How Lori Van Dusen used words to heal

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For Lori Van Dusen, 2020 was a harrowing year. Her husband’s suicide thrust Van Dusen into the unforgiving depths of profound grief, guilt and unanswered questions.

To heal, a therapist suggested journaling. Those notes turned into a bestselling book, “Running with Grace,” in which Van Dusen–founder and CEO of LVW Advisors, and a nationally recognized wealth adviser–chronicles her life’s journey with vulnerability, suggesting by example how readers can find purpose and joy amid harsh realities.

“There’s something about writing–actually writing and putting a pen to a paper, and how things kind of transfer into your brain–that’s healing,” Van Dusen observes. “So, what is now the book was really a bunch of journal entries to try to go through what I was thinking, and then it kind of started to shape itself into this narrative.”

The narrative takes the reader through Van Dusen’s highs and lows, painting a picture of a woman who worked hard in a realm dominated by men. While the book tells Van Dusen’s story, each chapter is organized around a positive message of strength. “Curveballs are great teachers,” reads one title; another is “Love the entire bumpy journey.”

Lori Van Dusen

This is Van Dusen’s first book–she has considered writing one in the past, documenting her rise as an independent financial adviser after her time on Wall Street and at Harvard, sharing wisdom on finding balance between work and life and the sacred nature of exercise and meditation. However, it never materialized. Now, in “Running with Grace,” she does that, but with a much bigger purpose.

Van Dusen says:  “I didn’t go through all of this stuff to just mark time, I need to share it. It’s not just a healing journey for me, but this could be really helpful to people going through all kinds of transitions, the things that happen in life.

“We all experience death, we all will,” she adds. “We all will (experience) some form of failure. All of the things that I talk about in the book, I just thought … there’s got to be a reason for all this, and maybe I just need to put it out there.”

Though the book might appear to be a seamless train of thought, writing about the death of her husband, Ron Boillat, was difficult. Van Dusen wanted to be truthful and honor his presence in her life for three decades.

But first, she had to forgive herself for not spotting Boillat’s mental anguish.

“Someone who could read a room and navigate a lot of complex circumstances, you have to have some level of emotional intelligence,” Van Dusen says of herself. “How could I have missed everything? Forgiving myself for that, and also, forgiving him was a large part of me getting to the point where I could write about it, and then release it out into the world.”

She admits that talking about suicide–often a taboo subject in society–is no easy task. Her sons, Conner and Cole, helped her realize that people stood to benefit if she addressed the issue openly. Survivors of suicide often aren’t able to reach out to others. In addition to blaming themselves, they are repeatedly trying to solve a mystery.

“I’ve learned so much following his death that I didn’t know both about him but also the reasons,” Van Dusen says. “The one thing I’ve learned that’s overarching is that sometimes you’re never ever going to be able to understand it or solve the mystery, but there are certain things, certain clues and things that you pick up on that I didn’t. I would now, but I didn’t then. There was no way I could have known that he was struggling with the kind of depression and anxiety that he was struggling with because he didn’t show it. He did the opposite.”

The chapter on Boillat’s death is titled “Don’t build your own prison.” Their life together, Van Dusen writes, was full of love and joy. Her husband, who suffered childhood trauma, tried hard to accept grace, which Van Dusen asks her readers to surrender to, but never felt worthy. Boillat blamed himself and battled his demons alone. His widow calls it the “wretched curse of the abused.” 

The story of the fateful day transports the reader into Van Dusen’s state of mind after the event. Still, she says she kept some details private–she wanted the purpose of the book to be clear: help people navigate life. 

“There’s a certain privacy that I kept in many of the stories; even though it seems like a very vulnerable, emotional book, there’s actually a very large part of it that’s actually really private, including the fact that I obscured details in some of the stories, of places and people and situations, because it wasn’t about them,” she says. “It was about what did I learn from it? The kind of the connectivity in life of, you can’t take one thing out of your chapter and say, ‘Well, if only that hadn’t happened, I would be successful at this.’”

Van Dusen’s decision to speak her truth was intentional. By many standards, she acknowledges that she has achieved considerable success. Van Dusen has broken barriers and been honored numerous times for her work, including as one of Forbes’ Top  Women Wealth Advisors and Barron’s Top 1200 Financial Advisors last year.

Writing the book has helped her find peace.

“It’s a very healing thing, to get to the point where you can say, I know that’s not true, it wasn’t my fault, I couldn’t have prevented it, I couldn’t have known, but now I do, now I understand more,” Van Dusen says. “It makes you deeper and wider. … There’s only two paths here, and one path is to just go backwards, which is the definition of dying and the other is to figure out how to integrate it and move forward.

“But everybody has their own timeline for that,” she adds, “and the book helped me get through to a point where I was not completely healed and you never get over it per se, you never get completely over something like this, but you learn this is how I can live with it. I can get joy back and happiness, you know, in my life, even with such a loss.”

Van Dusen did not have any expectations in terms of book sales, after self-publishing her words.  Her beta readers told Van Dusen it would be well-received and would help others. All she wanted, Van Dusen says, was to be true to herself.

“I’ve never had these grand expectations. I just know that staying true to myself, and doing what’s peaceful in the center has always been the right path for me, and it’s produced something better, ultimately,” she says. “When I’ve gone against that, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I think one of the things I’ve learned to do is to tune into my intuition, my true intuition, which is truly about all these things coming together, your head, your heart, your soul being aligned, that’s when you’re peaceful about something in your life.”

A small part of her also wanted to take control of the narrative. When a tragedy like her husband’s death occurs, people not in the know tend to use their imagination.

“The truth is, he was a good husband and he was a good father, and he was a good person,” Van Dusen says. “He was not this caricature or this narrative that people have made up because they don’t know how to understand it.”

Her memoir, she asserts, is not about suicide but about life and its process–embracing its ups and downs. She hopes that it helps her readers remember to center themselves–via meditation, prayer, music or journaling– which offers strength through trauma and adversity.

“What I’ve learned about trauma is remarkable,” Van Dusen says. “From my own experience (you) literally shut down. Your body shuts down your mind for a while.

“I left and came back,” she adds with a chuckle. “You literally have to leave because it’s so overwhelming. And when you come back … I always say it was like being Rip Van Winkle. You come back, and everything is awful. And you have to figure out how to integrate all that. The whole process gives you this power to learn about yourself.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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