A Talk with Michele Neff Hernandez, author of Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma

Michele Neff Hernandez, author of Different after You and 2021 CNN Hero, is a gifted speaker and committed advocate for the widowed and bereaved. Her creation of Camp Widow and Soaring Spirits has brought her international acclaim. Michele regularly speaks to first responders, hospital workers, religious congregations, and diverse community organizations. She lives in Southern California. More information at micheleneffhernandez.com.

What led you to write Different After You?

A young widowed woman approached me at an event ten years ago and asked me with tears in her eyes when she was going to return to the person she was before her husband died. She desperately wanted me to confirm that going back to the version of herself that she and her friends knew and loved was possible. As much as I wanted to reassure her, I knew that she would never return to the exact person she was before her husband died. She had lived too many things that could not be forgotten, and the reality was that her grief and trauma changed her. Yet, I also knew that the person she was becoming deserved the chance to be known and loved. The reassurance I offered that day was that though she would forever be different after loving and mourning her husband, the new person that would be born through this experience was not a lesser model. 

That one interaction inspired me to develop tools (through workshops and presentations) to help widowed people learn to acknowledge, own and respect the people they become through their grief experience. The method I developed over the ensuing years is the foundation of Different After You. This book is my love letter to anyone who is struggling to rediscover themselves after being changed by grief and the many other traumas through which humans live. I want people to give their new selves a chance, and to recognize that being changed by our life experiences is not only normal, but necessary for becoming the truest and fullest (and best!) versions of ourselves.

What’s the first thing you tell a newly widowed person — or someone who has very recently endured a traumatic experience? What is the lifeline you throw them?

My advice to anyone suffering through a life altering event is always the same, please treat yourself in the same way you’d treat your very best friend if they were living in your exact circumstances. Offer yourself the grace and kindness (continued)

that you would surely offer them. Grief/trauma recovery work is hard and will affect you physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. You will need all the support you can get as you make your way through life altering experiences that can’t be fixed or undone. Ask for help, accept help and allow yourself to be the priority right now. Taking care of yourself is not selfish, doing so is a critical part of healing. So often the grace and kindness we would offer someone we love is a gift we struggle to give ourselves. Set the standard for self-compassion at the same level you’d offer a beloved person in your life. Make yourself equally beloved.

Another gift I hope you can give yourself is patience. Living in pain is extremely difficult, especially emotional pain that can’t be fixed with medicines or procedures. Healing our hearts will take determination, energy, courage, and a willingness to not be okay for a while. You won’t have what it takes every day to heal, and that is okay. Some days you will need to take a break from doing the work of mending your heart. Take rest days. Make space for brokenness. Be patient with yourself and with the healing process. Tiny steps forward always count. 

How soon after a life-altering loss or trauma should someone read Different After You?

Different After You was written for those who have lived through a life altering trauma, and are struggling to accept a new version of themselves in its aftermath. Some people will immediately notice the differences in themselves as they adapt to the changes their unique experience creates. Other people may find that the secondary losses associated with their trauma take more time to surface. There is no universal timeline for reading Different After You, but there is a best time for each person to embark on the work laid out within its pages. The best way to know if a reader is ready for the self-discovery to which this book will call them is for them to begin reading. Then, each person must listen to their body and their heart as they read, looking for physical and emotional cues to tell them if this is the right time for examining and integrating the trauma through which they’ve lived.

Different After You is designed to challenge readers to dive into their life altering experience. If they feel overwhelmed while reading, it is best to set the book aside and pick it up again the next time they feel frustrated by the impact of trauma on their life. This book isn’t meant to be consumed all at once. Taking time to read each section, and then sit with the feelings and insights that develop will make space for personal growth. This personal evolution can’t be rushed, but there is so much beauty waiting for anyone willing to allow trauma to change them.

“Integration” is a core part of your book. Can you tell us what you mean by integration in this context and why you address it right away in the first pages?

Integration is the practice of acknowledging and valuing your past, present and future as interdependent elements. Each time perspective has a purpose and influences the other perspectives as we live our daily lives. When these perspectives are allowed to work in concert, we benefit from viewing experiences (the wonderful and the awful) through each unique lens. We often think of these three time elements as stand alone concepts, (continued)

and can become hyper focused on “leaving the past in the rearview mirror”, “living in the moment”, or “creating the future we want to live”. Try as we might to live any of these concepts individually, the interconnectedness of the time perspectives makes focusing on just one not only impossible, but detrimental. The opening pages of Different After You explore and explain this way of viewing our past, present and future collectively as a valuable tool for healing. This understanding is critical to the process laid out in the pages that follow. 

