Mindful Monday: Overcoming Pain. Loss, and Grief

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A few weeks ago, I received a comment on this post in regards to my belief that God/the universal life force is inherently good, but you must commit to the practice of seeking that force out. Here it is:

I have always really wanted to believe that there are forces in the universe that are beyond our understanding, but never beyond our faith. I want to see signs in the universe that point us all towards the good. However, I just can’t believe any of it.

My brother, the kindest human and best father I know, has been going through a terrible divorce. He has spent the last ten years sleeping in a gardening shed in his own backyard (his wife could not stand having him in the bedroom), and for years his wife only spoke to him when she demanded that he give her more money. He told his wife he wanted a divorce, so she threw my brother out of his own home. She has kept his children from him, slandered him to his employer, and waged a campaign of hatred and anger against my brother that has spread to the children’s school. I asked for the universe–or whoever may be out there–to show my brother kindness and compassion, to not let him be destroyed and left with nothing. Today was his divorce trial, and he found out that he gets no money from his house, he has to pay thousands a month in alimony, and he will only see his kids two days a week, regardless of the fact that his children have told him time and time again that they want to live with him and not their mother.

I am sorry, but there is no god or being or spirit or anything at all in this or any other universe that would allow this to happen to such a hardworking, kind, and loving person. Not only was I shown that my prayers and good thoughts will under no circumstances be answered, but I was also shown that being kind and compassionate means absolutely nothing. It’s the cruelest among us who benefit the most, as they stop at nothing to hurt and destroy the good.

I am sorry for being so emotional and forceful about this, but I just can’t see how anyone can believe in “good forces” being at work.

First off, I absolutely understand feeling incredibly emotional and forceful in regards to this situation, so no apologies are needed. This comment just breaks my heart. For the pain that this woman and her brother are experiencing, but also because I can feel her heart closing up. It’s hard to read those last two paragraphs – to truly feel that being kind and compassionate means absolutely nothing in this world has to feel utterly hopeless.

I have come to believe that we don’t have much (if any) control over the events that happen to us, but I do believe that we can reframe the way we see those events. Craptastic stuff happens to all of us, but we CAN choose to see the light in dark situations. We CAN choose love over hate and hope over despair.

I am so blessed to have a cousin who is a living embodiment of the above paragraph. Over the course of four years, my cousin Collie went through a painful divorce, lost his only sibling (my beautiful cousin Lauren at the tender age of 26), and then lost his little girl, Maddie.

Stop. Just take a moment to fully absorb what I just wrote. Can you even imagine dealing with that level of grief?

After reading the above comment, I knew that I wanted Collie to share his story with you all, and I am thrilled that he agreed. His outlook on life despite tremendous, seemingly unsurmountable hurdles is a true testament to the power of love and hope, and a beautiful lesson for us all. Thank you, Collie, for sharing part of yourself with us.

May 14, 2014

My life ended on a golf course on a sunny southern California Saturday afternoon in January three years ago.  The last thing I heard was the ping my phone makes when a new text arrives.

“Something is wrong with Maddie.  She’s slurring her words and is having problems walking.  I’m taking her to the ER.  Meet me there.”

Maddie was my five year old daughter.  The text was from my ex-wife.  A quick Google search while my friends sped me away did not reveal a single reassuring explanation.

The next morning, in a small room at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, I learned that my little girl was going to die.  An inoperable and malignant brain tumor was growing at the base of her brain stem.  Modern medicine could at best slow its growth, but it would provide no happy ending.

Less than two months later, on March 13, 2011, Maddie’s mom and I kissed our little girl goodnight for the last time.  Moments after we thanked her for letting us be her mommy and daddy and told her we would be ok, she became an angel.

In the preceding four years, my sister and only sibling died unexpectedly from a post-operative infection, I went through a painful divorce, and my career stagnated.  I had just turned forty.  As I curled into a ball and sobbed in my mother’s lap while Maddie’s little body was taken away, it was impossible to even imagine a way out of this ruined existence.

What do you do the day after your only child dies?  How do you get out of bed the next morning when your whole world has ended?

