From 2001-2009 I was a caregiver for my mother, who was in and out of emergency rooms, hospitals, nursing homes and rehabs. I was also raising a teenage daughter, living with a husband whose business had gone under, working hard at my own job, and walking two dogs. I was feeling overwhelmed, but that was nothing compared to 2009. My own business failed after the economic meltdown in 2008, so I was unemployed. Then my husband asked for a divorce (it was a mutual decision really, but it practically killed me). Then my mother went into the hospital with bone cancer and died one month later. My 21-year-old daughter decided to move 3,000 miles away to San Francisco. I had to move from our apartment — where I would move, I had no idea — with two dogs and no job. None of these events alone is a tragedy — mothers die, divorce happen, kids grow up and move away, people lose jobs, homes. Separately, they are all quite manageable. But together, they were a little much.
So I did what I could do: I fell apart. Not so much that looking at me you would know (or maybe you would). I still took showers and walked my dogs three times a day. I still brushed my teeth and washed my clothes. But inside, I was dying. I lost 20 pounds because I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t take a deep breath. I couldn’t sleep without a sleeping pill. I had no idea who I was anymore. If I wasn’t a daughter, a wife, a mother (in the practical sense), if I wasn’t a worker, then who was I? I had no idea.
I felt like a blank canvas. Someone told me, “It’s like a forest fire burned everything in your life, and like a forest, it will all grow back eventually.” Eventually? Like in a week? A month? Two years? Ten years? When? Exactly when will this hell pass?
Actually, at times it felt like hell, and at other times the grief, the tears, the anguish, felt kind of good. I can’t say why exactly, but it felt alive. I felt. For so many years I had squashed many feelings with food, or anger, or shopping, or work, or drugs, or whatever I could get my hands on, and then suddenly, nothing really stopped the feelings, the tears were like Niagara Falls, they kept flowing. I honestly thought they would never stop. But each time I cried, I felt better. The pressure eased.
And then one day I read this quote in A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle:
Whenever tragic loss occurs, you either resist or you yield. Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension opens up. If action is possible or necessary, your action will be in alignment with [God]. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. [And] if no action is possible, you rest in the peace and inner stillness that come with surrender. You rest in God.
When I read that, it somehow touched something in me that felt true. I came to an inner acceptance of what was happening at that moment and I yielded to life. I rested in whatever I could think of as some power greater than myself. In fact, for the first time in my life, I honestly felt that power with a certainty I’d never felt before.
Despite the fact that my favorite book when I was growing up was Pippi Longstockingand I prided myself on never needing any help, I found a community of people who understood the grief I was going through and I went there for my comfort. (Friendsindeed.org) I listened to other people’s stories which were equally tragic, or more tragic than my own, and I knew that I was not alone. That helped me more than almost anything. I had a place to cry, to talk, and to heal.
I read everything I could get my hands on about divorce, death, loss and spirituality, and I really dug into my meditation practice. I found comfort in reading all these books because I knew that as painful as this experience was, it was important. And I knew that in the silence I would find some comfort too.
I forgave myself for all the mistakes I blamed myself for — not being a better wife. Not being a perfect parent. My mother’s death. After years of being so diligent about “do not resuscitate” and every other health care directive — my mother underwent a horrible seven-hour surgery to put a rod in her leg — and then died a week later. I felt tremendous guilt for putting her through that, but then I learned that most of us have regrets about the end of our parents’ lives, or anyone we love. We all feel we could have done it better, made better choices. So I forgave myself for that.
I forgave myself for a ridiculous divorce that wasted thousands of dollars and kept my ex-husband and me trapped in anger for too long. Three months ago, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, and we were finally able to talk again. That is a miracle and another miracle is that after 10 weeks of really difficult treatment, his tumors have shrunk 80 percent. What that will mean is still a question, but the fact that we can now communicate with kindness is, for me, a tremendous gift. I spent 24 years of my life with this man, and he is the father of my child. I will always love and care about him.
I learned compassion. I learned that you cannot do life alone. I learned that pain is part of life and it cracks you open in ways that make you a more compassionate person. I learned that the obstacles on the path ARE the path.
I learned that it wasn’t my career, or my home, or my money, that really mattered — it was that my heart was broken, and then broken open, and in that empty place that had been so frightening, a new kind of love could enter my life. Gratitude for what I had, thankfulness for what I have now, and a great deal of love for all the people who witnessed my burning to ashes, and helped me rise.