Healing Grief Through the Power of Endorphins

(An excerpt from my best-selling book, Healthy Healing)

Sitting on a beautiful beach in Los Cabos, Mexico, I hit my personal rock bottom. I remember sitting there, looking out at the beautiful turquoise sea, and thinking that all I wanted to do was curl up and cry. For the first time in my entire life, I hated myself, and the only one stopping me from changing was me. Like so many mothers, I’d thrown myself into parenting, being a good wife, and of course my corporate job. From the outside looking in, my life was beautiful—society’s view of perfection. I had two healthy and amazing children, I was married to my best friend of fifteen years, and I had a dream job that allowed me to travel around the world and see amazing resort destinations. I’d created my own version of the white picket fence, but for some reason it sometimes felt like my personal hell. For most of my life I’d been thin. Not necessarily healthy, but always thin. (We often equate the two—health and thinness—but nothing could be further from the truth.) After I married Mitch, my lifestyle started to catch up with me. Eventually, with the addition of two babies and a busy corporate job, the pounds started packing on. I put everyone else’s needs above my own. I forgot that I mattered, that my life mattered. It’s ironic to me now, as I look back with a clear vision and the perspective of loss, just how silly it was to ignore my needs.My job was paramount in those days. I’d wake up to a mountain of emails, and before my feet hit the floor I’d feel in the weeds and under tremendous stress. My babies were both under three, and my husband had recently gone through a rigorous year of training to live his dream of becoming a professional pilot. The result of my busy lifestyle was a body that was tired, slow, and weak and a soul that was sad, lost, and desperately in need of rest. My lifestyle and habits were making me less productive at work, less satisfied as a wife, and less happy as a mother. During that quiet moment in Mexico I looked at my husband and said, “I can’t live like this any longer; I’m miserable in my own body.”

He took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Then fix it. Only you can.”

Those words stuck, and while they seemed like common sense, forthe first time in my life I realized I had to take personal responsibility for my unhappiness. I was not a victim of my body and the life I had created; rather, I was going to become a victor in the life that lay before me. From that beach resort, I picked up the phone, called a local trainer, and decided it was time to own this life and take charge of my future. From the rock bottom, there is only one way to go, and I was ready and willing to head up. We flew home, and in late August of 2009 I took back the power in my life. I remember walking into the gym for the first time. As they weighed me, took my measurements, and even took my picture, I was mortified. I remember trying to pick out a cute outfit to wear to help hide the fact that I’d let my body get so bad. There was no hiding now; my secret was out, there was work to do, and only I could do it. At 206 pounds and nearly 40 percent body fat, I had to take charge of my story. I had to write an alternate ending. Throughout the next month I exercised hard, and within a few weeks I felt like a new person. I quickly lost about fifteen pounds, but more importantly, I gained confidence and strength, and even found more time in each day. My new habits were paying dividends, and I was euphoric with my progress. In early October I flew to Florida for business, and I managed to stay on track despite early-morning meetings and poor food options. I had finally found a place within myself where I was determined not to let any life circumstances derail me from my goals. I’d been faced with challenges in the past, and I’d often joked that if I stubbed my toe wrong, I would quit a fitness program. It had always seemed like the first thing to go when life got tough, but something was different this time. I knew I wasn’t going to stop. I was on fire, and there was no quitting now.I flew home from Florida on October 8, 2009, and my husband met me at the airport with our two-year-old daughter, Addison. If I close my eyes, I can still see them standing there. He was holding Addy in one hand and roses in the other. She ran to me and clung to my leg as he walked over and embraced me with a warm, welcoming kiss. He whispered in my ear, “I’m so proud of you, baby. Way to take control of your life,” and I shed a tear. For the first time in a very long time, I was proud of me too. We drove home, where my mother-in-law was staying with our one-year- old son, Matthew, and I quickly went to bed. Tomorrow was a big day with an early workout. I was inspired; life was starting to become everything I had dreamed it could be. The next morning began like any other typical morning in our lives. I trained at my gym at five a.m., came home, got my daughter ready for preschool, and started my crazy day at work. Mitch was getting ready to leave for a flight interview, and for whatever reason, I remember taking a mental note of how he looked as he stood at the dining room table and went over his flight log for the morning. He was wearing khaki pants and a white shirt, and even after fifteen years, I still thought, Man, does he look cute. My new found love of fitness had awakened me to so many things that had been missing in my life, even the simple joy of appreciating my husband.

As he drove off to take our daughter to preschool, I watched them back out of our driveway, and I waved good-bye. Little did I know that just a few hours later my world would fall apart.

