Skip to main content
Coming soon: Crucible Leadership is becoming Beyond the Crucible. Stay tuned for updates!

“Horrible and Beautiful” – Lessons from Her Husband’s Cancer Battle: Karen Austin #147

Warwick Fairfax

January 17, 2023

Karen Austin experienced both anguish and joy as she walked with her husband, Tracy, after a cancer diagnosis that took his life, but never his optimism and spirit. In our conversation this week with Karen, she shares with intimacy, vulnerability and, yes, humor about what she describes as her “crucible life” – the early death of her mother, her brother’s suicide and the cancer that took her husband in 2017 — two months before their 20th anniversary.

From the ashes of those tragedies, she explains, she taught herself how to thrive through grief and help others do the same as a certified grief companion. She explains that grief and mourning are not synonymous – the first happens to us, the second is something we must actively do to heal.

Highlights

  • Her early years … and crucibles (4:44)
  • The suicide of her brother (7:05)
  • Meeting the love of her life (10:55)
  • Getting the devastating news of her husband’s cancer … and the hope that followed (12:46)
  • Lessons about living from Tracy as he was dying (14:46)
  • Mourning takes on different expressions in different people (22:22)
  • What pain can teach us (30:02)
  • The impact uplifting others has on her (38:19)
  • Facing down the possibility of lung cancer (44:38)
  • Karen’s message of hope to listeners (46:40)

Transcript

Gary Schneeberger:

We’ve just turned the calendar to a new year. What better time to turn the page to a more fulfilling life? That’s exactly the journey Beyond the Crucible has charted for you in our E-course, Discover Your Second Act Significance. The three-module video course will equip you to transform your life from, “Is this all there is?” To, “This is all I’ve ever wanted.” Each session is led by Beyond the Crucible founder, Warwick Fairfax, who shares his own hard won successes in turning trials into triumphs. He’s got some high powered help from USA Today’s gratitude guru to a runner-up on TV’s Project Runway.

It’s an ensemble of men and women living significant second acts who would command a six-figure price tag if any business wanted to fill an auditorium with them to coach their employees. But we’ve packed their insights and action steps into our course for a sliver of that cost. If you act before the end of January, you’ll get 23% off your enrollment. Just visit secondactsignificance.com and use the code 23for23. So don’t delay; enroll today. And remember, life’s too short to live a life you don’t love. Now, here’s today’s podcast episode.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

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

 

Karen Austin:

Watching someone you love, nursing someone you love to their death is horrible. It’s horrible. Cancer’s a horrible disease as is, but pancreatic particularly, though. But because we did it the way we did it, it was also really beautiful.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Horrible and beautiful. Words that usually speak to totally dissimilar experiences, emotions that have nothing in common. But for Karen Austin, our guest this week, both words described the path she walked with her husband Tracy after a cancer diagnosis that took his life, but never his joy and his spirit. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show.

In our conversation this week with Karen, she shares with intimacy, vulnerability, and, yes, with humor about what she describes as her crucible life, the early death of her mother, her brother’s suicide, and the cancer that took her husband in 2017, 2 months before their 20th anniversary. From the ashes of those tragedies, she explains, she taught herself how to thrive through the grief and help others do the same as a certified grief companion. She explains that grief and mourning are not synonymous. The first happens to us; the second is something we must actively do to heal. A side note: You’ll hear in this interview Karen talk about a medical test scheduled for after we recorded our conversation. That test revealed she has cancer, and she’s already begun to, as she puts it, “Make friends with the challenges ahead,” taking her own counsel as she walks through this new crucible.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well, Karen. Thanks again so much for being here. I just loved reading some of the material about you and just the way you talk about yourself. It’s sort of, I don’t know, amusing, endearing in a way that is, I don’t know, intriguing, given that sadly you’re sort of an expert on grief, but yet you’re able to combine joy and grief, which is a lot of what you talk about, just in the way you introduce yourself. You say, “Talking about death is my jam. It’s my thing.” Well, death and grief and mourning and all the inherent “blank”, including the gifts that death brings to life.

You say elsewhere that you’re a perpetual student of grief and a lifelong learner in the experience of death and loss. So as listeners hear more about your story, they will come to understand that those lessons are hard won. It’s certainly not something that you chose by any means.

But tell us a bit about your background growing up because there’s probably was a life before maybe age 15, or I don’t know, there was sort of a bit of a key mark in your life. But what was life like for you growing up?

 

Karen Austin:

Well, first, thank you both for inviting me. As you said, death is my jam. I do like to talk about it. Life before death for me because my mom died when I was 15. There were four of us, two boys, two girls. My older brother Butch and I were the older. Butch was two years older than I, and then my younger brother was three years younger, and then my sister five years younger. So it was kind of like the big kids and the little kids. It was kind of Butch and I and Kenny and Katie.

Then my parents just did… You think about ’50s, the perfect family in the ’50s, and we probably looked like that from the outside, but we weren’t like that on the inside. My parents divorced when I was somewhere between 12 and, oh… I don’t remember. Sometime around those years.

