How This Woman Channeled Immense Grief To Launch Her Business


I just recently moved and was rummaging through some old journals. As I was reading some of what I wrote over the past 17 years, I realized that opening my own business was something I often thought about. There were lots of ideas: skin care products, spas, boutiques, there was even a thought about opening a microbrewery. For a long time, those ideas all stayed in journals. I always found a way to talk myself out of moving forward. Fear was probably the reason. Fear of failure, fear of losing money or not having enough, and I am sure there were plenty of other excuses fueled by fear. I also had a very successful sales career in high-tech, a husband who loved to travel (how could I travel for weeks at a time and run a business) and an overall comfortable life. And then it all changed…

About Robin

I have been living and breathing fashion my entire life. I went to school for fashion and business management, determined to forge myself a career in the industry. Once I graduated, I started from the ground up, putting in my dues and gaining valuable insight along the way.

Robin Barrett Wilson

I began in retail management, then became a buyer, then a merchandiser, and, eventually, I turned towards the tech side of fashion, working alongside retailers (some of the best brands in the industry) to weave in software solutions that were right for their business. I have worked for and with some of the smartest people in their industry, from data-scientists developing AI solutions, to the most talented merchants and marketers. I have learned so much over the years that I have been able to take that knowledge and share it with others to help with their success. Truly rewarding.

In the prime of my career, I met and married my husband. It was love at first sight, at least for me. He was the love of my life. He was smart, funny and loved to travel. Our marriage was easy, supportive and loving. Filled with honesty and trust. He was my biggest cheerleader and advocate. He encouraged me to overcome my fears and take charge. From learning to ski at 32, to going after the career I wanted, to running ½ marathons, Michael was there for me. Always.

We learned of Michael’s illness in 2011, two months after we moved to North Carolina for his job. It was two days before Christmas when they discovered a blockage in his colon.

We had dealt with cancer before. A year after we were married he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but that was easy compared to this. He had the surgery and recovered without chemo or any further treatment. This was not going to be the same outcome, this was stage 4. The cancer had already traveled to his liver and lymph nodes. Look up Stage 4 colon cancer on Cancer.org and you will see people who are diagnosed have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 11 percent. Everything was about to change.

He had his surgery in January of 2012 and started chemo six weeks later. The side effects came quick. Everything tasted funny, the numbness in his hands and feet happened almost instantly and that damn chemo pump that came home with us for two nights in a row, every other week was a real downer. But in his normal fashion, Michael stayed positive, walked the dog daily and when he was ready he went back to work. Yes, he went back to work and he insisted I stay working, which I did.

Robin Barrett Wilson

What you don’t hear about is how much fear is coupled with this type of diagnosis. Of course, Michael was afraid. The chemo, side effects, how would he feel, etc. However, as the caretaker, I refused to express my fear. I wanted to be strong for him. I wanted to be the one who eased his discomfort and helped him cope. I came up with a plan, labels for pills, food I knew he would eat, clothing to keep him warm, journaling every doctor visit. I planned it all so we could collectively get over the fear.

We talked all the time about what was happening, we prepared for the inevitable and in the end (ten months after the surgery), he lost the battle. On a very quiet morning in October, two months after our 11th wedding anniversary, he left this world and me.

The New Normal

But I was prepared. Michael and I had discussed it all. The funeral, the estate and what I would do after he was gone. It was all wrapped up in a little package for me to execute and stay the course. Until I realized, I was completely devastated. The house was a shrine, I moved nothing. I drank and ate too much. I fell out of my routine of working out and socializing. I wanted to stay in the house and hide. I was afraid!

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” wrote C.S. Lewis, and he was right. To show that I could handle the grief, I went back to work two weeks after his death. I wanted to escape, and working was the only thing I could think of doing. When my friends and family called, I lied about how I was doing. I wanted to be strong. All of this helped a bit, but not enough.

At some point, I realized I needed a plan. The fear and grief (although I couldn’t tell them apart) had me paralyzed. I decided I needed to find outside help. I needed someone who could “tell it to me straight” no matter what the thought or idea was.

