There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt,
containing a tornado. Dam a
stream and it will create a new
channel. Resist, and the tide
will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry
you to higher ground. The only
safety lies in letting it all in –
the wild and the weak; fear,
fantasies, failures and success.
When loss rips off the doors of
the heart, or sadness veils your
vision with despair, practice
becomes simply bearing the truth.
In the choice to let go of your
known way of being, the whole
world is revealed to your new eyes.
I have a vivid, all senses-engaged, memory of the first few runs I did in the forest after my 25-year-old sister died, tragically, in a hiking accident.
I was 18 going on 19 at the time and prior to her death, I had never actually given much thought, in a very personal way, to the fragility and uncertain nature of life, of being human. Of course, I knew that people died, that great traumas happened, that all sorts of losses occurred for people but that awareness was not an embodied one until Lynn died, just like that, and my worlds—inner and outer—radically changed for good.
Lynn died on March eighth, 2000. After a few months of, what felt like, complete disassociation from regular life, I attempted to reinstate my routines, including daily runs. Despite the heat of the summer, these initial runs found me goose-bumped.
Even though I knew the trails like I knew where in the bathroom I had my toothbrush, I was now lost and afraid.
The sweet smells that I came running in for had a different aroma; like getting a whiff of something that, at first inhale, is enticing but leaves you feeling woozy and nauseated. The songs of wildlife that had once been the concert I would delightedly move my body to now sounded remote, sad and haunting.
Whereas prior to Bereavement, I would run in between the beautiful Hemlocks, Cedars and Maple Leaves with sure-footedness, I was now filled with un-ease—not just about where I was in the woods, but about where in the world I was.
But I didn’t stop running on these trails. I would run and cry. I would run and grieve the unforgettable past—fill my whole self with memories and then release the emotions through my sweat and tears. I would run and grieve my family number count which had gone from five to four.
I would run and grieve my former, innocent world view of life being easy.
These runs became a metaphor for a new reality: how life can smell, look, feel, sound and taste so differently after a profound loss; and also a metaphor for how groundless life, at its core, actually is. And I knew my work was around accepting. Because what else could I do?
There are so many, inescapable, events in life that cause grief. And there is goodness in grief. There is growth to be had. After Lynn’s death, I found a path that felt most meaningful to me: dedicating myself to exploring how people respond to the trauma(s) of loss and accompanying grief on their own and in their relationships.
Through my own personal therapy (both formal and informal), being invited to hear friends and family members’ grief narratives and through research and clinical work as a counsellor with folks who were dealing with grief from illness, relationship endings and death, I have travelled deep into these dark realities alone and with others and have found golden nuggets of enlightenment and light that hadn’t been available to me before Lynn’s death and this phase of my journey.
Those who have lost loved ones, I think, experience the preciousness of life and relationships in a different way than those who have not gone through loss.
What’s become the most illuminated in these last 15 years is the existential reality that we are all living in: the dichotomous, weighty truth that we are all together and we are alone.
Alone and together. Lost and found. Alone and together. Lost and found.
No one has any power over mortality or the impermanent nature of pretty much everything. We are all seekers—on our individual and shared paths—for softness, warmth, peace; how to make the most of this temporary life and our temporary connections in it.
Another truth that has become more and more solidified, pressed into my heart over time around loss is that we are always losing and what we gain from losses is up to us. It is up to us, as individual agents, how we adapt to, or create, a new normal, a new narrative in which we can dance, sing, find humour and meaning in, love as life throws at us things to attach to that we then, eventually, must let go of.
If I could have Lynn back, I would give so much for that.
I have had to accept the harshness that her death is irreversible. And have been forced into that acceptance but have chosen a path of finding meaning, beauty, joy and immense gratitude in the human experience despite all the inevitable uncertainty, hardship and great losses. The runs through the forest, years later, also now stand for my own strength and resilience and ability to move through it all; through the changes.
Alone. With others. Alone.
Although this piece centered on my own story and was meaningful for my own ongoing processing, I hope readers will be inspired to consider how they have or will create meaning and find new pathways of growth after (inevitable) loss. Loss is one of the givens in life. Sometimes it is a death of a beloved, a breakup of partners, a job ending.
How will you take this given of loss and cultivate meaning, growth, joy and—please (!)—laughter with the ever shifting life you have?
How will you love with all you’ve got, knowing “this too will go”?
Lynn, I’m inspired by you. You were an adventuress. You danced in all the colours. You believed. I will, too. I will honour you.
“Aren’t relationships the best dharma?” a close friend said to me recently. And from there, I began to pay more acute attention to this theme that was emerging so vibrantly in conversations with others about their lives and relationships in the last while; this framework of viewing relationships (all kinds–romantic, familial, platonic, collegial) as studio space for one’s personal growth. It’s always been fascinating to me how each phase of one’s life seems to have certain themes to it and when we start being mindful of these themes, they seem to colorfully and loudly start displaying themselves every which way we go; almost as a way of expressing to us, “I’m here! Learn from me! I will keep showing myself, until you’ve dealt with me well.”
