My doctoral training is in counseling psychology, but I left that field years ago to go into publishing. My counseling training has been very helpful to me in my life – but I never expected that one day this education would help me face and deal with the tragic loss of my 21 year-old son. Adam and I had a strong spiritual connection that transcended the emotions and intellect. For the last 3 years of his life, he and I worked together at a spiritual retreat center and for a small publishing company. Our relationship was harmonious and pleasant, and had a quiet, spiritual depth to it. But I'm just now discovering how connected we were. I miss him very much, but also I am simultaneously aware of his continuing spiritual existence.
Adam is gone, yet Adam is not gone. His body is gone, but his spirit lives on. He is everywhere. He is in the trees, the sunshine, the very air itself. It snowed here on Adam's birthday this year (the first birthday we experienced without him with us). As I stood in the swirling flurry of soft, powdery flakes and crisp mountain air, I felt Adam surrounding me with a blanket of love and warm smiles. His presence was as palpable and as real as anything I've ever felt. I could almost hear him say, “Look, Mom – it's me! In the snow! In the air! In the sunlight!”
Soul is eternal and does not die. The body lives, the body dies, and the body goes from dust to dust. These sound like simple concepts, and we've heard them hundreds of times. I knew these things before. Yet, holding the ashes of my son's cremated body in my fingers brought a new level of understanding to the ephemeral nature of life.
I terribly miss Adam the young man, my son, my co-worker, my friend.... I grieve greatly his loss and continue to work through the agony known to those who have lost a very dear child. When I look at the pictures of him in his last few days of life, I don't see just a 21-year old man. I see a spirit that transcends this ephemeral life. I see a soul that lives way beyond the confines of the material world and soars in the glorious Light of God. I also see a being who recently spanned a short 21 years on earth. I see a shining, smiling baby with intense blue eyes and an unearthly awareness. A bouncy toddler hugging my legs and telling me that when he grew up he would do all my work for me. A young boy sweetly teaching his sister about the life cycles of the plants and animals and encouraging her to meditate more. A bright-faced youngster excited about flying to the stars and exploring the universe. A serious teenager who knew that meditation on God was the only way to heal the world. A 21 year-old young man who seemed much older than his 21 years, who seemed to be finding a happy new balance in his life and was preparing for a big change to come...
And I also see the empty body he left behind, which after two days in the river was still handsome and shining like an angel, with his face filled with peace, love, and light, as if he was enjoying a special meditation in the sunshine.
How can we grasp the duality of our eternal and ephemeral nature? How can we integrate the knowledge that a dear one is gone, yet they still live on in another form? And how can we say good-bye to someone who was such an integral part of our life? How can we let go of someone as deep, as bright, and as alive as Adam was? These things are almost too big for the little mind to embrace.
Again, the duality... It is a good-bye, and it is not a good-bye. Although Adam's life of fleeting moments on this earth-plane is now over, ultimately we are all joined together in the place beyond time, where we are all one, and where there are no more good-byes.
Yet for now, we live in both places, the place of ephemeral body and the place of eternal spirit.
My spiritual path has helped me to accept what has happened and to move through it in ways that I would never have expected. I've learned so much about myself. And about life...
I've learned that, even with the death of someone so close, there are incredible spiritual gifts one gains from the process. One is enriched by facing and walking through a tragedy like this. I've learned that life is indeed a series of fleeting moments, and we are to treasure each one. I've learned that it's good to laugh, cry, sing, dance, and love each moment, being in the moment, sharing it with whoever is there... I've learned how important it is to cherish every person who touches your life, both near and far. How essential it is to love God, love family and friends, and even love our enemies. All are given to us for a divine reason. I've always known that we are here to find that there is more to life than what appears on the surface, but experiencing the death of my son has made me go even more deeply into what this existence is all about. To examine my own fears, attachments, and dramas. To sort out what’s really important, and what doesn't merit much attention anymore.
One month after Adam's death, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 occurred. I was interviewed on a national radio show soon after that, to share my thoughts about tragic death and the grieving process. I shared my personal experiences about my son's death, and also shared some things I've learned about dealing with loss of a loved one. Here are some things that have helped others and me.
1. Attend to the spiritual and existential questions that death presents to us. Death awakens and challenges our spiritual beliefs and knowledge. Sometimes we never even think of death, until it touches us closely. If we have already been attending to our spiritual life, then the process of dealing with death can be easier. Grieving and dealing with death is a good time to assess one's spiritual life, and to begin to attend to it. Write some thoughts about your spiritual life, where you are, where you feel you are going, where you want to go. Has grieving someone's death changed your beliefs about life and what it means? Has it brought to the forefront certain convictions about life's meaning, and made them stronger? Has their death changed your life in some significant way?
2. Consider that life is a spiritual journey, and that there are many lessons along the way. Dealing with death is one of the biggest teachers we have in life. Although dealing with the death of a dearly loved one is horribly painful, it is also an opportunity to grow spiritually. Give some thought as to how death and grieving have changed you and are changing you. Perhaps write about this or talk with a friend or family member about it.
3. Know that grieving is a process that takes time and goes through stages. The stages (identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross) are denial or disbelief, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Write about how you have experienced some or all of these, following the death of your loved one. Which one do you feel the most now? It is ok to accept these feelings as part of the process. Know that they are the natural responses to death.
4. Grieving takes time. It can take 1 – 2 years or even longer, until one is through the process. Each individual makes their way through this in their own way and their own time. Such a loss can be a very deep wound. Give yourself time and room to grieve. Know that grieving has a beginning and an ending. You will not be in terrible pain forever. The pain will change in time, and be replaced by other feelings. You will never forget the loved one, and you may always miss them. But the sting of the pain will soften greatly over time.
5. Communicating one's feelings is helpful to many people, although in certain stages, one doesn't want to talk or write about it. And for some people, communication is not comforting. But many do find comfort in sharing or expressing their experiences. This can be done by talking, writing letters, keeping a journal, writing poetry, or some other creative activity. It can be helpful to share these with someone who can accept without judgment what one is going through. It was helpful for me to write down many of the stories of Adam's childhood and share them with friends and family. I've been incredibly blessed to have many friends just sit and listen to me talk for hours about Adam, his life, and his death. To grieve with me, to hold me in their arms, and to let my tears fall on their shoulders – time and time again.
6. One may want to consult a counselor or psychologist, or rabbi, priest or minister – or even just a very good friend – who can help one with the grieving process. Ideally the person should have training and experience with dealing with the many issues that can arise – and be understanding and receptive to your grief.
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