Saturday, December 6, 2008

Is freedom letting go?

Heath called me last week to tell me he has a new girlfriend, Sabrina. I am thrilled for him. This is what my heart longed for, that he would meet someone he could love and have children with. Sabrina is 32 and has never been married. She's a blond. That is significant because Crista's hair was dark, as were here lovely eyes. And Heath has never been attracted to Blonds. Also significant, I think. This is a new beginning for my son-in-law. And he deserves another chance at happiness.

On another level, this news took me from my manic phase of grief (long coming) and thrust me back into my depressive state. I can't stop crying. Again.

The world seems to be swirling around me in total chaos. Nothing makes sense. I am a lost traveler in this world. And yet, I don't believe that is what I am supposed to be--lost. Heath and Crista and I came together, I believe, as we were supposed to. It's as if we had a celestial agreement. I, to raise my beautiful, complex, complicated daughter, Health to love her through her last journey, she to touch the lives of so many before she left. Heath knows this is true. I know this is true. Crista knows this is true. Now Heath, his job done, is moving on. As should I. But how?

Buddhist monk Pedra Chodron explains this state of loss and confusion thus:

If we are wiling to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.

The Course in Miracles tells us that it is only our ego mind that creates and projects the sadness and despair that accompany illusory events in this world of separation. If I "knew" with certainty that there is no death (as the Course emphasizes), that the son of God is free--if I truly believed that and trusted God and Holy Spirit, if I could shed the false beliefs I have in loss and death, I would begin to see the world differently and every terrifying thing would be transformed into a thing of joy.

Ekhart Tolle says that every time a thought begins with "me" or "I" or "mine," it is the ego speaking. And the ego has an investment in keeping us unhappy, suffering.

The Course says to relinquish false idols.

I can draw no conclusion from these ramblings. Suffice it to say that I have an inkling that I should stand before God and offer him my suffering. So that is what I will do. I will pray that it is lifted from me, and in its place I will find God's pure joy. Because, according to the celestial contract I share with my beloved Crista and my wonderful Heath, I have more to do on this earth before I leave. And God knows that I am willing to do it. I only ask for guidance along the way.

I will close with a note I made the other day in the margin of the Course Workbook.

"When I am willing to stand in the light of God and shed (lose, in human terms) everything, then I will understand that these "things" are not real. I must be willing to let go. It feels like loss. It is really freedom."

Monday, December 1, 2008

Yielding to what is

I recently came across an article posted on It was written by Bryon Katie. Maybe you know of her. She's published extensively on the topic of surrendering to "what is." As I understand it, Katie posits that our personal reality consists of self-made stories played out in an otherwise impersonal universe, which, in turn, creates our own version of hell.

In the article I refer to here, Katie says things that resonate with me and things that do not. For instance, she talks about God and "reality" as being synonymous.

"I call reality 'God,' she says, "because it rules. It is what it is and it is so physical. It's a table, a chair. It's the shoe on your foot. It's your hair.It's so clear, it's solid. It's completely dependable." And here is where it gets tricky. "You don't get a vote in what it does, and it doesn't wait for your opinion or your permission. You can trust it completely."

While this is a Zen-like position to take, I find it somehow lacking and alien to my belief that God is an infinite abstract power, a force of pure love. And out of that love, he created all living things (including those shoes and chairs). We think we have strayed from this love. We believe we are guilty. And because we believe we are guilty, because we believe we are separate, we project onto the world the terror we carry inside. As we begin to recognize and accept the unity of all life, we will begin to see that we are all a part of God. He is not the trees out there. We are not separate puppets. We are one.

That said, let's look at what else Katie has to say because some of it makes sense to me. "The past is the past," she says. "It happened, and you can't do a thing about it. So why, she wonders, create a heap of anguish about what you cannot change. Accept it and ask yourself, "Where can I go from here." According to Katie, anything else is insanity.

"If my child has died, that's the way of it," she writes. Any argument with that, such as lamenting -- 'She died too soon.' 'I didn't get to see her grow up.'-- brings on internal hell. "This is crazy," she says. "Her death is a reality." And no amount of arguing can change that. "Punishing yourself can't change it, your will has no power at all."

At this point in my reading I wanted to scream, "Hey, lady. Do you have any idea what you are talking about? Have you lost a child!!" The only thing crazy here is that this woman thinks she can speak to an issue she can't begin to understand. That's not a judgment on my part. It's true. Unless you have lost a child, honey, you ain't got a clue. Am I right?

After several readings,however, I started to see the truth of what she was presenting. Punishing myself can't change the fact that my only child is no longer present, that she died a horrible, painful death. That apparently happened (although A Course in Miracles tells us unequivocally that "There is no death. The son of God is free."

