Like a Phoenix Rising from the Ashes


“Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. In those transparent moments we know other people’s joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own.”
~Fritz Williams

“Phoenix rising from the ashes.” This phrase popped into my head recently, and I wasn’t sure why until I did the research. As the story goes, the phoenix is a mythical bird with fiery plumage that lives up to 100 years. Near the end of its life, it settles in to its nest of twigs which then burns ferociously, reducing bird and nest to ashes. And from those ashes, a fledgling phoenix rises – renewed and reborn.

And now I get it. This is the story of my life in the past few months – especially the part about burning ferociously. Life presented me with some challenging circumstances that left me just hanging on. And now, sanity has returned.  I look out with fresh eyes. The fog has lifted, and the dark clouds have moved on.

My experience is not unique – it happens to all of us at some point, it’s a part of the human journey. But this was my time, and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned along the way.

Resistance is natural

When life threw me a curve, I longed for the turmoil to be over with. I wanted to pick myself up and move on. I tried hard to create a plan, to know what I didn’t know, to gain control. I was so busy trying to make things happen that I overlooked what was actually happening.

I ignored my feelings and resisted the present moment. Yes, me, the one who writes about welcoming all of our experience with a loving, open heart. I was doing everything but.

Finally, I realized my approach wasn’t working. I stopped trying. I let myself be frustrated and impatient. I admitted that there was so much I didn’t know, and I let go of figuring it all out. Life was messy, so I suspended my fruitless attempts to clean it up.

And this was the beginning of the fire, as there was space for feelings and reactions to surface.

Things happen in their own time

When I look back I see that I had very little control over what happened. The seasons of my experience had to run their course – severe winter storms, cold and darkness, then the seeds hidden from view beginning to sprout (very exciting!). The best I could do was ride the waves, which I did with varying degrees of success.

Forgetting and remembering joy

When darkness descends, joy is blotted out, buried, seemingly non-existent. Everything weighed like a heavy burden, all my activities felt like obligations. When I realized that I had forgotten joy, I created a “want-to-do” list. Every time I found myself wandering around in a fog, my job was to pull out the list and do something enjoyable or productive. I organized closets and took walks, finally starting to see the beauty around me.

And I focused on others – being a good friend, showing up for someone in need.

My self-care didn’t suffer. My diet stayed healthy, and I kept up with yoga. But some people going through hard times can benefit from paying special attention to the basics of daily living – good diet, exercise, limited alcohol.

Staying close to the bone

Things started to shift when I made the commitment to find direction in my moment-to moment experience. The big picture was way too nebulous, but I realized that in each moment there was a kernel of truth, a clarity, a “yes” that showed me my next step.

I recognized that this guidance had been there all along, but I was too caught up in trying to find solutions to see it. When I let go of paying so much attention to the stories running through my mind, of trying to control, of avoiding strong feelings, much to my surprise, I found the groundedness I was looking for – the truth in every moment.

Support was essential

At the beginning, I was going it alone, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Eventually, I reached out, allowing the vulnerability of asking for support. It came in so many beautiful, unexpected ways, but I had to let people know I needed it. And a few sessions with a therapist offered some very useful insights.

The clouds do part

“This too shall pass” were empty words to me. I looked into the future, and all I could see was confusion. My negative mind had taken over, and I couldn’t see my way out.

But the clouds do part in their own time. The human spirit is resilient and wants to find its way home to wholeness. I see this over and over in my work. I facilitate a bereavement group at a retirement community for people who have lost their spouses after sometimes 50+ years of marriage. You can just tell when someone walks through the door that they will announce they no longer need the group. They are renewed; they have gone into the darkness and found their way through.

One day I realized that I was happy, and soon after, I saw that I was thriving. I had been through the fire and emerged whole and clear, with doors opening in so many wonderful ways. The sad and frustrated stories in my mind had fallen away, and the emotions that had captured me softened. I can breathe freely again.

Eventually opening to the lessons

When people said I would look back and appreciate this time, all I could do was groan. When I was in the thick of it, it seemed like it would never end. And now, with the sun shining and flowers blooming, I can reflect on what I have learned.

  • Let things happen.
  • Give up trying to control.
  • Don’t pretend you know what you don’t know.
  • Stay close to what you know is true in the moment.
  • Feeling bad isn’t wrong – it’s just how things are sometimes.
  • Take good care of yourself.
  • Engage with others.
  • Reach out for support.
  • When the time is right, feel the emotions.
  • Get perspective – learn what not to do next time.

