My first life ended on November 24, 2006.
I had spent the morning at school, where I had been doing my legal clerkship as a teacher for half a year and was looking forward to the evening. The graduation ceremony of my old girls’ school was on the agenda. After 20 years, we should all finally meet again. In thoughts, I was already with the stories which we had experienced at that time, with the companions from youth days, and I asked myself, “What has become from the one or the other?”
Only a few meters, one last bend, and I can see our house where we have been living for a few months. And I can see my husband’s dark blue BMW standing in front of my front door. Just as it stood when I left in the morning.
As I drive up the hill, a queasy feeling creeps up on me – and this feeling gets stronger as I park my car, get out and walk through the front garden toward the front door. I put the key into the lock, open the door, take a step into the hallway. At that moment, my two boys, one dark like me, the other an almost hydrogen blonde, one 4, one 5, – come crying, their eyes wide open with screams on their lips: “Mummy, Mummy, Daddy is lying there!” They point towards the bathroom.
I fall to the door, almost trip over my own feet, and find my husband lying on the floor in our bathroom, apparently fallen. He doesn’t move. I immediately reach for my mobile phone and call the emergency doctor. But even as I await his arrival, I already know I must accept the hard truth: My husband is dead.
A world came to an end for me. My husband, my best friend, my sparring partner, my buddy, my hero, my port – and so much more – THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN – was gone.
I didn’t understand what was happening. I acted like a machine, setting everything in motion that had to happen. His family was informed: first the brother so that he could tell together with me his mother, my parents, friends, the company. I even managed to cancel the afternoon date of my children to play.
I acted calmly and thoughtfully. And I was even happy about such banalities when the man from the funeral parlor told me that he had rarely seen such a prudent person. So, I organized the funeral service and called all our friends in the next days. A good friend came and stayed with me for the first week; I don’t know how I could have done it without her help.
Somehow, I worked. I had to – at least externally. But inwardly – inwardly – I died that day. Inside, I found no more drive. On every new day, I asked myself: “Why does the sun rise? Why does the earth continue to turn? How can it be that all the others can simply continue to live their lives like normal, something not granted to both of us, the four of us, as a family?”
Two good reasons
But there was a reason for my continuing. Yes, not just one, but two good reasons. The two of them flew around in our living room. They crawled on my lap and let themselves be comforted when they were sad. They wanted to have something read to them. And when they were hungry, they had to be taken care of. So not being able to continue was simply not an option.
The question did not arise for me – as justified as it would have been at this point after the heavy loss: “Why should you even get up in the morning?” Or: “Why should you shop and why should you cook?” There was no other alternative! I had to act and function. And even if I hate these terms – then as now – this time brought me personally, retrospectively, infinitely further. I was forced not only to deal with my grief and despair but also with who I actually was and who I wanted to be. But above all, I also needed to decide what kind of life I wanted to lead at that moment – and in the future.
I was not the only one who had to fight day after day; my two boys also suffered. Children take what is given for granted – and it very quickly also becomes normal. Unlike us adults, who are already attached to what was. We tend to mourn the beautiful past and keep asking ourselves what would have happened if this or that hadn’t happened, or to worry about the future. I had to take care of our family alone now, children live uncompromisingly in the here and now. That helped me a lot. And so, I matured more and more with my two boys.
The question of guilt
I remember a moment when I suddenly realized that my husband’s heart attack was not his company’s fault, but that it was up to each and every one of us to say, “No.” “No,” if it becomes too much for us. “No,” if we can’t or don’t want to manage this one small task.
But as painful at the time as those findings were, that which had its origin in the unimaginable events and upheavals in my life led me exactly to where and for what I stand today. And I want to share this knowledge with others. For me, it is an important concern, and in part, also my daily driving force, on the one hand, to bring people into self-responsibility, and on the other hand, to establish a management culture and working atmosphere in which a “No” is not only permitted, but desired.
