Lessons from the Buddha

Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation–proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time, warding off death is our biggest motivation. We habitually ward off any sense of problem. We’re always trying to deny that it’s a natural occurrence that things change, that the sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing. It’s as natural as the seasons changing and day turning into night. But getting old, getting sick, losing what we love–we don’t see those events as natural occurrences. We want to ward off that sense of death, no matter what.

(Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart)


Our fish died yesterday. His name was Buddha Betta and he was exquisitely beautiful. If a fish could look like a majestic peacock, then that’s how I would describe him. Aidan named him and I am not sure where he got the idea, but the name stuck. However, he wasn’t just a pretty fish, he was also a joyful fish. When you approached his bowl with an enthusiastic greeting, he would flare his fins and swim faster, making eye contact with you and shaking himself to and fro. Mike even taught him how to jump for his food. Such a character, our Buddha Betta. When we got him, Lainey was about 18 months old and called him “Baddhu”, which remained a sweet nickname until his untimely passing.


He was also a strong fish. Tough as nails. On the day we brought him home over one year ago, he fell out of his container and onto the driveway as Aidan was getting out of the car, throwing everyone into a panic. As I muttered a series of expletives to myself followed by a few prayers for some sort of mercy on this poor fish who had only been in our care for 25 minutes, I hastily scraped him into a cup and ran him inside and into the sink. We then performed life-saving measures to get him into a semi-clean bowl with the appropriate water cleaning drops and watched him kind of float around in shock. My expectation that he would live was very low and I tried to prepare and cushion Aidan for the imminent death of his new fish. But Buddha surprised us and kept swimming.

Not too long after that, I walked into the kitchen one day to find that Lainey had pushed over a chair and was transferring dirt and plant food from the potted plant on the counter into Buddha’s bowl as she said, “Feed Baddhu?”

So we commenced the second round of life-saving-measures and life-expectation-management. But the Buddha lived again. 

Basically, he was the best fish ever.

So when I learned of Buddha’s passing in the midst of what is currently an incredibly chaotic and strained day-to-day life for us, I thought, “Really? Now?” Well, of course now; that’s how life works. So we braced ourselves to tell the kiddos, feeling especially bad about telling Aidan since this was his fish from the start.

After my last post, I probably don’t need to describe the implications of this death, the complicated overlay of grief and the potential for trauma triggers. I am sure you can just imagine.

So I will just recount a few of the heart-wrenchingly beautiful moments that unfolded when we told Aidan that Buddha had died. 

First, he needed to see it, and there was something liberating and reassuring for him in being able to see Buddha resting there lifeless in his fishbowl plants. Aidan threw his arms around me; I could see tears in his eyes and I actually felt washed over in relief. Aidan was grieving and letting himself feel it. That is a big deal.

Then we took Buddha out to the garden for a proper burial. I felt that familiar tug at my heart as we all thanked Buddha Betta for being such a great fish, but then Mike and I totally broke down as both kids reached in to the hole to “pet” him one last time (or for the first time really because, well, he was a fish) with their tiny fingers before covering him with dirt.

Aidan created a beautiful headstone, adorned with the flowers and plants from the fishbowl. It reminded me of the thoughtfulness I recounted in this post when he found a dead seagull on the beach two summers ago.

As Aidan arranged some rocks around Buddha’s grave, the tears really started to fall as he sought comfort from each of us. Lainey was so sweet as she repeated, “I’m sorry, Aidan.” Because what else do you say sometimes? However, his sobs actually comforted me deeply. To know that my boy could cry those tears freely when he needed to. To know that he wasn’t still numb. To know he felt safe enough with all of us to release whatever grief was there. “Mommy, Buddha was my best friend, ” he cried as I stroked his hair and kissed his salty cheeks.

After our ceremony, he seemed lighter to me all day; I could sense all that he was able to release just by feeling everything he needed to and accepting that this was just part of the game.

Children are such incredible teachers. Their honesty and vulnerability is a gift we should handle with delicate reverence. They are also masters of living in the present moment, embracing it for all it holds. For me, that is tricky business.

As the grace-filled and inspired Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron writes in her book, When Things Fall Apart (side note: if ever there was a book title to serve as my new survival manual, this is it.): 

Fear of death is the background of the whole thing. It’s why we feel restless, why we panic, why there’s anxiety. But if we experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality and impermanence of death.

There are about a hundred metaphors and images of life and death in this story, many of which relate directly to my family’s experience and some of which I thought of sharing in this post. I also had to not get too terribly heavy about it all because otherwise it’s just SO depressing, so I cheered myself up by remembering the episode of The Cosby Show when the family fish died (does anyone else chuckle recalling all of them gathered around the toilet bowl?). 

Anyhow, I realized that the only truth I really needed to acknowledge for myself (with a deep breath) is that ever-present paradox I am fumbling with so much right now.

In life, there is always death and in death, there is always life.




Rest in Peace, Buddha Betta. You were loved and treasured; thank you for being awesome.




Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Blackbird fly

Blackbird fly

Into the light of the dark black night.


I was sitting in the backseat of our friends’ car that hot August night, looking out the window at the passing billboards and lights, willing myself not to throw up over and over and wanting with sweaty desperation to be anywhere but in that car.

