Graduation Day

By Sherrie Ann Gonzales-Kolb-Cassel

Seagull, Google images, 2021

I’ve noticed that my writing has become very personal, and that grief is no longer the centerpiece of my musings. I truly believe I am healed from the loss of my son. I have begun my life over again, with the opportunity to have meltdowns because something or other triggers me. But I’m mostly enjoying the hell out of life; it’s taken years to get here, in addition to the five years and 8 months since my beautiful son died.

When my son was sick from addiction, I was so lost and was powerless to save him. There is grief associated with losing my son while he was still living; and, there is grief from having lost him. I’ve adjusted my entire sense of being to the reality that Rikki isn’t coming back to me in this lifetime.

I’ve traveled far and wide and deep and shallow and high and low. I’ve been to the netherworld of pain and misery and I’ve soared above it. I’ve come to the conclusion that life is all about tragedy and comedy. Sometimes we win and sometimes something or someone is lost to us and there is no chance of remedy.

I’ve decided to relinquish this blog and focus on my grief site on Facebook and a few other irons in the fire I’m working on. I’m actually working on something important and fulfilling when I thought I’d never find fulfillment again. The same opportunity exists for each of you.

I think it’s time to stop writing on this blog because the very personal (already) was getting too personal, and my outlet was no longer about grief. It’s time to soar out of grief and into a life of purpose and of joy. Who knows when tragedy may strike again? In the interim, I celebrate life and when I’m able, I celebrate the 32 years I had with my precious son.

Thank you for your readership. Thank you for reading, and thank you for following me and the messages you sent telling me your own grief stories. I want you to know that my purpose was to show others that joy is still possible even after a loss of a lifetime. Once I started to heal, and now that I’m in a really good space, and I’ve been here for a while, in a good space, it’s time to pour my heart and soul into something else. I wept yesterday because I miss my boy, but it was only for about 5 minutes and then I went out and enjoyed the day.

I wish you each healing as you navigate the grief process. I believe in you. Healing is possible. May you each be well and joyful.

Peace,

Sherrie Gonzales-Kolb-Cassel

Scheduled Maintenance

By Sherrie Cassel

Free image/jpeg, Resolution: 3072×2048, File size: 1.17Mb, waves circles wave concentric water

The five and a half year angelversary of my son’s death has come and gone and the next one is waiting for me to catch up to it in January, a new year, another without my son. I know how much it hurts to love someone with every single cell in your body and then lose him. I can still see myself in the early days of grief, curled up in the fetal position and wailing until I couldn’t breathe. This is an accurate picture of pain, deep, deep emotional pain. I can’t tell you how I felt, but I can show you. As much as I love words, they fail to even skim the surface in describing the raw nerve ending that is jagged from having been torn from its holy counterpart. We’ll not see them again in this lifetime.

The day he died I thought I’d never be okay again. I thought I’d be a hemorrhaging ball of grief for the rest of my life. I wailed every single day, and I’m talking loud sobs of utter grief. A momma in mourning. Time passes and so does the intensity of the mourning. You learn to navigate the ebb and flow of the waves, sometimes ferocious waves, and sometimes waves so small, you can scarcely see them, but their effects are every bit as powerful, perhaps, they move one to be peacefully introspective, without the sustained throb like in the early days of grief. The memories don’t knock us down anymore.

For those who follow me, you’ve seen me morph in several permutations over the years. Grief is like that; it transforms; it transcends. Some of the email I receive from readers has been like a topo-map of your own transformation and transcendence. You’ve shared with me how your grief process was tamed by your willingness to grow and respond to grief with the determination to live a life of purpose and as much joy as you can stand. I am both honored and humbled by your stories. I have been inspired by your own blogs and I appreciate the readership.

I’m finding that as each season of grief has come and gone for the time I’ve been in grief,  I’ve learned how to prepare myself to acclimate to the everchanging weather patterns of each season. I haven’t had a tsunami in a very long time. My eyes moisten and like a tiny spiderweb I’ve walked into, I wipe it away, unscathed. Certainly, I have those heart flutters when a trigger passes through me and I feel it like a shot to the heart, but then I’m able to normalize the anxiety that comes from thinking, “Oh shit, here comes a meltdown” to breathing through it, and allowing myself to ride it out.

I’ve also found that I was the one who needed to introduce myself to grief as the alpha and not her beta. There are many times in our lives when there is absolutely nothing we can do about a situation, and that is a fact, but we learn to accept it and work within that situation. I have lost a person who was my heart and soul, and that is a fact. I was thrown into grief having had no healthy role model to emulate: it was truly sink or swim.

I hope to be a person who offers hope that the grieving process is navigable and that as much as it hurts, you will retrospectively see the beauty as you transform and transcend the pain into a life worth living again, or maybe even a life worth living for the very first time. As an artist, passion fuels every aspect of my life, but I had no idea the passion I poured into my craft could just as easily be poured into my life. I was busy raising a child as a single parent, climbing the academic ladder, learning, ad nauseam, to the exclusion of some very important relationships. In retrospect, certainly there is a twinge of regret, but how rich are my relationships now? So vibrant and full. I celebrate those I love as often as I can. I celebrate life.