What I can do, says Katie, is to turn self-punishing thoughts around and find three earnest reasons why Crista's death is equal to her not dying -- three reasons why her death may be better for her and for me in the long run. What a radical idea. Better for her? Better for me? That's matriarchal sacrilege. Isn't it?

Then I remembered the last birthday card my beloved Crista gave to me. It was May 3. She was very sick at this point (she died on May 25). Her handwriting, once a graceful flourish, was small and shaky--the hand of a child. It read:

Mom, Someone must have known we should walk this journey together. There's no one I'd rather walk it with..

With that memory came the "knowing that passeth understanding," that Crista left this earthly performance exactly when she was supposed to go. I believe this is true, although that doesn't mean for a nanosecond that the understanding of it lightens the sadness I carry in my heart. I miss my girl. But I am now able to grasp her leaving, sure that her exit is part of a greater plan for all living things.I don't know what that plan is. I just know there is one.

I believe, as does Katie, that our perception creates our world. I also believe that as we open ourselves up to the power of God, our perception of this world will change and we will begin to see what God sees, joy and grace and love beyond the wildest imagination. Katie calls it, a mind surrendering to itself. "When [the mind] is not at war with itself," she says, "it experiences a world that is completely kind."

So maybe, as grieving parents, we can begin to see things differently. Maybe we can gather the courage to ask ourselves that oh-so radical question: Why is the death of my child equal to or better than her not dying? And maybe, just maybe, as we begin to understand God's infinitely wondrous plan for his entire sonship (all living things), the response we get will quiet our fears and quicken our hearts.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Universal Motherhood

I seem to be going through great changes at the moment, and like with all changes, I can't quite describe what is going on. So I think I won't write this morning. Instead, I've decided to post an essay I wrote shortly after Crista died.

Universal Motherhood
By Jo Chandler

When my beloved Crista died from cancer last year, I was thrust into a society of moms I didn't know existed. But there it was. The grief of every woman who has ever lost a child came crashing in on me that day.
And here it stays.
My entrĂ©e into this exclusive mommy’s club has given me insights I didn’t ask for. I know, for example, the anguish Terri Schiavo’s mother must have felt when she was forced to stand by, helpless, as a stranger stopped the nourishment that kept a semblance of her daughter connected to her. I get that her anger and determination had nothing to do with the ethics or morality hotly debated across the nation during her ordeal. Her despair was about losing her girl, her baby—the same despair I felt as I watched my vibrant Crista disappear by degrees. Crista was in pain. It was time for her to go. Still, I unreasonably and deeply longed to keep her with me. If only I could rub her feet and touch her face for one more day, one more hour.
When I look back on Cindy Sheehan’s demonstrations outside President Bush’s Texas ranch, I realize the protests had little to do with the politics of war. This woman was outraged at her impotence to protect her son from the forces of violent death, much as I was unable to save Crista from the ravages of cancer. Sheehan was determined not to let the world forget that hers was a mother’s beloved son. I feel that same determination every time I interject Crista’s name into a conversation with friends or tell a funny story about her too-short life.
And on the nightly news, when mothers in Iraq or Afghanistan (you can name the country, really) are seen wailing in the streets over the bodies of their dead children, I see more than images on a screen. I see myself. I hear myself. I feel myself. I’m just like those women because inside a part of me is always weeping.
These moms, sorority sisters of sorts, have been asked to bear the unbearable, accept the unacceptable and continue to function in a world that no longer makes sense.
Early on, my grief counselor assured me that in time I would heal, although I would never forget. The first year, she said, would be the hardest. The second wouldn’t be much better. Eventually, I would recognize the gifts that come from experiencing the worst thing that can happen. I remember staring at her in disbelief.
One of the first things that happens after a child’s funeral is a reorganization of relationships. Friends and family members divide themselves into two camps—those who are empathetic to your loss and those who don’t seem to have a clue. The latter group is prone to say things like, “Do you think you’re focusing too much on Crista’s death?” Or after a few months, “You mean you aren’t getting better yet?” My personal favorite is, “You don’t need counseling. You need to get out of yourself and help somebody else.”
Trust me, if we could we would.
Least helpful of all is when others compare our loss with the deaths of, say, their fathers, or with their divorces. My father and mother are gone. I went through a painful divorce. There is no comparison.
On the other hand, there are those people whose hearts ache for us, but who don’t know how to help. I can’t speak for all of my sisters in grief but I can recount kindnesses that have touched me and made my journey a little less lonely. One friend said that every time we get together, she would like to hear a story about Crista, and that keeps my daughter alive. Another bought me a lovely book. Still another who is uncomfortable talking to me about my daughter’s death (is she so afraid of losing her own son?) sends me cards at random intervals to let me know she hasn’t forgotten us. My brother calls just to say hello and that he’s thinking of me and loves me. So do my nieces. When I cry, my husband stops whatever he’s doing and sits with me. Amazing. My best friend Betty makes me laugh, listens when I need to talk and whisks me off on weekend shopping trips to Sonoma. And my stepchildren never forget their stepsister and never hesitate to let me know they love and miss her. These things matter and I cling to them, even now—especially now. Because the most frightening thing for bereaving mothers over time is that our children will be forgotten. Every thoughtful gesture—every phone call, every email, every mention of our kids’ names—keeps them present and alive. Nothing is more important.
As for gifts. Well, as incongruous as it may seem, blessings have come out of my loss. Not the least of these gifts is the generosity of the mothers I have met who share their journeys through the valley of grief back into the world of everyday life. They have shown me how to survive by their own courageous example. They have taught me how to smile again, even through my tears. They honor my grief. The bonds we forge can never be broken.
This isn’t a society of women I would have chosen to join. In fact, I would have run the other way. But, like it or not, I am one of them now. I am a universal mother. And I am honored to share their burdens as many have shared mine.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

