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The Best of Beyond The Crucible 2 – Sarah Nannen: Moving Beyond Surviving to Rediscovering Joy #132

Warwick Fairfax

September 21, 2022

In this second part of our best-of series, we talk with Sarah Nannen. With four children under 6 — the youngest just a few months old — Sarah’s life was upended as both a mother and a wife when her husband, an Air Force fighter pilot, was killed in a training accident. A former naval officer herself, she understood how to navigate through the material and logistical details of the tragedy, but needed to learn how to move through the emotional upheaval of instantly becoming a widow and a single mother. In this episode, she tells BEYOND THE CRUCIBLE host and Crucible Leadership founder Warwick Fairfax that she needed to lean into her pain to build a new and hope-filled future. Today she helps others who have been rocked by crucible experiences find the emotional strength to not be defined by their tragedies and setbacks. “There is more to your life,” she says, “than the thing that happened to you.”

Highlights

  • The day her husband died … and her crucible began (10:21)
  • How being in the Navy herself helped her navigate the aftermath of her husband’s death (12:29)
  • The impact on her young children (15:52)
  • Coping with two tragedies as a widow and mother (16:46)
  • How she’s helped her children know their father (19:38)
  • Why she had to reverse-engineer her grief (21:42)
  • Overcoming the thought that her job was to grieve (23:38)
  • Healing from a crucible requires grieving over time ((27:35)
  • Turn toward the difficult emotions of your crucible (29:52)
  • The power of using language intentionally when discussing your crucible (37:04
  • A historical perspective on moving beyond surviving (39:20)
  • Why just surviving is not enough to live a life of significance (40:42)
  • When she realized she was really happy … and her calling was to help others find the same joy (48:19)
  • Key episode takeaways (48:19)

Transcript

Warwick Fairfax:

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

 

Gary Schneeberger:

We go so far back in our archives on this week’s episode of our Beyond the Crucible greatest hits tour that you may notice the format of the show plays out a little bit differently than it does today. But the takeaways for you are as strong as ever, as you meet a woman who lost her husband in an unthinkable tragedy, but did not lose her hope. And she found her herself a new future.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Welcome everybody to this episode of Beyond the Crucible. I’m Gary Schneeberger, your co-host and the Communications Director for Crucible Leadership. And you have clicked play on, we hope you’ve clicked subscribe to, a podcast that deals in what our founder refers to as crucible experiences.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Crucible experiences are those moments in life that are painful, those moments in life that are setbacks, failures, traumas, tragedies, things that happen to us, things that sometimes we have a hand in bringing about. The common thread though, of why we talk about crucibles on Beyond the Crucible, is that very reason the show’s called that, how do you get beyond your crucible experiences? How do you get through that pain, not just deal with it and kind of shove it down, but how do you get through it? How do you move on to a better place, which we refer to as moving on to building a life of significance? And as we talk about this today, with me is the architect, the Lego master, if you will, of Crucible Leadership, our founder, Warwick Fairfax. Warwick, this is going to be, I think, a meaningful show.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Absolutely, yeah, very much looking forward to it.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

So our guest today is Sarah Nannen. And Sarah is the founder of Beyond Surviving, a movement that teaches a proactive and renegade approach to mental health and emotional resilience, while navigating grief and trauma recovery. She became a military widow and solo mother of four in 2014, when an aviation accident claimed her husband’s life. Her personal journey through rock bottom now informs her work with those navigating painful life transitions who seek to live extraordinary lives. She’s devoted her career to teaching sustainable wellbeing and a new paradigm of deep, systemic integration of mind-body healing to anyone seeking to move beyond surviving the ride of life; to move beyond just surviving that ride of life. Sarah’s background as a Naval officer informs her leadership perspective with a community-focused model for cultivating resilience and sustainable wellbeing. She is the founder of Renkon Yoga Studio, and hosts The Other Side of Rock Bottom podcast, which launches this summer. Take it away, Warwick.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well, Sarah, thanks so much for being here, really appreciate it. Before we get into your crucible experience, which some people are like, “Yeah, I don’t know if I’ve had a crucible.” Sadly, you obviously do understand that, you know what it was, you know the date, it’s… But tell us a bit about who you are, Sarah, and how you grew up, and a little bit about your family, and the lead up to your crucible. Just a little about Sarah Nannen.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Well, Sarah Nannen grew up in Central Illinois, it’s in the middle of America, I guess. Good old farm community US of A, small town. Played sports, was pretty smart, played the violin. Went off to college, did the ROTC thing, became a Naval officer, married my college sweetheart. I was four babies in when I found out that he passed, and so I was just sort of doing that average life. My average life looked like living in Japan at the time, we were a military family on the move. He was a fighter pilot, and once I got out of the Navy, my whole job was holding down the fort while he went off and did the fighter pilot Naval aviator thing all over the world. And I had a lot of amazing experience with that. Our kids were five, four, two, and newborn that wild day that upended all of that everyday, average, American dream kind of thing we were doing, and changed the direction of our life forever. So, that’s a little bit about me.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So until that point, and that was obviously the defining crucible of your life, had you had any others? Had life seemed pretty normal? Wonderful family, siblings, parents, grandparents, was it like, “Life is good, I’m blessed”, and was that your experience?

 

Sarah Nannen:

My mother-in-law described us as the golden couple; that we were both high achievers, and everything we envisioned, we managed to create. We were both very successful. Yeah, I grew up with great, supportive family. Everybody was healthy, we were running marathons in our free time, and short of the hardship and the crucible of going on a deployment and being locked on a ship with 300 men for six months, I would say this is certainly the defining crucible experience of my life.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So what made you decide to go into the Navy?

 

Sarah Nannen:

The honest answer is that I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Okay.

