What’s This About Besides Suffering?

blog 27 treasure chestAjaan Lee, Thai Buddhist meditation master, said that “Aging, illness, and death are treasures for those who understand them.” Perhaps all loss offers buried treasure when we open ourselves to it. When I’m really hurting I try not to ask, “Why me?” but “What is this about besides suffering?” This acknowledges my trust that the creative force is benign and loving, that loss is not about punishment.

I recall sobbing in a restaurant, unable to eat, as my first marriage collapsed to the ground. I remember thinking, This is what doctors prescribe tranquilizers (now anti-depressants) for, but I need to feel this pain. Giving myself that permission was the beginning of my post-divorce healing, releasing not just sadness, but anger and bitterness and disappointment.

Illness and death and its threat offer different opportunities. A woman, washed away in Katrina’s tidal wave, barely survives. Her damaged lungs keep her bedridden for months. While she heals she mourns the loss of her home and all her belongings. Over time she comes to realize the wonder of the simple fact that she still has her breath; the belongings are insignificant.blog 27 big wave

My friend Scott died three years ago, my friend Anne before that, and Jesse before that. The mirror reveals that the vertical creases running down each of my cheeks are multiplying. When a van deliberately crashes into a crowd on Barcelona’s tourist street, Las Ramblas, soon after I walked there with my family, I cannot shake the vision of my beloveds’ bodies flying and fleeing. As Carlos Casteneda said, death stands at my left shoulder. I regularly hear it clearing its throat to remind me of impermanence.

It was just under a year between my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and her death. During her final downward slide miracles occurred—a conversation that broke the chokehold of her alcoholism, a spontaneous ritual in which my parents’ love for one another was made manifest, and a day on which my father and I told each other, “I love you,” for the first time in my adult life.

Some people hope to die in their sleep or by heart attack. I understand this desire not to suffer, but sudden death robs us of the heightened urgency that occurs between a terminal diagnosis and death itself. This stage often brings healing to life’s deepest wounds. That final, difficult year of my mother’s life was her great gift—a sacrifice too great to expect or to ask for. It’s not that I hope for a long illness to precede my eventual death but, because I know its blessings firsthand, I don’t dread it either.

In 2001, I was so impacted by chemical sensitivities, I was pretty much under “house arrest.” I could not think clearly on a computer or near photocopies, so I could not even work at home. After I lost my job, I retired early. I played Scrabble with myself to re-build lost brain cells. I carefully sewed something elaborate and made it five feet square instead of the intended five by seven, a perfect demonstration of those damaged brain cells.

Seventeen years later, though I still must avoid certain chemical exposures, I have regained my life. I have gained an enormous appreciation for my body, for each breath, for each thing I can do. If I drag for a day, this does not compare with those former days and I know that even if something else were to restrict me, I would survive that too. After all, there’s always Scrabble.

Staying present with my daughter’s death by suicide has been my life’s biggest challenge. I had two anchors—my mantra practice and those I loved who loved me and loved her, yet despair and grief were my bedpartners. They blackened my sky and I was convinced joy would never visit again. To my surprise one Sunday morning a few months after her death, I awoke feeling happy. My husband and I lay in bed talking. I had forgotten how sweet laughter felt. We decided to go for brunch at Graham’s Grill, which had (before it bellied up) the best huevos rancheros this side of Oaxaca, Mexico. I felt blissful as I showered and dressed.

Backing out of the carport, the brakes made a funny squeal. “We should get those checked,” my husband commented idly. My fragile happiness plummeted. The despair returned full bore. The brakes would fail. The expense would be astronomical. The car would be a total loss. My daughter would always be dead.

The day plodded drearily on. Those wonderful huevos rancheros tasted quite ordinary. Nevertheless, now I held a gem in my pocket. I knew I had not lost the art of happiness, even if when it would return was shrouded in mystery.

Seven years later, though still moody (nothing new there), I am content with my life, my health, my age, sometimes happy, sometimes joy-filled, often grateful. And I own the knowledge that if joy could return after my daughter’s death, joy will always return.

I also own the treasure of being much more present with those I love. When I hug my husband as he heads out the door, I’m more often consciously appreciative of our love and partnership. I’m more aware of the need to Be Here Now (as Ram Dass said), because this moment could be all we have. This awareness of the “dreadful” possibilities inherent in the future is not depressing; instead it deepens my capacity to be alive in love right now.

blog 27 jewelsThese are the treasures I have gleaned. They cannot be given to another as comfort or reassurance. They aren’t greeting card homilies. We have to earn them ourselves as we invite whatever gifts loss offers us. Everyone I know who has moved beyond tragedy into a richer life has sought this gold and found it.