It was a session with my counselor that pushed me forward, just a little bit. I was explaining how I had read all these books about being a widow (five to be exact) and every book said to do nothing the first year after a death. Don’t move, don’t make any big purchases, and keep everything the same. I thought my counselor was going to laugh herself silly. That was when she said, “Robin, there are no rules about grieving or what someone should or shouldn’t do after a loved one dies. Sell that house and move back to be with family”. You see, when we moved to NC, we knew no one. And then Michael died, so I was alone.

Robin's sketches

Overcoming my fear, I sold the house, downsized by selling some of my furniture and moved back to my home state, Rhode Island. A place I had promised, when I was 25 and moved away to pursue that fashion career, I would never move back to. Now here I was 45 years old, in an apartment and working a new job. Traveling every week and staying home on weekends, I found nothing had changed. I was still devastated and totally lost. I no longer loved my job (it seemed so meaningless) and I couldn’t find the motivation to get back to the person I used to be. Looking back, I know it was fear. Fear of starting over, of living without Michael, of not knowing what my future would look like.

Letting Go of Fear

I had to return to Montana to spread Michael’s ashes. It had been a bit more than a year since he had been gone and I found the trip to be therapeutic. Something I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. I found myself dreaming again. Thinking about my future differently. I started to journal about starting a business in the fashion industry. I started to scout out locations, shop in local boutiques, and I started a business plan. Almost as if Michael was there encouraging me (Montana was his favorite place) to move past the fear and start again.

In November of 2015, I opened my boutique in Rhode Island. I also launched my website at the same time, not something I would recommend. For the first six months, I worked by myself in the store, skipped a salary, and worked on growing the business, a situation that would’ve once been very scary to me. When I think of what always held me back, fear comes to mind, but somehow, when it came time to make the dreams from my journal come true, fear was the emotion that propelled me forward.

As I stood in the store day after day, the strangest things happened. I would meet many women, all who had their struggles; cancer, parents with illnesses, children struggling to fit in, and other widows. I would find that during those moments, I had the ability to encourage and advise. To show that there is life again, although different. One encounter really stands out. This beautiful, 45-year-old woman came in looking for a dress. After talking, very briefly, she shared she had just lost her husband (colon cancer) six months prior. My breath caught, and I had to push back the tears. I ached for her. She was just starting (it had been three+ years since my loss) and I knew how hard this was going to be for her. I was afraid to say anything to this stranger. Who was I to share some insight? I didn’t want to offend, nor diminish her grief. But in the end, I said what I knew to be true. “You will always love him, you will always miss him, but you will get used to him not being there.” I was surprised at her smile. Her response, “Thank you, finally someone who isn’t telling me everything is going to be alright.”

As I locked up the store that night, I vowed never to forget that meeting. And since then, I have met quite a few women who have lost their husbands. Every time I am amazed and encouraged by their strength. I am also reminded that fear, something that once held me back is now something that drives me. I embrace it, plan, and move forward.

Our newsletter that womansplains the week
5min read

Patriarchy Stress Disorder is A Real Thing and this Psychologist Is Helping Women Overcome It

For decades, women have been unknowingly suffering from PSD and intergenerational trauma, but now Dr. Valerie Rein wants women to reclaim their power through mind, body and healing tools.

As women, no matter how many accomplishments we have or how successful we look on the outside, we all occasionally hear that nagging internal voice telling us to do more. We criticize ourselves more than anyone else and then throw ourselves into the never-ending cycle of self-care, all in effort to save ourselves from crashing into this invisible internal wall. According to psychologist, entrepreneur and author, Dr. Valerie Rein, these feelings are not your fault and there is nothing wrong with you— but chances are you definitely suffering from Patriarchy Stress Disorder.

Patriarchy Stress Disorder (PSD) is defined as the collective inherited trauma of oppression that forms an invisible inner barrier to women's happiness and fulfillment. The term was coined by Rein who discovered a missing link between trauma and the effects that patriarchal power structures have had on certain groups of people all throughout history up until the present day. Her life experience, in addition to research, have led Rein to develop a deeper understanding of the ways in which men and women are experiencing symptoms of trauma and stress that have been genetically passed down from previously oppressed generations.

