Last year after one of my closest friends, Mary Lally, died on Christmas Eve, I wrote about grief, trying to capture the grace and pain of it. When I wrote Good Grief, Gratitude and Grace and Swimming in the Messy Stages of Grief, I thought I knew what I was talking about. Maybe I did for that particular grief journey. However, I am learning that grief takes many forms and shows up in surprising and profoundly non-linear ways. It’s slow, it’s sneaky, it’s exhausting and intense, and it permeates everything at times (much like pepper juice on half a pizza that seeps over and tarnishes the whole thing).
In the past 14 years, I’ve navigated a journey that has been deeply challenging and has brought a lot of grief, along with a huge amount of deep and enduring love. That love continues even though on March 29th, our beautiful son, Nate died. The pain from this loss is unlike any I’ve ever experienced and as many people in my life have reflected, “It’s unimaginable.” In the beginning the shock carried and protected us pretty well, getting us through the tasks that had to be handled immediately. And at the same time, the sense of sacredness landed in my heart as a clear truth - we didn’t have to rush to decide about many things. We could wait to create a service in a way and at a time that felt right to us. We did not need to conform to societal norms (Nate never did, so why should we!?) despite pressure from several of his friends who understandably wanted to pay their respects and memorialize him in some way.
Go ahead and do what you will, I told them. I can’t do this for you, and anything other than keeping my circle really close and small right now would have wrecked me. I pondered whether there might be value in grieving in community and maybe we should have a service sooner, but we were not ready yet. Even now, much remains unclear, and we will just take it one moment at a time.
What I can say with confidence now that I’m living this dreaded life experience, is that the practices and teachings I’ve been living and sharing for the past decade really are working for me. They have resourced me well and allowed me to somehow keep on going, to show up for life, to live, albeit with a lot of heartache and emptiness.
I am so deeply grateful I am that we had found compassionate, kind, and loving ways to be in relationship with Nate over the past few years, that we had many honest, deep, and healing conversations. There is no question for any of us how much love connected us all. That is in large part thanks to a meditation practice which built the capacity to cultivate a heart that can hold it all, expanded open-hearted compassion, and taught us to turn toward life as it is. It’s also in large part a benefit of Recovery Coach training which helped us to understand addiction and recovery differently than we had in the past. The Invitation to Change approach definitely helped us foster trust and a loving, respectful relationship. Thank God we had that approach alive and well in our lives. I cannot imagine the regret that would haunt me now had we not.
Now to highlight a few of the things that have helped over the past decade (or longer) that continue to resource me now. It would have been much harder to incorporate these things into my life now had I not cultivated them over time. I believe they are always helpful and especially when there is one big thing that might consume our lives, whether that’s a child who struggles, work that takes over, a parent or loved one who requires our care. There are big things that can begin to define us and our entire existence if we’re not aware. When they do, it’s time to find a way back to ourselves.
1. Getting Support - Though this list is very incomplete and the things I’m highlighting are interwoven and maybe this aspect couldn’t happen without the others, I think it’s clear to say up front that I could not be doing as well as I am through this grief without so much loving support. I am glad that I have learned to ask for what I need, so when my sister asked whether she should come to be with me or not, I could clearly let her know that yes, I would like her to be here. In the past there might have been more self-abandonment in not wanting to impose on her, denying my needs in order to accommodate what I imagined were hers.
Knowing what kind of support and when I am open to receive has been critical. If someone offered food or a healing session that I couldn’t accept in that moment, I’ve asked for rainchecks. When the time was right, I asked friends to set up a Meal Train for us because we still don’t have the energy or focus to think about preparing meals. People love to give, so I’ve allowed myself to receive and say, “thank you” without too much discomfort that I’m being self-centered and spoiled. When I hit a wall from too much peopling, I give myself a break. I’ve had to pace my interactions in order to honor my own bandwidth in this time. Learning how to respect my own needs and capacity, even as I invite others to walk alongside me has been critical (I don’t think I could have learned it in real-time so I’m grateful for the years of self-care and focus on developing this skill which allow it to kick in in a time of crisis).
Over the years I have been and seen others be “strong and independent”… putting off the vibe of the outstretched stop-sign hand, letting the world know, “I’m good. I’ve got this” and then wondering why no one was offering love or support. We, as a society, have become overly influenced by this idea of fierce independence and self-reliance. We need each other to walk through life. We need to open our arms and hearts and let others in when we’re struggling. We need to understand that vulnerability is not a sign of weakness and that allowing others to show up and lend their service or their listening ear is a gift to you both.
2. Pause - you’ve likely heard me tout the value of a pause a million times if you’ve been around for any time. The taking of a breath creates space for a supportive pause. Even that split second gathering can be the difference between a less-than-well-crafted reaction and a more mindful response. Practicing the pause over many years has allowed me to be gentler with myself in what is a huge pause now - allowing myself to step back and listen within to what I need and for guidance. It’s in the pause that we access a deeper wisdom. When we pause, we take life one moment at a time, which is really the only way to go. When we don’t pause, we are often overtaken by fear which leads to reactivity and chaos. In the pause, we gain a little perspective, a little space, a little breathing room.
3. Self-Care is Vital - Renee Trudeau has taught me to slow down, quiet down, put my hands on my heart and ask, “How do I feel? What do I need? What do I want?” At first it felt foreign and awkward and sometimes my answer was “I have no idea…” Over time this has become part of who I am and how I roll, thank goodness. What this simple inquiry has allowed me to do in this time is to honor the needs and wants of my body, mind, heart, and spirit. It has allowed me to respond to those needs and wants and to ask for help. It’s allowed me pace myself, to honor the sacredness of this time and push aside any outside ideas or pressure of how this should go.
Self-care will look different, moment by moment. Allowing this is critical. Sometimes what’s needed is a nap, other times a phone call with a friend, a walk in the woods, or a good car scream! It’s not formulaic, but rather arises out of the ability to tune in and listen to your own inner knowing. I am deeply grateful for almost a decade of integrating this into my way of being - I could not have learned it in a time like this.
4. Gentle Yourself - Many thanks to Jenna, a retreat participant years ago, for offering up this phrase and turning “gentle” into a verb. As soon as I heard it, I knew what she meant. Greet yourself with exquisite tenderness, kindness, and care - likely the way you would treat a beloved friend or child. Often, we are most harsh with ourselves and gentling may not come naturally, but it is a profound gift when we can greet ourselves with compassion, love, and respect. In times of deep grief or confusion, gentling allows us to be ok enough to keep showing up, one moment at a time.
5. Honoring each Soul’s Journey - My son and I have always been deeply connected and certainly our lives were interwoven, yet several years ago, it became clear that they were also separate. He had his path and I had mine. Related, but distinct. Not dependent on one another for our state of wellbeing. It’s why I knew with every fiber of my being that I could, actually, be happier than my unhappiest child. I would not lay that burden on him; I did not need him to be ok for me to be ok. Thankfully my husband wisely articulated, “Yes, there’s love for him, but there’s also love for me, for us…” meaning we didn’t have to give it all away in an effort to save him. We needed to live our life even while we loved him, supported him, and walked alongside him the best we could.
Had my wellbeing been completely linked to his, I may well be totally devastated now, unable to imagine going on. My heart is shattered, my life has a huge Nate-sized hole in it, and I often feel sick when I imagine forever without him in it. And, I am going on. I know I will find my way back to myself and into whatever this new reality becomes. I will show up to life and live because we still have work to do, because I am determined to make our journey and his life and death matter.
You too are more than the one thread that feels all-consuming. I promise. Who are you beyond that? It’s worth the time to explore. To remember that you were a person before this thing came into your life, or even if your thing is something that’s been a part of you all your life, there’s more to you than just that. Don’t let yourself be defined or boxed in by any one thing. Stretch to see what more is here.
6. Acceptance - NOT as in I’ve reached the (non-existent) final “stage” of grief, and I’ve got this, but rather an acceptance of what is here. This goes along with #5 and also goes beyond. Acceptance of what is, not being at war with reality, allows us to meet ourselves and our lives exactly as they are. When we stop wishing that things were different (and believe me, I’ve never wished that more than these past 5 weeks), we can begin to live here and now with the qualities of truth and presence. This is what is. Now what?
Part of the acceptance that has guided me over these past many years was knowing that we could not save my son’s life. That it wasn’t even our job to do so. We could only love him as he is for as long as he’s here, but how long that was wasn’t up to us. Accepting that limitation freed me to love him differently, less desperately. It allowed us to have more honest conversations where we were each safe to share. Accepting him as he was meant I didn’t need to impose on him what I thought he should be or how he should do things; at times I was able to consider his perspective, put myself in his shoes. What I wanted wasn’t necessarily what he did. I had to try to honor his autonomy and walk alongside him and try to avoid letting my fear throw me into a state of telling or yelling. Acceptance allowed him to feel seen, heard, loved, and respected and allowed a softening in me toward his life and what the outcome might be.
