A Wave of Grief

It’s been two and a half years since my mom passed — and approaching the 12-year anniversary of my dad passing. I’ve committed myself to the grief process and healing process, and this blog is a part of that commitment. It’s a lot of work. And I have enjoyed moments, days, and even months of extreme peace because of the care and attention I’ve given my grief. But guess what? Sometimes I have crappy days, too.

Right now, I am deeply sad. I am writing in a wave of grief. With tears just under the surface, I have spent much of today between sobs and snotty kleenex.

I’m finding it difficult to articulate why my grief came to visit today. But I know it is grief I feel, so I try not to over analyze it. Instead, I commit to feeling it — with the understanding that “this too, shall pass”.  And when it does, perhaps I will know something from it. Perhaps some part of my grief has been stuck — some grief I have been unaware of — and now it is moving through.

After a few hours, a few phone calls, some time of reflection with a few more kleenex, I sit back down to write.

So much of my life has changed in the past few years. Following the passing of my mom, which was a huge change in itself, I moved two states away from where I had built a life for myself, and back to my home town (bittersweet). An important relationship ended with someone I wish great happiness for, and she has since moved on (bittersweet). I cleared out and sold our family home to a beautiful new family (bittersweet). I closed my business of 5 years…and recently started a job I am even more passionate about (bittersweet). I have deepened my spiritual practice, opening many more questions to sit with (bittersweet). I am also happier than I have been in years, but at the cost of losing my mom (bittersweet). I’ve gained perspective that only comes with grief. I’m not sure I can make total sense of the juxtaposition I’m feeling right now.

I guess what I am saying is, I have accepted my new place in the world and my new found direction, but there is still grief in the difficulty of how I landed here. In other words, I am grieving this beautiful place I am in, and all that changed in order to bring me here. I am grieving the beauty of the change process itself.

The changes I face continue to challenge me in new ways every day. I have countless opportunities every day to let old habits reign and transport me into my old ways of sub-conscious living…Or I can choose to pause, slow down, and choose a different path. A path that says, “It’s okay to grieve. Even when you are mostly happy. There is something to pay attention to, here. And, not to worry. This too, shall pass.”

~Jess

 

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From Peace to Panic

Waking up before 5am is usually a sign for me to roll over and go back to sleep. But this time I was wide awake. So I rolled out of bed and shuffled toward the porch to see what colors had taken the sky. The sun was beginning its daily routine of emergence and reflection onto the Puget Sound.

sunrise_puget sound

Each morning I try to meditate for 30 minutes and I figured today, I could do my morning meditation down by the water. When I arrived, the tide was in and our old row boat was floating there, calling for me to take it out for a sunrise row. I had uncovered the boat from a mess ivy the week before, and taken it out once with a few friends a few days prior. I wasn’t much of a rower, but it seemed so perfect – so I obliged.

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I climbed in, untied the rope, and pushed my oar against the bulkhead to send myself out into the bay. I began to row. Roosters crowed in the distance, a few sea birds rested on the still water. Mount Rainier was standing solidly with her reflection pointing back at me. I was so happy in that moment. So peaceful. So serene. I drifted past jellyfish and kelp, even saw a sea otter pop up his head to say hello.

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I pulled in the oars and set my meditation timer. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. In… Out… I heard splash — only to open my eyes to a seal playing by a buoy. To meditate on a boat at sunrise! I could do this every day!

As my meditation continued, I began to feel the heat of the sun intensify. I opened my eyes again to capture the sun peaking over the horizon. Shortly after, my meditation bell sounded. I felt peacefulness so deep as I looked at my surroundings.

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Then it happened. I panicked.

I had been drifting for over 30 minutes, and even in my mindful awareness of the smells and the sounds of the morning, I had not realized I had floated so far from home.

My mind went down a rabbit hole of possibilities of being lost at sea. Fear, Self-Judgement, Anxiety, Stress. I was full of all of it.