Who knew that a momma who lost her only child would find a reason to celebrate again? I made a comment on a Facebook post about feeling like a pariah right after my son’s death – you know, at dinner parties and small gatherings. I felt as if people couldn’t handle my grief and so I would work so hard to not fall apart in front of anyone. Maybe that’s how they did feel. I know the fact that I had lost a child made the possibility more real to other parents; I felt tainted. Of course, reality is all about perception and all the concentric circles vibrating outward and inward like a heartbeat. The comment was about how at the time I couldn’t see past my own grief. Every single thing in my life was interpreted through the Rosetta Stone of my grief.

I don’t see myself as one dimensional anymore. I am not a giant ball of grief. I believe, however, through grief we will know ourselves better than we ever thought possible. Much introspection is done when a person is in grief. Best-case scenario is that a person will work her process. I’ve written about this many times over the years I’ve been writing about grief and my grief process; the process can be grueling, and it can be wonderful. If you’re newly grieving, you won’t believe me about the wonderful part right now and I totally get it. I didn’t believe it either when someone told me I would heal.

The gifts that have emerged through the grief process have been hard-earned and substantial. I have sobbed, screamed, and scoured the academic literature in hopes that I could find a way to escape the process. Science has some great insight into the grieving process, the part that can be measured through statistical formulae. But see, the heart is both a muscle and a metaphor, and its metaphorical contents cannot be measured with numbers. The metaphor is a picture, the red heart on your refrigerator that your child made when he was in kindergarten, the red heart with bleeding arteries, the red heart with Cupid’s arrow through it beating for a lover, ad infinitum. And sometimes, although it can get buried under life’s aches and pains and schedules and priorities, there is an infinitesimal spark waiting to be fanned by the flames of your passion for life. Grief doesn’t take passion away from us; it doesn’t extinguish the spark. We do.

I didn’t just wake up one morning after my precious Rikki died, and declare myself healed. I dragged myself through the jagged terrain on bloodied knees, begging the God of my Understanding for relief, by any means. I researched and read. I sobbed. I journaled. I sobbed. I wrote. I sobbed. I felt every single pang that hit me like a lightning strike straight through to my soul.

My parents gave their children a strong work ethic, maybe that’s why I think of the grief process as work: conscious work. Others may have other analogies they use to describe their processes. I strongly encourage you, when you can catch your breath for a few hours, check out books on grief. Read about others who have incurred a similar loss as you. Breathe. Pray to the Spirit of your understanding. Develop a new exercise program. Write. Sing. Sob – every single time you need to.

I strongly encourage grievers to read When Bad Things Happen to Good People by the Rabbi Harold Kushner. I read it soon after Rikki died and I knew early on that healing was within reach; blood, sweat, tears, and time, would be necessary. Another book I recommend is The Ten Things to Do When Your Life Falls Apart by Daphne Rose Kingma. I’ve read this half a dozen times, while my son was dying from addiction, and several times since. There are some great suggestions about things to do when you don’t think you can take one more tear. There are just so many wonderful resources out there. Even so…as painful as it is, we all will break a little…and on some days, we will shatter.

I like to see things repurposed. I like beach glass and how creative people can envision beautiful jewelry in the smoothed multicolored pieces of glass. I love to know that something I used to drink from is now an item that can be reused for other beneficial purposes. You get my point. I love knowing that we can take our grief and repurpose it into something marvelous, something that will fan the passion in our heart to a roaring flame. I love knowing that we can take our broken selves and put the pieces back together in a way that is so seamless you can scarcely see the scars.

I’m finding that I have vision now beyond my grief. I see possibilities for a beautiful future now.

“I see trees of green, red roses too.

I see them bloom for me and for you,

And I think to myself, ‘What a wonderful world.’” (Louis Armstrong)

June Gloom

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

My Rikki contemplatively feeding the birds in Imperial Beach, California 2015

Yesterday was a tough day, 5 ½ years since Rikki, my beautiful Rikki, left this world and broke my heart in the process. I try to not ruminate about the hell we went through when he was struggling, but sometimes when I’m looking at his picture, or watching old videos of him when he was fine, beautiful, not addicted, I get really sad. Generally, I try to think only “happy” thoughts about my beautiful boy, but still, the darkness can emerge as unpredictably as a Texas tornado.I thought about the young and tortured man who died on January 22nd, 2016, at 5:55 p.m. His mind was tortured. His body was ravaged by addiction. Where was my beautiful son that day? He was a shadow of his former self.

I watch the videos and I hear his laugh and I see his vibrant and brilliant personality. I see his joie de vivre. I see his passion for life. I see his hope for a future with his little boy, but when I think back on those last few months with him, I don’t know where he went. I’d catch a trace of him every once in a while. His sweetness and kindness never left him – even as his mind began to go.

I cannot express enough the horror I felt each passing day that my son was being destroyed by addiction; I felt like each new day I had no idea whose life I was living. I was helpless to help this amazing human being no matter how much I begged for him to get help, no matter how much I had to admit about myself to reach him, no matter how much I sobbed or pleaded with God to save my son, there was a point of no return where all hope was lost – even as I unrealistically held out for a miracle.5 ½ years…in 6 months it will be 6 years my baby was lost to me. That’s significant, I guess. I try to make sense of my grief cycles. I try to normalize my pain so I can function in the world and maintain wholesome relationships, but I have my days.

I cried yesterday and this morning, just a little, not like I used to when I was first beginning the grief process, but enough to know I was feeling the loss of my son’s potential. He was so beautiful.I kept myself distracted with nonsense things to do. I don’t know when the last time I had a meltdown; it’s been a while. Do you get “past” them? I’ve been told by parents whose children have been gone for 25 years, and they still have days of deluges. I know there is not a “standard” for doing grief; I tend to go longer and longer periods of sustained calm…and then the weather will be gray, or I’ll see something he would have loved…or I watch his son grow up without a father, and I weep for all the lost opportunities for my son and for us without him.