So there it is – my story. And now I turn it over to you. What have you learned about going through hard times? I’d love to hear…

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  1. Rose says

    Only a couple of days ago, my seemingly perfect life burst at its seams and I watched my husband of 11 years drive away. It’s a very tough place to be in since we have been together since we were in university (basically we were just kids) and this could have been avoided if we both tried to tended more carefully to our relationship, but we didn’t, and here we are now. I know, I can’t change the past, but I can work on the future. I don’t want to cling onto any hope that he will change his mind because truthfully, he is right and we could be so much more if we have a chance to grow without each other, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I’m perfectly aware that I must “be like the phoenix”; burn, reset and rise from the ashes. It’s the burning that is painful. Very hard to let go of 11 years of hopes and dreams for two and start thinking only of myself. Thank you for your beautifully written post, it makes me realize the value of this pain I feel.

    • Gail Brenner says

      You are right in the fire, Rose. And most of us have been there in one way or another. From what you say, it sound like so far, at this early stage, you will use it well. Yes, it’s hard, and that’s the nature of it. Let things unfold in their own time.

      Sending love and support to you…

      • Rose says

        Thank you for your reply Gail! Now, a month and a half later, I already am starting to feel much much better and remembering what a great person I am on my own. Now that I don’t have to answer to another, I can do whatever I want and fulfill the dreams I was hesitating to go after. I am being reborn from my ashes and I thank you for helping me realize the value of the burning. P.S: also a huge fan of Rumi and there are many parallels between his philosophy and your advice! “The wound is where the light gets in” -Rumi

    • Ron says

      Hi,Rose please don’t give up hope.the best marriage counselor, is right in both of your hearts.Jesus Chrisr,I guarantee that if you n your husband unite under the faith of the eternal life of love Christ donot need to join any man operating church,for Christ is the church,just get a bible , pray for forgiveness, repentance to repent of past n future transgressions, have remorse,bbe held accountable 4 ones actionns,ask Christ for forgiveness blessing for strength accept Christ is the 1st step in renewing anyone of our immoral acts,bdonot forget we’re born into sin remember the story of Adam n they thought they did no longer need the one true God of all Creation ,tso u n your husband can reinstate 1 2 1 relationship with the 1 true Savoir,but u have to open your hearts,and love him with the fear of losing what u r now experiencing! no other thing of this world will completely repair what is broken,fallen angels n thier con jobs (deception) remember these beings rebelled against the 1 true GODhat is why the world in such bad shape they corrupted everything,the illuminated ones don’t believe me go on u tube n search this stuff out .THE LORD SAID 4 THEE R IN THE WORLD DON’T BE PART OF IT,donot be decieved by man , when you reached a real relationship with Lord CHRIST you will not be able to believe the love u will receive, just ask him.also you find yourself inno need of this world besides that our fellow created human beings are where u so donot give up just yet,,things will happen gradually! the darkside (evil -demonic beings) donot whant 4 u 2 b they want us to curse CHRIST so we call upon them.that was the issues of the ancient people. That is where all the mystical crap evolved,trust in CHRIST N NOT in MAN as 4 solution 2 our Problems.
      Remember the devil is real the wolf in sheeps clothing.oclothing.of course don’t believe me but believe the one that loves us 4 HE SENT HIS ONLY SON SO WE CAN BE SAVED=JESUS CHRIST,BE SAFE N VERY HAPPY
      so I pray that in good faith this will reach u n your husband, see we forgot him in our daily lives n seek other avenues 2 happiness, not until he will come again, which will be soon,I bet you feel something is going on but just not sure what, well CHRIST IS CALLING US , THREW MANY WAYS SO BEFORE IT IS 2 LATE RETURN THE CALL u will be amazed. Amen

  2. Mary says

    Hi Gail………Your comments, statements and stories are very uplifting to me. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts after reading my short (I tried) message.

    I have been going thru a very tough time in my marriage. About every 5-6 years my husband becomes unbearable and wants a divorce. We have hired attorneys each time, but he always decides that he doesn’t want to go thru with it. Last time was in 2008. I know he uses it as a form of manipulation to get me to do things as he wants them done. When I don’t, he always responds with a drastic move of manipulation.

