Amy Florian on loss, love and healing

‘Life is what happens when you’re making other plans’

23 Jun 2018

We all know the saying, 'life is what happens when you’re making other plans’—a saying that Amy Florian, CEO of Corgenius, understands all too well. Florian is a noted speaker and became a thanatologist, or an expert in death, loss, grief, aging and transition, after losing her husband at the young age of 25.

“I married John, my high-school sweetheart, when we were all of 19 years old. We were young. We were totally in love and really looking forward to having a big family and a long, happy married life together,” said Florian. “Well, the first obstacle was the big family. We lived through two very difficult miscarriages and then over a year of infertility, wondering if we would ever be able to achieve our dream of having our own biological children. When we were 25, our baby boy, Carl, was born. And I tell you, we felt like the luckiest people on the face of the Earth. But when Carl was seven months old, that luck evaporated again. John left for a business meeting that morning, kissed me goodbye before the sun was even up. On his way home that night, another car slammed broadside into his. And John was killed instantly. I was absolutely devastated. I can't tell you.”

In the years since, Florian has worked with over 2,000 grieving people, through all stages of life and transitions—even ones that society labels as "positive," such as the birth of a child or retirement. 

'Don't you wish you could go out for the day without carryin' a minor U-Haul?'

“We know that death triggers grief, but so does divorce,” said Florian. “And in fact, in both death and divorce, there are so many losses associated with it. Because you lose this primary relationship. You lose your role in society. You're not a married couple anymore. In fact, you also lose a lotta friends. 'Cause they're all married. And now, you're the third wheel, the fifth wheel. Sometimes, you're even a threat to these other couples, so there are a lot of losses there.”

“And then many other things trigger grief: infertility, having a child with disabilities, getting a new job, moving to a new house. Even things that we consider to be positive transitions, they still trigger grief. You know, people retire, and we throw a party and happy, happy. But look at everything they leave behind in order to retire. They have to leave behind their daily routine, in fact, their reason for getting out of bed in the morning, their status and prestige, the colleagues they associated with on a daily basis. You've got to leave behind a lot in order to retire.

“Or somebody has a baby,” said Florian. “’Awesome, you've got a baby! Don't you just wish you could sleep through the night? Don't you wish you could go out for the day without carrying a minor U-Haul? Don't you wish you could spontaneously go out to dinner, instead of having to plan for two weeks to make sure you have a babysitter?

“You see, every transition we go through in life, both those we consider to be negative transitions and those we consider to be positive transitions, are 'both-and.' They trigger grief. Because there are, in every transition, there's things you're grateful for or things you're happy about, things you're relieved about. And at the exact same time, there's things you miss, things you're sad about, things you're grieving over. We need to do a better job of recognizing the 'both-and,' recognizing both sides of it, and learning how to walk each other through those. We need to do a better job of recognizing the 'both-and,' recognizing both sides of it, and learning how to walk each other through those very difficult transitions.

“We need to honor the things that we're happy about and relieved about and honor the sadness. Honor the loss. Honor the grief. If we can help each other get through that better, then we're positioned to live as fully as possible, until we take our last breath.”

'The greatest memorial you can ever build'

"One thing I wish we could get out of our vocabulary is this idea of, ‘Put it behind you and get on with life now. Get over it,’” she said. “That's not what healing looks like. We do have to let go of what can no longer be: their physical presence, their—their laugh, at least in person, their hug. We have to let go of what can no longer be. But we never take someone we love, put them in a convenient box marked 'Past' and leave them back there while we go on. We let go, but we create memories. We create stories. And we carry them with us for the rest of our lives. We carry that life with us. We carry their love with us.”

“I'm a different person, because John loved me. Nobody can ever take that away from me. We carry them with us forever. We do not forget. We do not put it behind us. We do not close that door. They're a part of us forever. 

Now, of course, when people are going through difficult times, they have a really hard time imagining what that forever could possibly look like. I remember talking to a friend of mine about six weeks after John died. And I said, ‘Pat, in that initial instance, when those two cars hit each other, in that instant, my entire future just disappeared. It's gone. Pat, my future is gone.’ Pat was wiser than me. She said, ‘No. Amy, your future is not gone. John's is, at least his future on this Earth.’”

Her friend continued: "But you still have a future. It's just going to be a whole lot different future than you had planned."

Florian has never forgotten those "powerful" words.

“I found them to be so true,” she said. “Tell your friends. You still have a future. It's just going be a whole lot different future than you had planned. But it can still be a good one. It can still hold great satisfaction, great peace, and yes, even joy. Joy is possible. Healing is possible. You can get there. Keep facing it. Keep working at it. Put one foot in front of the other. Keep breathing. And rely on the people who get it. You can get there. And remember, the greatest memorial you can ever build to someone you love who died is to live your life now, as fully as possible, enriched by their memory. That is a goal worth striving for.”

Feeling like a ‘strand of blown glass’ – if somebody goes ‘poof,’ I’m going to break

“One overarching principle that you want to keep in mind when you're walking a woman through transition is that what she most needs is to tell her story. It's how we make it real. And have you ever had anything bad happen to you, and you find yourself walking around saying, 'This isn't happening to me. This is a nightmare. I'm going to wake up tomorrow. It's all going to be gone.’ One of the ways we make it real is to hear the words coming out of our own mouths over and over and over again. But who is willing to listen? Who's willing to listen in the initial instance? Who's willing to listen at the six-month anniversary? Who's willing to listen after a year and a half?”

“What you want to do, instead of telling her something about you or giving her advice, is ask her about her,” said Florian. “Ask her an open, invitational question that invites her to tell her story. Okay, what kind of a question do you ask? My favorite question, at any time, in any transition, is, "What do you wish people knew about what you're going through right now? What do you wish people knew about what it's like to hear the word, cancer, come out of your doctor's mouth? What do you wish people knew about what it's like to have your child born with disabilities? What do you wish people knew about what it's like to not have your partner of 47 years anymore?’”

Florian said that you might get answers similar to how she felt when she lost her husband, John: “’I wish people knew I feel like a strand of blown glass. And if somebody goes, poof, I'm going break. Or, ‘I wish people knew that I'm not so strong as they all think I am. I know how to put on the mask. I know how to act like I'm normal when I'm around people. But you know, when I close my door at night, I collapse.’ Another good question, ‘How do you wish people would act around you right now?’”

Florian said you may get an answer like: "I wish somebody would just say his name. I want to know somebody besides me remembers," or, "I wish people would quit trying to throw me a divorce party. I mean, yeah, where the relationship got to, I'm happy to be out of it. But I did not intend this when I walked down the aisle. My dreams are shattered. And it's hurting my kids. I hate it that this is happening to me. Or I grew up in rural Iowa. And what I hear a lot there, and I think it's pretty universal across the country, is, ‘I wish folks would quit bringing me food!' You know, when my dad died four years ago, we had to rent an extra refrigerator, because so many Iowa farm folk brought all this food.”

Who’s bringing food on the six-month anniversary?

“Let me ask you something. Who's bringing food on the six-month anniversary or on his birthday or hers, on those very painful days? Can you? ‘Hi, just thought a little comfort food might help you get through the day today. How about if I come over, we go for coffee, and we tell stories about Jim all morning? He is worth remembering. We'll never forget him.’”

“These are priceless touches, priceless questions,” said Florian. “And yet, so few people know how to walk someone through it that way, know what to ask, know how to be there. Learn to do that, so you can walk people through every life transition.”

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