Looking Back at the First 13 Months After Loss
by permission of Kristen Spexarth
excerpt from: "Passing Reflections: Surviving Suicide Loss Through Mindfulness (Vol 3)"
On the last day of 2000, my eldest son, Colby, died by suicide. He had been suffering with unremitting pain. Passing Reflections Vol. 3: Surviving Suicide Loss Through Mindfulness, is a poetic and narrative chronicle of my journey of discovery through trauma and grief. Bedrock throughout this process was mindfulness meditation, helping me find a way to approach pain, befriend myself and eventually find peace. One needs tools to weather profound loss. Mindfulness practices gave me the tools I needed to gradually engage the pain of loss and move toward healing and growth. Often described as “simple but not easy,” mindfulness practice helped me discover the paradox at the center of our usual coping strategies: denial and avoidance of difficulty actually prolongs our pain. Trying to push discomfort away is, in effect, holding onto it. Bringing compassionate awareness to my bodily felt experience, going toward pain and feeling what was true, then allowing difficult sensations to pass through me, actually eased my pain. Grief is a biological, not a rational process. Allowing ourselves to be touched by grief is transformative and eventually regenerative. And just like in the garden, from the ashes of profound loss, comes new life. I hope my book will offer comfort, reassurance and tools to all who seek release from difficulty.
In the beginning my body could barely stand the flow, energy full blown in solar plexus and belly. Then it moved to my heart and head, spinning, churning, opening. Through the top of my head I felt a tremendous current, up, down, I’m not at all sure of the direction. I was a paradox – a full vacancy; completely emptied and yet filled beyond brim with surging energy forcing a quieting, softening, stillness upon me. Old wounds healed instantly, all trespasses forgiven. In a way never before possible I could listen beyond all former impressions, taking others in undirected and unedited and then, completely drained, I would hastily retreat to the quiet of solitude.
For me, time seemed to have stopped and my connection to earth was threadbare and tenuous. The world was spinning way too fast and every fiber of my former existence was stretched beyond its limits. Catapulted to a place where I could barely move, I found my mind was completely blank and body suddenly old and feeble. Every other moment I was forced to gather my derelict wits and consider what were my intentions in this place? Why was I standing by the bathroom sink—was I there to brush my teeth? Of course, that was it! A short while later this process would repeat as I’d find myself standing in the middle of the kitchen. Why am I here? Oh, yes…a cup of tea… .
I’d lost all continuity and with each laborious step nothing could be taken for granted, routine and habits blown away in an instant, that instant Death walked up our doorstep in the form of public servants heavy laden with their tragic news of Colby. Driving I avoided but if circumstances forced it I drove very slowly, gripping the wheel, flummoxed at every intersection, severely challenged by all surrounding and hi-speed inputs. A trip to the grocery was clearly out of the question as the intensity of simple interactions and advertising graphics was enough to blow all my circuits. Besides, I could not begin to think of cooking a meal, in food I’d lost all interest.
Now and then I came upon small flowers oddly in my path, on the stair, in the empty cassette case of a tape that I was playing—a tape I’d used repeatedly never noticing any flora and suddenly it held a single, fresh forsythia flower. Once after an upsetting telephone conversation I rose up quite distracted and returning several minutes later found a small purple straw flower in the middle of the cushion. Flowers like those I’d put on the place he’d ended life, and every time it happened I felt a presence that brought me back to life from the depths of my deep sadness.
Traumatic loss is brutal in its effect but grief can come in many guises whenever our lives meet change, demanding of us a new response to living. And all grieving has a biological process of its own, like old age or adolescence, and if you find yourself in its presence chances are there will be some who cannot join you. Truly wishing to be of help friends and loved ones say, “Call me anytime,” and then they’re gone. And do I call? Maybe one or two who have always understood me and they always ask, “How you doin?” but trying to explain my state is crazy making for words do not exist to help them see if life has not yet led them on the journey. Like a long distance runner in the middle of a marathon or a molting insect casting an outgrown existence or a solo sailor struggling to survive a storm, I had no energy to spare in bringing them on board.
“Don’t tie yourself in knots like this!” he said and I believe his appeal was genuine. I replied, “I’m not tying knots, I’m unraveling them,” and thought to myself, “He refuses to feel. Indeed, he comes from a long line of people who have buried their feelings before they were dead.” And he was probably thinking that I wear my heart on my sleeve unnecessarily. I could have gotten all bent out of shape by this, taking his comments as an attack at worst and at best, a cold-hearted sentiment. But Death opened a window in me that was so broad the breeze just blew through and I noticed how old wounds, even those I’d once nourished, vanished.
People for whom I had once held resentment came by and I would greet them quietly where I sat, firmly planted. I remember feeling appreciative of their presence, their thoughtfulness in coming. My heart was free, perhaps holding so much pain there was no room left but that wasn’t it for the pain had not yet started and I felt truly free of old entrapments. All that energy spent on misunderstandings! Suddenly, I could be with old friends as if at a new beginning, all the while acutely aware of feeling a deep fondness for them and every process, good and bad, that we had ever shared.