Then this is a whole nother story, but my mom married a guy who she helped get him out of prison, and he had killed his wife and two of his kids, and then my mom passed away and we lived with him. Then the experience of living with people who are not your parents was a big part of that growing up. I was born in 1957. It was not your typical ’50s and ’60s upbringing, but there was a lot of learning in it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It sounds like sometimes for some people life is good and felt Disneyland-like and then the tragedy happens. It sounds like life was never exactly easy for you. There were challenges from relatively early on that you had to grow up with grief, challenge. Why is my mom marrying this guy? And what’s going on? There was divorce. I mean, you probably had lots of questions and…

 

Karen Austin:

I did. But at the time, my mom, we would go to the prison on Sundays, and I started a book about that – I’ve never quite finished it, but I call it PB&J at the Pen because we would go to lunch. But when I was a kid, I never really thought about it. As a teenager, doesn’t everybody go to the prison on Sundays? I didn’t know. You know what you know.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So you never thought, “Gee, I have my friends at school and their lives seem to be a bit more normal or simple than mine”? Did you ever think that or?

 

Karen Austin:

I don’t remember thinking it. I don’t remember thinking it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Okay. So obviously, your mom dying when you were 15. That was massive. I guess your brother… Well, tell us about that. That was a number of years later when you were, I think, 22. So what happened there?

 

Karen Austin:

After my mom died and we moved in with my stepdad and then my stepmom, and then we eventually went to live with my dad, my older brother kind of stepped away from the family. He didn’t stay with us when we were living with my stepmom and my stepdad. But he did come back when we all went to live with my dad. Then I was done by the time I was 17. I graduated from high school. I got my first apartment for, I think it was $75 a month. And I moved out.

My brother attempted suicide the summer after my mom died. So, my mom died in ’73. He had several more attempts between ’73 and ’79, when he actually did take his own life. I’m going to preface before I tell you about that. I want to say that I never mourned my mom. I grieved my mom. There’s a difference between grief and mourning, the way that grief is all the internal stuff that we feel. Mourning is the outward expression of that, and we are not encouraged to do that. We certainly weren’t encouraged to do that in 1973. So, I never mourned my mom. I just kind of shoved it all down. I call it unexpressed emotion, goes to the basement and lifts weights and gets stronger. So, I had shoved it all down.

In 1979, I was married to my son’s dad. It was December. My brother disappeared at the end of October that year and somebody broke into our house, and the only thing missing was my husband’s shotgun that he kept under our bed. We didn’t know who broke into the house, but called the cops. They came and did a report and the only thing was that my brother was missing. We found him in December. So he was in the attic, and he had been up there for five weeks. That, as you can imagine… It was a horrible experience, but I never mourned him, either. I just kind of shoved all that down again.

Then when my son was born in 1981, I started to have panic attacks and I got agoraphobia and I was afraid to leave the house. All of that unexpressed emotion that had been living in the basement. I think I got that analogy from a book somewhere, that metaphor. But it really is appropriate for me, that all of that unexpressed emotion went to the basement and was lifting weights and getting stronger. Those panic attacks and agoraphobia was my body saying, “Look. It’s time to take care of this. It’s time to deal with this emotion that you never expressed.” And it’s been really one of the greatest gifts of my life to have that.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I just love that whole idea of the stays in the basement and lifts weight. That’s so true. But unfortunately, grief wasn’t done with you. Do you ever kind of wonder, it’s like, “Can you pick on somebody else for a change? I mean, come on. Again? I mean, really? I know you want me to be a grief expert, but can I be a little less of an expert. I know enough already. Can you give it a rest?” If you talk to the universe or God, however you like about it. It’s like, “Come on.” But sadly… Well, so you met, would it be true to say the love of your life in Tracy, or?

 

Karen Austin:

Oh, for sure. Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Tell us a bit about maybe him, and then sadly grief struck again.

 

Karen Austin:

I met Trace in ’95. We worked together at Franklin University here in Columbus, Ohio. We had kind of noticed each other. I was coming out of my second marriage, had just gotten divorced. My married name was Ramirez. Tracy one day said, “I think that little Mexican girl across the street is really cute.” And of course I’m not. But that was always a standing joke with us. And Trace was, I imagine he still is, one of the most positive, happy people I had ever met in my life. I had never really met anyone like him. He invited me to a Christmas party. He kissed me under the mistletoe. He said, “I’m going to call you tomorrow.” He called me the next day. He said, “I’m never going to expect you to be anybody other than who you are.” And I was like, “Sure.” But that was true. And he never expected me to be anybody other than who I was.

Trace was a lifelong learner. He loved to learn new things and that was the glue of our marriage, to continually learn, continually grow, support each other as we grew. We had a blast for 20 years. We had a really good time. And then he retired. He took an early retirement. He was 54, I think. Took an early retirement from Franklin in 2016. June 1st, 2016, he retired from Franklin. Our plan was he would take the summer off, we would travel, and then he would find his new dream job and he would work for the rest of his life and we would sell the house and move downtown. That was going to be our life.