They were driving us to the hospital to see our oldest son, killed in a car accident just hours before. We were supposed to be going to say goodbye, but I was already sinking into a numbness so deep and icy cold that any sensation you might expect was already gone.

With all that was in front of us, I just couldn’t stop thinking about our youngest son sleeping at home. The burden of telling him this news that I didn’t really believe myself yet weighed so heavily on me I had to fight for each breath.

How was I supposed to tell him? How could I do this to my beautiful boy with the tenderest heart who was just starting to reclaim himself and his family after the trauma of losing his uncle and enduring the horrendous aftermath of a suicide?

I agonized over telling him because I knew.

I knew the indescribable and often overlooked anguish of losing a brother.

After we got home that night, Mike and I crawled into bed next to Aidan. Somehow Mike fell asleep, but I just couldn’t. I stared at my baby’s sleeping face and saw his brother. I thought of my own brother, my grief for him now so forcefully displaced I couldn’t find it if I tried. My mind raced while my heart broke over and over.

We had debated whether to wake Aidan immediately and tell him or to give him the few extra hours of sleep. I didn’t want him to be angry with us for waiting to tell him. I didn’t want him to live his life feeling robbed of learning about this news sooner. But it also seemed like a cruel joke either way so I waited in the darkness for the sun to rise. Those hours were a death to me. Unknown. Endless. Silent.

When we told him, just a few minutes after he woke up, I felt the shock wave hit him. I saw that flash of pain behind his eyes, so dreadfully familiar now. I saw it two years earlier when the coroner came to our house and I had to tell him his beloved uncle was dead. I saw it in my parents’ eyes that same day. And then the night before, I watched it slice through my husband as his knees buckled and he cupped the phone receiver to whisper that Zach was gone. That flash. That instant when all I could hear was my own cry: “What? No no no no no NO!”

And then I watched the cloud of numbness descend upon my baby boy. It was something else for us to share, like a blanket we could cozy under together.

It was a strange comfort to feel so numb, almost protected, even if for a short time. But fear and panic were simmering underneath. Fear of what life was going to be like. Of what we were going to have to go through to get to the other side of something like this. Fear of what it would feel like when we started to thaw out.

But the debilitating fear that clawed at my throat constantly was the thought, “okay, so what’s next?” It didn’t seem like a matter  of “if” anymore, but more like “who” and “when.”

A few weeks later, before falling asleep one night, my boy gave words to the fear that was paralyzing us all.

Mom, it feels like so many people we love have died. I am so scared that something is going to happen to you or daddy or Lainey.

His voice was tight and his body was tense.

I was at a loss. I could not comfort him. I had no guarantee. I could only be completely honest.

I am scared too, my love. Terrified to lose you or Lainey or daddy. And I want to be able to tell you that we will all be around for a long time, but I don’t actually known that is true. So all I can say is that I will do everything I can to live a long and healthy life with you. And when I die, whenever that is,  I will still be with you in your humongous, beautiful heart. I will be in the air that you breathe and the dreams you dream. Losing me would be so so hard, but you will find your way. You will get through. You will find your joy.

He was quiet for a long time before whispering the prayer that tore through me.

Dear God, if anyone else is going to die, please make it be me, because I can’t bear to lose anyone else.

I could feel the splintering around my heart as I gasped,  ” Oh baby, NO!”

The hottest grief finally surfaced as I choked on the gush of tears.

It felt unnatural to hear my child pray those words, but how could I argue when I pleaded for the very same thing every day?

We clung to each other in silence for awhile, briefly floating in another dimension. No longer just mother and son, we were two souls intertwined. Connected forever and traveling.

Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.


(Blackbird, Copyright Paul McCartney/The  Beatles)

Written in our Stars

As my family walked into the California Science Museum yesterday, a woman approached us and meekly asked for money to feed her eight grandkids. I could feel that familiar wave of conflicting feelings rise within me as my brain and my heart battled for the appropriate response. Give her money? Find food? Say, “Sorry I don’t have any cash, but good luck to you.”?

I stopped and took a deep breath, listening to my gut/heart and choosing to act from love and compassion. As I fumbled for my wallet, this woman quietly revealed that her daughter had just died suddenly, leaving many children in need of…well, everything. And that her own mother died just last month, that she is an only child and feels so very alone. As she spoke, it seemed she was saying it all out loud for the first time and the weight it of it all was about to flatten her. Her voice cracked as she said, “I don’t know what I am going to do now.”

Good gracious mercy, what do you say to that?

After slipping a few dollars in her hands, I held both of them in mine and looked straight into her eyes, sharing for one brief moment her burden and her brokenness. That moment was all she needed to fall into my arms, gripping me desperately and ripping me wide open.

These stories used to seem so foreign to me, so sad and untouchable. But now I see them everywhere and I can’t help but to ask “why?”

It’s hard to live through tragedy without asking, “What does this all mean? What is the flipping point?” I get exasperated at the universe, frustrated and heartbroken to no end by the injustice and cruelty that abounds.

But I also marvel. I marvel at the opportunity we have to experience joy. To delight in things. To pursue happiness. We can actually find joy on a daily basis, moment to moment. How amazing is that? And I marvel especially that such joy and tenderness and beauty dwell so dangerously close to sorrow and suffering.

