How Tragedy Led Me to a Job I Love: Personal Stories of Rising from the Ashes

At the moment tragedy strikes, it is impossible to foresee anything but pain in the future. Be it the sudden death of a loved one, the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, the suddenness of a terrible accident, life's catastrophes can be overwhelming and debilitating.

But for some, those heartbreaks eventually become the unexpected catalyst for positive life change. Here are some personal stories of growth and renewal, of the rising from the ashes of tragedy to end up in an emotional place -- and, surprisingly, in a much-loved and unexpected career-- that ultimately brings true happiness from terrible grief.


An American tragedy changed my life

Being songwriters, we had always dreamed of having our own place. In the year 2000 our dream came true and we opened our very own songwriter's cafe. We put blood, sweat and tears into every aspect of the business. We built a stage with the latest in PA equipment. We bought glass bistro tables and had daisies for decoration. We finished off the look with white lace curtains. We had the best in singer/songwriters appearing at our place, the Inside the Song Cafe.

Half of our place was a guitar store, so guitars lined the walls. Our grand opening was a huge success and every weekend the songwriters came into play and the local folks came in to hear them. I really enjoyed speaking to all the performing singer/songwriters and booking them into my place. I did all the press releases and promotions and really enjoyed it. Prior to opening the cafe I was a paralegal, so coordinating bookings came easy to me.

Then, on September 11, 2001, tragedy struck when terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York, as well as the Pentagon. People were terrified and hid in their homes. Performing singer/songwriters didn't get on planes to gig and even the local folks stayed at home in an attempt to stay safe. It was a very scary time for all Americans.

I went to our cafe day after day after 9/11 and opened the doors, but hardly anybody came. This went on for months and I had to make the decision that I was going to live out my lease and then close the business. It broke my heart to do it, but I did not see any other way out of the financial drain it had become.

Around the time I made the announcement that we would be closing Inside the Song Cafe, several of the songwriters told me that they really liked the way I handled booking them in at the club and the way I handled promotions. Several of them asked me to be their booking agent. I agreed to try it and within six months after closing the cafe I had six clients that I was booking into original music venues.

Inside the Song Cafe morphed into Inside the Song Entertainment, which I have abbreviated to ITS Entertainment. I retained the original website from Inside the Song Cafe and use it to this day as my booking agency website, www.InsidetheSong.com.

The tragedy that affected all of America, and in fact the world, led me to become a booking agent. ITS Entertainment is years old and thriving. As they say, when one door closes another door opens.

– Paige Turner


Cancer gave me a career

It was a bad day-- that Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2004, when I got a phone call from the doctor who had biopsied a suspicious something I'd found days before in my left breast.

"Unfortunately, cancer cells were found," he declared, going on to explain that I was headed for surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I was young -- 34 years old -- and therefore my disease was apparently pretty aggressive.

It was crushing. Well, most of it. Like my panic that the pea-sized mass would grow out of control before a surgeon could remove it, my fear I wouldn't survive to see my little boys grow up, the horrible skin reaction that erupted after my lumpectomy, the poisonous chemo drugs that landed me in the hospital twice, the scorching radiation and resulting fatigue, the bloat, the blah, the bald. Tragic? For sure. But not for long.

Something magical happened in the midst of my cancer madness: I started writing. I started with a personal blog to keep friends and family updated on my progress, and after a while, editors found me and asked to buy my story. It was a no-brainer: writing had become my therapy and my connection to others like me. Scoring some funds for penning my journey would be icing on the cake.

I've been writing for five years now, about cancer for much of that time, then about nutrition and fitness after realizing both could keep me alive for the long haul. The biggies: an assignment that took me to Canyon Ranch Spa in Tucson, Ariz., and a story published in Family Circle magazine.

Cancer was a curse, for sure. But writing, well, that's a gift. I know it may seem a little strange, but I'm thankful for the disease that allows me to craft words into meaningful messages.

Yep, breast cancer gave me a career. I love that.

– Jacki Donaldson


My painful path to a career I love

Change is hard. Most of us flee from it, fight it, or do whatever we need to do to avoid it. Personally, I find comfort in a routine. I don't like surprises. I like knowing what my next step is going to be. Unfortunately, life doesn't always cooperate. For me, I didn't make a change until fate forced my hand.

Since my 1998 graduation from Western Washington University, I had been working at a non-profit business development organization. During my seven-year tenure, I worked through the ranks, moving from an administrative assistant to program assistant. In September 2005, I was offered a huge career opportunity. My manager wanted to retire and the organization offered me a position as the manager for a state-wide procurement program. I should have been elated. It was what I had worked toward for years. Instead, I was filled with doubt and confusion. Yes, it would be a great opportunity, but with greater responsibility and even more hours. I shared my concerns with my husband of three years, Dustin. He had always been my sounding board. He encouraged me to try. What was the worst that could happen?