But let’s go back once again to the time when my life was reshaped bit by bit. After the terrible event, I kept on struggling. From day to day, from week to week, from month to month. I learned what it means to survive the first year without a partner. In Germany, we call it the year of mourning. The first snowfall. The first time when the children with shining eyes build a slide out of the snow in the garden. The first snowman without Daddy. In this first year, without my husband and the father of our children, there were, of course, countless such moments and scenes, which were imprinted in my mind. The first Christmas for the three of us. The first birthday afterward. The first holiday without him.
A lot happened during this time, which made me what I am today. A successful businesswoman who stands in the middle of life. Who likes to be a role model for other women, who want to shout to them: “Trust yourselves!” But not only women. I want to shout it out into the world: “Trust you! Take responsibility for yourselves and your lives. Do not do what others expect of you, but go your own way and begin to say ‘NO’, for yourselves. And please create working environments in which this ‘NO’ is not only heard but rather accepted.”
I want to tell you about an event that happened five days after Patrick’s death. I decided to go to his company to pick up his personal things. At the reception, I had some trouble gaining admission because I was not registered. Finally, a longtime colleague of my husband came to pick me up and accompany me through the long corridors. Even today, I remember the bright walls, the bright light and the smell of the bamboo parquet. He led me into Patrick’s office – and I froze.
SOMEONE WAS SITTING IN HIS PLACE!
His pictures of the children and I were lovelessly put aside. His notes, – already edited and further used. The signs of his presence over many years simply wiped away.
I couldn’t believe it. After all, he had been so committed to the company and its employees. On more than one occasion, he had completely exhausted himself. For one and a half years he had tried to set up a department with six people. And every time he had failed in some way. Sometimes, it was the employee figures that were “frozen.” Sometimes, it was the human resources department that didn’t get its part done. Sometimes, the boss blocked the desired development and preferred other departments. Or, or, or … I was pissed off! After all, all these circumstances were for me the reason that my husband had so little free time, had worked so much, and had now – forever – left us. I cried quietly, took all his things, and hastily left this place, where my husband was so quickly forgotten. So, it was unbelievable to me that this company that forgot Patrick so quickly – much too quickly – asked me for a talk after a few weeks, and then actually offered me a job.
Unfortunately, there was so little one could do for me because my husband died of a heart attack and therefore, no insurance would cover it. But maybe it could be a help for my family and me if I could earn money there. Far more money, by the way, than I could ever have earned with my dream to become a teacher so late.
That I didn’t wring the neck of the dear HR lady at that time – I blamed exactly these people for the death of my husband – I owe only to my mother, who managed to educate me at least so well that I knew that was not appropriate.
So, I sat there, thanked myself for being well-behaved and asked for time to think about it. I needed time to finish my education at school. Did I need to become me? Time to decide what I wanted. Should my path lead me back? Should I really follow this path – quite independently of the company?
Suddenly, I thought back to my school days: I grew up at a girls’ grammar school and really wanted to take a physics course. When it didn’t happen, I fought to make it work. Where there is a will, there is a way. I was already convinced of that at the time. And obviously, I was so convincing toward others that I was able to win our director over to my idea. He finally agreed on a cooperation with the school opposite, so that ten boys came to us, and the physics course was secured. Everything was perfect – until the first exam. We few girls in the advanced course were above average in the beginning. But as soon as the boys were there, we fell apart completely at the first exam – the grades were in a much worse range. What happened then was a drastic experience that would shape me for the rest of my life.
Most of the girls said after the bad exam: “Well, the boys can do that just better. Of course, physics is not for girls!” Some even changed their advanced courses. Differently a friend and I. We just sat down at the bottom of our trousers – and of course, we wanted to know why the boys scored so much better than we did in the test. So, we asked them: “Tell me, why are you so much better at all this than we are?”
The answer was simple: they had three times as many physics’ lessons in junior high as we did in girls’ high school. I still remember as well as if it had been yesterday. My girlfriend and I were sitting on my bed and I said to her, “Okay, what do we do now?” Instead of giving up like many of our classmates, we decided to go on. That wasn’t easy, of course, because we had a lot of stuff to catch up on. But we sat down, spent days studying – and at the next, well maybe only at the next but one exam, we were again in first place.