I marvel that we have the very privilege of creating life. That two cells come together to create something totally new and that this triad instantly becomes our “family”. That we spend our whole lives trying to figure out how we all fit together, how we relate, our origins both evoking our essence and validating our existence. Whether physically present or known only by name or memory, we wear our parents and their parents and their parents around our necks and over our hearts, for better or for worse. It seems we are tangled up in one another from the moment life begins.

I marvel that we can carry and birth babies, feel them move, hold them close, delight in them and watch them grow. But they aren’t really ours, it seems, and sometimes they die before we do, leaving us to experience an agony so deep and paralyzing it is hard to imagine living through it.

I marvel that we are given these miraculous bodies, so complex and strong and life-sustaining. But then these bodies fail us; ravaged by illness or deterioration, we suffer excruciating physical pain often beyond what it seems possible to endure.

I marvel that we have these sophisticated brains that are constantly changing and growing. Our minds give life to our ideas and feed our imaginations; they regulate our intricate body systems and nuanced feelings. And oh the wide array of feelings we get to experience! Some are so blissful we just keep wanting more and others are so painful we will do just about anything not to feel them. But sometimes our brains stop functioning properly: they get hijacked or cloudy or just shut down. Consequently, we must suffer the indignity of literally losing our minds.

I also marvel that good and evil have it out every day and that love and fear are so close to each other on the spectrum of what governs our thoughts and actions.

But what really gets me is that as humans we straddle this paradox of joy AND suffering our entire lives and can never seem to find peace with it. Not that we should find peace with it, but it’s hard for us to even wrap our sophisticated brains around such a contradiction.

The joy, the happiness, the fun…it’s so damn good it’s like a drug and we just keep wanting more. One more hit. One more taste. One more blissed-out moment. It’s our birthright, isn’t it? Aren’t we entitled? It’s so good that we can’t help but to cringe and crumble when things get hard. We are, after all, creatures wired for pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding, so it makes sense that when life becomes painful we say, “This is not right. This is a problem. It shouldn’t be this way!”

But what if the joy is really just a glimpse?

And what if the suffering is actually how it’s supposed to be? Part of the journey. Par for the course.

Written in our Stars.

What if when life is hard, like really hard…it means we are actually doing it right?

(This post is the first of eleven I will be writing this summer in a series called, “On Earth as it is in Heaven.”)


Exciting News!

Dearest Friends and Family,
We have some big and exciting news to “officially” share…In August, we are moving to Boston so I can attend seminary for 3 years!!! 

Some of you know this is a dream and plan we were working toward the year before Andy died, but we shelved it afterward for a number of reasons. Life has been so brutal  since that we totally forgot we shelved it until recently, when a window of opportunity presented itself and we decided to revisit the dream and plan. Since then, the details and logistics have sort of fallen into place (school for me and work options for Mike) and we are so grateful for the opportunity. I will be attending Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA (part of the Boston Theological Institute) and have included a little info about the school at the end of this email.
For those of you familiar with my decade-long exploration of a call to ordained ministry, this is very much a part of that; however, I will be attending seminary as a lay minister for now, and I will be able to develop my own academic and field education plan to support my ministry vision, professional pursuits and intellectual interests so that if and when the time comes to continue down the path to ordination, I will have this particular credential and experience “under my belt.” I am so honored to be attending a school that is so committed to social justice, effective outreach, and fostering peaceful and compassionate global, ecumenical and interfaith relationships.This is an amazing opportunity for unparalleled education and training. 
 A cross country move is definitely exciting, but naturally overwhelming. We are sad to be leaving our beloved community of friends and family, but we are heartened to have such an amazing opportunity for freshness and adventure…a little “breath” of fresh air for us after so much sadness and heartbreak these past 3 years.
Of course, we never really know what the future holds, but it is our sincerest intention to return to California at the end of my program. We also hope to return “home” a couple of times per year to remain connected to our community. 
We will be having some sort of “farewell” opportunity at the end of July and we will keep you posted on our departure. I also intend to continue writing about our experiences at my blog http://lisadevine.com.


We want to thank you for your continued love, prayers and support over the years. We literally could not have survived without you.
Peace, love and many blessings to you always,
Lisa and family
 photo (7)
From EDS Mission Statement:

The purpose of Episcopal Divinity School is to educate lay and ordained leaders for Christ’s Church and for the world who serve and advance God’s mission of justice, compassion, and reconciliation…EDS is committed to growing in relationship with other Christian and faith traditions. Episcopal Divinity School is an academic community of biblical, historical, and theological inquiry that respects students as responsible learners with valuable experience, supports spiritual and ministerial formation, and provides tools for the life-long work of social and personal transformation.

The School’s dedication to God’s transforming mission challenges us to become an antiracist and multicultural community (see below for definition), embodying diversity and seeking constructive change. These commitments lead to educational programs enlivened by theologies of liberation, especially the many voices of feminist, congregational, ecumenical, and global studies. In our educational life we value critical intellectual engagement, prophetic spirituality, and social action…sustained by contemplation, worship, and prayer…Episcopal Divinity School forms leaders of hope, courage, and vision…

Central to EDS’s educational programs and formation is our emphasis on antiracist and multicultural learning. By antiracism, we mean working against the systemic oppression of people of color at the personal, interpersonal, institutional, and cultural levels. Multiculturalism refers to recognizing, understanding, and appreciating one’s own culture as well as the cultures of others. Multiculturalism stresses the social construction of differences—race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, sexual identity, religion, and physical ability—and the impact of these constructs on our learning, living, and ministry.

