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Audrey Carlson with Bernie Siegel, June 2017

Audrey Carlson with Bernie Siegel, June 2017

In the aftermath of tragedy and loss, can there be a path to happiness and peace? Is it possible to find your joy, to laugh, to open your heart again, to trust and learn to thrive again as opposed to merely surviving? Can a person possibly choose happiness when everything around you is falling apart? These are the questions that swirled endlessly in my heart and my mind after the death of our beautiful daughter Elizabeth.

At the tender age of 24 years old, when her life was just beginning to unfold, Elizabeth was tragically murdered by her former boyfriend who was a successful veterinarian and someone we thought we knew. We never imagined he could be capable of such a heinous act. And yet, that is exactly what happened.

Nothing in my life before this tragic event could have possible prepared me for such despair, grief, guilt, uncertainty and unspeakable loss. Our lives were shattered and yet we had to make a decision. Our younger daughter Leslie was equally traumatized and we desperately wanted her to have a life worth living even though she had lost her sister and best friend. We knew that if we did not make a conscious choice and a deliberate commitment to live we were at great risk to drown in an endless sea of despair.

Our collective decision as a family to live again was fueled by the awareness that if we did not, this tragic event would have taken not only Elizabeth’s life, but our lives as well. It seemed impossible and yet we held tightly to one another and began with the first step. We needed to learn to breathe again. Together, and as individuals, we moved forward as we knew Elizabeth would want us to do.

Thankfully, not everyone experiences such intensity of loss and pain in their lives but we all do experience difficulties in life. We all are connected to those we love by our happy times but also through pain, loss, grief, disappointment and failure. We all have wounds that are not easily visible but run deep and leave indelible scars. In the words of my mentor and friend, Dr. Bernie Siegel, “We all need to learn how to take all the —- in our life, sprinkle compost on it and watch what grows.”

How did I move from barely surviving to choosing to thrive? It was not easy. I explored the intangible spirit world desperate to find answers to unanswered questions. I returned to graduate school and achieved a Masters in Holistic Health and Healing. I immersed myself in the business of healing.

My journey took me behind prison walls asking about forgiveness and love. I became empowered and fueled through a new understanding of what happens to people in the absence of love. I devoted myself to working with children and animals to remind me that there is much more good than evil in this world. We established a Foundation for the Performing Arts in Elizabeth’s name and honor to keep her dreams and presence alive and vibrant.

Four years ago I took a certification course in Positive Psychology with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. As part of my final project I established the Hartford Happiness Club. Since then, we have had dozens of speakers come to share their stories and their wisdom about creating the life you most want to live.

This work in establishing the Hartford Happiness Club has so reinforced all that I have learned in my own life. None of us is exempt from tragedy and loss, though it may come in many different forms. But all of us have a choice. I invite you to join this journey of seeking joy and peace and happiness. It is indeed a trip worth taking and sharing with others along the way!

I am proud and humbled to have been published in Bernie Siegel’s latest book “Love, Animals and Miracles”. A collaborative collection of “Inspiring True Stories Celebrating The Healing Bond.” I also was published in “Grief Diaries” Surviving loss by Homicide – True Stories of Surviving loss of a loved by kidnapping or homicide by Lynda Cheldelin Fell with Donna R. Gore, M.A & Nicola Belisle.