Learning from grief: how one woman found her purpose after tragedy

19 Jan 2016 Professor Jana Matthews

For me, the new year is a time for looking back. And looking forward.

In 2010 my husband Chuck died after a long illness. He was the kind of man every man wanted to be friends with, and every woman wanted to marry. He was handsome, a PhD in Clinic Psychology, loved the outdoors, a keen fly fisherman, loved all kinds of music, fine wine, and was a lot older than I – which never seemed to matter until the end.  We always figured he would go first, and I definitely had a chance to say the long good-bye, but even so, when he died I was devastated. We had a love affair that was the envy of everyone who knew us. “Sleepless in Seattle” does not even come close to describing the numbness and depression I felt. My step-daughter kept asking me “What’s the plan?” and I would look at her blankly. There was no plan, I was just trying to get through each day, breathe in an out, and stop crying.

Six years later I am settled in Adelaide, directing a Centre for Business Growth at a very exciting business school at the University of South Australia, and am working with hundreds of CEOs to help them grow companies. I can honestly say I have never been happier. How did I get from there to where I am now? Tom Hanks and I both had to deal with three big road-blocks: (1) numbness (2) fear and (3) disbelief that "there is a plan.".


I was walking around like a zombie. But gradually I woke up and realised “it’s a wonderful world” and that life is not a dress rehearsal.  This is the only life we have, I’ll never get this year back to live over again, so I better go out and grab it by the horns and live it to the fullest.


As the helicopter was taking off from a glacier in NZ with a 10,000 ft. drop straight down, I freaked out - then I shouted to myself and anyone who could hear, “No more fear”. Fear of falling, of death, of failure, of running out of money, of loving again, of the unknown, of the future. It can be paralysing. You can’t capitalize on opportunity if you are paralysed by fear.

There Is A Plan

At a dinner party a friend retold the old story about the man in the flooding village, waiting for God to save him, all the while refusing all the help he was sent.

I thought a lot about that story and how it applied to me. Maybe I needed to start listening to what the universe was telling me, and wake up to the opportunities that were being presented to me. And I did – and one by one those opportunities unfolded – and here I am in Adelaide, one of the most wonderful places on earth. 

As I said to a friend in my Christmas letter:

I am so lucky to be living in such a beautiful place, doing work I am uniquely suited to do, with people with whom I am so compatible. Perhaps that is true definition of happiness and "heaven on earth”.

Knowing there’s a grand plan, that there’s something besides just me, working to make things happen, is actually quite comforting. So my responsibility is to figure out what the plan is, and then go achieve it!

Mark Twain said there are two important days. The day you are born, and the day you figure out why.

My new year’s wish for everyone to be awake, be fearless, enjoy life, and find your “why”, i.e., figure out what you were put here to achieve, and go do it.

May 2016 be your best year ever!

Professor Jana Matthews is currently ANZ Chair in Business Growth, Director of the UniSA Centre for Business Growth and the founding CEO of The JanaMatthews Group. Dr Matthews is on the national board of StartupAUS.

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