Good Counsel from Bad Widow: Alison Pena #78

Warwick Fairfax

August 4, 2021

You can’t reverse great loss any more than you can undo failure and setback, but you can move beyond every crucible you face with your heart full and your head held high. Alison Pena has moved past losing her husband to cancer to lead a full and rewarding life rooted in identifying and embracing the blessings still available to her. It’s a strategy she shares with clients as Bad Widow — the name she gave herself because of her refusal to be boxed in by society’s expectations.

To learn more about Alison Pena, visit www.badwidow.com

Highlights

  • Living “inside the raw” of her crucible moments  (7:49)
  • Living her life as her late brother did (9:35)
  • Helping others get beyond their crucibles (12:17)
  • The challenges of her 25-year marriage — a good life with tough circumstances (16:32)
  • Her husband’s battle with cancer (18:55)
  • Deciding to live the life they had left together to the hilt (22:20)
  • We all have an innate resilience (26:37)
  • Insights into moving beyond grief (36:47)
  • Living in the aftermath of grief (45:05)

Transcript

Warwick F:
Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Alison P:
There are some things that you’re actually helpless to fix, and that when you’re helpless to fix something it’s not a reflection on you. It’s not a reflection on your passion for commitment to love in the situation. There are some things that can’t be fixed.

Gary S:
How does it make you feel to hear those words? To be told that the crucible you’re going through may not be a situation or circumstance you’re able to fix. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show and the communications director for Crucible Leadership. Today’s guest, Alison Pena, offers encouragement born from personal experience, that even when you can’t solve the setback or failure you’re facing, you can move beyond it with your heart full and your head held high. It’s a truth she teaches clients in her consultancy work as Bad Widow. Stay tuned to see why that’s the name she has given herself.

Warwick F:
Well, Alison, thank you so much for being here. I love the title of what you do, Bad Widow, which I think we’ll get to in a moment. We’ll just keep the audience in suspense for another couple of beats. So stay tuned. And I love the tag line of what you do, which is “take back your life after loss.” I’m sure there’s a lot of folks who have been through loss, they do want to take their life back. Tell us a bit about the back story. I know obviously the turning point of your life would seem like the death of your husband, but just tell us a bit about Alison Pena, how you grew up, family. What’s the origin story, the back story of Alison Pena, if you will?

Alison P:
I grew up in New York City. I’m the oldest of four, I had three brothers, one of whom actually died when I was 25 and he was 23. He had a genetic enzyme deficiency. That was one of the first big losses in my life. My dad was an investment banker, my mom wound up working for the International Center of Photography. I love New York. I just love New York. My brothers would say I’m bossy. They were very glad when I got married. They said, “Now, she’s yours.” I would say I can be decisive and I can be directive.

Gary S:
I’m a PR guy, and that’s a great way to take bossy and put it in its proper framing, so bravo to you.

Warwick F:
There you go, absolutely.

Alison P:
Exactly. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder, right?

Gary S:
That’s right.

Alison P:
So I grew up here, I went to college upstate, St Lawrence, then my parents divorced, and being the oldest child I felt like I needed to come home, take care of the family. So I came back and I finished out at NYU. So that’s early years.

Warwick F:
Wow. So you’ve had some crucibles even before the one that was probably the defining moment. Just the loss of a brother at such a young age and then your parents’ divorce. You unfortunately had practice. Nobody wants practice at dealing with crucibles.

Warwick F:
But in those early years, how did that … I mean there are some people that are passive, but it sounds like you’re not a passive person, you’re a take charge of life, decisive, which I personally think is good, myself. I think life should be led actively, not just as a passenger, but that’s my personal preference. I’m all for it. But talk about how those early crucibles, the death of your brother and your parents’ divorce, how did that shape or form you? Because that was probably some building blocks to who you are now, I’m guessing.

Alison P:
Yeah. I would say they definitely are. I guess I would say I’m a good observer of my own experience. It’s in my nature to deconstruct what’s happening, what’s happening from what I call the after Dave died, inside the raw. Inside that raw place where you don’t know what to do and you don’t know how to be because you’re different. I mean, any loss shapes us and changes us. After the death of my brother, there was this period of time where I was devastated and at the same time there was this, life is to be lived. And since he can’t live out the rest of his, I need to bring to my life some of what he gave, what he was.

Alison P:
And they ran side by side. I think that was one of the things that that crucible moment gave me, and each of them gave me. But then we forget and we start going along in our lives and we don’t remember about living. That face of living that facing death gives you.