 

Sarah Nannen:

I found myself heading off to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana with an undecided major and a lot of potential ahead of me. I knew that I could be anything, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a passion, a purpose, a direction, but I knew that I loved to travel and I knew that I had always been a natural leader. And so it made perfect sense to go off on an adventure, become a Naval officer, travel the world, and see if I could figure out what was important enough to me on the other side of that. So I ended up majoring in Spanish and business, because that seemed fun and useful enough. I got to study abroad a couple of times and then, upon graduation, off I went to meet my ship on deployment.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. And so it’s funny, as listeners would know, that it’s ironic that you had a Naval career because, even though I’m from Australia, for some reason, we ended up in Annapolis, Maryland, which, as you would know, is home of the US Naval Academy, so you see a lot of people in their uniforms and they all change… It’s one particular day a year when they go from whatever it is, white to blue or other way round?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Mm-hmm.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Navy football is big in our town. So yeah, not my background, but definitely we’re a Navy town. So what kind of ships were you deployed on? What was your role in the Navy?

 

Sarah Nannen:

My ships were rather small, gas turbine frigates, destroyers, cruisers. And my role, surprisingly enough as a Spanish major, was engineering. And that’s a unique thing the Navy likes to torture their young officers with, is offering them the role of leadership in an area that they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, and the only training you get is from the people who you’re responsible for.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That does sound like a government job.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It does.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

For sure.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So where did you meet your husband?

 

Sarah Nannen:

We met the first day of ROTC on campus at the University of Illinois, we both had high school sweethearts coming into college, but we had a connection and a friendship that first semester. And by New Year’s Eve, we had ended our high school relationships and started one of our own. So…

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow.

 

Sarah Nannen:

… we go way back to 2000, was the year that we met in university.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So I’m assuming you were never deployed together or anything like that?

 

Sarah Nannen:

I was a Naval officer, he was a Naval aviator, but he was a Marine, and he would not hesitate to remind you that he was not in the Navy, thank you very much. So we didn’t ever deploy together. In fact, we were married several years before we lived together, because I was stationed in San Diego and he was in flight school in Pensacola, so lots of traveling back and forth, and getting well-versed at long-distance. Even when we weren’t deployed, we weren’t often together until I got out the Navy in 2009.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So once you were married, how did your service work then? Because with four young kids, how did you manage balance Navy and kids?

 

Sarah Nannen:

I actually got out of the Navy six months after our first baby was born. I was at that decision point in my career that I had served the time that I was required to, based on the agreement that we created, and having a newborn was kind of a no-brainer. I took a lot of maternity leave and then finished out the last three months of… Really, I was on shore duty, so that helped nicely, that my work was essentially an office job. And when I got out of the Navy, then I transitioned full-time to stay-at-home mom, which was also a very interesting, in hindsight, crucible moment; going from Naval officer to commander-in-chief of the house, and all of the really big life changes that came with being at home with just my amazing baby, rather than fighting the ship all day long, every day.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That was a big decision. But…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… obviously everybody’s in a different situation and totally understand that…

 

Sarah Nannen:

We were tired of living far away from each other, to be honest, Warwick, and I made the decision to get out so that we could finally cohabitate and have the same address.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So I’m assuming, given he’s a Marine, they don’t fly off of ships, I’m assuming they fly off land or…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Sometimes they do.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Okay.

 

Sarah Nannen:

They’re often deployed to aircraft carriers, and they also will have land-based assignments, so…

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But it meant that you could actually be together as a family, at least a reasonable…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Theoretically.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… amount of time.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Theoretically. We did have the same address, so that helped.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, I understand. And so, how long were you married?

 

Sarah Nannen:

We were married in 2005.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Okay.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And we were together since 2000, so 14 years, all told.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow, wow. And so it was in Japan when the… And it was a training accident, was it?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes, oddly enough I was in Japan, and he was in the US, in Nevada, at TOPGUN. You may have seen the movie.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Similar but different in real life. He was at a high-level training command, learning some really exciting things that he was tasked to essentially bring back to his squadron, and train the squadron around, and had a aviation accident that we never saw coming, of course. When they go on deployment, you’re worried all the time and anxious, but as a military spouse, I think you take training for granted so often. You know there’s risks involved in things…

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But you think, assuming…

 

Sarah Nannen:

… but you truly don’t expect it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Right, assuming the equipment works and there’s no pilot, what have you, you would just assume that you’ll be okay, so…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Now, you were in the Navy, you understand the Navy, Marine culture. So I’m assuming you see in the movies, and maybe I think you’ve recounted this; two officers, they’re walking down towards your front door. And I think you mentioned, you knew why they were there. You knew…

 

Sarah Nannen:

It’s just like you see in the movies. And even as I describe it, I can sort of feel my body remembering that moment, you have those crucible moments and you can’t unsee them. And it truly is, you see them coming up the steps and you just know why they’re there. Which is helpful because I don’t think they wanted to have to say the words to me. And we both took a while to figure out how to talk to each other about what was actually happening.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Do they say the words you just see, “On behalf of a grateful nation…” That whole thing?

 

Sarah Nannen:

That came more toward the funeral time, in that moment I think they were attempting to just say, “I don’t know how to say this, but there was an accident.” And at that point I was already in my complete dissociative psychology state of crying and shaking my head, “No”, while welcoming them into my home, while remembering that my children were at the lunch table, and trying to navigate all of the complexity of that moment with as much grace and also the overwhelmingly human emotions that naturally come out when you find out that your partner has died.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

The fact that you were in the Navy, did that make any difference to how you experienced it, as opposed to any other spouse of somebody in the military?

