‘I have regrets’: 4 hard life lessons this 45-year-old mom learned from losing her husband and child

Bozoma Saint John's memoir, "The Urgent Life," recounts how she found strength in traumatic moments.
Photo: Maya Darasaw

Life can take you to some tragic, unimaginable places. My college boyfriend, Ben, committed suicide. I lost my first child, Eve, shortly after giving birth. And the love of my life, Peter, died of cancer at 43 years old.

Once upon a time, I had felt so capable. Give me five minutes and I could come up with a solution to any problem. But after Peter died, I felt helpless. The smallest decisions overwhelmed me. I had to figure out how to take the shards out of my life.

But the losses I've experienced have not only shaped who I am today — they taught me lessons about the meaning of a successful life, and how to build one worth living.

1. Live with urgency.

From Peter, I learned to live life with urgency. To take the trip, to call a friend, to cut out the toxic person — not next week, not next year, but as soon as the thought crosses my heart. I don't delay. I don't count on a future that isn't promised.

I've applied this to my professional life, too. When I got the offer to be chief marketing officer at Netflix, it meant leaving behind a company where I felt valued.

But I trusted my instincts. I sat in solitude. I prayed. Then, because it felt right, I submitted my resignation. I said my goodbyes and moved on to my next chapter.

Urgency doesn't mean making reckless decisions. It means listening to your gut and being fully present as you embrace each step of your journey.

2. Love is infinite.

Eve would have been 14 years old this year, and I love her more today than when she was born — even though she's not physically here, even though I don't know what her eye color would have been, what she would have loved to eat, or what would have made her laugh.

Now, before every business trip, I write my living daughter Lael notes, especially if I leave early in the morning before she's awake.

I place them on her pillow so that if, God forbid, something happens to me, she'll know that the last thought her mother had as she walked out the door was that she loved her.

3. Difficult changes makes you stronger.

I've been pushed over many emotional cliffs. But with every loss — of a friend, of a home, of a family member — I grew stronger.

Tragedy has taught me resilience, forcing me to dig deep, to find a way forward as a single mother raising a young child while coping with everlasting sadness.

It has also made me more grateful. My gratitude came at a heavy price. I will always feel sorrow that my loved ones were taken, but I also know that it had to be in order for me to be who I am right now.

4. Success isn't just about achieving goals.

Of course I have regrets. I wish I'd stayed home the night Ben rang my phone incessantly before he ended his life. I wish I'd been a better lover to Peter.

But I know how to minimize regrets in life. Tragedy has helped me to redefine success.

Achievement isn't reaching goals scrawled on a whiteboard. It is being able to tell your little girl the hardest of truths. It is fighting for love when it might be simpler to walk away.

Most important of all, it is carrying on when hope seems hollow and deciding to embrace struggle, trusting that the knowledge gained from those travails will buoy you for a lifetime.

Bozoma Saint John is a Hall of Fame-inducted marketing executive, author and entrepreneur who inspired a Harvard Business School case study about her career, "Leading with Authenticity and Urgency." She has managed major brands including PepsiCo, Apple Music, Uber and Netflix. Bozoma is also a philanthropic ambassador to Pencils of Promise in Ghana, and serves on the boards of Girls Who Code and Vital Voices. Her memoir, "The Urgent Life: My Story of Love, Loss, and Survival," is out now. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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*This is an adapted excerpt from "The Urgent Life" by Bozoma Saint John, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Bozoma Saint John.