Over the summer, my son’s pet rabbit died. My five-year-old granddaughter loved to visit Toulouse every time she came over, and as far as I’m aware, it was her first brush with death.
We’ve had many talks about death. She loves seeing pictures of my parents and grandmother and has asked many questions about them. My daughter and I have shared stories about them with her and have told her many times that we wish they could have met her because they would have loved her. My dad was the only one who lived long enough to meet her. Their lives overlapped by about nine months.
I’ve explained to her that my parents and grandmother got old, and their bodies stopped working. But they were/are more than just their bodies. Although we can’t see their bodies anymore, we still can connect with their essence and continue to have a relationship with them, through the “telephone of the heart”.
And then there’s the telephone of the wind, which is an actual, physical phone that a Girl Scout troop installed in a local park over the summer. It’s based on an old-fashioned telephone booth placed in Otsuchi, Japan after the tsunami hit ten years ago, to stay connected with loved ones who passed away. The telephone isn’t connected to anything, but it provides a quiet space for private, heartfelt conversation and an opportunity to say the goodbyes and words that were left unsaid when the person was alive. Or to have ongoing conversations.
Ever since hearing about the telephone of the wind, my granddaughter has wanted to go there to talk to Toulouse. But rain kept getting in the way of our plans. This week, she asked again, and we finally made it happen. It was supposed to be an opportunity for her to talk to the bunny, but it ended up being much more.
The phone is an old-fashioned rotary model like I remember from my childhood. I showed my granddaughter how to find the numbers and turn the dial. Then she picked up the phone and started talking to the bunny.
When she was done talking, I taught her how to be quiet and still and to listen for any words or notice any pictures or feelings that might arise in her heart. It was easy and natural for her to do. Then she gave the phone to me so I could talk to the bunny and share memories.
After ending that call, she asked if I wanted to call my parents. Normally, I use the telephone of my heart for that purpose, and it works really well. But I decided to take her cue and try something different.
The phone looked just like the one in the corner of my grandmother’s kitchen, from which I made phone calls when I was growing up. I put my index finger into the circles that called my home phone number when I was a child – the number my parents had for the rest of their lives. I felt an unexpected sense of anticipation and a wave of emotion that brought tears to my eyes. Visceral memory. I explained to my granddaughter they were tears of gratitude because I was thankful for having such loving parents.
After dialing all the numbers, it was as if I was waiting for them to answer.
I started talking. Through thankful tears, I told them I missed them, even though I loved being able to talk with them through my heart.
Earlier that day, I discovered a baby mouse in my car. After removing the mouse, I realized I hadn’t vacuumed my car over the summer as intended. So that was something I needed to do. I remembered how my dad used to vacuum my car. If I visited my parents and went for a walk or ran an errand with my mom in her car, he would seize the opportunity to vacuum my car and fill up my gas tank. It was his language of love.
It’s been more than five years since the last time he did that, and I realized how much I miss and appreciate his car-related acts of caring. Nobody else has ever done that for me.
So that’s what I said into the telephone of the wind. I told him how much I appreciate that he did that.
I also told my parents I had my granddaughter with me, and they would love her so much. I asked her if she wanted to talk with them, and she said yes. So she got on the phone and introduced herself and told them the things she thought they would love about her.
When she handed the phone back to me, I told them I’d say bye for now, but I always love talking with them through my heart and in dreams.
Before making another call, I told my granddaughter about the time I was really missing my mom, and then a flurry of heart-shaped cottonwood leaves rained down from the sky. That, too, was a response, I explained.
Then I picked up the phone to call my grandmother. I told her how much I miss her and how I appreciate her coming to me in a dream one time and giving me a present – all wrapped up and tied with a bow. I didn’t open the present in the dream, but when I woke up, I knew it was a camera. My parents had just given me a little money from the sale of her house, and I used it to buy my first entry-level DSLR camera.
It was arguably the best purchase I ever made.
I went on to describe how much photography means to me and to express my gratitude for the camera, which changed my life.
