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.

  1. JB

    May 19, 2014 at 6:27 am

    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.

    • J.Mill

      May 20, 2014 at 2:21 pm

      I agree with you, JB!

  2. Pam

    May 19, 2014 at 7:08 am

    The timing of this is painfully perfect.

  3. Amy Columbus

    May 19, 2014 at 7:17 am

    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. Sizzle

    May 19, 2014 at 7:30 am

    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. Elan Morgan

    May 19, 2014 at 7:33 am

    This is a greatt post.

  6. Jennie

    May 19, 2014 at 7:47 am

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

  7. Christy

    May 19, 2014 at 8:00 am

    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. Yoanna

    May 19, 2014 at 8:44 am

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

  9. Laura

    May 19, 2014 at 8:59 am

    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

    May 19, 2014 at 9:10 am

    I am crying. Thank you for sharing this.

  11. Sarah

    May 19, 2014 at 9:15 am

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

  12. Ron

    May 19, 2014 at 9:54 am

    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!

  13. sarah k

    May 19, 2014 at 10:50 am

    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.

    • Collie

      May 19, 2014 at 4:08 pm

      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.

      • Jill Browning

        May 22, 2014 at 1:38 pm

        Well said, Collie. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

        And thanks to you, Sarah, for writing this blog post. :)

  14. Stacey

    May 19, 2014 at 10:51 am

    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.

  15. sarah k

    May 19, 2014 at 10:52 am

    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.