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A blog that focuses on the spiritual journey of all of us.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Allowing the Shift

It’s still there. The spot where the accident occurred. So close to home. I still drive by it a couple times a month on my way to this or that, running errands of one sort or another. 

More than six years have gone by since my 24-year-old son was killed in a car accident driving home late one night after having spent the evening out with co-workers from his new job. The marks remain—two tire tracks forming a 40 to 50-foot arc across the cement embankment on the east side of a busy road, halting abruptly at the bridge that constitutes the overpass for railroad tracks. Horrific, if you let yourself think about it. But for reasons that I cannot rationalize, my perception of that landmark has sure changed. 

At first, it only represented pain. Just two days after Eric’s passing, I elected to go visit the scene of my son’s passing, which I had avoided until that moment. It was Mother’s Day, 2017, and as I stood in our home filled to the brim with mourners and flowers, casseroles and pastries, I texted my husband whom I could not locate in the house. He said he was at the accident site. I told him I’d be right there, and despite my surviving kids’ objections—after all it was Mother’s Day—I headed over, driven by my eldest son, Nick.

While Nick waited (he could not bring himself to look at the location where his brother took his last breath), I walked from the car which was parked a block over, as there was no way to park on the busy street itself. Accompanied by my future son-in-law, I walked down the incline of the street on a very narrow strip of sidewalk, the embankment a sharply inclined plane on my right like a wall, and immediately noted the tire marks. My husband was there, crying, his hands tracing the black marks from where the car had first made contact with the embankment after driving off the street. I understood that by touching those marks, Joey was able to connect to Eric’s last few seconds on Earth. It was heart wrenching, yet in my raw grief, I did not cry. I was still in some sort of non-reality, a fog.

I’m not sure how long we stood there. Time absolutely stood still. Somehow, I continued to breathe. I

looked up into the blackness of the dark night sky. I felt the eternal vastness of the universe. I looked around and wondered what might have been the very last thing Eric saw. I breathed. I pondered. This was the place where Eric’s life had ended. But more than that, I knew in my heart that this was the place where Eric’s new life had begun.

That must have been what I hung onto…where Eric’s new life had begun. Already, there was a shift in what would normally have been nothing but devastation. 

Oh, those tread marks—a constant reference to the day that changed our lives forever. Various people commented on how upsetting it was to still see them there. A couple of exasperated friends made calls to the city demanding someone paint over them. What were they waiting for? Get rid of that eyesore, that reminder of such a huge loss! 

Eventually the city did paint over them. Yet, there was still a hint of the tracks which showed through the paint. Still there! Persistent. Almost as if Eric was making sure he would not be forgotten. No worries there, son, you will never be forgotten. That’s out of the question.

For the first few months after the accident, in my deepest grief, I did avoid the spot. I found alternate routes. But then I started letting myself drive by. I’d turn my head each time to see it, the arc, the path that led to an end, yet also to a new beginning of something beyond my full comprehension. For those few moments that I allowed my eyes to rest on that painful truth, time stood still. There was a heaviness in my heart, a stillness in my being, yet also a surprising connection to something more, something indescribable. Weird, but somehow driving by brought me a feeling of closeness to my son, like I could feel his energy in the car with me, maybe sitting next to me and smiling at me as if to say, “I’m with ya, mom.”

Then—and I don’t know when or how this began—not only did Joe and I stop avoiding that section of that busy road, but eventually we started saying hi to Eric as we drove by. It surprised me a bit the first time we passed by when Joey looked over to the faint tire marks, waved, and said, “Hi Erico.” I was bewildered not only because he said it, but also because his doing so actually felt good to me.  And by the next time we cruised by, I chimed in on the hello.  We smiled. There was an unexpected lightness in our unconventional connection with our son. 

Was that wrong of us? Did the fact that we weren’t spilling tears mean we’d lost our love for our son-in-spirit? Were we being disrespectful? 

Hell no. Like a mama bear defends her offspring, I will always defend my eternal love for my little cub. I know of some grieving parents who would be appalled by this. They would find this disloyal. But there is no part of me that feels even an ounce of disloyalty. I miss my son with every ounce of my being. What I would give to see him again, hug him again, and laugh with him again. But I did shock the hell out of myself recently when I drove by and didn’t realize till I had passed the landmark that I actually forgot to look over and say hello! What?? I felt a little bad and quickly uttered, “Sorry Eric,” to the air around me. And then I laughed. Shoot, too many unnecessary things on my mind that day. But disloyal? Not even. My journey had simply shifted.

The journey. Allow it to shift.

Grief expert, David Kessler, says there is no right way or wrong way to grieve. Just your way.Your grief is your grief. What you choose to do with it is your business. How you choose to live this journey is up to you. I can’t tell you how to do it, and you can’t tell me. 

Everyone reading this has gone through grief, loss, major challenges, gut wrenching experiences. How do you put those feelings into words? How can you get others to really understand how you feel or why you do what you do? 

You can’t. No one can truly get your experience. I can’t fully comprehend someone else’s pain, and they can't fully comprehend mind. That’s okay. We don’t have to understand why people choose to do what they do. Just witness, support, and allow them to be where they are. 

Now, some six years later, I have made peace with that stretch of road. Not everyone who knew Eric has, and I completely respect that. Whether or not they do or ever will is none of my business. If they do, it will be in their own time. Besides, Eric drove up and down that road countless times for happy reasons—on his way to visit friends or catch the freeway to the beach or (borrowing the lingo of the day) to a sick music event. I like to think of those times.

On that saddest of all Mother’s Days back in 2017, as I stared up into the awesome and endless star-filled night sky, I did get a glimpse of something beautiful and mystical, a sense of an alternate meaning for this spot: where Eric’s new life began. I’ll hang onto that. It will carry me through until that day when it’s time for Eric to meet me and take me to where my new life begins.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Looking Deeply


In the early 1980s I took acting classes at Nosotros Theatre in Hollywood. There was this guy in my class named Phillip, a very interesting guy, polite, probably late 20s, with an innocence that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He was uniquely Caucasian in an otherwise all Latino theatre group. (Full disclosure, I’m less than half Latino myself!) At one point, Phillip and I did a scene from The Elephant Man, the one where the actress visits John Merrick (aka Joseph Merrick), the title character. In this gracefully touching scene, the actress is able to see beyond John Merrick’s grotesque exterior into the beautiful truth of who he really is.