Warwick F:
Right. You can amble along with the current without taking charge and say, what do I want this day to be. Just since you mentioned, I’m curious … I’m sure it’s a long story, but what are some of the elements of your brother, when you said he can’t live his life, I’m going to live those elements for him. What were some of those elements that you said to yourself, I want to live for him.

Alison P:
My brother, he was the next brother down, he was a year and a half younger than I was. And oh man, we fought. But he died, he was a camp counselor at a ranch in Wyoming. His last day, he rode his horse in a race in the final rodeo, came in third, keeled off the horse and went into a coma. So he lived to the end. And my thought was, that’s not a bad way to die, to actually really live. And I think that that really shaped me throughout my life.

Warwick F:
Wow, live to the end. I mean, there’s no good way to go, I guess, but he was doing what he loved to the end.

Alison P:
Yes.

Warwick F:
Horses and, if it had to be, that wasn’t a bad last day, I suppose.

Alison P:
Not the worst last day. And it really shaped how I was with my husband when he got pancreatic cancer, because we did that very differently.

Warwick F:
Wow. Talk about sort of connecting those two, I mean, those things you can’t fix. Maybe you’re not like this, but there are some people that like to take charge of life, that when something like divorce, that’s irrevocable, but not the same level of irrevocable. Maybe you’re wiser than I am, but were you ever tempted to try and quote-unquote, “fix it,” or “What’s the problem here, folks?” Or were you wise enough to say, “Hey, I’m the kid here. I can’t fix my parents.” Did you kind of leave that alone, or how did you handle that?

Alison P:
Oh no, I was the oldest child. I did not leave it alone. I tried to take the weight of the family, and with predictable results. It did not work out very well. I didn’t change any outcome, my parents did get divorced. But I tried, I did my level best to just … I remember coming home and my mom and my brothers were crying on the bed and I’m patting their shoulders and saying, “It’s going to be all right.” I mean, what was I thinking? I was 15, I think.

Warwick F:
You were trying to encourage them, and it’s probably not going to be all right, but you were empathizing and doing what you could.

Alison P:
I was doing the best I could.

Warwick F:
Yeah.

Gary S:
And from the perspective of when people have crucibles, there was your family, your younger siblings were going through a crucible, as were you. You came in and tried to help them move beyond that crucible in some ways. What did you learn about helping people through crucibles in that moment that maybe can be of help to people who are listening right now who find themselves in similar situations? Where someone’s gone through something difficult, maybe they’ve shared a difficult experience and they want to, quote, “make it better,” but it’s really not in their power to do so. What advice would you have for folks who find themselves in that position?

Alison P:
I guess if I could go back, I would not necessarily say, “It’s all going to be okay,” because there were ways it was and ways it wasn’t. I would say something like, “You are not alone. I am here,” which is very powerful actually.

Warwick F:
I mean, that is profoundly powerful, because when you go through loss, as we’ll get to, you do feel profoundly alone. Just you’re in a desert and the nearest human being is thousands of miles in any direction. You just feel so alone. Just one quick question because I’m curious, so in trying to maybe fix things to a degree with your parents’ divorce, what did you learn? It may be predictable, I could guess, but I want you to put it in your words. What did you learn about yourself and maybe fixing things that perhaps you can’t fix or, I don’t know. What did you learn about that?

Alison P:
I guess I learned about that there are some things that you’re actually helpless to fix, and that when you’re helpless to fix something it’s not a reflection on you. It’s not a reflection on your passion for commitment to love and the situation. There are some things that can’t be fixed.

Warwick F:
And that’s profound. I’m not a counselor, and you might know more than I do about this, but my sense is when parents get divorced, sometimes the kids can feel like, “It’s my fault. What did I do wrong?” Which sounds ridiculous, but when you’re a kid, you just somehow, you assume, right?

Alison P:
Yeah.

Warwick F:
“If only I was better, if only I was this or that, maybe Mom and Dad wouldn’t have got divorced.” Does that make sense, that there’s that tendency?

Alison P:
It’s very common. That happens a lot. Because if it was you, then you have some power. Then if you behave differently, something else could happen. If it’s not you, you’re actually helpless.

Warwick F:
Right. So obviously if you’re who you are now, going back to when you were 15 or with your siblings, maybe that you wouldn’t have said, “Look, you may be thinking it’s your fault, it really isn’t. It’s none of our fault. It’s between Mom and Dad.”

