Dear "T", Sometimes it hurts so much I feel like I can’t breathe. I cry, But often it’s a silent scream. Did you know what you were leaving behind? What was it like to say “goodbye”? And now that you’re on that soul vacation Have you found some peace and happiness? Because I’m still looking for some consolation. Do you miss us like we miss you? And tell me Big Sis, What was it like, so young, To write like you’re running out of time? What would you have done if you had more? Are you proud of what I’m doing with mine? And what were you feeling when you wrote that line “Life is beautiful...Even when it’s not?” I feel like I ought to know, But I could never say what was going through your mind. I just need one little sign. Because honestly, Every once in a while, I feel a little lost, Could use some (big) sisterly advice. Even just a little would suffice. Sometimes I think, When you were planning out this life, That you decided to put Sandi and I together, Even if it meant you’d get a little less attention (It can’t be easy being the big sister of twins), So we’d still have each other, When you left for the heavens. Did Uncle Ronny and Aunt Barb greet you when you passed? Our fur-sisters Sophie and Savanna too? I know this pain is going to last. I’m finding that’s okay. Within the grief is joy, Connecting me to you. Love Always, Your Little Ray Ray of Sunshine P.S. While I may never have the literary skills you did, I hope you’re pleased that I got in the Train and Hamilton reference. 🙂 P.P.S. Can you just give me a hint on how we came up with the nickname “T”?
2020 has been a hard year for everyone. With COVID, the world and our sense of normalcy were shaken. Some of us lost loved ones to the virus. All of us had our lives changed. If we were lucky enough to keep our jobs, we still couldn’t go out as we normally did. Weddings were delayed, holidays missed, goodbyes went unsaid, and hugs became a novelty.
We grieved what was lost. Sometimes things we did not appreciate before. Other areas of life continued on, both the pain and the joy.
While this blog shares my personal relationship with grief this year, I write this with the thought that others grieving may find something in my words. Hope, discovery, a sense of connection…I’m not sure, but if you’re reading this, I thank you for sharing in part of my story
As a human being walking this earth, I’ve had some experience with grief at various degrees. Additionally, as a mental health therapist, I have had a little training in helping others experiencing grief. I learned the well-known 5 Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) by the brilliant Elizabeth Kubler Ross and then watched the videos of Martin Prechtel’s speech, Grief and Praise. If you haven’t yet seen those videos, I highly suggest you do. In short, Prechtel’s belief is that on the other side of grief is gratitude. It is only if we’ve experienced love or joy that we experience the deep sadness of having lost someone or something. Or, better said in the words of David Kessler (Kubler’s protege) “You don’t have to experience grief, but you can only avoid it by avoiding love. Love and grief are inextricably intertwined.” In hindsight, we count our blessings and find gratitude for our sorrow.
On a rational level, Martin’s speech was easy for me to accept and understand. Of course, the challenge is always putting theory into practice. In 2020, there was no escaping hardship and loss, with my only choice being going through. But could I find light in the dark, the rainbow after the storm, and thanks through my tears?
During spring and early summer, I shared many of the same fears and sorrows as most of my friends and acquaintances. Financially, I was worried. I had two part-time, self-employed jobs, both threatened by instability. At Easter time, I was sad that I couldn’t go see my family in Ohio, where both my mom and older sister, Amanda, were battling cancer. In June, I felt the absence of my dad’s yearly trip to Colorado to visit me, my twin sister, and his grand-dog. Then in August, while camping in the mountains, I got the call that the doctors could do no more for my older sister.
Just a few days after getting “the call”, me, my twin sister (Sandi) and my dog (Pacer) were packed up and headed to Ohio. We had 3 precious and sacred weeks with Amanda before she passed on September 3rd.
I remember waking up the morning after Amanda passed. I had gone to sleep in the same bed as Sandi and my dog, like we had with Amanda when we were little, waiting for Santa or the Easter Bunny to come. We opened our eyes at nearly the same time, and in seconds our tears were spilling onto the pillows. Sandi opened the bedroom door so Pacer could sit with my dad at the kitchen table downstairs. Then she laid back down and held my hand, neither of us ready to get up and face the reality of what we had lost.