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Let’s Hear it for the Home Team!

The seed for the trip was our college student granddaughter’s reply to my casual question, “Where would you go if you could go anyplace in the world?” Her response was immediate. “Valencia, Spain—for its aquarium.”

A plan grew from this seed. She and I and her grandpa would travel to Spain in two years to celebrate her graduation, but a lot can happen in two years. Love and a cross-country move intervened. At graduation, she had a six-month-old baby and a brand-new job. We delayed the trip another year.

More happened. One by one, for reasons as varied as PhD research and a favorite soccer team, the trip expanded to include seven family members of four generations and to align with our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. A special offer bumped our frequent flyer miles up by 80,000. This adventure seemed particularly blessed.

Part of the Family

The missing person would be our granddaughter’s mom, my daughter Randi. In our after-death communication she had told me one of the reasons for our continued contact was family-line healing. I have prayed for years—to no obvious avail—to break the chain of suffering in my female family-line, which is full of trauma, debilitating illness, addiction, depression, and—six years ago—Randi’s death by suicide. I liked the idea that Randi was working with me on this healing, though I was unaware of us doing anything concrete together. My mother, who died in 1984, began regularly joining my daughter’s visitations.

I wondered why everyone wanted to go to Spain, why all the pieces fell into place so well. Neither financing nor organizing this trip for people coming from four states was simple. Yet we did it and each person enhanced the trip in special ways. The first arrival, my stepson, had food prepared when we stepped—exhausted—into our Valencia Airbnb. No salad has ever tasted better. The strong ones hoisted suitcases and the stroller. The bilingual ones translated.

The Family Ambassador

Our 18-month-old “ambassador” hugged every child in sight, climbed into women’s laps, garnered herself and her mom an invitation to Italy. (Apologies for the blurriness of my hurried attempt to capture one of these sweet moments.) The entire family helped us to renew our wedding vows and to celebrate with paella and cava, the local champagne.

Back home the flavor of the trip’s enchantment ripened slowly like a peach on a windowsill. I pondered the happy tears we had each shed. Whether at first sight of Sagrada Familia, or at our vow renewal, or on the feel of a 500-year-old book in the University of Barcelona’s archive, or on viewing the holy chalice in the Valencia Cathedral, or on lighting candles for dead beloveds, we each one, male and female, old and young, once or several times, had cried tears of joy. It was our twenty-year-old grandson who first marveled, “Spain makes our family cry!” Why was this so?

Now shifts are occurring. Career decisions have solidified. Health issues are resolving. Lightness can be heard in our voices. I have a quiet inner certainty that this trip has somehow brought about a new family pattern.

I wondered why and how, until I thought of the ancient ways. The shamans, the indigenous peoples call on their dead beloveds for help; they team up with the dead to strengthen their intentions. Why should it surprise me that collaborating across the veil would have such an effect on our family? If our trip to Spain was the catalyst for this shift, was the shared intention with my daughter and my mother (my “home team”) the force behind it? This appears to be yet another example of the powerful possibilities that can result from after-death communication.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Pre-order on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Find out more on my Book Page.

Three Reasons Why After-Death Communication Matters

We humans crave meaning in our lives. Contact with our dead beloveds can fulfill that desire in several manners. The most obvious way is that it relieves grief, but this is not its sole purpose. What I’ve found through my personal experience and research and interviews is that besides offering the bereaved comfort and hope, after-death contact can reduce fear of our own deaths and demonstrate that consciousness continues beyond the grave.

Hearing my daughter’s voice a few weeks after her suicide instantly released the hundred pound sack of worry for her that hung from my heart. She didn’t have to tell me she was okay. The very sound of her voice let me know she was all right.

Me and My Family at Park Guell in Barcelona

During the three fabulous weeks I just spent in Spain with my family I saw how often my great-granddaughter cried like she’d lost her forever when her mom left the room. She’s the one in the stroller in the photo taken at Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona.

This is exactly how we react when beloveds die, convinced we will never see them again. Our bodies ache, our hearts break, our minds dull. If we hear or see or feel their presence again, this process is not halted. But if we have some contact through the veil, the edges of our grief can be muted and softened once we grasp that on a non-material basis this person is still available to us.

