The Death of a Son
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.
* 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.
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