Alison P:
Yep.

Warwick F:
So let’s fast forward to, you had those experiences as a backdrop and I don’t think anything can prepare you for the death of a spouse, because that’s a whole nother level of tragedy, but talk about kind of what led up to that and obviously listeners are going to be curious … I mean, on your website it seems like your husband was this tremendous painter, what like 1,000 plus paintings, and he loved traveling and tennis. It just almost sounds like one of those tragic movies. You know, you watch it and their life is just unbelievably fantastic, which makes the tragedy so much worse. I mean, it just … Do you know what I mean? Did it feel a little bit like a movie in that sense, that nobody’s perfect, everything isn’t smooth sailing, but it sounds like you had a good life. Was that a fair description?

Alison P:
We had a good life. We had a real rock and roll, real roller coaster of a marriage. I found out six weeks before we got married, and he found out six weeks before we got married, that he was manic depressive.

Warwick F:
Oh boy.

Alison P:
Diagnosed manic depressive. Later, he got diabetes, and then he got cancer. Across 25 years together, it was not always smooth sailing, but we had a good life. We loved each other.

Warwick F:
And that decision, again, we don’t need to get into detail here, but that decision when you … Sometimes you get married and you find out people have certain conditions, but being … Again, I’m not a psychologist, but manic depressive, that’s a tough thing. It’s not like you can just flip a switch and fix it. There’s underlying conditions, maybe chemical, all sorts of things. But to say, “Okay, I’m going in there, and we love each other to say, okay it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going in with our eyes wide open.” That was a courageous decision, don’t you think? Looking back?

Alison P:
Yeah. At the time, I remember asking myself did I love this man, and was this the same man I loved that I was going to marry, and the answer was yes. In the face of that, I was going to take the ride with him. I was going to choose him anyway. Now, I could not have imagined what the reality would be like, necessarily. It was really hard at times, and I would have done it again.

Warwick F:
Wow. So, boy, this is … You had trials even before the cancer. But obviously love can conquer a lot of trials, and it sure seems like you had a love, together you and David, that overcame a lot. I mean, it’s not somebody’s fault when obviously have cancer or diabetes or manic depressive, that’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not your fault. So you really went through a lot. Then, life was not easy, because life is never easy for any of us, obviously. But then you got this diagnosis in, was it what, 2015? Somewhere?

Alison P:
October 12, 2015.

Warwick F:
So tell us about those events and then the next 11 months or so, which obviously I’m sure were just horrendously excruciating. Just tell us about that time.

Alison P:
He had been in pain for about three months and nobody could tell us what it was. Finally, someone said to go and get a CT scan. That was a Friday, and on Monday the doctor said, “Come and see me today,” and by that afternoon he said, “You must go see an oncologist today.”

Alison P:
And I remember being in Rite Aid on the phone calling the oncologist and they said, “You can have an appointment in three weeks,” and I said, “No. We are coming to see you today.” And just pushing through because I was not, I said, “You don’t get it. You don’t understand. There aren’t three weeks.”

Alison P:
And it was really, you know, you say cancer and there’s this immediate heart drop. Stage IV is a straight elevator to despair. Pancreatic cancer is worse, it’s a really bad one.

Warwick F:
So you got that diagnosis, Stage IV. Do you find sometimes these oncologists, they don’t really want to tell you everything? Because you want to know, “Okay, so give it to me straight. How long do we have?”

Warwick F:
“Well, it could be this, could be that.” They just tend to beat around the bush. I mean, I’m guessing you faced some of that?

Alison P:
Yeah. We faced a lot of that, and I think it’s from the perspective of liability. The doctors don’t actually want to tell you because then if it’s shorter then they’re going to get blamed. The trajectory for pancreatic cancer is six weeks to four months.

Warwick F:
So your husband really beat the odds by … 11 months is long.

Alison P:
Is long.

Warwick F:
Those first few days I’m sure on both of you were horrendous. I mean, I’m assuming it felt like the bad as …

Alison P:
Horrendous.

Warwick F:
I know these are some probably dumb questions, but I guess people are going to want to know. I’m assuming that was probably the most despair and agony that you faced in your life, those first few days.

Alison P:
Yeah, because we didn’t know what it would be like. We didn’t know the reality of it. He chose to do chemo, and so then there was the cancer and the side effects. Our healthcare system is challenging, to say the least, and one of the big battles that I had was having the doctors see me as a partner. As someone who actually knew a whole lot about what was going on with my husband as he was going through all of this, that was information that they could use to treat him better. But that took a long time to get them to understand that.

