41 Transcript: Reclaiming Your Power: Talking About Pain and Grief (Shawna Percy)

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J: Welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, episode number 41.

S: When we're concerned for our own welfare, we take the time to practice things like self-care and to build up our capacity so then we're… we're full enough to then be able to give out to the world and help other people.

Intro: Welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast, stories of vibrant women living happy lives. And now, your host, Jen Riday.

J: Hey there, Jen Riday, here and welcome to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast. I'm so glad you're joining us on this fine December day. On our last episode, I spoke with Laura Thompson Brady and we've chatted all about deep listening and really listening to your intuition or a higher power, whatever you believe, to find your true purpose or your calling on this earth; whatever that might be. And I don't necessarily mean ‘calling’ in the religious sense of the word, but Laura and I both agree that there are people we're all meant to help. And when we can listen and find out what that is or who those people are or how we can help, we feel so much more fulfilled. So if you haven't listened to that episode, you will definitely want to. Laura is a wise, wise woman and I really enjoyed her perspective on life. And speaking of living your purpose, I'm offering one more free online training in 2016; it's called ‘How to find your purpose and get organized in 2017’.

So a little about me, about 6 years ago, I hit an emotional rock bottom and I happened to suffer a miscarriage right at Christmastime. I'd had miscarriages before so it wasn't emotionally devastating at all, but it was traumatic to lose 6 hours of time with my kids on Christmas Day when we had to drive to the hospital for this miscarriage. And so that entire negative, negative experience really got me thinking about my life and my purpose and what was truly important; and that was being happy and loving my family and feeling fulfilled. And if you can relate, you know, maybe you've been a mom for a while and you feel exhausted and depleted and you kind of want to get your sparkle back, get your mojo back, feel like you're living your purpose and doing what you were born to do and feeling fulfilled, well then I'm offering a free online class, the… the last one I'll be offering this year and it's called ‘How to find your purpose and get organized in 2017’. So you can sign up for that by going to jenriday.com/jenclass. And in this class, we'll talk about really listening to your intuition, finding out what you were born to do or getting more in touch with that at least, following your feelings and truly starting to live in alignment with what feels right to you; so you don't wake up every day dreading the day or feeling exhausted and drained and depleted, but you wake up excited for life, knowing you're doing what you were meant to do and feeling energized by that and fulfilled. Who doesn't want that? So if you'd like to join me for that free class, you can sign up by going to jenriday.com/jenclass. And just a teaser, in this free class, we will talk a little bit about my brand new program ‘Time Mastery for Women’; I'm so excited about it, I can't wait to share that with you. Well, let's jump into our interview.

Today, I'm talking with Shawna Percy who is a published author, speaker, and an advocate. When Shawna was 32, she learned that her husband had died by suicide, and overnight, she became an only parent and was left to go through this really grief-filled kind of traumatic experience. Well, today, Shawna is known as the Good Grief Guru and we're going to talk to her more about her experiences, her low point, and how she's living a vibrant and happy life today. I love how every single woman out there has a story; a story of pain and a story of triumph because we all just keep going forward, one step at a time. So let's hear how Shawna did that through her grief-filled experiences and we'll learn so much; let's jump in.

Welcome to Vibrant Happy Women. I'm Dr. Jen Riday and I'll be talking with Shawna Percy today. Shawna is a published author, speaker, and advocate. When she was 32, her first husband died by suicide. Overnight, Shawna became an only parent and was left to find her way through a traumatic grief journey. Today, Shawna is known as the Good Grief Guru. She has remarried, now has 2 children, became a certified suicide prevention trainer, her motto is, “Talking today changes tomorrow.” Welcome to the show, Shawna.

S: Thank you, Jen, thrilled to be here.

J: So let's start out with a favorite quote that you'd like to share with us today.

S: Yes, I have so many, but the one that I chose for her today was a quote by Maya Angelou and it's, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” It's so simple, but profound.

J: So how have you been able to grow and benefit from that quote throughout your life?