 

Sarah Nannen:

I love that question. I think it didn’t affect, at all, my grief experience and the intensity of the emotions, but it did afford me a comfortability in that environment, that I felt ease in asking questions to high-ranking members of the military that I think others may not have. Even though spouses don’t worry about rank, there is this understanding of the structure and power, and I had no qualms about talking to the general in very clear terms and asking questions. And I think I maybe knew what questions to ask, in a way that someone who doesn’t have as much exposure to that kind of thing might? So I do think it did help.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, you want to know, “Well, what happened? How could this possibly happen?” Because I’m sure, again, we don’t need to get into details, but I’m sure your husband was very good at what he did, otherwise he wouldn’t have gone to TOPGUN.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s not like he’s some rookie, first time up in the air, “Where’s the control stick? Where’s the gauges again?” He knew what he was doing, so I’m sure that was one whole episode. And I’m assuming there’s probably a good support system, sadly, this happens, other Navy spouses… You probably could talk to, not just spouses, but officers too, because you were an officer as well?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yeah, I think that I had a relationship with a lot of his coworkers, that seems like a strange word, but his peers, that maybe other spouses didn’t? Again, there was a mutual respect, perhaps, that I had earned, knowing that I had also served. And so I did feel, again, that I could call up or text someone who I saw as a friend, not just someone that worked with him and say, “I need you to tell it to me like it is, don’t sugarcoat it. I know that you’re trying to be careful with me, but I actually… I need to know the information, whatever you can tell me is appreciated.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

And that really helped me make sense of it from an objective standpoint. I think a lot of people, particularly in the work that I do now, they are left grappling with what happened, how could this happen? And I think, in an attempt to protect us from what happened, they also rob us of some really basic information that helps us turn this horrific event into a very scientific matter of fact thing. And that was how my son, who was five at the time, engaged with it. When I told him what happened, “Daddy had a crash, they’re not sure if he’s okay, they’re looking for him, but they don’t think he’s okay.” And he said, “Well, Mom, there’s helicopters with lights on them, so they’ll find him, don’t worry.” He was just so matter of fact about the thing, because young children don’t have all of those social stories to apply on top of the information, it’s just information. And so having that access to information, and I guess the privilege, or the self-appointed privilege, to say, “I’m going to ask these questions that other people might not…”

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So you feel…

 

Sarah Nannen:

… “feel safe asking.”

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… you at least had closure in the sense that you knew what happened and why, you felt like you were being given the truth, not some, I don’t know, whitewashed or sanitized version for spouses, so that probably helped to a degree. And one of the things I think I’ve read is you have four children, and your youngest daughter, was it a few weeks…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. Six weeks old.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… old? So that’s one of, obviously, the tragedies, when you have four kids, and even your oldest at five, it’s still young, would have some memories…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Very young.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… but your younger ones, probably, obviously though your little daughter wouldn’t have…

 

Sarah Nannen:

She never met him, actually. She was born while he was already gone, so he watched her birth via FaceTime.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Oh my gosh.

 

Sarah Nannen:

So, the pictures that we have of them together are screenshots of them looking at each other through technology.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, not only do you have the tragedy of your husband, but the sense of my youngest daughter and my younger kids are not going to know their father.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Mm-hmm.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, I want to obviously talk about how you got beyond that, but I think it’s probably obvious, but the listeners are still going to want to know, some have gone through your experience, some have not. What were you feeling about those two tragedies, in a sense? Your husband dying, and especially your youngest daughter never having met their father, your, probably, youngest two not really having many memories. So what was your emotions in those weeks and months afterwards?

 

Sarah Nannen:

I really appreciate you making those two separate things, because I think often people see the story as one giant tragedy with no way out. And it really was this very juxtaposed personal loss in figuring out who am I now without him, and also this overwhelming sense of pity, being too young to be a widow, as everyone liked to phrase it. That I was sort of clamoring to reclaim my autonomy and my existence without him. In a way, it was very projected upon me that my life was kind of over, and everybody knew it, and so they were there to help me suffer through the rest of my life.

 

Sarah Nannen:

But then there was this other, very clear, desire to protect my children from unnecessary pain and also to really help them experience the pain in an honest way, that was useful to their healing rather than hiding them from it. And so navigating what’s the appropriate amount of disclosure and dialogue with a two year old or a five year old around what’s happening, and helping them express that in ways that are age-appropriate and even accessible. And there was a lot of information involved, because young children really don’t even understand the concept of death, so I had to teach them what that even meant before I could get to telling them what had happened.

 

Sarah Nannen:

So, luckily I had a really beautiful chaplain with me and he was able to help me create this lesson essentially, and talk about, “Some things are alive, and some things are not alive, and some things have that life in them, and some things don’t have life in them. And sometimes the things that had life in them don’t have life in them anymore.” So we kind of looked at nature as an obvious teaching tool. “And you can see that this plant over here is alive. This tree was alive, but is no longer alive. Remember that time we went hiking and we saw that big tree on the ground? And then you can see a fake plant in the house that clearly does not have any life in it, but looks like it could.” So just giving them some basic understanding of life and death, and what it means to be living, and what happens when you’re not living was sort of our starting point.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And I think as they grow and as they continue to grow, they will have new experiences with their grief. They will have new questions, they’ll have new understandings. As they learn to identify as themselves, they’ll also look back and want to know more. And so one of the things that I’ve done to help them know him without having known him is that he’s always remained a part of our conversations. And so they’ll be able to describe him to you. They know what food he liked, they know what teams he liked, they know how he liked to spend his time. And so I’ve sort of posthumously created this relationship to him for them, that they feel as though they remember, even though it’s simply information that I’ve continued to help them create this image of who he was. And I think that’s really helpful, that even though they don’t have a lot of memory of time together, they feel like they know who he was still.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So I can picture just those first few months and years, where you’re dealing with your own grief. You’re obviously a highly intelligent person, you don’t get into the Navy without being a leader, so intellectually you know what needs to be done. It’s almost like it’s a terrible mission. It’s difficult, but I need to overcome, so intellectually you probably, in some sense, had an idea of what you needed to do, but then you’re human being, and…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. Thank you.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… sadly, even though you might know the right things to do and you’re getting counseling and all the rest, you still have to deal with just, we’re all human and it’s devastating. So you’re trying to be strong, deal with your own emotions. But then you’re also trying to help your children and just be in this, to use your phrase, this fetal ball weeping every day, that may be normal and totally fine, but that may or may not help your kids. So it’s like, “Gosh, I’ve got to be strong for my kids, even if I don’t feel like I’m particularly strong in any given moment.” So, that’s got to be… “And I’ve got to try and help them, when I’m having enough trouble helping myself. I don’t think I have any energy to help anybody other than me.” Having four children so young, that’s got to have been a huge stretch on internal resources, to try to keep yourself sane, and be strong, and calm for your kids.