I was a manager for a total of 12 days. On September 12, 2005, my husband never came home from work. He was killed in a motorcycle accident on the freeway. Change had been forced upon me. I was widowed at the young age of 30. After trying to go back to my job, I realized it was not where I wanted to be. I didn't want to waste one more minute in a career that didn't fully satisfy me.

I took a year to sort out my affairs as well as my head. Through those tumultuous months I swayed wildly from wanting to sell my house and join the Peace Corps, to just finding a part-time job to make ends meet. After a lot of soul searching, I made the decision to go back to school to get my master's degree. One aspect of my job at the non-profit organization that I truly loved was the teaching. I would often organize seminars on different contracting topics. I loved watching my client's faces as they finally understood the complex world of government contracting. I loved it even more when I saw my clients succeed through generating more business. I wanted to provide the same type of service to individuals.

After seven quarters of grueling dedication, I graduated from Seattle University with a 3.9 GPA and received a master's degree in adult education. The internship that I had completed at a local community college turned into a job offer. For the last 18 months I have been teaching basic reading, writing, and math. Many of my students have dropped out of high school and have had a negative experience with education. I work to not only improve their basic skills, but to rebuilding their faith in education and themselves. The exhilaration that I felt when I helped my business clients grow their companies is the same exhilaration I feel with my students. My job is so much more than a paycheck. I feel like I am helping to change lives. To me, this is the fulfillment I have been seeking.

The death of my husband was the rebirth of the new me. Do I mourn for what I lost? You bet. However, I wasn't given a choice and I had to forge a new life of my own. I'm thrilled that I followed my passion and began teaching. I am forever grateful to my late husband for the gift of change he has given me.

– Lisa Henthorn


Tragic accident forces a major career change


When I was 3 years old, my parents took me to an orchestra concert at a local college. Before the end of the first piece, I knew that I was going to be a trumpet player when I grew up. I was going to attend that college, be in that orchestra, teach music by day and become a famous trumpeter on Broadway by night. From then on, I devoted my life to music.

In fourth grade, I was finally old enough to join the school band. My family was very poor, so if I wanted to be in the band, I needed to play what my brother played -- the drums. I vowed to be the best drummer I could be. I practiced for hours. I was the only girl drummer the school had seen in decades, and the first to ever earn solos. Then, during the summer going into sixth grade, my dream of becoming a trumpeter came true.

My mom and I were visiting an antique shop, and beneath a pile of old, musty, dirty and heavy items, I found my very first horn. Inside its original worn and tattered case was a Wurlitzer silver coronet, complete with two mouthpieces. It was completely filthy, but to me it was the most beautiful horn to ever exist. Before my mom could say, "Don't put that dirty thing to your mouth," I had put one of the mouthpieces in and started playing. I cradled the horn in my arms and looked hopefully from my mom to the young clerk, who either knew nothing about the monetary value of my find. He sold me the horn for $15. I immediately enrolled in trumpet lessons and practiced at least six hours per day. Within a year I was offered gigs, putting the money I earned into a music-school fund.

I loved my horn so much that it even slept with me at night on its own pillow. My hard work paid off. I was accepted at my dream music school, where I earned straight As and was eligible to graduate a year early. I decided to take trumpet lessons at my college over the summer to prepare for a recital the following fall. But on June 15, 2001, my life changed forever.

In the morning I was planning on attending a funeral for my friend's grandfather. I had a trumpet lesson scheduled that afternoon, so I threw my Bb trumpet, piccolo trumpet, and Eb trumpets into the car and headed out for the 15-minute drive to the funeral in my hometown. It was a gorgeous day, but construction was holding traffic up. The driver of the car behind me had been tailgating me, and gesturing at me the entire way. Five minutes from the funeral home, the car behind me smashed into me going 65 miles per hour when I was completely stopped. Before I knew what was happening, she hit me again. My face became lodged in the steering wheel. Her van was where the back seat of my car used to be.

All I could think about was "Are my trumpets OK?" and "My parents are going to kill me for scratching their car." For weeks I was in tremendous pain from my injuries, but eventually, everything had healed except for my face. I couldn't talk or eat. I went to specialist after specialist. Only one thing was for certain: My trumpet career was over before it ever really began.

I was devastated. I had never thought about being anything but a trumpeter. I had to change my major at school, but struggled with the decision. After months of praying and weighing my options, I changed my major to English. I eventually graduated with an English degree and went on to earn my Master's in English Education.

