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Finding Gratitude through Loss

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My personal gratitude journey began sitting on my boat dock in the early morning light, peering around the side of our boat in hopes of a gorgeous sunrise. Granted, I thought I’d practiced gratitude for years. I have had numerous “Gratitude Journals,” pondering, gazing and then jotting, what I’m most grateful for, day in and day out. Names, places, experiences — even some of my favorite foods would find their way to my pages. For me, it was the discipline of journaling that for which I was most grateful. It was more of a meditative opportunity; a time to be still, mindful and contemplative — all a very important part of dedicated wellness habits. 

Now, years later, I know this journey has been much different. It was fueled by a gut wrenching pain from the loss of one of my best friends — someone I spent most of every day with: working out, training, wakesurfing, paddleboarding, creating Get Out Girl events; basically doing life together. My kids looked up to her with respect and reverence; my husband in appreciation of her as a confidant and “playmate” of mine; and even my parents as an additional caretaker of theirs.

Then, in a blink, life changed. Kristin, a beloved flight nurse, lost her life serving the Travis County Community. As someone who was always the “giver,” this would be her final time to provide on this earth. She’d spent decades giving and serving her friends, family and numerous communities. That is what fulfilled her, gave her purpose, and passion.

As so many know, the walk with grief is one step at a time. My steps in the first many weeks were a blur full of undeniable pain, sorrow and disbelief. I remember distinctly the morning on that morning on the dock, waiting for the sun to rise up and shine again. I could tell that today was going to be different; I waited with anticipation to see the rays of hope come over the hill. Today I was embracing a glimmer of hope, a fork in the road of this journey that would bear me the opportunity to budge from the hallows of pain to a hint of promise.

I began reflecting on the times I had spent on this very same lake with Kristin: the giggles, the fun, the goofy moments. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world — not one of them. I was grateful for each and every moment.

As the sun broke over the hill and slowly shed it’s light on a new day, I realized that no matter how horrible the pain of loss was, the humility and appreciation of gratitude was much greater. I wouldn’t have traded one of those memories and am a believer that we are given the ability to remember for a reason.

As I looked out upon the water, I remembered how passionately Kristin loved the lake. She came to it after very tough shifts where unfathomable rescues, recoveries, and losses were witnessed. As a friend always trying to bring light to her world, I never wanted her to have to reflect on those awful shifts that would many times lead to sleepless nights and flashback dreams. Kristin would ask to get out on the water many a morning with me; to wakesurf, ski or paddle. It wasn’t until after we lost her that I realized that this time was hers to reset, to let the water put her mind and emotions back into a state of buoyancy so she could go back to her next shift as whole as possible — time and time again.

Just like so many first responders and front line workers, they witness and experience incidents that many of us never do in an entire lifetime. And they do it over and over again for weeks, years, and decades. 

Before Kristin’s death, I’d never really thought about that part of her job. How someone could witness the unfathomable, go home, tend to family, friends and life, and then go back and do it again. I was too busy trying to wash it away than let it surface. But now, I realize that nothing compares to observing the loss of life, and when she came home, sometimes all I was concerned about was what we were all going to have for dinner. Absolutely no comparison. 

Out of this loss, my gratitude journey became one of appreciation, recognition and thankfulness. It became a heightened compassion, consciousness, awareness and presence for life around me, what others were experiencing, sensing and feeling, different than myself. 

This new position of gratitude gave me a heightened awareness of the role that front line workers and responders have in our community. I became cognizant that they give so much on the outside, but many bury what’s on the inside. As someone that has been in the wellness industry for decades, first responder mental wellness historically had not been a topic. I learned that, just like my friend Kristin, our first responders and front line workers were silently suffering. I began studying the increasing and alarming facts of the emergency service personnel. The Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS) reported in July 2020 that the mental and emotional wellness of first responders has been neglected and they are therefore now showing the consequences of such neglect. This data has been surfacing exponentially in the past few years. First responders and front line workers are at an increased risk of PTS, more likely to suffer from psychological distress due to job stress, repeated exposure to trauma, lack of sleep, the physical demands of the job, lack of resources and working long hours or multiple jobs. 

One of the greatest forms of gratitude is to serve the health and wellbeing of others, and many of us witnessed how Kristin used being on the lake for her own mental and emotional wellness. Thus, in honor of Kristin McLain and Travis County Deputy Jessica Hollis, Operation Get Out  was formed, a 501c3 that provides Blue Mind experiences, outings and events for first responders, front line workers, veterans, individuals, and agencies to intentionally utilize the scientifically-validated therapeutic benefits of being in, near, and on the water for positive mental, emotional and physical wellness impact where #waterismedicine. 

That morning on the boat dock was a new dawn of acceptance, a pilgrimage that I would begin with a delicate fusion of grief and gratitude. There was so much I loved about Kristin; so much that I could choose to lament or, instead, find gratitude and carry forward to touch the lives of others.

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