I also thanked my grandmother for being such a wonderful grandmother and said that by being so kind and loving to me, she taught me how to be a wonderful grandmother for my granddaughter.
I told her about my granddaughter and what she would love about her, and then my granddaughter got on the phone to introduce herself.
She ended with a question, and I actually heard the answer in my heart: my grandmother’s friendly voice, loud and clear. She loved children.
After we ended that call, we moved on to the next thing: the swings in another part of the park.
“Race ya!” my granddaughter exclaimed before taking off like a rocket. Naturally, she won. She always does.
Making those calls with her on the telephone of the wind was really gratifying. It was an opportunity to model out-loud a process you can go through when someone you love has passed away, to stay connected with them. With their essence, which is pure, unconditional love.
It felt like a very important thing to do. Someday when I have outgrown my body, I hope my granddaughter will talk to me like that and know how to listen with her heart and through synchronicity, to receive all the love that seeks her. I hope that will be many years from now so we can make many more beautiful memories together that will become part of her, and a way I will live on through her.
It’s such a beautiful thing to connect with your loved one’s essence, which is love. The love that always was there at the core, beneath the personality patterns that offer us the conflict and contrast we need to awaken and evolve and to expand the universe.
That’s how I’ve come to see it, anyway.
The telephone of the heart allows us to give and receive love. When we focus loving awareness on something or someone, we are attuned to the vibration of love and receptive to it. In this sense, anyone who has loved us or whom we have loved really and truly is part of us. With love, there is no distance or separation whatsoever.
I had no idea about this until after I lost my parents. It is one of the great blessings our deepest losses can reveal to us.
I dictated this whole story into my phone while taking a walk outdoors. When I got back in the car to drive home, I turned on the radio. The song playing was Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”:
If you’re lost you can look and you will find me Time after time If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting Time after time
I kid you not.
It was another response that resulted in another round of grateful tears.
Isn’t it amazing? Each and every one of us is part of a great, mysterious legacy of love. A web of love. I don’t know how it works, only that it exists.
Yesterday was my mom’s seventh angelversary: the seventh anniversary of her passing from this world into the great unknown.
And all is well.
Better than well, actually. Because the aliveness and vitality of this time of year now overshadow the 2014-2015 memories of dying and grieving.
The month of May, once again, is more about life than death, partly because of my flower friends: the whole parade that begins with daffodils and in the past couple weeks has included lilacs, lilies of the valley, and irises. Every spring, they show up and reliably and unknowingly support me and gladden my heart.
At the end of my mom’s life, flowers, friends, and family are what mattered most. That year, I made it my mission to surround her with flowers and news of what was happening in the flower world. When she was strong enough, we walked around the house looking at her flower beds, and I hoped she’d be able to see some of her flowers bloom. The flower parade was how I measured time that year.
When she wasn’t strong enough to go outdoors, and her universe narrowed down to the sofa and coffee table in the living room, I showed her my photographs of flowers. I also kept vases of freshly cut lilacs around her.
The rest of my flower memories of my mom were much happier ones. All my life, she had flower gardens. She wasn’t much of a nature girl in other respects, but she loved tending to her flowers. Memories of my mom and an abiding connection with her come strongly through flowers.
Lilies of the valley: Tiny fairy bells with an intoxicating fragrance that transports me instantly to my childhood. My swing set was right next to a flower garden that featured lilies of the valley. The memories are so strong that they could convince me the delicate blooms lasted all summer. But that’s just how big an impression the fragrance made and how closely I must have studied them after my mom pointed them out to me.
I also remember the joy of picking some for my mom, who loved the fragrance. What joy to be a young child noticing a flower and seeing it as an opportunity to make someone happy. Picking it. Feeling the anticipation of gifting it. Seeing happiness brighten the recipient’s eyes and spread into a smile. Do you remember?
Yesterday morning, my mom’s actual angelversary, I woke up knowing exactly what I wanted to photograph.
The morning she died, after leaving the hospice house, I drove straight to the labyrinth – my sacred refuge – and was greeted by irises. They were there for me that morning, uplifting me, and they are here for me every May 27th.
