Learning to Love Through Loss

by Tara and Ryan O’DonoghueDecember 8, 2021View more posts from Tara and Ryan O’Donoghue

Rainbows Rise After Grief Rains Down

Tara O’Donoghue

After a decade of chasing our dream, we were finally living it. We had amazing friends and family, built three businesses and fostered an abundant community surrounding coffee and bikes. That’s when it all fell apart. After losing my husband, Nate, to cancer, the wreckage rained down, and I didn’t know how to pick up the pieces.

Nate and I met during my freshman year at Baylor University and spent the next 16 years together. After graduation we moved to Eagle, Colorado where we created Yeti’s Grind, a coffee shop that served “small town comfort in a cup” to our community.

We were busy building our lives when Nate was diagnosed with stage III melanoma. As healthy young adults in the prime of our lives, it didn’t seem like a big deal at first. The treatment proved otherwise! At times when I felt powerless as his caregiver, I turned to yoga. It gave me connection to my body, mind, and soul along with some much needed balance.

Nate made it through this first encounter with cancer, and we buried the experience deep without discussing it much with others. We poured into our passions, opened a second coffee shop in Vail, and Nate started a new business called Lov Bikes. He was a creative soul full of entrepreneurial spirit and a visionary who built and painted colorful custom bikes. With a desire to give back, Nate pledged a percentage of proceeds from every bike sold to local cancer causes.

After six years in the clear, Nate felt a suspicious bump on his right calf. Sure enough, cancer had come back. This time we were vulnerable with others, openly sharing our experience with our community. Despite the cloudy skies that came with his recurrence, we were met with tremendous support. A summer full of rainbows shining over our home in the mountains kept us hanging onto hope.

Unfortunately, hope wasn’t enough. Nate passed away on November 22, 2016 at 36 years young. In his final months I experienced anticipatory grief but knew I had to be strong for him. I was existing on adrenaline, and there were businesses to run and other logistics that took priority. I felt disassociated from my body and emotionally numb during his last moments on earth. Over the next six months I settled into a state of oblivion. I saw a therapist consistently while keeping busy but neglected my yoga practice.

I soon discovered that grief is a slippery slope. While on a vacation halfway around the world in Bali with friends, further from home than ever, I finally came face-to-face with my grief. After 36 hours of travel and a 13-hour time difference, I felt ungrounded and unbalanced. We began exploring right away, even though my intuition said “slow down!” Upon a sunrise hike of Mount Batur, an active volcano, light crested through warm fog, casting a neon orange-magenta golden glow over the ocean. I naively felt the dawn of a new day.

On our descent, I slipped, stumbled and heard, “pop!” I had fractured my ankle to match my broken heart. When I was forced to slow down, the floodgates opened. Out poured suppressed emotion and pain from trauma and grief. Once I started to feel again, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. It was quite a conundrum to be so far from home while healing. But my intuition whispered “stay,” and this time I listened. I took a sabbatical for two months and trusted the process, allowing vulnerability to guide me. Tears translated to words, and writing became a way to release and process my grief. Through my yoga practice I was able to slowly rebuild physically, emotionally and spiritually. I gradually learned to trust this new version of myself.

Before Nate passed, he inspired me to enroll in my first yoga teacher training. Upon returning home, I sold our businesses and allowed the doom and gloom to lift long enough to look forward. Closing this door opened another. I enrolled in a three year internationally accredited yoga therapy program that provided the means to process my grief in healthy ways. By practicing tools that brought me into balance, I learned to feel my emotions, connect with my true nature, and process my losses. The clarity gained from this program revealed a new passion. It became clear that such great loss and struggle was not futile, and that I could use my experience to help others.

The bitter lemons that soured my past led me to a career in cancer survivorship and grief support. Lov Yoga is my sweet lemonade and the reincarnation of Nate’s custom bike business. It is my heartfelt desire to help others navigate their own storms and shattered dreams by teaching yoga therapy tools that bring sprinkles of light.

Grieving gracefully with gratitude is a consistent part of my yoga practice, or Sadhana. Even with this new awareness, grief resurfaces time and time again. There are times I expect it to come calling, and other times it seems to come out of nowhere. Grief is a great teacher when I allow it to give me the downloads I need to grow. Today’s teardrops become tomorrow’s rainbows.