Does that make sense?

I work hard to “be happy” – but my efforts don’t always work. I spoke with my best friend in the whole world today. I kind of raised her so she always felt like mine, but now that we’re in our almost 50s and almost 60s, we’ve finally achieved an equality that makes us more friends than parent/child. She is a person who knows me almost as well as Rikki did. We laughed and it felt good. Yesterday I texted one of Rikki’s friends, like a brother, really, to ask him to not forget Rikki and when he thought of him to please text me to tell me. I was desperate for a connection with the Rikki who was well and who will always be remembered as the amazing individual he was. I was feeling really lost yesterday, even though I put on a brave face, and I soldiered on.

Isn’t that what we do?

I did every single thing I knew to do to save my son. Yes, I know better now and if I had known then what I know now, I would have been better at self-care and hence a better example to him. But I was so desperate to save his life and I looked desperate, wild, crazy, defeated. I know how much I love him and how hard I fought to keep him here with me and our family. We were in a battle for his life, and I was in a battle to keep my sanity during the most insane time in my life. We lost one battle and I’m winning the second one. I keep hanging on to today and trying to let go of yesterday – even though it keeps me tied to my son. Happy memories are better for me and for my relationships. I have had 5 ½ years to catch my breath from the horrors of addiction and 5 ½ years to sort through the things that hurt us and the things that benefitted us and helped us to have more good years than bad ones. The bad ones were doozies toward the end of his life, but I love him, to the core of his Soul.

I miss him so much and I am sad that his life ended so dramatically and traumatically, but I am so grateful for his beauty, his brilliance, his kindness, generosity, gentleness, humor, grace, forgiveness, and undying love for me and his son.

I’m going to let those thoughts be enough for me today. Yesterday was a feat in soldiering on. I chose to not let my sadness turn into an entire day of sobbing. I could have and I have on many occasions, and I know meltdowns are unpredictable, but just as I was getting ready to go into day two of a grief funk, my best friend messaged me, and we messaged back and forth until I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t breathe.

And that was really good. Today I had to honor my son by talking about how wonderful he was – the bad years were really just a short time in proportion to his 32 years, even though it seems like the addiction years lasted a lifetime – and my heart tells me that the addiction years will bleed into my life for perpetuity. After a day of trying to keep my shit together, today I will put on a smile and keep focused on how lovely and delightful my son was. We both deserve that kind of peace. I just miss him is all.

Yellowing Photographs

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

In the early days of grief, attempting to enumerate the infinite characteristics that made my son my favorite person in the whole world, hurt, almost mortally. I would listen to his voice mails over and over until I hurt so badly, I would curl up into a ball and weep – and until I was gasping for air. Who knew one could feel pain all the way to her soul and still survive? But here I am writing about grief, healing and transformation – five and a half years after the death of my son and only child.

There is an air of bittersweetness that infuses every breath I will ever take again on this planet. But I can talk about what made Rikki amazing — without weeping and wailing now. I have a hard time with people who knew him because they carry memories too, and commingled with mine, they weigh down my eyelids with tears and place a lump firmly in my throat. I know it’s been five and a half years, and maybe some people are stoic about their grief sooner or later (or maybe even never) than I am. I never could be stoic. I can keep my shit together now (right time, right place), but I still have the occasional sucker punch to my heart. And in the early days of grief, months, first three years, it is fair to say I was a hot mess, rightly so, and I couldn’t detect an undefeated bone in my body.

Time brings you to a greater distance from the loss and from the gruel of the preliminary steps toward healing, all of which are pretty gnarly experiences, and tragically, all of which are necessary. For example, I can now watch videos of my son and not be crushed. Maybe once you’ve been crushed, you can never be crushed again, at least, not in the way that prevents you from ever recovering yourself or from reshaping yourself from a flattened cardboard box after being processed in the recycling box crushers, to a brand new human being, full of life, love, joy, and wisdom – and best-case scenario, full of the desire to be a benefit to the world, to live purposefully, and to grab hold of life with zeal – even after losing someone you desperately loved.

There are some things in life that are neither fair nor unfair. Most significant events in our lives happen at the whim of random chance. They are neither merciful nor unmerciful. They happen and we are left to reshape our lives; emotional fragility can seem eternal, but I promise, it’s not. We flap our injured wings until they are strong enough to help us take flight into a world without our loved one. I wasn’t all that enlightened prior to my son’s death. We learn to grow … even if in the beginning we must force the seed of hope to germinate in our hardened husks.

As Hemingway said, “The sun also rises.” The darkness may envelop us for a while, but in the morning, daylight, warmth, and possibilities. Sometimes chance knocks us on our asses and sometimes we rise from the ashes of our decimated dreams following the death of our child, spouse, dear friend stronger than we ever dreamed we could be, complete with the creation of new dreams. There will always be bittersweetness – especially on some of our best days.

I’ve graduated to the point where I can celebrate my birthday (59 next week) with friends and family, loud music and alcohol without carrying the crushing weight of grief on my back. I know grief is part of who I am now, but as I’ve said before, I control the duration and the intensity. I didn’t have that kind of control in the beginning. I was at the mercy of pummeling grief, and I had no strength to tame it. Over the past five and a half years, and if truth be told, for my life thus far, I became resolved to fight to come back to a life in which sadness didn’t rule.

