THROUGH ACCEPTING AN UNEXPECTED CHANGE IN FAMILY ROLES, COLLEEN REBUILDS HER LIFE WITH MEANING AND PURPOSE
ON CARING FOR HER TERMINALLY ILL PARENTS AND UNknowingly HEADING TOWARDS A PATH of MEANING & PURPOSE:
"One of the most significant transitions in my life occurred without my consciously realizing it. I was 32 years old and in the middle of a divorce from the man I truly believed I would be with ‘till death did us part and the father of my then 5-year-old son. In the decision to temporarily regain my footing and give my son a stable family environment, we moved from Brooklyn, NY to the suburb in New Jersey I grew up in. Had anyone told me I would be back there, after having lived on my own since age 18 in Boston, San Francisco, and Hawaii, I’d never have believed them. But, there I was.
"WHAT LAY AHEAD WAS A DECADE OF CARING FOR AND WRAPPING UP THE LIVES OF BOTH OF MY PARENTS, AS THEY LIVED WITH AND DIED FROM THEIR TERMINAL ILLNESSES."
Well, within three months of being back “home” my mother was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer. My move home was now no longer about my son, myself, and what I thought I was logically controlling. It was now about the Universe bringing me to where I needed to be at that very moment. This realization irreversibly shaped who I am as it was the opening of my consciousness to the power that exists beyond my grappling for control of my life. It was as if I had been living encased within a straightjacket and now was able to move, breathe, and live freely unbound and open to all that would lie ahead.
And what lay ahead was a decade of caring for and wrapping up the lives of both of my parents, as they lived with and died from their terminal illnesses of cancer and Alzheimer’s diseases. There were days that I thought my new role would literally kill me, but ultimately this role would bring me to my new life."
"THERE WERE DAYS THAT I THOUGHT MY NEW ROLE WOULD LITERALLY KILL ME, BUT ULTIMATELY THIS ROLE (OF CAREGIVING) WOULD BRING ME TO MY NEW LIFE."
ON REBUILDING HER LIFE AFTER A DECADE OF CAREGIVING:
"Leaving my independent life behind and entering the metamorphosis stage of curling up in the decade of caregiving (and working, and a new romance, and blending a new family, and the all of everything that was swirling around me) may have been, looking back, the most intense period of living outside of my comfort zone. But being so overtly busy, to the point of becoming ill, I never slowed down enough to acknowledge how I was living. Comfort or discomfort, I had too much to do. I had stuff, lots of stuff to get done and there was no room on my to-do list for self-reflection.
Fast forward to the death of my father and being freed out of that caregiving cocoon, I woke up to a life, a body, and a world that I could not recognize. I was a stranger in my life as I was no longer tethered to tending to the life and death matters of cognitive decline, medication and care management, mourning for someone who was still living, hospitals, falls, and 911 calls. I was free to walk into my life unencumbered from the worry, stress, and sleepless nights visited by constant worry.
"REBUILDING MY LIFE WAS FILLED WITH MISSTEPS AND TREPIDATION, AS I BEGAN TO EXCAVATE MYSELF FROM THE YEARS OF EXPERIENCES THAT LEFT BRUISES, BUMPS AND SCARS."
Rebuilding my life was filled with missteps and trepidation, as I began to excavate myself from the years of experiences that left bruises, bumps, and scars around the dreams I once held for myself. The dreams I thought were still there, no longer fit the person I had become. Not until I paused to realize the love used to tend and heal those wounds was I able to see what had propelled me through the most intense time of my life. Coming out of that cocoon, I left behind the immaturity of my previous selfishness and re-emerged into the maturity earned through my experiences and knew living a life of meaning would be the only thing that mattered. I needed to give to others. And with that, I was able to fly.
I became a caregiving and dementia expert and began to notice that all the tips and tricks of practical advice are nothing compared to the power of our own stories and sharing our stories. Stories are where our strengths lie. So now I help others shape their stories through a creative consulting service and inspire others via the stories of guests on my podcast, The After Life: Stories of Transformation After Loss."
