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

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.”

Silence.

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 maybe...it 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.) 











Monday, February 7, 2022

Steve - A Legacy of Music

 

My brother left this Earth 43 years ago. Forty-three years! I shake my head at how inconceivable it is that this much time has already passed. I was 20 when Steve made his transition and have lived more than 1 ½ of his lifetimes since then. He was 26, almost 27 when his defective heart finally gave out. Yet the legacy he left behind is timeless. 

It is said that those who have passed away live on in what they leave behind. They do, in so very many ways. Certainly, they live on in our memories, the joyful ones as well as the sad ones (I choose to remember the joyful ones). They live on in the pictures we pour over, savoring each detail and nuance. They live on in the letters and cards they wrote us and the stories we tell about them. They live on in the lives they touched, the effect that was made on the people they interacted with. And, along with all of this, my brother lives on in the music he wrote, played, and recorded. His soul was expressed through his music. 

Steve was born with a congenital heart defect. In layman’s terms, he simply had two holes in his heart. If he had been born today, his condition would have easily been fixed due to advancements in medical technology. But in 1952, this was not an option. My parents knew this, and knew his life would be short, but my siblings and I weren’t aware of his limited lifespan when we were younger. To my older sister and 2 younger brothers and me, Steve was our big brother who we looked up to. He took care of us, as older brothers often do. He was frail, yet he was smart and did well in school. He was not allowed to run or play sports as the stress would be too much on his heart, but he gave us wagon rides down the steep driveway that led out of our backyard (okay, one or two of those rides ended in a collision with the side of the house!), built model monsters and model rockets (which we had the pleasure of launching with him from time to time – the rockets, that is), and he was a musician. 

Ever since beginning piano lessons at age 6 or 7, piano music could be heard daily as Steve practiced. Every day. He took to the piano like a fish to water. It was never a chore for him to practice, it was his passion. And that energy permeated throughout our house, and through each of us. By the time he was about 12, he added guitar to his musical skills, and we were treated to the sounds of his guitar, along with the piano, until just days before he died.

Soon after the arrival of his first six-string came the garage bands. Oh, what a joy that was for a kid like me! For quite a few years, my siblings and I hung out many weekends in the garage, watching Steve and his handpicked young musician friends play some far-out rock music. They were covers, of course, as Steve’s original compositions came later. This was the late 60s and early 70s, and all the guys were hippie-types. Long hair was practically a requirement, with an occasional display of love beads or groovy peace-sign jewelry. As they got older, they enjoyed cigarettes and an occasional beer as they played. They covered many cool songs of the day written by artists such as The Beatles, Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Bowie and The Kinks, to name a few.  It was loud, it was energetic, it was fun, and I was mesmerized. My mom never minded the loud music, even when the neighbors occasionally called the police to stop all the noise. But my dad was a different story. He mostly tolerated it, yet every so often the power mysteriously shut off and the amplifiers were silenced. I wonder how that one fuse from the fuse box just disappeared?

Along with our daily dose of piano and guitar scales and pieces, and some rock’n’roll garage band weekends, we also had our daily fill of the music of classical composers and professional music artists. Steve had an eclectic album collection that eventually grew to about 1,000 albums. By the time he was a teenager, music from one or more of those albums could be heard playing from his room every day, filling our whole upstairs with the sounds of Beethoven or Frank Zappa, Debussy or The Beatles, Herbie Hancock or The Doors, Neil Young or Jimi Hendrix. Whether he was working on homework or getting dressed for the day or getting ready to go out, we were all well educated in a variety of music genres, styles, and artists. Go ahead – ask me some music trivia of the 60s and 70s!

I had my share of piano lessons as well. I studied for a of couple years between the ages of 8 and 10, took a break for a few years (though still practiced here and there), then took 1 more year of private piano at my high school. I was intrigued by Steve’s innate talent and by the beautiful music that came out of that piano, and for a time I tried to do what he did. If I heard him play a piece I especially liked, and if it was doable for me, I’d pull out the music when he was not using the piano and learn it myself. Of course, I could never come close to the grace and ease in which he expressed these classical pieces, but I certainly gave it a good try. At first, I almost thought he was bothered by my “copying” whatever he was working on. But as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, he truly did support my efforts.

