Mindful Monday: Overcoming Pain. Loss, and Grief
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.