Returning to normal life after losing Will was challenging in ways I didn’t expect. I knew it would be difficult to move forward as a family, raising our children without their brother and missing his presence in our home daily. I knew it would be especially challenging to balance celebrating Caroline’s milestones while at the same time grieving the fact that Will would not be reaching them with her. What I didn’t expect was the myriad of emotions I would experience while learning to interact with the rest of the world again, especially my friends and the people I saw every day. I found that death, especially death of a child, shifts your entire worldview in a second. At first, it was awkward seeing people for the first time after Will died. In some twisted way in my mind, I felt guilty for making someone feel awkward about confronting me or even being in the same room as me. No one knew what to say or even if they should say something. I could tell when someone wanted to give me a hug or say something about Will but hesitated, probably not knowing if it would upset me or if it was the right time or place. I felt bad when other people avoided me or felt weird around me. I took on all this responsibility for everyone else’s feelings on top of my own complicated emotions that I still wasn’t sure how to express or navigate. It was irrational, but very real to me. I was suddenly a walking reminder of every parents’ worst fear and I felt so awful for making anyone even confront the idea of losing their child. Even though it was completely out of my control I was now associated with that horrific thought and I didn't know how to handle that other than feel guilty.
As those first time encounters got fewer and fewer and conversations started returning to normal, I found myself disengaged and sometimes even angry at what people were talking about. Everything felt so incredibly trivial to me. I felt like everyone’s problems and complaints and issues were so small and insignificant in comparison to what I had experienced. Sometimes I’d be listening to someone describe a hard decision they were trying to make or an argument they had with their spouse and my inner voice wanted to explode out of me and scream, “my baby just died in my arms, this doesn’t matter!” Of course I suppressed that inner voice, but sometimes I had to remove myself from particular conversations or distance myself from certain relationships for a time period until I no longer felt so angry about all the “small” problems of the world. I simply couldn’t take in anything else, the “hard things” space in my heart was overflowing with my own hard thing. I’ve heard people say that everyone is carrying something and if everyone put their burdens in a pile you would most likely want your own burden back. I didn’t want mine back. I thought that I would take literally any other burden in the pile than mine. It was too heavy. I’ve also heard people say that God never gives you more than you can handle. That definitely isn’t true.
It’s been almost two years since Will passed away. I am no longer worried about making people feel awkward and I can now listen to other people's problems without worry of an impending volcanic eruption. I hope I have been open enough about Will and his story that people aren’t afraid to ask me about him if they want to. I also hope that people know that I never expect them to ask about Will. I literally have no expectations about how other people will or should relate to me. I love talking about him and am willing to do so with anyone who asks, but I also don’t feel hurt or offended if someone doesn’t ask me about him. I am also able to listen to other’s burdens again without feeling like they are wildly insignificant compared to mine. Everyone is dealing with something hard and I am confident that I am in no position to judge whose problem is the worst nor do I want to be in that position. I’ve said before and I still firmly believe that it will never benefit anyone to compare or rank grief. If something is hard for someone I am now able to listen empathetically without the inner voice screaming how silly or small their problem is. If my friend is going through something, even if it might seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, it’s a big deal to them and therefore a big deal to me. One of my best friends got me a book called, “The Rabbit Listened” after Will passed away (there's a video of it below). It’s a children’s book about a child who experiences a hardship and all these animals come up one by one and are sure they have the answers to “fix it.” Then the rabbit comes and is just there to listen. Immediately after losing Will I didn’t have the ability or capacity to listen to anyone else’s problems. I needed someone to listen and acknowledge my grief and heartache. That changes with time. Now I don’t need to be listened to and sometimes, depending on the person or situation, I don’t want to be listened to. I am again able and content to be the listener. At least I hope so. I think losing Will has made me much more empathetic to others. I used to be a little more rough around the edges, leaning on the side of “toughen up” and “just get over it.” Now I understand that things are hard for people. Even if it seems small to me, it might be really big for someone else and even if I can’t fully understand it, I can appreciate the emotion someone else is feeling because life is just hard sometimes. Even though I haven’t experienced many of the hard things us humans endure - divorce, loss of a parent or sibling, loss of a job, an eating disorder, a terminal diagnosis, abuse or so many other things - I can and do understand grief. I understand loss and trauma and heartbreak. I can walk into a room without feeling scared or guilty or unsure. I can listen to the problems going on in the world and in the lives of the people around me and not feel like everything is insignificant and silly. I know things are hard. I can recognize grief in someone else, even if we are not grieving the same thing. I can truly and deeply feel empathetic to even the most trivial situation because if it’s something my friend is struggling with then it’s worth my time, energy and compassion, even if I don’t fully understand it.