 

Sarah Nannen:

It’s interesting that I actually had to reverse engineer my grief after that initial shock, because within the week we were on an airplane back to the States with 13 suitcases, and living with my folks, and then seeking a house, and buying a car, and finding a pediatrician. And so there wasn’t actually space for me to be anything but strong and mission-driven, as you pointed out, that was my auto-default, was to go straight to strong. And it took, probably, a year before I was able to circle back around to, “Now that all that’s done, and we have somewhere to live, and they have a school to go to… Now what do I do?”

 

Sarah Nannen:

And that was the point where I was capable to start interfacing with the grief and the emotions and the fears and the unknowns and all of the, “Who am I now?” And even the complexity of the social thing that continued where, as much as I would work to find strength in myself or find something to inspire me, my identity always came back around to his death for the people in the world around me. And so it took a lot to really reclaim my sense of self, and then even more to get to a point where I could stand in that and say, “Yes, and?” Because so many people could only see the tragic widow, no matter what I did.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Right, so, “Oh, that’s Sarah Nannen. Oh, she was the wife of that Navy pilot… I mean, Marine pilot, and TOPGUN, it was so tragic. Oh my gosh, how will she get through this?” It’s sort of like, “Sarah Nannen, who is…”

 

Sarah Nannen:

Right.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And the “who is” never changes, it’s frozen in time. You’re perpetually that age, and that grief-stricken widow, and there’s no end. Does it feel like sort of a prison? They don’t let you out of the box. That’s who you are, and that’ll never change.

 

Sarah Nannen:

It did feel as though I was supposed to climb into that widow box, and let everybody sort of seal me in there, and set up shop, and be happy. Like that, “This is your job now. Your job is to grieve and remember your husband, and help us grieve and remember your husband, and for the rest of forever, this is what we will do. And when Memorial Day comes around, when his birthday comes around, we’re going to come back around to you, so that we can grieve together, and that will be your life.” And it felt so small.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And this is a fascinating point to hear you talk about that, Sarah, you began several minutes back where you said something along the lines of people looked at you like your life was over. And Warwick, listeners who know your story, there’s a very similar emotion happened to you when the takeover bid failed. And in some ways, what you just described in talking to Sarah about you’re supposed to be in this box, and you’re the widow of this pilot, you, in many perspectives, people thought, “Okay, you’re the young man who tried to take over the family business and it didn’t work.” And you were seen like that too.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And I think a lot of listeners who’ve been through crucibles, through really heart-rending crucibles, have felt that experience. That they are frozen in time, to use your words, Warwick, they’re frozen in time as a widow. They’re frozen in time as a failure. They’re frozen in time as someone who’s been injured in some way physically, and they’ve lost some physical part of who they were. And what’s great about this conversation is we’re about to turn a corner here in talking to you, Sarah, where you did, you have created a new life from the ashes of what was, from even the expectations of people that you were going to stay there. You created a new life just as you created a new and rewarding life, Warwick, from your crucible.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, it’s so well said. Obviously don’t want to compare tragedies, because it’s one thing losing 150-year-old family business, but a spouse? That feels pretty up there as about as bad or tough a thing as you could possibly go through. But in a sense…

 

Sarah Nannen:

It is a meaningful comparison though. It absolutely is, and I think it’s a very universal thread that when we have what you call a crucible moment, on the other side of that, we’re asked to identify as a cancer survivor, or as a survivor of that person, or he figured out how to fix that failure, it always comes back around to that…

 

Warwick Fairfax:

They always see you, and…

 

Sarah Nannen:

… moment.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… in my case, as listeners know, I was 26 year old, just back from Harvard Business School, launched this 2 billion plus takeover, wanting to ring it back, ideals of the founder. It fails. And so, for Australia… It’s funny, my dad has the same name as me. He was knighted, so he was Sir Warwick, so I was always called young Warwick. And that’s 30 plus years ago, it’s a long time. But in the Australian media’s eyes, I’m perpetually 26 years old, the idealistic, naive, foolish kid who let a 150-year-old family company go, and I’ll forever be young Warwick. I’m in my fifties now. I don’t feel like young Warwick anymore, but I’ll always be young Warwick. So yeah, the people put you in that box.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So in your case, in terms of how you moved on, I love the fact you talked about, even though you’re a very strong, driven person, you were sensible enough to say, “I actually need to experience the grief.” Some people would say, “You know what? I’m moving on. I’m not doing this grief thing, because I’m not going to be a weak little jellyfish. I’m not going to do grief. I’m going to be strong.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I think you had the wisdom to realize being strong doesn’t mean to say that you can’t move on without grieving. So talk about some of the steps, in terms of how you moved on, and then obviously how that gets into how you help others, because I have a feeling that was… Maybe step one is you got to feel the grief before you can move on.