I didn’t pay much attention to flowers while my mom was alive (until the last few years of her life). That was her thing. For my dad, it was birds. Those are the languages in which they speak to me even now. The first messenger was irises. From day one, irises were there to connect me to the goodness and beauty in the world when I needed it most.
And so I immersed myself in photographing irises on my mom’s angelversary and reflected on how her love of flowers had become integrated in me and how it has awakened me in many ways and deepened our connection.
The dead are not distant or absent. They are alongside us. When we lose someone to death, we lose their physical image and presence, they slip out of visible form into invisible presence…Though they cannot reappear, they continue to be near us and part of the healing of grief is the refinement of our hearts whereby we come to sense their loving nearness.
It feels to me that when we engage or connect with something our dearly departed one loved, we draw them near.
After photographing the irises, I walked the labyrinth and declared inwardly something my heart had known all along: All of my flower pictures are dedicated to my mom (except for water lilies, which are my thing.) When I photograph flowers, there is no separation between myself and my mother’s essence – which has become part of me. It’s almost as if I can see through her eyes.
Which is why all is well seven years later. And I make lots of photos with flowers.
Today on this Winter Solstice + Grand Conjunction, I’ve spent the morning writing down some words that have been coming through. Grief had something to say to those who have lost loved ones this year. May these words of hope ease the darkness of this darkest day even just a little for those who are grieving.
For Those Who Are Grieving
Everyone who has ever loved you
And the myriad travelers ahead of you
On this well-trodden road of humanity
Ask you to please be patient with Grief
And to trust that, even when you feel it
Deep down in your bones and in every
Cell of your body, and it feels like it will
Annihilate you, Grief serves a noble purpose.
Your future self reaches out through time
To assure you that Grief allowed to ripen
Bears great fruit, and the journey that began
With feeling so torn apart and forsaken
Eventually offers the realization
That everyone who has ever loved you
And everyone you have loved and lost
Exists here inside the heart, in purest form,
Always present and accessible and part of
A greater presence of Unconditional Love
You can call upon at any time.
For you have not been abandoned,
As much as it feels like it now. In time,
The precious ones you have lost once again
Will be your greatest and closest allies.
Yes, Grief is exhausting work
But if you can be patient and allow it
To belong in the tapestry of your life, it will
Open the door to the transcendent dimension
Where you will receive its astonishing gifts
And learn to communicate in new ways.
May you in time marvel at how
This heartache that knocked you down
So forcefully and repeatedly
Like waves of the incoming tide
Has alchemized into a deeper
Connectedness beyond the physical
And the grand realization of your
Wholeness and enoughness, how it has
Revealed the radiant truth of your being
And grown your compassion.
When the days feel bleak and forlorn,
As if part of your heart has been amputated
You cling to the sound of their voice,
The details of their face – afraid of forgetting
What, rest assured, will not be forgotten.
In the darkest season of your grief
When it feels like all light has deserted
Your heart and couldn’t be further away,
May you find solace in what others
Have discovered up ahead in the distance:
What you are looking for outside of yourself
Is growing silently and miraculously within you.
May you continue on, putting
One foot in front of the other
And resting as you need to,
Showering yourself with the mercy
Your loved one wishes for you,
Until at last you arrive at the revelation
That your deepest, most painful loss
Has become your greatest awakening.
For in the end, we love and grieve
Only to discover: Love is who we are,
And separation is nothing but illusion.
Though this may feel so far
From truth and possibility now,
So very many who have traveled this road
And survived the journey, your future self,
And everyone who has ever loved you
Beg you to trust it is so.
I enjoy conversations with my granddaughter so much. During this week’s sleepover, while making star-shaped cookies on a stick that looked like magic wands, the topic of dragonflies came up. Over the summer, we noticed a dead dragonfly on the sidewalk at Congress Park. Remembering that dragonfly has become a predictable segue for talking about my parents, which is one of her favorite topics.
