By Ashley Sullenger
It was a hot summer day, and my husband and I were happily walking out of the movie theatre, enjoying the rare freedom we felt at the moment. We left Preslee, our 18 month old daughter, with family and were enjoying our first date that we had been on in months. My husband received an unexpected phone call, and by the tone of his voice, I instantly knew something was wrong. A police officer was calling to tell us to rush to the local hospital because our daughter was being airlifted there. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a doctor who informed us our daughter had fallen into a canal and had been found over a mile downstream. We were then told no matter the outcome, our life had just drastically changed forever. The doctor was absolutely right, because a week later, our daughter passed away in my arms.
Preslee’s death broke me. It seemed like a cruel, unexplainable joke. I couldn’t comprehend how anyone in this world was expected to go from being a mom, whose sole responsibility is to take care of their child every minute of every day, back to a world with nobody to worry about. I instantly became lost. I began living a life with no real purpose. I was living on autopilot, doing the bare minimum to get by each day. My life consisted of struggling to get up in the mornings, attending classes at the University, completing assigned homework, and then attempting to throw a meal together for my husband. Nothing less, nothing more. As this became my new way of life, the grief I was experiencing overtook me, and I found myself trapped in a deep dark hole.
Months later, my anger flared and I remember falling onto my knees asking God, “Why am I living a life without my daughter? What is the purpose of everything we’ve been through?”
I sat there on the floor with my back against the bed sobbing for a reasonable amount of time. When the tears started to subside, and my anger finally softened, the word “purpose” came to mind. It didn’t mean anything at the time, and I quickly brushed it aside; but for the next few days I couldn’t seem to shake the word. Not long after, I was surprised to stumble across a quote that caught my eye:
“I believe the Savior is telling us that unless we lose ourselves in service to others, there is little purpose to our own lives. Those who live only for themselves eventually shrivel up and figuratively lose their lives, while those who lose themselves in service to others grow and flourish—and in effect save their lives.” –Thomas S. Monson
Purpose. There it was. At that moment I realized my life seemed to have no real purpose. I continued reading and remember thinking, “Service? Service is the answer? But I can’t even take care of myself, let alone focus on someone else’s needs!”
I immediately disregarded the quote, thinking that helping others at this point in my life was impossible. As the days turned to weeks, that frightening dark hole began to suffocate me. Out of pure desperation, I recalled what I had learned about service, and I made it a point to help someone other than myself, every single day over the next week.
While looking for ways to serve, my first act was quite simple, mainly because I couldn’t handle much at the moment. If I remember correctly, I took the garbage out, a chore my husband usually performed. Then I slowly began looking outside of our grief-stricken home to reach out to others. For months, service became the focus of my day, and to my complete and utter surprise, the darkness began to lift.
I know it sounds cliché and even a little ridiculous, but during those dark days, service is truly how I survived. It’s how I was able to come alive again. Helping others gave me a purpose and turned my grief-stricken thoughts toward something other than my heart wrenching life.
It has been a difficult journey, but five years later I’m happy to share I’ve been blessed with the gift of motherhood again. I spend my days mothering three energetic boys. Even though every waking moment is consumed with all aspect of my boys’ lives, grief still unexpectedly finds a way back into my life. When I feel it knocking at the door, service is still one of the first things I turn to. Now those moments I spend serving have become more joyful as I watch my boys experience the happiness that comes from helping others.
Just like the quote above states, “Those who lose themselves in service to others grow and flourish—and in effect save their lives.” Those small acts of kindness still give me a purpose, and in effect, continue to save my life.