Making Meaning


Every now and then, something comes along that fills you to the bones with gratitude for this totally messed up, chaotic, stressful, sometimes shitty and also amazing life.

Just moments ago, I finished up a live phone interview. I was invited to speak about grief and the healing power of creativity at DeathExpo – an annual online conference held by the End-of-Life University. It all started by going to another conference about death, in Virginia earlier this year, where I met the founder of the university. We chatted over a few drinks at the bar and after hearing about my story and my photo series on grief, she invited me to be a part of this wonderful expo. That was back in the summer, so I’ve been waiting a while for this event.

Now, I have to preface the rest of this with the fact that I am an introvert. I tend to like talking to one or two people at a time. I don’t like socializing in big groups, much less speaking in front of them. I’m also a writer. Normally, my words are carefully chosen and put to the page, with painstaking thoughtfulness, before they go out into the world. I don’t exactly enjoy anything that makes me have to speak off the cuff or string words together spontaneously in front of people. I also can’t multitask worth a damn, so trying to put together articulate sounding sentences WHILE speaking is sort of a subtle form of torture for me.

But when someone approaches you to share your story about grief and loss, and share what you’ve learned in hopes of helping others, you don’t say no to that. Partly because I’m superstitious. I’ve lost both parents and my fiance before the age of 30… at this rate, I try to listen when the universe presents things like this to me. I mean literally, I am afraid someone else in my life might be smited if I ignore God or the universe or whatever it is. It’s obvious I’m supposed to be doing work that is related to grief and death in some way – or I wouldn’t have so many dead people in my life. And so, despite my fear of public speaking and interviews and the spotlight and all of it… I’m just allowing the universe to drag me into all this uncomfortable shit.

And you know what?

This interview was awesome. I loved every moment of it. I don’t know why, but I’ve never felt particularly confident or assertive when it comes to sharing with others. Tonight though, for the first time ever, I felt like I knew what I was talking about. I felt like I had good, valuable lessons to share about grief and using creativity to heal. And for the first time I felt just a bit comfortable stepping into that spotlight. After all, if there are two things I know, it’s grief and art. It was a pleasant surprise, and felt really good to finally experience that kind of confidence.

It has taken a LOT of uncomfortable feelings to begin to get to this place… a lifetime of them really, but more recently, hours and days and weeks and months of working on presentations and interviews (and also hours and days and weeks of procrastinating because I’m so terrified of it). This is the first time in my life I’ve even been confident enough to just TRY to do things like this. The person I was before Drew died would have never even attempted this stuff. The person I was a year ago wouldn’t have even tried any of this.

It’s got me thinking about a lot of things. Like how trying to stretch ourselves and grow means we have to go through a lot of doubt and fear before we can begin to reap the rewards at the end. We have to be willing to feel pretty damn uncomfortable before we can begin to feel comfortable when tackling something new. I’m also thinking about how important it is to have others be part of our healing… because I got so much energy and strength back from doing this interview tonight. Energy I desperately have needed during these tough times of relocating from Texas to Ohio. Energy that helped me feel less alone and more connected to others again. Energy that I know is going to help me feel motivated to get to making some art soon.

Lastly, it made me think about the meaning of death and loss that can continue to be built over time. I cannot even express how much meaning was poured into my world tonight. It was a reminder that every shitty day, every tear cried, every moment I’ve missed Drew since he died, and every time I wanted to give up and I didn’t… they have ALL been worth it, because maybe something I shared tonight will help someone else on their own road through grief. This was also a reminder that as my life continues on, things like this will come into it and continue to give meaning to Drew’s life. He will continue to impact the lives of others in ways that he never imagined too, as a reach out to give a helping hand to others.

Ultimately, doing this interview reminded me that no matter how difficult this life gets, meaning does not stop being built into it. It continues to build over time… over our lifetimes, if we choose to give it a chance. Fifty years from now, should I be fortunate enough to still be around, there will be hundreds of new ways that Drew’s life will have impacted the lives of others. And even though he would not be in a single picture from June 2012 on… you would still be able to fill a dozen scrapbooks with the meaningful things that his spirit has gone on to do.

Note: For anyone who would like to hear the interview with Death Expo, you can listen and view the slides we discussed HERE.

Turning Pain to Love

hand-reaching-heart-21In 2012, when his death was so fresh, I needed to talk. About the pain, the fear, the agony, the anger, the loss, the accident, the future we will not have, the children we won’t raise, the wedding we won’t share… all of it. I wanted to crawl out of my skin with all the pain. I talked and cried almost every single day to someone about my pain. I talked to everyone. Even inappropriately so.

No literally… I have told my story – complete with shameless tears – to perfect strangers. Including customers at the gallery I worked at, a seamstress I had hemming a pair of pants for me, and my masseuse. Really anyone was prey to my grief attacks for about a year there. Sometimes it ended up weird or awkward, but most of the time, it didn’t.

Most of the time, it would allow them to share something really vulnerable in their life (the seamstress it turns out was a widow herself many years back, and has since remarried to a wonderful man), or help them simply feel honored that I would trust them enough to share. Almost every time, we both ended up in tears and hugging each other. It turns out, it doesn’t really matter if we know each other – we can all give that exchange to one another just by listening and honoring one another where we are.

Looking back, I can begin to understand it this way:
Sharing pain transforms it back into love. I stretch out my arms – with a piece of my pain held in my hands – to someone, to anyone who will have it. It is always a risk that they will not reach back, always, but I know I need to try if my heart is to survive this without becoming hardened. So I reach and I show them my pain. And my hope is that they reach back. And usually, they do. They take that small piece of my pain in their hands. They see it, touch it, come to know it. They turn it over in their hands and take it to their hearts and feel it for a moment. And then they give it back to me, but when it is returned to my hands… miraculously, every time, I find that it is no longer pain at all, but love. They have completely transformed that one small piece – with nothing more than a simple act of acknowledging it, and therefore acknowledging me.

Because our pain, you see, is really just the part of ourselves that has loved fully and deeply and come to be broken. When we give a piece of it to someone, and they receive it with compassion, they can return it back to us as love – as it once was. To me, this has been what healing is about. Taking the chance to be vulnerable and share my pain, bit by bit, day by day… reaching my hands out again and again and again… each time holding a single grain of sand from the desert of pain that resides in my heart. And each time receiving back a single grain of love.

It is a lifelong process, grain by grain. And no, we never do turn all those grains back into love. There will always be some pain amidst our hearts, but looking at it this way helps me to see how every person who has touched my life – and everyone who will – helps me to transform my pain back into love. He did this for me too, well before I was aware. Our vulnerability with each other helped us to turn each other’s pain from the days before we met back to love. And now, by the force of his death, I am having to learn a new way to do this. It is time to let others be part of that journey… let them turn my pain back to love, and give the same back to them. I am hoping that by sharing this, it does a little of that for both you and me.