As the next hour unfolded, I rediscovered my ability to handle stress and adversity, and became the observer of my own state of being. Here is what helped me get through my panic state:

1. Call myself out - My breaths grew quicker and noticeably shorter. My mind began to race. I started rowing as fast as I could, with uneven, sloppy strokes. After five minutes, I noticed I hadn’t gained any ground. The tide was going out and I was rowing against the wind. I said aloud, “Jess, you are panicking. It’s okay that you are in a panic state. But take a deep breath, and chill the F+*& out. You will figure this out.” As the words rolled off my tongue I actually laughed out loud at myself and the whole story I was in the middle of. “A Zen meditation that lead to intense internal panic…” It was too ironic not to laugh at. My laughter lightened my mood and allowed a more relaxed response-mode to enter. (Gentleness and humor are helpful while we transition from being in the panic to being an observer of ourself in the panic. This is related to step #1, saying hello to your emotions, on my last post.)

2. Slow down - I stopped rowing and took a few deep breaths. This was helpful but I knew if I stopped for too long I would lose more ground. I needed action, but I also needed to pay attention and be intentional with every muscle and action.  What would slower, intentional strokes do versus short, spazzy ones? I went from sloppily rowing in circles to finding short bursts of rhythm. I began to gain a bit of confidence.

3. Play to my strengths - Did I mention I didn’t really know how to row? The most rowing I had ever done was in various gyms in college and my early 20s. The last time I was in this boat was four days prior, and I was awful at rowing it. I knew the motion, but I could not get the boat to go straight. So, instead of beating myself up for not being able to “row correctly”, I tried something different. I realized I had more control and consistency when I rowed in the reverse fashion, pushing the oars rather than pulling them. I turned the boat around and began my push-row back in the direction of my home… it was working!

4. Apply logic - I decided if it took me 30 minutes to float out, it would probably take me twice that long to row back in. If I’m not home in an hour, I thought, THEN I’ll panic. I began to asses my actual ability to row back home. There were some factors to consider: Tide (it was going out), wind (I was rowing against it), muscle fatigue (my reverse-rowing technique used smaller muscles that would fatigue faster than the large muscle groups used when rowing correctly). I decided to keep going with what was working, and when my arms got tired, I could try rowing correctly to give my arms a rest.

5. Sing along the way - Throughout the bouts of stress, I was still on a boat at sunrise in the Puget Sound – and so grateful for that privilege. I wanted to enjoy the ride, so I began to sing. I rowed in rhythm with some buddhist mantra-songs and then sang a few other tunes. The songs connected my heart to my body and I found myself singing and rowing my way home.

By the time I arrived, I had effectively moved from Peace to Panic, and back to Peace again. I realized it’s not about never panicking…that’s not realistic. It’s about how gracefully and quickly we are able to find Peace again.

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~Jess

 

Photo from http://www.tnhtour.org/

The Art of Grieving

photo courtesy of www.tnhtour.org

A year and a half after my mom passed, I attended a 7-day meditation retreat at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA with Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (or “Thay”, as many affectionately call him, which is Vietnamese for “teacher”.) My first exposure to Thay’s teachings was in an Eastern Philosophy class in college. I always found his writings to be healing and accessible, so when I heard about his retreat, I signed up immediately. I had no idea how much that week would help my grieving process or the impact it would have on my life.

A pivotal point in the retreat happened a few days in, when Thay shared these words during a dharma talk:

“Once we understand the art of suffering, we will suffer less.”

I had so many questions.  What is the “art” of suffering? We all want to suffer less…but how is this possible? If we understand the art of grieving, will we grieve less?

As Thay continued his teachings on “The Art of Suffering”, I realized I had intuitively begun to practice this “art” when my mother passed. As I wrote in my earlier blog post,  Be Crumbled, Be Changed, I surrendered to my grief, not over-philosophizing or compartmentalizing my mom’s passing, as I had my father’s. I let myself feel the pain and did not push it away. I dove into meditation which allowed me to connect with my mom on a spiritual level. Meditation also allowed me the stillness necessary to begin to accept the reality of my new, changed life. But I had only begun down the path of understanding my grief, and was ready to uncover more.