Even later, when I made my career in the industry as a woman, it always came out again: If someone approaches something with the attitude that the biggest part is preparation and you just have to work for it to be successful THEN, that also works. But if you go in with the attitude “This won’t work,” then it won’t work out.
A network that catches you
And so, after my husband’s death, I was convinced that was the attitude that should be with me again. The weeks went by. Months passed. I was perfect. I went to school and attended my seminars. In the afternoon, I spent my time with the children. Fortunately, I had the greatest nanny in the world, who, by the way, is still with us today and has become a kind of surrogate mother for my boys over the years. And I had friends who caught me, who were just there, who accompanied me in the hard hours. And those hours, sometimes even whole days, which were dark and made me doubt whether I was really up to the whole thing, came again and again, even if the distances between them became bigger and bigger.
If I look back on this time today, then I realize again and again that countless people saved me after I had lost the most important person in my life. The network of these people literally caught me, it prevented me from crashing, going crazy or drowning in despair.
It started with two people, who were still quite small at that time, my incomparable boys, of whom I am infinitely proud, and who showed me every day anew that life must go on. Then, of course, my family and close friends who were there for me. And last but not least, people who were completely unknown to me until then. We had just moved more or less freshly to the village, and I didn’t know anybody in the surrounding area, in our street. Suddenly, these people, whom I didn’t know, stood outside our door and offered me their help. Some of them are now my best friends.
Years later, I asked them once: “Tell me, why were you standing in front of my door at the time?” The answer was and still is as simple as it is impressive: “Well, because you needed help and because I liked you. That’s it.”
Even today, I still try to pass this on – to give something back from what was positive to me at the worst moment of my life. I don’t look away in crises like grief because it’s easier. Conversely, the exchange with like-minded people is also very valuable for me in the positive; when people move something together, they have the same curiosity and thus give each other energy.
Even today, it is extremely important for me to know people in my environment on whom I can rely and who do me good. And vice versa, of course. It probably has something to do with the positive experiences at that time that I have no problem with giving my trust to unknown people – without thinking about what it brings me or what I get back for it. I love to connect people whom I believe will benefit from one another. And especially lately, I have noticed that people are recommended to me again and again whose strength or talent I need exactly at the moment.
At that time, one of those people, whom I undoubtedly needed urgently, was a very dear friend who had just moved to Atlanta with her husband. They will certainly think about the distance – not feasible – but exactly the opposite was the case: That was really great. Because of the time difference, when my day was over, and I was just often at the end of my strength, she had just had lunch, and we could talk. Without her and the almost daily conversations with her, I would not have survived that first year after the death of my husband. Because we had moved several times, many people from our network of friends were not nearby. But even if they were sitting in Hamburg and Munich, in France, or even in the USA, they were always there for me.
The conversations did me good, and, yes, somehow everything went on. I, too, was almost perfect – at least to the outside world. I gave the role of the loving mother and did everything that had to be done in the general German idea of a loving mother. But I felt nothing. Nothing at all. No joy. No love. No pain. And I had no more dreams, either.
I functioned on one side, and on the other, I felt like a leaf in the wind. I had turned my back on the industry, was on my way to the second state examination. And despite all the imponderables, I was sure that for me, or better for us, with my teaching position for math and physics, the world could not really end. I was convinced that this combination of subjects would always give me a job. So, time passed. I passed my second state examination and finally could teach mathematics and physics at German grammar schools – and somehow didn’t know what to do. But I was always good at making plans. And I knew that something had to happen now.
During the passing weeks and months, I had learned to accept support and help. And I’m still convinced today that if we can’t succeed on our own, we’ll have to get help from outside. We are simply not able to ask ourselves the right questions, as we can when it comes to the problems of our friends.
