I always want to know if something is going to work out. I want to jump ahead to that elusive finish line and just know that it’s going to work. If I can’t see the success through the sliver of light in the tunnel, I tend to retreat into safety. Vulnerability, and the ability to go all in with no guarantees, is one of the hardest things for me to embrace. I can look back now and see when I’ve fallen hard, and now it’s more clear that I dusted myself off and kept on. And in hindsight, I can say, “wow. That was pretty epic.” What I would have given then to have my hindsight wisdom. But rarely do I rise with strength. I nearly always rise begrudgingly, frustrated that I fell in the first place, and only getting up and trekking on because of my bruised ego, not because I embraced it as part of the process of living a wholehearted life.
So as I step back now and look at my running and my old and new personal, professional and creative pursuits, I am learning to coax myself along knowing that there are no guarantees. I’m not signing up for success, I’m signing up for my passion.
As I continue to walk into my story without a known outcome or even expectations, I face vulnerability squarely. Leaning into all the emotions–knowing that I can’t have joy and triumph without fear and pain and falling face down. I cannot selectively numb emotions and live a wholehearted life. This is hard, but I know it’s part of the process.
The more I’ve been learning about this process and loving every bit of Brene Brown’s recent book, my mind keeps turning to a young woman and her courageous walk. A young woman who has walked hand-in-hand with vulnerability for the past 19 months and in the most profound way. I went to high school with Kristina Ponza, a talented, beautiful girl. Then she spent some years living in Sydney with her husband and two kids and didn’t hear much of her until tragedy struck her hard. Then it seemed like the whole town knew of her tragic story. None of us could wrap our minds around the idea of how does she keep living?
Then she moved back to town, and she started sharing her story. She was living in a big way. Her story of grief and living wholeheartedly is unlike any other I’ve personally known. She honestly engages with her emotions–the dark and the light. She accepts her struggle as part of her path toward courage, identity and knowing her life is worth living. She’s my constant reminder to show up. She’s my reminder that despite deep fear and grief, we can walk always into our gifts and power.
Even though this blog is about running, it’s more about a journey, about going for it and learning along the way. Something on various levels and perspectives we can all relate to. I love when people share their authentic journeys, so I wanted to reach out to Kristina and see if she’d be willing to share her journey, and how she’s going for it and learning and living with tragedy and grief. I bring to you a courageous young widow, her story of picking herself up again, moving with grief and seeing through it a beautiful life.
Welcome, Kristina (Ponza) Swilley!
Please tell us a bit who you are and how your life has changed the last two years.
My name is Kristina Swilley and I am a proud mother of two beautiful children. Over the past two years my life has changed dramatically, in fact that may be an understatement. In the early hours of March 7, 2014 my world came crashing down. My husband of 4 years tragically died while we were on holiday for a friends wedding. I went from living in Sydney, Australia with my husband and two young kids, to packing up and selling off my belongings and moving back to the States. I had to leave friends and a place I called home for almost 6 years. I spent the rest of 2014 and the beginnings of 2015 in Georgia, living with my mother while I learned to navigate the world as a single mother and a widow at age 28. The first year of grief I learned so much about life, about love and about strength. I discovered my love for writing and for helping others. I am now living in Santa Cruz, finishing up my college degree with plans to continue on to get my Masters Degree in Psychology. My ultimate goal when I finish my masters is to help bring a voice to those who are grieving. To help people find the strength inside themselves to move forward with life while honoring their loved one. I want to show the world that we all will grieve at some point and if we can educate ourselves on how to help others while helping ourselves, then the sting of death won’t paralyze us so much. I believe that grief is one of the most powerful human emotions. It has the power to either break you or make you stronger and more compassionate. I lost my husband and if I decided to lay down and let his death defeat me one death would turn into two- the death of myself while still living. Through Matt’s death a new part of me emerged. A new path laid before me. I felt a true calling awaken in my heart. A calling that through living a life of passion and determination I can bring awareness that despite tragedy and grief, life can still be beautiful.
You’ve been so open about sharing your story following Matt’s death. What has compelled you to share your grief and your story of healing?
