On July 31, 2008, my twenty-five year old son, Johnny, died in an accident. When I heard the news of his death, I was in the parking lot of the Living Wisdom School at Ananda Village where I work. It was 9:00 AM; many important projects awaited me in preparation for the beginning of the school year.
Suddenly, those projects evaporated, no longer having any life or substance. In those first few seconds, I felt the slam of a battering ram to my gut, the breath totally knocked out of me. I was engulfed in horror and disbelief as I watched my worst nightmare unfold before me.
An immediate balm to fears
I went home and a few friends gathered around me. Not until an Ananda minister performed the Ananda astral ascension ceremony* for the soul of my son did I begin to feel grounded again in my body. I calmed down and started to sense that my son’s soul was protected.
I had been so afraid that he would be lost and confused after leaving the body in such an utterly abrupt way. The astral ascension ceremony acted as an immediate balm to those fears—I began to feel God’s inner presence again, and although I continued to have extreme ups and downs, from then on I knew Johnny was safe in God’s hands. Several months later he came to me in a sweet peaceful dream and let me know how fine he really was.
The start of the healing process
During those first few days, friends and family came in a constant stream, offering help on every level. One of my wonderful computer friends created a composite picture of Johnny with Jesus and Paramhansa Yogananda. In the photo Johnny is leaning against them, and they are embracing him.
That photo started my healing process—looking at it reminded me that Johnny was safe. We made an altar around that picture, placing with it many other photos of all stages of Johnny’s life and the many flower arrangements friends had brought. Several nights I slept in front of that altar, finding my only peace there.
A week after Johnny’s death we held a memorial service in the amphitheater at Ananda Village. Over 500 people attended. Johnny had excellent friends from all walks of life, but I had no idea just how many lives he had touched until he died. I could tell by looking into their eyes that many of his friends had no way of emerging from their grief and emptiness over his loss.
A power comes into me
While walking to the amphitheater I felt weepy, nervous, and shaky, but I didn’t have a choice but to speak. I wanted to give those of Johnny’s friends who didn’t have a spiritual base something that would help them transcend their loss.
Suddenly I felt a power come into me, and the nervousness vanished. God was giving me the strength to do this. That same power flowed through the two Ananda ministers who led the service and many of those who rose to speak about Johnny. Throughout the service, there was a tangible feeling of God’s presence.
To try to bring a little peace to Johnny’s friends, I decided to talk about his life and some of his incredible soul qualities. Johnny had a huge heart that embraced many people’s realities, an uncompromising independence, strong energy and will power, and a wonderful sense of humor. He was courageous, loyal, and non-judgmental.
To honor Johnny’s spirit it is important for those of us who loved him not just to appreciate his wonderful soul qualities, but to affirm them in ourselves. It is a tangible way to preserve his memory.
A way to feel close to his soul
Along with his beautiful soul qualities, my son also had a deep appreciation and love for nature. I share his attunement with nature, but perhaps not to the depth that he possessed it.
I have found since his passing that when I pray to perceive his spirit, to feel close to his soul, it happens sometimes during meditation, but more often when I am out in nature. I need to be inwardly still, listening and watching. With each experience, I feel calmed and uplifted.
I have had the experience of a coyote stopping in the middle of the road to make eye contact and commune. The following morning, at the exact same time, another coyote crossed the road and repeated this behavior. Beautiful small grey foxes have appeared and disappeared at regular intervals. Two hawks once engaged in aerial battle in my sight. I recently saw my first bald eagle, circling and soaring above my head.
These beautiful glimpses into nature are God’s gift to me, a way to communicate with Johnny’s soul. I have learned that others have had similar experiences after the death of a loved one. Each of these experiences is unique and has the special “flavor” of the loved one. Each is an offering of love to those left behind. It’s as if our loved ones are saying, “I’m right here. I love you. Just listen and I’ll connect with you.”
The “back and forth” of grieving
Even when we tune into our loved one’s soul nature, we still grieve in a very human way. We can’t help it. No longer can we talk with them, touch them, hold them. The reality of their solid existence is simply over. Grieving is an experience that flips back and forth from the deep calm knowing that your loved one’s spirit is in God and alive in your heart, to the experience of suddenly, without warning, breaking down uncontrollably in the grocery store because you miss his laugh so much.