It is through my yoga practice and gratitude that I learned to love myself and dared to dream again. This also led to unexpectedly falling in love.

A few years after Nate’s passing, I attended an event to support First Descents. It was on this serendipitous evening that Ryan and I re-connected through our shared experiences. I congratulated Ryan on his moving emcee performance and an amazing event. I also inquired about teaching yoga at First Descents programs. A fast friendship was formed through respect for one another’s past and intrigue with the path we had both chosen to walk in the cancer space…

Adventuring Through Grief

Ryan O’Donoghue

On July 1st, 2001, my brother Colin and I set off on an unforgettable adventure. I had recently graduated college, and while many friends chose to travel the world before launching into their careers, I felt a calling to explore the U.S.A.

I had dreamt up a domestic road trip. It didn’t take much convincing to get Colin to join me. He was adventurous, a free spirit, and as a teacher he was free to roam that summer. We set off from our hometown of Bay Village, Ohio. Bob Segar’s “Roll Me Away” played as we merged onto I-90 West.

Took a look down a westbound road, right away, I made my choice.

During our 7,250 mile journey, we visited dozens of national parks and natural landscapes where we hiked, camped, climbed, biked, and explored wild places with some of our closest friends. It was the trip of a lifetime… once in a lifetime. Twenty years later, I’m on a much different journey. You see, Colin died of cancer four years and a month from the day we set off on that faithful road trip. He was 28 years old.

Over the years, I’ve shared our story many times. I’ve emphasized how Colin’s spirit has served as a catalyst, inspiring myself and others to push on with a positive attitude even when times turn dark. Honoring his life and legacy in this light always felt more comfortable. There is another, often ignored, side to the story that deserves recognition: the grief born in the wake of this tragedy. Important to acknowledge the dark wolf… 

Colin was my best friend and greatest advocate. A universal mentor. Living without his physical presence has been nothing short of emotional gymnastics. His two-year struggle with cancer was heartbreaking, and the void that still exists with his passing sixteen years later is impossible to ignore. When it comes to losing a loved one, you can go years thinking of that person with the same lost emptiness, recalling dreams that will never come true. His death opened an irreparable wound, and with it my foundational relationship with grief. For me, grief often presents first as anger. Over the years I’ve learned that that anger is simply a byproduct of pain and sadness. Feelings of loss and sorrow appear like islands, independent on the surface but all connected to a single coral spine. Not separate, but one.

Before cancer entered our lives, everything felt lighter. Our greatest concerns were things like the distance of our campsite to the main stage at Bonnaroo, or how we could possibly afford that ski trip to Colorado. After cancer, heaviness set in. And after Colin’s death, gravity began to take hold as if I was orbiting a black hole. Paradoxically, despite its gravity, the grief left me feeling scattered and ungrounded. I lost myself in it. Literally. In a vivid moment roughly a year after Colin died, I found myself looking in the mirror genuinely confused by the reflection. At that moment I knew I needed help.

I began working with a therapist. I consulted my primary care physician who prescribed antidepressants. Up until this “mirror moment”, I resisted these avenues of support. Eventually I learned that seeking help was a sign of strength, not weakness. The therapy and Zoloft helped. But it was close friendships and adventure that pulled me from the abyss. I dusted off my mountain bike and started riding again. With each ride, coupled with trailside suds with my buds, I felt better. Being in nature with friends helped me feel closer to Colin. I was reminded of the nights we spent together on our road trip – gazing into the dark sky with sightings of Mars and shooting stars – pondering our insignificance while simultaneously feeling a sense of awe and connectedness with something greater.

Colin’s cancer experience set bigger things into motion. Together, before he died, we founded Rise Above It (RAI) – a volunteer-based organization committed to helping others facing similar challenges. With the support of family and friends, we carried the torch forward after his death. We worked tirelessly to raise money for patients and caregivers. Our aim was to improve access to clinical trials for young adults with cancer. We were on a mission to instill hope and courage, and to provide resources for those seeking life-saving therapies. At the time we had no idea we were joining a larger movement… something greater… the emerging field of Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology (AYAO).