Based on my experience over the past few years, this is my attempt to share “the art of grieving” in a few digestible steps. These steps can also help with other emotions that cause suffering such as fear, anger, worry or jealousy. Please realize that this is not a quick fix, rather, these steps can help illuminate a deeper understanding of our emotions so that we may emerge on a path of peace. (For more info, videos and articles, you can search “Thich Nhat Hanh” Art of Suffering.)

The Art of Grieving:

1. Say Hello

“Hello, Grief. I see you. I know your name. I am here for you.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

This step has been extremely transformative for me.  It is also extremely difficult. When we are feeling a strong emotion, whether it is grief, anger, jealousy, fear,  or worry, we often fall into our habit of becoming swept away by the emotion, so much that it engulfs our reality and sends us into a downward spiral of helplessness and self-pity. Or, on the contrary, we push the emotion far, far away and pretend that we are just fine, in control, strong and resilient, and not affected at all (this was my old habit and much of how I handled grief and anger prior to my mom passing). We are either too helpless and weak to handle it or too strong to cry – both habits are equally destructive.

By saying “hello” to our grief, by calling it by name, we can begin to see it as a part of our experience in that moment. We can hold our grief like a little child that needs nurturing. We can begin to separate ourselves from our emotions and look at them from the point of view of an observer. In my experience, the simple act of saying hello to my grief has shifted me out of depression and almost instantly placed my feet onto a path toward peace – where I could take steps toward caring for my grief.

It may seem silly at first, but next time you are feeling immense grief, try pausing and saying aloud, “Hello, Grief. I see you there. I will take good care of you.”

2. Take Care of your Grief

“I see clearly the object of my grief. I hold space in my heart for it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Once we say hello to our grief, we must make it our priority to take care of our grief in that moment. Stuffing grief down for another day or pretending it is not there only causes more harm in the future. So, as Thay says, hold space in your heart for the object of your grief.

Taking care of your grief requires a few things. First, we need to make sure we have enough time and space to nurture our emotions as they arise. Second, we must find a healthy support system and perhaps even creative ways to work through the pain. For me, I allowed for a lot of time to be tearful and vulnerable with my sister, girlfriend and close friends. I wrote letters to my mom, had monthly therapy sessions, practiced daily meditation, took solo retreats, spent time in nature, and read several books on loss and grief.

We all have our own path to carve, so find what works for you. Just be sure to take good care of your grief when it arises, not pushing it away for another day.

3. Look Deeply

“I see where you’ve come from, the path that brought us together.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

It is easy to fixate on the moment we think our grief began, the moment of a death or break up, or the moment a loved one found out they were ill, the moment we got the phone call bearing bad news. Those moments are tragic and remembered for the rest of our life. But our grief can only be understood more fully by looking at the whole path that brought us to those moments.

What happens when we look deeply at all of the events and moments that brought us to our grief? We begin to see the fullness of our relationship with that person, the ups and downs, the joy and laughter, the tears and sorrow. Often, there is a serendipitous relationship between joy and grief that exists, so this can be a time to look deeply at the love and the joy that travels along side our pain. We begin to understand that the tragic moment where we shifted into deep grief can not be separated from all of the other moments. We begin to craft the whole picture of our experience and see the interconnectedness and complexity of life.

Looking deeply can also help us think twice before pointing fingers or blaming ourselves or others, as we begin to understand our grief in a new way. This step can come up repeatedly for the same grief, and each time, we have the opportunity to learn something new. Some helpful questions to ask are: What really happened?  What is coming to the surface of my grief  ‘right now’ that I have refused to look at before? What part did my actions play in the path to grief? What elements were, or are, outside of my control? 