 

Sarah Nannen:

It’s one of the strongest things we can do, is turn toward it. And what I find over and over, and I did this myself, is that we have this model of grief that the statute of limitations ends when the funeral happens, and then everyone starts looking at their clock and watching how you behave. “Well, isn’t it about time you…” Fill in the blank. And so we have that sense of urgency of get on with it, and get on with your life, and figure it out, you’ll be fine. And when we choose to come toward it, something changes and that’s, I believe, the only way that healing can actually happen.

 

Sarah Nannen:

What’s tough is that the model we’re given, to fake it till you make it and put on a happy face, creates this really ruptured reality where, externally, everyone sees us as incredibly strong and powerful and inspiring and doing great. And internally, day by day, we are imploding and crumbling and hurting. And something really damaging happens to the psyche of a human being when you’re asked to live in two realities at the same time, and neither of those realities involve your truth. Neither of those realities involve healing. So the performative external world is happening, and maybe you’re succeeding at the performance of life, but you’re not reaping any of the rewards. You can’t experience any of the richness of your lived experience, because internally you’re so devastated, and your physiology and your psychology are in such a dissociative, distressed place that you feel like you’re sleepwalking through the world.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And I think there are a lot of people on the planet who have experienced a variety of crucible moments that are stuck in that place because it feels like success. It looks like you’re making it. And when we have those moments of pain, we sort of chalk it up like, “Oh, I’m having a bad day. Oh, it’s just a hard day today. Or maybe I’m depressed. Maybe I just need some medication. I don’t know. I just can’t stop crying.” And I always invite those people who come toward my work with curiosity to just turn toward that, whatever you’re feeling. The fear, the overwhelm, the anxiety, the heartbreak, the tears, turn toward it and be curious about it. What’s coming through? What hasn’t been expressed? What hasn’t been said? What tears haven’t been cried?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Because my experience isn’t that unique, in that when something devastating happens that ruptures our reality, interrupts our sense of self, whatever it is; a death, a loss, a failure, a health crisis, there is always a huge amount of stuff to do to triage the moment. Whether it’s hiring lawyers, filling out paperwork, packing bags, moving houses, going to the hospital, there’s so much to do externally, that that becomes the new dissociation. You distract yourself with the busyness of the work. And we’re wired to be capable of delving into what must be done, because humans are amazing and that’s part of our evolution, is that our nervous system actually has the capacity to override itself with all of these incredible, useful hormones to make the body parts do the things that must be done to keep survival happening. Very few people have said, “Well, I just laid on my bed for a year and waited for it to get better.” No one gets the opportunity to do that.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Right. You had four young children, there was stuff to do.

 

Sarah Nannen:

There was a lot to do.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Kids to school, kids to change. But I like what you’re talking about. There’s the being and the doing. Yes, you got to get on with life, lawyers, probate, homes, moving halfway around the world, but yet you’ve also got to deal with who you are, because you can’t be your best self to your friends and especially your children, unless you deal with that. If you don’t help yourself, your kids will be affected, like it or not.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Absolutely.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And you were smart enough to know that. It’s for yourself, but it’s also for your family. So, that sounds like a cornerstone, what are some other steps which, as well as you help others lean into the pain, but that seems so profound. A lot of people say, “Well, I don’t want to lean into the pain.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

It also seems very cruel.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well, it does!

 

Sarah Nannen:

Your work here is lean into the pain. Don’t you want to do that?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Just jump into the cauldron of molten lava and just feel that fire burning and… Why would anybody want to do that? But obviously…

 

Sarah Nannen:

A lot of people who start working with me say, “I expected this to be heart-wrenching, painful, excruciating, and I can’t believe that it wasn’t those things.” And what you’re asking me to get to is like, okay, well, how do we do this? How do we lean into the discomfort? How do we make time to feel it? And how do we get the resources to feel it in a way that doesn’t actually completely annihilate us? Because that’s what we expect. And so, I apologize in advance that what I’m going to say is going to sound really simple, and it always sounds almost too simple to even be useful to the people who work with me. And then they’re all, of course, amazed later on how life-changing it is. But one of the things that I started with, don’t tune me out, is breathing practices and a yoga practice.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And the reason that that was so incredibly important to me was I was very adept at facilitating an out-of-body experience. I think that was part of why I could be so strong. I will just turn off this part of me, and do what must be done. And so there was a very dissociative experience in the moment of hard times where I wasn’t really there, and I wasn’t really present, but I could do the things. And so the breathing practice and the yoga practice helped me become more fully embodied. And I realize that this is getting into yoga language, but when we learn how to stay present, physically, physiologically, psychologically, socially, in this human being container that we’re walking around in, we suddenly have a whole new experience of our life and ourselves.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And so these two practices not only helped me come back to myself fully, and fully inhabit myself, and be aware of myself, and be capable of witnessing myself more honestly, rather than just performing my experience. But they also helped me reset my physiology. And I think that that’s something very important that we miss, as humans on this planet, in the game of mental health and winning at life, is it’s always this external thing. Cognitive behavioral therapy, “I’ll just go to a therapist and I’ll talk it out and I’ll use my intellect and my language to just fix everything.” And you can go to all the therapy you want. If your physiology doesn’t know that you’re safe yet, the therapy will never really actually land. Part of the work on the other side of anything that ruptures your identity, and your existence, and sense of self is that you have to learn how to teach your body that it’s not in danger anymore.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And so the breathing and the yoga was actually this very accessible modality that I could practice without being perfect at it. To, every day, say, “I’m going to learn how to let my nervous system come back to neutral, and out of survival mode, so that not only can I be here in this moment, but I also have access to my modern brain now.” Because when we’re in survival mode, we go down, down, down the evolutionary chain, way back to that place where everything is dangerous or safe, good or bad. We don’t have access to this incredible intellect that’s capable of immense and endless solutions to life’s problems.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah. It’s that whole fight or flight, primitive, human being notion. So yeah, I love what you’re saying. Yeah, I guess, from my perspective as a person of faith, there’s different tools to do, I think, what you’re talking about. When I’ve gone through some different crucibles, for me, prayer, spiritual meditation, for me, maybe it might be reading scriptures. Is there a thought that, for me, some spiritual thought, that some wise person, perhaps up there, is trying to tell me? Obviously there are different ways of doing it. Some, for people of faith, it might be one language, but it can be others. Whether it’s meditation, yoga, there are different ways to try to understand what’s going on. What am I feeling physically, emotionally? For me, if I feel depressed, frustrated, I have to, “Okay, why am I feeling this?” I’m a reflective person by nature, that’s just like breathing to me. So I’ll always think, “Okay, why am I frustrated? Okay, what’s the issue?” And then I’ll try and… I don’t know, maybe “deal” with it’s the wrong word, but at least name it, recognize it.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. That’s a tremendous tool, is cultivating that emotional intelligence and articulation, so that you understand what’s actually happening. Because so often, our language around crucibles is very rudimentary. I’m sad. I’m grieving. I’m angry. And we don’t go beyond that. And so, one of the things, another tool, and I want to come back to something you said in a minute, but another tool that I teach people is intentional language use. Being very intentional about what they say and how they say it. Because when you say, “I’m aware that I’m sad right now”, it has a completely different energy and meaning, experience, in your physical body, than, “I’m sad”. There’s this permanence when we say “I’m sad. I’m sad, and I will be sad forever.” But, “I’m aware that I’m sad right now” helps you get curious about, “Okay, well, why am I sad right now? Let me name all the reasons.” And then what might I be able to do to either express that more completely, or to support the sadness so that it can move through?