I love you and you are mine

Even though spring has been here for over a month, this first part of 2014 has been a long, hard winter for my soul. As months of depression give way to lighter days, I can feel a delicate unveiling of myself, like thin layers of fabric pulled back slowly from my face, one by one.

In this post, I described how I got to the breakthrough I had in January. Now months later, as this Mother’s Day comes to a close, I feel like I can finally begin to describe what it was and how it helped me.

Let’s start by going back to a Mother’s Day when Zach lived with us, nearly a decade ago. That morning, he took the time to wish me a “Happy Mother’s Day” before going off to spend the day with his mama. It was a simple sentiment, but his sincerity moved me. It was as if he was saying, “Thank you for what you are doing. Thank you for who you are for me. You aren’t my mom, but this thing we have between us and the family you have created with my dad…well, I appreciate it. It’s not lost on me. Thank you.”


My beautiful picture Photo  62


For no real reason outside of myself, I spent last fall feeling like an uninvited guest in the nightmare of Zach’s death. My grief for him felt untouchable, unreachable and completely undefined. For months I couldn’t find it and in the moments when I did, I didn’t know what to do with it.


Until that day back in January when I had finally carved out enough space and time within me and around me to try to figure it out. It hit me suddenly and forced me to my knees. I happened to be hiking through a sort of man-made mini-gorge, surrounded by fence on one side and a mountain of stones on the other. I was literally stuck between a rock and hard place, forced to confront the truth I had been denying myself for five months.


I had lost a child.


I let myself feel that completely for the first time, and later that day, I said it out loud. I let it it pierce through my insides and hollow me out.

For a good long while it felt like I was going to die.

Before this, I had actually given myself a dozen “logical” reasons for not claiming this loss.

“He is my stepson; he didn’t come from my body.”

“There were only 12 years between us, certainly that’s not enough of an age-gap for me to feel like a parent who has lost a child”

“People keep asking me how my husband is doing. What about me? As Zach’s stepmom, am I not supposed to be suffering too?”

“I didn’t have the kind of bond with him that I have with my two youngest children. The ones I carried in my belly, then labored and breathed into life.  The ones I nursed, snuggled and rocked; the ones by my side each and every day. That’s really what it takes, right?”

But this was the biggest reason I heard constantly echoing in my head…

“He has two other parents to whom this loss truly belongs. If I claim him as mine, if this breaks me also, then it would somehow be disrespectful to them. An insult to biology. An undermining of his mother’s broken heart.”

But there I was on my knees. The hot, searing sickness in my stomach and the hardened wall of tightness constricting my throat as the violent shaking and wailing of my whole being revealed the truth.

That from the moment I met this blue eyed, red headed boy, I loved him. That I spent those first years getting to know him, his likes and dislikes, his joys and his fears, and then planning ways to enrich his life and to offer opportunities for learning, play and growth.

DSC00248 100_0141 (1)

That when his dad asked me to marry him, my “yes” was a “yes” to all of us. Our family. Our future. That every day and every forward thought included Zach. That when it came time to welcome him into our home full time, not just every other weekend, and with all of the messy circumstances surrounding that transition, I did not hesitate for one second in saying, “absolutely.”

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That when many of my peers were figuring out careers and futures or just doing what most people do in their 20’s, I was moving to a new town because it had the best schools. I rearranged my dreams and goals to work full time, commuting to a job that would help secure our future. I was packing lunches, going to back to school nights, coordinating schedules and sitting down for family dinners. We were saving for college, going to the orthodontist and doing science projects. I was aware that this time was a gift to his dad and me, but sensitive to the tumult, confusion and developmentally appropriate adolescent angst that existed for our son. So we had intentional conversations and we took him to counseling. We set boundaries and limits and modeled habits that were new for him.

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That when we found out we were having a baby, it was always about the four of us. We began building an actual house for our family. Four walls and a roof on a lot in the hills to start with, but mostly a home to live in and grow together.

DSCF1191 Aidan&Zach

That I loved planning adventures and fun for us. I delighted in selecting birthday and Christmas gifts for him. I especially loved filling his stocking every year because he was so tickled by the deodorant, Axe body spray, mouthwash, gum and Chapstick.

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 That when he went back to live with his mom for a number of complicated reasons it broke us in so many ways. It was the first time we lost Zach and we grieved him hard.

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 That every day after that I worried for him. I missed him. I ached for our family.

Zach Aidan 1

That I still championed his wildest dreams. That I brainstormed ways to support their fruition. That I never gave up on him.


That the night we found out about his addiction was when we lost him all over again. It introduced a new sort of anxiety. A worry deeply-rooted and ever-present. Not without hope, but sometimes blind and desperate. We still prayed that somehow, someday, there would be a healing that would allow him to live the life he wanted. That whatever unreachable pain would reveal itself so that he wouldn’t always need to numb it with drugs. We acknowledged and apologized for our mistakes and committed to growing and healing with him.

Zach grad Capgown 


That my daily prayer became one of restoration and salvation for our son, this sweet boy who was dealt a crappy hand, him whose plans and dreams had been supplanted by prison bars and isolation. I still hoped that despite the grim statistics, his heroin addiction wouldn’t be the end of him.