So, others helped me, or rather, they found me. The coincidence, which as you know does not exist, wanted me to be in the sauna with a friend when they offered me a trial date for floating. Rebekka was the name of the fairy godmother, who simply moved me back and forth in the water floating to the sounds of dolphins underwater – until I finally started to cry and let out all my pain. We worked together – with the body, not with the mind. With emotions, not with thoughts, and certainly not with old, outdated norms or values.
And something else happened little by little. My children were my best feedback system. I learned that we were only doing well together when I was doing well. I didn’t want to admit that for a long time. But again, and again, some situations showed me exactly that. And I decided to take more care of myself from now on. And so very slowly, we became a family again.
This was accompanied by the question: “WHAT exactly do I want to do?” This question was not new to me; I had asked myself this question several times in the past years.
As a woman in a leading role
As a woman in the business world, I had to experience with sorrow how different systems can tick as soon as you become pregnant as a woman in a leading role. The first boss was spontaneously happy with me, and his only question was : “Marion, how do you imagine this with a child?” He fully supported my part-time work, and I enjoyed returning to work relatively quickly after my pregnancy. To see my old colleagues. To do a good job.
But when I came back after the second pregnancy, someone else was suddenly there. A former management consultant. He also had two children and a wife. But she, also a management consultant, stayed at home with an au pair and two children. A completely different role model – and he couldn’t handle my way at all. Interesting things happened that I couldn’t understand at first. Or maybe I didn’t want to see. But at some point, I had to find out and admit it to myself: He simply wanted me to get out.
That fueled my frustration. I wanted to work. I still had just as much in my head as before. And why shouldn’t it still work with two children? But to be so dependent on the boss supporting a part time job? I certainly didn’t want that any longer!
I thought for the first time about what I actually wanted to do in life. I rediscovered my girlhood dream of supporting people in their development. Therefore, I had decided to leave the economy to find my happiness at school.
Was that my way? Or should I now return to the economy? Where was my future? How could I bring my family through safely?
The offer of the company, in which my husband was passionately active until his end, still stood. A difficult decision that I did not want to make lightly. School or business? Especially in the company, which I blamed for the death of my husband. But wait! There was something else: Hadn’t I learned in the last weeks and months that my children only feel good when I feel good myself? Hadn’t I had to experience painfully that everyone is replaceable?
It slowly dawned on me: Companies will always only take, take, take. Another order here, another to-do list there. And you know what? That’s good and right! A boss can’t know how long someone is sitting on a task. How much time does it take to work on project A or project B? He would have to tell his employees exactly the way to go. But this is exactly what contradicts the employee’s personal responsibility, his freedom to handle tasks in the way he is able, willing and believes to be sensible.
The only one who can say “NO” is me
Once again it became clear to me: The only one who can say, “NO” – that’s me. And I learned even more: The only one who could have escaped the stress would have been my husband. He was the only one who knew what he had on the program, which tasks were piled up in his to-do list. He was the only one who knew whether he had to work hard for three weeks for the evaluation, or knew someone who had perhaps already prepared it for another context. And I suddenly became aware: If he could have said, “No,” maybe nothing would have happened!
This realization spread more and more within me. I was overcome by an inner peace from which I was able to see it all again from a completely different perspective, even in a completely new light. And there was even more: I wanted – as I had done a few weeks before – to communicate this to everyone I met. I wanted to scream: “Take care! Take your life in your hands! And then realized: Damn, that also applies to me!” Oops, not noticed at all.
I talked a lot, with good friends, with strangers, with psychologists, women, men, teachers, and employees, and finally found my solution: Yes, I wanted to support people in their personal development. But no, I didn’t want to do this at school.
I wanted to accompany adult people to find their own limits and show them. I wanted to introduce companies to a culture that is characterized by joy and trust. And if there is then trusting cooperation, everyone may say, “NO.” Mistakes may happen, and people need not be afraid of them, because mistakes are seen as learning fields.