For months we’ve been pretty aware that we were watching our son die. We did what we could to explore better supports and treatment. We loved him fiercely. And we also looked at quality of life, honoring that he’d prefer to live on his own, have a job, be able to write and record his music (which he did) than be in an inpatient facility, even if it would keep him safe and alive. Acceptance allowed me to choose who I wanted to be and how I wanted to show up, even when I was terrified that he would die. Acceptance allowed us to have a closer, more loving and trusting, open relationship than we would have otherwise. And acceptance now allows each of us to grieve in our own way at a our time, knowing that we will need and want different things at different times. Navigating together, but individually.
7. Cultivating a Heart that can Hold It All - this is a phrase I first heard from Buddhist meditation teacher, Tara Brach, and it’s one I’ve taken to heart ever since. It’s the idea that seemingly contradictory states of being can coexist in a way that the mind can’t make sense of but the heart can. It requires us to get away from black and white, either/or, all or nothing thinking and to recognize that even in the most painful times, there is also beauty, peace, and joy. Making room in our hearts for it all to be there is exquisite, because it’s already all there anyway. Often, we are just overly focused on one or the other, squeezing one out because it doesn’t seem to fit, adding to our suffering by not allowing ourselves the full richness of this human experience.
A meditation practice that invites us to sit with the breath, to notice what we’re noticing, but not need to rush to fix or change it, helps us to develop this capacity to be with all of life. To turn toward even the pain and discomfort, to sit in it, not needing to rush past.
There are times when I’m sick and tired of this grief thing that has landed like a cloak on our world, and I’d like to just get on, get “back to normal,” but at a deeper level I know there is no going back. There is no normal any more. I can only go forward into what is next, and as exhausting and uncomfortable as it is, I don’t want to bypass the divinely human experience of a deep grief that reflects a profound loss and a deep love.
At times I’ve wondered if I’m doing this wrong because I see people look at me, expecting that I will be devastated all the time - how could I not be? I’ve lost my child. But I’m not. I mean, I’m on the verge of tears most of the time, thoughts of Nate and the ache and longing to hold him one more time don’t ever go away, but I can also take in the beauty of a magnolia bloom, laugh with a friend, find comfort in mindless TV, sleep at night, and be grateful for the lack of worry that comes with knowing where he is. When I think of forever without him, I get punched in the gut with a wave of nausea, I lose my breath… and so I ride that wave. I allow it to be here (because, as we’ve already acknowledged, it is here) without pushing it away. If I get sick and tired of saying the same things over and over again (which I do), I allow the sick and tired. It’s amazing how much our hearts can hold if only we allow them to.
8. Gratitude - I have been practicing gratitude for at least 12 years now and it truly has changed my experience of life. (You can check out the research on how gratitude actually rewires our brains). It hasn’t changed my life circumstances, because most of those are out of my control. But it has changed how I walk through life, what I focus on, what I notice. Gratitude is one of the simplest things you can weave into your life. In any moment you can pause, get quiet, look around and notice what you’re grateful for. Whether you speak it out loud, write it down, or simply notice, take a moment to breathe it in to your being. What does it feel like to feel grateful? Where in your body do you notice it?
I notice a softening and expansion in my heart, a fullness and deepening of my breath, a broadening of my perspective in that moment of “oh yes… this is here too.” The more we look for things to appreciate in life, the more it becomes part of who we are. Every day I take photos of beauty, inside and outside my home. It’s part of my gratitude. I also reflect every evening on what I’m grateful for over the course of the day. Sometimes I pause and reflect in the morning before I get out of bed. I’m grateful the sun came up again, and I have one more day. I’m grateful for my tears which give me the natural release for this grief. I’m grateful for the friends who let me carry on and share my raw feelings with them. I’m grateful for the birds singing outside my window, the sunlight, the stunning beauty of the sky and sunset, the fresh burst of blooms that remind me of new life, even in the presence of death.
9. A Huge Dose of Grace and Self-Compassion is always of benefit.
That’s what I have to offer today, 5 weeks into the most profound grief of my life. I’m here. I’m still me even as me is forever changed. The core of who I am and what I know have been deeply impacted by this loss, and yet they carry me still.
I hope that maybe there’s something here you can bring into your life to help carry you when times get hard as well as when things are flowing smoothly. I’d love to hear what resonates with you or what challenges you. Please share in the comments or drop me a note. I may not reply right away (or even at all) - that’s part of gentling myself right now. But you reading and responding always matters. Thanks for being here as we walk this human journey in all its richness.