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That his dad and I had nevertheless (as many of us who love addicts do) tried to mentally prepare ourselves in some way for that potential last phone call, the one where we would find out we had lost him forever. Of course, I never ever expected someone else’s addiction would kill him in such a tragic and accidental way while he was on the road to recovery. It’s a fool’s game to think you can prepare at all for a blindsided and broken heart.


Yes, these truths have become mine. And there in the warmth of that January afternoon, amidst the rocks and the dust, I realized that he too became mine long ago. Part of me.


And so in, his death has destroyed a part of me also.


Somehow, I still hold onto a shaky and evolving faith that death is only a beginning. For him, most certainly, but for those of us left here as well.

It seems, though, you have to trudge through the darkness and muck first. And right now we are stuck with that gritty and inescapable reality.

That he is gone. That the person I was and the family we had is no longer. And that the family we might have been…will never be in this lifetime.

It’s hard to deny that any path to redemption might be awfully long and often unbearable. Harder yet to embrace that any resurrection story must includes these interminable days in the tomb.

But I remain thankful for this life and so very grateful for the gift Zachary was and is to me and our family.

There was a hymn sung during one of the two funerals we had for Zach. Although I had personally selected much of the music for both services, this song was chosen by his aunt and the organist sang it up in the choir loft behind us at the end of the service; it was as if it was sung by an invisible angel. The song was both familiar and unrecognizable to me, beautiful and somehow haunting. I had not really thought of it again until two weeks ago when I began humming the melody. I had to look up the lyrics to remind myself.

Do not be afraid, I am with you

I have called you each by name

Come and follow me

I will bring you home

I love you and you are mine.



(If you want to listen to the song in its entirety, you can find a version of it here)

Good Grief

As some of you know, after Andy died I didn’t run away from the pain. I embraced it, somehow intuitively knowing that was the only way I was going to get through it. It’s like the bear hunt song I have referenced before….can’t go over it, under it or around it. You have to go through it.


Meditation guru and all around soul-sister-genius, Pema Chodron, calls this “leaning in.” That is to say, when you “lean into” the pain, it allows room for healing. Whatever that means, I have experienced it as truth.

But something strange and consuming and exhausting happened after Zach died. I couldn’t find the pain. None of it. Where did it go? The anguish. The grief. For Andy, for Zach, for their consecutive deaths, my consecutive heartbreak and the end of the life we once knew.

I knew that this grief was close, so close that in certain moments I could feel it, as if tripping over my own foot in the dark. In other moments I could hear it echo ever so quietly, like a shrouded whisper, but coming from every direction.

It was lost. I was lost. I needed to find it. And myself. Or just a tiny piece of both so that I could begin to heal and move forward once again.

I registered for a “Transformational Grief Retreat” at a peaceful sanctuary of a location nestled in the healing energy of southern California’s gorgeous Ojai valley.


Even if I didn’t have the intention of finding my grief, I would have found some healing anyhow. The villa we stayed in was surrounded by nature: squirrels running and birds chirping their calls while the trees and bushes rustled in the very mild breeze. It had a large hot spring sort of soaking pool, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, a yoga studio and so many other details you will just have to trust felt like shangri-la for your soul. I probably drank 20 cups of tea, each one warming parts of my heart that had been frozen…completely numb…for months.

We had our own personal Ayurvedic chef whose loving, healthful and living meal creations helped us heal from the inside out. The kitchen was the central force in the villa’s great room, so for much of the day we were soothed and enchanted by the sounds of his chopping, stirring and humming. Our senses came alive as the herbs, spices and ingredients came together into these nourishing works of art. And I probably don’t need to say what an absolute treat it is for a working mama to be cooked for and served 3 exquisite meals a day. Like I said, just being there for 2 days would have helped me in so many ways.

But then there was the company. The fellowship. The weekend ended up being all women—the most extraordinary group of women. In just 48 hours we became deeply connected, united by our individual and collective grief experiences. We cried a great deal but laughed almost as much, and I think both healed and bonded us equally. Our first evening together was spent making introductions and small talk while enjoying our first meal. Then the energy shifted completely as we broke ourselves open one by one, sharing as much or as little about the loved ones (and their stories) that we had come to grieve. It was a consuming, depleting and yet powerfully connecting experience. Sleep was welcome as we all wondered what tomorrow would bring.

I started the 2nd day with a healing massage and reiki session by a wonderful master Reiki teacher. I was on a heated massage table outside, underneath a beautiful oak tree with tiny warm rays of sunshine peeking through. Lying on that table, just yards away from everyone else but protected by my blanket and the practitioner’s healing hands, I felt both fully exposed and completely safe; this was actually how I felt the entire weekend. This session was wonderful and helped loosen me up physically and emotionally for the the work I was about to do. Tension was released and space was made within and throughout my body.

We then went on to do nearly two hours of gentle, effective and healing yoga. It was therapeutic, cathartic and revitalizing. After the yoga, a hot shower and a delicious lunch, I was ready for some solitude and set out to hike on nearby trails. At the end of my hike, I felt a huge shift inside of me. It was familiar; it felt hot and suffocating and like it might never end. I had found the pain again. I think I had finally made room for it in my mind and body, and it was oddly welcome because within it I discovered a context and truth I had been denying myself for months.


