“Suffering is not enough. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. How can I smile when I am filled with so much sorrow? It is natural—you need to smile to your sorrow because you are more than your sorrow.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
It was a warm summer night with all the trimmings that come along with it, including the heady fragrance of flowers in full bloom being serenaded by an orchestra of crickets and birds of a variety of species.
To be exact, the date was Friday, August 23, 2013. Amid the pleasing summer sensations that are only available for a few short weeks in our Midwestern community, we received a phone call that is the nightmare of every parent: our 18 year old son was found on a park bench.
We will eternally be loving parents, and on this day, we also became suicide survivors.
There are so many words that could describe the initial feelings of hearing the words of Josh’s death. Horror, devastation, and shock are but a few. Everyone knows that the word is not the thing. In this case, there are no words that possibly portray the immediately crushing burden upon receiving this nature of news.
I met Josh as he was barely learning how to walk. I was, and am, deeply in love with his father. It was love at first sight with this cherubic angel with large blue eyes and an infectious smile as well.
I happily became Josh’s parent-by-choice. With gratitude in my heart, I traveled with my stepson through the rites of passage that come with each stage of growth, from learning how to tie shoes to learning how to shave.
As Josh’s life passed in front of my eyes, I began crumbling from the unimaginable grief.
I knew my immediate priority was my husband. If ever there was a man that was a loving and devoted father, he was the epitome and beyond, if that is even possible. I couldn’t begin to imagine how he was going to make it through this, as I saw his ashen face and beseeching eyes.
Tending to my beloved, and all the planning and preparation through the following surrealistic days, swept my focus far away from my center. It was an act of love and a herculean effort to avoid overwhelm of my own misery.
In my state of grief, I held up very well in caring for everything outside of myself. I held up so well that within two weeks I found myself waking up in a strange hospital. What I thought was a heart attack was a vicious affront of panic.
Being mindless to myself, pushing my own grief and hurricane of thoughts and feelings aside, had accumulated and could no longer be escaped from.
As I came out of the sedation delivered from the emergency room physician, left with his words admonishing me to take care of myself, I remembered that it was my mindfulness practice that had gotten me through to finding peace, centeredness and joy in past periods of panic.
At the time, I couldn’t fathom how returning to mindfulness this time could be possible when all I wanted was to shut the tragedy away in a deep dark corner. It was the kind of tragedy that would never see the light of acknowledgement, or the validation it was so profoundly calling for.
It was at that point that my clarity shifted and I realized that I could choose insanity, or I could choose mindfulness.
My choice was sanity.
I realized I could truly serve no one else that I love if I failed to return to the present moment. My husband and remaining children deserved my presence, and I knew that I needed that as well. Even when it carried a shroud of “I should have, could have, would have and WHY, WHY, WHY” that lay over me as the pregnant soil lay over Josh’s new resting place.
I began to sit in meditation and once again returned to my Yoga practice. I also began to gently prompt myself to return to the present moment often instead of sitting in the prison of questions that have no answers.
Yoga brought a union of the shattered fragments of myself and was easier than meditation as I could focus on my poses and breathing. From that point, beginning to sit in meditation became more bearable, for short durations.
There are so many layers of thoughts and feelings that come along when faced with the death of a loved one by suicide. Grief is a simple umbrella term for the sorrow, regret, anger, guilt, and mixed bag of emotions that lack a sufficient vocabulary to name, about the circumstances, about self, about others.
It would be overwhelming to sit passively and allow everything to come up at once. There was also great fear for me in allowing anything to come up at all lest I lost complete control. Getting lost in the grief felt like an exile that would offer no return and I resisted from delving too deeply into that abyss.
Because of these fears and to avoid overwhelm, I chose one focus at a time to sit with during meditation. For me, sitting with gratitude was the first step. “I am thankful for my grief because it means that I had experienced love.”
To feel grateful for the underlying significance of the painful emotions became the vehicle that would allow me to slowly begin to embrace the grief. I became willing to pay that price because it had bought the life that I had been able to experience with Josh.
Sitting with a specific focus such as gratitude, and returning often to the present moment, became a hand of hope to help guide me through the darkness.
It was in this space that I began to greet my grief with compassion. Sitting with gratitude slowly gave way to being able to sit with forgiveness for myself and others. This is not a fast and easy process, yet it is making all the difference and that hand of hope pulls me ever more steadily back to equanimity.
Slowly, I began to return to life. The smile pasted on for the benefit of others, began to transform into a genuine smile bubbling up from inner depths. While the shroud of mourning will still fall over me from time to time, I am better able to sit with it. Today I know the grief to be an occasional visitor that will assuredly lift away in the breath of another moment.
Reaching out to others who are in grief, I ask them to honor this time as a rite of passage that true love demands. Honor it, cherish it, offer it the utmost compassion, and patience. After all, it is the worthiest of investments.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Tracy Morrow
Editor: Renee Picard
Image: via the author