ON EMBRACING VULNERABILITY TO LIVE TRUE TO HERSELF & CONNECT WITH OTHERS:
"Vulnerability, for me, is unapologetically living the truth of who I am and sharing with others the conversations my ego tells me I should keep to myself. What does this look like for me in real life? I’m not a person who accepts what she sees at face value. A born questioner, I continuously look for ‘why’ things are done. While I love the comfort and dependability of tradition, I also love the refreshing feeling of reconfiguring the way things ‘have always been done’ to shift and better fit with the evolutions of the individuals involved. We are not static creatures and remaining unchained from our dogmas makes growing and aging all the more exciting. Growth is never-ending and shedding the skin of my past is a vulnerable act of moving forward into the me I have never before been.
"VULNERABILITY, FOR ME, IS UNAPOLOGETICALLY LIVING THE TRUTH OF WHO I AM AND SHARING WITH OTHERS THE CONVERSATIONS MY EGO TELLS ME I SHOULD KEEP TO MYSELF."
The second layer of my acts of vulnerability would be using my stories and experiences to create connection with others. In shedding my light onto the parts of my heart and life that others may be more comfortable keeping hidden, I very often find that the person listening feels less alone in the dark of their own isolated private, yet unshared, experience. Sometimes, knowing others have discovered our currently uncharted territories before us gives just enough courage to continue on our journey."
ON RECONNECTING WITH HER STEPCHILDREN THROUGH PATIENCE & LOVE:
"My toughest emotional fall occurred during the years I was unable to fully connect with my two stepchildren due to circumstances that were beyond my control. Being a person who I believe can change anything in my life that isn't working as well as it can, having no ability to turn the tides for them on the rough days, was torture. Rather than being seen as someone who loved these children, their mother chose to see me as an enemy. When children feel love, but are insecurely told by a trusted adult that their feelings are not true, emotional chaos leaks into every interaction. This sticky mess was our reality for far too long. And for far too long, I tried sopping up the mess. Not until I chose to stop trying to clean up the mess, coupled with the children growing into their own independent consciousness’, were we able meet one another without the bias of another’s misconceptions.
"...I DO KNOW THAT ACTING FROM A PLACE OF LOVE CAN CREATE MIRACLES. Love finds a way where logic and forcefulness cannot."
We’ve now been in each other’s lives for thirteen years. The relationship you can have with a kindergartener versus a college student are incomparable, obviously. I’m still too close to all of it to fully understand the deeper meanings of what we are to learn from one another, but I do know that acting from a place of love can create miracles. Love finds a way where logic and forcefulness cannot. Finding the faith and the patience in love can be a challenge, but well worth the effort."
ON NOT SHOWING UP FOR HERSELF & OTHERS:
"The only thing that brings shame to my life is when I don’t show up for myself and especially others. Knowing I ignored doing the thing my soul was screaming at me to do or thinking I could help someone in some way about something and never taking action, keeps me up all night with a bad case of the “what if’s”."
"THE ONLY THING THAT BRINGS SHAME TO MY LIFE IS WHEN I DON'T SHOW UP FOR MYSELF AND ESPECIALLY OTHERS."
ON CREATING A HOLDING SPACE FOR OTHERS TO PROCESS THEIR LIFE CHANGES:
"I’ve been told I am great at holding space for people to process their life changes without judgment and empathetically anticipating the needs of others. While this makes my career choices a perfect fit, it sometimes acts as a beacon to complete strangers who feel comfortable confessing their deepest darkest secrets to me. Some interesting situations have been created in these moments, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. When we fully live within our innate gifts, the energy that is created becomes contagious. In sharing our gifts with others, we create true connections."
" 'THIS TOO SHALL PASS'. ...IT REMINDS ME TO TAKE MORE RISKS AND LIVE MY LIFE NOW BECAUSE I DON'T HAVE FOREVER TO LIVE IT."
THE PHRASE SHE WOULD TATTOO ON HER WRIST:
“ 'This too shall pass'. I find remembering the temporality of each moment makes me either savor it (if it’s joy-filled) or know it won’t last forever (if it’s dread-filled). Also, it reminds me to take more risks and live my life now because I don’t have forever to live it."