By the time I got to more advanced pieces in high school, the work became much more complex and took much more time to perfect in the limited amount of time and effort I gave them. These pieces now required much more practice. At the end of that school year, I had to do a recital, and that thought petrified me. The Chopin, Debussy, and Gershwin pieces my teacher had selected for me to play felt like they were just a notch above my actual ability, though, again, more practice might have solved that problem. I dreaded that day, not only because I was embarrassed at the idea of my subpar performance, but also because Steve was planning to be there. My big brother who I looked up and who I knew was a talented pianist, came and sat in the front row. And even after the dozens – yes, dozens – of flubs and wrong notes, he smiled and told me afterward that I had done a good job. I remember how wonderful it felt to have him tell me that, even though I didn’t believe I deserved it. But that was the end of my piano career. I chose to focus on my dance classes instead and leave it to Steve to pave the way to musical genius.

Steve’s gifts flourished even more when he attended the University of Southern California as a music composition major. There, the rigors of that program opened all the doors to his gifted soul. By then, he was composing music at a rapid pace and could often be found at our kitchen table with blank staff paper, a fountain pen and bottle of India ink, notating the complex arrangements in his head. He wrote dozens and dozens of compositions in various styles of music. Most of these songs were performed by the new bands he eventually formed and, thankfully, most of them were recorded in one way or another, whether in a recording studio, or simply with a cassette recorder placed next to his piano. What a thrill it was to attend any one of his gigs, which now comprised of his own rock’n’roll compositions, with a cover piece thrown in there every so often just for fun.

Keeping up with rehearsals and performances became more and more difficult for Steve as his heart continued to weaken. At this point my siblings and I were sadly aware of his limited time with us on this Earth. Though he longed to attend concerts, doing so involved much more walking than his body could handle. By the time he turned 26, his activities had really begun to wane. Steve’s bandmates loved him and helped him out as much as possible. They had to move all the equipment at this point. He was still able to drive, and still had some good days. But his condition was taking its toll.

I have a special memory of one day in October of 1978, just less than 4 months before my brother died. I was now attending USC (Steve’s alma mater) as a theatre arts major and was involved in a production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding. Steve drove to campus to attend a matinee performance, and once again, sat in the audience to watch my performance. I felt honored to have him there, to have his support (I was much better at acting than piano). Afterwards, he took me to a little local restaurant and bought me dinner. I don’t think he had ever done that before. It was very sweet, such a loving gesture from him. I wish I could remember exactly what we talked about. No doubt it involved USC, theatre…and music.

Two months after that event, Steve wanted to go to our local bookstore to do some Christmas shopping. He wasn’t strong enough to drive, so I drove him there. I parked on the street, about 50 feet down from the store which was located on the corner. It took all his energy to walk from the car to the store – I think it took a full 5 minutes for him to do what would have taken me about 20 seconds – but he was determined to buy these Christmas gifts.  I remember the sadness I felt as I watched him put so much effort into something that we all take for granted.

On February 7 of 1979, I spoke to my mom on the phone just before heading off from my dorm room to a final dress rehearsal for our production of Pippin. Steve was home and had not left his bed for many days. My mom held the phone to my brother’s ear so that I could say hello to him. He could barely say hello back. I sensed what was coming, but I kept that thought at bay. It was too painful to acknowledge. That night when I went to bed, as I was falling asleep, I felt like Steve was standing at the foot of my bed, just there, just for a moment. I thought it was probably a dream. The next day I was told that my brother had passed away right after midnight. Right after midnight. That must have been about the time of my dream. Maybe he came to say goodbye.

I often wonder if Steve would have been the same accomplished musician he was if he hadn’t been disabled. If he had been healthier and fit, maybe he would have spent more time playing sports or running around with friends and less time at the piano and on his guitar. Maybe he wouldn’t have had time to practice as much as he did and write as many musical compositions. Who knows? All I know is that we were so fortunate to have him with us for almost 27 years. I know that he had a huge impact on all our lives with the gift he gave all of us, his family and countless others, with his music. How fortunate we are to still have so many recordings of his music, including many of his hand-written musical notations. How magnificent it was to have a 10-piece chamber orchestra perform one of his most accomplished works at a concert in his honor only 5 years ago. I have absolutely no doubt of the influence his music had on me personally, how much it affected the kind of music I love today. I truly believe that my own joy and passion for music comes from many sources, but mostly from Steve.