One evening during a class break, as we sat and chatted among the seats of the old 99-seat theatre (a perfect space for us passionate actors to build our craft), I spied a rather large and unappealing bug, some kind of beetle, on the floor near my feet, probably a good 2 inches long, if not more. Whatever it was, “Roach!” was the first thought that popped into my head. Since it didn’t move, I concluded that it was dead. As I uttered some sound of disapproval, like “Ugh” or “Yuck,” Phillip took a close look at it. His surprising response was, “Oh, how beautiful!” And he genuinely meant it.

I didn’t argue with him. I was taken by his unpredictable response and mostly pondered what he had just said which was something that would never have occurred to me to say. A side of me that apparently remained dormant most of the time saw his perspective for just a moment. This unlikely winner of a beauty pageant was not only a part of the Earth and a creation of God, but as a result of that very truth, was also quite beautiful.

For some people, the term “God” makes them shudder. The word itself brings about images of an old man in the sky, judgmental, angry, even wrathful. I grew up learning about that God, and still I was simultaneously taught that he loved us, a paradox I accepted as a child, though it didn’t really make sense to me.

Then, at some point in my life, I traded in that God for the God who is the Creator and the source of unconditional love, who provides all the beauty, the unexplainable wonder. I outgrew the old God as a child outgrows his or her clothes when they become too tight, and in doing so let God out of the small box He/She had been put into. I expanded. I had to. After the unexpected death of my youngest child, the old belief system no longer fit, so I had to grow beyond that. And as I did, I began to find beauty in the most unexpected places.

In the years that followed, when I wasn’t running amok with the responsibilities of working full-time as an elementary school teacher, part-time as a dance teacher at a local studio, and raising my 4 active kids, I sometimes stopped long enough to take in and appreciate the beauty, the gifts, that were right in front of me – the perfume of a rose, the warm evening breeze of a summer’s day,  and the sweet faces of each of my infant children. It’s not that most people don’t appreciate these things, but I had overlooked much of this in my busyness. Over time, I learned to stop and pay attention more often. 

But when the hardest lesson in my life, the hardest challenge I had ever experienced thus far occurred – the death of my own child – I began to connect with spiritual teachers and philosophies of all walks of life through books and podcasts. The germination of this new growth buzzed somewhere deep inside me. My perspective shifted and, as I said earlier, it had to. I began to find traces of beauty in even the horrific event of my son’s passing. Somewhere in all that pain and madness, there was a spark of light. The love that filled our home in the immediate aftermath of his accident, the stories told of his kindness and fierce loyalty, and the connections many of us have made with him since his passing into spirit are all evidence that, as Dr. Mary Neal says in her book 7 Lessons from Heaven, “Beauty comes of all things.”

Recently I accompanied my husband on a short (two whole nights) business trip to New York City. The hotel provided by the company he works for was in midtown Manhattan. We enjoyed a Broadway show, a spectacular view of the NYC skyline from our hotel balcony, and a couple meals with a few well-loved old friends.

One afternoon I was walking up 8th Avenue on my way to one of these lunch visits. As I walked the ever-crowded streets of downtown Manhattan, I felt a shift in my awareness. I couldn’t help but become keenly cognizant of the sights and sounds around me…cars honking, sirens blaring, and people yelling, sometimes screaming obscenities. These humans appeared angry, hostile, projecting an energy of rage. It was disconcerting. I felt a sadness for them. What happened in their lives to bring them to this? I wished there was something I could do.

The smells were unavoidable - sewage, cigarettes, marijuana, horse excrement, human urine. The sidewalks grimy and littered. A destitute woman sitting against buildings, no teeth, crusty, calling out unintelligibly, maybe for money. Humans in wheelchairs, some missing limbs, somehow surviving day to day, faces hardened by the city. Other faces blank, emotionless, just living, just getting through the day. I searched the faces for any trace of hope or joy.

Amidst it all, I heard the chirp of a bird. I stopped and looked up to see the little guy perched on a signal light, a sparrow. I smiled in the moment and took in its sweetness. Then I looked further up, beyond the buildings that choked the airspace, and glimpsed the sky. Up there, yes, above all the insanity and pain, all was calm.

I felt heavy, having witnessed the manifested burdens and disillusions of so many. Was I judgmental? What did I know of their lives, their heartaches, their pain? Their goodness? I don’t know what to call it, but I know how I felt - truly saddened, weary, discouraged. My body had stiffened, tightened, my breathing was shallow. 

I had been taught to shed the suffocating disillusionment by coming back to the present moment, right here, right now, with each inhalation and exhalation. In that moment, all I could offer was love, healing, hope, peace. I could offer a smile. I could offer a dollar. That’s all. That’s it. And it felt like so little. 

Inside I thought, “I can’t change the world. I can’t fix it. I can only be me, my authentic self, right here, right now. Feel the love and peace within myself, and allow it to expand all around me, hoping it can make even the slightest difference.” 

And then I remembered something else I had come to understand. How could I have forgotten? God is not only above, but is within each and every one of us, not only in the joy and the beauty, but in the pain and sorrow as well…in the toothless woman sitting on the cold cement asking for money, in the seemingly strung-out folks screaming obscenities to anyone around them who will hear, in the hardened face of the exhausted construction worker listening to his boss give instructions. And just as much as in the sparrows perched upon the signal lights chirping their little hearts out with joy.  

I looked around, and in that moment, I knew God permeated all. I knew that every person and every thing holds within its own existence the essence of the Creator, the Source of all Love. Everyone is doing his/her best in their present situation. There is a place of peace within, which is God, which sustains us in all situations. And once you know that, really know it in your heart, you can never unknow it. 

I am learning to look deeply, and that can’t happen in all the rushing around. It takes that moment to stop and breath and see. There is more than meets the eye. There is beauty in all if we will allow that possibility. Beauty, not only in a rose or the breeze, not only in the person down on his luck or in the heart and soul of the Elephant Man, but even in a wayward beetle that makes its way into a theatre. And if we can begin to set aside judgement and grasp this paradoxical concept of how beauty and God can exist where we never thought possible, perhaps, somehow, the world can become a bit kinder.

