“Life doesn’t always follow the script you’ve written and when it takes a different direction, you’ve simply got to pick up and follow that direction.” Rachael Golinski
In the early hours of Boxing Day 2011 a fire devastated chef Matt Golinski and Rachael’s home taking with it Rachael and their three daughters – Starlia, Willow and Sage. Matt was badly burned running into the home to try to save his family and ultimately had to be restrained or he too would’ve perished.
When Matt woke from the induced coma 8 weeks later he first learned that his whole family were gone. Rachael’s words written just a few months earlier, were what carried Matt through in the next weeks and months of his gruelling recovery. His father had them laminated and Matt had them put up in his hospital room until the day he was discharged.
I had the privilege of hearing Matt speak in 2014 at a fundraising evening organised for the special school where my son Zigi attended at the time. Matt shared with us how even after his discharge from hospital that almost every day, he battled within himself, to sit up, to swing his legs over the side of the bed, to stand up, to take one step and then another. He shared how setting a goal to run 5kms just one month after his discharge (when all of his internal organs were affected by his severe burns) was in part what got him out of bed each day – the endorphins bringing daily wins for the internal battle that waged war in his mind.
Setting achievable future goals for himself and keeping busy was something he knew that he needed.
In a recent episode of Australian Story Matt spoke of how he did the seemingly impossible – how he went on living when he had lost everything. His father pointed out that “Nobody gets over it, but you’ve got to get around it”. Matt spoke of initial feelings of anger, depression and resentment and doing “stupid” things like drinking too much to escape. Until he finally realised that the only sensible thing to do was to somehow accept what had happened – “sometimes that’s how life goes and there is absolutely nothing you can do to change it”.
So, what did Matt do?
He got back to doing what he loved the most – cooking. In fact, the first thing he did the night he was discharged was to cook a meal – once he did that, he knew that somehow, he would be ok.
He was also spurred on by the thousands of messages from friends, family and a nation full of strangers that made him realise there were others willing him to survive and get through the tragedy. It was in his determination to be sure that he didn’t disappoint others that Matt’s mindset shifted to focussing on making the best of his second chance at life.
He spoke of how important the canoe that survived the fire was to him – giving him moments of being able to remember his girls even if at times those memories unexpectedly completely floor him. While acknowledging his immense sadness at the loss of his “girls” that still kicked him in the guts from time to time, Matt was remarkable to listen to. Even his burns surgeon described him as being “impressive” in the way he displayed grace despite his obvious physical and mental pain.
Yet Matt is adamant that he does not want to be defined by the tragic fire that took away his family.
Clearly, he is not.
He is defined by his response, by the way he found the strength to live on despite it.
Matt has now found the second love of his new life in Erin, who was one of the team of people who worked with Matt during his rehabilitation. They now have a miracle daughter Aluna who has brought a new level of healing to Matt’s life. Matt’s focus is cemented in the present and his future only made possible by the way he chose to journey through his darkest valley.
Respond by rebuilding
Undertaking research while writing my soon to be released book, I came across an illustration describing how many respond to grief – a theory called “growing around grief” first taught by Dr. Lois Tonkin. It suggests that if your grief is represented by a circle – that circle does not shrink over time, instead, over time you find ways to rebuild your life around that grief. So that your grief will not ever disappear but instead you learn to expand your life by doing new things and finding moments of enjoyment.
Because of that, there will be times where the “walls” around the circle are not thick, so that even small pressures can bring back the same intense feelings of grief, and why sometimes even years later when the “walls” are thicker, there may still be other events that smash through those walls to seemingly reinflame those intense feelings. Rather than “getting over” your grief (which you might never really want to do) you instead build your life around it so that the grief no longer dominates your day to day life.
So rather than thinking that in time your grief will diminish, instead use the passing of time to work out how to build the buffers of your new life around your grief.
Matt’s inspirational story sends a clear message – that if you build those buffers with a focus on the positives and with gratitude for the good things in your life, you will not be defined by your loss, but rather by your response.
I was so honoured to have Matt Golinski as the guest speaker at my book launch on Wednesday night 14 November 2018 in Brisbane. All profits were donated to Matt’s charity of choice Kids Foundation (helping burns survivors rebuild their lives).