The Pain and Beauty of Life

Laos is the homeland I fled with my family at the tender age of four, half asleep, in the dark of night, across the Mekong River. According to The Guardian, “Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973.” That’s more bombs than were dropped in all of World War II, giving my homeland the distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the world.

It took three years, but through secret letters and encrypted telegrams to relatives living in Thailand, my father was able to coordinate and execute an escape plan. We went in the middle of the night, escaping with only the moonlight, and made it across the Mekong River. Relatives who were living in Thailand met us and hid us in a produce truck, stacking boxes of vegetables to hide us. When we reached a safe house, we stayed with these relatives for a couple of weeks while my father and uncles mapped out a way to get us inside a nearby overcrowded refugee camp.

On the night we traveled to the refugee camp, we quietly waited until there were no guards in sight.

My grandmother recounted how she, along with my father and uncle, shoveled dirt underneath barb wire fences so that we could each crawl under and find refuge within the “walls” of the camp. Our family was very fortunate. We lived at the refugee camp for only a year before we were sponsored by Davies Unitarian Church, a small church in the State of Maryland that helped us become permanent residents of the United States of America.

During my childhood days, life was confusing. At home I was a traditional Lao girl and when I went to school, I often found myself either hiding or trying very hard to fit in. Identity was a struggle during this phase of my life.

When I was fifteen years old, I began working at a fast-food restaurant to support my parents with household bills. Every other check went to the family expenses and what I was able to keep was in preparation for my college tuition. I worked every night after high school, including weekends, knowing that this was the only way I could afford college. I studied very hard with full intention of qualifying for academic scholarships and eventually graduated at the top of my class. My high marks awarded me several scholarships, covering the first two years of my university tuition.

It was this natural charm and humor that attracted me to him. Five years flew by and he finally proposed marriage.

In order to graduate, I worked full-time, studying very late into the early mornings with only a few hours of sleep each night. This went on for five years. When I finally graduated, it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Two months from college graduation, I was hired by a government contractor to join their commercial marketing division. At age 22, I would be responsible for submitting a marketing plan to the Vice President for consideration. In preparation for this project, I was introduced to a gentleman named Chris, who was part of the federal marketing team. I shared an office with him and he became my friend and mentor. After working closely together for months on end, our friendship blossomed into admiration, which then turned into love.  He was a kind and sensitive soul whose laughter was infectious. He was the light of the party and had charisma like you wouldn’t believe.  It was this natural charm and humor that attracted me to him. Five years flew by and he finally proposed marriage.

On a hot summer day in 2003, Chris and I went on a family picnic. I was excited to introduce him to my extended family and friends as my new fiancé. It was during this picnic that my world came to a halt. As I was finishing up with food preparations, I walked toward the water to see that Chris and my brother-in-law were waist high in the Potomac River, talking and laughing while our nephews and relatives were splashing water at each other. Within seconds, Chris must have felt my presence from afar because he turned around and waved at me. He motioned for me to join them but I held up five fingers, as I still needed a few minutes to finish up with the food prep. He nodded as if to say, “OK” and gave me a thumbs-up signal. I smiled, waved, and made my way toward the picnic tables.

That was the last gesture he ever offered me, telling me he was going to be ok.

Soon after I walked away from the scene, there was a riptide that came in and swept away five of the boys who were wading in the water. My brother-in-law and Chris swam out to rescue them. They were able to bring four to safety with help from nearby jet skiers. Unfortunately, Chris lost his life trying to save the last child, my brother-in-law’s nephew, and they both left this earthly plane together that afternoon.

The months that followed, the steps that I took, the weight of an elephant that showed up to sit upon my chest, these things gave me many words with which to fill up my journals. My family and friends were there to support me and yet I needed to find other ways to grieve and to heal from within. I felt so smothered by care and love that I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to pretend to be alright. I didn’t want to have to shed (or hide) tears. I just wanted to “be” and I was frustrated every day because I didn’t know what “being” meant in my despair.

It was at least eight months before I could see or think straight and another year before I fully reached acceptance that my life had taken a different course than the one I had set out to travel.

I had to come to terms with this reality and create a fresh starting point. As I embarked on creating a new start, it included a change in my career. I started a financial practice with the goal of educating others on the importance of planning, helping them prepare for unexpected life events like the one I had just experienced.

At my first networking event after launching the practice, I remember feeling nervous and very much alone. There was a moment when I thought to myself, “What am I doing? I have no idea how to run a business. Is building this practice even going to work?” I thought to leave the networking event and just go home, curl up in my bed and cry. But then I heard another voice in my head say; “You have no other choice but to move on with your life. He cannot come back and the only place for you to turn is forward”.  I took in a deep breath, drew out a sigh, and challenged myself to stay.

