The Journey of Hope Never Ends

Author: Linda Ambard

Linda Ambard in PhiladelphiaI am surprised at how much grief feels like fear. Nothing has felt the same since April 27, 2011. I spent my entire adult life following Phil around the world. First, I lived in his shadow and then the shadow of my children.

Don't get me wrong, I loved being the glue that held our family together. I was the positive cheerleader standing behind my family. It was a comfortable role that I never saw ending. Living in the shadows also meant that I did not have to consider where I fit in outside my military world. 

The day Phil's life ended, I was unwillingly thrust into a new world for which I was unprepared. I was filled with brokenness and terror. Yet, I knew that unless I found a way to move beyond the anger, the consuming hatred for the man who took Phil's life would steal my life as well. Knowing I needed something to motivate me out of my fear and sadness, I looked for the way forward.  

Then on one of my lowest days, I came across a bucket list from my 30s. There were five things left.

  • Finishing a marathon in all 50 states
  • Running the Great Wall of China Marathon
  • Writing a book
  • Living in Europe again
  • Running 100 marathons 

On that hopeless day, faced with no dreams, I galvanized my inner strength and decided to spend the next five years hammering out that bucket list in hopes that I could learn to live again - this time without Phil. Determining to finish my bucket list was a way to reclaim purpose for my life and honor my husband. 

In the dogged pursuit of this list, I fell and skinned my knees - and my heart - many times. Still, by picking myself up and carrying on, I found my reason to live. I also discovered that being happy is a choice. Here are some other key principles I learned along my journey. 

There Is No Right Way to Grieve 

I thought I knew how to grieve. At first, simple choices helped me find my way through the grief. I went back to work five days after Phil was buried so that for nine hours a day I could think of something other than Phil's death. I ran because it helped me make sense of my life. Running also allowed me to cautiously feel on a primitive level. That gave me the clarity to write about my feelings of loss and hurt. My writings became a cathartic journal in which I worked through the unfairness of Phil's death. It was a beginning step on my grief journey. 

People have all sorts of ideas about the proper way to grieve. Most people believe there is a time frame for grief. I thought the second year would be easier, but it was much harder. I emerged from the fog faced with big life decisions I had been avoiding. 

Some people think there is a magic formula to help with the pain. They think alcohol helps or that those grieving need to move close to family. Some widows/widowers hurry into a relationship thinking that it will lessen the pain. All of these options only offer temporary relief. In the long run, we may hurt even more. 

I had many people tell me how I should grieve and what I should do, but in trusting myself and making choices that were right for me, I found my footing. While there were many naysayers in my circle, I chose to do what I could and to trust myself even when I was afraid. Ultimately, learning to trust our own instincts in the face of criticism and skepticism is the goal on our healing journey. 

Live Your Dreams  

Phil never was able to realize his dreams. But after his death, I didn't even know what my dreams were anymore. Completing marathons in all 50 states had been Phil's idea for me in the first place. He wanted to find something to occupy my time and carry me during the empty nest transition and as he worked long hours. When he was killed, I only had 32 states marked off the list. I felt paralyzed by fear and unable to discern whether the marathons and bucket list were my dream or Phil's. 

Ultimately, the real grief work started with the running. Even when I could barely stand up from the weight of the sorrow, running was a natural choice for me. Through the miles, my running got me out of the house and to races where I had to socialize. It became a way to live my dreams and work through the fear, anger and resentment over a life cut short.  

That singular choice also gave me a path to remember and honor Phil. Across the long, grueling miles, I found myself again - the Linda I like to be. In the decision to get my feet on the ground for the past five years, I have now completed 101 marathons in all 50 states. It was my dream after all. 

Take Chances 

Take chances even when everything in you wants to close your eyes and quit or run away. Fear was the biggest emotion I faced aside from the gut wrenching pain in the early days. Heck, I'm still afraid. But by completing things on my bucket list, I have been able to face my fears daily. They don't rule my life. I choose to be happy. I choose not to quit. I choose to take a chance. 

China required me to face my fears on every single level. I traveled to a foreign country, ran a brutal race, and I met people - friends now - from all over the world on my own. In doggedly pursuing the completion of my dream, I continued to trust my decisions and actions even when other questioned what I was doing. 

When I finally ran the 5,194 steps of the Great Wall of China, I found them to be as steep, uneven, dangerous and difficult to navigate as I feared. Only by keeping my head in the game and focusing on the step in front of me was I able to complete the race. In spite of stumbles, I completed the journey. The race wasn't easy, but it was worth taking a chance to learn to trust myself - the hardest thing of all. 

Try New Things and Go New Places 

2016 has been the year of getting off the couch. That had nothing to do with exercise but everything to do with learning to thrive versus trying to survive. After five years, I realized that I had no life. I worked, ran, attended school and volunteered. I was only surviving my story. I wasn't enjoying life. I needed to learn to have fun again. 

Even if trauma and tragedy had rendered me unable to move forward in the beginning, I decided to force myself out of the house and onto the course every day. It gave me a renewed sense of power as there was no choice to retreat. Everything on the bucket list required me to get out there and run. I needed to live my dreams, if only to thumb my nose at the person who killed my husband and took all of Phil's dreams. 

In the past eight months, I opened myself up to the untapped potential in my life. I faced down the beast of indecision and the ease of staying mired in the shroud of loneliness and sadness. China was part of this process. I went alone to a country where I had never been and knew no one. I didn't know the language or the customs, and I had to push my physical limits in a country where medical treatment would have been difficult. 

Who knew what joy would come from simply showing up and taking that leap of faith? My enjoyment of life expanded to new places and beyond the limits of my normal comfort zone. It was hard to take the first step, but worth trying something new. 

It Takes a Village 

From the start, I was lost. I simply no longer fit in my world. Then TAPS gave me a new family, one that understands like no other what it means to lose a spouse, a military community and identity, and a family. While my journey is unique, I derive confidence and support from those farther along in the journey. I find comfort in knowing that I am not alone in the slow path toward healing.  

The best part is that the TAPS family is everywhere. When I was in Germany a few months after Phil's death, TAPS still found me. They gave me a local mentor who shared a similar experience. It meant everything to know they were walking beside me in the emotions of my loss. As my journey expanded to states and continents, I knew that even if my fellow surviving widows were not physically running the race with me, they were with me in spirit and faith for every step of my journey of hope. 

Twelve Simple Lessons for Your Grief Journey 

  1. You are going to fall. Get back up with bloodied knees and carry on. The journey is too short and worthwhile to quit. 
  2. Dare to dream and believe in yourself. 
  3. Make a leap of faith for something that makes absolutely no sense. Big risks have big payouts. 
  4. Stop waiting for life to happen. Staying in the harbor is safe, but there is no life in that. 
  5. Life is meant to be loved and celebrated. Friends matter. 
  6. Tell people how you feel and why they matter even when they cannot do the same. The relationship is more important than being right. 
  7. Being loved is the best gift of all. It is OK to love again and to be loved. 
  8. Commit to a goal and make it happen. 
  9. Believe that the journey is not over - it has just begun. 
  10. Happiness is a (hard fought) choice. 
  11. Face your fears and regain control over your life. 
  12. Life is different. You are different. 
Ay Linda Ambard, Surviving Spouse of Air Force Maj. Philip Ambard: By Linda Ambard is the surviving Spouse of Air Force Maj. Philip Ambard. Linda writes for many military publications about post-traumatic growth, youth resiliency and military survivor issues. She was recognized in 2015 by the White House for her advocacy.