After Matt passed away, I started to journal what I was experiencing on my journey through grief. It was a release for me. I could be as open and honest because no one else would read my inner thoughts. On top of journaling, I also joined a few widow support groups. I was looking for others who knew how I felt. What I noticed, was how different and difficult the world of grief truly is. I was reading countless stories from other women about how their families deserted them or tell them it is time to move on after the loss of their loved one. These women were in pain and felt so alone. So, I decided that I would start a blog and be as open and honest as I could about how I was coping and what I was learning about the human spirit. I wanted to share my story to help those who felt as if their voice was unheard or to help other widows not feel so alone in their journey. Grief can be a dark place to live. My goal was to be a light and shine some hope for others who have experienced such heartbreak. I wanted to show that there can be life after death.
How has exercise played a part of the healing process?
While living in Georgia I joined the YMCA and started taking Barre and Vinyasa yoga. Yoga appealed to me because I knew the practice was not just about stretching my body and becoming more flexible. Yoga was about finding my center and radiating my true self through my practice. It was about developing a deeper connection with myself and those around me. Seeing each other as one and transforming that feeling into an off the mat way of living. By doing these two classes, it gave me an hour each day that was devoted strictly for the betterment of my mind, body and spirit. It was a moment in time where my heartbreak wasn’t front and center. The internal pain I felt would disappear and my focus turned to going deeper into the pose or pushing harder to finish the reps of pile squats. I was in the moment of loving and taking care of my body. Exercise is a mind clearing escape. I didn’t have explain myself or my situation to anyone. I wasn’t a widow when I was in class. I was Kristina. I loved seeing how my mind and body transformed with the addition of exercise. I felt stronger and proud of what I would accomplish after every class.
Now that I am back in Santa Cruz and my schedule has become more hectic between driving over to San Jose and back, then finding time to study, my yoga practice has turned into a home based practice. If I am not doing yoga, I am going for walks by the ocean or in the woods. Connecting with nature helps ease my soul and reconnects me with my inner-self. It is the best form of inspiration for my writing as well. Being away from technology or the distractions of every day life allows my brain to think more clearly. I can hear my inner voice more loudly. If I didn’t find a form of exercise that worked to clear my mind and reinvigorate my spirit, I think my grief would get the best of me. Movement pushes all the negative energy that becomes blocked in your body and replaces it with positive energy and I am all about finding the positive in all aspects of life. Exercise for me isn’t just about transforming my body, it plays a bigger role than that, one that is more important for me in my life now and that is taking the weight off my spirit and allowing it to be more free.
Do you have days where you don’t feel like moving? What do you do?
On the days when I don’t feel like moving, I am reading. I have this problem with wanting to read so many different books that Im usually reading 3 books at a time. If I am not reading, I am writing. But mostly I spend my down time with my kids. They keep me moving.
What other techniques have you learned to allow yourself to live with bravery and to own your story?
Other techniques I have learned to allow myself to live with bravery is meditation and learning how to better listen to my intuition. Meditation has taught me how to calm my mind and let go of all that doesn’t serve me in a positive way. Following and trusting my heart allows me to own my story because I am being true to myself.
Do you have any advice for those trying to live a brave life or for those who must regain their footing after a struggle?
My advice for those who are experiencing their own personal struggles is to keep finding the beauty in life. If you want to find your footing again you can’t shy away from the pain, the heartbreak or the frustrating emotions. Let them wash over you, release them and move forward. Your emotions do not define you. Don’t compare your journey to others. We all go about things differently so it comes down to perspective. Are you willing to change your perspective on life as you know it? Surround yourself with people who don’t shy away from you when you are struggling the most, these people will make themselves known. I can say that my friends and family helped me get to where I am now. Lastly, be selfish. I don’t mean in a nasty, it is all about me and I don’t care about anyone else kind of selfish. What I mean is take the time to put yourself first. If you don’t want to do something because it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Own your no and don’t be sorry for putting your heart first. You have the choice every day to create the life you truly want, you can stay in the dark or you can take a deep breath and search for the light that still exists inside you.
Thanks for your time and authenticity.
Read more on Kristina’s journey at lovelostlive.wordpress.com