From Heartbreak to Wholeness: The Hero's Journey to Joy

From Heartbreak to Wholeness: The Hero's Journey to Joy

by Kristine Carlson


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A guidebook for discovering how heartbreak can become the doorway to profound meaning and joy from the bestselling co-creator of the Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff Series

In 2006, after building the bestselling franchise Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff with her husband Richard, Kristine Carlson faced a shattering loss—the sudden death of her beloved spouse. Woven together with the remarkable stories of others’ loss and recovery, her deeply moving story reveals a clear process of healing that is common to everyone and goes far beyond ordinary prescriptions for getting through hard times. In her new book, From Heartbreak to Wholeness, Kristine offers a life-altering map for navigating the heroic journey from loss to joy—one that ultimately awakens readers to a deep love affair with life.

Every day, people suffer heartbreaks of some kind—loss of a loved one, divorce, illness, loss of a job or home—and seek to understand why these losses and traumas have befallen them and how they’ll make it through in one piece. For readers who have endured loss of any kind, Kristine takes them by the hand, showing them how to traverse their own jagged edge of growth and emerge as the hero whole, happy, and empowered.

Each chapter of From Heartbreak to Wholeness includes powerful exercises in self-inquiry and reflection, along with step-by-step guidance for writing one’s own heroic story of healing. Journey with Kristine Carlson and learn how you can walk the path from heartbreak to wholeness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250170439
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/12/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 834,274
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Kristine Carlson has captivated readers worldwide with her books, including Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Moms, An Hour to Live, An Hour to Love, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff in Love, and Don't Sweat the Small Stuff for Women. Kristine has been featured on national radio and television broadcasts, including The Today Show, Empowered Living Radio, The View, and Oprah. Today, she is emerging as a profound leader in the areas that matter most to the human heart—how to heal and move forward, and how to love.

Read an Excerpt


Initiation by Crisis

* * *

The Promise of Chapter 1 — Your life has changed. You have stepped into the unknown. The next choices you make will determine whether you are the victim or the hero of your own precious life story. Take my hand. I will help you to choose wisely.

* * *

My journey began when an ordinary day in early December — one that included morning dishes, getting the kids off to school, running errands, completing end-of-year school projects with my daughters (both in high school), and simply doing what I always did while preparing for the holidays — was shattered by a single phone call. Like a milk carton, the doctor told me the love of my life had "expired." A silent killer in the form of a pulmonary embolism made its way from his leg to explode in his lung, taking my husband's life without warning on the descent of a flight into New York ... that day that turned our lives upside down and devastated our family.

Richard and I met in college and shared a fairy-tale romance for twenty-five years. We became a family of four as we raised two amazing daughters. Our cup ran over with a marriage made of deep cherishing, devotion, nurturing communication, vital inspiration, and unending gratitude for each other. We were mostly pals, with a true understanding of what our partnership meant. No matter what was happening in our lives, we were able to meet each other with a kind of respect that evolved over the years into greater reverence. To us, there was no one that stood on higher ground or who was more able to offer comfort, encouragement, and support. It didn't matter if we were miles apart in our travels for business or play; with few exceptions, we started our days with "good morning, honey" by phone or enjoying coffee in the early morning hours, sharing our hopes and dreams, working on chapters of a book together, and strategizing about parenting our kids. One of the keys to the success of our marriage was our listening; we really listened to each other — especially to the feelings behind the words, leading to a deeper understanding where we connected from heart to heart. He wanted to know what mattered to me, and I loved the ongoing discovery of what he felt passionate about. When Richard died unexpectedly at the age of forty-five, I had no idea how I would continue to breathe, much less move forward in life without his physical presence.

Most of my adult life, I lived under the grand illusion that Richard and I had control over our destiny. We were kind people doing good work in the world and were devoted to our family, friends, and global community. As long as we worked hard, stayed in our integrity, and remained in love, everything would go according to our well-laid plans. My role as a wife and mom was to hold space for everyone like a crystal in a clock so they would have what they needed. I was holding all I had dreamed of as a young girl, the perfect life.

Yes, we had the ideal life, but truth is, I wasn't fully grateful for it. I had been lulled into the kind of complacency that often comes from success. I was sleepwalking through my life, and I didn't even know it. My kids were growing up; I had been feeling inklings of something that was incomplete, and deep questions nagged at me daily: What is my life's purpose and passion beyond being a good wife and mother? What else do I have to contribute, and how can I serve and honor my life here?

Even though I had coauthored Don't Sweat the Small Stuff in Love and written Don't Sweat the Small Stuff for Women, both New York Times bestsellers, I hadn't owned my career as an author. I'll never regret giving all that I did to Richard as his partner so that he could fulfill his life's work and leave his legacy; nor will I ever regret my devotion to nurturing our daughters — they are my most precious gifts, and it is a privilege to be their mother. Family means everything to me. I love Richard and miss him every day. I can hear his voice and laughter imprinted on my soul; I close my eyes, and there he is with his exaggerated cleft chin and twinkling ocean-blues smiling back at me. The pain of his loss was indescribably intense, and it lasts to this day. Nothing about this experience has been easy.

