Six years ago my greatest fear was that my mum would die. Even further back than that, from the time we found out she had cancer I was afraid about what my life would be like without her and how I would go on. My worst fear happened, and I survived it. She died almost six years ago, and there isn’t a day when I don’t wish she were still here. She was the person I was closest to in my life. And my heart breaks sometimes thinking about all the things in my life she won’t be there for. I don’t say this to many people but despite all my wishing, if I had the opportunity for it to have worked out differently, for her not to have died, I don’t know if I would change it. It is strange to think that about the single hardest thing that has ever happened to me, and about the single most important person in my life. But, I really do feel that way.
I sometimes have these moments when I can pull way back and it’s as if I am looking down on my life, this master plan for my soul. And I have this profound clarity and trust in everything that I have experienced, even in all the pain and sadness I feel about her not being here. I think about all the ways her death, and the experience of being with her when she died, has changed me, changed me for the better. I think about all the amazing things that have come from that happening. In that one moment between her being here and her not being here is when it all happened for me. Oddly enough in that moment I was not afraid. That tiny moment held so much. So many gifts have come out of it, so many feelings that have pushed me to become the person I am today, so many things all of a sudden held so much meaning, in so may ways my life changed and was set on a new course that held so much purpose.
This year I became a grief group leader for kids at Our House Grief Support Center in Los Angeles. It has been an incredible journey that has lead me to this amazing place, full of the most wonderful people doing such important work. Every day I feel honored to be a part of what is happening there. I have moments when I wish my mum were here so that I could tell her about it. But I know that if she were still alive that I wouldn’t be doing this work, work that has become so deeply personal and fills me with such purpose, work that is changing my life.
This summer was my first as a camp counselor at Camp Erin in Los Angeles. I had 12 incredible six and seven year olds. I learned so much from each camper about grief. It was amazing, and overwhelming, and inspiring, and challenging all at the same time. I was really confronted with how I show up as myself, and had so many opportunities to really look at and see what special things I bring to the table just by being me. This was such a big lesson for me. I found that during times when others would be enthusiastically getting the girls to put on their shoes, or cheering them on during the ropes course was when I felt most out of place. The introvert in me was being confronted. But after the Memory Wall on the first night a few girls were in tears, crying so hard they could hardly breathe, and that’s when I knew how to step in and be there for them. My comfort level with tears and grief make it hard for me to relate to everyone, but I am learning that there is a place where this is needed. It was in those moments at camp where I could see that I didn’t have to be like everyone else, but I could see for the first time that there was value in me being myself.
My favorite activity we did was the grief hike. On our hike each camper would look for a rock, and on the bottom of it would be painted with a different feelings word. They would all go around and use that word in a sentence about their grief. It sounds simple, but is actually quite profound.
We had already done “sadness”, “guilty” and “happiness”, when one girl had found the rock with the word “anger” written on it. Each camper, one by one, passed the rock around the circle while talking about her anger. Anger is one of my favorite things to talk about in grief group. I think it’s one of the emotions that is still so ignored when thinking about grief related feelings or about the person who died. Often time’s people don’t give themselves the room or the opportunity to feel angry at all, and especially not with the person who died. One of the many amazing things about being with the youngest campers is that they really do wear their emotions on their sleeve. When they are scared you know it, when they are sad they show it. For the most part they are unafraid to express what they feel, they haven’t yet learned how to hide it.
The rock finally got to one young camper and she held it in her little hands and said so directly, “I'm really angry that my mom died.” All the fidgeting and distractions stopped and everyone in the circle was just right there with her, listening and relating to what she was saying.
I said to her, “You are really angry that your mom died, huh?”
“Yes” she said.
“What do you do when you get really angry?”
She responded with something that has stayed with me since. She said, “I think about all things that I have in my life that other kids don’t.”
“Like a big bed, a lot of my friends don’t have a big bed like I do, and my cat, and my close friends.”
My heart was so moved by what she was sharing. “There is a special word for what you are talking about,” I said, “it’s called gratitude.”
We all talked for a little bit about what that word meant, and what it means to be grateful. As we did this it’s as if the sun was shining a little brighter, the sounds of nature got quiet, everyone was so present.
I was so blown away that this little six year old understood something so profound. That she could comfort herself and understand her life in a way most people can’t. She is six, and is facing the rest of her life without a mother, and she can have gratitude while doing that. This isn’t something that someone taught her, this is just something she feels.
I think a lot about gratitude. It’s easy for us to have it when we are doing something that brings us great joy, or comfort: when we are with a friend who make us laugh, when we receive good news that alleviates worry, when we are in the presence and beauty of nature. But, what about all the other times, times that are challenging, and full of more difficult feelings like pain, anger and sadness. And even times when the unthinkable happens, like when the person we love most in our life dies.
It leaves me wondering - Do we abandon gratitude during the times when we might need it the most?
And, more than anything it confirms my belief that gratitude is truly healing.
photo I took while packing up our family home to sell: a pot my mum bought be in Santa Fe for my dollhouse