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Panning for Gold


Recently, I've been on the grief circuit. I had the privilege to speak at Cleveland Clinic's bereavement ceremony and for the 2nd time at their Survivor Day. I've watched the Sugar Bloom program grow, and I continue to hear from recipients about the joy the blooms bring. I'm beginning to believe that the work we are doing is important and it's not just an outlet for my overwhelming grief. 



But… 


Today, I find myself sad and exhausted. I told my girlfriend I'm tired of panning for gold amidst all the heartbreak. Actually, in a moment of frustration, I was a bit more crass and told her I'm so tired of looking for gold in the shit. It's exhausting looking for silver linings when life hands you a hurricane. 


I lost my friend Tim on January 3rd of this year. His death was unexpected and shocking.  In a cruel twist of fate, the timing coincided exactly with the news of my mom's last days two years prior. In a devastating blow, the universe took away the person who had primarily stepped in to ease the void my mother left. The emotions of grief remain largely inaccessible to me. The sadness and tears are fleeting and elusive. What is constant is the oppressive heaviness that weighs down my body and spirit, the existential dread, the anger that bowls me over and leaves those around me stunned. 


The news of needing a new septic tank unhinged me, not because of the cost and the mess, but because they would need to dig up Tim's garden. In my backyard, he was everywhere, and now they wanted to dismantle him, dig him out, and leave in his place a pile of rubble. I stalled and looked for every possible alternative to the one they were proposing. When none could be found, I dug up the plants, transplanting them with such fervent hope that if I could keep them alive, I could keep him alive. They came this week to replace the tank; they excavated my backyard, and I left unable to watch. 


If I rewind a few days, I find myself in Georgia at my grandmother's funeral. Less than a year since we all gathered to celebrate her 90th. A few days after her 90th birthday, my cousin, Julie, tragically died, leaving behind her husband and three children. I hugged her motherless children and talked about the grief rage with her lovely, heartbroken husband. I watched my newly minted motherless father and aunt as they navigated condolence callers. I drank coffee and tequila with my brother, and we did our best to be empathetic, but if we are honest, we raged against the injustice that our mom did not see 65. 


And today…


I find myself heartbroken all over again with the news that my boss and mentor transitioned yesterday. It was not entirely unexpected, but it was still shocking. My girlfriend came over and cried on my couch, and I watched her dry-eyed, frustratingly unable to access the softer side of grief.  Where others go to tears, I go to granite. Hard, immovable, inaccessible. 


As she cried, she asked, "Was it worth it to feel this bad? Why do we keep putting ourselves out there if, in the end, there will only be pain?"


I thought back to when I first met Steve, new to town. He and his wife, Christi, hired me to market their business and teach Pilates. They quickly became mentors, friends, and therapists, part of the fabric of my everyday life. I say they because they were such a team, inextricably linked in my mind forever as a unit, each playing to their strengths. Christi was calm, cool, collected, and perfectly poised, and Steve was passionate, a dreamer who wore his heart on his sleeve. They were such a guiding light in our family's life, encouraging us, believing in us, and drinking margaritas in solidarity the day we had to let our first employee go. Would I be better had I never met them? Would it be better not to feel his unbearable loss and know the path of heartbreak his family now walks? 


No, I couldn't imagine my life without Steve in it. Knowing him was worth losing him. But, like I said, I am so tired of panning for gold amidst the devastation of loss. I am tired of being handed rough-hewn wool and asked to spin it to gold. I am tired of the suffering and hints of hope I see on cancer survivors' faces. Today, there is no silver lining in the hurricane. 


Except….


Sometimes, the universe serves up gold for you on a silver platter. When you can't look any longer, it says sit and be still. I will give you what you need.


When I opened my e-mail, I found a note from a Sugar Bloom recipient. She said, "Your family's way of remembering your mom, Sugar, is such a beautiful gesture of LOVE. Sugar lives in our house. She is alive, flourishing, healthy, and beautiful."


And there it was—the words to my personal redemption song, except I'll replace she with they—see, pronouns do matter :). They live. They are alive, flourishing, healthy, and beautiful. My friends Timmy and Steve, my cousin and grandmother, my mother—they all live in our love.


I have been so frustrated that there is nothing I can do to ease anyone's suffering, including my own, except send love. Love just doesn't feel like enough. Then I read the e-mail—a stranger reaching out with love —, and it was enough—enough to tap into the granite-filled void and chisel out a rudimentary path to access the wellspring of sorrow and love that lives in us all.


I haven't posted in a while because it's just felt so heavy, so today, I'm sharing a soul dump. I'm including one of the two speeches I've given at Cleveland Clinic. I'll save the other and the writings for Tim and my grandmother for another day. Thank you for indulging my musings and helping me heal through writing.



Bereavement Speech


I was invited to talk about creating a legacy through loss, but before I do that, I wanted to share a story with you that I recently came across regarding loss and grief. This story helped me understand what is happening to us as we grieve in society and why it's so hard to grieve publicly and within the community.


This story comes from an ancient Jewish text and describes a pilgrimage to the temple. As people entered the courtyard, they turned to the right and circled the enormous courtyard counterclockwise. Most of the pilgrims were circling clockwise, but another group of pilgrims entered and turned left. 