I rallied my inner thoughts to focus. I challenged myself to find the first friendly face that walked through the doors, look forward and go make a new friend.

Several people walked in and then I spotted a man who entered the room with a smile. I walked up to him, learned that his name was Victor, and told him that this was my first time at this networking event. I learned it was his first time also. We navigated the room together that day and stayed in touch. He became a client of mine. We became good friends, like so many of my other clients.

Three years after Chris’ passing, we learned that my father had aggressive liver cancer. Within three weeks of learning of his illness, he passed away.  I spent every possible hour with my father in those final weeks. I learned so much about this man and his vision and mission for his life.

He told me that the moment he got his entire family safely across the Mekong River was the moment he had accomplished his life’s mission.

Everything else was an additional blessing that he negotiated with the Universe. When he prayed for us to survive that original journey, he promised he’d raise us to be incredible souls. My father did not fear the afterlife; he only worried whether his family members were going to navigate through life without too many challenges.

My journey of grief and healing included other experiences after Chris and my father.  Within a time span of ten years, I dealt with the loss of my godfather to cancer, best friend, Rafael, to suicide, uncle to lung cancer, and grandmother to a decline in health after two hip surgeries.

What I have come to understand about life’s tragic events is that we will all experience them. With each painful setback, we also get set up for a higher level of awareness and consciousness that prepares us for how we handle future challenges.

I have found some solace in knowing that we, as human beings, have the capacity to move forward. Even though I was consumed with fear for many years due to the collective years of traumatic losses, I knew I had to crawl my way out of this fear mode before it embedded in my psyche. Through my own experiences, I believe we can find within us the will and strength to nurture and heal the broken pieces. I did this by seeking help. I read countless books, got counseled, worked with transformational coaches, attended retreats, practiced energy modalities such as EFT (emotional freedom technique), sought support from Reiki practitioners, learned meditation and released my emotions through my writing music and poetry.  For years I went on this journey to free myself of worry, anxiety, insomnia, and an unwillingness to open my heart to loving or being loved.


Mali Phonpadith
Mali Phonpadith
Mali Phonpadith is the CEO of the SOAR Community Network and Cofounder of the SOAR Community Nebula, a C3 online community of business owners and nonprofit leaders growing and scaling their organizations to create greater social impact. She is a two-time #1 International bestselling author, TEDx speaker, workshop and retreat facilitator, and Certified Talent Optimization Consultant. In 2015, Mali was selected as a Belief Team community partner through Values Partnership for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network BELIEF initiative. Mali has consulted with leaders of small to midsize organizations for more than two decades. She is passionate about helping leaders map their purpose, develop their people, and build communities of change agents. As the Founder and CEO of the SOAR Community Network and it's Chief C3 Community Architect, Mali and her team are committed to helping leaders increase employee engagement and build innovative teams. SCN does this by mapping strategic vision, optimizing talent and building compassionate, cohesive, and collaborative communities within organizations to help drive business results. She has shared her insights at The Library of Congress, Smithsonian, University of Maryland, George Mason University, SAIC, and other national venues. Huffington Post,, Better Business Bureau (BBB) Trusted Magazine, BBB Podcast, Advisor Today Magazine, Asian Fortune Newspaper, WJLA DC, Radio Free Asia, WHUR Radio, Voice of America, and numerous blog talk radio programs. She has been nominated for several awards including Heroines of Washington D.C. Award by the March of Dimes, twice for the Women of the Year Award by NEW – Network Executive Women and recognized as the iBoss Capital Navigator in for helping entrepreneurs and organizations grow and thrive.

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  1. Mali ~ your story is moving … very inspiring. Making your way to the US reminded me of the book: First they killed my father ~ by Loung Ung
    In combination with your story and one similar (whose story I recently learned) I wrote a LI post. (below)

    Yesterday I heard a song that touched my heart. You instantly came to mind as I listened so I share it & a few lines

    Tell your heart to beat again
    Close your eyes and breathe it in
    Let the shadows fall away
    Step into the light of grace
    Yesterday’s a closing door
    You don’t live there anymore
    Say goodbye to where you’ve been
    And tell your heart to beat again
    “The journey of healing”
    It has been said that “what is buried alive never dies.”

    EMOTIONS & feelings do need to be honestly expressed
    Explored as to depth … to be understood
    Pain carried inside … sometimes buried inside … needs to be UNEARTHED.
    LOSSES … need to be GRIEVED before they can be released.
    Grief is a PATIENT process.

