11/14/2013 at 02:05 PM EST
Two years ago, Madonna Bagder endured the worst Christmas imaginable: Her three young daughters and parents died in a fire
that tore through her Connecticut home.
In the aftermath, a despondent Badger
repeatedly threatened to kill herself, barely coping in a haze of grief and despair.
But today, the 49-year-old ad-agency owner has managed to find happiness again – and is even engaged to be married.
"It’s never going to be easy. The pain is just so huge that sometimes it feels like a prison cell," she writes in a moving first-person essay in Vogue
. "But trying really hard to not feel sorry for myself makes me feel good ... Basically, I go to wherever the light is, because anything else is darkness, and it can be a deeply black darkness."
Supporting her in this daily struggle is fiancée Bill Duke, a longtime friend and real-estate broker who was by her side the day her world burned away. Together, they plan to spend Christmas volunteering to help children in need.
Last year, Badger revealed that she spent her first holiday season after the fire in Thailand, volunteering at an orphanage for girls
at the invitation of a friend. She brought the children toys that had once belonged to her own kids.
"Thirty or so of them came and stood in front of me and prayed for me in Thai. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them we were all crying. When I looked into the girls’ faces, I saw my children. It broke me open in a way I still can’t fully explain. But if these little girls were living their lives with joy and happiness, I realized – and if they could give their love to me after all they had been through – how could I possibly feel sorry for myself?"
Today, Badger has returned to her agency in New York and attempts to live each day to the fullest – both for herself and the memory of her family.
"What better way to honor their lives than to not give up?" she writes. "I chose this life. I wanted to have these babies, and I wanted to have this company. And I wanted my girls – and my mom and dad – to look at me and see a strong, smart businesswoman with a heart full of love for them."