And while I shared this grief with family, it was sharp, acute, a knife slicing through my heart. An intimate relationship had been severed. My older sister, in physical form, was no longer on the earth to walk through life’s challenges with me.
Weeks and months later, the grief still comes in waves. Within a moment, it feels like my breath has been taken away. Being a therapist, I know my only option is to feel it or let it build and consume me later. Sometimes that’s all it is, a moment of intense pain before it passes. At other times, the tide moves back slower. I need time to let the tears fall in order to let the pain pass.
In fall, I return back home in Colorado to smoke. First from one fire, then suddenly, from several. Neighbors down the canyon are losing their homes. In town, we all had our bags packed. Then it was our turn to go, as the East Troublesome Fire roars over the Continental Divide and burns through Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the mornings, I would hop online, checking to see if the fire consumed homes and businesses of friends in my community. I breathed sighs of relief for my neighbors and said prayers for those in nearby towns who had not been so lucky.
Again, I’m filled with sadness, though this time it is a collective grief. It’s not as sharp, but I feel its heaviness. I share the fear and pain of my neighbors, my fellow mountain-dwellers. While I am feeling more than just my own emotions, there is some comfort knowing that I’m sharing these feelings with hundreds of others.
I broke up with a boyfriend in June. Without getting into the details, I’ll simply say it was rather abrupt and many strings were left loose. By the middle of fall, I was in a more reflective state, ready to have the conversation that should have been had months earlier. We sat down on my favorite rock outside my house, Pacer often poking with her snout to get between us. Each of us spoke our truths, both acknowledging the how and whys our lives didn’t, and couldn’t, fit together as we continued our journeys. Knowing the brevity of life, I decided to tell him a harder truth. That I had loved him. Him, ever cautious, maybe too cautious, with words told me he thought he did and still loved me too. These are the words that ripped all my wounds back open, though I didn’t understand it at first.
I knew he meant what he said, as at the core of his being, he is love. But I knew he didn’t love me how I wanted to be loved: fiercely, wildly, unapologetically. I cried for what seemed like the better half of the next 24 hours. I wanted to text Amanda, and I knew I couldn’t, so I cried more. Slowly, as I let the waves pass, I started to see a little clearer. I realized wounds not only from the year were re-opened, but childhood wounds, wounds from my parent’s divorce and never feeling like I was enough. I heard the questions from voices that I thought had quenched* and healed from: “Am I loveable?” “Am I worthy of love?”
*As a therapist, both from my own experience and those of my clients, I know these voices and stories that we thought were done with still like to pop their head up from time to time, often from new angles, just to make sure we really understood the lesson.
That evening, as I was headed back up the canyon with Pacer, the pain started to recede slightly. Almost with my normal reserve, I was able to sing-a-long with Miley Cyrus:
“She got her hair pulled back ’cause the sweat’s drippin’ off of her face (her face)
Said it ain’t so bad if I wanna make a couple mistakes
You should know right now that I never stay put in one place
Forever and ever, no more (no more)
The midnight sky is the road I’m takin’
Head high up in the clouds
I was born to run, I don’t belong to anyone, oh no
I don’t need to be loved by you (by you)”
Pacer was resting in the back seat. I had just seen my twin and her boyfriend. I had talked to my dad and texted my mom. A friend had bought me flowers. I had all the love I needed, and I reminded myself of all things I loved about me too, coming up with another: a strong will, that will never let me settle for anything but what is right and true. Going through the pain allowed me to open back up to the love and beauty I already had in my life.
“Yet the heart itself cannot actually break, for its very nature is soft and open. What breaks open when we see things as they are is the protective shell of ego-identity we have built around ourselves in order to avoid feeling pain. When the heart breaks out of this shell, we feel quite raw and vulnerable. Yet this is also the beginning of feeling real compassion for ourselves and others.” -John Welwood
I’ve only lived in Estes Park for a little over two years, but even in my list of complaints, I’ve come to love the community and all the people in it. I’ve witnessed so many acts of kindness, sometimes being on the receiving end, and a neighborly love that I’ve never experienced in other places. As for the Rocky Mountain National Park, the more I explored its mountains and lakes, the more RMNP became part of me, leaving imprints on my soul. I nearly cried when I watched the aerial shot of the burned area, my heart weeping for the trees and the animals who called the spaces home.