(Read more about my spiritual journey in my book Look Around: A Mother's Journey from Grief and Despair to Healing and Hope.)

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Prayer in Each Moment

I grew up in a faith tradition. As a young Catholic, I was taught that the act of prayer was saying the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. If you said those words, you were good with God. Thumbs up. Great job.

We also learned early on to ask for what we needed. After all, in the Bible it says, “Ask, and you shall receive, seek, and you shall find, knock, and the door shall be opened to you.” So the petitions were lengthy – please let me get a good grade on this test, please make my friend with measles get better, please help me find my lost cat, please let my mom have a safe trip to Milwaukee…and on and on.

This kind of prayer stuck around for many years, well into my adulthood. When my children came along, my husband and I sat with them to say nightly prayers. We pretty much did the aforementioned practice. Sufficient, foundational, kind of like getting one’s feet wet with what prayer is all about.

My very conservative Catholic father found himself in his later years taking classes at Cal State University Los Angeles in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree which he had always wished to do. This grumpy father of mine (and that’s putting it mildly) slowly began his journey to find himself, though he would never have put it that way. He began spending time in art classes, hopping around campus, getting to know lots of people. Everyone knew Leo.

During this time, my dad decided to take a yoga class to fill in some elective requirements. This 70-something 5’10” skinny guy who used to wear a suit every day when he worked as owner of an attorney service from the late 1950s to the early 1970s was now sitting in lotus pose in sweatpants (though his go-to pants were now jeans – and sometimes white ones at that!) He told me he was learning to meditate. This was quite a stretch from his own foundational Catholic beliefs. Even today, many Catholics want nothing to do with Eastern practices. I believe he was starting to learn about listening to one’s inner self, you know, that place where God resides. And over time, he began to be less grumpy.

One day in my early adulthood, I heard a priest mention in a sermon that besides traditional prayer, we should also listen to God. Hmmm. Interesting. I was definitely up for that but didn’t engage in active listening until I began to meditate in my very late 50s, 14 years after my dad passed away. 

What motivated me to start this new practice was the sudden death my 24-year-old son, Eric, as the result of a car accident. Those little prayers I grew up with and taught my children were no longer sufficient for the shit that had just hit the fan. They didn’t cut the mustard, they didn’t bring me comfort, they didn’t explain what the hell had just happened. They merely scratched the surface of a profound reality I was not in touch with. Yet.

I was ravenous for some kind of understanding. I never doubted the existence of God. But somehow, I just knew that there was more to this story. So, I searched and searched, not only through books, but through podcasts and lectures on anything spiritual. 

Much of what I found was not like anything I had known before. Near death experiences and signs from the afterlife were not meaningful to me before my son’s transition. Teachings from other faith traditions and cultures were unimportant before May of 2017. But now, I was grasping for truth as well as meaning. What is the point of this incredibly difficult life?

Have you heard that saying, God is good? “God got us there safely. God is good.” “God healed my wife’s (husband’s, mother’s, daughter’s) cancer. God is good.” “I got the job I prayed for. God is good.”

So…that must mean that when my son was killed in a car accident God was not good? If God is good, why did my son die at age 24? Why did any of the children of the members of my support group, Helping Parents Heal, die? What about people you hear about on the news who are murdered or killed in a natural disaster. Did God not like us?  None of that made any sense.

I knew this was not correct. I was missing something, an important piece to this puzzle. 

Funny how being broken open allows the lights to stream though, which is exactly what happened. I was no longer a believer in one particular faith that was tied up in a lovely box with pretty ribbons, one faith that insisted it knew it all. Like an erupting volcano, the lid to that box blew off, and something inside of me said, “Go. Go find it. The truth. It is there. “

Without realizing it, I was undergoing a transformation. Not unlike the caterpillar, which needs to cocoon itself and turn into mush in order to emerge as a beautiful butterfly, I was taking the brutal loss of my child and finding that it was leading me to something more. 

Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that it is only through great love or great suffering that we can find transformation. We can move to that more beautiful place, that is, if we allow it. I was in the most vulnerable place I had ever been in my life. The worst thing possible had happened. I was (figuratively) lying flat on the ground, like a pile of mush, totally open to whatever was to come my way. Here I am, God. What next? Lead me. I have no idea what is going on or why I am here. 

Spine surgeon and author Dr. Mary Neal, who had a near-death experience (detailed in her book Seven Lessons from Heaven), survived a horrific kayaking accident where she was underwater for 30 minutes with multiple broken bones throughout her body. Her soul’s experience on the other side of the veil with what she describes as the unconditional love of God is astonishing and she was clearly changed, for the better. Ten years later, as was foretold to her during her spiritual experience, her 19-year-old son was hit by a car and killed. I have heard her speak many times, and her account of all that has happened is always extremely moving in its rawness. Clearly the suffering transformed her. In one talk, she used the phrase “scarred beautiful” to describe herself as well as so many others who have taken their pain and found ways to use it to help others. In her words, “Beauty comes from all things.” 

Dr. Neal’s story brought me a great amount of comfort, and I found many more books like this one that very much resonated with me. Etty Hillesum, whose journals were written during the year and a half she spent in the transit camp in Westerbork before being taken to Auschwitz where she died in 1943, writes, “Despite everything, life is full of beauty and meaning.” Additionally, she says, “Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for 5 short minutes.”

The teachings of Richard Rohr have opened up a whole new understanding for me of who God is. What I have learned from reading many of his books has enriched my perception of God from being the old man in the sky who doesn’t always hear our prayers to that of a God who is less of a being and more of an action of love. That love is evident in the many people around us, and certainly in the beauty of Mother Earth. All of creation contains this spark of the Divine, of God. Sometimes a prayer is just standing in the midst of a natural setting and being with the awe and wonder all around.

People ask, “Why doesn’t God stop all this madness?” Along with the concepts explained above, James Finley, one of the faculty at CAC, puts it quite succinctly. As explained by his own teacher, Thomas Merton, “God protects me from nothing, but sustains me in everything.” That actually makes more sense to me. 