4. Announce Healing Intention

“I’m ready to find healing, joy, and peace again. With concentration, I will focus on this healing and liberate my grief.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

By declaring aloud our desire for healing and transformation, we share this intention with our family and friends, and with the universe. We are ready to focus our energies on healing and liberation from our grief. When my mother passed, I set my intention to focus on my grieving. In the words of my amazing therapist, “You only have one job right now. That is to grieve.” I did not take that job lightly.

Be warned that this intention does not come without challenges. It can be a hard and scary road. As we develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of our grief, we may open ourselves to past instances of grieving – which can bring about additional pain and suffering. When you really decide to fully heal, be ready for the whole can of worms! In my situation, the loss of my mother brought about residual grief from the loss of my father, and other traumas. This can seem overwhelming, but when we stay committed and have the right supports in place, we will come out on the other side feeling much more grounded, with more love in our hearts, much more free.

5. Let Go

“I contemplate the nature of impermanence, that nothing remains unchanged over time. I release my grasp ever so slightly.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

This step may sound familiar as there are very few buddhist teachings that do not incorporate “letting go” in some form or another. But “letting go” can often be a confusing concept for people.

Why would I want to let go of my Mother? my Father? my Child? my Spouse? my Friend? Why would I ever want to forget them? or lose the love we had?

“Letting go” in this context does not mean letting go of memories, forgetting about your loved one, or moving on with your life as if nothing happened or as that person did not exist. Letting go, in this context, means no longer fighting against the reality of what is. It means choosing the path of least resistance. It means accepting, in full, the present set of circumstances in which you live.

In order to understand the art of grieving, we must learn how to fully to let go of the stories we have created of how life would be. We are so good at writing our own stories, aren’t we? Of course I thought my dad would be there to see me graduate college, to walk me down the isle. Of course I thought my mom would be there to welcome my sister’s first child into the world, to travel with me on a mother-daughter trip some day, to laugh with me into her old age…

None of that is my reality.

The sooner we let go of our ideas of how life was supposed to unfold or how it was supposed to be, and surrender to full acceptance of what our life actually IS, right now, in this moment, the sooner we will be able to turn our grief into peace. We can practice letting go of our story, our wants and desires, a little bit at a time. We can begin to hear the birds sing again and draw ourselves out of our darkness to feel the sunshine on our faces, or the rain drops on our skin.

For me, the practice of gratitude helps remind me that life still has so much to offer. To enjoy simply being alive is the true gift of letting go, of healing.

If you are ready to take another step toward healing, this meditation, along with the quotes used above, has been helpful for me:

“I contemplate the nature of impermanence,
that nothing remains unchanged over time.

I release my grasp ever so slightly.

I contemplate the nature of non-having.
I am grateful for all I do have.

I contemplate the nature of inter-being
that all is in me, and I am in all.

I see what it feels like and looks like to let go.

In this moment
I let go of my suffering, and my happiness,
and feel peace.”

- Thich Nhat Hanh, Deer Park, 2013

Thanks for reading… If this post was helpful to you, let me know in the comment section.  

With love,

Jess

My dad and my sister as a baby.

Continuation

I wrote this last week on my Dad’s 63rd birthday.

5/20/14

It’s a beautiful Spring evening in the Pacific Northwest. Sunshine is penetrating my skin, eased by a gentle breeze. Bird songs fill the air.

I’m grateful to breathe in this air, grateful to see the Puget Sound through the evergreens.

I look down at my feet and see my dad’s long toes peeking through the grass. I smirk his little smirk.

Every moment in his life created this moment in mine.

Continuation.
No Separation.

My friend Veronica  joins me on this sunny patch of grass. She sits down to play her guitar. After a few chords I ask, “I have my dad’s guitar here…would you play it?”

Moments later, a beautiful little Taylor 712 BR is unearthed from its case. I notice the dust on the guitar head as she tunes it with intention and care. “Man, that dust is 12 years old.” I say. “My dad is probably in that dust.”

“I’ll leave it there,” she says.

My dad, who never met Veronica, is continuing through her.