Yet that unimaginable phone call didn't halt my life. I can now see that the loss of my partner was my initiation — the divine event that changed my life so suddenly that it led me to the gateway of transformation, just as yours has and will, too. It led me to the answers to the questions I didn't even know I had been asking. After the numbness of shock subsided, my husband's death breathed new life into me, and I was awake and feeling everything.

Why did this happen? Why did my heart open from this loss?

When you are standing at a fork in the road brought on by heartbreak — whether that heartbreak is caused by a death, a divorce, a breakup, a diagnosis, news of some kind that has shattered life as you know it, or any other kind of soul-shaking loss — there are only two possible paths to choose from. Which path you choose boils down to one question:

Are you going to be a victim, or are you going to be a hero?

You can choose to be a victim, or you can choose to be a hero. Here's what both look like: The victim, head down, slumped and broken, wallows in self-pity at the fork in the road, unable to get up. The hero feels just as broken but stands up, shakes off the self-pity, and moves forward, stepping, albeit slowly, into the journey ahead.

I am here to tell you that there is only one choice to make every day, and that is to be open to this experience and what it will reveal. While you may have a difficult time as you lever back and forth between these choices, ultimately you must choose to be a hero. You must ask yourself, What would a hero do in this situation? (If you don't know what the hero would do, that's OK, too. Please continue reading.) Even if you do not like the cards you've been dealt, you must play the hand and say, "I will be the hero who meets the challenge of this loss and allows it to do its work on me. I will meet this demand, this call from my soul to live. I will be a hero who overcomes obstacles, leans into my fears, annihilates my unhealthy ego, and learns and grows from these circumstances. I will find my way as a hero and do the inner work necessary to emerge as a whole and complete victor. I will awaken."

Making the conscious choice to see yourself as a hero and the victor over the adversity you face is one of the most important decisions of your life. As the journey of healing unfolds throughout the pages of this book, the reasons for this will be increasingly clear.


In the hero's journey, laid out in the arc by Joseph Campbell, the initiation is a crisis event that shatters all the illusions of your life. It completely changes your direction, and you don't know where it is you are going. You are standing at the precipice of the unknown. You might as well be standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon wondering how you will ever get to the other side. All you know is that life looks very different now, and there is confusion; it feels like you are in a foreign country without a language you understand. This initiation may have obliterated your beliefs about what love is and what you need in your life to make it complete. It brings you to your knees with shards of glass around your feet. Your old ways of going about your life are no longer sufficient.

And how could it be otherwise? In my very bones, I understand how you may be feeling. Your heart is completely broken and your dreams no more. You have a deep knowing that your life is never going to be the same. There is nothing in your being that isn't screaming, "My life has changed!" With your whole life tipped upside down, you feel numb from the shock and in total disbelief; heavy-hearted and full of dread, you sense a long and desolate journey ahead of you. I know — I felt it, too. It's very likely that you feel disconnected from everyone around you, even the people you're the closest to, because they can't possibly understand what you are going through. It feels odd, as if you are looking through a new lens that makes everything on the outside appear "normal," but feeling like scrambled eggs on the inside. You feel as though you are in one of those snow globes encased in glass and looking out. Their lives keep going on; yours has been rendered unrecognizable to you. While going through the motions into the unknown, you feel overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. Be gentle with yourself, my dear, understanding that you are vulnerable right now because you're going through unprecedented change and moving into an inner world of uncharted territory. I know it's scary.

This event is, in fact, the entry point into transformation. It changes the trajectory of your life; it is the commencement of your journey. As awful as it feels, it is really your heart being broken open. You may not know it yet, but this is actually the gateway to a new life; you are birthing a new life as you birth your story in these upcoming pages. Yes, you have entered into the unknown, into the mystery, where life is not going to be the same, and you may be kicking and screaming all the way. Where hope comes in is that you're going to discover and uncover the ideas and beliefs upon which the illusion that is now shattered was built. Up until now, you didn't know that life could be different. You're asking, Who am I now — who am Iwithout this love (without this family, this job, this sense of security, this self-image, this identity)?

As you are standing on unstable ground with your identity in question, it doesn't help matters that you feel like your friends and family are now relating to you differently, too. You may already have noticed that people's default reaction to your struggle will be to treat you as a victim. Everyone you encounter, whether new connections you've met through your crisis, friends and family members who have been at your side for the whole journey, or strangers who are hearing about your experience for the first time, will act as though you are damaged ... as though you are someone to whom something has "happened." They are filled with sympathy and want to treat you with kid gloves. They don't really know what to say, so they err on the side of deference as they repeat phrases of condolence that feel trite to the grief-stricken. Of course, this comes from a good place, and these people mean well. There is nothing wrong with that. But it means that so many external forces are treating you like a person to be pitied, and it's all too easy to let these voices dictate your truth throughout your journey, making it all the more important to see yourself in a different way so that you don't get lost in this mindset of survival. You are standing on such rich, fertile ground for your growth, and there's so much more to come.