Yes, 43 years have passed. Have we forgotten about Steve? Not at all. His essence surrounds us and is brought back to life in the photos and the stories we tell, including this story I tell in this moment. He is here.  And he is here in the music he brought forth and left us. The music, which came directly from Steve’s soul, lives on. And every time we listen to his music, or share his music with others, or tell the story of him and his music, Steve lives on, too.

Thank you, big brother. On this day, February 8, 2022, the 43rd anniversary of your entrance to the big rock concert in the sky, we honor you. And on this upcoming anniversary of your birth into this world, we celebrate you. 





Wednesday, January 19, 2022

No Judgment Please




We've all been there at some point, in one form or another, or certainly we will be eventually. Someone we dearly love passes away. The pain is so deep, and it feels like we cannot go on. But the way we grieve is as individual as our own fingerprint.

I have grieved - in my own way. My 24-year-old son was killed in a car accident on Mother's Day weekend in May of 2017. My journey has been my own, different than even the journey of my husband or each of my surviving children, even different than the journeys of other parents whose child has passed away. Much of my healing is attributed to the actions I decided to take, shaped by the pain in my soul, the pain that held the history of all my past traumas and losses - and loves.  My healing was shaped by the therapist I chose to spend a year and a half with, and the online support groups I sought out and still spend time with. One of these groups is Helping Parents Heal, a group specifically for parents whose child has transitioned. In this group, we are able to post pictures of our child anytime we want, and no one complains about it. We are able to write how we feel, whether that may be despair or hope. There is no judgement, because there is an understanding that every single one of us does this in her/his own way.     

My journey guides me toward healing and continues to unfold. But there is no reason for me to ever tell anyone else to do it my way. I could be speaking with another parent whose child has passed away, but her/his circumstances would likely be entirely different than mine. The history and relationship with the child would have been different. Many parents had either a shorter time with their child than I did, or a 
longer time. Maybe their child did not die in a a car accident like mine did. Maybe their child passed from a long illness, or from an accidental drug overdose, or from suicide, or was murdered. Maybe that parent lost the only child they ever had.  Maybe their relationship with their child was troubled, or estranged, or more loving than any other relationship they have ever had. Maybe they took care of their disabled child every single day and night for years, and no longer have that daily interaction. I have no idea what any of that feels like. How could I judge that person's grief?

And likely, different parents' past experiences with other losses are unlike mine. Maybe they've had many traumatic losses, or maybe none at all. Maybe they have felt abandonment or, conversely, total support. Maybe they already had a strong foundation of faith, or an unsettling church experience, a loving relationship with God, or no belief in any God whatsoever. Maybe death for them had always been a taboo subject and seen as something to be avoided, or was a topic that was frequently discussed and philosophized. All these differences are going to affect the way a person grieves. So, who am I to tell someone else that they are grieving too much and should be over it by now, or that they are not grieving enough?

Another online support group I spend time with, Grief: Releasing Pain, Remembering Love & Finding Meaning, is inclusive of losses of any loved one. I have seen people in so very much pain when their parent passes away. These are people usually around my age, in their 60s, whose mother or father was in her/his 80s or 90s. Many of these grievers are totally devastated and distraught. The love is so deep and the pain so great that they have a hard time getting through each day. However, my experience with my parents' deaths was very different. My grief was much softer, gentler, and a bit more accepting of this inevitability in life. Although my heart was heavy, I did not experience difficulty getting up in the morning and facing the day. Does this mean I loved my parents less? Not at all. No doubt this difference in grieving was due to a very different history and relationship with my parents, and also due to the many discussions of life and death we had over the years. My grief in this case was unlike the grief of others. There would be no reason at all for me to tell someone else that they are grieving too much, or conversely, for anyone to say to me that I didn't grieve enough. Everyone's situation is unique.

