When the Leaves Fall: Loss, Grief & Facing Tomorrow

It was almost a typical Monday. I woke up, drove to work, sat down at my desk, and sipped a cup of hot coffee. One thing that was definitely different than the previous Monday was the weather: dark gray clouds, ominous with the smell of rain, hovered outside the window. It was the Fall Equinox after all, and nature was fittingly showing off her punctuality.

I felt as if I had gone to bed the night before still in the dreamy arms of summer, only to wake up at fall’s feet a day later. But that wasn’t the only thing that caught me off guard. That morning, a message from a friend in Europe was waiting in my inbox with a request I couldn’t have anticipated.

She asked me to write a love letter to a family member who needed something to hold onto — a reason to keep going after the sudden death of her best friend had turned everything painfully inside out, and upside down.

I was stunned first, and then sad second, and then I got down to business. I spent two days thinking about what I’d write. What could I possibly say that could help?

I don’t have the answers; that’s the first conclusion I came to. And although I’ve been wracked with grief myself at the loss of several friends over the past few years, and most recently, my beloved writing mentor, I’m aware that loss touches us in such different and personal ways. There is no “one-size-fits-all” advice to give when it comes to grief. And yet, I was being asked to offer something to a stranger that would somehow encourage her to keep moving forward and still find the beauty in living.

This is not the only person that has been brought to my attention who is currently experiencing loss and change. At this time of year especially, it feels as if a hand has silently grasped the veil of summer’s illusions and pulled it aside, revealing a plainer, much harsher truth. Relationships are ending. Paths are shifting. Souls are departing. But just as there is no problem that exists without a solution, the shadow of life cannot exist without light. These illusions are being shaken loose so we can reconnect with our most primal existence and remember that life is a yin and yang of life and death, love and suffering.

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.” -Khalil Gibran

It goes without saying that it’s a tough time for many. The only salve I know of is to take hands with those you love and share the load. We’re in this together.

And in that spirit, I sat on my blue and white bedspread and wrote my 28th* love letter, which I promptly sent through the internet to a country approximately 5, 298 miles away.

With the permission of my friend, I’ve pasted it below. Please note that I’ve changed the name of the letter’s recipient in order to protect her privacy. My hope is that if you are reading this, and you too are suffering a loss of great proportion, this helps ease some of the pain, if even for a few minutes.

Birds Flying

Dear Anna,

I met your sister in a hostel just over a year ago. When I saw her from across the room, she was a glowing mass of passion and energy – a force of spirit. And I am so glad I got to travel with her. Out of her love for you, Anna, she asked me if I’d write you a love letter, because she tells me you are going through a very difficult time — an unimaginably painful time.

I’ve been thinking about you for the last two days, wondering how I can possibly comfort you with my words when you must be feeling as if the world has torn a piece right out of your heart. Darling, I want to tell you that the only beautiful thing that comes from loss is this: you feel your beating heart, albeit its being full of sadness and grief, it’s yours, and it’s beating for a reason. There’s a purpose for your soul here on earth, and this immense trial in your life may be a part of it. Perhaps now some comfort will come from reading other people’s stories of loss. Look to those who have been torn open, but somehow made it through to the other side. Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild” is one of those people. She writes matter-of-factly about the process of grief:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal.” -Cheryl Strayed

My advice is to let the grief exist. No need to fight it. This is your experience, and it’s real, and it’s valid. It’s also 100% natural. There’s no one way to feel grief, so don’t believe the books that tell you about the stages and try to estimate how long it will take to move on. This isn’t a matter of logicality; it’s a deeply personal matter of the heart. The process of grief is one of the core experiences that makes you human and connects you to people all across the globe who also know what it feels like to have lost someone they loved very much.

As difficult as it feels now, one day you will wake up with a little less pain than the day before. Gradually, after many days and months, and years, you will gain a strength you never knew you were capable of. And that strength will guide you to put one foot in front of the other and practice living again, until one day, you’ll feel love bloom in your heart, and you will risk caring about another person as much as you did about your friend. This is how you will know that you’re healing.

Until then, darling, there will be a lot of very difficult days. Unfortunately, no one can protect you from them, so you just have to hold onto what good things you can (like your family, a big oak tree, a walk by a stream, your favorite music, etc.) and ride your emotions like the brave woman you are. You are surrounded by people who love you and want to be there for you. Take their hands when you can. You don’t ever have to do this on your own; although no one can take the pain away, sharing your thoughts and feelings with others will help a lot.

Eventually, after an unknown amount of time, you will find a way to make peace with your friend leaving too soon. But in order for acceptance to come, you’ll have to do some soul searching and reading, and deep thinking about what you think life and death are about, and find a way of making sense of things for yourself. This might take a very long time, and understandably so. It’s okay to ask god, or friends, or family, or yourself the same questions over and over again, and not have any immediate answers. Humans spend their lifetimes trying to understand why things are the way they are.