Eventually, I rode my bike down to Glen Haven, taking a closer look at the charred, black trees from the Cameron Peak Fire (the largest wildfire in the state’s history, although the East Troublesome fire wasn’t far behind when it exploded in size overnight). “I’ve hiked that ridge.” I thought to myself. “I know those trees. I know what they feel like. Now, I feel like them too. Black and charred.” But if I know anything about Mother Nature, with time, space, and the right resources, She will heal. And I will too. Neither of us will be the same. Nor would I want to be. But grow, we shall.
I miss my older sister every day. At night, I’ll often watch a slideshow of her pictures. I cry and smile at the same time. So many wonderful memories! I hear “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and “Hey, Soul Sister”, two of her favorite songs, on the radio, and I know she is watching over me. My life would be so different if I hadn’t had her in my life. Would I have had the courage to fly?
My heart is open. Vulnerable.
“I will be brave,” I think to myself.
I write Amanda another letter.
I can’t promise you much, except that I will live until I die.
Despite the threat of wildfires and floods, I will continue to live in the mountains,
because this is where my soul soars. I will do my best to be a steward of the land, even if my actions seem insignificant. I will continue to put my heart on the line, in all relationships, because life without love is not alive. So I’ll keep my armor off. To give, to receive. And just like I was your little ray of sunshine, I’ll do my best to be that for all other beings, even when darkness threatens to consume me. I will scream in anger and dance in joy. I will laugh until I cry. I will run through pain until I reach the stars. Amanda, for you, I will live.
It’s almost winter now. My grief isn’t exactly one of those friends I want to excitedly embrace once we get a COVID vaccine, but I do open up to it. Nor do I wish pain on anyone, I just hope others allow themselves to lean into their grief when it comes. For it will come, to any living being walking this earth who is brave enough to love. I am also not an expert on grief. I still haven’t found meaning in my sister’s death. Is that even possible when someone dies so young? What I do know is that I have some power to create meaning for myself, a choice on how I will let it define me. And still, though I can’t explain it in words, I know that somehow, I am a better person for having faced the storm. That I am both softer and stronger. I realize that I cannot understand the vibrancy of life unless I accept all of my emotions.
In the morning, I watch the sun’s pink light creep up the mountains.
“Life is beautiful…even when it’s not.” -Amanda Rose Nypaver (1984-2020)
Ray A. Nypaver
Change is hard.
This time is challenging. Even for an introvert. Even for a therapist. For a human.
At times, the world seems to be spinning. The ground seems to resemble quick sand.
What will life be like in the future? What will life be like tomorrow?
Before I continue, let me say that there are different types of grief, though all grief comes from some form of loss. Individually, people are experiencing the loss of loved ones, the loss of a job, the loss of connecting with friends. For this piece, I’m going to focus specifically on societal grief, which incorporates individual griefs coming together as well as the loss of life as we knew it, also known as change. However, many will find this applicable for various types of grief.
When we talk about grief, many people will most widely know the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her description of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Can you look back at your own process since the beginning of March when life started to change because of COVID-19? Where are you now? AND, if you can’t identify with one or any of the stages, that’s okay too. We’re humans, not machines, and the stages were created as helpful sources of information, not sticky labels.
Okay, so we have all these uncomfortable feelings like sadness and anger. But here’s the question: WHY are we feeling them?
Since this article is a monologue, I’ll just have to tell you: on the other side of grief is joy, love, happiness, and gratitude. Grief, sadness, and anger over a loss only comes when we’ve had something, or someone, that also brought us joy and love.
Martin Pretchel describes this best in his speech “Grief and Praise” which I highly suggest you go find on YouTube after you’re done reading this.