I wake up with the sun. I know there’s so much living to do and I try to accomplish joie de vivre from the first hint of light ‘til the moon is covered by the clouds. If you’re hurting today from your loss, I wish you a rush of peace for no apparent reason at all, a chance to catch your breath, and moments of hope. You’ll be in a very difficult place for a while as you find your way to being whole again.

I can speak to only those things I know from my own experience and/or the experiences of credible others. I know the work involved in healing yourself. I can tell you; it gets better. You will always miss your loved one. Some days will stab you in the heart and others will make you smile as you remember something wonderful about your loved one, bittersweetly.

I have photos of my son all over my home office. I have paintings he did adorning my other prized wall hanging, my Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. I have his journal notes and a yellowed God’s Eye he made in the second grade. I had packed them all away when we moved; I always knew which boxes they were in, but I couldn’t bring myself to touch them. I had his clothes packed away and one day, when I was strong enough to open them, I pulled out one of his t-shirts; it still smelled like the aftershave he wore, the cigars he smoked, his own earthy scent. I hugged it for a long time with my face pressed into it. I wept silently and then I folded it and put it back in the box. One shirt I took out and wore it around the house for a while. I washed some of his favorite shirts and I folded them and put them in drawers of clothes I’ve forgotten about. I run across his shirts from time to time when I’m looking for something I haven’t worn in years. My heart is no longer looming large on my sleeve, but there will always be a sliver of it peeking out, unprotected from triggers. I no longer live my life in anticipation of the next emotional shoe to drop, however.

I live for me and in a weird way, I live for him too.

He loved gray; it was his favorite color. He had the hardiest laugh, and oh my, how he laughed. We laughed together all the time. His eyes were big and dark brown. He had an amazing wit, biting, but never unkind. He was intelligent. He loved to read all the up-to-date news and most recent scientific findings. He was amazed by life, and he never lost his sense of wonder. His ability to forgive those who hurt him was humbling and inspiring. He had deep concerns for our species. He was articulate. He wrote poetry I found after he died, and yes, I’m his mother, but I was deeply moved by his eloquent heart. I miss telling our stories together, each one of us with a variation on a theme, some major, some minor. We had a life together. My relationship with my son’s memory has changed from one of deep sorrow to one of deep joy.

I feel like it’s taken me a lifetime to get here.

A New North Star

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

Many years and a dead child have caused me to become introspective — to a fault. Coming from confusing, dictatorial, and frightening Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic roots, guilt was my north star for much of my life. There are some things I should feel guilty about, and I do, but wallowing in it because I get some desperate pleasure from rescuers rushing to my side to assuage my guilt through positive vibes and caterpillars transforming into majestic monarchs in Hallmarkian memes, does not serve me well, nor does it serve well anyone with whom I am in relationship. But then I have become more realistic in the second half of my life.

People are people and we all fuck up.

I think the notion of original sin sometimes gives us excuses for when we are bad. If I can assign my bad behavior to an entity representative of a satan, i.e., his demons/minions, then I have no responsibility for my high crimes and misdemeanors, or sins, if you will.I want to say that I have concluded that I am responsible for my personal development. If I stagnate, it will have been because I have become lazy. There is so much to be excited about in life. I have a spiritual Base that informs my life and my behavior. My “spirituality” is a private matter; I am fed by a supernatural being, and that is that. I will not try to save or compel you to attend church with me; to be honest, I don’t attend church either. I’m so afraid that the pastor is going to say something that offends my relationship with and my understanding of my Creator. There’s a lot of biases and misinformation in churches today, and in their theologies. “Judge not lest ye be judged” is a verse used by extremist zealots when they are being judged, but summarily dismissed when they are those in judgment.

But again, people are experts at one thing for certain and that is: fucking up. Crimes/sins of omission and of commission are easily mastered even by those considered to be paragons of virtue. Some things “just come easy” and blowing it is one of those things. There’s a little too much truth in that last statement, I’m afraid. I’ve been working diligently and compulsively to be different than who I was the first 44 years of my life.

Undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder would claim too many years of my life and it would wreak havoc on many of my closest relationships. In my grief process, not the perpetual one for my son, but the one in which I grieve the loss of time, time which would have been better spent in therapy learning to love the way I wanted to be loved and unlearning survival skills that I no longer need, i.e., I’m not the hardass I used to be. Paradigm shifts lead to acts of conversion, an exercise in transformation, and they are absolutely essential if we are to grow into fully actualized people.

I grew up with a punitive God, but as I’ve aged and studied sacred texts and researched the latest scientific literature on the biopsychosocial character of human beings, I’ve learned and even been liberated by a more expansive understanding of the God of my understanding.I don’t know if this is a logical fallacy — at least, I’m not sure if it’s one of the major five — but in the interest of an argument in my own brain, the Judeo-Christian Bible states in 1 John 4:8 that God is love, and in my need to *know*, I ask myself, “If God is love, can God be *only* love, or can God be love and some characteristic that *subtracts* from love? But then that makes it a lesser type of love, so then, is that “not” love? Right? Then Who or What is God?” This permutation of a developing thought in my brain morphs and trans-morphs exponentially. Medication has made my brain less spastic, but mental illness is the thorn in the sides of millions of people, one that is for the duration of our lives. If we’re fortunate to have gobs of money or excellent insurance, your mental illness can be managed, and you can have an amazing and emotionally sound life. Sometimes people don’t have what they need, even in America, and so we see them broken in the streets, addicted to drugs, homeless, and lost.