After all, I have always trusted that there is life after death, and now, with all my readings and research, and even my own personal experiences, I absolutely know there is more than just this world. I have come to learn that we are not here for a smooth ride. I understand now that life is meant to be extremely challenging at times, that suffering has a purpose, and that even with all the difficulties, there is still so much beauty that exists. Not only can beauty exist despite the pain, but maybe in some cases - just maybe - as a result of it. 

Jesuit priest Greg Boyle has worked with Gang members in East Los Angeles for more than 30 years. In providing a safe place for those who are ready to step away from their gang ties he offers them a chance to work at Home Boy Industries for an 18-month period, but more importantly, he offers them unconditional love, something which many of them have never ever known before in their entire lives. The stories he tells in his books of his work with these men and women are life changing, not only for the gang members, but for anyone who reads these stories. The power of unconditional love is hugely transformative. Greg Boyle explains that it may look like he is helping the men and women who he endearingly refers to as the “homies,” but that the truth is these former and current gang members have helped and transformed him as well. There is a prayer in all of this. That kinship, that connection, that bond, is where lives the spirit of God.

Additionally, the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh brought me to the peace and truth of the present moment. Mindfulness has helped me to see and appreciate what is right in front of me. Over time I began to see that all around me were miracles. I just needed to look around and notice the perfection of a flower, the elegance of the hummingbird, the magnificence of the shifting clouds, the majesty of the mountains, and the brilliance of the sunrise. And in each of those miracles was the presence of God. Taking the moment to be present was in and of itself, a prayer. And in the moments I also found the presence of my son.

From the spiritual guides already mentioned as well as teachers like Eckhart Tolle, Suzanne Giesemann, and others, I learned to meditate, to sit in stillness and just be. I have brought all the previously mentioned rich new thoughts to meditation. I have learned to listen to God in the same way my ultra-conservative Catholic father had just begun to learn to do 25 years ago. Turns out, he was onto something. I only wish he was still around for me to discuss all this with. 

And so, I found that place of listening, not only to God, but to my own self. I am finding that the two are inextricably linked, intertwined. Now I understand in a whole new way what was meant by the Bible quote, “Made in the image and likeness of God.” 

Prayer is the connection, the communion, with God. It is the flow, the breath, and the space between thoughts. It is the awareness of that which feels greater than us, but in truth is part of each of us. And to use a term coined by English mystic of the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich, it is the oneing (one-ing). If we allow it, we can see the prayer in all of it.

Not to say I don’t ask anymore. Rather than requests, I like the term intentions, still used by many religious institutions and spiritual people. This word suggests hope and purpose. These are prayers of help and healing, guidance from God or angels or loved ones. I still ask daily for direction in how to be helpful, how to be compassionate, and then I listen. My heart feels open and I am able to find joy.

Those prayers I learned as a child? I still say them. They are beautiful. They brought me to this deeper understanding of the presence of God all around, and to the deeper prayer life that has unfolded before me.

And after living so many years of his life dealing with anger issues that resulted from what I now understand was self-loathing, likely born from an emotionally challenging childhood, my dad had finally found some peace. Not in the rules and dogmas of institutionalized religion, with a God that judges and casts to hell. But in the peace of meditation, a pure prayer to an unconditionally loving God who wishes to gaze at us as much as we wish to gaze at Him/Her. A prayer, not only of someone else’s pre-written (and beautiful) words, but of the heart, of that true connection with the Divine where words sometimes fall short. I found that place as well. 

I do regret that I am not able to speak to my dad about all this. I can only imagine the amazing conversations that we may have engaged in. Yet, I find gratitude in knowing that his turmoil was eased and his heart was softened, and he found that prayer was really all about that connection of one’s authentic self with God, all bound together in that often used but greatly underestimated word… Love.

(Read more about my journey from grief to hope in my book Look Around.) 


Thursday, December 8, 2022

From Christmas Lists to Joyful Stillness

So…someone’s been MIA at her computer, and it’s not you.

Holy moly, it's been a few weeks since I’ve sat and word processed (is that a verb?) about things that are meaningful to me. What has stopped me?

Like a 1,000-pound safe from the old movies that drops out of a window and lands on the sidewalk with a resounding thud…in drops…

…Holiday Shopping!

Apparently, it landed on my computer and made it impossible for me to work.

And I was onto the task like a mad woman. Before I could say leftover turkey, my past years of shopping madness took over and I was immediately in 5th gear. How do the commercials put it? Zero to sixty in 2.3 seconds?

First, it’s the list template of all for whom I need to buy gifts. Then the emails (to my kids) requesting their lists because I no longer have any imagination when it comes to something they may want – that went by the wayside many moons ago. Maybe a few texts to friends or other family members about what they might like. Once those are received, usually within a few weeks, the data received is then inputted into the list template.

Next, we begin the actual shopping via links provided for online purchases, checking costs, referring back to said template, back to the saved links, and back to template again which has now become a full-on checklist with checkmarks, prices, circles, asterisks, underlines, crossings off, adding on various colors to grab my attention now that the original pencilings have melded into one nebulous bowl of oatmeal. It’s a dance, I tell you. I have a feeling you all know what I’m talking about.

Then to the stores. No time for my workout? No problem, I can rack up all those steps and then some just walking through the parking lots. The physical list which spends time upstairs next to my desktop and downstairs next to my laptop now accompanies me from store to store, sometimes in my purse and sometimes in my pocket, pulled out and tucked back in another couple dozen times as each item and price is scrutinized and compared. Back and forth, from one store to the next, the list, now resembling a handicapped racing form, soon begins to wither a bit. (My parents played the horses and my dad made an art form out of covering the racing form with circles, asterisks, and underlinings.)

And don’t get me started on the gift card portion of the list – which cards, which denominations. Which is the BEST one for said recipient? Does Ralph’s grocery store have it or do I need to go into the specific store to get it? Then, if I hear that one of my kids already bought a particular gift card for another, I must now go back and figure out what to do with the gift card I have. Should I give it to someone else? What do I replace it with? Hows about we start scrambling the entire list around with a fun new game called Pass the Gift Cards? Aarrgghh! 

I know, I see you nodding your heads. You get it.

I start the day with the list, and I end the day with the list. I haven’t slept with it under my pillow (yet), but I guard it with my life. I actually once lost my list in a mall somewhere, and I never quite got over it.

As I sit here surrounded by a mound of packages collecting in my home over the last two weeks that either have to be opened or returned (with more to come), I am keenly aware that we haven’t even begun the wrapping process.

Stop. Stop. Stop! 

Slow down. Put on the breaks. Sit. Be Still. 


And I do. 

Somehow, in all that insanity (that I know bring upon myself), I have managed to maintain my centeredness in what author and spiritual director James Finley calls my “daily rendezvous with God,” a break from the full- steam-ahead of life, a contemplative sit, my morning practice.

So here I am, this moment, sitting upon the cushions in front of my second-floor bedroom window, gazing out beyond the little angel figurine that sits on the sill, taking in what is always there for me, always steady, always faithful and constant. I am sustained by the beauty of the two palm trees in the distance situated next to a row of cypress and various other trees, all tucked in and scattered around the rooftops of neighboring houses. Some mornings this vista is emblazoned by a glorious sunrise or a compelling clear blue sky. This day it is caressed by a blanket of cottony clouds of pale gray and white with hints of blue sky peeking through.

As I absorb the peace and calm of that which lays before me, the previously described holiday hustle and bustle fades and softens into whisps of sweet images of Christmases gone by, of moments as a child who gazed endlessly at the mesmerizing glow of the red and green and blue Christmas lightbulbs that surrounded our porch windows and filled our living-room tree, large old-school ones, not the small
twinkling lights of today. I drift into the memories of the awe I held as I contemplated the sweet faces of Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child of the church’s creche on Christmas Eve, later combing the night sky for a glimpse of Santa in his sleigh. The Spirit of Christmas, the true, foundational, and ever so simple point of it all, was a feeling deep inside. I know no other word to describe it but as Love.

All the faces of those who have gone before float by in my mind’s eye, my grandparents, my mom and dad, my brother, and most especially, my son, Eric. I see them opening gifts and smiling and I feel their joy radiating out all around them. I feel that pang of missing them and simultaneously enjoy their presence in my thoughts. 

And as all the lists and packages and gift cards of my day drift away into unimportance, I contemplate this feeling, this quiet, this…bliss…of all that has been, and I realize, a bit surprisingly, that all those people and experiences are with me still. They are all still a part of me. 

Yes, years have passed and times have changed. The shifting clouds remind me of that. As beautiful as they are in each moment, they do shift, they never stay exactly the same. Yet the beauty transforms into a new cloud formation, still containing the same droplets of water vapor. And in the same way, the love of all the Christmases past still flow into this Christmas today. The knowing of this truth settles me, grounds me, and reminds me of what matters most. It’s not all the doing, not all the buying, and certainly not the list. It’s the being in each little moment, each one shifting, each one exquisite, each one precious. With this renewed knowing I am reminded by someone in spirit very special to me to “look around.”

Inhale, exhale. I am restored, refreshed. I am grateful for this moment, this blessing. And even better is the knowing that it is always here for me. I don’t need to collapse under the pressures and expectations of the season. I can do whatever is do-able each day, I can focus on the lists and even enjoy some of the bustle, but I can also turn my focus from the purchasing of the Christmas tree to the trees outside my window, to the peace, the stillness, the love. And I can be reminded of all this as I take in the sweet faces of my children and husband who are right here with me, right in front of me, right now. That’s what matters most.

As I end my sit, my time of peace and contemplation, I set my journal on the UPS box next to me and get up. Yup, much more to do in the days ahead, lots of work, and lots of joy. But regardless of the outcome, all is well.

I hope you can find some of this same peace during this busy December, taking a moment to gaze at the trees outside your window, stepping outside to smell a rose, or leaning back to behold the endless sky above. You may get everything on your checklist done, but even if you don’t, I hope you recognize the joy within just like the Whos in Whoville did when they gathered in their town square and sang their hearts out even though the Grinch had stolen all their Christmas “stuff.” They knew it wasn’t the stuff, but it was something more. They knew what really mattered. That place of love that always resides within. Make time for it. Then share it with others. That is the true Christmas Spirit.

Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Unexpected Lessons

Can anything good ever come from loss? Is it possible for our darkest challenge, our deepest pain, to somehow be our teacher?

I just finished reading the book Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom. I know, I’m probably one of the few people in my age group (early 60s) who hasn’t read that classic. This book looks right at death, square in the face, without the blink of an eye. No holds barred. Here it is. Let’s see it, touch it, and maybe…even...embrace it. 

I found the whole read absolutely and incredibly freeing.

In this book, author Mitch Albom spends the last 14 Tuesdays of Morrie’s life discussing death with him. Morrie is dying from ALS – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The last thing Morrie wants to do is pretend it’s not happening. During these conversations with Mitch, not only does Morrie discuss his slow slide into death, but in doing so, he offers profound wisdom and insights on life.

Truth is, we are all going to die someday. We just don’t know when. Some will have many years, and some will not have very many at all. Some will spend months or years fighting an illness, others will be here one minute and gone the next. There are no guarantees in this life. Well, maybe two. You know the old saying – the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes. Funny, people talk plenty about taxes, and rarely about death.

I’m not referring to the kind of death we watch on television or in the movies.  There’s no scarcity of discussion on that kind of death. But let’s face it, that’s not real death. It’s manufactured for entertainment. I guess that’s why people can talk plenty about death on the screen. But real-life, not kidding, this-is-really-it death? Easier to change the subject.

Let’s talk semantics. How about that word - death. Most people hate that word. I know I don’t care for it. It sounds so final, so cruel, so unforgiving. No wonder people avoid it. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, It is the unknown, and that’s scary. There’s a sense, a hope, that by not talking about it, it’ll all go away.

But for those of us who know (not only from what we’ve heard or read, but more so from what we’ve experienced) that life continues after we breathe our last breath on earth, death is actually not the end. Back to semantics - death, to me, means only death of the body. Life does not end. As Albert Einstein famously said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” It continues as non-physical energy. I’ll be honest. That not only comforts me, but it fascinates me.