I am keeping that part ambiguous because I need to. I am still in it, living it, breathing it and processing it. It was indeed a breakthrough and it hurt(s) like hell.

But the miracle and the beauty is that I found my broken heart in the safest place…amidst a dozen others. No one else was in my shoes or had losses quite like mine, but my companions for the weekend held that space for me to just drop into the ache. And we all knew full well it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The rest of the weekend was filled with more soulful discussions about everything from our process and experience to our beliefs about the afterlife. We did more yoga and meditation. We ate. We cried. We laughed again and again. And we lit candles for the beloveds we had lost, honoring them and completing our weekend together.


The whole thing was nothing short of extraordinary. I didn’t leave feeling refreshed and restored like I have on other retreats; in fact, I left feeling like crap. But that’s okay. The point is I left feeling. And that is what I set out to do.

When I described my experience to my husband, he said, “it sounds like you found a foothold.” And I did. For myself. For the pain. For what I need to do and where I need to go right this moment.

The whole weekend was an exercise in “good” grief. The best grief, in fact. It let us embrace a natural and undeniable process that takes us to hell and back. I am not back yet, but I am deeply grateful to be on the road again.


***My heartfelt gratitude goes to Claire Bidwell Smith and Thea Harvey for facilitating this incredible weekend. And much love and endless thanks to each one of the beautiful women who shared their hearts and grief with me.***

Cloudy with a chance of MEATBALLS

Beginnings 4

I wanted to spend this week holding space for my beautiful brother and his memory. For the powerful imprint he has left on our hearts.

Healthy, happy, goofy Andy. Age 16

Healthy, happy, goofy Andy. Age 16

I wanted to raise awareness about the illness that claimed him.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to write as much as I did last year, but I do still feel I have accomplished all of those things.

There is one more story that I wanted to share, though. One that makes you think about what you really know and believe. One that will hopefully remind you about how awesome this crazy journey can be.

It’s a story about love knowing no bounds and crossing the lines of time and space.

December 2008: Annual cookie baking in Redlands. I am so glad someone captured this memory and shared. I had forgotten about it; now, it's one that I cling to.

December 2008

If you look hard enough and listen long enough, you will find overwhelmingly credible accounts of people who remain connected to their departed loved ones in a real and physical way.

I have always wanted to believe these stories, and never more so than when I lost my own brother, but my brain likes to outsmart my heart. It was hard for me to truly embrace the idea of life after death or paranormal communication with those who have passed on.

Just within our own family’s experience, there are dozens of examples of these small and strange phenomena occurring in our house and among family members.

From belongings of Andy’s being there one minute and then gone the next…and then back somewhere else a few weeks later. There were also moments we swore we could smell him. Or hear him. There were even times in the early months when lights that were on in the house went off, and vice -versa.  As creepy as this might seem, it never felt scary or intimidating. (I could actually recount each and every incident for you, all of which might enhance the credibility of my story…but it would also become very long and maybe a little tedious. We don’t want that=-)

However, even though our broken hearts wanted to believe these things “true”, I guess there could have been some other explanation for them as well.

Andy knew we needed something bigger. Something beyond what our brains could explain away.

The first “meatball encounter” was during the summer of last year: July 2012. It was a bizarre, but fairly isolated incident (though now I see it set the stage for what was to come). Who knows…maybe there were more signs and I just wasn’t “tuned in” enough. Regardless, this was a very big DOT on the pathway of connections I needed to make.

One day, upon arriving for a visit to my dad’s house, I immediately checked the refrigerator to see what was there (a common “homecoming” habit, I believe). It was mostly empty, but I saw a package of Trader Joe’s Turkey meatballs in the freezer and made a mental note that those could be a quick and easy snack for Aidan later. I then went to put Lainey down for a nap and also fell asleep. Mike was with Aidan when I came back upstairs awhile later. When I opened the freezer again, the meatballs were gone. The empty package was sitting on top of the trash.

No biggie, I thought. Mike must have prepared them. When I asked, he said he knew nothing of said meatballs. Aidan also didn’t know and couldn’t have prepared them.

I was so weirded out that I called BOTH of my parents to see if either of them had stopped by the house during my nap to have a meatball snack. No dice.

Insert musical clip of Twilight Zone music here.

It was weird, but just out of context enough for me to forget about it.

In November, we took a family vacation in Hawaii. It was wonderful and difficult, stressful and relaxing all at once. We did send some of Andy’s ashes off to sea and I found a particular cove where I felt Andy very powerfully. But nothing out-of-this-world (except maybe this photo of the cove which is kind of amazing).


The only truly strange part in all of this was that after we returned, my dad got a call from the owner of the condo we had rented while we were there. She asked if one of us had left a leather journal. Not really knowing, but realizing it could have been any of us, my dad said “yes” and asked her to mail it back to us.

He was absolutely blown away when he opened the package to find the journal he had given Andy around the time be was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. My dad had not seen that journal since he gave it to Andy 3 years ago. None of us even knew it existed and certainly hadn’t brought it along. All the way to Hawaii.

Do you have goosebumps yet?

Furthermore, it didn’t have much written in it, but what was there added to our understanding of Andy’s journey. Wow, right? I know!

So now fast forward a few months to early 2013.  I had just started my job at the church and our schedule became so packed that I began doing bulk cooking on the weekends to save time during the week. One of our favorite go-to meals is very simple turkey meatballs.

