“What the caterpillar calls the end, the rest of the world calls a butterfly.” Lao Tzu
On January 2, 2011, my beloved daughter, Allison Lanier Powell, died suddenly and unexpectedly from the flu. It was not an unusual strain of the flu, just the common flu. Her death came within thirty-six hours of being admitted to a hospital in Boston after she fainted. We were thousands of miles away in a remote beach house and couldn’t get to her bedside before she died.
Allie’s death was a seismic event in my life, shaking me to the very core of my existence. I wrote about what that experience was like and how I survived it in an earlier book called, Loving Allie, Transforming the Journey of Loss. My hope was that by sharing a candid and frank look at how this loss affected me that I might help others who were grieving.
Some of the most important lessons I learned from Allie’s death resulted from two decisions my husband Will and I made almost immediately. One was a choice not to view ourselves as victims, and the second was a choice not to see her death as tragic. These choices taught us that even when devastating loss comes our way we are not powerless in its face. We have the option to decide how we will respond to it, how we will think about it, and what amount of power we want to give it in our lives.
Because we had spent decades of our lives helping societies and individuals learn to manage conflicts and change, we knew that certain choices and mindsets would have great influence on our ability to recover from this overwhelming loss.
Societies sometimes assign an important value to a particular loss and use it to justify behaviors for years, or even generations thereafter. This is a kind of eye-for-an-eye rationale. The decision to make a trauma a primary focal point of one’s life played out in the Deep South post Civil War, and nationally after the attacks of 9/11/2001, and continues to play out currently in the Middle East. People can choose to define themselves in ways that lock them into a relationship with loss. This notion that the loss becomes who they are is not a healthy self-image. It can become a rationale for many negative behaviors that are self-perpetuating. We found ourselves, after twenty years of consulting, having to take our own advice choosing not to play the role of victims, and choosing not to “catastrophise” the loss. It was a painful and necessary pill to swallow.
Now, four years later, with the passage of time, and with the perspective that comes from hindsight, it is possible to objectively reflect on some tools and techniques that were helpful in our journey and to share our healing process with others.
This book is intended to be an easily accessible, affordable, and practical guide for those who have met a major loss of some sort. It is called Loving Spirit for many reasons. We need to love our essential spirit, our self. We are surrounded by the spirits of those who have gone before and who hold us in loving, supportive ways. We can be a force for good in the world, a loving spirit to those who are on the journey with us. And, we are all connected, spiritually, to the One loving spirit. This book seeks to come from a place of Loving Spirit as it addresses an assortment of self-help tools that can assist someone who has experienced a major loss.
Each Chapter begins with a saying by Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese philosopher, who reputedly wrote the Tao Te Ching more than twenty-five hundred years ago. Whether he was an actual person, or the sayings are a compilation of wisdom by many authors, each attributed quote has stood the test of time. The Tao Te Ching had only 5,000 Chinese characters when it was written in 500 B.C. Yet it has been translated more than any other book except the Bible and it is still in print.
The exercises in this book may be hard for you to do. They may cause you to cry, or get angry, or want to walk away from the whole process. Believe me when I say I totally understand. It may be that the best way to do the work is in baby steps. Depending on where you are on your journey you may not yet be ready to tackle some of the exercises. Take your time. Go at your own pace. The point is not to have you simply complete the exercises like checking off items on a to-do list. Rather, the most benefit will come if you pace yourself, think deeply about what the issue is and give a considered response. You may need to stop periodically and just breathe for a while to slow down enough to absorb the meaning of the exercise. There is no one right way here, but hopefully doing the work will help give you some peace and new perspective.
While the book was begun as a response to a loss caused by death, it can be applied to almost any loss that renders us broken at our heart space, including divorce, change or end of career, health crisis, personal setback; in short, anything that causes a shift or redefinition of either the meaning, identity or structure of our lives.
Loss can be experienced as a catastrophic event, especially when it occurs suddenly or violently. My hope in writing this self-help manual is to make your loss more manageable and easier to bear. Please know that you don’t have to go at it alone, nor should you. There are many good support groups, and community resources, including therapists, doctors, religious leaders, and friends and family who can give good counsel and advice. I used every one of these types of resources, including the suggestions contained herein as part of my own recovery journey.
For now, though, let’s see how much help you can give yourself.