We went to Washington, DC, at the end of that summer. So that was August. And he wasn’t feeling well. Tracy was a huge food lover and I could tell he just wasn’t feeling well. So, we came home and he went to lunch with his lunch group and they all decided that he had some sort of problem with his gallbladder. That was their diagnosis.

He went to the doctor and the doctor did a scan and he called Tracy, frantic. He called him on a Saturday morning, and he said, “You have to get checked out immediately.” Within a few weeks, we knew that he had stage four pancreatic cancer, and he had a 5% chance of survival. I asked the doctor… I remember sitting there at Ohio State University. We’re so blessed to have that resource here. I said to the doctor, “Are you telling me that this disease is going to kill Tracy?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “When?” And she said, “6 to 12 weeks if we do nothing.” And Tracy said, “No. What else have you got?” And she said, “Well, we can do chemo. It’s not going to save your life, but it will prolong it.” So he said yes to that. He lived for nine months total from the time he was diagnosed until he died. So, he took his early retirement on June 1st of 2016, and on June 1st of 2017, we stopped at chemo. So, it was quite a year.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And you were married, how long, did you say?

 

Karen Austin:

It would’ve been 20. We were two months from our 20th anniversary when he died.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And maybe this is an obvious question, but as you look back on Tracy, you’ve had a lot of hardships with your mom and her second husband and your brother. Do you look at whether it’s God or the universe that maybe Tracy was the greatest gift you’ve been given in your life, would you say?

 

Karen Austin:

I would say yes to that. I also think Tracy’s death was one of the greatest gifts given to me in my life.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Huh. Why is that? Because that’s an interesting statement.

 

Karen Austin:

After Tracy’s first chemo… Tracy’s first chemo was the worst weekend in my life. They threw the book at him. He was otherwise healthy. They said, “We’re just going to go as hard as we can.” I didn’t know that a human could be that sick and still be alive. He was in the ICU for seven days after that first chemo. And I was horrified. I was like, “If this is chemo, we’re not doing it. We’re not doing it.” Trace didn’t remember any of it. He didn’t. He didn’t remember being as sick as he was. So he was like gung ho, okay, doctor’s like, “We’re going to adjust. It’s going to be fine.”

I went to the pharmacy one day, I think it was the weekend before Tracy’s next chemo, and I came home and he’s laying on our bed, on our big king-sized bed. His eyes are closed. It was the middle of the afternoon. It was gray, like this in Ohio. It is today. He’s laying on our bed and he has a singing bowl that a friend of ours brought from Sedona. He’s listening to a mantra that a friend of ours in Germany created for him. He has my son’s stuffed dog that he’s had since childhood, and he’s laying there and he’s saying, “Yes, I will. Yes I will.” And he didn’t even know I had entered the room. I just kind of stood there and waited. And he came back to the room and I said, “Who were you talking to?” Kind of amused at that point. And he said, “I was talking to my creator. I’m going to use my cancer for giving.” And I said, “Okay. What does that mean?” And he said, “I don’t know yet.”

But what happened was Trace for eight or nine years when he worked at Franklin University. As I told you, he was a very positive person. He used to choose his attitude every day, and he would put it on a name tag. If he didn’t wear that name tag to work, people were like, “I don’t know how to feel today.” And he had this reputation. He would go to lunch and people would be like, “What’s your attitude today, Trace?” He had stopped doing that, of course, because he had retired.

But one of his friends, his name is Brian Ahern. Brian sent Tracy 50 name tags in the mail, and he said, “I’m going to put one on every morning and you’re going to put one on every morning, and we’re going to go on social and we’re going to talk about it.” So, it just created this thing. It’s called #NameTagsForTracy, and it created vulnerability and conversations about what it’s like to be dying and what it’s like to choose your attitude every day, even when you’re dying. It just became a beautiful thing. It gave him an outlet. It gave me an outlet because I shared my journey as well.

By the time Trace died, thousands and thousands of people were following us. At his funeral, we had 15 speakers from all the different areas of Tracy’s life. Every time a speaker would get up, they would say, “If you knew Tracy from softball, please stand up.” All the people that have followed him online got to see each other in person the day of the funeral.

I’m not going to lie to you. It was a horrible experience. It was horrible. Watching someone you love die is… I mean, I’d had the experience of my mom dying suddenly. It was an aneurysm with my mom; my brother dying suddenly. But watching someone you love, nursing someone you love to their death is horrible. It’s horrible. Cancer’s a horrible disease as is, but pancreatic particularly, though. But because we did it the way we did it, it was also really beautiful.

I think we created an intimacy that I don’t think you can create any other way. So, if Trace had to die, if Trace had to die, and clearly that was our fate, if you will, I would rather do it that way than any other way. It was a beautiful gift to me. I learned so much about myself.