S: In a lot of ways. I think as I have gone through trials in my life, I've seen that that is true; her words really ring true. And as I'm open with my story and I talked to other people, what gets reciprocated is that other people can relate and then they open up and start sharing about their stories.

J: So everyone has a story, that's really what it comes down to.

S: Absolutely.

J: So Shawna, tell us more about your story, your low point, and how you made it through that.

S: Absolutely. So it might surprise some people to hear that my low point was not actually my first husband dying by suicide. As traumatic as that was, when I really sat down to think about it, my low point came much sooner than his death. And it happened when I was 15 years old; I had a lot of back issues and so I was going to see a chiropractor. And one day, this chiropractor wanted to take some x-rays and we ended up in a room together and he did something very inappropriate. And for the next 15 years, I really struggled with how I felt about my body, how I felt about my self-worth, and it affected a lot of my relationships.

J: So you were struggling with the self-image, how did you go forward to get out of that low point? So…

S: Mm-hmm.

J: Well, let's back up and tell us how it affected your relationships. What did that look like exactly?

S: Well, just in how I felt about myself. So because I had lost self-confidence, and really looking back, I realized that I allowed him to have power over me long after that moment where something inappropriate happened. And today, I realized that it's within my power to take that control back, but it took me many years to learn how to do that. So unfortunately, some life lessons take a long time to surface, but one of the things that helped me was, someone once told me a Cherokee parable which is the story of 2 wolves. So I'm not sure if you and your listeners are familiar with it, but a very abbreviated version of it is basically, there's this story of 2 wolves and one is full of everything bad; so greed, hate, anger, resentment, all of these terrible things. And then there's this other wolf who is full of love, hope, kindness, everything good, and these 2 wolves go to battle. And the question this person asked me as they were telling me this story was, “Which one do you think wins?” and part of me was tempted to say, “Well, I kind of feel like the bad wolf is going to win because those things sometimes feel like they're stronger.” And he said, “The answer is, whichever one you feed.”

J: Mm, I love that.

S: Yes. And it was such a powerful moment in my life because I realized that, that's something I have control over, and if I start to feed the good things in my life, then that side is going to win out over all of these other sides that feel like they're going to take me down.

J: So you had this negative self-image, but you heard this parable of the wolves and you decided to feed the wolf of love and joy and those good things. How…

S: Mm-hmm.

J: How did that work? Was that hard to do or how do you do that?

S: I found it was easier than I thought it was going to be actually, because once I started, then it kind of built momentum; I could see that positive things were coming out of it. And one of those things was to believe that most people generally have good intentions, and if I pour love out into the world and stay open and vulnerable with people, I have known some of the greatest supports in my life to come out of that. And so really, when tragedy hit my life later on and my first husband died, I'm not sure that I would have had the same amount of incredible support that I did have if I hadn't really fostered the sides that are in the good wolf; if I hadn't fostered love and kindness and vulnerability and staying open to other people. But another really powerful thing that happened (this was the transformational moment for me) was the day that my daughter was born. And just like much of life, the birth plan that I had did not go according to plan. I was hoping to have a home birth and then we ended up in the hospital, and I made it very clear that I didn't want to have a male doctor; no offense to male doctors because, one day, you might be saving my life. (Laughs)

J: Uh-huh.

S: But in that moment, I hadn't yet found a way to be comfortable around male doctors. And this concerned the staff at the hospital and so they asked if I would speak with a worker.

J: Wow.

S: And so we set up this appointment and while I was still in the hospital, I knew this social worker was coming to see me, but I had a family member who is in the room with me, and so I said to her, “Just so you know, the social worker is coming to see me, and it's not a big deal, it's just about something that happened with a chiropractor like 15 years ago.” And I'll never forget, she looked at me and she said, “You too?”

J: (Gasps) Oh my goodness! Ugh!

S: Yes. And I learned in that moment that my silence had given power to him.

J: Hmm.