I wasn’t fortunate soon enough. I was a single mom who made minimum wage while going to school to try to make a better life for my son and me. I didn’t find psychological/psychiatric help until I was in my late 40s. I’ve fucked up in so many ways with people I love, and if truth be told, my feelings have also not been spared, especially by my next of kin. But then, in my family, we all grew up bullies by adaptation.

I could allow myself to fall prey to a victim mentality and feel sorry for or bad about myself for all the mistakes I’ve made. I could fall prey to the theology of a punishing and vengeful god. I could even blame my mental illness on the *devil* — and not on chemical imbalances for which God has provided us with logical science and technology to help us rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of untreated mental illness. I could blame it on a lot of things that would be copouts. But I won’t. In my early life I had models of dysfunction and mental illness. My son did not fall far from the tree. His addiction was to self-medicate for his mental illness; he also had bipolar disorder.

I’ve had to learn to forgive myself for all the ways I made messes of my life and sometimes the lives of those I loved. If God is love, and I believe God is, then I am loved beyond all comprehension. What is love? Is it energy? Is it a brain secretion? Is God love? You wouldn’t know it to see how some proselytizers have misinterpreted the Great Commission to include a nice big sledgehammer and an anvil upon which to beat you into submission to their understanding of the punitive God with whom I grew up.

I’ve had to learn to forgive others and I’ve learned that forgiveness like grief is a process. One step forward, two steps back. I think I know a little about the addiction from which my son suffered. There were glorious days in recovery and then there were relapses. That dynamic is not exclusive to those who struggle with substance use disorder; recovery and relapse occur for many reasons for many persons, from cookies to cocaine.

We each have pinnacle moments and desperate lows, recovery and relapses., good days, bad days, great days and days filled with sorrow and life’s assaults. Life isn’t fair. Random chance hits us and sometimes it misses us. Because I know this, I can grab hold of life to a greater degree. I met my current husband when I was 44. I was in school and I was in therapy, mostly because I would have periodic meltdowns because of my statistics class. 😉

My husband was and is everything no person had ever been in my life. He is kind. Compassionate. Loving. Brilliant. Exciting. Safe. He and the God of my understanding taught me how to love because they love me so completely. I was in and out of therapy intermittently for 20+ years trying to figure out why I hated myself so much; it wasn’t until the bipolar diagnosis that my life and emotional soundness began to emerge, like the scent of eucalyptus in the rain. I began to heal through hard work and with medication.

The 9th Step in the 12 Step program(s) is the one in which a person must make amends to those who she has wounded or been unkind to. You don’t know how to change things until you know what the issue is with your thought processes. Change does come with self-awareness; I know this to be true because I am a different person now, whole, happy, and at peace. Guilt rises from time to time, but it is largely because of my uber-religious background. The God of my understanding understands me and loves me anyhow.

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a [wo]man, I put away childish things. For now, we see though a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:11-13When we are damaged, we don’t develop in maturity or emotional soundness, sometimes for years, sometimes ever.

If you find that there is a little too much drama in your life, if you find that your behavior is hurting you or those you love: get help, from clergy, psychologists or psychiatrists. There is hope beyond guilt, shame, regret and churning ruminations of your past mistakes.

Along with grief and sorrow are awesome wonders. I want to look for them. I want to love the God of my understanding and know that I am worth God’s love, even in all my fumbling glory. We learn the language of forgiveness, but it takes us years to achieve it. If my God is love and God loves me even with my myriad human foibles, then if I am taking my argument to its logical conclusion, then I must forgive myself and my fellow imperfect brothers and sisters.

I have bipolar disorder. I am *not* bipolar disorder. I blew it with every single person in my past. My husband has only experienced the person who is well. He never knew the person who would go off the rail. I am so grateful for our psych doctors and for medication. I am so grateful for the sacred texts and the scientific texts that urge us toward letting go of things that hurt us and that cause us to hurt others.

I will be an interfaith chaplain in two years. After coming through the most significant loss a person can endure: the loss of my son and only child, I have allowed myself the self-aware journey toward healing. I know that the gift of helping someone to heal is a calling. It’s time. I’ll be 59 in 10 days – and through the grief process from losing my son, and from allowing myself the time to grieve over time lost from things that broke me temporarily, I have found my purpose.

Life takes us interesting places, sometimes places we can traipse happily in, others are not so good, and sometimes, for some, unfortunately, there is only horror. But people can heal. Don’t ever give up on yourself or those you deeply love.Caliban in the Tempest thanks Prospero for giving him language through which he achieved self-awareness. Every time we have new knowledge is an opportunity for us to grow. I feel like Caliban in that I am grateful for the language that explains the historical trauma in my family, the mental illness that challenged us since time immemorial. I am grateful for healing ourselves and our relationships.

It’s time to stay firmly planted in the brave new world of emotional health and the acquisition of joy. It’s ours you know; it just takes hard work.

Recovering nicely

By Sherrie Ann Cassel

Google images, 2021

There are some junctures in the grief process where there are really only two options to healing from our grief: Choice A will lead you on the wildest and most amazing ride you could ever imagine, and Choice B will keep you stuck in the mire of grief. Seems like my path included the latter choice before the former was squarely in my face.

I have mentioned here and elsewhere that my grief journey, the intense part, lasted for three and a half years, and then Choice A and Choice B presented themselves to me. I had chosen Choice B for three and a half years; those are years I will never get back. I don’t know what is the appropriate time that should be allotted for grief, i.e., asking about how soon will an emotional resurrection take place? How much pain and for how long? When will I stop hurting? How can I go on?