During Johnny’s memorial service I felt strong and enveloped in God’s grace, at peace with his passing. Two days later I was sobbing over a box of Cheerios that had belonged to him. I am learning to accept both realities as the healing process runs its course, and I move deeper into the center of the experience and find peace there.
A word about how to relate to a person who has experienced a deep loss: Don’t avoid, always approach. Even if you can’t think of appropriate words to express your sympathy, give silent love. Hold the person. Words are so inadequate most of the time anyway. Sensitivity to this reality is important. I have deep, meaningful memories of the ways people comforted me, and I will never forget these kindnesses.
The gift of boundless love
The alternative to shriveling up in pain from the loss of a loved one is to love more. Pain can either contract or expand the heart. When we choose expansion, not contraction, we have room to move around within the grieving process—we have the space to stretch out and touch our loved one’s spirit.
After all, the love we feel for our friends and family is not our love. It’s God’s love, and that love is immense, unfathomable, and forever expandable. It can never be squeezed only into the forms of those few we call our own.
The secret gift of the loss of a loved one is that you get catapulted into a world of expansive love. Along with feelings of deep human loss, I have experienced the gift of that boundless love.
Everyone experiences loss
This is my story. And yet, it is not just my story; it is everyone’s story. We will not avoid the pain of catastrophic loss in this life. There is a story in the Indian tradition of a widow with one beloved son. The son died, and the mother was inconsolable. She went to a holy man and demanded through her sobs that he bring her son back to life.
The holy man agreed. “Yes,” he said. “I will do this. But first you must bring me some oil from the home of a family in the village that has not experienced death.”
The old woman left the presence of the holy man with a spring in her step. She hurried from one village door to the next, asking for the oil. But gradually her elation faded. In her own deep pain she had forgotten that the sorrow of death is universal. She returned to the holy man humbled, understanding that everyone suffers for his lost loved ones.
Our tests are tailor-made
None of us is a stranger to sorrow in this life. Since I had previously experienced another kind of loss, I knew that shock, anger, denial, and eventual acceptance are some of the stages in the grieving process. This test, however, was out of all proportion to anything I had ever been through.
I have read a number of helpful articles on the grieving journey and have found some solace in the sense of common experience. It is a relief to know that one’s emotions pass through a general pattern during this process. And yet, our tests are tailor-made for each of us. I have found that my experience at times fits the pattern of the typical grieving process and at other times becomes uniquely my own. I am attempting to let the process happen through me, not to arrange it, anticipate it, or judge it.
I do know this—I have a connection with Johnny that has not been broken by death. If there is something to be thankful for in this experience it is that in seeking to go deeper in Spirit to connect with Johnny, I have gone much deeper in Spirit. And I have become more aware that there is no separation between Spirit and me.
This article first appeared in print in Fall 2009: “The Death of a Son,” Swami Kriyananda, Clarity Magazine.
* An Ananda ceremony to uplift and comfort the departed and the bereaved.
Hridaya Atwell, a Lightbearer and long-time Ananda member, serves in the Ananda Living Wisdom School as co-director and teacher in the junior high and high school.
Clarity Magazine articles can be printed in “text only” format, using your own computer.
I have been deeply touched by your story and your gift to us all in telling this story. I have two sons and know that circumstances could prevail, out of the blue, to bring about unknown joy or unknown tragedy. Your honesty and deep spirtitual practice are inspiring. May your son’s love and energy continue to inspire you and all those you connect with.
Dear Hridaya, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your wisdom and peace through this deeply inspiring article. Sending you much love, Bhagavati
What you shared touched me deeply. I am so sorry for your loss and very inspired by how you have been dealing with it. I know what you shared to be absolutely true.
I am deeply touched by your generosity in writing this article. Grief, as you say, is a universal journey. Your courage and honesty are rays of light illuminating this path for all who follow. You willingness to accept and move forward into Spirit is a blessing also for Johnny, giving him the freedom also to move on. A final gift from a loving Mother.
What a beautiful sharing and what an inspiration to all of us! The loss of a child, regardless of age, must be one of the greatest sorrows life can bring to our experience. Hridaya, reassures us that the presence of God is even more tangible during the experiences of life that we are most afraid of. Therefore, be not afraid, and know that God is always with you. Thank you, Hridaya!
Hridaya, this is beautiful and real and inspiring. Just like you. Thank you so much for writing this!!!