Still, it won’t change the fact that they are the way they are. And that’s why sorting it out the best you can by establishing your own philosophy will give you a very important pathway to navigate your sadness by. This is what spirituality and religion exist for – they provide a light for you to walk beneath when you are lost in unimaginable darkness.

And on that topic, the universe cannot exist without light. What that means is there will be good things to come for you, Anna. This is not the end. It’s just the beginning of something different. You will get through to the other side.

In the meantime, my heart goes out to you. You are experiencing one of the most difficult aspects of being alive, and it fucking sucks. That is undeniable.

But the light is still all around you and within you, and someday soon, you’ll be able to see it again; of this, I am 100% certain!

Love to you,

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.

This is what I imagine the landscape of healing might look like before plants break through and bloom in your heart.

An Ode to Identity Crisis, Embracing Change & Living Fully Now

“The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armor. When that happens it feels like a crisis because it is a crisis – a fixed-identity crisis.” – Pema Chodron

What once was will not always be. And not just in regards to the external aspects of your life, but the internal aspects that make up who you are and how you interact with life. As humans, many of us are on a roller coaster, riding the emotional ups and downs of a constantly shifting understanding of ourselves, our place in the world and our purpose for being alive. When we deny the instability of our identities – and more broadly, the instability of our experience of being alive on this planet – we have what Bhuddist Nun, Pema Chodron, calls a ‘fixed-identity crisis’.

Yes change is scary. Yes change causes us anxiety and depression, but there is a way to ride the roller coaster and enjoy it. I know there is because I’ve experienced glimpses of it, tiny shreds of clarity and deep contentment, reached through great moments of surrender to living right now.

To demonstrate, I’ll share some of the many ways my life and identity have changed over the last decade and how, today, I’ve found a way to embrace change and live life fully.

Sixteen years of school fostered in me a safe and reliable identity of being a student. Being a student provided me a sense of security due to a pre-built infrastructure I could predict, access to a community of similarly identified people in my age group, and a clear medium through which to gauge my progress, successes and growth. University, albeit feeling restrictive to my freedom some of the time, provided a direct path to walk on and a clearly defined goal to reach: graduation with a degree in hand. Still, despite the label of “student,” I felt extremely uncertain about who I truly was and what it all was for, throughout that period of time. This was in part because I often attached my identity to the ever-changing relationships I was in, the opinions of my peers and family, my grades, my health, and of course, the constantly growing and shrinking awareness about myself, my political views, goals, dreams and values. Sound familiar?

After college, I wanted desperately to leave my hometown. I was ready to spread my wings and see more of the world. A common practice was to berate myself for not having left sooner, like many of my peers who moved across the country for college, thinking it somehow reflected a lack of bravery or adventure in me. Now I was finally free to go somewhere new, I thought. I attached my identity so strongly to where I physically lived that when a good job located in my hometown fell into my lap, I suffered a near-constant state of anxiety after accepting the position. Oh and did I mention that the transition from “student” to “worker” caused me panic, doubt and uncertainty? Well, that happened. Just ask my friends and family.

To make matters worse, shortly thereafter, my 2-year relationship painfully fell apart. A person who had become a large part of my life was no longer there, and I had to figure out what that meant and how to move forward. This was just months after I had moved into an intentional community, or cooperative home, built around living a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, eating organic, growing our food and raising hens, eating vegetarian, sharing resources and connecting with the people around me on a deeper level than I had ever connected with previous housemates. At work, I sat in a bland, gray cubicle in a field of bland, gray cubicles. At home, I was taking naked saunas with my household, cooking dinner for my nine housemates each week, fetching eggs from the henhouse in the backyard and growing my repertoire of hula-hoop dance moves. Back at the office, I wore slacks and helped the company grow their bottom line through effective communications.

Along with the heartbreak I was experiencing, this oxymoronic double-life existence was causing me a lot of distress. I constantly felt like a fraud even though, in more ways than one, I actually fit into both lives to some extent at the time. I was successful at what I was doing in my job and started thriving when a manager I looked up to began mentoring me. Meanwhile, at home, I was happy hula hooping on the front lawn, writing poetry, living with a diverse group of people who I was growing to love, learning to blues dance and cook delicious vegetarian meals. I kept my personal life private from most of my co-workers out of fear that they would not take me seriously in the competitive corporate environment we were working in.