    Death & LOSS have freezing powers
    For the loss of a loved one … a child or a spouse,
    time can’t be halted … and grief can’t be rushed
    A heart that is broken … cannot be un-crushed
    “Sometimes I wish I never had to sleep. Sometimes I think that if I stay very, very still, if I never move at all, things will change. I think if I freeze myself I can freeze the pain. Sometimes I won’t move for hours. I will not move an inch. If time stands still nothing can go wrong” ~ Tahereh Mafi
    … If time could freeze …
    I would paint forever pictures
    Then frame them on the walls of my mind
    Of all the people I love
    Those who touched my heart … with their heart
    Some for a lifetime and some for a day
    Are kept my heart … and always will stay
    “Moments frozen in time”

    The key to healing & wholeness is beautifully captured here:
    “Be filled, with the knowledge of a real God and with his grace.” Laila Al-Alwan

    “He Giveth More Grace” by Annie Johnson Flint

    He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
    He sendeth more strength as our labors increase;
    To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
    To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.
    When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
    When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
    When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
    Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
    Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,
    Our God ever yearns His resources to share;
    Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;
    The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.
    His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
    His power no boundary known unto men;
    For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
    He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

    Be a receiver of GRACE.
    Be FILLED with grace.
    Be a GIVER of grace.

  2. What an incredibly inspiring, heartbreaking story filled with resilience and much inner strength, Mali. I’m completely moved. Yes. You are correct that moving forward and making certain we seek support to move through the painful emotions-so they don’t get lodged in our minds, hearts, or bodies-makes a profound difference. Thank you so much for sharing you story filled with content to which I could relate completely as I have lost loved ones, too. My heart is with you in our shared humanity, healing, and transformation. So beautiful. Welcome to BizCatalyst360!!!

    • Dear Laura,
      Thank you for the loving comments and for welcoming me into the BizCatalyst360 community/family. I appreciate your words, understanding and empathy very much. Thank you.

  3. Hi Mali,
    What an incredible, inspiring and so hearttouching journey! So sorry for all your precious losses.
    What your father said “Everything else was an additional blessing that he negotiated with the Universe.” I stopped there for a moment to feel it deep inside, as it kind of resonates with me.
    It is such a powerful insight and so very true, I really love it “What I have come to understand about life’s tragic events is that we will all experience them. With each painful setback, we also get set up for a higher level of awareness and consciousness that prepares us for how we handle future challenges.”
    Very much respect for your journey and your resilience, with no doubt you are a very streng woman, ready for future challenges of life. Thank you so much of sharing your story and very nice to meet you here.

    • Darlene, life’s terrain – I love the analogy and agree. We all go through ups and downs, painful and joyful moments. I’ve been blessed and am blessed to have my family and community to help lift me up from the depths of despair. I write about feeling smothered with care because those were my feelings in that particular phase of grief – but in actuality, their love and support was what guided me back into the light. Thank you for your supportive comments.🙏💕🙏

  4. Thank you for sharing a part of your journey. As you mention, we all suffer great losses, it’s how we cope that provides the forward momentum. Of course it takes time. Of course it involves some ugly an dirty feelings and thoughts. But coming out on the other side of it is where the beauty is. The resiliency. The joy!

    Your father was right, he sure raised an incredible soul. Thank you again for sharing a piece of your soul with me.

  5. Mali, oh I am so moved here. What an inspirational and compelling story. I’m so grateful to read your words and feel your love and compassion here. The greatest pain is given to the strongest people, for they live on to share the lessons and provide hope to others.

    The times where you feel nothing in life after tragedy are like an incubation period. The soul is buried by the physical shock and mind altering events. We are suffocated by the forces of darkness in despair and pain…
    It resonates with me greatly.
    Also, that voice in your head…this is the loudest one I have ever heard on my own head after being in a shroud of depression, Anxiety, and PTSD AS WELL…. the voice spoke… where once I felt nothing…I found spoke to me too.
    Thank you Mali, and welcome!

  6. Thanks, Mali.
    I had a horrific loss about four years ago that flattened me for months and months. There are still ripples from that, and they’ll be a part of the fabric for my life. A friend gave me the C. S. Lewis book, “A Grief Observed”:

    “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

    At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

    Pain will find a way out. Some friends, every time we would talk, would ask the same question: “Are you keeping busy?” I wanted to shout to stop asking that same #$%^& question, but I simply said Yes. At that time, busy meant trying to eat and being very careful doing things like slicing vegetables.

    Be good. And well.

    • Dear Mac,
      Thank you for sharing so openly about your journey as well. There were some very dark and painful days – many more days of numbness and loneliness as we walk in, through and beyond our heartbreaks and stages of grief. Pain subsides, very slowly and over time, you will feel just a touch lighter and lighter and lighter. Surrounding ourselves with good people who love us and give us the room and space we need does help. I wish you more and more lightness through the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Thank you for sharing and connecting with me here. Wishing you well and sending positive thoughts and healing energy to support your journey.