“How strange that the nature of life is change, yet the nature of human beings is to resist change. And how ironic that the difficult times we fear might ruin us are the very ones that can break us open and help us blossom into who we were meant to be.” ―Elizabeth Lesser
Ann is a dear friend and an amazing teacher. I am honored to help share her story of how she moved thru the grief surrounding her mother’s death and in the process, began to glimpse her own spirit. This transformational unfolding will help and inspire many. I wish to thank Ann for her openness and honesty in sharing this story.
Ann, what was your relationship with your Mom?
My Mom was my best friend. She was that source of unconditional love that I always had in my life. Although I had not lived close to her for many years, she was a central part of my everyday life. We spoke on the phone daily. My Mom was a kind, calm, loving and non-judgmental woman. I don’t think she understood how important she was in the lives of many friends and family. I always wanted to be like her.
My Mom got diagnosed with both uterine and colon cancers in 2006, the year she had finally retired from nursing. She underwent surgery and cancer treatment but her disease returned and worsened in 2008. My parents lived in Holland, Michigan where I grew up. I was living in Eau Claire, Wisconsin when her illness progressed. That time was very difficult for all of us. I remember feeling splintered all the time. Trying to find balance between wishing to be at her bedside every moment and wanting to be present for my own husband and children was well, impossible.
My Mom remained generous of spirit until the end. She had a deep faith and very little fear about dying. She was however, ticked off that she would miss seeing her grandchildren grow up and wanted me to be with my kids back in Wisconsin when she finally passed so that I could comfort them in person. She was an amazing and generous mother even in her death.
Can you share your early stages of grief?
After she died, I did what I have always done. I picked up the pieces. I took care of arrangements, made calls and most importantly, held it together. When people asked me how I was doing, I would quickly answer, “It’s hard, but I am fine.” If there was a mantra from this time in my life, it was “I’m fine.” After all, I was the psychologist. I had it together. Taking care of people and things was what I did.
Back home however, I began to notice that I was feeling nothing especially when I was around well-meaning friends and family. The world felt flat and I was really disconnected from it. I was in so much pain and yet the world kept spinning. This lack of connection terrified me. In my attempt to hold it all together, I had walled off my grief so effectively that instead I felt nothing. Even after a morning in church on all Soul’s day when the tears began and the floodgates opened, I still felt so separate from my family, friends and even God. In retrospect, it was a lifetime of pushing my emotions away for fear of losing control. I was protecting myself from a really painful view of myself.
As the “one who always held it together”, what would happen if I fell apart? Looking back, I realize that I had been holding this pattern since middle school. I had been pushing away a lot of dark stuff for almost my entire life out of this fear of falling apart. The grief process was now forcing me to uncover this difficult stuff and trudge thru the self-loathing mud.
The process of uncovering this stuff was painful. I came face to face with my self-judgment. This self-judgment was coming out as judgments of other people and thus strengthening the disconnection that terrified me.
“If we do not suffer a loss all the way to the end, it will wait for us. It won’t just dissipate and disappear. Rather, it will fester, and we will experience its sorrow later, in stranger forms.” ― Elizabeth Lesser
How and when did things begin to shift?
Thankfully, once I began to identify some of these really difficult emotions, I slowly began to heal. I re-read thru my journal from that time in preparation for this interview and I now have so much compassion for myself. At the time, I was terrified that somehow I would lose everyone if they discovered what a fraud I was. This self-judgment felt so real to me. It turns out, that I didn’t like myself much. A key realization from this time was the understanding that my Mom had been my source of unconditional love. I had outsourced this love. Things began to shift when I started to understand that unconditional love was also inside of me. It had been well covered up with these harsh self-judgments but it was there.
“The fact that someone else loves you doesn’t rescue you from the project of loving yourself.” –Sahaj Kohli
Prayer helped me during this time. I have never prayed so much in my entire life! I began to pray for others during that time as well, not just myself. Glimmers of understanding began to surface during these prayerful moments. I began to have confidence that this light was inside me. The shift of looking for this light within me rather than outside of myself was key. Loving myself was the key to begin to connect with and love others again.