Just as it is your choice to live life the way you want to, you can also put your own signature on death. In the book, Morrie chose to talk about it, and Mitch chose to listen. That’s pretty profound in and of itself. How many people do that? Have you ever known anyone who was dying? Did you ask them about it? Or did you skirt around the elephant in the room and proceed as if everything was fine and they weren’t sick? Maybe it was easier not to call or visit. So awkward. And we don’t like feeling awkward. I know I don’t.

Or what if it is you who have received an unpleasant diagnosis that uncomfortably points toward your physical demise. Same questions here; do you talk about it? Or do you avoid that discussion with others at all costs? Do you pretend it’s not happening? Still awkward.

Yet not talking about it is precisely why it’s awkward. It’s not anyone’s fault that this discussion is awkward. We just have never learned to have it! Most people would rather keep it in the dark. Yet many of us are afraid of the dark. For some people it’s even shameful to admit to. It feels like failure. But shame can only exist in the darkness. As soon as you shine a light on it, it loses its stigma. According to Brene Brown, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” By speaking about death, it becomes what it is…as much a part of life as anything else.

I spent much of my life following the social norm of only talking about death in private or in whispers. And then I was faced with it head on. Not by the terminal diagnosis of a loved one, but by the sudden and unexpected death of my own child, my 24-year-old son, Eric. As everything I understood was sucked out underneath me like the sand under my feet when a wave draws itself back into the ocean, I was powerless to change this circumstance.

I heard grief expert David Kessler explain that a herd of buffalo, upon becoming aware of an oncoming storm, will instinctually choose to head straight into the storm, facing it and moving through it and beyond it, instead of running from it. They look it square in the eye and as they boldly encounter it. They are able to grapple with it and then move into a place of peace much more quickly than if they kept running away from the inevitable.

So I took a good hard look at this thing called death. And soon I had a desire to shine a light on it. Eventually, like Morrie, I found I wanted to speak about it and to learn all I could about it. I wanted to talk to people who had been through what I had been through. I wanted to share my experience and listen to theirs.  I read book after book on the subjects of death and grief, as well as near-death experiences and the afterlife. I listened to dozens of experts on grief and spirituality. I joined support groups where this discussion is not taboo, where it is welcomed and embraced. And little by little, I found the profound lessons in all of it, and dare I say, the beauty.

You see, out of that frightening and tragic death diagnosis, Morrie experienced great love. People came to Morrie and loved him in a way they had never loved him before. They were changed by this exchange of love. They had the opportunity to serve Morrie by showing up, supporting him, and listening to him. Just listening. What a gift to take the time in this oppressively busy, non-stop world to be with someone and just listen, not try to fix it or tell him it will be okay. That image in my head of a dying man surrounded by caring helpers who adjusted him in his wheelchair every 20 minutes because he no longer had the strength to do it himself, placed a jacket around him when he was cold, and fixed his glasses if they started slipping down his nose - that picture of love brought me to tears. Not sadness, but a profound, unexplainable joy of that which is good in this world. That is same love that my family and I were surrounded by during the immediate days and weeks after my son’s accident. That is God at work.

At one point during the time spent with Mitch, Morrie said to him, “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” And then he leaned in every so slightly, as much as his body would allow him at the time, and repeated, “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” 

You learn. It is a lesson, a lesson in the situation we all avoid at all costs. Morrie accepted it as a profound lesson. The beautiful humility in that statement really gave me pause. Somewhere in there, in that horrific feeling of having the rug pulled out from underneath you, are lessons…on life. The beauty in the simplest of moments. The significance of each little act of kindness. The recognition of what matters most. Can we see it? Can we allow those lessons to be planted within us, and then bloom?

Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh put it perfectly when he explained that there can be no lotus without the mud.  That which appears to be murky, disagreeable, or even frightening can actually bring forth something of beauty. In that same vein, Brian Smith, host of the podcast Grief2Growth and parent of a beautiful daughter in spirit, Shayna, has said that though we may feel buried by our challenges and losses, maybe - just maybe - like a seed we have been planted. I feel this in my heart to be true. 

I am no longer afraid of death. Looking at it and talking about it has taken away that fear. I am now at a place of new understanding about this whole subject of death. In fact, I am awed by it. The love continues to flow from me and my family to my son and from him to us. No doubt the love that surrounded Morrie continues to ripple out as well. It is never-ending. There truly is more to this than meets the eye. The depths to this mystery are boundless. But the lessons from my son’s death continue to evolve and unfold. Though I’d rather have my son back, I am grateful, ever so grateful, for all I have learned since his spirit exited his physical body. 

Talking about death, touching it, and listening to others tell their stories will bring forth the lessons in the hardest and darkest challenges of life. Shine a light on it. It will undoubtedly change us, and I do believe, for the better.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

A Gathering of Shining Lights

The Uber driver asked why I was in Phoenix.

“I'm attending a conference.”

“Oh. What kind of conference?”

I hesitated. Do I lie and say it’s for something like freelance writers? A much easier topic to mention. Or maybe a pet expo? Or do I tell the truth?

I told the truth.

“Well…it’s for Helping Parents Heal, a support organization for parents whose child has passed away.”


Well if that isn’t a conversation killer, I don’t know what is. 

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

What else could he have said? It is, without a doubt, an uncomfortable situation.

“Thank you," I replied.

Continued awkward silence. Now what do we talk about?

I’ve gotten good at changing the subject real fast.

But let’s dive in.

Child loss. In our society most people would rather not talk about it, often try to hide it, and become very uncomfortable with it. I know because before I became a member of the club nobody wants to belong to, I also tried to think about this horrific event as little as possible . But here in Phoenix I spent an entire weekend with a group of parents who have decided to do something proactive with their experiences.

What does one do when he or she has lost a child? It feels totally unnatural, and certainly out of order.

This is what you do; you gather as a community, you come together to hold each other up and talk about your pain, something most other people in our lives would rather not discuss. You look into the faces of these mothers and fathers who held their children and loved them fiercely for as many years as they were given in this earthly realm. You listen to their stories and you say their child’s name. Out loud. These parents just want their child remembered and not forgotten. They existed. And in the remembering is the acknowledgement that the love we have for our child is still alive. That love will never go away, no matter how much time has passed. That love is eternal.