I took a while in my hardcore emotional distress to get to a place where I could catch my breath. When I say I sobbed, I mean I sobbed – inconsolably. We lived in a suburb of San Diego at the time and there was very little space between us and the neighbors. I’ve often wondered what they thought about the woman next door who sobbed loudly every day for three and a half years.

I’ve read the inspirational quote (sometimes attributed to Einstein) many times in memes and on refrigerator magnets that says something to the effect: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I was in such all consuming and ever-present pain after I lost my son that I did the same thing over and over again waiting for a chance breeze to carry me off to a land where pain was not – ever again.

We all know the drill when someone with whom we have been emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes genetically tied to dies. Kübler-Ross still has the best model for the grief process, and for the most part, the stages are spot on, but there are stages on the periphery of standard grief that are unique to each individual’s life experience.

I grieved until I could grieve no more. I read in one of the many, many books I read on grief in the early days of my process, that there is a significant difference between grief and mourning. Grief is what we feel; mourning is what we do. I believe I am truly healed from my son’s death; however, I will grieve when I think of him, his face, his laugh, ad infinitum. Every memory now bittersweet. My heart longs for and is warmed by each thought of him.

My mourning phase has passed. I wore my emotional shroud for three and a half years. I had a tiny spark in me that compelled me onward, and one day, I was strong enough to take my first step. The name of this blog is Grief to Gratitude: Rediscovering Joy… As those of you who follow this blog may have noticed, my highs are Peruvian, and my lows are further south. I grieve. I mourn. I live. I laugh. I cry. I weep, and sometimes I sob. I cried so hard during Life is Beautiful that my date became quite concerned that I would hyperventilate. I like to think I’m tough, but I’m just not the hardass I used to be. Mourning made me softer, grief more aware of how to apply that softness in my life, my life without my son, a life I must live now in a world without my best friend. Life lasts such a short time. I will be 59 in one month. My son was only 32. Life zoomed past us before we knew what hit us.

But that’s how life is anyhow, with or without a loss of great magnitude; isn’t it? Every awesome day has an end point, and in between our births and our deaths are infinitely many opportunities to grieve and/or to celebrate. Life is a series of static events to which we bring our own dynamism. I’ve lived what seems several lifetimes, each phase chockful of experiences, good, bad, horrid, heartbreaking, and mystical. Even the leitmotiv of mediocrity that plays through my life from time to time has yielded emotional and spiritual growth in retrospect.

The point is to grow, perhaps toward Maslow’s self-actualization, to live our best lives in spite of the fact there are ups and downs in life. I was afraid to love deeply again because losing someone you love requires a total demolition of your old and fearful self, and that hurts! The goal in life is to grow toward a person who can claim joy more often than not. Trust me, I didn’t think I’d ever truly feel joy or get excited about all the possibilities that already exist for me tomorrow. But then one day…after a very long time (who can say for sure if it was too long)…

Ruminating over the losses in our lives until we’re blue in the face from holding our breath until the feelings pass or sleeping for days in a depressive state does not serve us well in our process. Cry, certainly. Mourn, definitely. But ruminating? I think it prolongs pain, at least, that was my experience. Life is just so monumentally short, and when you can muster the strength to look ahead at all you’ve got to look forward to, take that giant leap of faith in the God of your understanding and in yourself.

One last observation about why I stayed in mourning for so long…

The sound is always the same, whispered shouts, “You’re horrible.” “You blew it.” “If you’d loved him better, maybe…” I’m talking about the sound of regret. The one out of key violin that is the only thing you hear at the symphony – the symphony in all its grandeur. When we allow regret to play on repeat in our heads, we lose sight of the magnificent things in life, even the magnificent moments with our loved ones.

Life, the Universe, and the God of my understanding, are magnificent. I wish my son was here to share in their magnificence with me, but until we meet again, I’ll just have to enjoy them myself with others I am able to love deeply again. Life goes on; it just does.

The Battleground of Grief

By Sherrie Ann Cassel nėe Gonzales

Dedicated to Daddy, Macedonio M. Gonzales, a Marine of Marines

Several lifetimes ago, I strove to de-combatisize my lexicon. I thought the combat genre could be relegated to the furthest reaches of the archives in our collective consciousness. Once again, I was proven to be incorrect in my assumption, or I was wrong, if I must.

The human condition has been fraught with wars since time immemorial. I think it is when we are at our most base, in light of the fact that we are in a post-pre-verbal world. The primitive draws his sword over even the slightest infraction; the self-aware wants cooperative camaraderie, e.g., to not be alone, peacefully, and hence, they will always find a way to achieve that goal.

Warring continues, however, through militarized combat with other countries about the noble effort du jour over which one may fight to the death to defend.

We are funny people.

As I’ve continued moving forward accompanied by a broken heart, I’ve had the opportunity to search deeply into the jagged pieces of the mirror of my soul, each sliver an emotion I can’t name.  Grief leaves us breathless and emotionally depleted. There are many landmines triggered (how’s that for a combat term?) along the way, especially right after the loss. Each time we step on a landmine, our balance is blown to bits, and we find ourselves picking up the pieces and putting them back in their places, misshapen and war torn.