    My husband and I have been married 33 years and it seems he has been cheating off and on over the past 3-4 years. There have been many things over the past year that have pointed in that direction (men seeking men activity on Craigslist, changed email passwords, shaving his private areas, total wardrobe change… name it he’s done it). I have tried to allow him his life changes but It is just within the past few months that I have decided I’ve had enough and can’t allow some things to continue so I brought it up. Of course, he denied it all and played really dumb with the facts I presented him, always finding an excuse as to why, or it was a “joke”.

    I have found in my marriage, that my husband chose to have affairs and one night stands for many reasons. None of which really had anything to do with me. “He” wanted more sex……. “He” wanted to be with someone that didn’t remind him that his children had not lived up to his dreams of “perfect”…….”He” wanted to have sex with someone that didn’t show signs of child bearing….”He” wanted to keep his marriage intact so he wouldn’t lose any assets…..”He” was looking for admiration of other women….. of course that is not all but you get the picture.

    His consideration for me in his actions was nonexistent. Had he considered the facts that I too wanted to have more exciting sex and was bored? I too wanted our children to achieve their dreams without having to fall prey to their fathers demands on what they should be or he wouldn’t support their efforts. I too wanted my body to look like it did prior to having OUR three children. I too worked hard at supporting our family, raising our children and bringing home a portion of the bacon. I too wanted to get flowers and be wined and dined so I could admire my husband for his wonderful efforts at wanting to make me feel special.

    I try so very hard to look past the selfishness, narcissism, ego, greed and realize his character is flawed as well as mine (not that much). I ask myself, who told him it was okay to rip my heart out and leave me feeling like a worthless POS while he’s out having a great time with other women (or men – which is extremely difficult to have those thoughts in my head). I try so hard to see the man I married 33 years ago and forgive him for the pain he has caused our family with his lying, cheating and manipulating as well as numerous other acts of deceit so I can move on and continue to work on this marriage. But it is not coming easy to me.

    When I tried to discuss these issues with him, he said he didn’t want a divorce, but he continues to deny the affairs have taken place and “doesn’t remember” “any” of the incidences I brought up. His response was very matter of fact and that I was crazy.

    How do I move forward with someone I cannot trust to be honest with me and help me move forward. How can you work on a marriage with someone that will not admit to their faults but will certainly point out every one of yours.

    I love my husband so very much, but am finding it almost unbearable to be a part of this marriage without the trust and commitment on his part. It is no wonder we are so weak in our thoughts and lack self esteem that we can’t stand up to them. It’s unfortunate we cannot believe the one person that makes a promise to love, honor and cherish us for all time. It’s so very sad that that person cannot love us enough to be honest and just tell us they aren’t happy and they want to move on in their life before they destroy our self image and break our spirit. But he still doesn’t want a divorce….. I wonder why that is??

    I’m trying to take your advise and build myself back up. I am reaching for the strength I need to either get out or stand my ground. I have decided to give it one last chance before I throw in the towel, however, I have also decided I will no longer allow him to manipulate me. I told him I will not remain in a marriage where I am not loved by my husband or in a marriage of convenience (which would be his). I will not, I will not, I will not!!

    Thank you for your words of encouragement and I hope that if the day comes I am faced with the act of leaving, I can still reach out to you and those like you for that strength I will so desperately need. I pray that day never comes, but I have been with this man since I was 15 years old and I fear he will not change.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Hi Mary,

      I hear strength in your words – you may be stronger than you think you are.

      You ask: How do I move forward with someone I cannot trust to be honest with me and help me move forward. How can you work on a marriage with someone that will not admit to their faults but will certainly point out every one of yours.

      The answer is you can’t make someone work on a marriage. But you can absolutely work on yourself. Start by telling yourself the truth, which you have done so clearly in your comment. See this man for who he is, recognize that he is unlikely to change, and begin to look within at the places where you are stuck.

      Why are you giving him one last chance? As you describe, he has been very consistent over the years. Since you told him you will not remain in a marriage of convenience, at some point, when you are ready, in the name of truth and authenticity, you will stand by these words in your behavior.

      Do everything you can now to begin building your strength. Then let truth guide you.

      Sending love and support…

  3. says

    I was just in the process of writing a talk for the 7day Zen retreat I’m leading. I wanted to use the story of the Phoenix and did some research on the Net … and found this lovely post, Gail.

