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I have a moment in time in my life that I can remember vividly making a decision to take a horrible and traumatic situation and not make it my excuse for the rest of my life; I could have and I doubt there would have been anyone in the world who would have blamed me.

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When I was 15 years old, my dad died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 41. It was Halloween. He had a heart attack in the house. My mom was home and performed CPR on him until the rescue squad arrived. The doctors at the hospital worked on him for six hours, but his heart was so severely damaged from years of smoking and horrible diet and exercise habits that he died.

It was shocking.

It was life changing.

It was brutal.

He left behind my mother – his wife of 18 years – and four daughters ages 22, 15, 12 and 10. No life insurance policy (he didn’t believe in them, ironically) and a brand new house with a big, fat mortgage.

>> Read more: Family Table Discussion: Talking About Death

It was a frightening and uncertain time of our lives. I could have crumbled. I could have just stopped my life at that moment and done nothing more for myself or my family and used the “my dad died when I was 15” excuse and I felt that would have been okay. I envisioned that people would sympathetically nod their head in understanding as I stood on my soapbox to proclaim why I didn’t have to come out of this dark hole if I didn’t want to.

I didn’t though.

It was a decision. It was a very conscious decision I made as I sat on the floor of our living room still wallowing in the wicked news of my father’s passing. If this traumatic event was going to change me, it was going to be for the better. I vowed to myself at that moment that I would do everything in my power to pull something good from this ugliness. It may not be that day or month, or hell, even a year later. But I was going to try.

It wasn’t easy. Believe me, there were plenty of days I rethought that vow to myself because all I wanted to do was curl up in the fetal position and forget about the brokenness and sadness and how difficult life had become. But I just knew that wasn’t my fate from this event. My father wouldn’t have wanted me to give up.

At the time, I did a lot of things “for my dad” or in honor of him really. I tried to be responsible and get good grades. I got into and graduated from a good college. I thought I was doing all those things because I craved approval and applause – from a ghost? I thought I was being a good daughter by continuing to do things “for him.”

But the beautiful thing was that I wasn’t doing those things for him. I was doing them for me; for my life, for my future. For my forward movement. It took me years to realize that.

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There’s no secret sauce here, people. Pulling yourself out of hard times or picking yourself up from a failure is tough. It takes self-realization and work. Lots of work. It’s about realizing that the horribleness and emptiness are temporary and that you are responsible for what’s next. No, it’s not easy and it’s not pretty. But you are worth it.

And now as a 40-year-old wife and mother of three great kids, whatever life throws at me, I know I can handle it or that I will handle it someway. We don’t always know the answers. We don’t always know the plan. It’s how we respond in tough times that our true selves emerge. You’re either in it, above it or under it. It’s a tough move, but it is your choice and your decision to make.

As my dad would say when I would hand him a good grade on a paper, “Well, there’s hope for you yet!”

Here’s to hope.