I’ve spent the last thirty-eight months trying to answer those questions and suspect that I will continue to face them every day I have left on this earth.

This is what I have learned so far.  This is how I have survived.

Instinctively, I realized that I had a decision to make.  I could, very understandably, allow grief to be my constant companion and the marker for every experience that followed.  Or I could try to overcome it.

I chose the latter.

The first thing I knew I had to do it was to honestly face what had just happened to me.  I promised myself that I would cry every tear that needed to be shed, unashamedly and unabashedly, for as long as those tears needed to flow.  There may be honor in stoicism, but there’s no relief.  I also believed that if I was going to truly confront my loss, I needed to speak the words that encompassed the entirety of that emotion.  My daughter didn’t “pass away” or “cross over”; she died.  For me – and I speak only for myself here – I needed to use that harsh word, with all of its abrupt and brutal finality, in place of the euphemisms we construct to soften our experience.

At the same time, I chose to never forget the absolute wonder of my daughter, her life, and the developing and ongoing lives of her friends.  I didn’t want her name to be the proverbial record scratch on any conversation, so I took every opportunity to tell stories about Maddie, just as any parent would do.  I had loved children since my sister was born and treasured being a father.  I didn’t want that part of me to die, so as painful as it was, I forced myself to go to her school and all the other special places we shared, the hardest of which was Disneyland.  I also made an active decision to see her friends.  Over time, to my surprise and relief, I grew to love running into them at Costco or seeing their pictures on Facebook. I adore seeing them grow. It’s astounding to me that Maddie would be turning nine next month and it breaks my heart to know she never saw her sixth birthday, but watching her Kindergarten classmates become young men and women is the closest I will ever come to seeing her achieve those same heights.  I choose to enjoy that.

I also opened myself to exploring other avenues to healing, even if they fell outside of my comfort zone.  When Maddie was sick, I watched her go through some experiences that defied all rational explanation.  Her dreams, her ability to understand what was happening to her even though we chose not to fully explain the ramifications of her diagnosis, and, perhaps most of all, her sublimity as her body failed her. Each of these led me to believe that there really is more to this world than we can feel and touch.  I grew up going to church and consider myself a person of faith, but this was a new experience.  It showed me the fullness of spiritual concepts that, in my mind, are diminished when limited simply to the ideas of heaven and hell.

Part of that process was being introduced to meditation and energy work.  Now, I am a Texas boy, the child of several generations of straight thinking, God-fearing people.  I am not naturally inclined to any of this California fruits and nuts hokum.  During Maddie’s illness and after her death, however, I began to develop myriad physical problems ranging from debilitating plantar fasciitis in both feet to an excruciatingly painful case of golfer’s elbow in my non-dominant arm.  I initially explained these away to being active and getting old, but after months of rest and unsuccessful physical therapy, my wife (then girlfriend) suggested I see her accupuncturist.  Through her, I learned how many of our physical ailments can be traced to mental and emotional issues.  My feet reflected the loss of stability I had experienced in the wake of a painful divorce.  The right elbow is part of the heart meridian, and the pain there reflected my grief over my daughter.  Treating those areas and those emotions finally healed these and other physical problems.  I’ve found similar benefits from Reiki and other types of energy healing.  I’m still not sure if I believe in it, and I certainly don’t understand it, but I figure either one of two things (and maybe both) is true:  it’s real or it shows the incredible healing power of our own minds.  Regardless of the answer, it was transformative and accomplished what traditional medicine alone was wholly unable to achieve.

In the end, I grew to believe that we possess significant control over our own happiness and or own health if we are willing to honestly face our own pain, commit ourselves to seeking health, and being open to whatever path leads us there.  Life sucks sometimes.  It knocks you down, steals your lunch money, and rips your favorite shirt.  You have to get up.  You CAN get up.  You possess within yourself greater reserves of strength than you can even imagine.