And on the flipside of that, I have learned never to take personally how someone else views my grief, though it did take some time for me to get there. After the passing of my son, I quickly became aware of who I could discuss my grief with and who not to bring it up to. I would love if people could withhold judgment and understand that grief is a personal journey. But I also know that their judgment is based on their own preconceived notions. It would be easy for me to become offended by or angry at people who make comments about my grief. But the truth is, I know they have absolutely no idea what I have been through in my life, just like I have no idea what they have been through in their lives. I have finally found the grace to just let them be and assume they mean well. I know who I am, and I know why I need to do what I do. This is quite a lesson I have learned, though by no means always easy and certainly far from perfected.

In our society we are quick to judge. We judge people by their appearances, the clothes they wear, and the cars they drive. We judge people by whether or not they have a college education, and whether or not they make a lot of money. We judge people by the houses and neighborhoods they live in and the schools they attend. We judge people by their personalities, whether they are friendly and outgoing, or quiet and reclusive. We judge them by their religious beliefs and political affiliations We are a society of judges, always measuring someone's value, someone's worth, whether or not someone belongs in our group, whether or not they are good enough. We assume that we do is the right way, the only way, and if someone does it another way, it must be wrong. I hope people can begin to step back for a moment and allow others to feel what they feel and be who they are. Rather than judge them for not being like us, wouldn't it be loving to allow others to be who they are and work through grief in their own way? Rather than judge, just offer love and support. Just offer your presence and be a witness to their grief.

You might wonder why I continue to visit these online support groups 4 years and 8 months after my son's transition. My answer is that I continue to learn from the stories and experiences of other grievers. I am reminded of how it felt in the beginning, so that I remain compassionate when someone in my own community experiences the loss of a loved one. I am inspired by those who have found ways to grow and even thrive from the physical separation from their loved one. I am touched by those who speak of their pain and their love, and I can only hope that any one of my posts might be helpful to even one other person. Of course, even though most of my days can be busy, eventful, challenging, or even filled with joy, I still have my harder days where the grief makes itself known and I take the time to retreat into the shadows for some self care. The grief will never go away completely. I will never be done grieving. It lives within me, in my heart, right next to the joy of my memories and the joy of the present moment. So, on the days I wish to post a picture of my son and share a memory or poem I wrote (and I hesitate to post too often on my main social media pages), I know I can always do so in the support groups. I will always receive supportive comments to help me cope, reminding me, once again, of the love that is offered, that holds us up and carries us through.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again. We are here in this earthly experience to, among other things, help each other along the way. Rather than judge, why not reach out a hand to help someone up, or simply provide a listening ear. Offer the compassion you might hope someone would offer you when you need it. Remind yourself that there is no way you could possibly know what that person has been through before this loss because his/her past experiences might be radically different than your own. Remember that the reality is that deep within each of our hearts, we just want to be heard, accepted, understood, and allowed to be who we are. In truth, we are all connected. And that connection is love.















Friday, October 15, 2021

A Journey Toward the Meaning of Life

 


I offer these thoughts. If they resonate, they are a gift to you. If they don’t, let them go.

Why are we here?

This is an age old question that most every human has pondered or will ponder at one point or another during his/her life.

This question cannonballed its way into my life four and a half years ago when my youngest of 4 children, my 24-year-old son, Eric, was killed in a solo car accident. Talk about blindsided. Nothing made sense anymore. Life lost all meaning. I no longer felt I had a purpose. This beautiful life that I had meticulously built along with my husband was shattered. The unthinkable had actually happened. What is the point of all of this? Why are we spending so much time assembling our lives when they can be broken apart in an instant? What kind of game are we playing?

Why are we here?

It is a mystery. That is what the monsignor of our church said when he stopped by our home the day after Eric’s transition.  My husband and I were comforted not only by the caring gesture of his visit (even though he had a huge church community to attend to) but also by what he said. When he came in and sat down on our couch next to the lit candle and graduation photo of Eric, his first words were, “It’s a mystery.” He did not claim to know the answers, and he didn’t placate us with the idea that it was God’s plan. He simply left it at mystery. And though I wanted more than that from him, I would eventually see the great truth in this. 

I believe Monsignor understood that no matter what he said, it would not make it better, it would not give us a satisfactory answer. I believe he knew that this is a question each one of us has to answer ourselves. I believe he knew that this was a very personal conversation between God and me, and he could not participate in that conversation. It was my journey to take. 

