country and western songs that take me back to my Texas roots. It’s hard not to smile when someone is crooning toe-tapping songs about mama and trucks and getting high on life. But other days it is more soulful music from Zach Williams, Big Daddy Weave or Lauren Daigle. Songs that help my spirits soar even when Charlie and I might be planning another hospital visit.
2. Get Grounded
For me this means walking and preferably in the woods if I can find them. While we don’t live near a forest, there is a park by our house with dozens of old-growth oak trees. It’s not a big piece of land, so I walk circles under the majestic canopy reminding myself that these trees were here long before me and will remain long after. There is something that happens when we walk the earth, grounding ourselves in nature and the world around us. We can remember we are a small part of a larger story, and our current struggle is simply a chapter—not the ending.
3. Create Something
You might not think of yourself as creative, but we all are. For some it is words, and journaling can be a cathartic release. Processing on the page can help make sense of your world. For others, it can be painting, drawing, doodling, crocheting, needlepointing or ceramics. Even tasks around the house like gardening, cooking, and sewing can be therapeutic ways to lose yourself in the making of something good when news is bad. Any work of art, no matter how small or primitive, can be life giving when you are caught in something you cannot fix or change.
When we are dealing with our own pain, it is easy to get caught up staring down at ourselves and lose perspective. Raising our gaze means a lot of things beginning with our own friends and family. Whatever is troubling you, I imagine there is someone near you offering a hand to help—take it. Likely those around you can’t fix what is wrong but simply sharing with others can ease your burden.
If the pain is too great, look up a counselor or therapist who is trained to listen. And finally, look all the way up, to God or something bigger than yourself. Our connection to the divine is our superpower.
5. Wake Up to Wonder
Each of us is here with people we love for only a short amount of time. Whether it is nine years or ninety years, we will always wish we had more time. So don’t waste another day with worry of what could happen and spend every day remembering this day is a gift. Wake up to the wonder all around you. Get up early and catch a sunrise. Stay up late and count the stars. Marvel at the moon and never take for granted the majesty of a mountain. Hug your children and tell your best friend you love her. Don’t wait for some day to be a better day—make it today.
My favorite nickname for Charlie has changed from Eeyore to Goose—because geese mate for life. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Now, when I see a glass, I don’t decide if it is half-full or half-empty—I am just grateful that is. Grateful for whoever brought it to me and that it is just enough water to quench my thirst. Or grateful that it might be just enough wine to raise a glass to toast another year with my Goose. Nine years and counting since we thought it was his last. That is 3,285 extra days together, and each one is a gift.
Tough circumstances often make hope seem out of reach. Here’s how to regroup: “Why, God?” Finding Hope when Faith Is Battered – 188