S: And one of the reasons why I talk so openly about suicide and my grief journey and all of that today is that, it was by breaking that silence that I became more united with this person and we were able to then go through this journey together instead of on our own. But the other thing that happened is, when I gave birth to my daughter and she started nursing from me, it started transforming the way that I looked at myself and the way that I looked at my body image. Because, all of a sudden, this part of my body that I had grown to loathe was now sustaining this child's life, and I realized that this was my superpower and it was incredibly empowering to me. And so, again, it was another life lesson that taught me that so much of life is about a perspective shift. And I couldn't see that beauty for 15 years, but in that one moment, it shifted; it was there all along, I just needed to have a change in my perception about the situation. So, again, although my low point happened earlier and my tragedy happened later, I think one of the reasons why I say the loss of my first husband was not my low point was because I was able to take those life lessons from earlier on in my life and they helped strengthen me to get through something that was… would have been a lot harder had I not had those life lessons earlier on.

J: Mm-hmm. So you now, in retrospect, can see clearly that those low points and tragedies all help us to be… if we allow them to be, we can be vulnerable and really draw those to others.

S: Mm-hmm.

J: Like you said…

S: Yes.

J: … silence doesn't help anything, but opening up and being vulnerable makes it so much easier to have that support.

S: Exactly.

J: Yeah. Well, take us forward to your tragedy and tell us how you used the low point of getting over that experience with the chiropractor and forming those friendships and supports, how that helped you facing that tragedy.

S: Right. So it helped me because I started to understand that silence is suffocating for me, and all silence did in my life was make me feel more alone than connected with people. And so when my first husband died, I didn't actually know that he had died by suicide in the beginning, I had to wait for the coroner's report, and that took at least 6 months to get.

J: Oh, wow.

S: And by the time… yeah. And by the time 6 months had gone by, I had kind of lived without that information and I thought, “I… I just don't need that. What's it going to change?” But a few months later, so around the 9-month mark, I just hit a wall and I was like, “I need to take a leave from work. I can't do this anymore; I have to focus on my grief. I have to pay attention to what's going on inside me and I need to face it.” And during that time off, I became ready to learn more. And so I ordered the coroner's report and it very clearly said that it was suicide. At that point, I had already started a blog called Good Grief Guru and I had openly been writing about my grief journey. When I got the coroner's report, I contacted another family member and I told her about what I had read in the report and I said, “I want to write about this too,” and she said, “You cannot tell people that it was suicide.”

J: Aww.

S: And the reason she said that was out of concern because she was worried about the backlash that might happen to myself or to her daughter. But I got off the phone and I felt so devastated that I was able to be open about so many things, and yet this thing I had to hide away.

J: Mm-hmm.

S: Luckily, I called my Employee Assistance Program and I spoke to a counselor and I… I told her what I was struggling with, that I felt like now I had to hide this thing away, but I just felt like I was suffocating under the weight of that. And she said, “If it's in you to write about it, then write about it,” and so I did. And I wrote this article called ‘Stigma’ in a large yellow envelope, and I hit ‘publish’ and it went out into the world. And the same person who had told me not to write about it, then took that article and started sharing it with other people. Because she realized that it gave this window into the world, a widow who had been bereaved by suicide, and helped her and other people understand how to come alongside someone like me and what it was like to get news like that. And so it really empowered them to be able to help me. And I learned in that moment that, someone else's reaction about something that I've shared is not really a reflection on me, it's a reflection on where they're at, at the time. And not everyone's going to be ready for what I share or other people share in the moment because we're all on this journey and going through this process. But that really equipped me to then feel all the more so like I can share these things and I can continue to be open and direct, even about the subject of suicide. And as I have, what I've come to learn is that other people have then felt comfortable to come and talk to me if they've been bereaved by suicide if they're struggling with suicidal thoughts, and I have seen that lives have been saved by me talking openly and directly about suicide.

J: Ooh, wow; changing the world then.

S: (Laughs). One person at a time. (Laughs)

J: Yeah! Well, so I'm sure many of our listeners have struggled with grief or might currently be struggling with grief, what advice do you have for them?