The other thing he said was that people will tell us that it will get better with time and we will eventually get over this. He said, “That’s rubbish.” He told us we will have days when our son’s memory will bring us a smile, and other days when his memory will be like a dagger in the heart.  He didn’t try to fix us. He pulled no punches. He not only gave us the gift of a visit, but also the gift of the truth. We so appreciated this. 

So, for the last 4 ½ years since that horrendous day, I have been searching for the answer. I have read well over a hundred books that relate in any way to the subjects of life and death, spirituality, and afterlife, as well as how each of these themes are viewed by various world cultures. I have listened to hundreds of podcasts on these same subjects, many of them from the same authors of the books I have read. I have pondered and prayed, mulled over and mediated, discussed and deliberated, and to date I have made some discoveries.  I hesitate to say I may have found some answers, for this is an enormous question which is not easily answered, and which we must always continue to contemplate. But something began to resonate. Something clicked.

When my son passed away, nothing else mattered. All the “little” things in life, like what car I drove and what size my house was, what clothes I wore and whether or not I was having a good or bad hair day, no longer had any importance whatsoever.  Even seemingly bigger things like which college my kids got into or whether or not we could even afford college for them in the first place, lost any relevance. When my most significant reason for being here, my child, disappeared from my grasp, I knew that all that mattered at all was that deep bond of love I had with him, the same one I have with my husband and 3 other kids.

So as I foraged through books and podcasts, sifting out words of comfort and wisdom, I found a common theme, one which matched what I had been feeling.

Don’t hold your breath. You’ve heard this one before, as have I. But now it had a much deeper meaning. 

It was love. Simply love. A love so great that from it flows compassion and kindness.

For you see, when you are broken open, you now have space for the light to come through – if you allow it. When you are flattened to the ground in complete surrender, with no strength left to kick and fight, you will finally allow peace to surround you, hold you. Your heart softens with compassion for, first of all, yourself. And then, when you are ready, this compassion can flow from you to others around you. 

As I looked around, I saw that I was not the only one. There were others suffering as well. And as I picked myself up and began to see that I was connected with so many others who had also lost their loved ones, I knew there was no choice but to do for them that which had been done for me, to offer to them the same kindness and compassion that had been given to me and my family. No more need for measuring who deserves it or not. No more judgment. We all need love. We all need understanding. We all need compassion. 

Orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Mary C. Neal, had a near death experience when she was submerged underwater for almost 30 minutes during a kayaking accident in southern Chile in 1999. She tells about the indescribable love that she experienced when she was in Heaven. One of the biggest takeaways for me from her book Seven Lessons from Heaven was that she was shown how even the smallest act of kindness done here on Earth is looked upon by those in the spiritual realm as huge. Again, no measuring. She said she was able to see the ripple effect that extended out 20 or 30 times from that one small act of kindness. 

Various faith traditions teach the connection between suffering and love. The Buddhist philosophy teaches that it is through suffering that our hearts become tender, making us more likely to extend compassion to others. Father Richard Rohr, founder of The Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that it is through great love and great suffering that we come to God, or certainly that we can come to God. He says that if we don’t transform our suffering, we will certainly transmit it. 

Grief specialist David Kessler explains that it is possible to make meaning after a loss by, among other things, honoring your loved one who has passed away.  And one invaluable way to do this is to help others dealing with this same challenge, extend a hand out to those in need. 

I found that by offering acts of kindness, even small ones, I give to others as others had given to me. This is what Eric did. After his passing, dozens of his friends told me stories of his benevolence to so many of them, as well as to many people he had only met just once. So I do it for him. I can make something good out of this extremely challenging reality of now having to live without his physical presence. 

I began to understand, in my heart, deep down into the core of my being, that this is what it is all about. This simple word that we have all heard from as far back as we can remember – love – is the big lesson. 

My daughter, Vanessa, has had many dreams where Eric is with her. They hang out, talk, laugh and tease. She told me that in one of these dreams Eric told her that we are here for the experience. Yes, the experience of this life, the experience of our humanness. We are here to feel all of it, the joy and the pain. We are here to be awed and amazed, to see the miracle in the mundane, and the extraordinary in the ordinary.