Here is a prayer I wrote from that time in my journal:
Lord, please help me uncover my heart.
Help me to shovel off all the fear and guilt and doubt.
So that I may find the love at the center of my being.
The love that comes from you.
Because you are always with me.
Uncover my heart so I may feel your unconditional love.
And that this love may flow out to those around me.
How did mindfulness and meditation help in your journey?
Prayer was a huge gift during this time but mindfulness became another key tool after being suggested by my grief counselor. I am an academic at heart and initially I was wary of this “mindfulness” stuff. It felt foreign to me and was also outside of my comfort zone. I felt that mindfulness was valid, but just not for me. Even still, it intrigued me. I compromised with myself and began to check out CDs from the library. I read books on the subject until I felt comfortable. Then I began my practice of mindfulness- initially only 5 minutes at a time.
Turns out- it was kind of wonderful. Prayer for me became my time to connect and ask from God while meditation became the receiving time. I was cultivating the ability to hear and receive from God. I found that these practices enhance one another. Slowly but surely, I was able to become more open and present with myself. Mindfulness helped to unify and connect the parts of me that had felt disconnected. During the height of my grief, my heart felt separated from my head and my body didn’t feel connected to anything. Mindfulness and meditation were gifts to begin connecting these parts of myself once again.
Can you talk briefly about how grief felt in your body?
In grief, I felt actual pain in my torso and chest as if I had been punched. I also felt completely closed off as if I was physically shutting down in an attempt to not feel these painful feelings. However, by protecting myself, I was actually disconnecting from others and this was my greatest fear anyway! Protection felt like a favor to myself at first but there is a saying, “any feeling you bury is buried alive” and I certainly found that to be true.
Do you graduate from grief?
No. It is unpredictable. It never goes away. Even talking about missing my Mom today allows grief to resurface. The paradox is that by allowing yourself to feel those painful feelings, you are better able to hold them when they resurface. By doing this, the pain loses it’s punch to some degree. I still miss my Mom and I always will. Her death will forever remain a tender place within me and that is ok. By holding it tenderly, it becomes less painful. By holding it tenderly, the love that was my Mom shines thru the pain.
“My glimpse of spirit in moving thru my Mom’s death was really a glimpse of my own spirit. That is the gift she gave me and I am forever grateful.”
Have you also had glimpses of your Mom’s spirit?
There have been glimmers along the way that I initially chalked up to coincidences. My Mom was a singer at church and once I was in my own church here in town and I heard her singing! Another day, I was walking thru Sunday School and I looked over at the chalkboard and there was one word on the board, “Ruth”- my mother’s name.
At my own church choir practice one evening, the choir director handed me a new piece of music and the composer was “Ruth Elaine Schram”. My mother’s maiden name was “Ruth Elaine Lam.” It felt like my Mom was reaching out to me in a playful way.
When I stop and open up my attention, I can often feel my Mother’s presence with me. In these moments of connection, she feels free and joyful
You have blended your PhD in psychology and your experience with mindfulness to create a beautiful mission. Can you elaborate?
Mindfulness was a true gift to me on this journey. It has become my mission to help others tap into their own love and compassion. Glimpsing my own spirit helped me to understand that there is love all around us. We simply need to tune in. Tuning in can be hard because you have to tune into everything. You have to walk thru some hard stuff. In my experience, bearing witness to the hard stuff is the most difficult part. However, coming out on the other side is worth it. The other side offers this clear view of love- both within ourselves and all around us. For that reason, I would not trade my journey thru grief. The gifts my mother gave me allowed me to unfold in such an amazing way.
Are you “fine” now Ann?
I am better than fine! I feel more like myself than ever before. Going thru the grief process initially, I felt as if I was sitting next to myself. That sense of disconnection was strong. Now, I feel I am more myself than ever before. It has been less of a change or transformation and more of an unfolding. I do not mean to imply that life is now all wine and roses. Stuff still happens and difficult emotions arise. However when I do feel fear arising now, I am better able to sit with it and reveal what lies beneath. If and when I can sit with it, what lies beneath is always love. How wonderful is that?