S: Oh, you know, the first thing that comes to mind is something I learned about 5 years ago when I went to my first bereavement group, but I wasn't actually able to attend until this year. There is a conference throughout the United States and Canada called Camp Widow, and I had heard rave reviews about it in my first bereavement group, but it wasn't until I actually attended this year that I realized these are my people. These are the people who I can openly talk about my grief journey and they get it without me explaining very much, and I can just come as I am. And because these widows and widowers know what it's like to lose a loved one and know what it's like to think that they're going to have more time with this person, but then things were cut short, it is incredible to see, first of all, how quickly emotions come out and tears start flowing, but there's healing in that, but there is also nothing like having a party with widows and widowers. Because once the music started and lights went on the dance floor, these people danced like there is no tomorrow.


S: And it doesn't matter if you have a dance partner or not, everyone was out there just having a great time. And some of the feedback the next day when I was talking to individuals (because it's a full weekend event) was… I had been expressing how much fun it was to be dancing with them the night before. And I'll never forget this one lady said to me, “You know, for so many times, I went out with my husband and he was such a good dancer and I watched danced and I really enjoyed that, but I didn't go out on the dance floor with him, and now, I wish I had.”

J: Aww.

S: “And so when the opportunity comes to dance, I take it and I'm going to dance.” (Laughs)

J: Ah, I love that.

S: So I just love that. So Camp Widow, I highly recommend it; it's such a healing environment to be in.

J: Perfect, Camp Widow; we'll have links to everything we've been talking about on our show notes page at jenriday.com/41. Well, Shawna, tell us more about what's exciting you today.

S: Today, I'm living my purpose. When I was a kid I knew I wanted to be a writer, but no one was interested in reading what I wrote. And then I discovered Toastmasters and the love for public speaking and I've always had this heart for advocacy, but none of these things fit well in my life until my first husband had died. And all of a sudden, all of these passions that were in me went click, click, click.

J: Mm.

S: Everything fit. I wrote what I needed to write and what I needed to get out healing and some others wanted to read it. I spoke and people listened. And as for advocacy, my work is literally life-giving; so I don't know how it gets any better than that.

J: Oh, well done. So you speak at conferences, do you have a book or a website that people can go to if they want to learn more?

S: I do. I have a book that was published a couple years ago called ‘Breathe: A True Story About Marriage, Faith, and Attempted Suicide’, and people can also connect with me on my website which is goodgriefguru.com. And at the end of the month, on November 26th, I'm actually giving a TEDx UW (which stands for University of Waterloo) Talk, and that's going to be on suicide and suicide prevention. So I've really seen that our loss in our life can be transformed into learning and there can be gained from our pain. And one of the things that I've done with my pain to transform it is to become a certified suicide prevention trainer. So there's these 2 programs called safeTALK and ASIST, and they're taught throughout the world by an organization called Living Works and basically, it's suicide first aid. And so it teaches everyday people how to help somebody who's at risk for suicide. And so we don't need to wait for the counselors and the paramedics and the mental health experts to help somebody, we can be equipped to intervene when someone's at risk.

J: SafeTALK and ASIST. So…

S: Yeah.

J: … I'm wondering, and I'm sure our listeners are wondering as well, what would be 3 or 4 things we should look for to even know if someone were contemplating suicide?

S: Oh, such a good question. One of the things that we should really trust is our gut instinct, because sometimes the signs are not always obvious; sometimes, they're really subtle. But we can have that feeling in the pit of our stomach that something's just not right here. And if you're feeling like that, then the next thing is to ask directly to the person, “Are you thinking about suicide? Are you thinking about ending your life?” If they're not, it's okay because if in the future they're struggling, they're going to know that they can openly talk to you about it, but if they are having those thoughts, then you've just taken a step to making it okay for them to now talk about it. The other thing I would say is, if somebody is doing something that's unusual for them, so if they are typically outgoing, but now all the sudden, they're being recluse, then that might be a sign that they're having thoughts of suicide. Or there is one person's story that I heard where this gentleman, when he was feeling at the height of his suicidal thoughts, he went skydiving.

J: Ooh.