I remember sitting at our fireplace in one of our well-worn leather chairs within days of that fateful phone call. I could see both paths before me: one where I would drown in self-pity and sorrow, and possibly a fifth of vodka, and one where I would honor my love, his life, and all of the blessings we had created together in our twenty-five years. I didn't know what the journey would hold, but I knew that I had to step into what was before me. I would honor Richard with my life. His life had changed mine, and we were so blessed. My heart knew that this was my soul work — my time for change and my time to grow. My time to awaken. While of course I had those days when it was difficult not to pull the covers up and stay in bed, I would remind myself that doing so represented death to me. I had to live. My thoughts whispered to me to rise amidst the ashes of my old life as I hesitantly embraced and tiptoed into my new one.

* * *

As you step over the threshold into a new and unknown world, you very quickly have to choose: Will I be the hero of my own life, right here in the middle of this situation that I do not want? Randy Pausch gave us a great example in his book The Last Lecture. After he found out that he had cancer, he felt he had not honored his life's purpose up to that point. He went into his classroom and talked about leaving a legacy before you die, and this Last Lecture would go viral on the internet. He did indeed play the cards that he was dealt, and he left this world as a hero of his journey.

If you haven't done this early in your crisis, or you are now realizing that you may be the victim of your story, you can choose to be the hero from this point forward. It's never too late to discover a new and healthier way to live and to be in your life. You are in charge of how you navigate this path. The heart may still be broken as you choose to stand in your own journey, acknowledging how difficult it may be but committing to yourself that you will move forward. When Richard died, I chose right away. But you can choose to be the hero at any time. I have a friend, Carolyn Moor, who was out on a date with her husband on Valentine's Day years ago, and there was an accident. She lived and he died. Suddenly a young widow in her midthirties, raising two young daughters and continuing her career as a designer, Carolyn lived many years in a fog, victimized by what had happened. No one is prepared for sudden loss. The rug is pulled out from under your feet. Years later, she was mentored by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the TLC television series Shalom in the Home. With his support and inspiration, she broke free of that fog and chose to step in and be the hero. Now, she is a leader among widows with her extremely successful online community, the Modern Widows Club. I share her story to show you that you can choose differently at any time and have the same thriving result.

At whatever juncture the decision is made, the hero is one who chooses not to be the victim of the circumstances at hand. The mind will fight you in choosing to be the hero. Like sticky tape, the ego will latch on to the thoughts of self-pity and the reasons why you should crawl into a hole. The mind will struggle back and forth between these two mindsets. But the hero understands that this event — this loss, this tragedy, this incomprehensible change — is part of the life curriculum. Life itself is a classroom, and you have just entered your graduate school coursework in heart mending and management, a course where you will learn how your suffering serves you and one that will be carefully designed for your soul growth. The hero acknowledges the pain and the anger and sees it all and feels it intensely. But the hero is not going to indulge in too much pity or tarry too long in past regret. It doesn't mean that feelings are suppressed, but there's no long rest in self-pity. Self-pity will suck you under, and you won't come out feeling empowered and ready for the journey. The hero must live life and function despite a broken heart. Life continues on no matter what. It doesn't work any other way. If you were diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn't just stop. You would ask, How do I live with this illness, this disease? What is my plan for getting healthy? How will I fight this? You will do what needs to be done; you will play the hand that you've been dealt.

Of course, it's OK to acknowledge that this crisis, this pain, is not what you want. This is what has been given me. I don't like it, but I'm going to deal with it. Drop into what's real for you, but don't stay in the trenches of pity. Pity can become a self-loathing act that sabotages all efforts to step into being the hero and keeps you from stepping into the journey of healing.

When you choose at the fork in the road to be the hero, this is where you get to have your power. You don't get to choose who dies or who leaves you, or what happens to you, but you get to choose how you stand and how you move forward. You get to choose how you think and where you put your attention and focus.

At the precipice of what may feel like a personal event horizon, examining your beliefs and perception is mission critical. The circumstances you are facing won't make or break you, but they do reveal who you are. What are the thoughts that you repeat over and over again that come from your past? How do you latch onto those tapes that play over and over in your head, those attempts at renegotiating the events of the past — trying to undo the unthinkable, unimaginable event that has rocked your world? How do you talk to yourself in the quiet of your own inner world? What kind of feelings do your thoughts give rise to? The alliance of your thoughts, words, ideas, and feelings determines the lens through which you view the world. Your beliefs — those thoughts that you have repeated as truths over and over thousands of times (in turn, life-affirming and limiting) — make up the agreement you have made with reality and how you view these circumstances. And whatever your agreement is will determine whether you are a victim or a hero.


Excerpted from "From Heartbreak To Wholeness"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Kristine Carlson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction xv

1 Initiation by Crisis 1

2 Preparing for the Journey 17

3 Awakening 33

4 The Jagged Edge of Growth 56

5 Discovery, Recovery, and Rediscovery 82

6 Emerging Now 106

7 The Alchemy of Change 129

8 Rebirthing a New Life 155

9 Into Wholeness, Returning to Joy 176

A Word Before You Go 221

Resources 225

About the Author 229

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