My husband’s company was no longer taboo for me. I started again in our former company. I went one step back, was no longer a manager. All day long, I did nothing but develop concepts for a respectful and trusting company culture. And to train people to implement this culture and to live it every day – from managers to every single employee and back again. Between departments, at all hierarchical levels, from trainee to boss.
Looking back, I can only say one thing: I was naive! I actually thought that if we were to work together on the topic of customers, if we wanted to teach others that customer orientation should be the greatest and the only means for further success, then we would have to live it! My colleagues and I worked hard. We never got tired of presenting ourselves as contact partners, of getting involved with all our heart and soul. Even on a poster about our Guiding Principles, our faces smiled at us almost everywhere from the walls. We were happy and proud. And we were happy to be able to pursue this beautiful activity.
What can I say: My career did not only go on and on but also went steeply up relatively fast. The success proved me right once again! I was promoted and was responsible for 300 million euros. My alarm clock rang punctually at 5 a.m. so that I could read my emails before I woke up my children with my mobile phone in my hand at 6:30 to prepare everything for school. Quickly packed my snacks, a short breakfast together and off to work. The next break was from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Then work until midnight. Five hours of sleep. And the next day everything started all over again.
I didn’t see what happened. I didn’t see that my life had been just as strained as my husband had been in the years before. I did not see that my children became more and more restless, dissatisfied and unhappy. I only noticed that I had more and more stress with them. I didn’t realize what it all did to me – to us.
But one day I woke up suddenly! On that day, I had a feedback meeting with my temporary CEO. He had been in office for just six weeks and was about to restructure. I led the smallest of three areas that were to be merged.
I’m sitting in his office. He offers me coffee and water, just like you do. The obligatory small talk. Suddenly, he says a sentence that should completely disassemble me: “Mrs. Bourgeois, unfortunately, we have no more use for you.”
No more use? Three words I couldn’t grasp! But I had given everything. Doesn’t he know what I did? That cannot be! And why at all? I was speechless and unspeakably angry. I was at a loss about what was to become of me now. But I had relied on the fact that at least my job was a constant in life. By the way, there was a lot of trouble in my life again – even if I didn’t want to or couldn’t see it for a long time because I needed all my strength and energy for my career. I did this with the best of intentions, wanting to secure my family. That I had almost destroyed them became clear to me only sometime later.
Fortunately, there was also now a network that I could count on. People who listened to me and helped me to process what had happened in the last few months. The realization hit me like a blow and literally put me down. I was diagnosed with pneumonia.
I was forced to spend the next few days at home on the couch. In this medically prescribed silence, I finally had time to think – to think about what had happened. Fortunately, it was just pneumonia and not a heart attack like my husband’s, whom I had lost six years earlier. I was in the second big crisis of my life – but this time it was really my own health, my own life, which I had put at risk.
Faster than then, this time I realized that I couldn’t blame anybody else. Not my company, not my family. The next deep case was on my account – and again it was the well-known trigger: I hadn’t said “NO”. I had taken no responsibility for myself, my body and my life. I thought it would continue somehow. After all, every day is a new beginning. Until the beginning comes to an abrupt end, as I had to experience myself years before.
I lay on the couch and reviewed what had happened in the last few weeks: My father had a stroke, my mother then went to a nursing home, blaming me, not to take care for her. She had told me that over and over again. But how could I have done otherwise with my job and two children? I had separated from my friend after he accused me of not being my garbage can. Somehow, I had done what I could – at least in my perception – but it was never enough. I had lost my job, my boys weren’t happy, my parents were in bad health and I didn’t have enough time for my boyfriend either – and the time we spent together didn’t do him any good.
BUT – regardless of all those important people around me, I had taken even less care of the most important person: ME! There wasn’t much left of the realization that my boys were only doing well when I was doing well. Somehow, I had lost the knowledge on my way. Somewhere I had taken a wrong turn. Something had flattened me and that something was me.