Colin’s experience and my work with RAI led to a full-time career in cancer advocacy. It began at the LIVESTRONG Foundation, where I worked with and learned from hundreds of talented and passionate people, all who shared a fierce commitment to improving cancer care. These learnings, coupled with my love of the outdoors, belief in the healing power of adventure, and passion for supporting young adults like Colin, prepared me for my role as CEO of First Descents – a national nonprofit that provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer and other serious health conditions.

I am fortunate the course of my life has created an opportunity to contribute to a greater purpose. But in some ways, it feels like stepping through a revolving door of grief. The reward of committing a life to the service of others also comes with recurring exposure to tragedy, trauma, and loss. Herein lies an ultimate duality – the ability to hold space for diametrically opposing emotions. I’m once again forced to learn this lesson while caretaking for my mother who has dementia. Witnessing her steady decline and preparing for her eventual end-of-life is an entirely new version of grief for me. It’s doubly triggering without Colin by my side. Celebrating and honoring her life, and his life, while grieving at the same time is a delicate and confusing dance.

By acknowledging my grief, I have learned to view life through a different lens and face a new reality. It doesn’t make it any easier, but there is a level of acceptance that once felt elusive. Grief has played an important role in fueling my passion and purpose. Time and time again I’ve returned to adventure and community to process and heal. These circumstances have led to the most meaningful relationships in my life, including my wife, Tara.

Tara lost her first husband, Nate, to cancer. We first met shortly after his cancer recurrence. I watched their story unfold from a distance and admired Tara’s ability to remain positive, supportive, and hopeful, despite increasingly dire circumstances. When we reconnected at the First Descents Ball years after Nate’s death, she shared her passion for supporting young adults coping with cancer through yoga. I was immediately drawn to her. Drawn to her passion and ability to create meaning and purpose from such devastating loss.

As those who’ve attended can attest, the FD Ball is much more than a fundraising event. It’s an experiential and emotional ride that showcases the challenges and triumphs of young adult survivors. Tara was understandably emotional following the event. It was her first time attending a public cancer event since Nate had passed. When she mentioned teaching yoga to cancer survivors through Lov Yoga, I suggested she volunteer at a rock climbing program later that summer in Estes Park to experience First Descents in action…

Learning to Love through Loss

Tara & Ryan O’Donoghue

Over the next six months our friendship and connection grew. After a few business meetings and mountain bike rides, we planned a fall bike adventure to Benchmark Point in Vail. Our connection to cancer and loss of loved ones illuminated the path through autumn leaves that glittered gold. We reached the summit where Ryan had scattered his brother’s ashes on “Colin’s Cliff” many years ago. This was where it all clicked. We knew Nate and Colin were smiling down, and our shared grief sparked something special.

Because of our original connection summiting a mountain in Vail, we recently married in Crested Butte at the high alpine Emerald Lake, which is only accessible through a rocky 4×4 dirt road. It was a priority to begin our ceremony paying homage to our past by scattering the remaining ashes of Colin, Nate and our pup, Sloan. We vowed to keep them close while loving each other intentionally and holding space for our grief in years to come.

Together, we now approach grief like an expedition, rather than a solo adventure. Our experiences with cancer led us both to find meaning from grief, which serves as a subconscious safety net that keeps us close to each other and our loved ones. Grief is also the fuel that ignites passion toward a greater cause. Through the AYA oncology movement, we are able to help those navigating their cancer journeys through outdoor adventure and yoga therapy. A parallel path lit by loss also inspires our romance as we move forward in love for each other, not despite, but in honor of our grief.

As we sit across from each other in our Denver home writing these stories with our new pup, Shanti, soaking up the sun beside us, we feel abundant gratitude that we both experienced loss and grew through grief. Holding space for the past and processing old and new grief openly together is a backbone in our relationship. We both believe our greatest suffering is a silver lining in dark clouds and allow love to lead the way to brighter days and a rainbow of possibilities.

This article originally ran in the December 2021 issue of the Elephants and Tea magazine as the cover story! Click here to view all of our issues!

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