In the early stages of living through a trauma, being different than we were before is usually acceptable and expected. In the short term we allow trauma to influence us. The trouble is that as time passes,  most people experience significant pressure to “get back to normal” after a life-altering event. This pressure is paired with the idea that in order to prove that we’ve healed from a traumatic experience, we have to be able to act as if the awful thing did not happen. This expectation sets grieving people, and those who have lived through other painful experiences, up for failure, because our past time perspective influences our present and our future. 

One of the key lessons in Different After You is that traumatic experiences fundamentally change us. Since this is true, that would mean that attempts to return to a version of ourselves that is not influenced by the traumas we’ve experienced is not possible. Integration allows us to be changed by our traumas, and use the resulting lessons to help us heal. When we make space in our lives for the experiences that have changed us, we stop striving for the impossible and begin to use all of our life experiences to help us thrive. 

What is the seven-step process you share in Different after You?

Different After You details a self-discovery process that starts with acknowledging and honoring your grief. Though the need to grieve in the immediate aftermath of a tragic experience seems obvious, oftentimes hurting people shortchange their grief experience in order to “move on”. In order to hear, we must first feel. We begin that process in the first two sections titled Acknowledge and Grieve.

In order to know how you’ve been changed by a trauma you’ve experienced, taking inventory of your daily life is necessary. This section encourages readers to spend some time evaluating what matters to them and how trauma has influenced the way they view the world, and themselves. Once that inventory has been taken, exploring new possibilities follows. Identifying the ways we are changed can be scary, but there is possibility within the discoveries we make. Once we know how we are changed, we can ask ourselves what’s next as we evolve into the next version of ourselves.

The final sections of this self-discovery process focus on claiming and owning the self born through tragedy. The end of this book is a celebration of survival, and a call to action for anyone who has been altered by trauma. Rather than seek to ignore the pain in our past, Different After You challenges readers to allow themselves to not only be changed by trauma, but to evolve through that experience into a version of themselves that they respect and celebrate. That’s my goal. When a reader turns to the last page of this book, I want them to know that living through grief and trauma has not lessened their personal value. (continued)

Instead, surviving what may have felt impossible has birthed a version of themselves that is more powerful and beautiful than ever.

What advice would you give to those people who are close to someone who’s going through major loss?

When witnessing deep pain our first instinct is to do something to solve the problem, but when someone we love is grieving a death, there is nothing to fix. No words, actions, or problem solving techniques will bring the person who has died back to life. The only thing to do is grieve. That leaves supporters feeling helpless as they realize there is nothing they can do to remove or alter the heartbreak. 

One of the most difficult things to do when someone you care about is hurting is to sit beside them quietly while their heart is breaking, and yet, this is also one of the most meaningful gifts you can give to a person whose life has just been irrevocably changed. Witnessing another person’s pain without trying to stop them from feeling that pain is an incredible gift. While nothing can fix the pain someone is experiencing, there is comfort in being loved and knowing that you don’t have to be alone with your feelings. After Phil died, the people I wanted to be with were those who could allow me to feel whatever I felt. Sometimes I felt sad, other times angry and sometimes I laughed at the ridiculousness of him being dead. My most valued companions rolled with whatever feeling was present and stuck with me through the roller coaster of emotions.

If I were to distill this advice into one sentence, I’d offer this: Don’t attempt to remove the pain of your grieving friend, just sit beside them and offer a shoulder to lean on.  

How does connecting with a community of others who are going through profound loss help someone? Doesn’t it keep them focused on the pain?

After my husband Phil’s death, I had the support of incredible friends and family who would help drop everything if I needed help. They ran errands, cooked, fixed things around the house, helped with the kids…the only thing that could not do, was understand me. None of them were widowed. I would catch them looking at each other with wide eyes if something I was doing (like requesting a safe in which to store my husband’s ashes) was normal. None of us knew anything about being widowed, and so I felt alone and confused even as I was loved and cared for.

I met my first widowed person four months after Phil died. We immediately began talking and didn’t stop for two hours. My new friend was more than forty years older than me, her husband died after a long illness while my Phil died in an accident, and she was married for forty five years longer than I was, but we got each other. I felt more understood and hopeful after our connection than I had since Phil died. That one interaction set me on a path of seeking other widowed people and connecting them with each other. What happens when widowed people meet? Laughter, understanding, a sense of belonging and without fail a glimmer of hope emerges as widowed people prove to each other that they can make it through the devastating experience of outliving your partner. (continued)

Many people suppose that gatherings of widowed people are morose or that they resemble a kumbaya crying circle. In my experience, the opposite is true. While tears definitely have a place in a widowed community, there is also a non-stop flow of validation, understanding and a sense that you are no longer alone. While grief may be the impetus for the coming together of a widowed community, it is the camaraderie and hopefulness that keep them moving forward together. In our widowed community we talk more about life than we do about death. We cheer each other on, and commiserate when things get tough. My one singular hope for every widowed person is that they find a widowed community. Doing so will change their lives.