Alison P:
The doctors said to him, “Slow down, take it easy,” and for us that made no sense. Because we didn’t know how many days there were. We didn’t know how long we had. And what we decided to do, and I sort of created an environment where this was possible, what we decided to do was live full tilt boogie til the end, til the last day. Because why not? If there was a last day and it was coming soon, then why wouldn’t you live every day that way?

Warwick F:
It’s almost like the doctors are saying, “Die quietly. Sit in bed, we can give you morphine or whatever drugs. Just sit like that for months,” and you must have kind of, I don’t know what the word is, channeled, your brother and it’s like, is that what your brother would do? What would his advice be? It would be to do what you just did, right? Live fully to the end. So it felt like, I’m sure you would have decided that anyway, but you were in a sense following your brother’s philosophy in you and your husband. Does that make sense?

Alison P:
Yeah, totally. I mean, he loved to play tennis and he loved to paint. So he finished his last watercolor commission the Thursday before the Saturday he died in my arms at home. And he played tennis even when his balance was so bad that he would crawl on the court, get himself up and keep playing. And he was really tough on himself. He was really self-critical, and in this time he got much less so.

Alison P:
For me, because I also needed to remember that I was not just a caregiver, that was all I was doing, but I was also a woman, an entrepreneur, so I did things to help me remember that. I wanted to speak on stages about my work, and I wanted to sing in cabaret shows. I sang in gospel choirs for ten years. But I wanted to be one of the people on the stage singing the songs themselves. In those 11 months, I sang on four stages and I spoke on three. I had not done that for ten years. Ten years wanting it.

Warwick F:
Do you feel like somehow everything was turned up a lot of notches? The lights were turned up and not only you said, “Well, I want David to live fully in these 11 months,” which you didn’t know obviously how long it was, “But I’m going to live fully too. I’m going to live fully with him.” That just sounds like a remarkable decision that probably few people do. You probably know unfortunately a lot of people who’ve gone through this. But that’s very different than 99% of people would do, right? I mean, you were caring for him to the best of your ability, but you were also leading your own life which probably gave you energy to be a better caregiver anyway. Not that that was the only reason, but I mean, your paradigm is different than probably 99% of people in dealing with those 11 months, don’t you think?

Alison P:
Yes. I’m a little bit odd. So my husband was 6’3″. He went from 263 pounds to 146. When you’re seeing that and facing that, it’s really clear that life is short. Not like a concept. But if life is short, what do you want to do with your one short life?

Gary S:
It’s interesting that you would use the phrase that you’re a little odd, because you say something, and this is a good time to bring this up, at this juncture of your story. Because in the sense of what I’m about to read you that you said, you’re not odd. You talk about, “We all have an innate resilience, that we are our own foundation,” and as I’ve listened to you tell the stories going back to your childhood and your parents’ divorce, there’s a through line of resilience in all of that. There is resilience in getting up on stage and singing. There is resilience that fueled speaking in front of audiences. There’s resilience, frankly, on your husband’s part, playing tennis in those last days. There’s resilience living life to the hilt.

Gary S:
How critical was that to you getting through those moments? I assume incredibly critical. And when did you realize that what you were doing was being resilient?

Alison P:
I would say it was essential to … Because what happens in these crucible moments is that the entire world blows up, and the future that you imagined that you were going to be living is gone. So somehow you have to find a way to have your center be who you are, not anything outside of yourself. And that, for me, is resilience. That’s how do you tap into the core of you and use that as the foundation, because from there you can make very different decisions.

Alison P:
Throughout the whole experience, both while Dave was sick and after he died, I just kept saying to myself, “This pain must serve.” So I just kept looking for, how was I here to serve. How did this experience serve some bigger purpose than just being honestly completely heartbreaking and devastating.

Warwick F:
I mean, what you just said is so profound, and I guess that’s probably a good segue into Bad Widow and take back your life after loss. How does this pain serve, you’ve spent the years since serving people.

Alison P:
Yes.

Warwick F:
I mean, you’ve lived out that mantra, if you will. So talk about how did … You can now tell listeners what Bad Widow means, but talk about your mission.

Gary S:
Because that’s the one thing I was saying in the beginning, that’s the one thing that we’ve never done before. Neither one of us have any idea why you call yourself Bad Widow. Normally on the pre-call that I do with a guest I’ll find something out that I’ll know that Warwick won’t know, so it comes alive to him, but I wanted it to come alive for both of us here. So where did the name Bad Widow come from?