S: And that really surprised me because I always thought people who go skydiving are people who are really embracing life and excited about life, but for him, this was a reckless behavior. And so anything that is unusual in a person's behavior can be a sign that they might be having those thoughts, so ask them about it.

J: I like how you gave us permission to just ask, “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” just…

S: Mm-hmm.

J: … the elephant in the room is addressed right there. (Laughs)

S: Exactly. And when we use those things that we're seeing so, you know, “Normally, you're always going out, but you've been withdrawing a lot lately, are you having thoughts about suicide?” then it kind of gives those reasons why we're asking the question; and so it's a bit of a softer approach, and yet still direct.

J: That's perfect. Thanks for sharing those tips.

S: You’re welcome.

J: Well, Shawna, let's talk about a few of your favorite things. What is a habit that has contributed to your success?

S: I would say being persistent and telling anyone and everyone about these tools and openly… I know I keep saying this, but openly talking about suicide. This is something I really learned from my first husband. He was an exceptional salesperson, he was relentless when he wanted something, which was kind of detrimental to our relationship, but like all of our strengths, they become… they’re strengths in one area and then things that are challenges in another area. So even though in our relationship it was a challenge, I saw how this really paid off for him when it came to sales because it made him top of mind when someone had a need. And I found the same thing that, as I talked to anyone and everyone about the subject, then when someone is struggling or if someone wants training or if someone wants to be a helper to somebody else, then they know who to call.

J: Putting yourself top of their mind; I like that.

S: Mm-hmm.

J: An easy meal that you eat regularly.

S: Hmm, so it used to be eggs and toast any time of the day, but now it's become stir-fry; lots of veggies fried up in soy sauce over jasmine rice. When we make that in our family, there are never any leftovers. (Laughs)

J: Oh, so healthy.

S: It is healthy; and delicious.

J: And your favorite kitchen gadget.

S: The Vitamix. So we haven’t been hot about getting a Vitamix for a long time, but kept hearing how people were in love with their Vitamix, and so we bit the bullet and we got a Vitamix and we use it every single day.

J: So what do you make in your Vitamix?

S: We make a lot of smoothies, but there's also this chocolate beverage that… I don't know if it's in the US so, sorry guys, because now I'm going to wet your palate (Laughs). But there's this real chocolate drink that we have here called Chocolates Solé and you just pour boiling water over this hard… it's like a hard chocolate bar.

J: Mm-hmm.

S: And you blend that up and it makes it all smooth and frothy, and only the Vitamix can quite attain it the way that it's supposed to be, and it is just the best hot chocolate drink ever. (Laughs)

J: Oh, yum! (Laughs)

S: I’m sorry.


S: Come to Canada. (Laughs)

J: Yeah, maybe we could try with the Hershey bar, I don't know. (Laughs)

S: The you go! Get creative. (Laughs)

J: What's your favorite book, Shawna?

S: Anything by Anne Lamott.

J: Mm.

S: So ‘Traveling Mercies’, ‘Plan B’, ‘Operating Instructions’, I just love this woman. She is best known, I think… you know, this is really something that lends to why I've been so open about my journey and really embraced the good, the bad, and ugly about it; it goes back to reading her writings. She is best known for being reverent and irreverent in the same sentence and perfectly describing imperfect people.

J: Mm-hmm.

S: And I realized as I was reading her writings how much it connected with me. And even though I don't know her, I've never met her, it made me feel like I wasn't alone; there were so many laughable moments, moments that made me cry. And so when I had the opportunity to then write about my journey, I thought, “How can I give the world anything less than what she has given me?”

J: Mm, so being authentic and vulnerable.

S: Yes, so much power in that.

J: Mm-hmm. I also love Anne Lamott.

S: (Laughs). Awesome.

J: The best advice you've ever received.

S: So the best advice I've ever received, I'd say it would be the… it's a quote by Maya Angelou again; I love her, I say she is the Solomon of her time when it comes to wisdom. And she says, “Have the courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.” And I had this piece of advice with me in my car, on my computer, in my office. And after my first husband died, it… it would have been so tempting to close up and not let anyone in, but this advice really encouraged me to remain open and to remain vulnerable, and I have found that so much love and support has come to me through that.