Because I had had this previous experience with grief and death and mourning, knowing how not to do it, I intentionally got to choose how to do it. I got to choose what went on in the basement and what didn’t. I got to say out loud, in-person, on social media, what it’s like to lose your husband. And I still do it. It’s five years. I’m still doing it. People still follow me. Some people call me… Oh, I’ve been called the Death Lady. That’s fun. Kind of like the lunch lady. But it was a beautiful, horrible experience, and I would do it again.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I want to get into in a second what you’re just saying about what you learned, but I loved watching the video that you sent us of Tracy and just some of the things that we can learn from him, which is a lot. I guess he used this quote from Chuck Swindoll, that life is 10% what happens to me; but 90% of how I react to it. You can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose your attitude, which it sounds a simple thing to say, but when you’re on all sorts of pain medication, which from what I understand, the first time, it’s often, I don’t want to say they don’t get it right, but there’s a lot of different concoctions. So, figuring out the one that actually works without causing other side effects is not easy. It’s just more than me. It’s a brutal experience. So, just to choose your attitude every day, my gosh, it’s a lot easier said than done when you’re going through excruciating…

 

Karen Austin:

And he…

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… pain. But, you know.

 

Karen Austin:

He never complained. There was one day. I remember one day that he complained, where he said, “I’m really hurting today.” Like, that one day. It was remarkable. I don’t know how he did it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That makes no sense. That is remarkable. But I love the talks about his three core values: “I’ll lead my life with passion; I’ll always have a positive attitude, and I’ll surround myself with positive relationships.” Obviously, those are all choices. Being a passionate, inspiring, giving leader. Just in that, I guess the name tag he had during that speech, it said Humble. That’s one of my highest values as it happens. It just seems like he was a remarkable person who… I’d be hard pressed to think of anybody that could handle that kind of death and cancer in a better way than he did. It seems like he was handling it at Olympic level in terms of attitude. Were you sort of dumbfounded? It’s like, “I know I married a nice guy, but who is this guy? He’s like Superman or something?” How is this possible? Did you have a marvel about his whole attitude?

 

Karen Austin:

Yeah. I still marvel about it. I have been supporting a friend in cancer the last year. She has bladder cancer, and I’ve been her advocate. Her experience is completely different than Tracy’s. I’ve been in some of the same rooms in the same buildings this past year. And the nurses used to fight over Trace. They’d be like, “No, I get him today.” So, yeah. I certainly did marvel and I still don’t know how he did it.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

You have said that this was a gift, that his death was a gift to you, and you’ve said that you learned a lot. I know that what you mean by that is that you learned a lot of good things from it. I sense we’re going to pivot in this conversation to this point, and I want to bring it up so you can talk about it. I’d never thought about it this way until I read this as something that you wrote and then you talked about it: this idea that grief and mourning are not synonyms, are not the same thing. It seems to me, as you tell this story, of one of the gifts it seems that Tracy’s passing gave to you, that Tracy gave to you, was moving from just kind of living with grief to expressing mourning. The way that you expressed it is that grief is internal, and it’s a reaction to something, it’s an automatic thing. Mourning is external, and it’s an action. It seems to me that really crystallized for you with his illness and his death. Is that a fair assessment on my part?

 

Karen Austin:

Yes. Yes. That’s a fair assessment on your part. I had learned it because I work with suicide survivors. I had been in the spaces of learning that and watching them and teaching them. But I had not been in that space of grief and mourning like I had been with my brother and my mom for decades and decades. So, to be in a place of experiencing what they were experiencing and to also be able to teach that on social media to other people, which I still do, was also a gift, to see people understand that grief is passive. Well, no matter where it comes from, whether it’s the dog dies or you lose a company, Warwick, or your husband dies. The grief is passive. It just is. It’s there.

Mourning is active, and we don’t do it, collectively. Nobody teaches us how to do this. We learn it on the fly. I cried out loud in public for a year. People would just be like, “Oh, yeah. She’s crying.” They didn’t even give me tissues anymore. I just was very out loud and out front with my grief. I still am.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That is, I think, a key learning for folks listening to this, is that grief happens to you, you can’t do anything about; it’s just going to find you. Mourning and then thriving through that mourning is something that you have to apply, that you apply yourself to, which is what you have done in your own life and what you teach people to do now. So that, really, when you talk about the gift that Tracy’s illness and death gave you, it’s not a gift you kept to yourself. It’s a gift that you’re now giving to others to do the same thing that you’ve been able to do, and that’s really a beautiful thing.

 

Karen Austin:

I remember writing a post… I didn’t cry in front of Trace a lot because I didn’t think he needed that burden. But I remember leaving Kroger Pharmacy and sitting in my car and crying, and I wrote a post about that, about sitting in my car in the parking lot at the grocery store and crying. I was stunned by how many people shared that experience, that said, “Oh, that’s where I cry, too.” Or some version of going off and crying by themselves. When we cry together, it’s so much more powerful, so much more powerful.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And that’s mourning, right? When you’re doing it with other…

 

Karen Austin:

Yes. Yes. And mourning really is – Warwick – it’s anything that moves that emotion through you: dance, music, writing, crying, whatever it is that… I write a lot. I journal a lot. When I feel that emotion coming up, when I feel something coming up that I know there’s something on the basement stairs, right? It’s coming up and I know I get to feel it, I’ll start writing. And typically that works for me.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s almost like mourning is sort of active processing of grief, if you will…

 

Karen Austin:

Yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… in some fashion. I think what you’re sharing is such a great gift to all of us because everybody that I know is going to go through loss. Everybody’s going to lose their parents, typically they will die before they do. And tragically, people might lose brothers, sisters, friends. There may be physical tragedies, abuse, trauma. Life is not easy. So unfortunately, there’s way too many opportunities for grief in life. There aren’t too many people that I know that have had this charmed, griefless life. “Grief? I don’t know what that means. I’ve never had to experience it. Pain? What’s pain? I live in Disneyland.” Well, that’s not on Planet Earth. It’s just not reality for whatever reason.