My path back to happiness and health was not a direct route.  Far from it.  Today, I am married to the woman of my dreams, and we have two beautiful, perfect, healthy little boys.  My career has revived and, at forty-three, I can genuinely say that I am happier and healthier than I ever have been in my life.  Yet there are still days when I am reduced to a blubbery mess of tears.  But I took that first, frightened step toward health the morning after Maddie died.  As I lay there, contemplating everything that I was facing, I knew pain and fear was there and it wasn’t going to go away any time soon.  I had to start small.  I made a promise to myself that I would find one thing from that day that was good and give thanks for it.  I knew I had to find room in my heart for the good, even if it was just to acknowledge a pretty cloud or uncommonly light traffic on the way to work.  As the months passed, it became easier and easier to see all the beauty that this world holds, even in the midst of all its horror. Each of our lives hangs in the balance between the terrible and the sublime, and the only protection we have is to stubbornly look toward the sublime.

We all cry out for miracles.  Countless times, I got on my hands and knees and prayed that Maddie would somehow become the first child ever to survive DIPG.  That miracle didn’t come.  But even though we don’t always get the miracles we ask for, miracles are all around us.  My daughter died, but the last two months of her life were filled with joy.  She never suffered any pain worse than a minor headache, and she passed away peacefully several days after slipping into a coma.  Those are miracles.  In the wake of her death, thousands of people around the world generously donated money to fund the construction of a new facility at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point which bears her name and that will educate thousands of children over the next several decades.  That, too, was a miracle.  And I am, for all my pain, a better man, a better husband, and a better father because of that little girl.  She was my miracle.

The pain of losing my daughter will never go away and will never diminish.  I have a dark hole in me that I can never fill.

And that’s ok.  I’ve learned that recovery does not mean eliminating that hole.  The best I can do – what I strive for – is to plant beautiful flowers around the rim of that hole and to keep expanding that circle until the field of my life is a patchwork of beauty, sown of hard work, hopeful remembrance, and love.  I’m getting there.



COMMENTS (46)

Comments

  1. Thank you both for sharing you experiences. This post (and most of your recent ones Sarah) and your stories are helping me. A stone tossed into a lake causes so many ripples that reach so far from the spot where it hits. And the moving water reflects the sunlight and shows the shadows from the trees on the shoreline. You may never know me or my life or my story, but you’ve helped me. You’ve caused a ripple in my world. You’ve helped me look into the shadows that were casting darkness and saddness on my life. You’ve helped me see the sunlight. I am forever changed for the better because I’ve embarked on my own spiritual journey. Thank you. I will speak out, in my own way, in the hope that I can cast my own stone and there will be more ripples and the world will be a better place on person at a time.

  2. The timing of this is painfully perfect.

  3. Amy Columbus says:

    I ended this do bad today.
    Your posts are truly feeding my soul my soul lately.
    My husband is approaching 7 months of being bedridden. We are still struggling to find effective treatment for his condition. Some days are really hard and this weekend was exceptionally hard! Your words are helping so much – please keep it up!

  4. Absolutely beautifully put. The image of the hole, decorating and expanding the field around it is very powerful to me. Thank you for sharing this inspiring post.

  5. This is a greatt post.

  6. What an absolutely beautiful, inspiring, and touching post. Sarah, thanks for being the platform for Collie to share.

  7. Christy says:

    Sarah –

    If you have a moment, look at this blog – http://www.bensauer.blogspot.com

    It is a blog written by a mother of twins – one of them just passed away from a brain tumor. The grace in which she writes despite the grief and terrible circumstances she and her family is facing is astonishing. She has inspired a whole community with her words and strength and faith. A beautiful example of choosing to move forward despite being dealt a bad hand.

  8. That is just amazing. And very touching. Thank you for sharing and providing perspective.

  9. Today is the birthday of a dear friend that died a year and a half ago. I needed these words today. Thank you!

  10. Jessica says:

    I am crying. Thank you for sharing this.

  11. For sharing this….thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  12. Hi Sarah!

    First time commenting and WOW…what a beautiful and powerfully inspiring post, both your words and the words of your cousin, Collie.

    “I have come to believe that we don’t have much (if any) control over the events that happen to us, but I do believe that we can reframe the way we see those events. Craptastic stuff happens to all of us, but we CAN choose to see the light in dark situations. We CAN choose love over hate and hope over despair.”

