How do you go through life-altering trauma and come out the other side? Michele Neff Hernandez’s book “Different After You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma” is a beautiful, supportive, and clear guide to help you do just that. Although Hernandez’s trauma came out of sudden, early-in-life widowhood, the book is valuable for anyone who has experienced trauma, be it losing any loved one, life-changing accident, debilitating infirmity, family tragedy, violence, abuse, and all of us as we travel through the dramatic changes the pandemic has wrought on our lives.
Healing is an evolution, and Hernandez’s began the night in 2005 when at 35 years old, her husband died after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle. As a single mother of a blended family of six children, she was left not only with the trauma of losing him but also her old self and the life she had been living.
Using personal examples, Hernandez writes about the journey we can take to a new “after.” It begins with acknowledging “that we have been changed by the trauma and [giving] ourselves time to mourn the loss of the self we used to be.” Then she writes about the need to spend time getting to know our new self by testing and examining our previous preferences and priorities, including what no longer fits, and identifying the people we can rely on for a support network. She continues about having to choose “to grow, and giving ourselves permission to dream again … Eventually, we allow ourselves to let go of the pain and to embrace our new selves, we give our hearts space for something other than heartache to grow.”
In an interview, Hernandez shared, “If what you’re trying to do is get back to a normal that’s no longer possible until you can acknowledge that that normal is not going to look exactly like it used to, you’re constantly swimming upstream. When we can acknowledge that we are changed, and instead begin to understand who we are becoming, then we are able to take the next steps.”
Hernandez writes about the all-important phase of integration, which is “recognizing the interconnectedness of all the experiences we have lived in the past with our present and our future.” She writes about a new self emerging because with “each challenge we overcome, our coping tools, healing strategies, and sense of resilience grow exponentially. This allows us to craft an even more meaningful life.”
Hernandez stresses that everyone goes through the process in their own way — including the bumps, roadblocks, and wrong turns — at their own pace, and emphasizes the need to gently give ourselves the time and space to do so. “Rediscovery is messy,” she says. Happily, Hernandez’s writing and its tone provide the support one needs to go through the journey — you will not feel alone. She wrote the book and founded the support center Soaring Spirits International, which has resources, easily accessible weekly virtual sessions, in-person programs, and more. “I feel so passionately about giving people the opportunity to not have to do this the hard way,” Hernandez says. “Ultimately, we do this work anyway, because it’s impossible to get back to who you used to be. You’ll always try to get back to normal until you recognize that normal is a different location than it used to be. It lands somewhere else.”
Ultimately, Hernandez emphasizes that the imperative takeaway is “that the person you are who has been broken by whatever it is you have experienced deserves respect. And that there is an opportunity to allow the changes that you didn’t want, or maybe are still fighting against, to be a part of your life in a meaningful way that actually enhances it.”
Hernandez has been coming to the Vineyard for about 10 years, and dearly loves the Island. This summer she will be doing her book talk where she will share her story, but also providing the opportunity for people to talk about what discovery looks like for them, and how we discover our new selves.
“My conversations are always going to include the sense of respect for who you are becoming, but what I love about coming together with people is witnessing their understanding that this applies to me too.”
Although “Different After You” guides readers in how to adapt to, and embrace, the version of themselves that was born through trauma of any kind, importantly, it’s likewise useful for anyone who wants to best understand and thereby support someone going through the process.
Michele Neff Hernandez will speak at the Oak Bluffs library on Thursday, June 16, 5 pm. Learn more about the resources and programs of Soaring Spirits International at soaringspirits.org. “Different After You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing after Grief and Trauma” by Michele Neff Hernandez, $16.95. Available online.