It’s funny. We finished recently a series on loss, and a lot of what people had very different experiences, from losing loved ones to a woman whose husband was lead pastor of a pretty big church in Southern California, committed suicide actually in church. He was in his early 30s. She was 30 with three boys, five and under. I mean, there’s anger, grief. How do you process all that? She’s still in her early 30s.

But one of the mantras or lines I heard beneath the surface is really head into the storm, if you will. When there’s a grief and emotion, run through it. The way to get past it… Maybe past is the wrong word. The way to be…

 

Karen Austin:

Through it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… deal in some fashion is just to head towards it. Without even understanding it, I probably in some strange, imperfect way of trying to do that because I’m an analytical person, so if I feel bad, I have to know why and I have to process it. I’m feeling angry or something about the family business or various challenging relationships, something will come up.

I mean, there are times, without getting too self… I don’t know what, analytical, but because the whole thing with the family business is so painful, sometimes it’s like, well, it’s hard for me to go back to Australia at times because it triggers all sorts of grief and kind of, oh, people will look at me. There’s the young kid that then was that lost this massive family business. Well, who knows? I mean, it’s like decades and decades ago. But my psyche doesn’t understand that. It’s irrational. So, all of these weird emotions, okay, and then you deal with it and then the next day is actually a bit better and then another wave comes.

But ignoring it is never helpful. You can’t stop emotions, right? You’ve got to… So just talk about, because a lot of people are, a lot of guys especially, are in the stuff it; I’m meant to be cool and strong. Society teaches men, certainly men and women, a lot of extremely unhelpful notions. Just talk about, there may be a lot of stuffing it people out there, just talk about how you kind of head into the storm or just some of the ways you can just not let the basement get flooded with stuff that never gets resolved.

 

Karen Austin:

I think one of the reasons that we… Well, a couple reasons we stuff it because, well, culturally that’s expected. It’s getting better, but culturally, your dad died. Three days off? Are you over it yet? Nobody encourages us to talk about that stuff.

The other thing is that when there’s a huge grief, you feel like if you let yourself feel all of that, it’s going to kill you. It feels like it could kill you. I think standing as source for people, for people who are feeling that, is one way of helping others get toward their grief. Also, that gives them an opportunity to see that, oh, that person got through it; I can get through it, as you said earlier.

And also, you have to go backward before you can go forward. You have got to go back and look. You can’t invite this stuff up from the basement unless you’re willing to make friends with it. Being friends with pain is antithetical to everything we learn. We learn to run from it; shake it off; get up and do it again. Pull up your bootstraps. We don’t understand that grief and pain have our best interests at heart. So, being in a place of understanding that this is happening for me as well as to me, but what can I learn from it? What’s it trying to teach me? That’s a question I ask myself every day. What can I learn from this? What can this teach me?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

You’re right. Just from my own experience, you can learn so much from pain. It can be a gift. It’s only recently that I thought losing this $2 billion family business, it wasn’t just about the numbers. It’s just five generations of my family toiling for this. Contributing newspapers that were like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, quality papers that really sought to be independent, uplift the country. I mean, it was a big loss. Yes, there were days in which I launched this takeover a few months after I graduated from Harvard Business School and it’s like, how could I been so dumb? But over time, I almost feel like I had a dialogue with myself and until a dialogue with grief and it’s like, “Well, yeah, but you were so young.” I was in my 20s. There’d been dysfunctional relationships in my family for decades before the takeover in the late ’80s. There were reasons. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes. It wasn’t all my fault. I tried to do it for the right reasons even so.

By dialoguing with myself over some of that stuff, it does make it a little easier. You try and throw away the cobwebs or the irrationality, and say, “Yeah, I made some mistakes.” But yeah, I don’t know. This doesn’t apply to all grief, I got to say. But for me, I can say it was a blessing because I’m a reflective advisor, not a take-no-prisoners executive. It just wasn’t a good fit. So, my kids get to grow up normal. They’re kind of 31 down to like 24. They don’t have any of the pressures and expectations. So there were tremendous gifts through that loss. I can’t say that applies to all grief. I’m not saying that. But in my case, there was a lot of gifts and a lot of lessons.

But is that really true? Do you think that… I don’t know. I guess as you look at maybe Tracy, maybe you’ve answered this a bit, but it was excruciating. But what were some of the gifts that you learned from that whole experience, would you say?

 

Karen Austin:

I learned to give myself grace. I learned to sit with my pain and learn to be in a place of understanding that I am a human being with emotions that are meant to be felt. We are humans created to feel, and then we spend our whole lives trying not to feel anything. We’re all happy to feel joy, but nobody wants to feel sad. So, to just be grateful that I’m a human that can experience those kinds of emotions, and that I can choose how to be present to them or not be present to them, and that I can use them to teach others.

