This book is a memoir about the death of my only child when she was sixteen. It is the story of my journey from unfathomable pain toward healing. Every parent's worst terror is that something might happen to their child. When the unthinkable happens, you believe you will die; and part of you does. Pain is your constant companion; it becomes your teacher. Compassion and love are the healers. And surrender is the dimly lit path through your grief.
I was just like everyone else until September 29, 1991, the day my daughter was killed in a plane crash in a small mountain community in Central Oregon. In one afternoon, the life I knew vaporized. I was plunged into an abyss. There was nothing in all my twenty years of professional experience as a therapist that prepared me or that I could call upon to help me survive.
Each act of surviving tragedy is an odyssey, terrifying and inspiring. We never expect to be called and nothing can prepare us for the journey into the underworld. I wrote this book to help others who are seeking meaning, solace, and a path to healing as I was. It is the story of everyone’s journey back, and each one who returns lights the way for others.
The death of a child is a different order of suffering than anything else. The hand of fate has taken what is most cherished, that which is part of you, your biological core. It breaks your heart, it rips apart your soul. It shatters the fundamental ground on which you stand.
We accept the death of a parent because in the context of our cultural beliefs it is the natural order of life. We mourn, revisit the past, deal with unfinished business, but ultimately accept it as natural, though never wanted. The death of a parent does not shake the fundamental meaning of our lives. It may bring us closer to the issues of our own mortality and existential questions which we may not be ready to face, but it does not leave us shattered to the core. The death of a child violates the natural order. We have no cultural mechanisms or religious beliefs that help us to make sense out of a child dying, nor are there adequate customs or rituals to help the bereaved family. People gather around you for a while, but they go back to their own lives. Yours is never the same.
You have been singled out, whether you believe it is by chance or by a larger purpose and design. You have been betrayed by the natural order. Primal trust is shattered, all that is familiar and known has been shaken. You are on your own. Your suffering and anguish open you to the questions of God, purpose, and the unanswerable why. You are forced to reconstruct life's meaning.
Loss that shatters one’s life is a sacred wound, a wounding so profound, that it breaches the soul, penetrates the veils of who we are what we think life is about, and renders us available to the greater order. Like the mythological hero, who is wounded by forces from beyond, we, too, have been pierced by the fates, betrayed by the Gods, and our suffering opens us to questions we hadn’t needed to ask before. As in all the great stories, it is out of the wounding that we grow into a larger sense of what life is about and are able to act accordingly.
Losing a child is a sacred wound, in the deepest mythological sense. You do not get over it. You are transformed by it. It is a modern day initiation, and like some acolyte in an ancient initiation, you emerge from this ordeal another person, having given birth to a higher self that is unattainable to those who have not also undergone the ordeal.
I believe the path to wholeness is on the other side of anger, through an appreciation of the sacredness of your wound, that you have been pierced by the divine mystery and thus opened to its grace. As Joseph Campbell says, the demon you swallow gives you its power. The greater life's pain, the greater life's reply.
As time goes on, you will begin to question how you are to live your life differently and how bearing the unbearable has recast you. Recovering from life-shattering loss is not about trying to regain the life you had. The question becomes who are you and why are you here. What is your purpose? How can you help others? People look at you differently; you are a reminder of life’s fragility in their midst.Your priorities change at the deepest level. The path toward healing is the path of allowing your grief to open you to compassion and love, not to close you down in anger and despair. Healing is not just a matter of moving through the emotional stages of grief. Losing a child is a consciousness-changing spiritual crisis.
The child who dies opens death's doorway and allows you to peer through. The child who dies can be more the teacher in death than in life. A child's death discloses what you don't want to know. It shows you how understanding impermanence deepens the appreciation for what is around you, how being able to release that which you treasured most brings you closer to the higher principles and mysteries which govern our lives.
In the beginning, there is only pain. It is hard to believe there is anything beyond the immensity of your grief. For a long time there isn't. But tragedy carries a gift in its other hand and someday you will see this. ~~~(excerpted from the Introduction)