I recently looked on as both of my parents died in my arms, just six weeks apart.
It was the shock of my life, but it was also the harbinger of some beautiful lessons. It empowered me to say goodbye to people, situations, and deeply held patterns of belief that have tormented me for decades.
Here is what I’ve learned so far:
1. Forgive everyone.
You will think they don’t deserve it. You will be right. Forgive everyone anyway. Understand deeply that you do not need to settle any score, right any wrong, or summon any bitch-slap from Lady Justice. Everything gets sorted out in the end. Karma is my girl crush, now and forever.
2. It’s never too late. Until it is.
Over the course of her lifetime, my mother and I shared only one completely honest conversation. For the first time—ever—I surrendered not to anger and resentment, but to the enduring power of grace. I waited my entire life to have that conversation. She died three weeks later.
3. Grief doesn’t shape character—it reveals it.
Do not spend your energy trying to understand the reasons for someone else’s bad behavior. Light a candle, say their name, and then chant these three words: “Bless and release.” Remember, if they don’t want you, someone else will. The world is full of people just waiting to love you. Get your house in order, and then let them in.
4. Fake people make me barf. And I used to be one of them.
You may think you can control how people perceive you. You may be certain of it, even. You will be wrong. We are all just a bunch of vibration, and vibration is a gossip who can’t hold a secret. Even if your game is tight and your words are flawless, people will feel who you really are. Give up now and just be yourself. Besides, everyone else is taken. (I know, not original, but oh so good.)
5. Don’t develop addictions. You will just have to break them.
And really, who has the energy. You must let go of the illusion that anything outside of you will ease your pain. There will never be enough sex, drugs, food, gambling, alcohol, or technology to drown out your sorrow. Save your strength for the hard work of healing. You’re going to need it.
6. I look at strangers differently now.
One morning last week I cried so hard that my eyes swelled shut. I had to use ice packs to pry them open just in time to attend an important meeting—a smile on my face while inside I was dying. You have no idea the kind of power you have over the people you encounter. Your words can encourage or they can shatter. For the rest of my days, I will be as kind as possible.
7. Death by a thousand cuts (and how to avoid it).
If there is one aspect of grief that cuts me to bits it is remembering the way I showed my mother such profuse, unapologetic anger, but so rarely appreciation. True, I had a long list of reasons for doing this. I was protecting myself—and I needed protecting. But I also watched as my mother worked herself to the bone, surviving on Diet Coke and nicotine to make sure I had a Barbie Dreamhouse for Christmas. I should have expressed more gratitude. Thank you, Mama. For the Dreamhouse, and also the lesson. I will not make the same mistake again.
8. It is not my job to save anyone.
And anyway, saving isn’t mine for the giving. Whether you pray to Jesus or Allah or Shiva or Buddha or the divine force of Mother Nature, just believe.
9. Embrace regret.
I spent decades refusing to feel regret. I thought regret made me weak. That I had to stand firmly in all of my convictions, without compromise or exception. I grew up in an unstable environment. It left me unable to tolerate even the slightest sense of doubt inside of me. Certainty is how I survived. But in my grief, regret has been one of my greatest teachers. Regret is the gateway to humility—the beating heart of true strength and discernment. Regret is how we learn and do better. And I want to do better.
10. Love what is.
In the last year, I have been supported in ways I could never have imagined and betrayed in ways I never saw coming. Every morning, ask yourself this: who in your grief has not given up on you? Breathe them in. Honor them as you would a company of angels. Recommit yourself to healing. Do not let their gifts to you be in vain. You owe them an honest effort. Keep your eyes fixed on their light. They are your future.
11. I’m on the bubble and I don’t want to blow it.
By the time she was finally moving in the direction of her dreams, my mother’s crumbling body had decided to fail her. It was just the two of us in the moonlight that snowy winter night. Me holding her head up for a last sip of water, then the priest, a deep breath, and the end. Every night since then I have dreamed of that moment. It is burned into my mind forever, like her name, “Mama,” etched into the bottom of a pink ceramic heart she made me. I kept that last cup she drank from and look at it often. I need the reminding. To live live live. To drink life up.
This post is excerpted from my book, Off the Beaten Path: a Guide to Abuse Recovery © 2021