Before Death came the understanding that we choose to hold a grudge or not was so highly theoretical I never gave it a second glance, preferring instead to cling to hurts and times of sadness like a pouting child with a broken play toy clings to misery. Imagine how amazed I was to find myself without fear or anger, without space or time tangents, conscious only of fiercely spinning energy hot-wiring me to a new beginning empty of everything I’d ever used to define my reality. The extraordinary openness that I was for a while eventually passed and was replaced by more familiar habits, but a reference point was now implanted like a compass rose anchored to the center of my being, and with it came a knowing that we choose which way we go, toward anger or forgiveness.
Thirteen months have passed since my son’s death and I feel a slow healing brewing. I am better. I go to the grocery without elaborate planning and purchase what I want to eat as if I had some interest in it. This is new. Before I had no interest in things, no ability to conceive a thought or follow it through, feeling like a shell with edges indistinct housing only a deep longing that never could be filled and a pain in my heart that was crushing me. Now, from the perspective of some distance as I try to understand my own and others’ reactions to this crisis I have arrived at a point where I see there is no way to wrongly grieve. We give life and death whatever we can
and it does not hurt me that others are different. There is no need to change to suit another’s preference. Each does the best she or he can and whatever understanding grows out of our intentional or inadvertent sharing is a gift. The rest I must do on my own.
I know now very few can help when tragedy walks up your doorstep and I need to be gentle with myself and gentle with everyone else in this place of no real roadmaps. All gratuitous judgments from “How can they be so unfeeling?” to “How can she be so effusive?” need to go, replaced by a little compassion. Everyone wants us to mirror them, to be just like, or mimic some supposed
measure of progress but I cannot be other than what I am. Give all the advice in the world it will not help. If you want to help what I truly need is for you to sit with me and listen—nothing to fix, nowhere to else to be—just here with all our feelings.
Healing comes when we share from the heart spreading all of our cards on the table. Some cannot go there with you, who find sitting with another’s pain frightening as if they might catch it or worse yet, feel their own which they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding. I cannot judge them harshly. We do the best we can, all of us, including those ending life prematurely. The point is to be there for each other while letting go of judgments. Since Colby’s death I’ve learned life is more complex than I could have ever dreamed, with layers that are not immediately obvious,
rendering superficial judgments not just unhelpful, but downright ludicrous. With this awareness in mind I am trying with all my heart to sweep my path clear of clutter, the chatter pro and con, gratefully accepting what support comes to me and giving back what I can.
There were times when I lamented about the kind of people who change aisles in the grocery when they see you coming. In fact, just last summer at lunch with a friend I spoke to her of my frustration with those who run from sadness saying, “People are afraid of death.”
And she told me, “They don’t want to hurt you.”
I asked, “How could it hurt, speaking of death?”
She said, “By making you remember.”
So I replied, “How could remembering hurt?”
She answered, “They want you to forget the pain.”
I asked, “Why?”
“Because it hurts!” she cried but I could not understand, knowing the pain and memories never leave, and speaking of it, and even the tears were a comfort from where I sat. So she tried again to help me by explaining it from a different tack saying, “It hurts them to see you in pain like it hurt you to see Colby suffering.” At last a light dawned and I saw anew the message that he sent,
“There is beauty even in fear and pain but visible only to those deeply submerged in it.”
I finally saw and understood my failure towards him, to not be able to stand his pain and instead to fiddle and fuss around it; so difficult for me to witness his trauma standing outside, looking in. I had to be rubbing his back or reading aloud a book, trying with all my might to cure him. Perhaps it’s fair to forgive myself, knowing how impossible it would be for any mother to share her child’s pain in a manner unattached, but from my present vantage I see it very differently. I’m not looking for cures like those promised by distractions or avoidance, this pain is too deep inside me. Clearly, for what ails me now there is no simple fix.
Humans recoil from pain, even more theirs than yours. We fear it, and cannot be near it, and when we see a loved one in pain, we need to fix it fast. But some pain cannot be fixed and must be lived as it re-works our way of being. In cases like this instead of avoidance a steady listening is needed. There are few who are equipped to handle this, few who can bear another’s pain with compassion and loving kindness. They are somehow evolved beyond the rest, perhaps by virtue of pain they’ve processed but whatever is true about their gifts, I wish for you who are suffering that you may find at least one like them among your caregivers and friends.
And when people wonder aloud if you are “over it yet” I’ve learned to gently ask if they are “over” the births of their children and grandchildren or “over” their first kiss? All life’s events leave their mark, happy or sad, no difference. Look around you! Each of us carries those marks in countenance, mind and body and with every new event or change there is potential for growth toward greater compassion and wisdom if we can let them in. The death of a loved one, or illness, or birth, weaves into our life’s fabric in lasting strands that forever color the tapestry that is us.
If you are suffering loss, for whatever reason, seek out others who can share from the heart without judgments or attempts to make your feelings fade. Find solace in those who can acknowledge your grief as part of your wholeness and your wholeness as part of them. When we honor the grief that change brings with it, endeavoring to work through its many layers of sadness—absent of fear, beyond the need to control—only then will we grow into our humanity from a place that is truly whole.