“It was an experience that could either destroy me, or be something I chose to grow from. I looked at my children’s faces and had my answer.” Renee Harbers Liddell is recounting the choice she made after her husband died in a plane crash. For the sake of her kids and her husband’s dream, Renee chose to grow. This is Renee’s story on survival after the unthinkable, how helping others can be a way to heal, and how choice is always ours—regardless of what life throws at us.

“I graduated in the early 80s with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. There weren’t a lot of women engineers back then, but my dad had been an engineer, so it made sense. I was good at it, not brilliant—but the job opportunity was great. I took a job with Microsoft and it was truly a magical time—the company was entrepreneurial and doing cool new things. There I met my late husband, Jeff, who was one of the first employees at Microsoft. We married in 1992 and had two children a few years later. When my daughter was seven and my son was three, Jeff died in a plane crash. It was a terrible time… but with little kids, you just can’t crawl under a rock and wait for things to pass. You’re a single parent now, and you need to be strong for your family. What was once a partnership is now just you, and the person who you’d usually turn to with a challenge is gone. You’re trying to figure out how your family will adjust, and then think—what about me? Grieving is a process that unfolds over the course of a few years. It’s a chunk of your life that’s in turmoil and you’re not yourself. I was in a fog for a long time, but still had to function because of the kids. Slowly, we started to pull out of it.

A good friend of mine suggested I help realize Jeff’s dream to start a foundation. Jeff had been financially blessed from his Microsoft work and had wanted to give a lot of his money away. So this was a chance for me to fulfill his wish, and it also gave me something optimistic to focus on. I had always been passionate about photography, and thought if I funded photographers who told important stories through their work, I could tag along with them. Non-profits were a great match, because they had stories that needed telling. So I started funding photographers to shoot for non-profits, and that was the beginning of the Harbers Family Foundation. While photography was great, I realized that film has the potential to make an even bigger impact. So we launched Harbers Studios and now produce short films to support organizations working to make the world a better place. When you want people to open their wallets for your cause, you need to inspire them to care.

I think doing anything well requires a strong work ethic, belief in what you’re doing, and courage. But you also really need to have a metric for success. You have to think—when will I know that I’m successful?

Clear objectives help you stick to your path, and stop you from getting distracted from other things that come your way.

I would love it if Harbers Studios became recognized as a leading visual voice for important causes. But there’s also the influence I’m able to have through my work, particularly in girls education. We did a film series around The Gashora Girls Academy, a scholarship-based secondary school in Rwanda. In addition to the standard curriculum, they empower girls with leadership, confidence and self-advocacy skills. One of the most impressive valedictorian speeches I’ve ever seen was at that school. Girls in Rwanda are typically taught to not look anyone in the eye to avoid trouble. This young woman, who at first came into the school avoiding eye contact with everyone, gave the most unbelievable speech at her graduation with the president of her country sitting in the audience. She memorized the entire three minute speech, did not glance at notes, looked everyone in the eye and belted it out. Out of 85 young women in this class, 27 came to the U.S. for college education and my husband Chris and I decided to support one of these young women. She’s currently working on an engineering degree at the University of Massachusetts. Rwanda has an 80% return rate, so she will most likely return to her country. She’ll have the experience, skills and education to be a world-class leader. Who else will lead Rwanda? The ability to have that kind of impact, and the ripple effect of that—like how she will raise her children—maybe that’s really what my metric of success should be.

The Harbers Foundation was part of the healing process for me after Jeff’s death. Working a lot in developing countries, we’re often confronted with tragedy and hardship. It makes you realize how we’re all fundamentally the same. People want to be listened to. If someone has gone through something traumatic, I think the best thing is for them to talk about it. I try not to ask the trite questions that made me crazy. When Jeff died, people would look me deep in the eyes, hold me by the shoulders and ask, how are you doing? They meant well, but I got a very dramatic version of that question lot. If I meet people going through the same thing, I’ll ask specific questions such as, are you eating? Are you getting out with friends? For anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one, know this: there will come a time when you’ll be able to think about that person without it ripping your heart out. It takes time.

All you can do is put one foot in front of the other.

I went through one of the things that we fear the most, and I not only survived, I’ve thrived. It’s not something I would ever want to go through again, but if I do, I know that I will come out the other side. What holds us back so often is fear, and now I’m far less afraid of all those small things in life. I’m in my mid 50s now—I’ve said stupid things, I’ve done stupid things, there’s not much left to embarrass me. I know that whether you live in a grass-hut in Rwanda or in a penthouse in Manhattan, we all share a common humanity.

I think it’s so important to remember that tomorrow is no guarantee. You can’t put things off, because you might not be given that opportunity again. My husband Chris lost his father when he was young, so he also shares a similar mentality of just going for it. I think it’s one of the reasons we’re so well suited—we live with the awareness that you never know what’s around the corner.”

Renee’s #OKREALTALK Tips

  • You can turn grief into good.
  • Tomorrow is no guarantee.
  • Everyone puts their pants on the same way.
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harbersfoundation.org

i. @reneeharbers

t. @reneeharbers

Photographed by Amy Woodside

As told to Amy Woodside, August 2015