There is not one interpersonal relationship out there is immune to challenge; that doesn’t require heavy duty lifting from time to time to make it through to the next resting place. In graduate school, I did my Master’s thesis on the relationship growth that married partners experienced through the trauma of having a child with a serious illness and having that child die and working through grief as a dyad. I learned through hearing couples’ narratives, about the many ways they stayed the course together and got closer and more deeply involved through profound hardship and loss. Years later, I am still perpetually intrigued by growth and relationships. However, I am currently most interested in how we can grow individually by continuing to show up for our relationships; shifting from dyadic to individual growth but within that relational context.
Relationships are a choose your own adventure experience. We stumble and fumble through the complexity and uncertainty in our own individual ways. Some plunge into these expeditions ready to leave at the first signs of adversity while others plug away with a different approach. Some play in the mystery of it all–writing poems, painting paintings; being amused and bemused; while others have a more linear, possibly more black or white lens they look through when conceiving how to move forward individually and together with another. I believe–abusive relationships aside– if we have that perspective of growth, of relationships as being our dharma, our yoga, our studio space, our opportunity to be better people for ourselves and others, we invite ourselves onto a journey of self-exploration and development.
So I encourage you to ask yourself:
* When I walk into my relationship (s) ‘space(s),’ what personal work am I being offered?
* How do I respond to work, in general? When the going gets tough? This self knowledge will take you far in all areas of your life because, as we all know, difficulties are unavoidable and it’s how we respond to them that makes all the difference.
* Why do I keep showing up?
What framework do you approach your relationships from?
In Buddhism and most faiths, humility – feeling that we all share common ground, feeling neither superior or inferior to others – is both a prerequisite to awakening and an expression of mature spirituality. This talk explores how our conditioning and culture reinforce a swing from ego-inflation (self-importance, feeling special, better than others) to ego-deflation (feeling unworthy).
Sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to have a ‘better-than-human’ response to things and criticize ourselves when we don’t measure up to that aspiration or don’t live it consistently. This is particularly the case for those of us who are high in empathy and place hefty expectations on ourselves to be constantly aware of the needs of others and our affect on them. I’ve always contended that the higher one is in empathy, the more difficult it is to set interpersonal boundaries–“Where do I end and the other person begin?” sort of thing; or, “If I intuitively or tangibly know that another person wants or needs me, I can’t pretend I am blind to that, so I must act on it.”
When we do set firm, possibly out-of-character, boundaries, or don’t perform our social role in the way we have boxed ourselves into, it can feel jarring. The self-compassionate response is around empathizing with our humanness–all the emotions, thoughts, actions– and, from there, allowing genuine motivation lift us to our potential. This might look like checking in with yourself around why you might have, for instance, had a strong, unpleasant verbal reaction to something a friend said and then empathizing with why that might have been the case (e.g., “My friend touched on a raw spot with those words and I reacted strongly because I got hurt.”)
Experiment with playing outside of the box you have made for yourself to live in (and others have reinforced over the years) where you have siphoned off true parts of yourself and take note of what responses you get from others. You might be pleasantly surprised to find that you have an increase in energy and this more ‘authentic’ way of being–where sometimes you’re not as giving or loving or patient–is appreciated by those you interact with.
I think as long as our intentions are to be kind towards ourselves and others, we all work best alone and together when we’re dancing in our real, complex, human selves.
Sometimes in gusts of energetic expressions of care (e.g., “You are going to be okay even if doesn’t feel like it right now” “Yes. You Can Do this Sweetie!” “I know you can totally handle this”) and other times, through soft whisperings that might be in the form of a tender rub of the back, a kiss on the cheek, staying late into the night on the phone while your loved one talks a blue streak with little utterances from your mouth, we remind those we care for not only that we’re here for them, but of their resilience to power on.
I’ve been paying acute attention in the last number of years to what it is about those that I and others feel not only most comfortable around in unveiling one’s full, true self, but who help people contact their inner stability and strength–particularly through ungrounding or challenging times. What I’ve come to is that it’s the blend of empathizing/validating with what’s going on emotionally for the person and normalizing the person’s experience in a way that makes it seem doable to deal with.
And it isn’t simply the verbal content (however verbal content is important, too–another blog post!) of what the confidante expresses in response to the person opening up about their difficulty, rather so much is offered in the non-verbals: tone of voice, eye contact, spontaneous and genuine tears or laughter, a firm, heart-carrying embrace, facial expressions and just that sense that the confidante is really present and can handle what’s being talked about. In all of that–the verbal and non verbal language–there is the potential of giving someone who is suffering or struggling in a small or more profound way a sense that they have the courage and super toughness to handle it all and, in addition to their capacity for that, you’re going to be there to add to the support.
A reality that becomes more pronounced as we get older is the uncertain nature of life; what we can rely on is that things are always changing and often unpredictable. An individual’s ability to cultivate inner sturdiness, as well as an inner sanctuary–as much as possible–takes work and is worth it.
5 Essential Items:
Finding things to laugh about alone and with others every day is energizing and healthy. Laughter gives stress a ride for its money. It’s hard to feel both at the exact same time! Get as silly as possible. Have a laughing fit. Find someone to have a laughing fit with!
6) An Attitude of Openness to Being Beautifully Baffled
Enjoy the mysteries….. You never know what magic is around the corner and you might find when you think about life, with a bit of a poetic wonder, that joy comes in naturally into your every breath and step. And on the note of poetry…
The Real Work, by Wendell Berry
we have come to our real work,and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.The mind that is not baffled is not employed.The impeded stream is the one that sings.