    I totally agree with you on that, we don’t have much (if any) control over the events that happen to us. However, we do have control over our perception and how we move through these events. And Collie’s story is inspiring proof of that. So bravo, Collie, you’re an inspiration for all of us.

    And by the way, I’m a certified Reiki practitioner (since 1997), so I can definitely share with you just how powerful energy work is. I’ve seen amazing results.

    Thank you for sharing this post today, Sarah. I really enjoy your blog.

    Have a super week!
    Ron recently posted…Embracing The Messiness

  13. Thanks for posting this. I have to admit that your previous post did sound to me like “positive thinking will make everything ok in your life” and as a mother who lost a son last year, I am very sensitive to that. I have learned the hard way, after losing my only brother, then two babies to miscarriage, and then our son, (all in the span of two years) that just asking God for signs and miracles does not bring them. And sometimes when you ask and hope and believe, you get not something good but something worse than you ever imagined. There is still good in my life, and there are even good things that would not have happened if those losses had not taken place–BUT those good things do not ease the pain of the losses or make them okay or make me an optimistic person who believes I have the power to shape my life and my destiny. And maybe I misread your earlier post, but that is how it sounded to me.

    Anyway, I really appreciate this story and it feels more balanced to me, and easier for a hurting and grieving person to handle. So thank you for sharing it, and thank you to your cousin for sharing it.
    sarah k recently posted…Mother’s Day, expectations, and what we honor

    • Hi, Sarah. Thanks for your kind words and thanks for sharing your story. It appears we are siblings in tough times, although I am awed by the depth of your loss in such a short time. I am so sorry you have had to go through all of this and my heart goes out to you.

      I absolutely agree with you that positive thinking will not alone make everything better. Similarly, I absolutely agree that the good that follows does not ease the pain of the loss that preceded it. I would give anything to have Maddie back. All the Learning Centers in the world aren’t worth one second with her. The question is never “am I better because of this pain?”; rather, it’s “can I accept the pain that has happened and make my life the happiest it can be despite it?” What it means to be happy for me is not what it used to be. There is a part of me that will always be sad. Always. My struggle is to make what I have left after that as happy as I can be. It’s not easy and it’s never straightforward, but it started with a conscious decision to be happy despite my loss. I wasn’t magically happy just because I made the decision; it was merely the first step in a lifelong process.

      Good luck to you.

  14. Wow. Thank you for sharing your cousin’s story. It is so painful but the way he approached the grief and healing is beautiful. I hope the woman who wrote the first comment in the article can find some peace after reading your post. And I wish your cousin continued healing and happiness.
    Stacey recently posted…Flat Sandals For Women Under $100

  15. p.s. just wanted to add that I do agree with what your cousin said, that sometimes we do get miracles when we ask for them–just not always, and even when we do get them they may be very different than the ones we asked for. I thought that was a good point, and well stated.

  16. Gabriella Wilson says:

    I love this phrase. “Each of our lives hangs in the balance between the terrible and the sublime, and the only protection we have is to stubbornly look toward the sublime.”

  17. Wow, thanks so much for sharing this. I remember crying at my desk while reading the story of Maddie. It is so hard to understand the feelings that a family goes through when dealing with a tragedy, but I was heartbroken for your loss. I think one of the things you don’t realize following grief and loss like this, is that you are never the same. Your perspective on life and the bigger picture has changed significantly. Each person’s journey is different, but we’re all connected in a similar way. I thought of your family as well as others I had read about while my family went through the loss of my nephew. We are not alone… and there is strength to be found in that. Lots of love and continued healing to you and your cousin.
    Lisa recently posted…It’s a marathon run or a mountain you scale without thinking of size

  18. Katrina says:

    Wow.. Such a beautiful post today. Your Mindful Monday posts are quickly becoming a favorite of mine.

  19. Wow. I’m not really into any healing that doesn’t acknowledge God as the healer so I have been tuning out of mindful Mondays normally but your story had me in tears. It’s incredible what we can go through and survive.

    • Hi, Holly. Thanks for your kind words.