It was my suffering that brought me here. It was my great loss that catapulted me into new territory.  I have discovered that not only are we here to love, but also to serve, forgive, and show compassion, which are extensions of love. We do this, not for the acknowledgement or the merit points, but just because.  I always knew these qualities were important. But now I really know. And these are not just traits. These are actions, these are energies, these are the power and the meaning…of life. 

There is still mystery, as Monsignor said. This is all so much bigger than my little brain will ever comprehend. And that's okay with me now. Monsignor was wise to let me discover this on my own. For now the space in my heart is filled with a greater awareness of why we’re here, an awareness he would not have been able to explain to me that day after Eric moved to Heaven. It became my truth, my awareness. And from this awareness, I have found peace.

Ram Dass, an American spiritual teacher and the author of the 1971 book Be Here Now, is famously quoted as saying “We’re all just walking each other home.” This couldn’t resonate with me more. We are all here not only to love each other, but also to support each other and hold each other up. In this way we help each other through the inevitable challenges. There is indescribable beauty in this. And this is where we find God.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Connections

 

Yesterday I got together with a friend I had not seen in about two years. During our wonderful conversation over lunch, catching up on all that had transpired since I last saw her, she told me that her brother had passed away 16 months ago. I was naturally surprised and saddened to hear this. She was well aware of my son’s transition in May of 2017, and knew that I had written a book (Look Around: A Mother’s Journey from Grief and Despair to Healing and Hope) about it a year ago. However I wasn’t sure if she knew the depth to which I had written about the connections we continue to have with our loved one in spirit. I gently expressed to her my belief that my son and her brother are still around in spirit, and with no hesitation she wholeheartedly agreed. Then, with only slight caution, she told me about something that had occurred the day after his passing. 

That morning, still fresh with grief, my friend was getting ready to leave to face the grim business of arranging her brother’s services. As she opened the door and stepped out, a small gust of wind blew into her face and enveloped her. It had the distinct sent of his cologne and she felt an immediate sense of his presence.  Of course she looked around to see if anyone else was there, but no one was. She was immediately overcome with an indescribable peace, a peace that provided her with a few moments of absolute love from her brother, and which eased her grief for those moments. She felt it was his way of of sending her his love and saying all was well. 

When a loved one transitions, someone who is the world to you, it feels like you have lost a part of yourself. This is exactly how so many people describe it. We feel that way because of the connection we have with him/her, a deep connection at a level we can’t even fully express. The truth is, this connection is eternal. Sometimes we don’t realize this because the loss of his/her presence is so overwhelming. Our loved ones’ physical bodies very much represent how we know them, yet the truth is we are all so much more than that. Whether we realize it or not, we are also strongly connected to their essence, to their soul, and that connection will never go away. 

Our loved ones have moved into a purely spiritual existence that we do not detect with our five senses. We live in a three dimensional world, as well as one dimension of time. Our loved ones who have passed have moved into a greater reality, greater dimensions that are still right with us but invisible to our human eyes and inaudible to our human ears. 

However there are moments where those two realities, theirs and ours, can cross. In those moments we become aware of their presence. And when this happens, it is almost as if we get a glimpse into their world as they exist now. It is a surreal moment, a moment of peace that cannot be described in our human words.

When this integration of the two worlds takes place, we feel such joy that we wish to share that with others we know. Yet this miraculous event is so hard to truly and fully express to anyone else. Trying to explain this to someone who is slightly or even fully open to this possibility is not too difficult. But of course expressing this experience to someone who is skeptical or even cynical about life beyond this earthly realm can be a bit painful. It is usually dismissed or explained somehow in human terms which usually include, “You have quite an imagination,” or, “That’s what grief can do to your mind,” or, “You must have been dreaming,” or of course, “You’re crazy!” Yet there is a knowing deep in our hearts that a connection has been made. It’s best not to share something so beautiful and personal with skeptics. Keep this amazing gift for yourself.

Most of us have been raised to believe that all we see, hear, touch, smell and taste is the only reality. If we can’t see it, it must not exist. But what about sound waves and light waves? What about electromagnetic fields and radiation. Yes, we see the results of these energies. We hear the sound transmitted from a speaker, and we see the car headlights in the night. But we don’t actually see any of these energies. Are they there, or not? It has been determined by scientists that of course they are there since the evidence is all around us. 