All kinds of grief

Everybody grieves differently.

That's the first thing they tell you after your child dies. I know one woman whose son died the same time as Crista (a year and a half ago) who still tears up, who still misses her son but who admits that most of the time she is okay. Another mother has been living this nightmare for two years, and she still takes Valium and Prozac just to get by. She also attends counseling and depression classes.

Me? I feel as if something has been ripped from my heart, leaving a huge crevasse of black in the space where my future should be.

Sometimes when I actually realize that Crista is no longer on this planet, I gasp with can only be called horror. Then I plunge into that darkness.

I woke up this morning thinking about how detached I was from death and grief before Crista left. I was thinking about my stepdaughter's friend. His name was Nick, and she was crazy about him. They were extremely close. Nick died in a climbing accident. Kristi was devastated. She still gets sad when she thinks about it, and it's been almost a decade. What struck me about my memory was how insensitive I was to Kristi's grief. I mean, I cared. My heart ached for her. But I had no idea how deeply bereft she felt. Now I know.

My niece Debbie's husband was killed on a motorcycle accident a few years back. I attended the funeral. I cried for Debbie. But until my own experience, I had no idea what she was going through, still is. On Thanksgiving eve, she and I talked for a long while about the fickle path our sorrow moves. For the first time since Steve's death, I understood the depth of her loss. I can't believe it took me so long.

When someone you love dies, counselors tell you you will eventually become strong and confident. They tell you there will be gifts. That's just wrong. But it's true. I'm beginning to see that the empathy I feel for these beautiful young women, whom I love enormously, is a gift, albeit a strange one.

At this stage, I suppose that has to be enough.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Today is a good day, which is amazing since less than a week ago I thought I would die--actually, I hoped I would die. But I didn't. And today is a good day.

To understand how amazing that statement is, you have to understand my relationship with Crista, my only child. I'll keep it brief.

Crista was not an easy kid, not an easy baby, not an easy teenager and sometimes not an easy adult. She was bright and beautiful and complex. During her teen years, long after my divorce from her father and his subsequent death from alcoholism, she "acted out." I understood the need for her to pull away from me. We we almost symbiotic. By age 15, she had transformed from a geeky brain child to a truly and amazingly beautiful teen. It was a transformation with which she was determined to take full advantage! She drank too much, slipped out of her window at night to meet her boyfriend and pretty much did as she pleased. I pleaded, reasoned, raged. But nothing I did made any difference. She was the center of attention (boys) and she was going to do as she pleased. Until I joined Tough Love.

If there was one thing Crista knew, it was that I loved her, adored her, was devoted to her. I think it was that love that allowed her to run wild, assured I would always be there waiting.

Her Tough Love parents and I did an intervention. Part of the plan was that Crista would live with her TL parents for awhile until we could sort things out. I told her she could come home with me right away if she would agree to live by the rules. Her answer was emphatic. "No." So I said, "Okay, Crista, I'll go home and get your clothes."

She said, "I'll go with you."
I replied, "No, Crista. I don't want you."

Where that came from, I have no clue. I only know that my gorgeous girl looked at me in disbelief. Her huge brown eyes filled with tears. And I left. When I returned, she said, "Mom. I want to come home." I said she could, but she had to follow the rules.

Just like that, it was over. My girl was home with me. She was safe. And her wild days were over. We had dodged a bullit. Never again, would we go through such tramatic times. And nothing, simply nothing, could hurt me so deeply in the future. We had made it. We were home free.

I was not prepared for came next.

I got the phone call on a Tuesday, I believe. I was living in the foothills with Crista's stepdad, Bud. She was teaching eighth grade English in Elk Grove, CA and living in Sacramento.

"Mom, I have pancreatic cancer. The doctor says I have six months to live."

I have to stop now.

All of a sudden my day isn't so good anymore. I'll write more later. Maybe tomorrow. I have so much to tell you. So much to figure out. I hope you don't mind sharing my journey through this thing called grief. I'm so glad you are there.