They would walk against the enormous current of humanity circling to the right. These individuals were suffering, and to signify their loss to the community at large, they would walk against the grain. 


The pilgrims circling to the right were responsible for stopping when they encountered one of these souls and saying simply, "What happened to you."


 And in my case, I would reply, I lost my mother, and it hurts so much sometimes I have trouble breathing. I miss her with a ferocity that breaks my heart over and over. I am shocked to find myself walking and putting one foot in front of the other. 


The pilgrim would then say to me, "May god comfort you, and may you be wrapped in the embrace of this community."


Living with grief feels like you are swimming upstream. It's hard being in the world. Reverend Stafford says the world was made - gorgeous, tender, broken, dangerous, and we know not why. 


I am so intimately acquainted with grief, yet I feel like I don't know it. I still don't know what to say to someone when loss is looming in their life.


 I fumble and struggle and know this experience, yet I have no words of comfort for it. 


The answer is that there aren't any. 


We can offer ourselves when we can't find the words. We can show up and acknowledge that grief is a communal activity and that we are all on a journey together. Sometimes, we are circling clockwise, and at other times, we are walking counterclockwise. 


Our job on this journey is to have grace with and for ourselves when we are walking against the current and to extend grace and compassion to our fellow travelers by stopping and saying what happened to you. Then really listening and saying, "I see you."


In creating a legacy, we create a community. We bring those of us who are grieving together and perform acts of service. We find one another in our pain, and it's that finding that brings us Joy.    


I created the Sugar Bloom foundation to connect to the rawness that is a cancer diagnosis. 


I often felt so alone, so unseen. I felt like I was suffering in silence. As the caregiver, you often are. 


When your loved one transcends, you are left on earth holding the pain, the loneliness, the resentment, and the anger.


 A few days after my mom passed, I was shopping in Fresh Market, and I spied across the store one of the workers that I had befriended because she had the same triple negative breast cancer diagnosis as my mom. We traded stories, tips, and prayers for years. Every time I saw her, I hugged her, but I couldn't bear to speak to her on this day. I was overwhelmed with anger and resentment. I thought, why does she get to live and my mom does not? I slipped out of the store without saying hi, shaking and ashamed, and then I thought: is this who I want to be? 


Do I want to walk down this path of anger and pettiness, or can I do better? I knew I had to do something to metabolize this anger in my body. It took a few weeks, and I woke up on the morning of the one-month anniversary of my mom's death, and I no longer felt angry; I felt like I couldn't breathe. 


I felt such deep sadness and anxiety, and I realized that I had felt these feelings before. It was the feeling I had when sitting in the waiting room waiting for news on my mom's health. I realized at that moment there were thousands of people sitting in waiting rooms, likely feeling those same feelings. 


So, I bought an orchid, wrote a note, and asked my mom's oncologist to give it to someone who needed extra help that week. Every month on the 23rd, I would show up in the oncology office with an orchid and a note. We started calling this gesture a Sugar Bloom. Sugar Blooms began as something I did to ease my suffering, and over time, they've grown into a Foundation.


I created Sugar Blooms because I felt the void in our healthcare system. I felt unseen, unnoticed, and unheard. I looked around and saw others feeling it, too. After spending countless hours in waiting rooms, I saw how hungry we all were for a kind word or gesture from our healthcare teams. On good days, we needed someone to cheer us on, and on bad days, we needed someone to cry with.


 

My hope for the Sugar Bloom program is that it embodies that ancient tradition of noticing those walking on a different path and saying to them I'm sorry for what is happening to you; I see you, and I want to embrace you into our community. 


I love that The team here at Scully Welsh resonated with my mission and asked if they could give Sugar Blooms to their patients. The kindness and love this team of healthcare providers shows to those they care for is beautiful I hope more hospitals follow their lead and acknowledge their patients' emotional needs.


Grief looks and feels different for us all, and by sharing my story, I do not want to pressure anyone to go out and create a foundation. What I would encourage you to do is acknowledge your grief, be kind to yourself, and let the anger and sadness move through you. 


Know that putting one foot in front of the other and walking against the current honors your loved one. Some days, just walking through the world is all we can do, and it is enough. Walking forward pays tribute to the great void that their loss created. 


A legacy can be telling stories of your loved one, doing their favorite activities, or anything that pays tribute to loss and brings bittersweet joy. 


I recently lost my very close friend, Tim. As he was dying, I asked him how I would find him after he transitioned. He said he would be a diamond. At his memorial, we wore gaudy tiaras and diamond rings. We celebrated his legacy of bright, shiny, exuberant energy even as we felt dark and broken. Every time I see something sparkle, I remember him.


My grief has been more intense lately with the passing of my beautiful friend Tim. The loss has been hard, and even though grief is my constant companion, I was surprised at the intensity of fresh loss.


When creating a legacy through loss, the gift for us all is to be gentle with ourselves and others, find compassion amidst the anger, and acknowledge our fellow travelers circling against the current.


Mother Teresa wrote that the problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small. Let's let our legacy widen the circle and hold each other as we navigate this gorgeous, tender, broken, and dangerous world.



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