      I encourage you to approach the Mindful Monday posts and related topics with an open mind. I hold my faith very closely. My family attends Saddleback Church here in OC, and Rick Warren’s sermons over the last year in the wake of his son’s suicide have been particularly poignant for me (they are on-line if you’re interested). I did not make that part of my life the subject of this story (despite its importance to me), because I wanted it to be broadly relatable and didn’t want to suggest that religious faith is the only path to healing. I feel that healing certainly can be the reward for faith, but it’s also just as often the path to it. Perhaps more importantly, even for people of faith, I wanted to explain what happens after you say “amen.” I feel that faith and prayer alone will not heal you; a lot of it still rests with how you make God’s plan happen. I liken it to someone praying to win the lottery. You can pray all you want, but you still have to go buy the lottery ticket. My story is about buying the ticket.

      I also encourage you to consider the woo woo stuff – mindfulness, mediation, energy work, etc. – as companions to our faith as opposed to its opponent. I prayed desparately for emotional and physical healing after Maddie’s death, and neither the fervence of my prayers nor my frequent trips to a physical therapist alone solved the problems. I believe God led me to these woo woo concepts in response to those prayers. They may not be couched in Christian language, but does that matter? If God really is an active presence in our lives, is it ridiculous to believe that this is one of the ways He chooses to do so? Like I said above, healing can be both a reward for faith and a guide towards it. After all, if I was stranded in the desert and someone came along and saved me, I would give thanks to God for putting that person there when I needed him. That man’s own beliefs or why he happened along my way at that time are unimportant. He could be an atheist on the way to meet his mistress to plan a bank robbery but for me, he would be a miracle. I believe the same is true here. God works in mysterious ways, the old saying goes, and I choose to believe that this was one of those times. I prayed for healing and went out and found emotional and physical healing through the “hokum” after everything I was inclined to believe in had failed. Not a day goes by without me giving thanks to God for all the blessings I have in my life as a result of that discovery.

      Good luck to you!

      • Thank you for your thoughtful response, gave me lots to think about. And I love your desert analogy :)

  20. My grandparents lost their two-year-old daughter suddenly in 1945. My grandmother went on to live until she was 90; my grandpa lived until he was 99 1/2, and he was the most cheerful, mellow man I’ve ever known. My dad once asked him how he was able to come back to life after losing his beloved child. Grandpa replied, “I just woke up one morning and decided to be happy.” Of course your post brought that comment back to me. I’m so sorry for the loss of your daughter and your sister. It’s unimaginable. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  21. Jessica says:

    Thank you, Sarah and Collie. I’m not eloquent enough to put together words that adequately explain how this post made me feel. All I know is that I’m sobbing, both for such a loss and the subsequent hope and new life that came out of it.

  22. The Reiki strategy believes that if the inner energy that takes place in an individual’s physical body is reduced, he is more most likely to experience different kinds of health problems. On the various other hand, if it is high, it just manifests a healthy and balanced and active life for a person.
    Mrs. Shetley

  23. This was so powerful and touching and honest. Thanks, Collie, for sharing your journey through grief. I have been a long-time reader of Sarah’s, and remember when Maddie was first diagnosed. Your strength through the pain is astounding.
    Amanda Brown recently posted…Almost Eight

  24. Rafaella Rauber says:

    Sarah,

    Your cousin has an amazing soul! I would like you to google the name of a very special medium called CHICO XAVIER. He was too an amazing soul and have written thousands of books that can help anyone. I believe a lot of his work is translated to english.

  25. Nancy Galanty says:

    I am really enjoying the direction your blog is taking. Thank you and your cousin for a beautiful post. Human strength in the face of horrible aversely, pain and loss is truly remarkable, and your cousin is an inspiration. I’m grateful to have read it.

  26. beautiful. thank you for sharing.

  27. Thank you, thank you for sharing.
    Alicia recently posted…Click of the Wild: Playtime

  28. Heather D. says:

    Sarah/Collie,

    Sarah – I am enjoying your blog more and more each week. I’ve been a follower for years however, your most recent posts have really hit home for me and I’m learning SO much from you!

    Collie – You are truly an amazing person. THANK YOU for sharing your story! I am in awe of your strength and truly inspired by you.