Warwick F:
Indeed.

Alison P:
Yes. Bad Widow came about, suddenly I was a widow and I had no idea what that was. I had never been that before. I had a lot of trouble making decisions, I had a lot of trouble getting into action. My energy was really flagging, couldn’t be counted on. I had the attention span of a fruit fly, and I had gaps in my memory you could drive a truck through. So all these things were going on that were very disorienting because they happened really suddenly, in an instant. And what happened in the face of all that is that people who loved me came forward with their advice and their good ideas about what they thought I should need based on what they thought they would need in my situation.

Alison P:
And usually they were wrong. And a good widow would just go along, “Oh, thank you so much,” but what I realized was that they really did want to support me, and they had no idea what they were doing. There were consequences for that on my relationships with them. So if they did or said something wrong, it was not uncommon in the first year for me to burst into tears, in the second year to go from zero to rage in five seconds. Both of these behaviors drive people away. So what I realized was that, first of all, there were no resources that I could find from where I found myself in what I call in the raw. From in that moment, because people don’t like to talk about these experiences until they are through them and looking better again.

Warwick F:
Boy, that is so true. That is profoundly true. “I was in terrible shape, but now I’m all good,” right? Everybody wants to give that speech, but you’re in the raw. You have moments of sobbing and rage, and that’s not the all good part of the story.

Alison P:
It isn’t. It isn’t. And because it’s never talked about, it’s not understood. So for the people at the effect of this … So if someone says something stupid and I lash out because I’m raw in this way, they might leave. They might have their feelings hurt. This doesn’t help support the person who’s grieving.

Alison P:
So Bad Widow was, “Okay, if there’s nobody speaking from this place, if there’s no other resource that I can find who’s here, then I’m going to be that person.” And I’m not going to just go along. If someone says something or does something that’s not helpful, I’m actually going to give a better way. At the beginning, I got a lot of “How are you?” And in my head, I would think, “How do you think I am?”

Warwick F:
What a stupid question.

Alison P:
Right? I just lost the man I loved for 25 years. I’m trying to afford an apartment and a studio in Manhattan on one income. I can barely operate. I couldn’t do any of the work I was qualified for. How do you think I am?

Alison P:
And instead of just saying, “Fine,” what I did as Bad Widow was, I said, “There is a better way you could ask me this, because I can’t answer that question. If you ask me, how are you right now or how are you today, with a time limit, that I can answer.”

Warwick F:
So help me understand. Is Bad Widow helping people understand a better way of helping somebody in that situation? Don’t just be the good caregiver that says, “Oh, you must be feeling bad. How are you doing? Oh, try this chicken soup or something that’ll make you feel better,” or the endless lasagna trays that come by. I mean, is that part of it, is just Bad Widow in a sense of being a better caregiver? Just help me understand.

Alison P:
So, Bad Widow was about blowing up the assumptions, both for people who are grieving a crucible moment and for the people who want to support them. For people who are grieving, there’s a whole lot of, “You have x amount of time to go through this experience and then we’re ready for you to be moving on.” And for a person in the middle of it, it’s like there’s this stream of people and they’re going on in their lives, and suddenly this event happens that derails you, sends you off on another path. It’s not always that easy to get back into the mainstream, because there are ways it doesn’t make sense anymore.

Warwick F:
So it sounds like you help people both in the different stages of grief, yes, it’s understandable that you’ll be angry, have memory losses, uncontrollable sobbing which may not be you at all, the normal you. You might feel embarrassed or that’s a sign of weakness. No, it’s a sign of grief. It’s normal. Give yourself a break. It’s okay to have uncontrollable sobs. Caregivers, understanding, don’t take it personally. Here’s what to ask, here’s what not to ask. And then maybe, as you say, grief is understandable, but there is a certain point and I think you would describe it better than me, in which you have to not move on in which you dishonor your husband’s memory and forget his name and who he was, but move on with your life because he wouldn’t want you to be in pain the rest of your life, obviously.

Alison P:
Right.

Warwick F:
So it sounds like you help with all those stages, the grieving, the pain, how do I know when it’s time to move on, what does that look like. It’s probably different for everybody. All of that’s part of it, I guess.

