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How I found the strength to go on after experiencing multiple family deaths

By Lisa Gallate 4 min read

Grief will not define me.

We all experience pivotal moments in our lives when time is suspended, Earth stops spinning and our lives are forever changed. These moments might be incredible celebrations of pure joy or the most despairing challenges that throw our lives into complete chaos. They are moments that define us and we never forget them.

I feel very privileged to have experienced incredible moments of unbridled joy and celebration. But I have also been through the most desperate moments when all sense of reality is lost and I have been totally engulfed by the darkness that death throws at the bereaved, just as it snatched my loved ones away from me. It snatched and grabbed, without a backward glance.

My sister Zoie and her partner, James, both died in a horrific car accident when I was just 19 years old. I had never experienced the grief of losing a loved one before and it ripped me apart to my core. Zoie and James had died in the most sudden, cruel and violent circumstances. I struggled to accept what had happened. It was totally incomprehensible to me that our families should lose Zoie and James when they were such young, vibrant, kind and gregarious adults with their whole lives ahead of them. Our own lives would never be the same again without the joy and privilege of being able to share them with Zoie and James.

Over time, I developed my own skillset to bear my grief, which seemed to travel with me wherever I went. Unbeknownst to me, and only several years after losing Zoie and James, my first husband would suffer the most overwhelming and unrelenting depression. He could not get past it or through it, and yet it defied belief that he thought he could self-manage the torture of his mental illness.

On the same day that the clock went forward an hour for daylight saving—so the daylight lingers long into the night over the summer months—my husband took his own life. It was so heartbreaking that this young man, a very talented solicitor and advocate with incredible commercial acumen, should be denied a long, happy and healthy life. I again struggled to deal with my grief. It was beyond understanding, I could not shake it, rationalise it, reason with it or dispel it.

Around the same time that my husband died, my younger brother Justin was also dealing with his own gigantic health struggle—he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Justin was a dedicated officer and dog handler with the New Zealand Police Force, and he and his police dog Sabre had many “catches”. Justin once risked his own life to save the life of another and was awarded the Royal Humane Society medal for his bravery. He was married with a baby boy.

At the time, I refused to believe that brain cancer would claim his life. He was such a physically strong and incredibly fit and active man, and I desperately wanted to believe that he would beat this cruel and vicious invasion into his body and his life. I have never been so wrong. Instead of beating the cancer, the disease took my brother from us. Justin was denied the justice that he deserved, for the exemplary life of kindness, fairness, good natured fun and love that he had shown everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. We were all left devastated.

Since the death of my brother, I have sought to rebuild my life and remarry, and build my own family. In doing so, I have suffered the silent but heartbreaking loss of multiple miscarriages. It is the word that no-one wants to hear or share but miscarriage can create as much pain, sadness and grief as might any other loss. It is a tragedy that in our modern society, where social media exposes every facet of the human experience to the global universe, that miscarriage and grief are still taboo words.

I have also watched the slow and silent demise of my mother to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s. It is an insidious experience for her and her family. My mother has slowly lost her identity as everything that personifies her is stripped away. My mother was always a very gracious and feminine lady, who loved wearing colourful dresses, makeup and bright lipsticks, and nail polish on her long, elegant fingers to match. But the final hours of this long goodbye will not afford my mum any dignity or grace in her passing.

There have been many other challenges in my life that have confronted me and made me question every aspect of my being, but none more so than facing and coming to terms with the deaths within my family. I have had to learn how to live without them and learn how to live with my grief.

Even now, my grief sits quietly on my shoulder and can make itself known to me at any time of the day or night. It has no calendar and no time limit. What I do know is that my grief will always be with me but I will not let it define me.

I have, thankfully, discovered some central themes to my grief experience that have helped me to manage, to live, to dream, to vision and to convert my grief into energy that motivates and inspires me into action to lead the best possible life that I can.


If you or someone you know needs help, contact:

Lifeline:  13 11 14 Australia | 0800 54 33 54 New Zealand

Watch Lisa's interview.

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Lisa Gallate is a senior commercial litigator and class action lawyer with a top tier global law firm. She is also the author of Hitting My Reset, a memoir on grief and how to make it fit your life. She lives on the beautiful northern beaches of Sydney wi


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