 

Sarah Nannen:

But the thing I wanted to come back around to is when you offered up being a man of faith, I think that spirituality has many directions and flavors and labels and options. And I think that prayer and meditation are accessible to everyone.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Absolutely.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And I think what’s the best way that I heard it described was that prayer is speaking and meditation is listening. And so I think we innately do both when we’re either in meditation or in prayer, I think, naturally, both happen.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s so important to deal with these things. Everybody’s different, but for me, if I get really anxious or something’s weighing on me, it affects my stomach, which it does for many people. And I start getting more sensitive to tomatoes or acidy foods, and there’s certain foods that, if your stomach is out of whack, you stay away from. But other people, maybe headaches or something, I don’t know. But for me, it’s the stomach. So if you don’t deal with this stuff, not only will affect you emotionally, it will affect you, as you say, physiologically.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

More and more, our science is understanding there’s a direct relation between the emotions and the physiology.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. There’s a very good reason.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I want to hop back a few seconds to what you said, Sarah, about the importance of language. I’m a word guy. I’m an old journalist, I’m a PR guy now. And I love the fact, as I was reading through your materials, I love the fact that you called your coaching business Beyond Surviving. I love the fact that you have a quote on that website that says, “Let’s interrupt the pain and shake up the pattern so you can move beyond surviving. It’s time to enjoy the ride.” I did a very quick search before we hopped on this interview, because Warwick loves history and he loves historical perspective on subjects like we’re talking about. And I went back farther than you usually go, Warwick. And that was Aristotle. And this is something Aristotle said about this very subject, about moving beyond surviving. This is what Aristotle said.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

“The ultimate value of life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation, rather than upon mere survival.” Why, in your estimation and your experience, Sarah, why is survival not enough? Why should that not be where we point our compass, our GPS?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Wow. First, thank you for that quote, what a beautiful contribution. I think anyone who is feeling unfulfilled, feeling alone, feeling unhappy, feeling hopeless… Depressed is kind of the word we like to use in modern America. I think any of us who describe our life that way are in survival mode. And what’s so tragic to me is that we’ve sort of been taught to settle for that, and believe that that’s the best we can hope for. That life is hard, and some people get lucky, but most of us just suffer and struggle. Life is hard. And so few of us understand how self-empowered we are, how many resources we have all around us, how much life is a proactive, participatory experience rather than one that’s only in receiving mode. And I think we are wired for survival, of course, so that is the default when stuff gets hard, but we’ve also been taught and programmed and modeled that that’s the best you can hope for.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And what’s really important for me, and I’m so grateful for your work, Warwick, and others like us who are preaching this gospel of, “There is more than the thing that happened to you.” Jung said, “I am not what has happened to me, I am what I wish to become” or “what I choose to become.” And I think it’s so often that we, in America, in the modern day, are so quick to still completely identify with our hardships, rather than identifying those as one moment in the time of our life. And I do this exercise with my clients pretty early on, I ask them to create a timeline of their life. And I remind them that when you were seven, your crucible moment was the wrecking of your bike and the bloody knee that you had. And that is such a blip in your past now, but it was a defining moment that you can remember, you can totally go back to in your mind’s eye, and feel, in real time, what that was like for you.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And so I teach people to see that this is not the ending of your story. It’s one chapter in this broader context of what’s possible. And when you have a crucible, I call it a catalyst moment, when you have a crucible experience, it wakes you up to your life and the ownership of your life and the value of your life in a way that you didn’t have consciousness around before. We take it for granted. We’d sleepwalk through life. Our job is to get a retirement plan and a picket fence and a couple of kids and the right car, and we should be happy. And we are not taught to gauge our life by the fulfillment that we experience, or even how to get fulfillment beyond the external and the material.