Once tuned, she plays.  And plays. She brings this guitar to life – a life I have never seen before. It’s so beautiful, I capture a little clip.

Continuation.
No Separation.

This is an intersection of life and death.
Ebbing and Flowing.
Sitting quietly, then exploding.
Just like a Volcano.
Nourishing so much life before it erupts.
Eruption.
Burning, devastating, destroying that same life.
Cleaning the slate for new life to begin.

Ending.
Beginning.

Continuation.
No Separation.

 ~Jess

Mother's Day

Motherless Day

Tonight I am enjoying a quiet night in with my sleeping niece while my sister enjoys a (rare) evening out with a friend.

It’s Mother’s Day Eve, our third since our mom passed — and the second since my sister became a mother. With days like these on the horizon, I wonder, “What will it be like? A day of celebration? Or sorrow? Will I cry? Or get angry? Will I feel peace? Will I smile? Will I reminisce? Who will I be with? Who will talk to? What will I do? Will anyone remember?”

I remember the first few years after my dad passed and how it felt when Father’s Day was around the corner. It seemed like every ad, bulk mailer, email or event was geared toward celebrating dad or buying some seemingly meaningless crap for the father I no longer had. It made me sad, angry even, at the naivety of it all. “Don’t these people know I’m fatherless?” my mind would shout as I hastily tore up, deleted or changed the channel. I remember how my tears would well up and my stomach would tighten. When you’re missing something so much, reminders seem to be everywhere.

This year, for me and my sister, Mother’s Day is only part of the equation. Today also marks what would be our parent’s 39th wedding anniversary. And we are five days from the closing date on the sale of our family home of 34 years. I’m also five weeks into a new job, where I’ve been rapidly learning all the ins and outs of a new organization, navigating new personalities and managing new responsibilities.

All things considered, I was actually feeling pretty good and at peace with the transitions over the past few months. Until suddenly, today, I had a moment where I felt like I was going to throw up. It kinda snuck up on me as I was driving back to my sister’s house after spending some time doing final cleaning in the garage of our family home.

OK, it’s really happening. Change is here. This is it.

Before I started my job, I had cleaned out the main house and most of the garage in order to get the house on the market. While each room came with its own challenges, the garage has been one of the more difficult areas to deal with. My dad built our garage with his own two hands and spent much of his free time there: fixing cars, building and tinkering. It’s been sort-of a lingering link to my dad for the past 12 years – the place I would go when I wanted to smell him, to sit with him. It’s so interesting how much I’ve (re-)processed my dad’s death since my mom’s passing. (I’ll write more about loss begetting loss in a future post.) Maybe it’s because my mom was such a link to him. Maybe it’s because I was never forced to really say goodbye because the house represented a shell of him. When my mom passed, I knew that this shell would also need to be passed on. This would not be a place where life would go on for me. Life was shifting to new places, new directions.

Fortunately, a block after the urge to vomit came over me, a friend from my meditation group walked by with her dogs. Thank God! A mindfulness bell! I rolled down my window, “Hey Sammie!” I breathed in the fresh air and said hello. I told her briefly how I was feeling, received her eyes of compassion, and began to feel the knot in my stomach untie. I remembered at that moment that I am alive and am surrounded by love and support. I gave myself permission to feel sad. And to know that even with some sadness, I am more than OK.

Tomorrow will be a new day. It’s Mother’s Day. A time to celebrate my mom, my sister, my friends who are mothers, even my own mothering nature. A time to rejoice in all the mothers who came before me and all the mothers to come after me. *Sigh.* I’ve restored peace, for now. Oh, and I’ve also eaten a half-pint of ice cream. Haha.

Love,

Jess

A remote beach on the pacific.

A Grief Observed

I recently set off on an impromptu retreat in Mexico with a friend. We both needed some self-care but also went to spend time with her Grandfather, Gerald, who lives in Baja. He had just passed the one-year mark since the loss of his best friend and wife of 26 years. Cassie was the love of his life. The two enjoyed an early retirement of traveling, laughing, playing cards and exploring the ends of the earth before settling down in their modest trailer home in a small village on the Pacific coast of Baja.