Alison P:
Yeah. I mean, that’s sort of the first piece, all those uncontrollable feelings and how do you both grieve. So if you think about life-work balance is this term that people say. There is grieving and there’s moving on. They aren’t you do this and then you do that. You need to sort of do them at the same time. So I can take people through this piece where there are all these feelings and I have strategies for that, but the place I’m of the biggest help is when they hit this kind of tipping point moment when they want more. They want to take back their lives, and that longing gets bigger than fear.

Warwick F:
Yeah. You said something like, their desire to move on is greater than their fear or greater than their grief. I think you say it something like that, that’s the tipping point when you know you’re ready to move on.

Alison P:
Yep.

Warwick F:
So how did … Because I’m sure everybody that you would deal with would ask you, “So, Alison, that sounds great. How did you do that? How did you know when you were ready? That you’re at that tipping point. How did that work for you?”

Alison P:
Well, what it started with was my realizing that I had contracted my life a great deal, less interactions with people, less activities, less of the things that I love. I had just contracted so that I could heal. And I began to think, “This is not me. At my core, this is not who I am.” And wanting to push back out against these, at that time healthy boundaries, but not forever.

Alison P:
And this is what we look at after the pandemic as well. People are coming out, but coming out into the world is not just an outside game, it’s also an inside game. After a crucible moment, it’s the same thing. You have to choose to push out and expand boundaries.

Alison P:
But I couldn’t do the work I was qualified for. I was trained as an editor and a proofreader, but I had the attention span of a fruit fly and no memory. Necessary for both those activities.

Warwick F:
Not a good combination.

Alison P:
Nope. I was a consultant who couldn’t tolerate being around people. So I was sunk, except that I knew that I needed to start getting out with people and building more interactions and increasing my capacity. So I took a job in a Halloween pop-up store that a widow friend of mine was running in four hour shifts. Because I could do that, and it was really hard.

Warwick F:
Those four hours, probably in your old self four hours would be nothing. But in that current self, or your self at the time, four hours probably felt like a 12 hour shift. How am I going to get through this?

Alison P:
I would collapse when I got home after four hours. It was all I could do. But gradually I was deliberately pushing out on my boundaries. I was expanding the people that I could interact with and the things that I could do, and that allowed me to take back more of my life, to build a bigger life.

Warwick F:
Was there a moment in time when you said, “You know what, Alison, this is awful. This is painful,” but you hit that tipping point, “I’ve got to start moving on.”

Warwick F:
Was there a day or a moment you said, “Okay, I’m going to make a choice here.” Was a moment for you, or was it a just gradual process?

Alison P:
It was really a process of solving for breakdowns, and this breakdown of not living fully. And my ability to live fully was really small, even as I pushed out. But if I wanted to take back my life, I had to take an action to do so.

Warwick F:
Do you think if you hadn’t done that, you would have been in that pit of despair, of grief, of sobbing, of rage? I don’t know, maybe … It’s scary to think, maybe it wouldn’t have ended. Maybe it would have gone on for years. I mean, it’s not that you still aren’t in pain, but it was part of the healing that, I’m going to take baby steps to move on, because the alternative is unthinkable, kind of thing.

Alison P:
Yeah. It was a choice. It was a choice I made. I have spoken to people who have been stuck at some level in this place for between 15 and 40 years. So this is a real thing. So re-engage is kind of the first thing, then re-invent. You’re not the same person. So who are you? And that was a lot of exploration, just trying things. Do I like this? Don’t I like this? Like a child.

Alison P:
Do I like tennis? Not so much. Do I like yoga? I’m not flexible. Do I like singing? Oh, yeah. And just taking back and discovering what I loved and what I didn’t love.

Warwick F:
You know, that’s one of the things we say in Crucible Leadership all the time, funnily enough, is that who you are after a crucible moment is profoundly different than who you were before. It’s transforming. Sometimes it’s as simple, if you will, as the oft-used aphorism pain for a purpose. How can I use this to serve others? But our pain fundamentally transforms us.

Warwick F:
I mean, obviously what I went through is totally different and not nearly, from my perspective, as bad as what you went through, but after my ending 150-year old family business, 2 billion takeover that failed … You know, the Wikipedia entry is still like, “young hot-headed kid could have had it all and blew it.” In terms of self-respect from the world, it’s sort of not so much, but it’s like, okay. I’ve got to own my mistakes. I wasn’t trying to hurt people, but naïve choices. But yeah, I mean, it sort of transforms you. I’m not going to be known as the person that’s always succeeded and never did anything wrong. I mean, who’s like that anyway? But yeah. The point of the story is it transforms you.

