5 Insights to Survive Anything By Debra Jacobs Hamby

This morning I walked into work and found out that a friend of mine passed away. The familiar feeling washed over me, I felt the bottom drop, my chest tightened, and the tears pooled. It's never fair to have someone taken from you. Never. It's horrible, it's horrific, and it's senseless and awful.

I want to share with you a piece my New York City Mom Deb wrote titled 5 Insights to Survive Anything. It's an incredible piece that has some beautiful insights on loss and grief.

5 Insights to Survive Anything

By: Debra Jacobs Hamby

So it happens, that unthinkable thing. A phone call or an unanticipated Friday meeting, pick your poison. Something happens that will change your life forever, or at the very least, place you on a different path. After the shock wears off a little bit, the anger sets in for a long stay and you stop trying to bargain your way out of your new, unwanted reality. Then and only then, you ask yourself and every other person who will listen, “How am I going to survive this?”

Well, you have come to the right place because I, hands down, know how to survive. I never aimed to become a member of the uber-resilience club, but here I am anyway, a charter member. And I want you to know what I have learned, so that when your phone call comes, and it will one day if it hasn’t already, you will know that you can survive.

You see, I woke up one morning to learn my only child, a 21-year-old son, had died when a bass boat collided with a jet ski. Just like that. And thus I was on my way to figuring out if I would live or die.

So, 12 years later, here are my 5 insights for surviving anything.

1. Whatever the Loss, Live the Questions Now

My own decision to have patience with everything unresolved in my heart took many years to make. As I sat with my loss and honored all the questions without any expectation of answers, letting them come and then go without holding on to the need for closure, I learned that the answers showed up on their own, without my asking, or expecting. In metaphors, in music, in listening to the dreams and failures of others, suddenly I found that the long struggle to piece together fragments of my life was no longer necessary. My life moved from shattered to renewed as soon as I stopped willing the outcome.

For a hard driving achiever, this was no easy task. I remember that I read over 100 books in the three weeks after my son’s death, trying to “study” and discover what had happened to me. I was usually able to figure out the solutions to thorny, knotty business problems by diving into them headlong and pulling apart the tangled threads with questions and information, so it seemed that I could use the same tenacity to understand what had just happened to me. At one point I made a work plan of sorts for myself with all the things I needed to do next, based on a vague sense of what a bereaved mother was supposed to be doing. For a little while, the plan helped me feel anchored, but it did nothing to help me learn how to wade through the never-lifting grief. When I stopped trying to do everything I was “supposed to do”, and gave myself permission to simply live, I made room for the answers to show up in their own time and their own way.

Just as Mr. Friedrickson, a key character in the hit animated movie “Up” discovered how to live again after losing his best friend and wife, I allowed myself to go in search of new adventures and in them found how to integrate what once was with what now is.


Some of my best guides and teachers have come from the cloth, just as others have come from the caravanserai. The answers that I have lived into have come from an amalgamation of diverse experiences and walks of life. I found that any time my path became too narrow, my understanding became more depressed and confused. A commitment to learning begins with abandoning set mental models and accepting that perhaps what one holds onto deeply is inherently flawed. In risking that examination, one can readily choose to return again and again, until no more questions remain and clarity has been won rather than fiercely protected.

When my son was 19, he called me one day to tell me he had been in his car listening to his favorite radio station, National Public Radio (NPR). He was excited because an author named William Steig was discussing a book called Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a story we had often read together when he was small. The author was explaining the metaphysical nature of the story and the great gift to children in knowing that even if they were unable to be seen, they were still capable of being loved and of being in relationship to others. My son was fascinated with the many levels of the story, and the way it took on new meaning as one matured and reflected on its characters and their journey. In particular, he enjoyed sharing with me how useful it had been to hear the story being discussed by not only the author but also by a Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, and a nihilist. “I have a different perspective than any of the four people interviewed”, he told me, “including the author. And I know that my point of view will likely change again.”

I have often remembered that delightful conversation, as my own story has taken on fresh nuance and I have allowed new guides and teachers to not only influence my understanding but to also bring to me new possibilities for giving and receiving joy.


My son was fascinated by this poem and referred to it quite a bit. In fact, a few days before he died, he and I talked about this poem and how fruitless it was to try to keep things in a static state, rather than “go with the flow” and move into the unknown with curiosity and openness. We were talking about the changes that were likely to happen because of normal and natural choices and decisions he and his friends were making as they entered their 20’s, like moving to new cities, getting married and continuing with school.