This realization helps us to deal with a profound mystery: what will happen to us when we die? Most of us range along a continuum from nervous to terrified about that question. Do we simply fall into an abyss of nothingness? Is there a heaven or a hell? Are we worried that our flaws and mistakes will be judged? Will we be “sent” to that heaven or that hell?

Despite all the words of praise spoken in eulogies, our dead beloveds are most likely as imperfect as we are. When they return to tell us they’re okay, sometimes surrounded by a light so transcendent earthly words are inadequate to describe it, it helps us to understand that death is neither an empty abyss nor some horrific place to be feared.

Once we open ourselves to the possibility of death as a continuation, as another kind of existence, we are brought face to face with another large question: Who am I? Because we are so bound to our bodies, we are challenged to understand that we are more than physical beings.

I like to use the word consciousness to describe our essential nature, that part of us that does not die, that cannot die, that existed before birth and will exist after death, that part of us that does not require a physical body in order to be. You may be more comfortable using other words like soul or spirit to describe that essence.

Because I have seen these results manifest so profoundly in those who have had contact with dead beloveds, I view these moments as packed with possibilities. Whether we experience a single instance or, as I have, innumerable contacts, if we are willing to examine and explore the deeper meaning that underlies these experiences, we open ourselves to the mystical realms.

This can add a dimension of satisfaction and joy and relief from anxiety that frees us up to live life more fully. In these three ways—grief relief, less fear of death, and awareness of our essential nature—after-death communication can evolve into one of life’s great gifts.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Pre-order on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Find out more on my Book Page.

Can We Say the Right Thing?

Someone has died. Perhaps the hardest words to get right are the ones that must be said or written to their beloveds. In fact, we can never get these words right, because they won’t make the pain go away.

After my daughter’s death, going to the grocery store was no easier than standing naked on a pedestal on the plaza would have been. The eyes of strangers drew blood. I was hyper-aware of everyone and it seemed that most everyone—if they already knew—was hyper-aware of me. Mothers, especially, zipped around corners out of sight too often to be coincidental, as if my daughter’s death were contagious.

© creativecommonsstockphotos / Dreamstime Stock Photos

No one knew what to say, least of all me. The first few times I was asked, “Annie, how are you?” and blurted out that my daughter had taken her own life, it was as if I had punched the person in the belly. I learned to soften my words—“She was depressed. She became suicidal.” I watched people guess what I was about to say and prepare themselves.

I felt like a pariah when someone said absolutely nothing when told or, literally, backed away. If someone responded with a flat, “Sorry for your loss,” I felt closed out.

Yet when a woman I knew slightly leaned back against a shelf with a sense that she had all afternoon to listen and asked me, “How are you doing?” I closed her out with a curt, “Pretty well, thanks, and you?” I was impossible to please in those early months, because the wound always remained.

One day I ran into the friend of a friend. We small-talked until that challenging moment when she asked what was happening in my life. I told her gradually. Her eyes widened and welled. Looking shocked, she whispered, “I don’t know what to say.” And—this was key—she did not look away. She was so authentic my heart sprang open. I watched her processing before she continued. Her words, “I am so sorry. How are you doing with it?” were not special, but they were embedded with a level of presence that bathed me like warm oil. We spoke for a long time. I neither pretended to be all right nor broke down.

Our words can be simple if we allow them to arise without censorship. This woman was not afraid to express her natural response or to give herself time to deal with her own emotions. Because she was present with herself, she could be present with me and we could connect. Of course, there was timing too; I was in the right place to be authentic with her.

The timing of nearly all deaths disturbs, with the young, even more so. But our current cultural practices teach us that death is the enemy. We struggle to extend life at nearly any cost. We whisk bodies away to funeral homes as if they were too ugly to look upon until coiffed and made up. We are tongue-tied in the presence of grief and the bereaved. I respect words beyond measure, but I understand their limitations.

Perhaps the most significant action in the face of a person in grief is to feel our own pain and fears and to let this shine through our eyes and to allow our words to be the feeble and limited expressions they are. It is our body language, the looks on our faces and in our eyes that matter.

Saying the wrong thing may be less important than trying too hard to say the right thing.

The After Death Chronicles: True Stories of Comfort, Guidance, and Wisdom from Beyond the Veil. To be released October 6, 2017. Watch for pre-ordering in July.
www.anniemattingley.com