Gary S:
And listeners would know, as you tell that story, that you, Warwick, had your own “worked in a pop-up Halloween store” moment. As you were coming back from your crucible, you had your own moment where you took a job that wasn’t necessarily what you had always loved to, want to think you would be able to do, but you did it because that was a step back on your road to recovery.

Warwick F:
Yeah, I mean it’s a good point. My Halloween pop-up moment was, I live in Maryland, so I got a job at a local aviation services company doing business and financial analysis. I’m kind of analytical. This was mid to late ’90s, pretty much pre-internet so you couldn’t Google me back then, not very easily anyway. And I didn’t talk about my past, obviously. But I felt like, “Gosh, there’s something I can do well and not screw up.” It was a stepping stone of my self-esteem. “I can do spreadsheets, I can analyze, provide recommendations.” So yeah, it was building block by building block in terms of my self-esteem that was just decimated.

Warwick F:
It sounds like, for you, it was building blocks of things you had the energy to do, and over time, a bit like a muscle or stretching or even tennis, which I grew up in Australia, so all Australians love tennis, obviously. But it’s like with anything, you got more resilient, you were able to do maybe five hour shifts, not four. And that grief I’m sure never goes away, but you got to a point where you felt like, “I’m not living in the grief zone here. I’m sad, I will always honor my husband and that will never go away,” but you even moved on in relationships.

Alison P:
I did.

Warwick F:
In a relationship, significant relationship with somebody else. That’s a huge marker, because some people think, “Oh, if I do that then I’m saying I didn’t love my husband,” or some warped logic that I’m sure you hear people say. Right? I can’t move on because … I mean, that’s sort of remarkable, so just talk about how, you now have a platform to talk to other widows. It sounds like you do more than just that. You talk about people who have failed, anybody that’s been through significant loss. So talk a bit about, what’s your passion in terms of … I’m assuming it’s around loss. What do you feel your mission, your purpose is in all this?

Alison P:
Well, I would say my mission and purpose is to reframe how we grieve our losses, because I heard very often, “Well, I shouldn’t be talking about my pain, my business failure, my divorce, my … Because yours is so much worse.”

Alison P:
And I remember saying to a friend who was going through a really painful divorce, I said, “Not for you. For you, it’s really hard.”

Alison P:
And I think that we quantify how much we’re allowed to honor our grief.

Warwick F:
You know, what you just said is so profound, and it’s funny because I say what I said before, “Oh, what I went through was nothing compared to … ” I probably say that a lot. And we’ve talked to people on this podcast-

Gary S:
Yes you do. yes you do.

Warwick F:
… A lot. One of the very first ones, we talked to a guy that was a Navy SEAL, father and son Navy SEALs and the son was injured in a training accident, parachuting accident, and was paralyzed. He was like one of the best of the best. His dad thought, “Look, my son, in all honesty, is as good a Navy SEAL as exists.” You know, young, energetic. So I said to him, “Look,” again, the whole apologetic “What I went through is nothing compared to being paralyzed, you’re a Navy SEAL and that’s got to be tough.”

Warwick F:
And he said something like, “Your worst day is your worst day, and it’s not a comparison.” He pushed back in a very kind, almost loving way, I’d say. When I brought that up pretty much everybody says that, which I really respect. Nobody’s saying, “You’re right. What I went through was much worse than you, so back off, buddy,” or whatever, or some in your face comment. None of them said that. But then they’ve all moved on, bounced back, using their pain for a purpose. That seems to be a bit of a marker, I guess, if you can not judge other people and say, “You were only married for a year and your husband died. That’s nothing because I was … ” I mean, you know, what’s that mean? But you can … So that, I think is really impressive of what you’re saying, is just helping people understand, don’t denigrate your loss. Your pain is your pain. It’s not a competition. That’s a gift that you’re giving people.

Gary S:
Right. And I will jump in here and say, because I was so impressed with your definition of loss, Alison. You defined loss as “the death of a future imagined or co-created that will never come to pass.” If we think of the wide swath that that covers, it covers, yes, the death of a loved one. It covers, yes, a business failure. But it covers the loss of a job, it covers the loss of a relationship, it covers you said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. I mean, there’s a whole lot of stuff that fits into that bucket, and I think that’s the unifying tie that makes crucible experiences crucible experiences. It’s what you say about loss, the death of a future imagined or co-created.