Since Cassie’s passing, members of Gerald’s family had visited a few times and he had made a few trips up to San Diego, but we were his first stateside visitors in four months. It was clear, even though I had never met him before, that he was in the midst of processing his loss and grieving. One year isn’t that long, after all, to get used to a life full of space that was never there before.

“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I happened to bring with me A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis, which had been on my reading list for about a year.  It’s a short book dense with insight on C.S.’ personal experience of losing his wife, ‘H’.  Taken from Lewis’ journal entries after his wife passed, the book journeys through sadness, despair, disbelief, a questioning of God, a questioning of life, and goes on to touch a deeper understanding of the relationship between life and death. One of the most poignant passages I could see ever present during our visit:

“I think I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense.  It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had ‘H’ for their object. Now their target is gone.”

Cassie had been the one to tend to the garden to the yard, to the plants, to the household scrubbing and tidying. Without her there, Gerald had no motivation to do these things. Each task was only a reminder of her absence.

After a few days with Gerald, learning more about his loss, I realized I had actually brought the book to Mexico for him. C.S. Lewis had a way of describing his thoughts and feelings in A Grief Observed in a way that felt as if it must be universal to this type of loss. I had a feeling it would bring him some comfort. I finished the book mid-week and gave it to him, and he had finished the book himself by the next day. Through the following days of his sharing with us, and our chats about the book, we could see he was turning a corner. He had begun to pick up the pieces by the time we departed, with a renewed commitment to life. Even still, as grief is often unpredictable, we all knew we were experiencing only a timestamp on his journey of love and loss.

“…for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience with love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of its phases; not the interruption of the dance, but the next figure.”

Prior to reading A Grief Observed, my closest experience with the loss of a spouse was through my mom losing my dad in 2002. I had watched my mother mourn and grieve and get back up and move forward and laugh and smile and fall and grieve again, get angry, get quiet, become removed, rejoin community, all in ebbs and flows across ten years after my father died. In fact, I lived with her for the three months immediately following his passing and if I hadn’t been experiencing my own grief, perhaps I could have observed her with more wonder, with more understanding. A Grief Observed truly helped shed some light on my mom’s experience of losing her husband, on Gerald’s of losing his wife, and on my own, perhaps, someday to come.

In Peace,

Jess

A Grief Observed 
by C. S. Lewis

 

 

mexico drive

An Impromptu Retreat

The timing couldn’t have been better for both of us … we both desperately needed self-care—I was exhausted after finally getting my family’s home on the market, and she had received a health-related wakeup call self diagnosed as stress-related. We both needed to slow down, to breathe. As our intentions were set, everything was falling into place without much effort; the divine was leading and we just had to show up.

“If travel is like love, it is in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” – Pico Iyer

steph mex bike

A few hours into our ten-hour drive down the Baja peninsula, we both began to decompress and share our hearts – breathing our concerns into the cab of her truck and dusting away our tears with the desert air. Emotions that had built up for each of us over the past few months were being released…It wasn’t long before the sheer wonder of the desert began to replenish us.

We saw bobcats, quails, doves, sea-birds, vultures, lizards, snakes, cacti, wildflowers and even whales playing in the bay. We enjoyed swims in the ocean, bike rides through villages, mindful walks along the shore and footprints on sandy trails atop rocky cliffs. We watched orange sunrises, inviting meditation, and were embraced by a starlit canopy, swooning us to sleep each clear night. We had no idea how many blessings would unfold during the week.

I guess that’s what happens when you consciously decide to use a week for transformative healing.

Back to A Grief Observed blog post…

-Jess

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Change

On February 18, 2012, my mom’s kind and generous spirit left her human shell and headed home — to the place where all things are one. Today, two years later, I can say in truth that I no longer consider this event a “loss”. How could I, when I have gained so much? From now on, I will simply call her passing what it is: change.

