“Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.” – Rumi
It was 9:25 am ET and my office phone rang. Picking up, I was surprised to hear my stepdad’s voice on the other line. It was 6 am on the West Coast. “Jill, your mom is dead.”
Me: “What are you talking about?! Why are you saying this?! Are you joking??”
Him: “I’m sorry. I found her this morning.”
I don’t really remember how I signed off, but I hung up and began to sob….I couldn’t catch my breath.
She was 59. I didn’t know this then, but the autopsy would later list her cause of death as “complications due to alcohol use.”
In recent years past, I’d actually said to my husband, “I wish she’d just die.” These words were coming from the child of an alcoholic. One who’d been dealing with the crap one has to deal with when in a relationship with an addict for 25 years.
Now, here I was, faced with her death, and I was devastated.
My mom was dead and I was collapsed in my office sobbing and hyperventilating. I’d just lost the person who raised me and who, despite the demons she lived with, I loved dearly. I didn’t really want her to die. I wanted her to get well. I wanted the past to be different. I wanted to feel safe.
It’s been 12 years since my mom’s death and the sting of loss is still there, but what has grown from the loss is amazing and beautiful: compassion. Compassion for alcoholics and drug addicts, compassion for the mentally ill, and compassion for children that are stuck in unhealthy situations due to the choices their addicted or mentally ill parents have made.
The first time I realized the gift was about six years after my mom’s death. I sat at a table with a homeless man who was ruddy-faced, a smoker’s gravelly voice, and big, beautiful, tired blue eyes. We were sharing a meal through a local meal program for the homeless where I volunteered. We were talking about life and he told me that he’d been sober for 20 days. He said it was the hardest thing he’s ever done. Mind you, he had also shared a bit about his family history: a brother being murdered in a bar fight, a sister that died in a car wreck, parents that wouldn’t win any parenting awards. He’d said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” He’d been drinking since he was a kid. He was now 50. I told him my mom had died of alcoholism at the age of 59 and I didn’t want the same thing to happen to him.
We both sat there quietly for a minute, and he said, “Yep, I can’t drink again, or that’s what’s gonna happen to me.”
We sat in thick, heavy silence.
I told him I was proud of him for making this decision and that I’d be praying for him to have the strength to stay sober. We talked for a few more minutes and then I got up to leave. I told him to not be afraid to ask for help if he needed it.
I never saw him again. I hope he’s out there telling someone today that he’s 6+ years sober.
This moment changed my life forever. It was then that I understood something important about life: Good and bad things happen and both have the ability to teach us things that will heal us, bring us peace, and allow us to reach a semblance of an understanding of something that’s just hard to get your head around.
No matter what grief you’ve been through, we can learn from our experiences. Here are five lessons I’ve learned through this journey:
1. Be Patient With Yourself. Don’t try to rush your healing. It was when I acknowledged that I couldn’t control the pace of my healing, that my true healing and understanding began to make progress. Minutes become hours, hours become days, days become years. If we rush things, we won’t grow and benefit from the true experience we’re meant to walk through in our journey.
2. Keep Your Heart Open. As Rumi said, “Grief can be the garden of compassion”. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom. It’s a nice visualization to see your grief as a garden with seasons, dormant and growth cycles. Don’t allow your pain and grief to shut your heart down.
3. Don’t Judge. You know the saying, “Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Just because you don’t struggle with the same thing someone else does, doesn’t make that person lesser or weaker. When you live a life of compassion, you see through eyes of grace and forgiveness.
4. Be kind to yourself and others. I beat myself up for some time, running different scenarios through my head: how I could have helped more, should I have forced the issue of going to one more rehab, why was she so tormented, could I have been more understanding? The bottom line is that practicing kindness to ourselves is good for us and those around us.
5. Be Grateful. If you only take away one thing from this post today, practicing gratitude should be it. Every one of us can find things to be grateful for, no matter what our current circumstances look like. One way to practice gratitude while you’re in a pit of grief, anger, pain, etc. is to sit down with your journal or a piece of paper and look around you to take note of blessings you might have taken for granted. Are you sitting in a comfortable chair? Do you have shoes on? Did you eat breakfast? Did you have a blanket to cover your body during the night? Do you have a friend who you can talk to? Have you made it 20 days without drinking?
What lessons have you learned in the process of dealing with grief? Please share with us here. Your words may be just the thing someone else needs to read today to help them get through a tough spot.