We all have defining moments. In fact, our lives are filled with them. I would describe these moments as stepping though a portal of experience that reshapes the world you live in. Once you’ve been through one of these portals, you can never return to the world you once knew; you can never un-learn what you now know. The question becomes, what do you do with this new knowledge?

Some of these portals are pleasurable and filled with awe and wonder. They could be like the freedom of getting your driver’s license or living on your own for the first time, getting married, or the experience of having your first child. These types of defining moments are often filled with self-esteem, empowerment, or profound love. They can expand your horizon of what you consider possible in your life or deepen your understanding of what true happiness is. These portals often represent your life at its best.

Unfortunately, the majority of our portals are sources of pain and fill us with fear and dread. They are moments that are galvanized in our minds as ones we never want to experience again and will go to great lengths to avoid in the future. They can be moments of utter failure or disappointment. They can be moments of betrayal or disillusionment. They are often referred to as life lessons, and they generally start when we are young.

Do you remember the first time you were bullied? Or the first time you failed a test or got caught cheating? Did you have a best friend who – for no obvious reason to you – decided not to be your friend anymore? Did you come to the realization that you could never seem to please your parents no matter what you did? What about your first major break-up from the person you thought was “the one”? They could even be more significant events, such as the divorce of your parents, the death of a loved one, or abuse at the hands of someone you trusted.

If these were life lessons, what did they teach you? Chances are, rather than teaching you resilience, deeper self-awareness, or how to better express your feelings, these portals led to self-imposed lessons of avoidance, mistrust, self-doubt, suppression of your feelings and emotions, and the underlying belief that most of the time, life just isn’t fair. We may have even come to believe that overall, the world is a frightening and dangerous place. Regrettably, these portals of fear and pain often just lead us to more of the same.

As we get older, these negative portals seem to adapt to our changing situations. Perhaps you’ve been cheated on, gotten fired or laid off from a job, been divorced, or suffered a major accident or setback. In many cases, these painful situations seem to outnumber the positive ones, reinforcing the notion that at its very core, life is hard.

This realization is perhaps the most painful of all. Some people try to numb themselves to the pain with drugs and alcohol. Others may turn to even more destructive behavior in the belief that the odds are stacked against them and life will never become easy or fair. Some put their trust solely in their God. And some never lose sight of the idea that the “grass is greener” on the other side of some invisible hill…if they could just figure out how to get there…without knowing where “there” was.

For the majority of my life (so far), I fell into this last group. I thought for sure that if I just learned how to better control what happened to me, I would be able to find the life I was sure I was meant to be living. The life that was filled with self-esteem, unconditional love, success, and true happiness. In other words, a life that was easy.

I purposely went through portals that I thought would lead me there. I got married. I worked my way up the career ladder by being the best employee possible. I had my first child. But despite all of these positive experiences that changed me forever, I never found a place where the grass was always green. Intermixed with grass I found many weeds, holes, and even dead spots where nothing was able to grow. I continued to be disappointed in life.

But I trudged on. After a divorce, I married again with a better understanding of myself and my needs. My family grew and it brought more purpose and joy to my life. I continued to develop my successful career path. Of course, all of this was intermixed with setbacks and painful experiences. Throughout it all, I kept looking for that illusive hill where the grass was greener on the other side. But I began to wonder if that place really existed.

In the fall of 2009, I walked through the most painful portal in my life. The sudden, accidental death of my 4-year-old daughter, Margareta, turned everything I knew on its head. I detested this portal with every ounce of my being. I desperately wanted to run back through to the other side and erase everything I had just experienced. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, there is no going back once you’ve crossed through a portal.

This particular portal seemingly transported me right back to that fearful place of my childhood where the world was impossibly unfair, dangerous and scary. And yet this time, I had the apparent advantage of almost 40 years of life’s experiences behind me. But to my surprise, many of my past lessons of avoidance, control, and suppression no longer worked. This pain was too deep and too large.

Not having ever been one to numb pain with drugs or alcohol, for the sake of my very survival, I was faced with the task of having to battle this unbearable pain head on. With a chest full of tools that no longer worked, I felt compelled to reach out for help in dealing with this overwhelming pain. For the first time in my life – and full of fear – I began to break down the innermost barriers that guarded my deepest, most vulnerable thoughts, feelings and emotions. I no longer cared about the possibility of rejection or being at the mercy of someone else. The worst had already happened.

The death of my daughter led to years of working diligently and purposefully to learn new tools that would help me work though pain in order to learn from it or let it go, become more self-aware of my needs and feelings, and most importantly, develop a deeper understanding of what I want in my life. In essence, this portal was a catalyst to the most meaningful personal growth I have yet to experience.

Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” And while I will always regret the death of my daughter, I will forever appreciate what it has taught me – and will continue to teach.

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Maria Kubitz

Maria Kubitz lost her four year old daughter in a drowning accident in 2009. In her grief journey, Maria continually tries to find ways to learn from the pain, and maintain a loving, healthy environment for her four other children. She volunteers as newsletter editor at a local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, and in 2012, Maria created www.aliveinmemory.org – a blog about learning to live with grief.

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