I decided to study Arabic while waiting for my teaching certification to arrive. My uncle is from Cairo, Egypt, and had sparked my interest in Arabic at a young age. But music had taken up so much of my time, I had never had a chance to study it before. I had never been any good at foreign languages, but for some reason, I picked up the language quickly. I hadn't felt such passion for anything since I had had to give up my trumpet. I decided to become an Arabic teacher to not only teach the language, but also promote empathy and acceptance toward native Arabic speakers. My uncle's stories of what he went through every time he went into an airport in America after 9/11 and how many people assumed he was a Muslim because he was a native Arabic speaker inspired me to help change people's perceptions.

Now I teach Arabic to elementary students. Educators always talk about how young children are like sponges and learn languages so quickly, but witnessing it has been an incredible experience. When I had to say goodbye to my music career, I thought I would never find happiness again. I am so grateful that I went through what I did. Living with chronic pain has taught me patience and empathy. I appreciate each day that I am given and embrace the opportunity to make a difference in someone's life each and every day

– Heather Goehner


A handsome young striking force

It was pouring down rain, cold and wet. I was standing under the roof of an old-town store in downtown Fort Worth. The rain was not going to weaken for me to attempt to cross the road. I was trapped. Passing the time was easy for me, as there were many people to watch in this historical part of Fort Worth. I caught a glimpse of a very young Hispanic man standing on the corner diagonally across from me. He was handsome, tall and when our eyes met, a very sweet smile came my way from him

Then he stepped out on the wet street and in just one flash I saw the most horrible accident. I heard the squealing of the tires, the brakes pulling together to stop, but with all the force nothing prevented the collision. The moving vehicle hit his young body, throwing him across the street and finding a solid resting point with his head to the curb. Blood was running down the street with a mixture of rain. Tears filled my eyes as I watched the crowds gathering around.

The distant sound of the ambulance could be heard. It felt like hours, yet it was only minutes before the paramedics began their work. I heard the voice of someone saying he was still breathing. As they moved his broken body into the ambulance the crowd dissipated and all events went back to normal -- except for me. I never could find normal after seeing the chain of events that took place that day. The memories of that day were embedded in my mind and heart. I kept thinking of the smile he shared with me just moments before his life changed.

This young man stayed inside my mind for weeks. I felt the urge to find him and to know what happened. I started with the emergency services that were on the scene. After many questions they led me to Harris Hospital. Through a series of questions and following leads, I found he had been moved to a nursing home. He was still alive.

Walking into the room of the nursing home my eyes fell on the young man, whose name was Jesse. He was lying still in his bed, no movement. Standing near him was a young lady wiping his head with a wet washcloth. We exchanged smiles and I told her where I fit into the picture. She had tears falling down her face as she told me the story of Jesse. He was living in Mexico too far away from his family and she, his sister, had begged him to come home. She told me after her begging and pleading, he finally agreed and had walked and hitchhiked from Mexico all the way back home. He was seven blocks from home when the accident occurred. Now he lay with no hope of recovery. He knew nothing about the world outside his own lost awareness.

I visited Jesse every week for seven weeks. Each time I found his sister standing at his side, wiping his brow. On the eighth week there was no Jesse. He was gone, his life ended. My thoughts were filled with hopelessness and sorrow. How could anything good come from such a horrible accident? How could the sister find peace within her heart? How could I help her overcome the guilt that she carries inside her soul?

Finding how to deal with my own loss evoked an unexpected emotion. Each week I would find myself visiting the same nursing home. Knowing that Jesse was not there, I still felt the need to be at this place each week. I found peace talking with the many seniors that were living there, at the end of their own lives. After months of visitation, the administrator offered me a job. And I thought, "Why not? I am here every day." Plus, getting paid to do something I had found a passion for would be a gift.

That job led me to where I am today. Twenty-five years later I am the director of operations for an assisted living company. I care for 342 seniors. I watch over 14 buildings and 150 staff members. I assure that every single senior has the same care and love that I saw with Jesse. They have someone to watch over them, love them and stand by their side.

I have a passion for what I do, but I owe it to Jesse. He was a striking force in my life

– Wanda Waskow


The loss, the drink and the angel that saved me

Few words can describe how I felt after my wife and daughter were gone. I always thought that I would be the first to go, you know? I've thought on it now for over 13 years, and it still boggles my mind how everything came together so perfectly. The roads, the other car, the time, the place, the weather, the accident. Too perfect for me to wrap my head around, so I wrapped my hands around a bottle of booze, and didn't let go for a lot of years

A few months after the funerals, I decided to go up north and start over. I could hardly concentrate at work, everything was too familiar, reminding me of everything that I had lost. I was over at my parents house, saying goodbye and dropping off some pictures. I guess I had had a few beers that morning, because my mom sure did get on my case about me smelling like a brewery. My dad just looked at me with pity, and gave me a hug, knowing that we would probably never see each other again. My mom and I sat on the porch for a few more minutes, long enough for us both to be in tears. Between her saying that she was so sorry, and me sobbing uncontrollably, the neighbors probably didn't know what was going on.