    So nice to reconnect by fortuitous accident!

  4. Carolann Munro says

    Today, 10th April, 2015, about minutes after four I had a dream of which the words, ‘ as the phoenix raised from the ashes so will you’. I spent all afternoon into evening trying to find where the quote came from. Finally I found you.
    My name is Carolann and I have seen much hardship for my 44 years of life.
    However, I’ve managed to lift myself and am the mother of three, two girls and a boy, he’s the youngest and I am married.
    My marriage in 2007 after what seems like a fairytale fell apart from infidelity on my husband’s part.
    The worst came in 2010 Dec., when we were arrested and charged five days later with treason. A student I’d taught and held as a son, allowed himself to be used by an enemy of my husband from the army he served.
    I spent 15 months and five days in prison, separated from my school, students and my children.
    Returning hasn’t been the easiest, my watching my husband loose everything, my business shrink in population and trying to live on a single income of less with the same responsibilities hasn’t been easy.
    Many quarterly, I close my accounts in the red. I’ve ran out of the will to pray and hope.. Trying to find ways to sort tings out has been futile.
    I live a life of pretense, all is well. A fool to only myself. I live frustrated and angry, from staff to parents who are unreasonable to God who I think has put more on me that I’m capable of carrying.
    I hate when people say I’m a strong women to survive all of that and yet not run, but I take the compliment with politeness and not stating my anger at this, for many think they can put more on me since they believe this statement to be true.
    I plan to change the message on the crest of the school’s uniform.
    Finding this and the words which came to me is a breath of fresh air.
    I would be delighted to hear from you

    • Gail Brenner says

      Your seeds are sprouting, Carolann. You’re starting to rise from the ashes, and this is the time to think very consciously about your priorities. What can you learn from what happened? How would you like to move forward? How can you find a place of peace in yourself even with these challenging memories and situations?

      I hear that you look strong on the outside. Maybe you can also, within yourself, be honest about where you might still be stuck on the inside and do the work so you’re free.

      Sending love and support…

  5. says

    “Phoenix Rising” came up for me this morning and although I have heard it used many times before, I wasn’t exactly sure of its meaning or how it relates to me. I turned to the net and did some research and was delighted to see how the story relates to me and the place I’m in in life right now. Reading your story helped put things into perspective.

    Many aspects of the story and the Phoenix itself symbolize different aspects of my life. I have been in the fire for the past few years. Over those years I have allowed myself to transform; it has been both painful and delightful to see aspects of yourself die and aspects of yourself emerge.

    New dreams and plans are emerging along with a renewed Spirit. I am moving forward with a longtime dream and I’m both excited about it and a bit scared for it is a big dream, but I go forward in faith. I didn’t necessarily have anything to relate this to until this morning when “Phoenix Rising” came up for me. I now understand completely the process that I have undergone the past 7 years and what is happening around and within me now.

    Thank you Gail for sharing your story and your work. You are a light to many.

    In luv and light,

    Leisa Moseley

  6. says

    hi Dr. Gail! Thank you so much For the wonderful Post. T’was very helpful.
    I had to admit I am in great pain now. I am looking for articles and tips online so that could help me move on from the past and would help me from stop thinking about my failed marriage :(
    I am from the Philippines. 31 years old. My husband was an Overseas Filipino Worker who works as a Cabin Crew in a Cruise Ship based in Europe. He was my boyfriend for almost 10 years before he proposed
    for marriage last 2012. Since his vacation to the Philippines is only for 2 months in a year he really wanted to have a child and I got pregnant 2012 after his marriage proposal. 2013 we got married. Late of last year 2014 I caught him cheating. His 2014 vacation 1 month he was home with us in Cebu and a month he told me that he will be on training in Manila but I just found out that He was having an affair with his fellow cabin crew who happens to have vacation since they are batch mates from work in Europe in a Cruise Ship .When I found out I was so hurt and wanted to let go of him.He was in europe working while I am here in the Philippines when I found out his
    having an affair. He was sorry and told me he will let go of the affair and as a wife I wanted to give our marriage a chance so I accepted his apology. After that we communicate every day but I felt there was
    lacking. I felt so unloved but I have to fight and be strong because I have a marriage vow and for my daughter I have to fight for the Marriage.
    His expected vacation was April 2015 I was excited and I was really waiting for a moment to talk with him personally about us to improve our relationship as married couple.
    But when he was about to go home from Europe last april 2015 He texted me via Viber that our Marriage wont work anymore and He lied to me since 2010 he has girlfriend at work while I am his girlfriend and with the same girl he is having an affair now. He did’nt go home to be with us here in Cebu. He was with his
    Mistress now in Manila. ( my story is too long to narrate completely:)

    Why is it so Painful….I was very excited that we will finally be together and will have a chance to talk with my husband personally to improve relationship as Married Couple. I never gave me a chance to fight as a wife and mother.