Even my brother’s suicide. I mean, Butch has been dead since 1979, but every time I walk in a room to facilitate a suicide support group, he’s alive because he’s the reason I’m there. So as Trace used to, he had laminated cards with Chuck Swindoll’s quote, and he would hand them to people. We gave them out at the funeral, that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. That was his north star.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

This would be a good time to ask you this question because I imagine there are listeners who are hearing this right now, who they hear you and they say, “Man, she is outgoing. She is strong. She is vivacious. She is loquacious. She’s positioned in some way with a personality that has allowed her to make friends with grief.” What would be your advice to those people, your counsel to people who feel a little bit more timid about it, who don’t have quite your personality? I understand, for sure, it’s not personality-driven whether you can succeed in it or not. But there may be people who are thinking, “I’m just a little too timid, or I’m a little too anxious, or I’m a little too not comfortable expressing myself.” You’re very comfortable expressing yourself. What would you say to them, that they can do it, too?

 

Karen Austin:

That every grief is individual and personal, and you get to do it the way you get to do it. Looking at me and thinking, “I should be able to do it like her,” does not serve you and it does not serve your grief. We tend to compare our griefs, which is not helpful. I had someone say to me, “I’ve never lost someone important like you.” And I said, “Have you lost someone unimportant?” Because we have this way of looking at someone’s pain or their loss or their story and saying, “Mine’s not as bad as yours.” So, it doesn’t matter as much. Your grief, your pain, whatever your personality is, however you deal with it is yours. Nobody else gets to tell you how to deal with it. If you are having those conversations in your head, that negative self-talk, why am I not through this yet? You’re not through it yet because you’re not through it yet. You’ll get through it when you get through it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

What you just said, Karen, is so profound. One of the guests, early on in our podcast, David Charbonay was a Navy Seal that was paralyzed in a training accident in Southern California. His dad was a Navy Seal, and he was obviously very good at what he did. I remember saying to him, “Gosh, what I went through, losing a family business, even if it’s 150 years old, was almost nothing compared to what you went through.” And he said in an incredibly gracious way, he said, “You know, Warwick, your worst day is your worst day. It’s not a competition.” That was such a gift he gave me. He was so magnanimous. I’d say every guest we’ve had on in, I don’t know whatever it is, 130 plus guests, they all have that attitude. That helped me think it’s…

I’m sure with loss, it’s the same thing. Your loss, your grief, your worst day is your worst day. It’s not like, “Oh, well, I lost a husband or a wife, but gee, we didn’t have the kind of relationship that you and Tracy had, so therefore it doesn’t count as much because you had the perfect relationship.” Probably, it wasn’t perfect.

 

Karen Austin:

No.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But other people might see it that way, relatively speaking. So therefore, your loss is bigger and I can’t compete. It’s just helping people understand that your worst day, your loss is painful. It’s not a competition. Oh, you only lost two people. Oh, I lost three people or five. Or, you lost one person to a suicide? Oh, I lost two. I mean, it’s not a math game or competition.

 

Karen Austin:

It’s not.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

One of the things you said, I think, that’s very profound, too, is you’ve used your grief to help others through being a grief counselor and practitioner. I’m guessing it might be true, but I know for me, when I’ve shared my story, which is kind of what I do, and story of others through blogs, through the podcast, through speaking, and when people have come up to me and said, “Warwick, your story or what you said really helped me,” to me, I take it as drops of grace, drops of redemption, drops of healing. It doesn’t make the pain go away. It helps a little bit. It helps dial the pain down a bit. It gives a purpose and meaning.

So, what’s been your experiences? You’ve shared your story and your learning and teaching with others. As they’ve said, “Karen, thanks so much. This is changing my life,” how has that made you feel?

 

Karen Austin:

It makes me feel grateful that I have had these experiences. I didn’t go through all this for no reason. I went through it to uplift others. So, I’m okay with it. I like to hear when someone said, “Your experience made a difference for me.” I also feel that it gives other people an opportunity to be more vulnerable and to not see vulnerability as weakness, to see it as strength.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It gives other people a space, not just to grieve, but to mourn because you’ve modeled it for them. You’re helping people, maybe not get through the grief, but process it in a way that the pain is maybe a little less and they can have joy and grief.

 

Karen Austin:

And they see it’s possible.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I love that expression. Just talk about joy and grief because somehow you said it’s you can have both. Is it the two sides of the same coin or what? Talk about sort of embracing joy amidst grief, because that’s a fascinating concept.

 

Karen Austin:

We live in an either/or world, I think. We live in a world where it’s either this or it’s that. The concept that you can be in joy and pain at the same time is foreign to us. People even feel guilty for it. “I just lost my dad. I can’t feel joy.” “I just lost my son to suicide. I can’t feel joy. I’m never going to feel joy again.” I had a woman tell me once in a suicide support group, “I am never going to be happy again. I am never going to feel joy again.” And I said, “Okay. That’s up to you.” Of course, she will. But that was where she was in the moment.

