“You can go two ways when you have a tragedy,” she began as she unrolled her white, pressed napkin. “You can be the victim, or you can change your story.”
On July 6, 2016, I was honored to have lunch and conversation about loss, the lasting impact of fatal crashes, mindsets, and motherhood with a woman who exudes optimism and honesty. Sometimes, it seems those two traits don’t often go together, as harsh realities make it difficult to live with a glass-half-full mentality. Now in her late-thirties with four children (one adopted), my new friend, Nicole Roufs, finds healing and life through owning her reactions.
“My life mantra used to be ‘Everything happens for a reason.’” Believing this was the only way through the loss of her parents and difficult life with an austere aunt. “Now, I still think some things happen for a reason, but there is also much control we have: how we respond, the impression on our soul, and what we do with what happens to us.”
When Nicole was nine years old, she fell asleep in the car, on her mother’s lap, and woke up in the hospital where she would stay for two full months to recover from injuries sustained in a crash. A crash caused by a teenager playing a dangerous road game where he accelerated down the wrong side of the street until the last possible second before impact. Nicole’s mother and her boyfriend, the driver, were killed instantly; Nicole’s entire left side of her body was crushed.
When she was finally discharged from the hospital, her new legal guardian was her mother’s half-sister. “She did the best she could, but it just wasn’t what I needed.” As Nicole’s new home lacked space to grieve, access to a decent counselor, and most importantly, regular visits with her brother…Nicole became isolated. Nicole and her brother – only 15 months younger – shared a room before the crash; after, they went to separate houses as his father was available and hers was never known. However, Nicole did not know they had different fathers – and that her mom refused to tell anyone about Nicole’s real father – until her aunt casually mentioned it after the crash.
Another. Huge. Loss. (And after three paternity tests, Nicole’s still looking.)
The two kids took very different life paths, though both continued to suffer great adversity. Nicole was kicked out of her aunt’s house at age 15, a consequence for refusing to do the dishes. Drugs were in her brother’s new home – and he has been an addict, in and out of treatment centers, since his teenage years. Her brother now has seven children, and Nicole adopted one just last year after he was removed several times from an unsafe home with his mother. “Dana has quite a path in front of him, but he is such a thoughtful, hard-working guy,” she says with tears in her eyes. Nicole strives to give him the adopted home and love that she needed at his age; they can surely relate to loss on many similar levels.
“I try to tell my brother that he can change, that he has some control,” Nicole relays. “But his mindset is so different than mine. He is stuck in this ‘Poor me’/’They owe me’ attitude.’” Dissimilarly, Nicole and Dana have always focused on answering the questions: “What am I going to do?” and “How the hell am I going to get out of this?”
As our cream of broccoli soup arrived, Nicole and I wondered if people are born with certain mindsets, and/or how easily those mindsets can be changed as adults.
“You can go two ways when you have a tragedy,” she said again. “You can be the victim, or you can change your story.”
Changing one’s story doesn’t mean that you just appear resilient (but really have not processed your grief). True resilience is about “looking internally and moving forward because you carry your pain with you in a new way.” I asked her at what age she was able to look internally. “Not at 9 years old. At that age, it was like I was drowning in water, but I didn’t actually drown. When I was teenager and started to think more, I fought back. But it’s really been as a mother that I’ve peeled away the layers of my grief.” And during that peeling, she has found herself journaling: to her kids, about her kids, for her kids.
“There’s definitely a push to do something now. I live way more consciously.” What does living consciously look like? “It’s about being intentional, realizing every day is such a gift. My morning routine is centered on appreciation, as my eyes are open to how things could be.”
As our time together drew to a close, she told me about a book that was inspirational to her: Theresa Caputo’s There’s More to Life Than This. One of the “nuggets” from the book focused on the journey our soul chooses. In Nicole’s words, “I may have picked this life to grow up without my mom, to deal with her death.” This sentiment is part of her changed philosophy – that some things happen for a reason. “I don’t think there were specifics about when and how she would die. But I do believe that this is part of my journey.”
As I walked back to my car that day, her words about choosing her journey stuck with me more than anything else. It brought up many memories from the first years after my husband died, as my initial reaction was usually: “God doesn’t plan for bad things to happen. Life is not scripted for us, and people’s actions have consequences!” (My husband was also killed in a car crash by a negligent driver.)
But after everything I’ve been through these past eight years as a widow – from spiritual connections I don’t understand, mentoring kids dealing with loss, the feeling that I’m called to write about the grief process – I just can’t be black-and-white anymore with my view of the world. There is so much unexplainable mystery and opportunity that arises out of the ashes.
I know one thing for sure: The positivity that people like Nicole use as a result of their growth through loss is influential, inspiring, and important to share.