If you know someone who is going through something serious or a has experienced a significant loss, my best advice is to just hold on. Give them time and listen. Don't try to fix it. They will return to being the friend you want and need them to be, actually they will probably return a better friend than they were before. But when you are experiencing trauma you cannot take in anymore trauma, even if it’s small and even if it’s someone else’s, so don't expect them to. If you know someone in the middle of a hurricane, be the rabbit. Listen. You will have the space to talk about your struggles again one day but not now. If you are the one in the hurricane, it’s okay to feel all the feelings that come with it, nothing is bad or wrong. It’s okay to feel like nothing else matters. It’s okay to feel like nothing else is as big as your burden because nothing else is. It’s okay to feel angry and indifferent and annoyed. Give yourself time and space. Keep your distance from the people you need to keep your distance from. Don't feel guilty for making other people feel things solely based on your existence. There's a line in "The Rabbit Listened" that says, "And when the time was right, the rabbit listened to Taylor's plan to build again." There will come a time when you are ready to build again. Even though life will never be the same, it will be fun and exciting and full again. I have learned that I won't always be happy but I will always have joy. God makes beautiful things out of tragedy. God can turn anything that the enemy intends for evil into something good. And if you don't believe that, if you can't believe that, that's okay too. Just hold on.
If you are experiencing trauma, heartbreak or tragedy, just hold on. You will be able to have a normal conversation again one day, you will have great relationships with friends, old and new, and it won’t always be so weird.
If your friend is experiencing trauma, heartbreak or tragedy, just hold on. You will get your friend back one day, they will return and be able to talk and listen and laugh again. It might take a while, it might not, but they will come back.
Grief is weird. It changes a lot. It's different every single day and it's sometimes even different multiple times in the same day. It's triggered by all the things your expect and even some (many) things you don't expect. It's not bad and not something to feel guilty about. It might get worse but it will get better. Just hold on.
“Working hard for something we don't care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”
― Simon Sinek
What would you do if you knew you wouldn't fail? It’s been almost two years since we started The Will King Foundation. It feels like forever and yesterday all at the same time. I didn't have the tools, experience or education to start a non-profit, but my "why" was big enough to keep us going. I took advice from Emily P. Freeman (and apparently Princess Ana) and just did the next right thing. I have run into some roadblocks along the way, but the thing about blocks is that they can be knocked down. Sometimes the blocks were wobbly and easy to push over. Other times they were strong and seemed impossible to move. I’m sharing a few of the lessons I’ve learned over these past two years in hopes of encouraging someone else out there who has a dream in their heart and needs to find the courage to start or a gentle push (or shove) to keep going.
PS - don't miss the free download at the end of the post!
1. You will feel insecure and incompetent. I have had to learn everything. Everything. How to create a website, how to craft a mission statement, the difference between a mission and vision, how to use social media to share our mission, how to fundraise, how to have meaningful relationships with donors, how to set up an email list, how to find sponsors for an event, how to find the right people to plan said event, how to communicate our why, the list literally goes on. Most of the time I have felt so stupid, really really frustrated and like the eyes of the world was watching me to see if I had the ability to learn the next right thing or if I would fail. I have walked into many meetings where I was the one with the least experience, least knowledge and least understanding of what was going on. I have asked a lot of questions. Many of those questions have made me feel incompetent and asking them makes me so insecure. For all my fellow Enneagram lovers, come down this rabbit trail with me for just a minute. I am a three on the Enneagram, also know as the performer or achiever. Threes are driven by feeling successful and admired. They are highly productive, highly motivated people with lots of energy but their pit fall is vanity. Us threes are the people pleasers of all people pleasers and we care a whole lot about what other people think of us. Feeling incompetent or unsuccessful is a three’s worst nightmare. See where I’m going with this? If you are starting something new and unknown you have to be okay with being dumb. That doesn’t mean you have to stay dumb, in fact you defiantly shouldn’t, but you have to get comfortable with the feeling of incompetence because if you are continuing to grow and learn, I’m guessing it will be with you for a long long time. I have resolved that this feeling of insecurity is sticking around and I have shifted my mindset to view it as assurance that I am growing and getting better.