A beautiful expression of your soul’s journey, Hridaya. Your generous sharing is invaluable. I had the privilege of being Johnny’s landlord “mother” for a year filled of joy owing to his presence. His laugh, smile, a cap pushed backward on his head, a sleepy look as he headed out the door of the house to see who was making the noise at the pump house, and not least of all his deep friendships with those around him. For his immediate family I pray that you gain sustenance forever more from Johnny’s capacity to love and appreciate. They are his greatest gifts to us.
What a beautiful rendition of life experience. Thank you Hridaya!
Thank you Hridaya and God Bless you, and Johnny too.
Thank you for sharing this painful experience and showing us how it can help one to grow deeper and stronger in spiritual faith. I am forwarding it to a friend experiencing grief. I deeply appreciate your insight and openness into your grieving. Your wisdom is a reflection of your love for Johnny and God.
Hridaya: Thank you for this deeply moving and inspirational article — How the your profound personal loss led to an ever greater awareness of Spirit — Your generously shared journey through grief then transcendence benefits and uplifts us all.
I was so sorry to hear of the loss of you son Johnny. I might have met him when we lived at Ananda years ago. I do remember you and your lovely spirit.
We lost our first born son, Toby, nine years ago at age 20yrs, suddenly and tragically. Your words about the opportunity of these experiences to further grow in love and Spirit are the correct focus. Thjs focus gives us hope and leads us out of the labrynth of pain and despair.
Please continue give your self permission to continue to take care of yourself as you heal. You are witness to miracles and opportunities for your own transformation and that of others who surround you!
If I can offer support to you in any way, please let us me know!
Bailey & Dennis Stenson
Fort Collins, Colorado
I last saw Johnny, then named Janaka when he was about eight years old. It was outside of Master’s Market. I asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He said: “I just want to play in the grass.” He really was just in the moment. A wonderful child.
That was beautifully written, Hridaya, because it is so true and truly you. Many blessings!
Dear Hridaya, What beautiful advice for anyone who has lost someone near and dear. To be able to attune to the departed one through nature or however God comes is such a comfort. We forget the simple realities you mention here–the strength that comes, the signs that come to let you know your loved one is in God’s arms etc. I think many will be helped and uplifted by your words. Thank you and God bless you, Dhyana
Dear Hridaya. Thank you for sharing such an important event with us. Your interpretation was inspiring. I often ask myself why an individual’s karma deems they must leave this consciousness so early in their journey. But then I realise it is my lack of insight that assumes their journey is “early”. From all accounts (yours and the comments of those who also knew Johnny), his was a candle that burned brightly from day one. He seemed to have illuminated the lives of so many in such a short span of time. I am writing this from Australia, and I can tell you that through your words, he has also illuminated my life. After I read your article, I sat down for quite some time and prayed and thought and meditated and felt. Then I went and hugged my children. You and your family have suffered a grievous loss, but you have touched our lives with your sincerity. Words often provide little consolation, so we are sending you and your family hugs through the cosmic beloved.
That was beautifully written, Hridaya, because it is so true and truly you. Many blessings!
This is Soma from Delhi, India. I happen to read your article in Clarity online. I work, I am very busy, and have recently undergone abdominal surgery.
I am single parent and struggled to bring up my 10 year old son. On July 12th, 2005, I lost him to the dengue fever which could not be detected in time. Life came to an end. Although I continued to work from the 5th day of my loss, life was not same. In October 2005 I came in touch with Ananda Sangha, Gurgaon. It was a turning point my life. Dhyana, who initiated me, gave a huge support. Since then Guru has changed my life. Today I feel protected, and understand the purpose of life.
After reading your article, I am again reassured. Today I feel the same way that you have mentioned. But sometime when I see life around then I feel the pain. But with Guru’s grace I can come out of it within a very short time. Your message seemed to be tailor made for me. Its nice you have shared your experience so elaborately. Regards to you, Soma
Thank you for this beautiful article. I wanted you to know how deeply inspiring I found it to be. Your grace and courage are the result of living a life dedicated to God and Guru. Love, Sahaja
My dear Sister. Thank you for your story. I, too, lost my son. He was my rock; my warrior angel; my shelter in this life; my business partner; my best friend. I was never lonely while he walked the earth. I, too, found that many, many who came to honor him at his funeral, who were unknown to me. He was much beloved and admired.