I share the same shellshocked facial expression with my fellow grievers. The lines around our eyes are older than age. Perhaps we even peered into the face of God as we’ve intellectually and spiritually contemplated eternity or for some, annihilation. Death changes us; it reshapes our thought process; it corrects so much of our thinking, it’s difficult to explain to others how we battled with the darkness of grief toward victory: the reclamation of ourselves and the acquisition of a subset of new behaviors stemming from a deep and intimate introspection with ourselves.

I have never had a closer relationship with myself until I lost my son. A return to some semblance of who I was before the loss. I’ve always worked hard to be sane. My childhood was a battleground that took years to overcome. Thank God for therapy.

My husband and I erroneously took a wrong turn on a hiking trail in Joshua Tree National Park. We thought the trail was one mile; it ended up being five. We were not dressed for a five-mile hike. We had two bottles of water between us. By the time we realized we had taken the wrong trail, it was too late to turn back. There were hills that we climbed; some I had to slide down. I cried along the way because I wasn’t prepared physically for a five-mile hike. When we finally made it back to the car, we were beaten down, but not defeated. We survived.

Grief is comparable to inching our way to an unknown and unplanned for destination. Where will we find ourselves after the war? We battle with the person we long to be. We can’t ever go back to who we were before the war began. Our hearts hurt. Our bodies hurt. Our souls hurt.

Grief drags us through the mud and the barbed wire. We are traumatized after the death of a close loved one. We are battle fatigued. We will fight for the prize: healing toward joy. Five years have passed since I lost my son, and I have fought hard to not lose myself on the battlefield of grief. The war needed to be fought. I’m grateful from what I learned through it.

My father was a Marine, tough as nails. He fought in the Korean War and had PTSD for the rest of his life. He never fought for himself. He never tried to find his way back from the grief of having to reshape his personal worldview. He had been forever changed by the battle, but he was defeated and had no fight left in him.

I don’t mean to lessen the experience of our military, only to use the language of combat as a comparison of the gruel and the grit people who grieve exert in our own personal wars. I got tired of side-stepping landmines and dodging shrapnel from the missiles I shot at myself: missiles of guilt, blame, or resentment but I pushed on through the mud in the sweltering heat and through the bitter cold.

I hate to see the battlefield with the wounded and those whose lives died with their loved ones. There’s a way out of the chronic pain, but it will take the fight of your life. You deserve to find joy; it’s on the other side of the thornėd bramble. I know you can see it. Reach for it; it’s there.

Lemonade

By Sherrie Cassel

Google images – 2021

Life isn’t fair; I don’t know why I’ve thought all these years that life should be, that after all I’ve been through, life should be kinder to me, and that somehow, I was entitled to fairness (in lieu of justice, of course). Instead, I developed a hateful persona who hurt a lot of people. I asked my beloved if he thinks I am a nice person. He, of course, answered in the affirmative. He didn’t know me during my anger phase. He is a kind man. He possesses the type of kindness I want to emulate. Life finally provided me with a wonderful man, despite the socks I find on the floor by the side of the bed each day. Love makes you overlook some things about your partner. I’m sure he overlooks my many imperfections. Maybe life can be fair as, retrospectively, I consider all the paths we had to cross to find each other; we are perfect for one another. We are well-suited, after 15 years of living together, married for 11 years. Nothing good comes easy.

I think of the lifetimes I’ve had, different seasons, transformation as I continue morphing until I lose my faculties or die. What a somber proposal. We die and, wisdom, I think, should be doled out at the beginning of our lives, not the inevitable end. But then again, life isn’t fair.

One of the greatest books I read after my son died was, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, by the Rabbi Harold Kushner. He also lost a son, to progeria. His son was only 14 years old. Rabbi Kushner blamed no one for the death of his son. He said it was the luck of the draw. Of all the people in the world, a certain number will die from complications of progeria; a certain number will die from alcoholism and heroin use. Some die in accidents. But we all will die.

Where we live is in between our birth and our death. I have lived fully for some time now. If you knew my “story”, you’d understand a few of my personal epochs, but in the keeping with the topic of life isn’t fair, it’s not and I’ve stopped wishing for it to be so. I handle catastrophes differently than I used to. I have better tools and more prosocial behavior. Best-case scenario, we take our life experiences as they come, both painful and painless, and allow them to shape us into better people than we had to be when we were in a performance mode, and when we were in survival mode.

Life isn’t fair, but we still have mystical and magical, dare I say, supernatural experiences that move us and that inspire us to be greater than we thought we could be, and to create from the wellspring of awe.

Where are you in your life right now? Are you high on life or are you deep in grief? The errant belief that we should never suffer does nothing to help us grow; we only get stuck in resentment stemming from the belief that our *entitlement* wasn’t quite forthcoming. Sometimes we become mired in resentment, so much so that pro-social personal development is deterred, sometimes for years sometimes for a lifetime.

Think of your happiest memory; feel it; immerse yourself in it, and let it inform how you approach life. I’m not saying that we get to *choose* to be happy when our world is crashing down around us. We will have hard times; there’s just no two ways about it. “On everyone a little rain must fall” (Allan Roberts (lyrics) and Doris Fisher (melody). There’s also no way to *prepare* yourself for chance’s random hits.

The best we can do is work on our personal development, so that when we are torpedoed by chaotic and painful moments, we’re strong enough to handle them with grace and courage. I’ve said it myself, that the length of time for grief is indefinite. I thought so early in my grief process, and I believe I took longer than was healthy. Now that I can siphon all the love from a happy memory, my days are more joy-filled than when I was deep in the throes of chronic emotional pain. Certainly, I have had days when I need a good cry because I do so miss my son.

