“The physics of butterflies is the metaphysics of caterpillars.”
As a hospital chaplain for thirty years, Sue Ripp has walked with many patients and families as they faced tragic loss. Many who know and love her would testify that she is ideally suited for this sacred work. Sue has a gentle and comforting presence, the ability to listen deeply and a sense of grace about her. This work became intensely personal however after a deep and unexpected loss in her own life. Two years ago Sue was faced with the death of her beloved son, Chris. This glimpse of spirit seeks to answer the question, “how does one survive and perhaps one day again thrive after such devastating loss?” I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Sue for sharing hard fought wisdom on this difficult subject in the hopes of helping other parents who may one day be forced to go thru a similar experience.
What does Spirit mean to you Sue?
I look at spirit in a broad sense. I am Catholic and so my concept of spirit includes the Holy Spirit who is always present and guiding us, Jesus who is always walking with us as well as all those people who have died and gone before us. Since childhood, I have always had a felt sense of spirit all around me- in nature, providing direction and guidance.
How do you pray?
As I have gotten older, my prayer life has shifted. I have honed my listening skills and fine-tuned my intuitive senses. Spirit is always speaking to us. Part of our work is to find quiet and listen. This receptive type of prayer has offered me something beyond faith. It has helped me experience spirit deeply. I have a sense of knowing now that I can never lose. Our son Chris died two years ago at the age of 34. My journey thru that loss has helped me to pray in new ways, to listen more deeply and to know more~ about Spirit, about the world and about myself.
Tell us about Chris?
He was just an awesome young man. Ken and I were unable to have biological children so both of our boys were adopted. Chris came to us when he was just 5 weeks old. From the start he had a gentle and easy-going personality. He loved people and was always there for the underdog. Ken and I always loved this about him. At his funeral, many people came forward to share what a difference Chris had often quietly made in their lives. He worked to be an inclusive bridge for many.
In January of 2013 Chris was in a car accident while in California. He broke his neck and back in three places, fractured his hand, severed his ear and had a head injury. We were told how lucky he was to not be paralyzed. Ken and I were with him in California for five weeks before we could bring him back to our home to assist in his recovery. He died six months later on July 7th.
This time at home was quite challenging for all of us at first. My protective maternal instinct kicked in while Chris faced the difficulties of an adult returning to live at home. Chris was dependent on us to feed and care for him. We struggled at times and had to work to understand where the other was coming from.
This struggle was more than worth it however and looking back, those six months with Chris were a sacred time for us. We were able to arrive at a space of mutual understanding and begin talking from more of a soul level. After Chris’s death, I was so comforted remembering our deep spiritual conversations about our prayer lives and sense of purpose. I find great comfort in the awareness that he was prepared and that his spirit is still all around us.
Would you share some examples of how you came to that awareness Sue?
Sure. Chris had been cremated and we were waiting a month for his burial. One day we went to the funeral home to finish some paperwork and were surprised when the funeral director asked us if wanted to take Chris’s ashes home while we were awaiting the burial. Friends of ours had crafted a beautiful wooden box to hold his ashes. The shape of the box required me to hold it sideways.
In that moment when I was handed Chris’s ashes I had one of the most surreal and poignant experiences of my life. My head knew that I was standing in the funeral home but in my experience those were the arms of the social worker handing Chris to me all those years ago on the day of his adoption. I felt as if I was in two places at the same time and that was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was mystical. Holding his ashes while remembering what a gift we had received the day he came into our lives gave me the strength to go on that day.
While Sue was sharing this story during our interview the door to the room where we were sitting spontaneously opened. A breeze blew in and both of us felt Chris’s presence.
Why do you wear a hummingbird necklace Sue?
I love to garden and have always loved hummingbirds. The spring and summer Chris was living with us, a blue jay had chased away all the hummingbirds and other birds from our garden. The day after Chris died, a dear friend came over with a gift for my garden. As we were out there talking, a hummingbird landed on a branch not six inches away from me. I know there are many skeptical people in the world but for me, that hummingbird felt like Chris. The following day out in the gazebo birds started to return to our garden- cardinals, chickadees, finches and robins. The blue jay was nowhere to be seen.
“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.”
Six weeks after Chris died a business card fell out of my purse one day for a wonderful woman named Kathy Drinkman. She is a Reiki practitioner whom I had seen only once before four years prior. How her card came to be in my purse was a huge mystery! I decided to go and see her for a session. She asked me if the number seven -seven held significance for me and I mentioned it was the month and day my son had died. With no further prompting, she relayed that he wanted me to know that the blue jay was gone and he was helping bring back all the other birds to my garden. He went on to talk about other things from the past and present that I needed to know and that helped me heal and be at peace.
The hummingbird throughout this journey has become my reminder to stay open and to have courage. One day I was wondering whether to reach out to parents in our town who had recently lost their son to suicide. I knew who they were but had no relationship with them. A hummingbird appeared out of nowhere at my window while I was deliberating! It was Chris reminding me to be open and vulnerable even on those difficult days when I just wanted to close myself off from the world.
How has your view of your own life shifted given this unshakeable knowing that there is more to life than we can see?
It has helped me be so much more free and more at peace. I guess I am also more confident in myself now. I have a sense of unshakeable knowing that allows me to speak up from my own spirit. There are lots of skeptical people in the world but doors are opening to people’s minds and hearts. When we share from our spirit, people can see the difference in us. There is a freedom in knowing that even thru death all will be well.
I am more reflective now. I do more listening. I have a deeper sense of gratitude for all of life. I talk with God and Jesus but also with Chris, Mother Mary and all the Saints. All those who have gone before us really are together and working for us. That should bring us tremendous comfort.
I leave much more space in my life now for spirit.
Sue, I know you have connected with and assisted other parents who have lost a child. What advice can you give someone experiencing such a devastating loss?
Years ago, before I had become a chaplain I was volunteering in the hospital setting with a teenager who had just lost his beloved mother. On the walk home a phrase came to me “Joy not shared dies young. Sorrow that isn’t shared never dies.” Chris’s death helped me to understand that truth on a deeper level. There is importance in celebrating life but also in sharing our sorrow.
To those who have lost a child, I am sorry. Early on, I would say do whatever you need do to survive another day. At first after Chris died I was angry with God. I wondered “Why he would survive the accident and struggle back thru so much pain only to die 6 months later?” I never thought God had caused this to happen but I wanted to blame someone for the pain I felt. Looking back, I now understand that part of our growing spiritually involves not being afraid of getting angry with God for a while.
Give yourself the space to grieve and realize that everyone grieves differently. It will get better. Be open to the memories. Write down what you are experiencing in those early days or you will forget it. Over time you can unpack things. Let it unfold. Grief cannot be rushed. Spend time in nature, around children and in conversation with God.
Finally, find other parents who have survived the loss of a child and talk to them. When Chris died, those people were a true light for Ken and I. We thought, if they can survive and even thrive thru this then someday we might be able to as well. They were a bridge for us in our time of need and now we seek to be a bridge to other parents suffering thru the loss of a child.
Over time, look back on your own healing process. Be open and vulnerable and your own glimpses of healing and of spirit are sure to reveal themselves.