So what about the scent of her brother’s cologne that my friend smelled? No one was around. No one had passed by. The sidewalk was empty. What was that? 

I can hear it now. “It’s just her imagination.” For some, that is enough of a justification, a nice and easy way to explain it away. However, she hadn’t been thinking about his cologne. She hadn’t sat and wished and hoped to smell it. When she least expected it, it was there.

I have heard too many stories similar to this one that have no solid explanation. I have heard and read hundreds and hundreds accounts of these connections. Some of these experiences include interactions with nature, such as a bird hanging out outside someone’s window for hours at a time, a bare dormant plant in the middle of winter suddenly blossoming the next day, feeling a gentle and loving hug while sleeping, receiving a text out of nowhere that says “hi,” even hearing or seeing one’s loved one, etc. The list goes on.  I am willing to bet that most of you reading this have a story or two of your own. And I can also bet that those of you who have had an experience similar to these (if you haven’t already talked yourself out of it) probably hesitate to tell some people about it for fear of being ridiculed. I don’t blame you. I don’t like being ridiculed either. Arguing will get you nowhere. Everyone’s beliefs are different. Let it be. Keep it in your heart, because in your heart, you know.

Albert Einstein said, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” It cannot be destroyed. As I see it, the energy of our physical bodies changes at “death.” There is only death of the human body. Our true self, our consciousness, shifts into the purely spiritual. And the connections remain – if we are open to them.

During those early months after my 24-year-old son had passed away in a car accident, I had learned about self-guided meditations. I would soothe myself by guiding myself to a beautiful place of my choosing, usually a sandy beach with clear blue water and palm trees. I created many details that included a table and two chairs overlooking the water where I could sit with Eric, have a latte, and talk, enjoying the breeze and the scent of the ocean. I admit this was completely my imagination. I knew it was something created by my mind. Regardless, it brought me some comfort. I actually felt like I had spent some time with him.

So for many months after Eric left his physical body, I cried each night when I went to bed. I had held it together for most of the day, but the emotions came out as soon as my head hit the pillow. I couldn’t do anything about this outpouring of grief. Out it came. Then, I would do the self-guided meditation. I usually spent about 10 minutes guiding myself through a lovely pathway of trees, flowers, hills and grasses that eventually led to that glorious beach. I then spent another 10 minutes with Eric, talking with him and telling him how much I loved him. This would calm me, and I usually had no trouble sleeping after that.

But one night I was extra tired when I went to bed. I said to Eric that I was going to skip the pathway and just see him at the table overlooking the beach. In my imagination, I sat at the table and saw him approaching me from a short distance, wearing his usual jeans, T-shirt, and baseball cap. This, I had set up. The next thing that happened, I had not.

Within the first 20 seconds of the meditation, as I cried, I heard… in my right ear... “I’m right here mom.” I heard my son tell me that he is right here. In my ear. I had imagined the beach and the rolling waves and the breeze. I had imagined the table and the chairs and Eric coming towards me. But I had not imagined him telling me that he was right here. That took me totally by surprise. 

Peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding, was mine. I was surrounded by it. I was enveloped and held by this love. It was a gift from God and from my son. It was a glimpse. A connection. 

There is no need to ever explain myself. I know what that was. Just like my friend knew what that scent was. Just like so many others whose accounts I have heard or read knew what that bird was, or that blossoming flower on an otherwise dormant tree was, or that hug while they drifted off into half sleep was, or that text that came out of nowhere was. We just… know.

This story is only one of dozens, probably hundreds, of connections I have had with Eric. They have all been recorded into many journals of mine. And sometimes, when I go back and read them, I am amazed all over again.

If you ever are blessed with a special connection with a loved one who has passed, I encourage you to not toss away the possibility that it really is your mom, your dad, your sibling, your child, or your friend. Take that moment to notice how you feel. Take that moment to test it in your heart. It’s not about what someone else might say. It’s what you know to be true deep within. Chances are it is that someone with whom you have an eternal connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unexpected Lessons

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