    The Long Distance Relationship, we are away for 10 months in a year but I asked him not to work abroad and be with us to work here in the Philippines. I was completely blinded to keep it short. I was really blind and didnt see that side of my husband..
    I was with this man for almost 15 Years I trusted him more than anyone else and he betrayed me.
    He even just told me that he will not be home anymore because our marriage wont work anymore just via viber. I felt so worthless. I keep on thinking what have I done to him. Ive been faithful to him since, a good wife and a good mother to our daughter… It was painful because he never gave our marriage a chance and just decide by himself that our marriage wont work anymore.. Loving him was not painful but loving the wrong Man is..
    This pain almost caused my death but with the help of Family and Friends I was able to dealt with this and I am quite good now.

    I was not thinking of myself alone for the lost love but I was more concerned with my daughter. I will raise my daughter alone. and my daughter with no father at her side. But really I decided to really move on. There are days I can forget but there are days like today I cant stop thinking what when wrong with my life. Its like our dreams

    were shattered because He chose to be with someone else versus us his family. I never had a chance to fight for us. He was really decided and his decision was final to chose his mistress. What is more painful he come home to cebu for a couple of days and even brought his mistress with him. I didn’t know his family kept it from me. I was very disappointed also with his family. I wanted to talk with my husband not to go back with him but I wanted to talk to him
    as a person. I felt so worthless that he left me and the advice was just from a Viber. He don’t want to face me. I am not just someone else in his life I am his wife but I am just nothing for him.

    He texted me to see my daughter when he decides to come home without me in the plan :)

    Now I am trying to move on with my life without him. Moving on from the failed marriage. If I could only turn back time I must have chosen someone who will not hurt me this much..

    I am ready to move on… I have my lovely daughter with me. I got great friends. I have mother and brother at my side. I got good Job. But still I felt my life is empty because me and my daughter has no family on our own.

    I just wanted to forget the pain. I lift up to God the almighty Father the Pain and I pray that I may move on and forget the love I had for him…

    It’s almost 3 months and day by day I still remember the pain….
    I tried to understand him so that I could move on but sometimes I could not help it to felt so much pain.

    Dr Gail your Posts was helpful to me. I will be a Phoenix who will rise from the Ashes…

    More Power.

    • Gail Brenner says

      You are rising, Dorothy. You’ve found support of friends, family, and faith, and you’re focusing on raising your daughter. Walk your own path with your head held high. Much love to you…

  7. Jess says

    Uplifting article Dr. Brenner…I posted the following quote from your article on my phone as a daily reminder when hard times hit:
    “The human spirit is resilient and wants to find its way home to wholeness.”
    Beautiful words regarding the human spirit!!

  8. Alan Barstow says

    Dear Dr.Brenner,
    This morning I was telling myself “I will rise like a Phoenix from the ashes!” Like you I was not sure what the real meaning of that statement is, so I did some research and found out. Also found your very inspiring article.
    Right now at seventy six years old I am going through one of the most desperate times of my life with, at this moment, very little light at the end of the tunnel.
    Recent separation from my wife coupled with my loss of almost everything material, has left me at a very low ebb.
    Finding a kindred spirit in you has given me new hope and I am determined to…….well, you know.

    • Gail Brenner says

      Life is definitely putting you in the fire, Alan, and you are being asked to meet what arises. Difficult, I know. And there will be times of resistance. I’m glad you’ve found support here. Little by little, in the right time, may these experiences serve your awakening.

  9. Sonya says

    First off; I love your article. It spoke to me just when I needed it. I drew a picture and I had in mind as I was drawing; this phrase “up from the ashes she arose”. I typed this phrase in Google and your article came up. Who knew I needed to read this more than myself. Thank you for posting and I am truly sorry for any hardships you’ve gone through. In the midst of it all… We arise. Thanks for the encouraging words.


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