In the early afternoon of October 9, 2009, Mitch took flight in a 1918 S.E.5a replica and crashed shortly after takeoff. At the time, I was working away at my desk, completely unaware of the tragedy unfolding in my blissful life. Soon after two p.m. I drove my daughter to her dance class and began to text her father, who had been planning to meet us. The texts to him went unanswered, so I called his cell phone. The rings went straight to voicemail, and I started to have an uneasy feeling in my gut. He always called or texted me just after landing to assure me all was well. I pushed my fears aside, told myself I was being silly, and went about my day. As I watched our daughter dance, my phone rang, and it was my mother-in-law, who was audibly shaken. All she said was “You need to come home. There has been a plane crash at the Deer Valley Airport, and they fear it might be Mitch.” I grabbed my little girl, and we got in the car and started the twenty-minute drive home. As I drove, I felt as if I were having an out-of- body experience as I detached from the life I was living. I was thrust into the shock in a profound way. The traffic on the freeway was stopped, and my phone rang again, jolting me back to reality. My mother-in-law was on the line, and she told me to hurry up and come home because they were sending someone out from the airport to talk to me. That’s when I knew he was gone. If he were alive, they would have sent me to a hospital or the airport, but by their sending me home, my worst fears had been validated. He was dead, and that was all the confirmation I needed. The exit for the airport was just ahead, and for a brief moment I felt as if I should go to the crash site; I needed to go. Then I looked back at my baby girl in the backseat of my car, playing with her blond curls, smiling in her car seat, and I knew I couldn’t take here there. As parents, we have to make hard choices, and at that moment her safety and naïveté were the most important things in my life. She was blissfully unaware that her father may be gone, and I knew I had to go home for her sake and mine. I walked into our home and found my mother-in-law on the floor, completely shattered. I helped her up and calmly said, “Not in front of the kids.” There is no adequate way to put into words the power of a mother and wife in the throes of tragedy. We all grieve differently, and my natural instinct was to be strong, powerful, and, yes, distant. I love my mother-in- law deeply. I love my children deeply. I love Mitch deeply. Love was never the question.

But our bodies can absorb only so much pain in one heartbreaking moment. My body was overloaded from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

As we sat in relative silence, waiting for the person to come out from the airport, we watched the clock circle past the hours. The day turned into night, and I felt a disconnect between my body and my spirit. I witnessed the nightmare that my life had turned into, and I questioned everything I’d ever known. I’m a good person. I have a good heart. Bad things don’t happen to good people . . . or do they? A knock at the door stopped my racing heart. I didn’t want to answer it because the other side of the door held nothing for me. On the other side of the door was agony, regret, and a lifetime of grief. On the other side of the door was misery, and I was not ready to face the certainty. I took a deep breath and opened the door to my reality. A wave of emotion blew in with the cool October air and with it the energy surrounding death: harshness, loneliness, and horrifying sadness. An army of people stood beyond the door. There were fire trucks, police cars, men and women in uniform who took their first glimpse of the ladies whose lives they were about to destroy. They looked as stunned as I’m sure I did. A man asked if I was Mrs. Steinke, and I confirmed that I was. He asked if they could come in, and I moved to the side as they all walked past. We settled in the living room . . . all twenty of us. I looked around the room. Why so many people? What is going on? Is this normal? The lead investigator introduced himself as well as the local firefighters and two grief counselors. What the hell? There is no way this is happening. This crazy dream I’m having needs to stop, and it needs to stop right now! That’s when I was given the worst news a wife and mother could ever possibly hear. “Mrs. Steinke, I regret to inform you that the 1918 S.E.5a replica he was flying indeed crashed at Deer Valley a little before two p.m. this afternoon. Was Mitchel planning on taking the plane up?” I replied, “Yes.” The investigator said, “I further regret to inform you that we cannot identify the pilot. The damage is too severe.” No one is ever prepared to hear words such as those. I just kept hearing the phrase “the damage is too severe.” We sat there in complete silence for what felt like an eternity. The officer pulled a chair up in front of me and got uncomfortably close. He was in my personal space as he held my stare. “Mrs. Steinke, I’ve been an investigator for twenty plus years. I’ve made countless calls like this. I’ve seen families destroyed in the blink of an eye. I need to tell you one critical thing.” I could feel his intent, and I could sense his sincerity. I locked eyes with him and returned to my place in the moment. I knew whatever he was about to say I needed to hear. “Michelle, whatever you do, don’t drink. Don’t numb your pain in any way. Live it, experience it, survive it, and you will be okay.” The words “you will be okay” seemed so inaccurate in that moment. I remember thinking I will never recover from this and I will never be okay again. In that time of anguish, intense sadness, and harsh reality, you don’t know what to cling to, what to reach for, or even what your name is. It’s like you’ve been dropped into the deepest and darkest hole, and there’s no hint of light in any direction.