Why in God’s name would anyone attend or even put together an entire conference about the passing away of a child? Most people who have not attended this kind of event, who, fortunately, have never needed to, will most likely picture a group of sad people walking around crying. People in despair, people who are hopeless.

But I assure you this gathering organized by the wonderful organization, Helping Parents Heal, was anything but that. This was a loving group of 900+ people who had been through the worst possible thing that could ever happen to a parent - outliving their child. And for some, they have outlived 2 or even 3 of their children. They have been through the visceral wails, the anger, the disbelief, the anguish, and they have picked themselves up and come from near and far, from other states and even other countries, so they could come together to support each other and heal, even if they had no idea what that could possibly look like. 

For some their child (or children) had only transitioned in the last few months, for others it’s been a few years or much longer. But all were there to receive the love and support of a community whose members completely understood how it feels to lose a child’s physical presence and had no qualms about having these conversations. There were no awkward silences, no discomfort in telling the story of one’s child, how they lived, how they died, and how their spiritual presence is still felt.

A sad event? Not really. Sure, there were tears. Necessary tears. Tears that are held back in day-to-day life so as not to make other people uncomfortable. But mostly there were smiles and even laughter. And at times, a lot of laughter. There was a palpable joy in knowing that there was a way to still live this life and carry hope right alongside the grief. And in knowing our children in spirit are still right here with us.

This was a group of regular people, walking around with badges attached to lanyards around their necks bearing not only their own names, but the names of their children as well. These were folks attending presentations, discussing the presenters during meals, sharing stories about their children, and purchasing books and lattes, angel necklaces and crystals, and beautiful spirit inspired artwork. 

There’s no “getting over” the loss of a child. But if we are still here, then it’s for a reason. And if that reason is to hold out a hand to help up another parent who is drowning in a sea of grief, then so be it. And if that reason is to honor our children with words and acts of kindness, then somehow, we can turn our pain into purpose. We can shine a light in the darkness, which is why Helping Parents Heal refers to its members as Shining Light Parents.

The second night I was there, I stepped outside of the hotel to enjoy the setting sun. Any clouds always make this view just a bit more magnificent. 

What I saw in the sky gave me pause. There, above me and stretching out to the horizon, was a beautiful blanket of clouds illuminated by the setting sun. Yet there appeared to have been a slice taken out of the clouds, exhibiting two lines that meet at a vanishing point, giving the appearance of a road of blue sky. I had never seen anything like this. As I stood there gazing at the amazing sight, and experiencing the awe and wonder it offered, it felt as if this was a highway to Heaven. Or was a highway from Heaven...and all our children were coming to join us as we honored them.

If you know of someone whose child (or any loved one) has passed away, the kindest thing you can do is reach out to express your sadness, and offer your condolences, even if it’s uncomfortable. Acknowledge the loss. Then please don’t proceed to forget about him/her. As time goes by, mention the child’s name along with a memory when appropriate, especially if the parent brings it up first.  I can't tell you how grateful I am when someone tells me something about my son, Eric, that they remember. It keeps him alive. It keeps him with us. His energy can be felt.

I would love for us to make some shifts in how we view death. I would love for this conversation in our society to open up and become less stigmatized. Death is part of life, and we are here to support each other through it all. Let’s step in the direction of being willing to talk just a little bit more about death, physical death, and about continued connections. Then, let’s talk about how they lived.

(Read more about my journey from grief to hope in my book Look Around.)



Monday, May 16, 2022

A Higher Power

(As always, take what resonates for you, and let go of the rest.)

Who is God?

Oh, the eternal question. Everyone has a different answer for that. Your understanding of God, or your belief that there is no God, is based on your own experiences. Millions of lives, and billions of experiences. The likelihood of even two people believing exactly the same way is small. There are always minute details that can differ. Everyone's viewpoint is based on his/her own belief system. Here is just a small taste of mine.

So again, who is God? 

That notion has changed drastically for me in the last 5 years.

Raised Catholic, I embraced my religious beliefs with much contentment, until the whole world fell apart for me. When my 24-year-old son, Eric, passed away unexpectedly in May 2017, my first question in my outrage was, “Who ARE you, God?“

I then began a search, a search for the meaning of life, for an explanation of that which seems senseless, for an understanding of who God is. And in doing so, I eventually found myself looking back at what my Catholic upbringing had taught me. With new eyes, I looked through, and found the jewels of my early religious teachings. Around these truths were many mistaken beliefs that had seeped in, probably through the personal belief systems of some of those well-intentioned humans who taught me. All people take in God’s truths through their own experiences. I looked again at those gold nuggets of truth and let all the false beliefs filter out. The treasures were there. They were just hard to see at times with all the gunk floating around. 

You see, I still had God in a box. Until life as I knew it was blown apart, I still saw God in the way I was brought up as a child, as an old man in the sky who we prayed to. And if we were good enough, maybe our prayers would be answered. Isn’t that what people say? When good things happen, they give thanks to God, and when bad things happen, they believe this must be a punishment for something they've done wrong. When we pray to God and our prayers are answered, we believe it’s because we said the prayer the right way and must be a good person who is looked upon with favor by God. And when our prayer is not answered, we have to assume we didn’t deserve it because we must be lacking in the eyes of God. So, if my mother is gravely ill and I pray hard enough and God loves me enough, she will recover. But if my friend is praying for her mother’s life to be spared from stage 4 cancer, and she dies, does that mean she didn’t pray hard enough, or say the right words, or maybe wasn’t a good enough person? Does this make any sense at all?

This can not be an unconditionally loving God. This is that God that is sometimes described as angry and vengeful and ready to send us to hell for doing the wrong thing. Some people have experienced unconditional love from their parent, or spouse, or even a very good friend. I have unconditional love for my children. So why can’t God provide the same unconditional love? 

Why did God do this to me? I wasn’t the only one asking this question. Not only were thousands of other parents whose children had passed away asking this question, but so were millions of others who suffered other types of painful losses and challenges in this life – major disease diagnoses, divorce, job loss, loss of home, etc. Why does God do this to me? 