“The dragonfly’s body stopped working, just like your mommy and daddy’s. Your mommy and daddy died. But they’re not died…right?”
“Yes,” I confirmed. “My mommy and daddy’s bodies stopped working, so they don’t have bodies anymore. But they are still able to love!”
I used to write a lot about grieving my parents’ deaths. Writing was how I made my way through the dark forest of grief. Eventually, I found myself on the other side of the forest. The darkness was behind me. Mercifully, life goes on, and a new chapter begins.
Beyond grief, there is another story waiting to blossom. A rather amazing one if we’re open to it.
Our dearly departed continue to connect with us after they’re gone. But they are so much more than the quirky personalities they had on earth. They offer pure, unconditional love. If you allow yourself to receive it, it can transform your life. Big-time. It can save you from yourself and turn you into your own best friend. I know because it happened to me.
It started as a little voice that countered the words of my Inner Critic. As I paid attention to it, the voice grew louder and more constant. And when I heard it, I felt my mom’s presence. It seemed like she was near and speaking to me through my own heart. But it wasn’t the voice of her personality. It was the voice of unconditional love. I felt my mother’s deep, abiding love for me, as if it were a seed planted in my heart. It was also like being on the receiving end of the steadfast love I’ve always had for my children. The kind of love that didn’t want them to suffer and learn things the hard way, and didn’t need to be right. No ego, just pure love.
It was like my mother’s love was beaming straight into my heart and watering that seed, and also holding a mirror that reflected my love and compassion for others right back to me. So I could love myself. Really love myself, probably for the first time ever.
See, I went through some difficult years after my mom died. Grief made me vulnerable to losing myself in a way empaths are prone to. I’d given away my power, and as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t seem to take it back and set myself free. I was really stuck, and it was the worst feeling. I felt powerless and prayed often for help and guidance to rise above the illusions and habits that imprisoned me. And whenever I asked, it was given.
For a while, it was a being of light similar to Glinda, the Good Witch standing at the entrance to the forest of forbidden thoughts in my mind. She radiated love and light and assured me that there was nothing there for me. Her compassionate presence served as a shield that prevented me from stepping into the danger zone. She helped me to have healthier boundaries and to form new neural pathways by putting warning signs at the entrances to the old ones.
Then they arrived. All of them. Everyone who had truly loved me before they passed into non-physical. They formed a circle around me, and I felt their love coming through so strongly. They did not want me to bring suffering on myself but didn’t judge me for doing so. They couldn’t stop me, but they could be present and surround me with love and light.
Their light lit the lamp of my own self-love. It didn’t happen overnight, but in time it empowered me to stop searching outside of myself for love and self-worth and to kindle it from the true source within. And that allowed me to set down the backpack of illusions I had been carrying around. Finally, I didn’t need it anymore. The trance lifted, and I was free to be me and to shine my light brighter than ever.
It feels like I have bushwhacked back to my true Self, reclaimed it, and put it in charge of my life. And I honestly believe I couldn’t have done it without some help from the other side. There were also people in the physical world who helped me to get unstuck, and I’m so grateful for their love and patience. And other women experiencing similar things were some of my clearest mirrors. However, it really felt like a team of angels was assisting me, too. People-pleasing empath that I was, it wasn’t enough for me to want to stop suffering. Realizing that nobody who loved me would want me to suffer is what did the trick.
Love is strong medicine that can set us free. My parents’ love for me has continued after they passed on and was strong enough to help me to generate self-love, which empowered me to heal. I’ve learned to love and forgive myself, and everyone else, too. Now my self-talk is completely different than it used to be. I relate to myself with unconditional love: so nurturing and forgiving and loving. So powerful and transformative. I’ve never felt so alive, so fully myself.
It’s kind of weird timing because the world seems so out of sorts, and we already have snow on the ground and temperatures in the teens when it’s only mid-November. But maybe it’s perfect and exactly what is needed, and maybe it’s happening to many others as well. It’s okay, even if the world is going through tremendous growth pains and feels unseasonably and unreasonably cold. Maybe love blossoming within us, one heart at a time, is exactly what this world of ours needs most to evolve. We have each other, and the dearly departed, as well, loving us and rooting us on.