Self-knowledge is not easy, but inevitable if we want to develop further. And that’s what I wanted! I decided to look forward and not back. I had analyzed what had happened. Now it was time again to make a plan. To think again about what I want in life. In any case, it should not go on like this. It was just before Easter, and I decided to go with my boys skiing. In the past, the four of us liked to do that, and now I wanted to use the freedom of the mountains to gain farsightedness not only for physical activity but also for thought – about mine, about our future.
Said, done. And what can I say: They were wonderful, incomparably beautiful days and moving for me in every respect. Even though I wasn’t quite as well physically yet, I was visibly recovering. And I finally decided to start the Marion project.
A moment that changed everything once again
It was in the summer of 2012. A party at a friends’ house. We celebrated with one of our football crazy friends. He had a house with a huge barn in the back. As soon as an event was announced that was suitable for public viewing, a screen was set up, the event was loudly commented and celebrated while the grill was running and lots of drinks were poured.
This time, there was also a DJ from our group who heated us up after the victory of the Germans. And I danced – for the first time in ten years – again. You must know, dancing was a great passion for me as a child. At that time, there was nothing bigger, nothing more important for me. Like so many little girls, I started ballet early. Later, I was a semi-professional Latin American dancer. And there Gunnar sat at the edge. I only knew him because he worked for the local electrician and installed a television for me. A mountain from a man. Full of tattoos. And knowing me otherwise only “professionally.” Gunnar looked at me, watched me dance for a while, came up to me and asked me: “Marion, where else is this woman? The woman who is so full of energy here. Does she shine in such a way that you can turn off the light? What are you doing with this energy?” It was a question that changed my life.
That evening, I decided to pursue my old hobby again regularly. Also, I found myself back in my everyday life. I knew about my priorities in life. I knew that I would prioritize everything else – except that my children always would be first. I knew that dancing would energize me. But what I still didn’t know for sure: How could I realize what I wanted to do professionally – without endangering our existence? Without an employer?
A short time later, I was sitting in a seminar that would once again change my life enormously. This seminar is all about me. It is about my meaning in life. It is about my values. It’s about my vision. And then the trainer asks exactly this one crucial question: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
And my whole house of cards is falling apart.
Yes, if I wasn’t afraid – then I would be free. Then I’d be free to do things I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Then I would finally start my own business. And: Then I would finally be able again to enter into a reliable, binding relationship.
The seminar was in 2012. A lot has changed since then. Marion in happiness
On the day my husband died, I was celebrating my 20th school anniversary. If I look back on my 18-year-old self today, I would, to be honest, not do much differently. I would perhaps shout to my 18-year-old self: “Do your thing! Stay yourself! Have your own opinion and express it!” I could always express my emotions and arguments wonderfully – for others, for topics, for things, for ideas. But I couldn’t do it for myself! Not for a long time. In the meantime, I have learned it and feel comfortable in my skin, in my life. Yes, this way, my way, brought me right here, so I would do differently only a little. Only to start with it earlier.
I am Marion, 52 years old, Doctor of Physics, but at some point, I realized that my heart was not only beating for numbers but much more for people. I have been involved in cultural change for twelve years and started my own business four years ago. I want to encourage people, especially in management, in companies, to be happy and successful – by supporting them in taking on responsibility for themselves.
Yes, I’m fine and I can’t imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing every day right now. I have a job that inspires me. I am still curious and learn something new every day. When I work with my participants, I come back home full of energy. My two boys are developing splendidly. I am infinitely proud of them. And I’ve been remarried for three years and live in Cologne. On our wedding rings, it says: “Zo levve e levve lang.”
For us, this is a synonym for, “Enjoy every day. Enjoy every single moment. And try to see beautiful moments every day.” I am convinced that you are what you are telling. If you only ever tell yourself – and others – the negative things, then you and others – will think: You are the unluckiest person! But the opposite is also true. Telling yourself – and others – the happy things you experience, the things you meet, then you feel as being the happiest person ever. And I am Marion in happiness.
And at some point, it fell like scales from my eyes: My second life started on November 24, 2006.