I’ve learned that while life’s random offerings are inevitable, I can handle whatever comes hurtling out of the cosmos. With an acceptance of our loved ones deaths comes the liberation from hurtful ruminations over which we never, if we ever did, have control. With acceptance of the unfairness of life, there is liberation from guilt, resentment, and self-destruction; it also shortens the amount of time you will grieve to the pits of your souls.

I wrote a paper in college, when I was very young, in which I demanded that change was not a good thing for me; I came from chaos, so order was very important to me. The kind of controlled order that presupposes I had the power to stop the world from spinning. I didn’t then and I don’t now. Facing my 60s, the ability to let go of blame when life doesn’t give me roses, forces me to tend to my nasturtiums, morning glories, or some other living entity I can pour my love into, and I move on to the next step that will lead to a life of as much joy as I (we) can glean from life experience.

I went through hell to get here, for no rhyme nor reason; it’s just the way life played out for me. I accept responsibility for how I’ve handled myself through the catastrophic moments in my life. I accept responsibility for my emotions and for their duration. I accept that joy is flighty, and so we must grab it when it flies overhead. Joyful moments are just as unpredictable as catastrophic ones. We will know joy and we will know sorrow, and the entire spectrum of emotions, as we currently understand them.

No, life isn’t fair and once we let down our guard enough to let others back into our lives, we become vulnerable again to loving others and making new memories even as we hold on to our old ones — and we also open ourselves up to further loss followed by temporary emotional pain. But if we are truly a hedonistic species, then it would make sense that we strive toward pleasure, and happy memories feel so much better than bad ones.

A Tall Order

When I first began this blog, I was a hot mess. I spilled my guts, grief in every entrail. Sorry to be so graphic, but those of us who have ever lost someone to whom we were intensely and emotionally tied, know that it hurts more than there are words with which to describe all the phenomena that grief brings to our lives.

I remember it all so well, and there are times, albeit very few and far between now, when I get choked up. It’s been quite a while since I sobbed all day. I’ve been fortunate to have had a long spell of really wonderful days. I used to fear when I had such a long spell that the other shoe would drop, and I’d lapse into depression for a few days (which I hate). I seriously used to bone up for what I thought was inevitable. My son’s angelversary was on January 22. I miss him more than I would ever be able to adequately express.

But…

I knew I wanted to feel better. I knew I didn’t want to hurt anymore. How long is too long to be a mess? If I wanted (and I did/do) to have a life where joy was possible, where I could reclaim my life, and where I could rejoin the living, the hustle and bustle of our common experience and manage a life of purpose in spite of my forever-aching heart then I would have to work for it. You all know what if feels like putting one foot in front of the other, one moment at a time: it’s painful; it’s exhausting, and yet so very necessary.

How can you experience joy if you’re stuck in the deepest part of grief for perpetuity? You can’t. I don’t know if I truly did, but I feel I wasted a lot of days and nights being numb before I realized it was my responsibility to heal myself. What I said to myself became more important than all the advice I’ve ever received combined from others. This moment was a rude awakening to me. I had to decide to learn and to grow or to stagnate and atrophy psychologically and emotionally.

I remember early in the grief process saying that I would never accept that my son died. Is grief rational? Maybe. I know I said a lot of things in early grief as I’ve traveled the road to emotional health and a full life. But even when people aren’t in grief, we all say things at each stage of our lives that make sense to us at the time. I said I didn’t think I would ever heal from the loss of my son, and yet, here I am, revving up for my next adventure – without my son to share in my joy anymore; that smarts.

Five years have passed since I lost my beautiful son; it seems like a flash in the pan. I still feel the tugs at my heart. But I don’t sit idly by anymore and ruminate on all my regrets or the last years of the harshness of my son’s life. I find some comfort in knowing he’s no longer suffering in this rough terrain. He had smooth sailing a few times in his life; I saw it. We laughed a lot. We cried together. We loved each other fiercely.

I try to think about those times; I feel closer to him when I’m laughing over a memory of something funny he said, something silly he did, and all the ways he was remarkable. I used to not be able to remember a happy time without a harsh follow-up memory. The other day I thought of something funny and I, as the kids say, laughed out loud. This gave me an opening to talk to my son, to tell him how much I miss him, to ask him if he remembers the happiest times of our time together. Sometimes I go months without a dialogue with my son. I know to maybe someone who’s not yet had the opportunity to grieve, having a dialogue with an angel might seem irrational, but I guarantee it helps. There were times my son would not listen to me and he was such a passionate conversationalist I would scarcely get a word in edgewise. I have his undivided attention now, only…the answers to all the questions I have are my responsibility to answer. With each milestone in my life,  I see things differently. I see things, perhaps, in a more real way than I did before I lost my beautiful boy. I’ve learned how deeply a person can be wounded and still make it to the top of the mountain … for a victory.

I have rejoined life, social gatherings, opened myself up to being vulnerable again, and grabbed hold of joy and I will never let it go. I’ve been told that my son wouldn’t want me to sit around sad all day. I know that when he was alive he loved when I laughed. We would laugh together until we couldn’t breathe. I don’t laugh as often as I used to, but I sure laugh more than I ever thought I would.

My last therapist told me that the recipe for happiness is to:

Have someone to love.

Have something to do.

Have something to look forward to.

Find those things that will make your life purposeful. You deserve joy. The grieving process is inevitable. It just has to happen. But you will find your center again.