I left my parents' house that day and never looked back. I really have a hard time remembering the next seven years, because of all that darn booze. After I left for Alaska I was free. I could forget all the horrible things that had happened, and drink in peace. I was a journeyman lineman, so finding a job was easy. The local union halls were always looking for hands, and the money was a lot better than in Washington.

Everything was going OK, until the drinking started taking over. About eight months after I was there, I started missing work, or showing up drunk. I even started bringing a flask to work to wash down my breakfast, which usually consisted of a tall can of beer and some jerky. After a year I was pretty much a bum, living on the streets, getting charity where I could, ashamed to look in the mirror at the truck stop where I would wash up. I sobered up long enough to work for a guy, washing dishes. I would bring my booze to work and drink on my breaks. I managed to save up a few hundred dollars washing those dishes, enough to jump on a plane to Seattle.

Seattle is where I was able to turn my life around. But for the next three years or so, I drank myself almost to death. Sleeping in alleyways, missions, pretty much anywhere I could. Then one day, out of the blue, I stopped.

I was looking at the picture of my wife and daughter that was almost worn through, and I swear I heard my daughter whisper in my ear: "I'm sorry daddy, I'm sorry."

I still get goosebumps when I think about that moment. Things just started clicking after that. I had to go into a detox program, then I started going to groups and meetings, and giving my testimony at church. Everything was going good except my job. I started building power lines again after I sobered up, but I couldn't get into it. I started daydreaming, and thinking of drinking again. The thoughts just wouldn't go away, so I had to do something else

I started college later that same year. I was a little nervous about being a thirty-something construction worker going to college, but I was surprised when there were a lot of other "older" folks attending.

Nowadays, I have been a grief counselor for about six years, working at the local hospital, and I have a small private practice at home. I see my parents quite a bit, still trying to make up for the five years that I did not talk to them.

Being a grief counselor has allowed me to work through my own grieving process by helping others work through theirs. It is the best and most fulfilling job that I could imagine, and I owe where I am today to my daughter. Thank you, honey.

– Darrell Kendall


The life-changing event that changed me

Life changing events – marriage, divorce, death of a spouse: Insurance companies talk about them, about the impact they can have on the course of a person's life, positive and negative. In my case, a negative event led me into the best possible job for me at that point in my life.

I was 37 years old when my husband and I decided to divorce. He had a solid job with full benefits, and so I had taken a break from my real career by working part-time in a relatively unskilled position with no benefits. Needless to say, the prospect of impending divorce changed my thinking in an instant. I knew immediately it was time for me to return to full-time work, to a position that would support me and provide health insurance, too. But I was still reluctant to return to my career in health care (which had proven to be emotionally draining) at the local Veteran's Administration Medical Center.

So, between a rock and a hard place, as the saying goes, I decided to apply at the VA, but in medical administration instead of rehab medicine, my previous field. Fortunately, I had the advantage of that earlier service, and the economy was strong at the time, so I was hired within a few weeks.

I reported to work on a Monday morning to the outpatient clinic that offered non-emergency care to walk-in patients. Picture this: the exchange desk at Walmart on the day after Christmas. Can you see it? The unhappy, impatient crowds of people? Now, add the notion that the people in my clinic were sick and possibly scared – got the full picture now?

The poor woman charged with "training" me that first day quickly threw that idea out the window and decided survival was a more appropriate goal for the day. So I simply watched in awe as she skillfully "handled" the crowd through the process of check-in, evaluation, treatment and check-out. At one point I remember thinking perhaps my husband and I could work out our differences, but that was simply panic speaking in my ear. I will never forget that day if I live to be 100.

Thankfully, within a month, I had learned the ropes and developed the people skills to manage the kind of day I just described. It's a good thing, too, as that day turned out to be the rule for that clinic, instead of an exception. But I learned that, amazingly, I thrived on that kind of day, full of new faces and new challenges and a non-stop pace. I learned I enjoyed that every day was a new start, helping each new customer to negotiate that crazy chaos and to emerge feeling just a little better because of my knowledge and experience and compassion.

That life-changing event, my divorce, was truly life-changing for me – and all in a very, very good way.

– Jan Ripley

Next: How I Overcame Tragedy & Started My Own Business: Interview with Francesco Clark of Clark's Botanicals >>


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