 

Sarah Nannen:

So these crucible moments are a gift, and I don’t mean to dismiss or minimize anyone’s suffering, because no one deserves to suffer. And yet, time and again, it is those individuals who experience some kind of hardship that activates or awakens them to the richness of life, in a way that they will never take it for granted again. They deepen into their relationships, they deepen into their ownership of their life, they create something meaningful. And I know that without this experience, my life would’ve never taken the trajectory that it did, to the place where I’m incredibly enriched and fulfilled and joy-filled and inspired… Excessively, actually, because of what happened to me, and because I understand how much of a treasure it is.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So talk about how that tragedy you went through was a catalyst, just to take you on a whole, maybe mission’s the wrong word, but a whole new mission. Talk a bit about that, because it sounds like it was a defining moment in an obvious way, but yet in a way that’s not so obvious. So talk about how that launched into a whole new direction, which is fulfilling and, is it wrong to say, in some sense, gives you joy? What you do?

 

Sarah Nannen:

No, please, I am absolutely joy-filled with my life and my work. And that’s one of the challenges, honestly, is that people still want me to be in the widow box. So for me to say I’m joy-filled, and I’m in love, and my life is beautiful, is confusing, because people cannot conceptualize how that could be possible.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Do you feel some people might say, which would be a bit cruel, very cruel, say, “Well, to really honor the memory of your husband, you shouldn’t be happy.” I mean…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I don’t think anybody would say that, but do you think they’re thinking that?

 

Sarah Nannen:

I don’t think they would say it out loud, but I am certain people think that maybe you just didn’t love your husband that much, if you could get on with the show so easily. And that is something that I think we grapple with within these catalyst moments, is what does it mean about me if I’m not devastated for the rest of my life by this? And there’s a lot of clients who come to me who are afraid to let go of their grief, because the grief is the thing that feels like love now. “I can’t see them, I can’t touch them, but I can grieve.”

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But the obvious thing is if it were possible to speak to your husband in some strange, metaphysical sense, he wouldn’t say, “No, I want you to grieve and be sad the rest of your life.” He would say what you would’ve said if, heaven forbid, your roles were reversed, you’d say, “I want you to get on with your life. Don’t forget me.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

“But get on with your life and live a happy and joyful life.” He would say that, right? I’m sure there’s no doubt.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Absolutely. Absolutely.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And you would’ve said that to him if the roles… So how is that dishonoring his memory? I know this is obvious, but as you say, people put you in a box. So…

 

Sarah Nannen:

It’s a demonstration of how small, I think, the concept of love is within our humanity. People are like, “How could I ever love anyone again?” And I say, well, “I have four children and I don’t only love my first son. I actually love them all quite equally, perhaps even more expansively because there are four.” I think we’re so much more capable of vast love, and deep intimacy, and connection, and joy than we realize, because we’re sold this story of find your soulmate and live happily ever after, and they’ll complete you, and everything will be grand. And so really tearing down the wallpaper of that belief system that the American dream seems to be built upon, and getting real with the fact that there’s no person who can complete you or make you feel loved. Unless you are deeply connected to and in love with yourself, you’ll never really actually experience intimacy or connection or fulfillment, no matter how great you think your marriage is.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well, and that’s… I’m not into marriage ministry, so to speak, that’s what you hear people say, is if you feel like your husband or wife is the one that’s going to complete you, you’re in trouble, because you’ve basically got to be happy with who you are, not seek fulfillment from some other person. So yeah, talk a bit about more what you do, and just how you try and come alongside other people. And I love that phrase, leaning into the pain, and very countercultural. And obviously I’m sure you’re not against counseling, but it’s “counseling and”…

 

Sarah Nannen:

No!

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… right?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, talk about some of the “and”, so to speak, that you do to help other people going through grief.

 

Sarah Nannen:

I’m going to answer this by also answering the question I didn’t answer yet, which was, “How did you get here?” I did what I was supposed to do, which was go to all the resources that were thrown at me to solve the problem that I had. And I very quickly realized that many of these people didn’t actually believe in my healing either. They also saw me as a permanently wounded project that would need therapy for life, and would always have this deep rift of emotional baggage dragging behind me. And I found myself doing a lot of BSing with my therapist, like, “I know what to say right now because I am a Type A overachiever. So, the right answer when you ask me that question is, I’m doing just fine.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

And I never really got to this place of vulnerability, nor did they ask me to go there. They couldn’t guide me there, because I don’t think that was a part of their service. And so I had to sort of go off-grid in search for resources that could see me as a human, and could really challenge me to become more curious about what my actual experience was, rather than projecting onto me what they thought it would be and what they thought I should be doing. And what I found there was really useful, but I had to look quite hard for it. And it wasn’t packaged as the normal mainstream, “Here’s what you do when you’re grieving.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

So I decided that I would create it, because one day I did come to a moment in my life where I looked up and around and thought, “Geez, I’m really happy.” And this is the thing that nobody told me was possible, let alone real. And here I am. So I guess it’s my job to let other people know this is a thing we can do, just in case they’re also sort of buying the line that the best we can hope for is surviving.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And it’s okay to be happy.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

You don’t have to apologize, no matter what the tragedy is.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s okay. Give yourself permission. It’s okay to be happy. Don’t feel guilty. Because I’m sure you have people saying, “I feel so bad, I’m happy.”

 

Sarah Nannen:

Absolutely. I think that’s a general theme anywhere you go, if someone experiences pain and then finds themselves happy, they feel it’s confusing, it’s disconcerting. “How could I be? How dare I?” So essentially what I’ve done is create this coaching program that’s built upon community, and mind-body resourcing, and teaching people tools, and language, and the ability to self-reflect rather than deflect and disassociate. And I started out working primarily with widows, and it was really, and continues to be, really powerful and exciting, to watch them evolve beyond navigating their widowhood, to navigating their lives in a broader context, beyond that label. They can now see themselves as human beings, not widows, and it’s exciting, because then we get to do the fun stuff of finding out “Who am I without that identity? I don’t have to leave behind what happened. I don’t have to forget to heal. I can always have that love story as a part of me and, looking forward, what do I desire to create? What do I desire to experience?”