As for the cookie conversation, I assured my granddaughter that it’s okay that the dragonfly and my parents don’t have bodies anymore – because they don’t need them. The part of them that we can’t see keeps living and loving. I told her that even though my parents don’t have a body now, they send me so much love, and I will do the same for her when my body stops working someday.
Our conversations, and the love between us, never have to end. We just have to learn to recognize a different kind of voice, be receptive, and practice a different way of communicating. There is a bridge between physical and non-physical. We just need to find it.
This afternoon, a friendly, older couple came into the library with a little girl about eight years old. They asked me to help them locate a DVD and handed me a piece of paper with only the call number written on it: 792.8 COPP. I didn’t need to know the name and didn’t ask.
It ended up being a DVD of the Coppélia ballet. They were taking their granddaughter to see it later this week at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) and wanted her to know the story ahead of time.
I saw the New York City Ballet perform Coppélia at SPAC many times when I was a little girl. It was my favorite ballet aside from The Nutcracker. I told the girl I loved Coppélia when I was about her age and mentioned that the costumes are beautiful, and I think she will enjoy it.
The grandparents’ energy was lovely. Their personalities seemed a lot like my parents’. My mom always made sure I knew the story of the ballets before seeing them, and the grandmother’s excitement reminded me of her love for ballet performances at SPAC. And the little girl reminded me of little me.
My mom worked at SPAC since I was in elementary school and retired a few short years before she died five years ago. When she retired, my parents were given lifetime, complimentary tickets for the ballet and orchestra performances. They always sat in “their” seats in the amphitheater. After my mom died, I accompanied my dad and sat in her seat. Their seats have plaques, and my mom’s bears the inscription:
Nancy Meyer “The Heart of Art of SPAC” From your SPAC Family
My dad’s, on the seat next to hers, reads:
Ed Meyer Nancy’s Husband “Partner in the Arts”
I haven’t been to the ballet or orchestra since my dad passed away. However, thanks to a partnership this year between SPAC and the libraries I work at, I’m going tomorrow evening with my family. I would have loved to see Coppélia, but I’m not free that evening. But it makes me happy to think about the little girl and her grandparents going to see it.
It was a really sweet interaction. However, when I sat back down at the reference desk, my eyes teared up. It was the kind of moment that has become so much rarer than during the early years of bereavement.
Grief is so very, very different now than it was for a few years after my mom (and soon after, my dad) died. It even feels benevolent. There’s still an initial sting, but it subsides swiftly into gentle ripples of gratitude and appreciation. I’m so grateful because grief was intense and overpowering for a while, a flood tide force that knocked me down and threatened to pull me under. There were a few complicating factors that made it downright brutal and certainly the darkest, most challenging years of my life.
It’s not like that now, for I’ve become familiar with grief and have learned to co-exist peacefully with it. Although every now and then a “moment” happens, it’s so much more fleeting than it was before. The sea is quieter. More of a gentle splash than a smack-down.
Within seconds of feeling tears welling in my eyes at the library, a familiar patron approached me with a joke that made me smile. Then he showed me a very marked up book of poetry he carries with him that has some of my favorite poet’s work in it. And just like that, the “moment” had passed.
If a distraction hadn’t come along, I probably would have greeted it silently: Hello, Grief. Then I’d generate lots of self-compassion and compassion for others all around the world who are grieving. That’s what Grief seems to ask of me these days. It wouldn’t have stayed long. It comes to connect me with our common humanity and to help me cultivate lovingkindness.
The moment of grief at the library was poignant but very brief. The brevity made me aware of the contrast between the dark years and now. As soon as I got home, I sat down to write this because I want you to know, if you are grieving the loss of someone dear: It’s going to get better. Grief is impermanent. It changes. Your relationship with it will change. It won’t always feel so intense. In time, there’s even a possibility that Grief will be your friend and reveal its silver lining. Perhaps you’ll even learn to dance together.