2. You will succeed if you are willing to be the one who refuses to stop. How many times have you started a diet or a workout plan, a devotional book or anything that requires consistency and just stop when it gets a little bit hard. How easily do you give up when there’s the tiniest bit of tension, a little setback or even a massive, catastrophic mistake? If you care about something enough, you have to refuse to give up, regardless of the setbacks, disappointments and difficulties. I would bet money that if you ask any successful person how they got to where they are, they would tell you that they simply refused to give up. Make persistence your number one quality.
3. You need to surround yourself with people who are smarter, better and more experienced than you. The moment you find that you are the most experienced or the most knowledgable in the room, find a new room! When I don’t know how to do something, which is most of the time, I find someone who does. One of my very best friends is an expert in non-profits and she has a passion for helping new non-profits establish their mission, define their goals and make a plan to reach them. I ask her literally everything. There has not been one big decision, idea or major change that hasn’t gone by her first. When it was time to get a team together to plan our first fundraising event I thought about which of my friends had the skills that I didn’t. I found someone who knew everything about non-profit marketing and fundraising. Someone with experience chairing fundraising events similar to the one we were hosting. Someone who was creative with an eye for design and event planning. If you are starting something new never ever be the smartest one in the room. Surround yourself with people who know way more than you and humbly seek their guidance and advice.
4. No one cares as much as you do. NO ONE. I am blessed. I have an amazing community who truly, deeply cares about The Will King Foundation. I have friends who are passionate and have devoted hours upon hours and continue to support me and us and the foundation with everything in them. They don’t care about it as much as I do. And guess what I learned the hard way - I cannot expect them to. The Will King Foundation will never be as personal to anyone as it is to me. Not to my family, not to my closest friends. I am Will’s mom, this is the path my little boy set us on, I chose to walk down it, not stopping. I care the most and I always will. And that is OKAY! If you are beginning anything for the first time and it’s something you are deeply passionate about then don’t expect anyone to bring as much energy and enthusiasm to it as you do. No matter how deeply anyone is invested they are not you. Get those people around you but don’t ever put pressure on them to give themselves to your new venture like you have. Don’t put expectations on others to care as much as you do and everyone will own your new mission in their own way, at their own level, with their own heart.
5. It’s okay to go slow. UGH! I hate this one because enneagram three (see #1). Threes are goal getters. When I have a goal I want to see it reached, crushed actually. I can see the whole vision for the Will King Foundation, one that involves international reach and thousands of children being impacted and lives being changed all over the world. I can see it so clearly, every detail of how it will happen and what it will be like but it doesn’t have to happen today. Or even tomorrow. I want to make big goals and reach them fast and if you do that then that’s great (and I’m honestly jealous) but it’s okay to build slowly, maybe even better. It took over a year for us to have a mission statement that I feel happy about. We are planning a big goal right now that we have put a three year timeline on. THREE YEARS, ugh, might as well tell me it’s never going to happen. I’m learning that it’s okay to take your time. It takes time to think through things, come up with a solid, effective plan and get others on board with your vision. Relentless forward progress. I would rather take a little more time getting people invested in our mission than accomplishing everything at lightening speed. What really matters is the people who are connected and impacted through what you are doing. You can be a goal smashing machine but doing it without making any connections with other humans, doing it without thoughtfulness and care about how it will impact others will probably leave you feeling like your smashed goals were pretty meaningless. Yes, we have big goals for The Will King Foundation. We have audacious ideas about how to reach children from all over the world and how to impact our local community but reaching those goals quickly just for the sake of reaching them quickly is not at all what I want to be about. Slowing down, thinking it through and making meaningful connections along the way is a goal that won’t be crushed overnight and I’m okay with that.
I created something for YOU. It’s for anyone who wants to start something new. It’s for anyone who has started something new but you feel stuck. Maybe you’ve run into one or more of the roadblocks I have experienced. Maybe you need some tools and encouragement to help you move forward and figure out the next right thing. I hope this Simply Start Workbook will help you. You can download it for free below!
*This link if for NEW subscribers only, if you are already subscribed to The Will King Foundation then your free workbook should already be in your inbox!
Our mission is to support international children receiving heart treatment in Jacksonville, FL.
My name is Courtney Hughes and I am Will's mommy. I am happy that you are here to read Will's story and make a difference with us!