Initially, I kept noticing that when it came time to eat them, there seemed to be fewer than what I had made, but I wasn’t keeping track and couldn’t be sure.  After this happened for a few weeks in a row, I became slightly irritated/curious and questioned each family member to see if they had taken any meatballs. I was met with an overwhelming NO.


So then I actually started counting. And sure enough, about 3 meatballs started disappearing each week. Some tiny part of my brain wondered, “Could it be…?”  and KNEW that indeed it could. But then another part said, “Noooo…it couldn’t be…could it?” And the two parts wrestled back and forth.

Then I hit a busy spell and didn’t  make meatballs for awhile. Around that time, I was feeling sort of far away from Andy. I wrote this post at the 18 month mark. Later that night, I was in bed reading when I heard a huge crash upstairs in the kitchen above me. I quickly ran upstairs to find the cover of our blue (Andy’s color) ceramic/cast iron Dutch oven lying upside down (and chipped from the fall) in the middle of the floor. Mike had been working in his office and heard the crash too. He came rushing in to see if I was okay and I told him I thought HE had gotten hurt. Mike explained that he had actually finished washing dishes about a half hour before and placed the Dutch oven upside down on the stove to dry–far back enough that it would have taken quite a force of nature to throw the lid across the room like that. Force of nature indeed!

In that moment, I realized what was going on. I also felt this supernatural wave of familiarity and recognition wash over me. Goosebumps. Hair standing on end. I had never felt Andy so close–I knew he was right there. I immediately burst into tears and just stood there, trying to soak in the feeling of having two dimensions collide. I was a little bit sad, but mostly SO very happy. I then got his joke, started laughing and said, “Okay, okay.  I’ll start making meatballs again!”

In case you are wondering…Yes, Andy loved turkey meatballs.

I will say that the noticeable disappearing meatball incidences dwindled after that. But I understood already; that invisible line had been crossed and he had made his point. And I am so grateful Andy knows me well enough to have done it in a gentle, funny, yet undeniable way. To let us know he is here, always. And that he is more than okay. Gone to our immediate, physical senses, but never really far if we take the time to connect.

Every now and then, I will notice some rotisserie chicken missing (one of his favorites), and just the other day, I was taking out a couple slices of uncured turkey bacon (Andy LOVED bacon) to make for the kids’ breakfast. I knew I had used two slices the day before when I had opened the package. And what do you know? That day there were only 3 pieces left. I turned over the package to check the number of servings, 8, and quickly did the math. Just to be sure, I asked the family if they had eaten any. They had NOT.

So I stopped for a moment against the stove, enjoying the goosebumps. I shook my head a bit, smiled big and long and said,

“Hi Andykins. Love you too.”


The Answer

Tonight is a sort of vigil for me. I can’t help but to mark time…to think…2 years ago tonight, Andy was still alive.  Yesterday was my birthday and today, for me anyway, marks the day he left us. Thinking about tomorrow hurts too…the day we found out, but I’m actually going to share a post tomorrow that I hope brings the tone back to the realm of love and hope. Because those are the things I want to keep closest to my heart when I think of my brother. All of the other stuff too, yes…but the love most of all.

I actually dreamed of Andy last night; it was only the second clear and focused interaction with him in my dreams since he died. It was so wonderful…such a surprise…and once again I got to hug him big and deep and cradle his face in my hands.

As I keep vigil tonight, I think of my brother as he began his journey to the other side. As he left us and went up into the mountains to wrestle with what I can only imagine was the most tortuous of hours. A few months ago, I was thinking deeply about this time for him and what it must have been like. In response, the following piece of writing just spilled out of me. I am not a poet AT ALL; it’s just not how I write…but I still like to read this because it captures the biggest questions for me…as well as the only real answer we will ever have.

The Answer

What whisper came upon you

When you fell to your sleep?
What coiled angst planted itself
against the earth that night?
Did love and fear and isolation
release themselves
as you inhaled everything you were
and let go?
Exhaling every torment, every doubt
and trusting the swift hand of time
to carry you on.
Or was it all or nothing?
Did the madness eclipse your Light,
your Soul, your Self?
For a moment were you borrowing fate,
trusting nothing but the End?
Or was this mapped out long ago?
Carted, woven and seamed by One
unseen but ever known.
Was this written in the stars, across our hearts and in our blood?
Did it echo in our laughter? Did we know it in our tears?
This sorrow our baited destiny,
unfurled so that pockets and furrows and crevices deep within us
could open and grow and flourish.
 No matter the answer,
the question itself both affirms and denies
that which we think we know as Truth.
 We are left in the deep trenches of uncertainty,
bolstered only by the promise of love-everlasting and time-eternal
and a faith, that someday again
we can delight in the sweet solace of You
Andy and me...in our happy place.

Andy and me…in our happy place.


Elementary Years 5

Sweet, silly Andy…young, wild and free.

Today’s post to my Facebook community:

“If you missed my post on Monday, I am speaking out this week during Mental Illness Awareness Week.

Tonight, I am humbled thinking of all of the men and women out there, right this very moment, living in absolute hell as they struggle with mental illness. Many of them may be receiving treatment and fighting their way back to functionality, but many more live in hiding. Live in shame. Live in tormented despair because they don’t know how to get treatment…or treatment is not available to them…or they are so ashamed or so afraid of what it will all mean to actually get treatment.

