05/27/2010 10:28 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Resilience and the Grieving Process

When the fires swept through the San Diego area in October of 2007, my husband Ken and I were in Florida. Our home burned to the ground. We had 25 wonderful years in that house. We had made it into exactly what we wanted. And now the house, everything inside it and even our cars were gone.

There's a shock that comes over you when you suffer a loss. I remember going shopping with our daughter Debbie a few days after the fire, and I didn't know what to buy. I was immobilized. I think God protects you in situations like that. Our loved ones took over and started making decisions for us, which was a blessing because it was exactly what we needed in that moment.

Some dear friends of ours, who had lost their home 10 years earlier, came forward right away. They knew exactly what we were going through and that was a great comfort to us. Not only had they survived a fire, they were able to really listen to us and completely identify with our loss.

When you go through a major loss of any kind, move toward it. You have to allow yourself to feel those feelings as part of the healing process. I cried a lot at first. I would take walks outside and I would just cry. It felt good to cry. I also made a decision to be nice to myself. I thought a lot about what was and was not important, at that moment. A minor example: I stopped dieting for a whole year--I just decided that was not going to be important.

We have always loved to give to others, but after the fire we found that we actually needed to learn to receive. People from church gave us little baskets of necessities. Friends went through their photo albums and pulled out Christmas photos we had sent over the years and sent them back to us. One of our colleagues at work, Betsy Blee, even found a 1924 yearbook from the Naval Academy to replace the one we had lost that had belonged to Ken's father. That was really above and beyond.

One of the most profound life lessons I learned through this was that everything I had given away to somebody else, I still have access to. And everything I kept was lost. For instance, when each of our children turned 40, I made a huge album for their birthday with pictures of events and times throughout their lives. Because they have these albums at their homes, I can still look at them at any time. I was even able to call people and get my favorite recipes back because I had shared them. It was a tremendous lesson that what you give away to other people stays available to you.

Within the lesson about giving things away is another lesson about procrastination. Ken's mother had given me some heirlooms to hold for Debbie. Some I had given her--but some I hadn't. I had good intentions to send pictures to people that I never acted on--but sometimes I did. So act on your good intentions. Keep your "I love yous" up to date. Have those conversations you have been thinking about. If you have something that would make someone else feel good, think about whether you could pass that on now instead of later, so you can share their joy in receiving it.

After that first big shock, the mourning came in what I would call "pin pricks." It happened every day for a long time, two or three times a day. I would think of something and it would be like "prick--ouch" as it brought back the pain of the loss. And then later on, there would be another little "prick--ouch." It was tolerable, though. It was bearable. God gives you the strength to deal with a lot of ouches, if they only come one at a time. To this day, I'll remember something that was lost and I'll still feel that little pin prick. That's the way you get through a loss--bit by bit.

Perspective is very important. Just a couple of weeks before the fire, a very good friend of ours, Ben Brooks, was killed on his motorcycle when he was going to his grandson's Little League game. Ben was a wonderful guy. The magnitude of that loss was miles apart from the loss of a house. So when people would say, "I'm sorry for your tragedy," I didn't relate to that word, tragedy. Our loss was inconvenient, and just very sad.

A couple of weeks after the fire we held a memorial service for our house at our office. Over 100 people came to talk about the good times they had in the 25 years we had lived there. It was wonderfully healing to hear people tell about a party they remembered, or a time they had stayed with us during a rough patch and how comforting it was for them. Our daughter Debbie--who sometimes has a dark sense of humor--said, "You know, I used to go to my parents' house and I would look in the closets and the garage and think, when something happens to them, it's going to be my job to clean this all out! And now I don't have to do that!" It was irreverent, but in many ways it was a suitable end to the memorial, because it pointed to our new reality: Our lives have lightened. We're not carrying so much around. I keep looking for the blessings in this loss. And when you look, you find them.

Steps to Resilience -- How to Allow the Healing to Begin

  • Realize that after the initial shock, the "daze" period will last a while. Don't deny your feelings. Allow yourself to grieve and be kind to yourself.
  • Accept help when it's offered; learn to receive graciously. People really want to help.
  • Expect "pin pricks"--reminders of the loss. These will happen for a long time, but will become less frequent. They are tolerable and they are part of the healing process.
  • Find ways to put your loss in perspective. Try to think of the bigger picture.
  • Gather family and friends to memorialize the loss and talk about it together.
  • Keep your "I love yous" up to date. People are the most important.