    ~Heather

  29. This is just so beautiful. I can’t stop crying and yet, I’m so encouraged by his words and his willingness to share with your community. What a gift. I’ve often wondered about this family since you shared the story years ago and my heart continues to break for their loss. If he can find one good thing in every single day than he is an inspiration for each of us to find that one good thing. Thanks again for sharing this here.

  30. “My brother, the kindest human and best father I know, has been going through a terrible divorce. He has spent the last ten years sleeping in a gardening shed in his own backyard (his wife could not stand having him in the bedroom), and for years his wife only spoke to him when she demanded that he give her more money.”

    Your cousin’s story is sweet and uplifting but it strikes me as a mismatch as a response to the above. Someone who put up with sleeping in a gardening shed for ten years (ten years!) is in serious need of a good therapist. I don’t know your cousin, but assuming he had a healthy ego going into his truly tragic series of events he was dealing with a very different set of circumstances and problems than the man described as sleeping in a gardening shed for 10 years. I think it’s safe to assume someone who’s put up with such does not have a healthy ego. Spirituality and spiritual practices are a great gift–I agree with you that the universe is benevolent–but without a healthy ego in place the benevolence of the universe can seem like an extremely far fetched idea, or worse, if certain spiritual ideas or practices do take the person could become ungrounded from reality and fall prey to mental illness or projection-laden zealotry.
    Not Panther recently posted…May 22 2014

  31. Damn, that Collie has a way with words (like his cousin!). Such a good reminder.

  32. Wow. Such a beautiful message, outlook, and experience. Amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  33. This brought me to tears. What a testament to the power of the human spirit. Maddie’s story touched me beyond words. Wtill does, and always will. It was such an honor to read how her father is doing and how he has chosen to find happiness in the wake of such unimaginable grief. What an amazing person. I am really inspired. Maddie and her family will always be in my prayers.
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  34. Absolutely Beautiful Post! Amazing!

  35. It has taken me a week to collect myself enough to craft a response to your cousin’s story in relation to my brother’s very sad story. Your cousin sounds like an incredible person, and the strength and courage he mustered to work his way through such a sad and tragic time is truly remarkable. However, and this is in no way meant to diminish his story, I still have trouble believing that there is a spiritual force at work in the world that is able to protect people or help them through times of need. Where was the good force when my brother was desperately trying to protect his children from his wife’s anger? Or when he decided to leave the marriage for the sake of his life and his children’s well-being, only to have his children kept from him? Or when his wife demanded money before he could see his children? When his wife slandered him to his employer and falsely accused him or being a deadbeat abuser, resulting in him being fired from his job? Or when a family court judge was presented with all of this terrible behavior, with witnesses to my brother’s wife’s abuse, and with angry, vindictive emails from my brother’s wife that detailed her demands for money in return for the children, only to then award custody to this terrible woman, and then set my brother’s alimony and child support at almost $4000 a month and only allow him to see his children eight days a month?

    I am sorry, but where does my brother’s emotional strength somehow come into play as the catalyst for his building a better life? And how on earth can he be accused of causing his own misfortune on account of having an “unhealthy ego”? This man has done nothing but be a good, hardworking person and a great father, only to be completely destroyed by not only another person’s rage and selfishness, but also by a family court judge who is supposed to be in the practice of protecting children. Perhaps my brother would benefit from therapy, true, but without a job, a home, his children, and with $20k in debt from paying his lawyers to do him absolutely no good at all, I I fail to see how developing a “healthy ego” or thinking good thoughts at this juncture is going to help him and his children.

    Your cousin’s story is very admirable, but, realistically, there is just no way I can ever look to the universe for a sign of benevolence and compassion. I know that it is not necessary for me to pen a rebuttal like this, and I apologize for being so downtrodden about this, but this topic has become a very raw one for me. I am sorry to sound so harsh, but being shown such injustice has really opened my eyes to a lack of compassion and good in the world.

  36. Beautiful story of grace, thank you for sharing. In my recovery from depression, I too have found that our power lies in how we choose to use the story God has given us. I’m learning how to be vulnerable and let others see the destructive path I was on but also how God has used it all for his glory.

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