 

Sarah Nannen:

We don’t get there overnight, of course, there’s a lot of terrain to cover, but that is, ultimately, where we head, is getting to the place where the pain feels like a part of the story that they’re very familiar with, rather than one they’re grappling with. And after a while, I noticed there were a ton of threads that were coming through, because I was also working here and there with people whose father had passed, or their brother had died, or their friend had died. And I just noticed that it wasn’t any different than working with the widows. The language was slightly different, but the same fears and concerns and lack of ability to express what they were feeling, and didn’t know how to, “I don’t know where to go, I don’t know what to do!” Was all the same.

 

Sarah Nannen:

And so this has evolved with time, looking at the psychosomatic experience of navigating a painful life experience, and what is missing in the culture that we operate in. Filling that in with tools, and self-resourcing, and the ability to turn to ourselves with curiosity, and notice what we’re experiencing so we can be honest about that, and make choices, and express ourselves in new ways to find our way to the truth of who we are, rather than staying in that box, whatever the box might be.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And this is a good time, sorry, this is a good time for us to do a couple things. One, it’s about time to shelve the book back on the shelf. But the other thing, Sarah, I would be remiss if, after you explained all of that, I did not give you the chance to let listeners know how can they find out more about what you do and get in touch with you?

 

Sarah Nannen:

Thank you for that. I’m on Facebook and Instagram, and also have a website. My name is Sarah Nannen. It’s lots of letters, so I’m hoping you have show notes somewhere, but if you look for me on the Facebook or the Instagram or connect with me at sarahnannen.com, S-A-R-A-H-N-A-N-N-E-N.com. Write that down for them, so they don’t have to remember.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Yeah, I will. And you got nothing on Schneeberger for long letters in your name. But I digress. Warwick, I’ll give you the last question.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, thank you so much, Sarah. I love what you do. I have this image in my mind, I think of that whole Scarlet Letter thing from, I don’t know, Salem, Massachusetts, and it’s almost like for some widows, they feel like they have the big W on their forehead.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s okay to have it somewhere, but it doesn’t have to be that big. It doesn’t have to… You are more than your tragedy, your tragedy doesn’t define you.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes. Any of us.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I remember in the nineties, I wasn’t, as listeners know, wasn’t in particularly good shape. And there were some well-meaning people that said, “Gosh, after that tragedy that Warwick went through, and losing all that family business, and he’s in pretty bad shape. He’ll probably never amount to more than that. He’ll always be just a pile of broken pieces.” Now, they wouldn’t say that to my face, but I felt that. Yeah…

 

Sarah Nannen:

You knew it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… probably resented it a bit at the time, but it’s like…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Sure.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… to me, you want to get in touch with what you’ve been through. But for me, as I’ve been on a couple of church board, and a school board, and now with Crucible Leadership, there’s sort of a healing balm, healing element, as you’re focused on using your pain to help others. It doesn’t mean it totally goes away, there’s always a scar. But the culmination of just understanding who you are, dealing with that, being real with that… I love that phrase, leaning into the pain, but then finding a purpose for your life, in our language a life significance. That’s also part of not being defined by your tragedy. You’re more than just that day in Japan when those two Marines, or whoever it was, came down your front walkway. You’re more than that hour, that day, that minute. And everybody is.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So yeah, I love what you do, and thank you so much. And yeah, it’s a great mission, ministry. And obviously it gives your life meaning, purpose, and joy, and wholeness. You now can probably say you’re a whole, you’re not a disassociated person, you’re a whole person, right? Mind…

 

Sarah Nannen:

I strive to be.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… body, spirit. That’s the goal, right? Be a whole person with a mission to help others, which you have. So, I think you can really help a lot of other people, and you have, and it’s a message people really need to hear. So thank you so much.

 

Sarah Nannen:

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And this is when I know it’s been a great show, when I have, and I’m going to show it to our YouTube viewers, when I take notes about, “Here are some takeaways you can have for the show” and then Warwick steals a couple of them when he summarizes his statement. So I normally have three takeaways, I’m only going to have two today. So Warwick took number one, which is don’t stay in the box. You don’t have to stay in the box. That’s number one. The way I sort of phrased it was we hear, all the time, that you’re never too old to move beyond your crucible. I think what Sarah has proven, and what Warwick has proven in his own story, is it’s also true that we’re never too young…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Yes.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

… to move beyond our crucible, that we are not frozen in time, even if we’re young. That’s not our destiny forever. And Warwick just unpacked that a little bit, and Sarah talked about it…

 

Sarah Nannen:

Perfect.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

… much in our conversation.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Another thing that Sarah really made clear in our conversation, listeners, is do not fake it until you make it. Healing is a proactive experience that requires intention and support. Projecting everything’s okay while everything isn’t okay can deepen and actually worsen the pain of your crucible. Even though it may appear to those people who are onlookers that you’re winning, you really aren’t. You’re only surviving, and survival isn’t healing. Do not be an actor in your own life, be a character in your own life.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

And then the third point, I think, that we can walk away with from this really meaningful conversation, is never settle but strive. Life is hard, but it’s also a proactive, as Sarah put it, a proactive, participatory experience. There’s more than the bad thing that happened to you. And you can move beyond that bad thing that happened to you, and you can grab a good thing that’s waiting for you. And that is what we hope to point you to each week on Beyond the Crucible.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

So, until we are together the next time, listener, thank you for joining us, and remember that your crucible experiences are indeed painful. They can knock you off balance. They can change, as they did for Warwick and Sarah, the trajectory of your life. But they are not the end of your story. In fact, if you lean into the pain, as Sarah says, if you learn from those experiences, as Warwick has talked about, they can be the start of a new story, a new chapter in your life that can become the most joyous and most rewarding because it leads you to a life of significance.