In our society, we would typically tell that person, “Oh, yes. You will. You’ll feel that.” In me saying to her, “Okay,” it didn’t diminish her pain. We tend to diminish each other’s pain. But we never diminish each other’s joy. We laughed harder at Tracy’s funeral than… I mean, it’s probably ridiculous how much we laughed at Tracy’s funeral. It was because it was the joy of what he created in that moment. I have had many, many, many days where I did not feel joy since he died. But I know it’s there. It’s just on the other side, waiting for me, that it’s there. It is sort of the same side of the coin. But it is also, I think, you have to be willing to feel it. You have to be willing to say, “I can be happy and sad at the same time.” Two things can be true at once.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And it’s okay to be happy. One of the guests we had a while ago, they were both in the military, and her husband was a pilot and died in a training accident. She felt like her friends kept wanting to put her in the widow box. “You’re meant to be mourning forever. You can’t move on because if you honor your husband…” And it’s like, well, she had young kids. It’s like, “I love my husband, but I need to move on and this…” Maybe move on’s not the right word, but it’s okay for me to feel joy. She was relatively young. It doesn’t mean, I guess, the time of life, it’s okay for me to maybe remarry or find love or whatever, partner. Sometimes people think, well, that dishonors a memory of because if you show joy… It’s this weird thing. Have you ever come across that or this whole widow box thing? You’re never meant to smile because if you love Tracy, you’d never smile again, which sounds horrendous, but people can be pretty horrendous in some sense.

 

Karen Austin:

People can be horrendous. I laughed. When you said the widow box, I laughed. It’s hilarious. I’m very familiar with the widow box. I decided intentionally, probably two years after Trace died, to start dating again. Some people got really mad at me because they thought, “You had the perfect marriage. Why would you think that you could possibly find someone like that again?” I always just laugh at them. Like, I’m not trying to find Tracy again. I’m just trying to find someone I love. It doesn’t have to be the same. We just have these crazy ideas about… I’ve even had people say to me like, “Well, you had a great marriage. The rest of us are out here still looking. You don’t get to have another one.”

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow.

 

Karen Austin:

Yeah. We humans are really good at making up whatever stories serve our purposes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That reminds me of one of Tracy’s core values, value number three: Surround yourself with positive relationships. So echoing Tracy, it would be like maybe you don’t need to surround yourself with a negative relationship. People are going to be like that. Maybe they deserve less time, face time, text time, any kind of time with you. It’s their choice to be snarky and nasty. It’s also your choice to not be around snarky and nasty people. Thank you so much. Bye.

 

Karen Austin:

Yes. Well, I do want to share with you that I’m currently having an experience that I was recently diagnosed with potential lung cancer.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Ugh.

 

Karen Austin:

So, I am going on Tuesday next week for a bronchoscopy and a biopsy. And of course, I’m sharing it. I’ve been sharing my story forever. So, I’m sharing that story. I am in such a place of acceptance and allowance and unattachment to whatever the outcome is because I had Tracy model death for me. Because I was able to be present to him, where when I have this own potential… I don’t think it’s life-threatening. I don’t really even think it’s cancer. But the doctors do. So, I’m going to humor them and do the test. However, because I had that model of Tracy, I’m not even scared. I just am in a place of acceptance, allowance. Let’s see what happens. People are even resisting that. They’re saying, like, I’m supposed to be feeling some way that I’m not. I’m just very kind of amused and looking forward to a really great nap on Tuesday while they do this thing.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That’s kind of remarkable. Just as we kind of wind down our time, there are so many lessons. Let me just stop for a moment. Obviously, that, for most people, would be sad, scary, troubling. You’ve been equipped a lot to be able to deal with these things and obviously our thoughts… No. I don’t want to say thoughts and prayers because that’s so trite. But certainly, we wish you the best for…

 

Karen Austin:

Oh, thank you.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… what’s coming up. I can’t think of the right way to say that. There’s a lot of wrong ways.

 

Karen Austin:

I know that whatever happens, I’ll use it. I will create something from it no matter what happens.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But there’s going to be people who are listening that are grieving. Maybe today’s their worst day. We often ask, “What’s a message of hope?” How do you give people hope that it’s like, “I don’t know who Karen is or what planet she’s from. She’s probably not from Planet Earth. She’s some extraterrestrial,” or I don’t know. She’s able to deal with things in a way that’s just not human. Is she for real? And obviously, you are, but in your worst moments it’s easy to get skeptical. How do you offer people hope when they feel there is no hope? What’s some first steps to just feeling like life isn’t over and just get out of this grief morass with basements that’s flooded, probably flooded with concrete, or I don’t know what. What’s some word of hope or some first steps for people out there?

 

Karen Austin:

My favorite definition of hope is the good that is yet to be. So, knowing that there’s a potential for good still out there. Maybe it’s not here today, and it might not be here tomorrow. For those that are in early, early grief, know that that level of pain is not going to last forever, and that your body is designed to do this. Our bodies are designed to grieve. We have hormones that are released that numb us. That’s often why somebody will say the second year is harder than the first year because that first year you’ve got numbness. In the second year, I always say it’s different. I often say it’s harder.