 You’ve worked with many thousands of widowed people around the world. Can you share with us someone’s story of healing and triumph that’s had great impact on you?

A woman (we will call her Rebecca) was widowed by homicide at the age of twenty-eight with two young kids at home when she reached out to Soaring Spirits for support. Her husband’s death was both horrifically tragic and very public. Their family had no life insurance and at the time of her husband’s death, Rebecca was a full-time mom with no job outside the home. Everything about life as she knew it ended after the brutal attack that killed her husband. 

As a first step in supporting Rebecca, she was provided with financial aid to attend Camp Widow. After arriving, her PTSD was so severe she was totally unable to engage in workshops or really participate in the program at all. She did, however, make some widowed friends. These friends stood by her in the months and years that followed as she made relationship choices that didn’t serve her, worked odd jobs to make ends meet, and added another child to her family with a man who chose not to acknowledge the child in any way. Each year we received a request from her for financial support to attend Camp Widow, each year she came to the program and slowly began to engage, to process her grief, trauma and the associated PTSD, and she continued to stay connected to her widowed family. After attending Camp Widow for three years, we didn’t hear from her in year four. No request to attend the event was received, and I worried a bit about the lack of contact. 

One year later, I received a note from her letting me know that she registered for camp, did not need any financial assistance this time, and would like to donate a registration for someone in need. The minute I saw her in-person at camp she came running over to tell me that her widowed community was the reason she was standing before me with a new full-time job, safe and consistent housing for her kids, and an emotional stability she hadn’t experienced since the murder of her husband. Her eyes filled with tears as she thanked me for not giving up on her. Our belief in her eventually encouraged her to own her worth. Allowing her to process her feelings at her own pace and providing an understanding community while she did gave her the courage to face the tragedy she experienced and release the hold that trauma had on her future. Today, she loves her work, is in a stable and loving relationship and is enamored by her new son whose birth has been a gift of the new life she built for herself, and her family. 

This story isn’t only about renewal and redemption after a tragic turn of events, but also about learning to respect the self born through tragedy enough to build a life of meaning for that person…this new person who has helped to carry you through the highs and lows of personal evolution. It has been the privilege of my life to witness this (continued)

type of evolution over and over again. I love being introduced to every new person who emerges from the ashes of the traumas through which they’ve lived.

 Since loss happens more than once in a lifetime, what advice do you have for remaining optimistic and open to life in the face of all things?

Being human is hard. Each lifetime is certain to include painful experiences that shift the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. Our humanity guarantees that someone we love will die, and that we will each experience tragedy (lived ourselves or witnessed) on some level. But, every experience that alters our lives is multi-faceted. Though some sort of struggle in our lives is unavoidable, we also have access to love and laughter. We aren’t only changed by the traumas through which we live, but also by the people we love, the places we travel, the work we do and the causes we care about. 

When awful things happen, they tend to demand all of our attention. The good things in life take up less space and sit quietly beside the pain we feel when we are struggling. I’ve always loved the advice Mr. Roger’s gave for times of crisis…if you are afraid, look for the helpers. When life is difficult, look around for the people who are supporting you, give yourself grace and comfort freely, and keep your eyes open for the goodness that always accompanies the struggle. 

 What programs and services does Soaring Spirits International, the nonprofit foundation you head, offer to widowed people and possibly others?    

Soaring Spirits provides resources and programs for widowed people, and their support networks. Our organization provides widowed people with the tools and support they need to thrive in the aftermath of the death of their partner. Our innovative programs all focus on the power of community by providing in-person and virtual meetings and events designed specifically for those who are widowed. The resources we offer are research-based, secular, inclusive and life affirming. 

Our goal is to connect widowed people with each other. We validate and normalize the painful realities of outliving a partner, while providing encouragement and support as widowed people rebuild their lives post-loss. Every program we offer addresses the real life issues that are unique to the widowed experience, including those we offer for our widowed community’s support network. These additional program offerings provide information, advice and support for the minor children of our community, friends and relatives in supporting roles, new partners of our widowed community members and the general public who may be learning how to support someone who has been widowed. By normalizing the grief experience, we not only assist people who are widowed today, but those who will be widowed tomorrow.

Different after You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma

By Michele Neff Hernandez * Foreword by Kristine Carlson

Category: Grief / Personal Growth / Spirituality

Pub Date: February 15, 2022

Price: $16.95 * Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 272 * ISBN: 978-1-60868-778-7