There are no words in any human language that can accurately depict the pain of grief.

As I lay in my bed that night after being told the father of my children and the love of my life was dead, I could hear the officer’s words play in my head again and again: “Michelle, whatever you do, don’t drink. Don’t numb your pain in any way. Live it, experience it, survive it, and you will be okay.” His words resonated, and they mattered. He was sent to tell me those words and to have an impact on the path of my grief. In fact, I believe he was sent to change the trajectory of my life forever. The next morning I walked downstairs and looked at my best friend, Christine, who had come to our house to make calls to family and friends, and I asked her to call the gym. I was participating in a weight-loss challenge, and I felt compelled to finish what I had started. I wanted the gym to know that despite the tragedy unfolding in my life, I would continue my journey to get fit. I didn’t know much about my future at that moment in time, but I knew the move I would make next would profoundly shape the remainder of my life. I would not quit on my fitness. Everything inside my being was telling me not to quit. Everything was telling me that this was really important.

At a time when our lives have been shattered, we all need something that will pull us through. We all need a lifeline that will help us see the light again and help us find the strength to carry on. What I didn’t realize at the time was that fitness would be my thing.

Within a week I found myself back in the gym and working out. My workouts quickly became my saving grace—the only thing that helped me feel sane, my outlet for unimaginable grief. In the gym, I felt somewhat normal, and that is a gift to any grieving person. I craved normality, but normality is often fleeting after loss. Fitness gave me a chance to escape the pain for a short time and find a release for all the anger, sadness, and frustration. When I was at the end of my rope as a now solo mother of two tiny babies and as an unexpected widow, I could direct my feelings toward a healthy outlet for my grief and pain. I could fuel my fire to continue living, empower my being, and generate energy at a time when it might have seemed much easier to curl up in bed and drink myself into oblivion. Life had handed me options, and the officer’s words just kept playing in my mind over and over again. In my years since that loss I’ve never once regretted my choice to use fitness as my strongest grief-coping mechanism. I’ve never once regretted picking myself up and going to the gym just a few days after Mitch passed and using that time to find my strength in a solid sweat. I’ve never once regretted showing my children strength when I could have shown them weakness. It was not always easy to make the choices I made, and for many oblivious onlookers, it may have appeared selfish or self-absorbed.

Those who have never grieved often feel the need to tell you that you are doing it all wrong, but what I’ve learned is that there is no shame in a good sweat, just a soul-cleaning power and a release of the pain.

No other person will face this journey the same as you do, and therefore they have no right to tell you that you are doing it wrong. This is your life, and you must not numb yourself to the struggles. Live it, experience it, survive it, and you will be okay. Eventually I found my fitness experience to be so powerful I just knew it had to be shared with the world. Within a year, I left my corporate job to become a fitness coach and went on to launch the blog One Fit Widow. The name was never about me but rather about redefining a word, “widow,” that has had deeply negative connotations in our society. When we hear the word “widow” we think sad, lonely, dark, and even old. I wanted to breathe power, strength, and energy into a conversation that screams dark, lonely, and sad. Grievers come in all ages and from all backgrounds; we can no longer ignore the vibrancy and brilliance they can bring to the world. The response was overwhelming. I received countless thank-you emails and notes telling me it was about time the people who were grieving felt empowered enough to come out of the shadows and claim their paths forward, positive and negative, and to do so with strength and a healthy view on their difficult choices. There are still those who don’t agree with my viewpoint on loss, and that’s okay. While I believe we can all learn from one another, my view is a simple one: just take what you need and leave the rest. What has defined my story has been a combination of both my many failures and my moments of success. I want you to understand that you define this life, and you are still here for a reason, regardless of your failures, losses, or triumphs. No matter what happens next, you have the ability to pick up a pen and write an alternate ending to your story. You have the ability not just to survive but to thrive.

I only realized the true power of fitness after I experienced devastating loss. I accidentally fell into a therapy that literally saved my life.

Nobody told me to go train in my early days after loss. Nobody encouraged me to work out for my mental health. In fact, many people couldn’t believe that I was taking the time for a run or an hour at the gym. They thought I was focusing on something unimportant and vain at a time when I should have been weeping on the floor. They didn’t realize how important that hour of time was to my overall life and grief management. They didn’t realize that the only way I survived my loss in those first few months was to sweat it out. I knew how important it was right away, and with each passing workout I realized more and more that I needed to spend the rest of my life making sure every person who grieves knows it too.
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Excerpted from HEALTHY HEALING: A Guide to Working Out Grief Using the Power of Exercise and Endorphins. Copyright ©2017 by Michelle Steinke-Baumgard, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher –

Get your copy online or anywhere books are sold:http://www.healthhealingbook.com

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