Don’t get me wrong, I had my struggles with this change.  For a long time, this change felt like a deep loss in my heart, that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Change is hard to deal with and accept, especially if we have built elaborate ideas of what a future may look like with someone. We become very attached to those ideas. Change can also be hard when we want to hold on so tightly to moments of the past, longing for them and suffering when we feel we don’t have those moments any more.

But I have persisted and worked very hard at overcoming my struggles with this change. Now, when I allow myself to deeply access each moment without her physically here, I understand that I can actually strengthen and deepen my relationship with her – beyond what I ever thought was possible. Over the past two years, I began to see how truly interconnected and intertwined we are. I am because she was/is, and she was/is because I am. I am 1/2 her and 1/2 my dad. Everything they have taught me and exposed me to is a part of my existence. There is no way to separate them from me.*

This is the beauty in looking deeply at the true connection when we lose someone. This true connection will never cease to exist.

So, I can choose, today, to get lost in the concept of “loss” – Or I can choose to continue to live my life, embodying the bright and beautiful qualities in my mom that that the world adored in her — and I can choose to do the same for my dad. I can choose, today, to understand my mom’s struggles and unskillfulness and learn how to overcome them, both for myself and for her, and for all our ancestors past. And I can choose to do the same for my dad who passed in 2002.

The past two years have changed my life so much. My eyes have opened to beauty that perhaps I was only briefly touching before. This change has allowed me to experience life more deeply. I have grown closer to my sister, my family. I watched my niece come into this world. I have felt true love and allowed myself to be vulnerable in ways I never let myself before. I have deepened connections with so many dear friends. I have developed connections with new friends struggling with similar change. I have gained so much. I can never again call it loss.

Thank you to my mom, to my dad, to God, to the universe, and to my spiritual teachers for showing me that there actually is no death or loss, there is only change.

~ Jessica

* An note added to this article to honor those who are adopted, consider that you are 1/4 each of your biological parents and 1/4 each of your adoptive parents – or whatever ratios feel good and make sense to you.

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Six Steps for Saying Goodbye to Stuff

Saying Goodbye to Stuff:

Six Steps for Letting Go After Loss

Sorting through our loved one’s  belongings can feel daunting and overwhelming, not to mention emotional. We often find ourselves clinging to their material items because we no longer have their physical touch. Every “thing” seems to hold a story. But deep inside, we know we don’t want to haul around a truckload of stuff for the rest of our lives. So we embark on a journey through the tangible diary of their life, developing a more holistic view of the person we love. We begin the process of exploring, and purging, their stuff.

As I near the end of this chapter of my journey – sorting through my childhood home, including countless years of my mom’s, dad’s, ancestors, and my own childhood stuff – I came up with six steps that have helped me let go through the process:

1.    Allow Yourself Time

Don’t let anyone tell you that purging your loved one’s belongings should be done in a day, a week or a month. The reality is, every situation and relationship is different, so consult your inner self to determine how much time you need. In cases where belongings must be moved  immediately (like hospice or assisted living), plan a place for temporary storage along with a comfortable place to sort through things. My sister and I had the opportunity to deal with our family “stuff” within the walls of the the house we were raised. We are wrapping up our purging process at the two-year anniversary of my mom’s death. It’s taken longer that we both thought it would, but in the end it feels just right to us.

Beware of extremes.

 Attempting to immortalize your loved one by leaving everything “just as it was” or storing away boxes to go through at some later date may prolong your grieving process, preventing you from moving forward with your life. On the other extreme, you may have impulses to purge everything right away, wishing yourself to push through or quickly “move on” . This too can be a sign of denial of the magnitude of your loss. If you are feeling either of these extremes, take a break or talk to a friend or therapist to help you re-center.

2.    Start Easy

As much as I experienced the extreme of wanting to hold onto everything right after my mom passed, we also had family flying in to stay at the house for her memorial. My mom had a habit of keeping clutter, so in the first week after my mom’s death, I circled the house several times a day, throwing away anything I had zero attachment to and doing some general cleaning and organization. This actually felt good, like I was paying the house and my mom respect.