Of those who DO seek treatment, many feel they cannot share their illness or struggle because it will be perceived negatively within their relationships and workplaces (that also might be a gross understatement).

In my opinion, living in hiding or shame is not living. This is not okay.

Right now, if you can, try saying “mental illness” out loud. It might seem silly, but take a moment to say something like, “Oh, my friend (so and so) is mentally ill.” or “I struggle with mental illness” just to get a feel for how your body responds. There’s something about that combination of words that makes us cringe a little. Or more than a little.

Now take a moment to think about what you really THINK and BELIEVE about mental illness. Is it all real? I mean Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia, sure, but Depression and Anxiety? That’s got to be sort of made up, right? Or temporary? Life is hard for everyone, right? People who say they are majorly depressed or anxious need to buck up and deal like the rest of us.

Now, obviously I am generalizing and making a point. I would not presume that any of you actually feel or think this way. But some people do. I confess that even after EVERYTHING we have been through and everything I know to be true, I still associate a certain amount of stigma with particular mental illnesses. How’s that for honest? I acknowledge that this stigma has been built into my consciousness just by being human in this day and age.


Facts you may not know about Mental Illness:

• One in four adults−approximately 61.5 million
Americans−experience mental illness in a given
year. One in 17−about 13.6 million−live with a serious
mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression
or bipolar disorder.
• About 9.2 million adults have co-occurring mental
health and addiction disorders.
• One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age
of 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective
treatment, there are long delays−sometimes
decades−between the first appearance of symptoms
and when people get help.
• Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion
in lost earnings per year.17
• Mood disorders such as depression are the third most
common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both
youth and adults ages 18 to 44.18
• Individuals living with serious mental illness face an
increased risk of having chronic medical conditions.
Adults living with serious mental illness die on average
25 years earlier than other Americans, largely due to
treatable medical conditions.
• Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S.
(more common than homicide) and the third leading
cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years. More than 90
percent of those who die by suicide had one or more
mental disorders.

Here is a link to last year’s post about suicide and mental illness. It’s a good one.”


On the evening of August 28th, at the end of my husband’s 39th birthday, we got a call letting us know that his son, my beloved stepson, had been killed in an automobile accident. In that moment, the world stopped. Our world stopped, again.

It is WAY too soon for me to really write or reflect much on this tragic and befuddling loss. But I will say that in the moment I found out, it felt like my Andy-grief was blown up into the atmosphere, like the top blown off a volcano. Not gone or replaced or anything like that, just displaced and sort of far away. And everything else is just SO intense.

Every day is a day to get up and choose not to go down the rabbit hole. To put one foot in front of the other and keep trekking.  To focus on the love in our lives and to be grateful for every second we have with those that are still here. Every day we miss him and mourn him and can’t believe he is gone.

And now, somehow, October is upon us. And yesterday marked the beginning of Mental Illness Awareness Week. The same week we observe the 2nd anniversary of Andy’s death.

I keep in touch with a very small group of people on Facebook. I intentionally made it small so that it would feel safe and like community for me. The following is what I posted tonight announcing my project for this week:


December 2010. Our last decent full family photo.

December 2010. Our last decent full family photo.


“I am taking some time this week to bring my focus and attention back to the young man at the center of this photo. My sweet and sorely-missed baby brother…our other beloved angel, Andy.

We are just a week away from the 2nd anniversary of his death and also, interestingly enough, right at the beginning of Mental Illness Awareness Week. Strange timing? Or strangely perfect? Either way, this week I am going to stand up on my tiny little soapbox and do my best to spread some awareness. While also stopping to remember Andy. And also sharing with you a little more about this journey (now incredibly complicated and compound) of grief and healing.

Some of you may have noticed that we did not hold the 2nd annual Friendship Festival yesterday as we had planned. I am sure you can understand our reasons, but we hope you will all still consider joining us in February 2014 for this VERY special event that will be all about love, compassion and “creating a kinder and safer world for those living with mental illness.” That is the vision of the newly created 501c3 “The Andrew Wade Friendship Foundation.” We are OFFICIAL!

Now back to my brother and his story since he is the inspiration for it all. This family Christmas photo was taken just a few months after he was hospitalized and diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It was a shaky and uncertain time. A holiday of second chances and unspoken truth. We had no idea that less than one year later he would be dead. That he would fight like hell to regain balance and maintain his dignity, but to no avail. That ultimately, he would succumb to a fatal brain disease that claims the life of 20-25% of its victims via SUICIDE.

In this photo, we also had absolutely no idea that last statistic even existed. Did you?

So here we are. I have spent the last year after the 1st deathiversary trying to get to know my brother more. To get to know his illness. To understand mental illness in general. To be able to make “The Andrew Wade Friendship Foundation” something worthy of its name.

If you are new to this story or missed my blog project one year ago, you can read my 10 Posts in 10 Days leading up to the first anniversary.


I hope you will join me this week to light a candle (or a virtual one) for all of those we have lost to mental illness and for all of those who currently struggle in whatever way. I hope you will join me in raising awareness and increasing our understanding of these brain-based illnesses that impact MILLIONS.

I also hope you will keep reading.

With love and gratitude,