What makes the discovery of this disorder significant is that it provides women with an answer to the stresses and trauma we feel but cannot explain or overcome. After being admitted to the ER with stroke-like symptoms one afternoon, when Rein noticed the left side of her body and face going numb, she was baffled to learn from her doctors that the results of her tests revealed that her stroke-like symptoms were caused by stress. Rein was then left to figure out what exactly she did for her clients in order for them to be able to step into the fullness of themselves that she was unable to do for herself. "What started seeping through the tears was the realization that I checked all the boxes that society told me I needed to feel happy and fulfilled, but I didn't feel happy or fulfilled and I didn't feel unhappy either. I didn't feel much of anything at all, not even stress," she stated.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Valerie Rein

This raised the question for Rein as to what sort of hidden traumas women are suppressing without having any awareness of its presence. In her evaluation of her healing methodology, Rein realized that she was using mind, body and trauma healing tools with her clients because, while they had never experienced a traumatic event, they were showing the tell-tale symptoms of trauma which are described as a disconnect from parts of ourselves, body and emotions. In addition to her personal evaluation, research at the time had revealed that traumatic experiences are, in fact, passed down genetically throughout generations. This was Rein's lightbulb moment. The answer to a very real problem that she, and all women, have been experiencing is intergenerational trauma as a result of oppression formed under the patriarchy.

Although Rein's discovery would undoubtably change the way women experience and understand stress, it was crucial that she first broaden the definition of trauma not with the intention of catering to PSD, but to better identify the ways in which trauma presents itself in the current generation. When studying psychology from the books and diagnostic manuals written exclusively by white men, trauma was narrowly defined as a life-threatening experience. By that definition, not many people fit the bill despite showing trauma-like symptoms such as disconnections from parts of their body, emotions and self-expression. However, as the field of psychology has expanded, more voices have been joining the conversations and expanding the definition of trauma based on their lived experience. "I have broadened the definition to say that any experience that makes us feel unsafe psychically or emotionally can be traumatic," stated Rein. By redefining trauma, people across the gender spectrum are able to find validation in their experiences and begin their journey to healing these traumas not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

While PSD is not experienced by one particular gender, as women who have been one of the most historically disadvantaged and oppressed groups, we have inherited survival instructions that express themselves differently for different women. For some women, this means their nervous systems freeze when faced with something that has been historically dangerous for women such as stepping into their power, speaking out, being visible or making a lot of money. Then there are women who go into fight or flight mode. Although they are able to stand in the spotlight, they pay a high price for it when their nervous system begins to work in a constant state of hyper vigilance in order to keep them safe. These women often find themselves having trouble with anxiety, intimacy, sleeping or relaxing without a glass of wine or a pill. Because of this, adrenaline fatigue has become an epidemic among high achieving women that is resulting in heightened levels of stress and anxiety.

"For the first time, it makes sense that we are not broken or making this up, and we have gained this understanding by looking through the lens of a shared trauma. All of these things have been either forbidden or impossible for women. A woman's power has always been a punishable offense throughout history," stated Rein.

Although the idea of having a disorder may be scary to some and even potentially contribute to a victim mentality, Rein wants people to be empowered by PSD and to see it as a diagnosis meant to validate your experience by giving it a name, making it real and giving you a means to heal yourself. "There are still experiences in our lives that are triggering PSD and the more layers we heal, the more power we claim, the more resilience we have and more ability we have in staying plugged into our power and happiness. These triggers affect us less and less the more we heal," emphasized Rein. While the task of breaking intergenerational transmission of trauma seems intimidating, the author has flipped the negative approach to the healing journey from a game of survival to the game of how good can it get.

In her new book, Patriarchy Stress Disorder: The Invisible Barrier to Women's Happiness and Fulfillment, Rein details an easy system for healing that includes the necessary tools she has sourced over 20 years on her healing exploration with the pioneers of mind, body and trauma resolution. Her 5-step system serves to help "Jailbreakers" escape the inner prison of PSD and other hidden trauma through the process of Waking Up in Prison, Meeting the Prison Guards, Turning the Prison Guards into Body Guards, Digging the Tunnel to Freedom and Savoring Freedom. Readers can also find free tools on Rein's website to help aid in their healing journey and exploration.

"I think of the book coming out as the birth of a movement. Healing is not women against men– it's women, men and people across the gender spectrum, coming together in a shared understanding that we all have trauma and we can all heal."