Eventually, the time came for me to make the changes my heart had desired for a long time and end the internal battle I was having about where I worked and its misalignment with my values. Ultimately, just like after graduating University, I strongly felt I needed to explore and experience more of the world, and in tandem, more of myself and what I was truly capable of. The death of two friends in the past year had sparked a sense of urgency in me to live life now and not postpone my dreams. Making a big change toward a more courageous and whole life was one way I felt I could honor my dear friends’ lives and their impact on me, so it was time to do something, and soon.

That’s when I bought a one-way ticket to Europe, left my job and moved in with my parents to save for the biggest adventure of my life to date. To say that I experienced fixed-identity crisis during my preparation for the trip would be a dire understatement. I was freaking out. My days were filled with both blissful excitement, and overwhelming anxiety and debilitating fear of the complete unknown I was about to actively dive into. Well, in case you haven’t read the numerous stories on this blog I wrote while on the trip [select ‘Travel‘ in the topics bar], let me just say it was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life and was EXACTLY what I needed, and more.

Three-in-a-half months of backpacking solo through twelve countries and 35 cities later,
I was on a 9-hour flight back to the United States, a changed woman inside and out. I promptly moved to Portland and started working full-time at a start-up, which brings me to today.

As you can tell, that’s a lot of change in a fairly short period of time. And maybe you’re thinking: that’s a lot of identity crisis to go through. And it was, but I’m learning that celebrating being alive now, in every state of mood, in every job, in every relationship, in every moment is really the antidote to fixed-identity crisis.

Today I drove home along the same mundane route I drive every day to and from work, singing at the top of my lungs and fist-pumping to the chorus while stopped at the red light, so I could celebrate being alive right then. Tonight, I’m going to spend my precious hours of free-time after work cleaning my room, cooking dinner and packing my lunch for tomorrow. It isn’t as glamorous as exploring Italy or dancing in Barcelona, but I’m going to do it while listening to music that makes me groove, so I can celebrate being alive right now. Tomorrow I’m going to participate in a strength-training class that kicks my ass every time, and I’m going to savor the deep breaths between sets, so I can celebrate being alive right then.

I guess the goal is this: to greet every changing moment of existence for the gift that it is and let it be. More importantly, to let yourself be. I’m going to avoid clinging to one experience as a definer of who I am, or one perspective of my life as a fact written in concrete. Because life is fluid, and we are too.

Everything changes and the more we embrace that, the more we can remove the mask of fixed-identity and be who we are right now in this moment – the only moment we have.

Life is now.

Life is now.

Let the Wind Run Through You

Tonight I’m writing from an abandoned library on the first floor of my grandmother’s retirement center in Tallahassee, Florida. Although it’s nighttime and I can’t see a thing outside but the dim lights lining a pathway through the grounds, I know the silver Spanish moss is gently swaying in the wind, dangling in ringlets from the broad Live Oaks.  I love the big oak trees here and the way the moss drapes itself across every living branch, like old lace, sophisticated and intricate. I can almost hear the crickets singing and rejoicing in the cool calm of the night. It’s been a good trip to visit family, recall childhood memories from past visits , and to stay in my favorite beach house on beautiful St. George Island. The ocean is the mother of wisdom and I love watching the waves roll in and out with my toes in the warm sand. I’ve had lots of time to reflect during my stay here.

Tonight I’ve been thinking about letting the wind run through you, rather than resisting it. We have grief, we have emotion, we have doubt. And I believe the body and the subconscious mind know how to dangle freely like the moss, letting the pain or the thoughts sway through, if we just let them be. It’s the logical thinking, the resistance to the process, and the shame of emotions that really causes the delay in healing. When we feel the emotion arise and we feel like crying, that’s what we should do. If we can trust our body’s instinct and allow the wind to move through it, then we can release whatever needs releasing. What’s difficult is when we tell ourselves “stop feeling that” — then the gears get mucked up and suddenly our mind is driving, rather than the subconscious, which intuitively works to bring pain to the surface so we can expel it, heal, and grow.

On a walk this afternoon, I watched the moss sway in the wind and dance and twirl, sometimes frantically, if there was a big gust. What I find fascinating about the moss, is that it looks like it’s barely attached, hanging onto the bark by mere fibers, but it doesn’t get torn off in the wind. It’s by surrender and flexibility that it is able to hang on amidst the gusts. We too can benefit from these qualities. If we let go and trust our subconscious to show us the way, be it through grief or depression, or any other difficulty, we can heal quicker and more completely. Resistance only prolongs the pain and weakens our ability to flow. Likewise, attaching to logical thought processes or talking ourselves out of feeling something counteracts our natural process of working things through. Whatever comes up is only trying to be healed. It wants to flow, so you can let go and grow.


This week, try being like the moss:

SURRENDER and TRUST the wind moving through you to keep you alive rather than knock you off the branch. Let your body guide your way to healing by quieting the logical mind, and feel what is asking to be felt.