But that number one, you are not alone. You are not alone. So many of us have been through this, and we stand as source for you and we stand as an example for you. When you can’t do anything else, just breathe and breathe until you can maybe feel like you can get up and take a shower or do the next thing that is so hard right now. As you begin to move through that grief, to begin to look for those moments when you’re noticing that you haven’t been sad for 20 minutes or you haven’t been sad for a day, and remember that this is yours and nobody gets to take it away from you. Nobody gets to tell you how to do it or when to be done with it.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Warwick has kind of stolen my it’s-getting-time-to-wrap-up thing by that last question he asked you. So, I’m just going to jump in without doing my “captain turn on the fasten seatbelt sign; we’re going to descend to land the plane.” See, I said it anyway, even though I said I wasn’t. Look at me.

But Karen, I would be remiss at this moment if I did not give you the chance to let listeners know how they can find out more about you and your services. Your book, as you said, is coming out in 2023 this year. So, talk a little bit about how people can find you and what kind of services you can offer them.

 

Karen Austin:

Find me, my website is karenaustin.net. I am rebranding. It’s going to be, I’m Karen Austin at some point in 2023. The book, if you send me a note there, I will let you know when the book is released. I don’t really have services. I just talk to people and I write stuff. But if you want to talk to me, send me a note. Send me a note on my website. If you want to know about Tracy’s story, go to Facebook and type in #NameTagesForTracy. Just NameTagsForTracy. All kinds of stuff will come up. I have sort of a grief Facebook page that I don’t play with too much. It’s Karen Austin. My regular Facebook page where I share everything, it’s all of my name: Karen Bolender Mitchell Austin.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Well, can you spell that or… because that went right by me like a ticker tape parade.

 

Karen Austin:

It’s first name, Karen. Next, then my maiden name is Bolender. B-O-L-E-N-D-E-R. Mitchell was my second married name. M-I-T-C-H-E-L-L. Austin, A-U-S-T-I-N. And that’s my Facebook page. It doesn’t say Ramirez because Facebook told me you have too many names. That was my…

I will have in January, I’m a part of one of my good friends and clients who I wrote a book for, has compiled a bunch of stories from women in business and in life who have used audacity in some way to cope. I’m included in that and that’ll be out in January. You can send me a note on my Facebook page or on my website and I’ll let you know when that is. My chapter is called, The Day I Decided to Give Myself Grace.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

All excellent stuff. Warwick, do you have anything else you’d like to talk to Karen about?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. Probably a lot. But I just want to thank you, Karen, for sharing what you’re sharing and just your, I don’t know, humility, grace, vulnerability, giving us all hope that grief isn’t the end of our story, to embrace it, that it can lessen over time and just really giving us all permission to have joy amidst grief. The fact that you have joy doesn’t dishonor Tracy’s memory. At the risk of saying the obvious, Tracy wouldn’t want you to be down for the rest of your life. He would want you to have joy in whatever relationships or form you would see fit to. That would be, I’m sure, his prayer and desires. I’m sure probably you had those discussions.

So yeah, just thank you for sharing what you shared. I mean, grief is tough. It is painful. We don’t mitigate it. Obviously, you’re encouraging folks to share, to mourn with others, and give each other permission to grieve in their own way and to be joyful again. That’s a profound lesson. So, thank you so much for being here and for sharing what you shared. It’s inspiring, helpful, and hopeful.

 

Karen Austin:

Thank you for having me. Just as a reminder to people, I’m not always like this. There are many days when I’m a mess.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Well, that is true for all of us…

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Amen.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

… when we talk about our crucible experiences, isn’t it? That’s true for all of us, and I know it’s true for the three of us on this conversation, and I expect it’s true for the listeners who are hearing this conversation.

So as we sign off, listeners, remember this: We do understand, and Karen just hinted at it. We understand that your crucible experiences are difficult and every day is not a great day. Warwick talks about helping get out of the pit. Some days you’re just in the pit, but the good news is you don’t have to stay in the pit. If you learn the lessons of those things, those crucibles that happen to you, if you apply those lessons and you move forward, as Warwick often says, in baby steps, sometimes you move forward, you can have what… I’m not going to steal this, Karen, but I am going to use it a lot, and I’ll give you credit when I do: There’s hope on the other side of that when you learn those lessons.

Karen defined hope as this: the good that is yet to be. Remember, in the midst of your crucible, if you learn the lessons, apply them, walk them out, there is hope still that is yet to be. The hope, as we say often here at the show, the hope is it’s not the end of your story. There’s a new chapter to be written that can be the most rewarding story of your life. That’s because the final destination, where it leads, is to a life of significance.

If you enjoyed this episode, learned something from it, we invite you to engage more deeply with those of us at Beyond the Crucible. Visit our website, beyondthecrucible.com, to explore a plethora of offerings to help you transform what’s been broken into breakthrough. A great place to start? Our free online assessment, which will help you pinpoint where you are on your journey beyond your crucible, and to chart a course forward. See you next week.