I was overwhelmed and out of my head with grief. He died on Thanksgiving day, and a friend that day flew from San Diego to be with me. The next day after meeting with the priest from the Catholic school and parish where my son had been an alter boy, my friend took me to Barnes and Noble and we purchased Paramhansa Yogananda’s book, Man’s Eternal Quest, I read it nightly and clung to the book and then to others.
I won’t say that it was a cure all, because I suffered hallucinations, near emotional paralysis and lost hours of nothingness. I became very ill to the point where it was life threatening.
Still I recognized the truth in Yogananda’s books. I had had a profound transcendent experience in 1992 and, therefore, I recognized that Yogananda understood and connected this experience into the rest of my life. If I had not had that experience, I surely would have died of the grief. I have become a disciple and have visited Ananda many times. Yogananda is a balm to my soul. A bereaved mother can never really be healed, but Yogananda comforts me. God gave me the gift that day of Yogananda to help my heart when he took my beloved child away.
Thank you for sharing your story!! I lost my 20 year old son, Patrick on Nov. 1st, 2010! I was lost and shattered, I asked God for guidance and in the following months, I found myself going to The Expanding Light Guest Retreat. The people of Ananda were incredible! I learned to be open to the grief and expect the unexpected. We are never alone in our process! God Bless!
So touching. I was reading it in a bus. Weeping. I have got two sons also. Your experience shows me that I must try my best to feel the love and give God’s love to them each and every time they are with me. Connecting with them in God’s way. Thanks
Your honesty and willingness to cultivate awareness of Spirit in the
midst of personal tragedy is beautiful. It is easy to bask in the light
of love when things are going well…it is when our lives become
fraught with pain that I think it is vital we remember that Spirit
inhabits every molecule, the space between the molecules, is
there in every one of our heartbeats, and the space between our
heartbeats, whispering to us…”rejoice…rejoice…rejoice”.
Thanks for sharing ur story!!I lost my father on 13th/July/2017.
He was so fit & fine ,he was into social work,yoga,meditation.He read an autobiography of yogi day before his death .he passed away unexpectedly without any disease without any symptoms of death.
But being a daughter attachement with my father is too much m still in trauma .i believe in Yogananda Jee but after the death of my father i am getting more & more depressed
He was eveythng to me .life seems impossible without him I am lost & shattered.
Plz I need your guidance.
Love n joy to u.
Alokita,when I lost my only loving daughter,I was not sad.No tears were in eyes nor I was remembering her.If I was given food I was eating ,asked to sleep I was sleeping.No grief,no pain, nothing.Coz no emotions were left in my heart.lwas a stone.
I saw her going before my eyes in my arms within two minits.Just like ur father she was fully fit and fine.I couldn’t understand what was going on.
So sweet, so smart , having a beautiful mind, body and soul, lovable and having knowledge of so many sujects,arts ect.Such is my dear Sona.
Till about 18-19 months I didn’t talk, negotiate with anyone.l was only waiting to see,touch ,hug,kiss, talk to my dear Sona.I still feel that she is always with me.
Alokita,it’s a long story but I came to realize that “Those we love, don’t go away ,they walk besides us,every day.Unseen, Unheard,but always near.Still loved, Still missed and very dear.
I came to realize that if we are sad our loved ones will be sad there.
She was not only my daughter but my friend, sister, mother, father, brother and all the beautiful relations that we can have.Now I’m trying to do all that she can feel happy.I always try to be happy and keep myself busy in tasks she can feel happy.such as gardening, home decorating, preparing different dishes and also reading spritual literature, meditation etc.
So dear you will have to be strong enough for the sake of ur dear father.please try to be happy and to-do the things he wanted to be done by you.
If you will be strong and happy your father will be happy in the for beyand.And don’t forget that he is always with you and watching over you.He will come forward to help and guide you always in your good deeds.
So dear be happy, healthy and strong and prosperous.
Hugs to you.
Love and joy to you.
ame in a constant stream, offering help on every level. One of my wonderful computer friends created a composite picture of Johnny with Jesus and Paramhansa Yogananda. In the photo Johnny is leaning against them, and they are embracing him.
Thanks for sharing and hats off to your efforts.
Can you get created such a picture of my loving daughter who left me on Buddh Poornima night on 14th June 2014,with Jesus Lord Krishna and Gurudev Paramhans Yoganand ji?