During that discussion, I remember referencing another one of his favorite childhood books, The Fall of Freddie and the Leaf. We discussed how nature included natural cycles of new growth and the decline of older living things. I said that perhaps because the tree was a system, some parts of the system shut down sooner than others, as the whole thing began to lessen its need for energy. He told me that he thought that some leaves were just ready to leave sooner than others, especially if they had already had a great summer. “Maybe the autumn leaves play a special role in getting a start on growing up the next trees, in the spring”, he said.

However long we are here as living beings, we are contributing to the shaping of new life, directly or indirectly. Indeed, since there is no absolute understanding about why some of us leave earlier than others, it is completely possible that our comings and goings are perfectly orchestrated by our own need to execute on our divine purpose, to “play a role” that has been asked of us in helping to evolve life and learning.


At my son’s funeral I broke down in tears several times and during one of these episodes, a friend took my hand and led me to a private spot, looking me in the eyes and reminding me that I had been given 21 incredible years with my beautiful and talented son. Somehow, in the fog of my trauma, I remembered that she very much wanted to be a mother herself and that she was unable to have children. Her compassion in the face of her own circumstances pulled me out of my pain for a bit and I remembered thinking, “She’s right. I have been so very blessed to be my son’s mom all these years. What makes me think I should have had him one minute more than I did? He was precious and a miracle, for however long I had him.” The very act of focusing on gratitude in all its forms lifted me more often than not over the years. I was grateful he had been happy, grateful he had wonderful friends, grateful we could communicate with real intimacy and authenticity, grateful he was physically healthy and mentally bright, grateful we had no unfinished business. Whenever I drifted off to “wonder why” I would flip it to “I wonder why I was so lucky” and my grief would seem more in perspective, more bearable.


At the time I read the words inked in red on three crisp pages tucked inside his top dresser drawer, I was still in a state of deep and protective shock, something that would stay with me for months and even years.

Here is what I found, in part, written by my son shortly before his death:

“It seems inconceivable to me that I would come to understand that each of us is simply part of the whole, like a drop of water in the ocean, unable to know what we are able to make happen, to create without knowing the power of the whole. This I know, that only God could have created the whole ocean, and all of our connectedness, and only He could have made it possible for me to understand that it is an illusion that we are separate…”

At the time, this excerpt felt profound, primarily because it was a message from JT and gave me a way to be connected to him, if only through the ongoing pondering of what he had left behind. Many years later, on the 7th anniversary of my son’s death, I was startled to receive the following communication from the Association for Research and Enlightenment:

“For the entity, as each soul, is a portion of the whole. Thus, though a soul may be as but a speck upon the earth’s environs, and the earth in turn much less than a mote in the universe, if the spirit of man is so attuned to the Infinite, the music of harmony becomes as the divine love that makes for the awareness in the experience of the Creative Forces working with self for the knowledge of the associations with same.”

It is indeed an illusion that we are separate, though we are clearly bounded by the circumstances of our DNA and shaped by our environment. My journey tells me that we show up in life with what we need to learn and grow and if chose to do so, we move to other states of awareness in the circle of living and dying that can cut through the veneer of illusions and rekindle forgotten connections. By both learning about ourselves in relationship to others, and by being at one with nature to use her lessons to further illuminate our own circumstances, we can choose paths that bring deep understanding and wisdom. In that understanding, the armor of separateness more readily dissolves and we become comfortable being one in an experience with the whole.

When we move past illusions of separateness, our love and commitment to others transcends the false gaps created by age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, geographies, sexual orientation, politics or financial assets. We spend more time focusing on how we are alike, what goals and dreams we have in common, than we do on what tricks us into believing we are not the same.

I’m still learning how to incorporate this insight into my everyday life, but for the most part it comes down to a simple set of beliefs. Somehow, someway, we are all meant to learn how to make peace with and value the people with whom we are most in conflict and find difficult to integrate into our lives. The things we suffer through are not unique to any one of us. Thousands before and thousands after have known the same grief. As our world continues to spin, we become less and less differentiated, both literally and in our understanding. As we gain a real appreciation for how we are connected we will be able to better care for each other, the planet we all live on, and the paths we are taking to become better beings.

Originally Posted to Chelsea C-Suite Solutions Blog on October 7, 2014. CLICK HERE to read more from Deb.

There's something I learned in college when I took a course called "Family and Stress and Coping" called a good goodbye. The notion is to always, no matter what's happened, to leave someone with a good goodbye. To tell them, even if you're in the heat of a fight, that you love them. Tell your people you love them every single day.