J: Through that… through being vulnerable and open and… and being open to receiving that love?

S: Yeah, absolutely. And it really does take courage to trust love one more time, but it's paid off for me and I hope it pays off for other people as well.

J: Well, thank you for sharing that; I love that quote. And, again, as I said before, we can find the links to everything you've talked about by going to jenriday.com/41. And now, we get to hear your happiness formula. What would you include in a formula things that maximize your happiness?

S: I'm so excited to talk about this. So when I thought about it, the number 1 thing that came to my mind was a talk by Martin Luther King Jr. and the title of this talk is ‘The Dimensions of a Complete Life’. And in this talk, he talks about 3 dimensions. So there's the length of life, which is the inward concern for one's own welfare, and that inward concern causes one to push forward to achieve their own goals and ambitions. And, to me, that also looks like, when we're concerned for our own welfare, we take the time to practice things like self-care and to build up our capacity so then we're… we're full enough to then be able to give out to the world and help other people; which goes to his second dimension which is the breadth of life, so the outward concern for the welfare of others. And then, there's the height of life, which is the upward reach for God. And what I found is, when all 3 of these dimensions are in balance in my life, then I feel fulfilled; I feel the deepest kind of happiness that I've known in my life.

J: Hmm, that is so great. So say those 3 again; the breadth of life, the height of life, and…?

S: And the length of life.

J: The length of life.

S: So the inward reach, the outward reach, and the upward reach.

J: Mm, that's perfect. Well, Shawna, this has been amazing. I can tell you're just a person who is filled with light and happiness and living that vibrant happy life.

S: Mm-hmm.

J: Give our listeners a parting challenge before we say goodbye.

S: I want to challenge you, since these programs (the safeTALK and ASIST that we were talking about earlier) are international programs, then go to the livingworks.net website and look for training in your area. If you don't find one, then contact your local suicide prevention council and see if you can have them brought in or you can find a trainer on that website as well; see if there's a trainer in your area and if you can organize one. I should mention that physical first aid is… the number 1 reason why it would be used in the US is for someone who is having an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest. But people are actually 4 times more likely to meet someone who will attempt suicide and 26 times more likely to meet someone who's having thoughts of suicide. So our opportunity to use suicide first aid is even more so than physical first aid. And, yeah, I'm so glad that I don't have to imagine a world that doesn't have physical first aid, so we need both. So that would be my challenge; go sign up for a safeTALK or an ASIST.

J: Yeah, that's great. I didn't know those statistics.

S: Mm-hmm.

J: Suicide first aid; brilliant. Well, Shawna, I've had such a fun time talking to you and I'm grateful for…

S: Mm-hmm.

J: … the good things you're doing out there. Thank you so much for being on the show.

S: Thank you, Jen, such a pleasure to be here.

J: Take care.

S: You too, bye-bye.

J: Shawna is so amazing and you're going to have to listen to her TEDx talk and I'll have a link to that in the show notes page at jenriday.com/41. And, again, like I mentioned at the beginning of the show, be sure to sign up for the last free class I'll be offering this year, and it's all online; it takes an hour. It's called ‘How to find your purpose and get organized in 2017’, and there's a link where you can sign up by going to jenriday.com/jenclass; I'll spell that for you, j e n r i d a y.com / j e n c l a s s (jenclass). Go ahead and sign up, grab your spot before it fills up, and I can't wait to share some great tips for making 2017 your best year ever. Alright, thank you so much for joining me today and be sure to join me next week. I wish you a warm and wonderful holiday season and I will catch up with you next week when I chat with Kate Bee, all about enjoying and loving an alcohol-free life; oh, intriguing, right? But as we're shifting towards those New Year's resolutions, it's probably the exact thing that many of us need. Thank you so much for listening and make this an amazing week and holiday. Take care.

Outro: Thanks for listening to the Vibrant Happy Women podcast at www.jenriday.com.