It’s quiet in the house now except for the sound of the last load of laundry tossing around in the dryer. I still find it a little hard to believe that I’m the one with the washer and dryer and the adult children who bring their laundry home when they visit. Was it really that long ago when I brought my laundry basket to my parents’ house with young children in tow?
My three-year-old granddaughter and I had a really fun afternoon and evening together. I introduced her to watercolor painting and my old ViewMasters. She had her usual bubble bath with rubber ducks and measuring cups. She built with magnet blocks, counted “1…2…3!” and jumped with gusto from one futon mattress to another at least 30 times in a row, giggling in between. We made popcorn and ice cream with sprinkles and snuggled on the couch to watch a Harold and the Purple Crayon video before bedtime. We did lots of other activities together, too. It was an active day.
Young children don’t need fancy things to hold their attention. Ava noticed a tray of sand and small stones from the beach and became immersed in burying the stones in the sand until they couldn’t be seen. Then she imagined the stones were little people and acted out a whole new scenario. The sand and stones intrigued her long enough for her mom to run a solo shopping errand.
It’s interesting where the course of a day will take you.
This morning, I dreamed I was in my parents’ house and came downstairs and saw my dad sitting in his chair in the living room. He had just returned from a trip to England. And then my mom was there, too. In the dream, I realized something wonderful: They hadn’t really died! They’d just been away on a trip and were back now. All that time I spent grieving, and they didn’t die after all!
I spent most of the dream crying really hard because I was overjoyed to see my parents again. Then I woke up from the dream, still elated for a split second…until I realized it was only a dream.
My nose was already all stuffed up from crying in the dream. Then I cried for another half hour because it was one of those dreams that unleashed a wave of intense emotion.
It felt so good sitting in my parents’ living room next to them with good news to share. They were still alive and living in their home. In addition to feeling overjoyed because they were back, I felt like I mattered again and was supported in a way that was unique to my relationship with my parents.
It was like jumping back in time. For a little while in my dream, nothing had changed. I could still pull into my parents’ driveway, walk through the front door, and find them in their living room. They hadn’t died, and the house hadn’t been sold.
The ordinary things you don’t appreciate fully until they’re gone.
And now, here I am hearing a sweet, little voice call out, “Grandma?” before going to bed. She’s looking for me. How is it possible that my mom never even got to meet her?
She’s fascinated with all the moms and grandmas and how her grandma is her mommy’s mom – and enjoys trying to explain it when we’re all together. She likes to see pictures of the other grandmas, too – my mom and grandmother – and hear stories about them. How they would have adored her!
As we snuggled on the couch, she exclaimed, “I like this house!” And it hit me again how times have changed, and now I am the one with the house in which loving memories are made for a little girl. A house where she feels safe and supported and loved, like I did in my grandparents’ house.
My parents and grandmother spent 40-something years sowing seeds in the garden of my heart. Since they died, the seeds of their love have taken on a life of their own. When we tend to these heirloom seeds with faithful care and compassion, the blooms are more beautiful than we ever could have imagined we were capable of growing.
Now I know what a grandmother’s love feels like, from the inside out. How strong and unconditional it is. A mother’s love, too, though I think you worry less about outcomes as a grandma.
Experiencing a grandmother’s love as the grandmother is magical. It’s like having a superpower. When you can love someone like that, you also can love yourself, including everything you haven’t loved about yourself in the past. Because now you can see through Grandmother’s eyes and heart, which changes everything. It plugs you into a bigger, more universal kind of love that transcends personal losses and heartache.
The secret gift of all these years of living, loving, and losing dear ones is: Eventually, you become love. Through our personal journeys, we connect with the Universal. If I could offer my children and grandchildren any words of advice for when I’m gone, it would be: Practice daily loving yourself as I have always loved you. Because it makes a huge, positive difference in your quality of life and also helps you to love others better.
I started today grieving the loss of my parents and ended it snuggling with my granddaughter on the couch, my heart abloom, marveling at the realization that it’s my turn to sow heirloom seeds in tender, young hearts.