I took this question to a kind man at our church who used to be a priest within weeks after my son’s passing. Though he had chosen to leave the priesthood, he still had much to offer our church community which included making himself available for counsel. At one point during the four occasions that I met with him at our church’s Pastoral Center, I asked him where God was when my son was killed in an accident. His answer gave me much food for thought, and I did not completely understand it until many months later. 

He said that when he was still a priest in 2001, he was helping out at the

Pentagon during the aftermath of 911, and that many people asked him that same question. In his answer he suggested that they look around at all the people doing everything they could to help, the firefighters, the police, the nurses and doctors, and just regular citizens offering anything they could do to be of assistance. There, in these people, is God. Though it wasn’t the answer I was looking for, eventually I would come to understand the profound truth in this answer. And later, I ran across a Bible quote I had heard thousands of times: “The kingdom of God is within you”, also translated as “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” I now got it. I understood. God is not somewhere in the sky or far away. God is here among us, within us.

Over time, and after reading so many books and listening to so many speakers on the subjects of spirituality death, afterlife, near death experiences, and various religions and philosophies, I came to understand that I had a misunderstanding of this mystery of God. First of all, God is not a man or even a woman. God is beyond gender, though we may choose a preferred pronoun when needed (He, She, or It). God is a force of life, and even more than that, the fullness of love. People throw that word “love” around a lot.  It’s easy to forget the power of that word, the profound magnificence of what it really means in its truest form. True love is beyond our understanding as well. It is indescribable. 

For me, love is equivalent with what I now understand to be God. God is the Creator and the Source of all Love. We all came from God. A well-known passage in Genesis says that we are made "in the image and likeness of God. These are words that I (and probably most others) initially heard in a way that, as my Dad liked to say, “went in one ear and out the other.”  Since my son’s transition, those simple words that I learned so very long ago took on a whole new meaning. God is the Creator, we come from God, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we actually are love. Each one of us has this power, this potential. But most of us don’t remember that and get stuck in the materialism of the world and in the search for earthly power. We forget that we are all connected and that we belong to each other, hence, the separation, the hate, the fear, and the wars.

This world is not meant to be perfect. Only the spirit realm, Heaven, whatever you want to call it, is perfect. Here, the whole point is to deal with our challenges and from that there is growth. From that, there is the potential for us to do what we came here to do – love.

There are many names for God – Creator, Divine Source, Divine Spirit, Universe, Love, All That Is. I’m comfortable with the word God but choose what works for you.  There cannot be one name because no words can ever properly describe God. God is mystery. God is greater than the human mind can fathom or experience. People fight over the right word. What a waste of time that is.

Your childhood experiences can also affect your idea of God. If you understand God as a father figure and you had a mean and angry human father, then the word God can have a negative connotation. If you grew up with a loving and benevolent father, then the word God can have a positive connotation. Richard Rohr says, “God is uncapturable in any form, even by our words, by our mouth, and yet as available as the very breath within our lungs.” People search for other ways to describe God. Any of it is right, and all of it is right. For God is personal and therefore each person will have a different interpretation, experience, and words to describe God.

Every day my prayer is to know who God is and to know who I am, both in the same breath, both of equal importance. If I am made in the image and likeness of God, then to know myself is to know God and to know God is to know myself. I found this idea in the Bible as well: “I am in you and you are in me.“ (John 14:20). 

I make references to the Bible because that is the religious book I am most familiar with. However, all major religions have seeds of the same basic truths at their foundation. To put it simply, all roads ultimately lead to the same God. There are various faith traditions and cultures, but these are all different ways of expressing an understanding of the inexpressible, the indescribable, the expansive truth and love of God.

A couple years ago I was struck by the new meaning I found in a simple line from The Lion King. Simba is told by his father, “Remember who you are.” I understood that at one level when I first saw that movie so many years ago. Now I will never hear it the way I did before. It carries a much greater meaning. If we do truly remember who we are, then we will know that we are love and, in that love, connected to God in an unbreakable bond. If we can remember that, then the world will be a better place.

You already have everything you need within you, because the kingdom of God is within you – the indwelling spirit of God, the breath. We (I included) spend most of our time looking outside ourselves for answers, yet when we go within, there we find them, in the silence, the stillness, the still, small voice. That is God. Some call it the higher self. For we are made in the image and likeness of God. We cannot be apart from God.

Looking outside is still worthwhile. We encounter various ideas and philosophies which we can discuss, consider, collect, or throw out. These help to build and shape our own beliefs. But more than anything, the ideas of others cultivate what is already within us. As Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “I cannot teach you anything. I can only water the seeds that are already in you.”

I recently looked through my yearbook from senior year in high school. Underneath my senior portrait was the quote I had chosen to have published. Some people used quotes from great thinkers or writers or even music artists of the day. Others wrote their own. That’s what I did. And as I read what I had written so long ago, I was a bit surprised by it because I could see that my words came from a truth that was deep within, and that I was just now rediscovering. In my 17-year-old

vernacular I wrote, “Listen to others, you can learn so much. But don’t let that keep you from believing in yourself and trusting in your own ideas.” Exactly. The seeds were there, and I have spent my life, and especially this past 5 years since my son passed away, reaching out to others to water the seeds that were already within me. Of all that I listened to, I had been discerning of what felt true to me, and that is what has continued to grow. 

And that truth, that pain, that joy, that love that I feel – THAT is God, holding me, guiding me, and always right there with me. There, in the tree in my front yard, in the rose that I let kiss my cheek, in the brilliant orange sunrise, in the bright glow of the full moon, in the embrace of my husband, and the spark in each one of my children’s eyes – there, is God. Right here. Always here. And when life knocks me down, when it’s turbulent and challenging and sometimes too difficult to bear, all I need to do is look around. And there is God. 

Do I believe God exists? Yes. Do I believe he took my son? No. Do I believe Eric is in Heaven? Yes. Do I believe Heaven is far away? No. Do I believe Heaven is right here? Yes. And Eric? He is, unmistakably, still around. Not because anyone else has told me so. I believe this, know this, because of my own experiences, my own connections with God. And that’s all that really matters.


(Read more about my journey from grief to hope in my book Look Around.) 

Allowing the Shift

It’s still there. The spot where the accident occurred. So close to home. I still drive by it a couple times a month on my way to this or th...