In our case of the COVID-19 era , a lot of us are missing simple things. Hugging our loved ones. Hugging strangers. Going out to eat and sitting inside a restaurant. Traveling. Not just to another country but to the city over. The crying baby sitting a seat over from us on the plane. Not thinking about and analyzing everything we touch and who might have touched it before us. Some of these things listed were always great. Some of them we only realize were great now. Ahhh, the gift of hindsight.
The second idea I’m going to ask you to consider is a bit tougher: the possibility that grief and beauty can exist side by side. I remember in early September of last year when I got the call from my mom telling me she had cancer, less than 2 years after we found out my older sister had cancer. I kept it together on the phone (partially because I was still in shock/denial) and then about a minute after I hung up collapsed to the floor in a pile of tears, snot, and slobber (my dog always licks my face when I cry). For the next few minutes, I just let myself be consumed in the darkness of grief. Then, somewhere still in a dark grey haze, I got up and moved. The next day, I decided to carry on with my plans of running in the Wild Basin area inside of Rocky Mountain National Park. Suddenly, I was consumed in the beauty of Mother Earth, the Aspen trees just starting to turn gold, the low hanging clouds around the mountains. I smiled. It was then that I realized that I had the capability of holding both sadness and joy, the darkness and the light, simultaneously. It was like discovering a new super power. (Both my mom and sister are still fighting.)
My guess is that others too have found joy and reasons to be grateful during the past 2 months, in spite of Stay at Home and Safer at Home orders. Some of us have been able to spend more time with our kids, found time for hobbies from not needing to commute to work, discovered what it feels like to get enough sleep, or even found ways to deeper connect with others by virtual means. We may have cried and laughed in the same day, in the same hour, even in the same 5 minute span. That is beautiful. That is being human.
Now we’re entering into this phase of what people are calling the “New Normal”. Still, no one actually knows what that looks like. It feels really unsteady. But guess what? You’ve already gone through this stage. Probably several times. And if you’re reading this, you’ve made it through. Every. Single. Time.
When we look at it more closely, life is actually a series of transitions, essentially leaving behind the old and stepping into the new. More notable transitions are from adolescence to adulthood, single to married, childless to parenthood. While I myself am not married or have kids (besides the fur baby), I’ve gone through several transitions in the past year, some unconsciously and some consciously. The basis for any transition is letting go of the old, or parts of ourselves that no longer serve us, and into the new, be it a time period or more developed part of ourselves. In Rites of Passage work, there are three stages: severance (letting go), liminal (not who we once were and not yet who we will become), and the incorporation phase (bring our new selves and gifts into the world).
As you’ve probably guessed, as a society we are somewhere in the liminal stage. The liminal stage is usually the most uncomfortable phase, and it often feels like we are wandering around in a dark forest without a headlamp. However, we don’t have to stay lost forever. As soon as we add intention to the liminal stage, it’s like the moon suddenly comes out from behind the clouds. We may still not know exactly where we are going, but we’ve got a light to guide us. I call this the “wanderlust phase” (hence the name of my counseling practice, Wanderlust Counseling).
We’ve lost pieces of the life we once had and mourned (and may be still mourning) that loss. Most of us are still somewhere in the 5 stages of grief, but getting closer to acceptance, sometimes still fluctuating back and forth between acceptance and denial (which is totally okay). With acceptance, we allow an opening for the new to come in. The questions then become: “What do we want to invite in?” “What is our intention?” “What can we and do we want to create, especially with the gift of hindsight?”
And I have to wonder, is it just a coincidence that this all occurring in the year 2020?
These are questions that I suggest we all consider individually, but as a society, we can consider them together too. In the past few weeks, I’ve heard the terms “The Coronation” and “The Great Realisation” where the writers contemplate things like waste, pollution, consumption (of goods and animals), technology, communication and what is truly meaningful. What do we want for our Earth? What do we want for future generations? How do we want to live our lives going forward?
I know most of us reading this don’t have nationwide political influence. But many of us may have influence in our communities, or workplaces, our families, and in our own choices. And so, when you are ready, I ask you to consider the main question in the last stage of transition, incorporation: What gifts do you have to bring to the world? Because we come together with our gifts, we open up to the possibility of something more, maybe something better. .
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross