A Stillness Among the Trees

Author: Abi Ruth Martin

Heading to Bainbridge Island, Washington, for my first TAPS Empowerment Week of Renewal, I was nervous and apprehensive. Usually, I am surrounded by friends and family when reflecting on my brother’s death and its impact on me. But this week, I would be sharing and talking about this intimate part of my life with people I had never met before. 

Empowerment Retreat

Breathing in the salty sea air, I was reminded of Jack’s life in the Seattle area with his wife Ashley. In this moment, I could already feel my heart stirring and memories resurfacing as I stood so close to where I had last seen him alive.

It has been eight years since my wildly talented, smart, witty, cool, younger brother Jack was taken from this world. He was just 26 years old, serving as a Green Beret – doing what he loved – when my life was forever changed that early fall day in 2009.

I lost one of my best friends, and my world was rocked to its core. And for that, I’ll never be the same. But eight years out, I can say time really does help. The loss of Jack, and the life he lived, has shaped who I am today, and it continues to shape who I will be. And that is beautiful.

As I joined the other TAPS family members at the ferry station and looked up at the stunning Seattle skyline, my nerves began to subside. The other women attending the event wandered around the ferry and took in the sights on the way to Bainbridge Island as we broke off into smaller groups and pairs. I found myself talking with a surviving mom. We instantly connected over our shared interests, and by the time I arrived at the island, I felt I had a new friend.

Yes, these women were strangers, but they knew me – not personally, but they knew my grief and the treacherous path that we must walk. Immediately, I felt community and connection with this group of amazing women.

The lovely oasis of Islandwood spoke to me. The trees welcomed me and the shores eased my spirit – inviting an intentional, calm week ahead.

Our first morning session together, we discussed and wrote out our group’s expectations for the week:

“Share. Respect. Be in the moment. Honor the unspoken. Honor the differences; share and celebrate the things we have in common.”

This list set the tone for an outstanding week of connection and growth, one where we acquired tools to truly move forward in life. Through scheduled solo time and journal prompts, I reflected on gratitude, mindfulness, meditation and self-assessment.

One thing that resonated with me was the concept of gratitude. Simply choosing to recognize the blessings we have to be grateful for is so powerful in getting us through each day. And I’ve spent time practicing gratitude in order to make it a habit.

I have noticed the positive impact on my life of intentional gratitude. It might seem like a small feat, but it makes a big difference. And it’s easy to incorporate into your daily life. It could be as simple as thinking of three things you have to be grateful for each morning before you get out of bed, or using the time at a stoplight to reflect on blessings and give thanks.

The group shared our heroes – those loved ones we remember although they are no longer here with us. There were tears, but they were matched by laughter and pride and the understanding you feel when sharing with others who have experienced loss. I spent time reflecting on the good memories of my brother. Before the week, I often pushed away those thoughts of Jack because of the hurt that came with them. But, I’m learning I can allow myself to sit for a moment and think of him and just be grateful.

While we spent time looking at where we are now, I was reminded of the quote, “How can you know where you are going if you don’t know where you are?” So often, we are too busy in life to stop and sit in self-reflection. I am a person of Christian faith, so I spent part of each solo session communicating with God. Since coming home, I have listened to scriptures and meditated on the words as they are read. This practice has created times of peace and clarity for me in the busyness of my normal daily life.

As we wrote, reflected, took in nature and moved through morning yoga poses, I tuned into myself. I listened to who I am and identified my core values. Aside from compassion, spirituality, love and loyalty, I learned one of my core values is delight. I find it so important to experience delight in life, and that is something I want to strive for going forward. While on the trip, I journaled about how to live out those all-important values. And since coming home, I have continued to journal. I write about the ways I choose to experience delight; it’s a helpful reminder of the life I want to live. Even though there is pain, there is still plenty of space for delight. 

We also focused on where we want to go. The most exciting and eye opening part for me was when I put into words: what my future looks like, which included mapping out the road ahead with concrete goals and accountability partners. I focused on finances and health, wanting to pay off debt and get more physically active. I may have been a little ambitious, but I have already achieved more than I ever expected.

I walked away from the week, refreshed with a new perspective, feeling challenged and equipped to instigate change and growth in the real world. Knowing my accountability partners will be checking in has helped motivate me. I ask about the other women’s progress, and I’m reminded that I’m neither alone in my loss nor in choosing to move forward in life.

The vision board I made that week now hangs in my home. It is bright and colorful and optimistic with words like “love” and “family,” “serve” and “health.” Next to it is the remembrance flag I made for Jack with the words, “Jack truly lived life to the fullest.”

My brother has always been such an inspiration for me, and it’s amazing to see how he is still teaching me. The past does shape who we have been and who we are now, and it shapes our future. I’m so glad Jack’s legacy is helping to shape me. 

From the pen of…
Abi Ruth Martin is a photographer, fashion enthusiast and a big believer in the positive impact of mentoring. She blogs at abiruth.com. Abi is an avid fan of her hometown NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. She cherishes her family, friends and memories of her brother Staff Sgt. Jack Martin.