In general, start with whatever feels easiest to you and leave the harder sections or rooms for last.

Pay attention to your heart and gauge your feelings as you go. If something is too much to handle at the moment, close it up and start somewhere else. This gives your heart and spirit time to prepare for the more emotional tasks.

3.    Let Go in Rounds

It can be difficult to think clearly and make decisions during grieving, so my sister and I adopted the approach of letting go in rounds. When we were on the fence about an item, we would put it in the “keep” pile to revisit later. As we entered the second and third rounds, our “keep” pile kept getting smaller and smaller. More often than not, the items on the fence ended up in the give-away pile. In later rounds, we even found ourselves purging things we had thought we really, really wanted. It just goes to show that heightened emotions can get the best of us. Letting go in rounds can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed by decisions and can make the process much more relaxed and forgiving.

As you get down to the harder stuff, ask yourself, “Was this important to him/her? Did he/she like this?” if not, it may become easier to let go. If the item was important to your loved one, ask yourself, “Is it important to me? Do I like it?”

Keep things because you like them, not just because you think they did. Remember, you are going to be living with the stuff you choose to keep.

 4.    Invite Company

It’s important to have alone time and private time with our memories, but I am SO GRATEFUL for having amazing friends who helped me through the purging process. Many days, I just didn’t have the energy to clean out another closet, and if it weren’t for the help of my friends, I would have stooped into a much darker place and still be struggling to get out. Having company was extremely therapeutic and strengthened my friendships as well.

Inviting friends who knew your loved one can be especially healing – you can share stories while you purge.

However, make sure you consider the energy of those you invite to help. The more grounded and supportive they are, the better. You don’t need extra stress during this process, so if you have a negative gut reaction about someone who has offered to help, politely decline and seek out friends that you want by your side.

 5.    Cry, Laugh, Feel

This may seem obvious, but for many people it’s not. Remember, this is not an emotionless time – so don’t pretend like it is. Know that it’s going to be emotional and be careful not to overextend yourself. Emotions are exhausting, so when you feel tired, stop and rest.

You will find things that make you cry, that make you laugh, that make you angry so do your best to embrace and care for those feelings.

I shed a lot of tears in the past two years, but also found things that made me laugh, like funny cards and old photos. I found things that made me angry, like letters addressing my dad’s former partners around the time of his death, and lots of little things that irritated me, like why did my mom have so many bottles of shampoo and conditioner and 20 pairs of reading glasses? All of these emotions generally boiled down to sadness, missing my parents and all of their quirks, along with self-empathy for the fact that I was having to go through all of this.

Fortunately, I was able to transform some of these frustrations into good, donating my mom’s personal care products to a women’s shelter and her glasses to a eye-care mission in Mexico, and we are donating the majority of clothes and household goods to local charities.

6.    Remember: Your Loved One is Not Their Stuff

As I have been working hard to limit the stuff I keep to a box for my mom and a box for my dad, I recently asked myself, “If I could keep one thing of my dad’s, what would it be? If I could keep one thing of my mom’s, what would it be?”

My answer was clear and concise, and also surprised me.

“I would keep my dad’s hugs and his sense of humor. I would keep my mom’s kindness and her wisdom.” I immediately felt lighter knowing no material items could come close to what I really want to keep from my parents.

At that moment, I knew that I could have what I wanted by simply nurturing the best qualities of my parents that are already inside me.

If you are still struggling with holding onto stuff after reading this, you can practice saying these words to yourself: (Insert name) is not his/her (insert item). 

For me, it is: My dad is not his records, his Ranchero, or his running shoes. My mom is not her sweaters, her books, or her rocking chair. Even for things you decide to keep, this can help separate the person from the thing, and help you make decisions based on what you want in your life.

Good luck letting go, dear friends!

~Jess