Warwick F:
Absolutely. It’s coming to terms with that, that vision like with your husband, of playing tennis and painting and traveling. That’s gone. You have a new life, a good life.

Alison P:
Yep.

Warwick F:
But just coming to accept that that life is no more. Again, my life with Fairfax Media and the family business, and maybe I could have made a difference in the country of Australia that way. Well, that vision is gone, that won’t happen. We had the equivalent of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, a very respected papers, but I have my own life of significance, but it’s different.

Alison P:
It’s different.

Warwick F:
You’ve got to accept, okay. Well, it has to be okay. Because if it’s not okay, then there lies despondency and despair. So it’s got to be okay, right?

Gary S:
Well, I would say, Warwick, it’s not just okay, because you’re both examples of it’s not just okay, you’re living lives of significance. It’s not just okay, it’s significant. You’re living the life that you want to live, that’s where you’ve turned your pain into purpose that helps others, and that is an enormously potent thing.

Gary S:
That sound that I just heard is the captain turning on the fasten seat belts sign, so we’ve got to bring the plane down in a little bit. Before we do that, I have two things to say. One, to you, Warwick. Maybe Bad Magnate would be a good name for Crucible leadership, instead of Crucible leadership.

Warwick F:
As in bad, bad media magnate. Is that where you’re going with that?

Gary S:
Correct. Yes, yes. Bad Magnate. Right? We’ve got Bad Widow and Bad Magnate, because you offer the same kind of counsel and advice. So that is something to talk about offline.

Gary S:
And then Alison, I would be remiss, in all seriousness, if I didn’t give you the chance to let our listeners know how they can find out more about Bad Widow and about the services you offer.

Alison P:
The way you find me is you go to BadWidow.com. It’s pretty easy. And what we’ve been talking about on here is how I serve people. I help people who have suffered a loss re-engage in the world, re-invent themselves, and re-build their networks of support and trust themselves.

Gary S:
Yeah. That is significant work, for sure. Warwick, you have the last question or questions. Your call.

Warwick F:
Yeah, wow. I mean, there’s so … So many things occur to me. But somebody comes to you and they’re in the pit, they’ve had a loss, whether it’s a divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a business. If you had to pick one thing to say to somebody who’s suffered loss to help them feel like there is hope, one day maybe their life will be different. What’s the one thing that you would say to somebody in the pit of despair of loss, to give them hope?

Alison P:
I would say trust yourself. A lot of people will come forward with advice. Screen that advice through your own, what do you want for your life. From as far out as you can see, what do you want, because if you take the advice, you live with the consequences. So trust yourself is the first thing that I would say, and the last.

Warwick F:
That is well said. Great advice.

Gary S:
Well, because Alison said the word last, that was the sign for the pilot to put the plane on the tarmac. So we have landed the plane, we have finished another fascinating, insightful episode of Beyond the Crucible. Before we go, though, listener, we would ask, Warwick and I, that you would click subscribe on the app on which you’re listening to this show now if you’ve enjoyed this episode, if you’ve found both wisdom and encouragement and insight and hope. Warwick says often we’re dealers in hope. If you’ve found those things in this discussion, if you find those things in episodes of Beyond the Crucible, click subscribe. You’ll never miss an episode. And share it with your friends. They’ll never miss an episode, and it allows us to get the contents of the show out to more people.

Gary S:
So until the next time we are together at Beyond the Crucible, remember this. Your crucible experiences, listener, are painful. We get it. We’ve been through them. You’ve heard Alison describe them here. You’ve heard Warwick talk about his here and in previous episodes. They are traumatic, they’re painful. They can be hard to get over. But they’re not the end of your story. In fact, if you learned the lessons of those crucibles, as Alison talked about, if your resilience allows you to learn the lessons of your crucibles … And here’s a point that she said that, hang on to this as you move forward as you’re learning the lessons. There is no set time that you have to be done learning the lessons of your crucible. As she says, you don’t want to live there forever. I would say there is indeed a statute of limitations at some point of how long you should be living in your pain and your grief, but guess what. You get to write the legislation. Nobody else gets to write the legislation for the statute of limitations on your grief, you do.

Gary S:
Don’t live there forever. Take the time you need to get better and move beyond. Because if you do that, if you apply the lessons that you learn from your crucible, it’s far from the end of your story. It is in fact the beginning of a new chapter in your story, and that new chapter can lead to the greatest ending you’ll ever imagine because when that last sentence in that last chapter is written, at that period you will find a life of significance.

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