After my beloved died in 2011, I became passionate about sharing life-affirming perspectives on grief and loss through my writing, workshops, and presentations. I am on a mission to shift cultural messages that hold us back from joy and to help people connect to the spirit of who they are.
As part of the Community Outreach and Education team of the award-winning film Death Makes Life Possible, I have facilitated conversations on death, dying, and the afterlife in the US, the UK and Ireland. I am a founding member and active organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon. In 2019, I had the honor of being on the TEDx Ashland stage to share my experience of responding to death differently.
How death became my life
A number of years ago, I laughed for a living. Yes, that was my job.
I became a Certified Laughter Yoga Trainer, along with my partner Kate, and we offered workshops and presentations that encouraged people to “liberate their laughter.” I loved helping people be more playful and get in touch with their inner joy!
This felt quite a bit different than my decade as an economic justice activist, when I was paid to have strong opinions and lobby at the statehouse.
I started calling myself a “laughter activist” and viewed optimism as a radical act. To see possibilities, to have certainty that love and kindness exist despite evidence to the contrary – now that was revolutionary. Or so I thought. Maybe it was just wishful thinking?
Happiness amidst suffering?
With my background in poverty issues, I wanted to reconcile my awareness of social problems with how amazing it was to feel lighter and less agitated. Was it appropriate to be happy amidst suffering? Kate and I often talked about this – How can we be joyful even in times of fear and hardship? How can we stay hopeful even when everything around us appears to be unraveling at the seams?
And then on an autumn day in 2011, these questions became very personal. My partner Kate was unexpectedly diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer at age 41.
Was this really happening to us? For weeks we went back and forth between shock and making peace with the news. Life had been unfolding so beautifully. We had just moved into a new home in Mt. Shasta; we were both engaged in creative projects and community work; we were each committed to our spiritual paths and continuing to grow as a couple. And now we had to face a new reality. One hug at a time, we prepared ourselves as best we could for the next chapter of our lives.
The very short story
The very short story is that Kate died only 12 weeks after her initial diagnosis. She died consciously and with the same enthusiasm with which she lived. “You did it,” I remember saying out loud that night, assuming her spirit could hear me. “You graduated.”
Yes, we both viewed her death as a graduation. But I was still in Earth School.
I wondered what would happen next. The love of my life – the best friend I’ve ever had – was no longer in a physical body. Twelve weeks of caregiving and almost constant connection were behind me, and now the reality of it all would start to sink in. Now what? Would I be devastated? Numb? Empty?
Even though my mom and close friends had died in the past, I didn’t know how grief would affect me. I expected to be heartbroken. But to my surprise, I found myself experiencing a consistent love, connection and centeredness most of the time. Sure, I let my tears flow freely when they surfaced. Yet more than anything else, I felt profound joy and peace, and I still do to this day. Friends and strangers alike have commented on the level of happiness and acceptance they see in me. Some have been suspicious, assuming I’m in denial. Many others have asked me for my “secret.”
So I began asking myself: Why am I feeling this way when many people respond to loss so differently? How is it that I’m happy, even now? Could those years of laughter yoga and spiritual training actually be working, or is there more to it than that?
My current lifework
Answering these questions has become my passion. My lifework is now dedicated to sharing how I navigated the days, months and years after my beloved’s death, and how I experience her presence in my daily life. I have been closely witnessing my internal process all along, and I come to you after many moons of writing and meditating, of reading and researching, of having honest conversations and counseling others.
Overall, my focus remains the same as it has for over twenty five years – on personal and social transformation. It’s both ironic and only natural that exploring death and dying is an extension of the laughter and healing work Kate and I did together. To me, it’s all about learning to choose inner peace and joy, to shift our energy, and to accept “what is” while envisioning what’s possible. It’s about learning what it means to be fully alive, both in these human bodies and beyond them.
I’m honored to share with you the practices, perspectives and resources that have most supported my well-being over the past number of years. And I’m excited to offer new insights I gain along the way. May they be of value to you and those you love.
PS – Please comment on my posts so that we can be in conversation. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences!
15 thoughts on “Hi, I’m Jen Mathews.”
I lost my mom, my person and actually truley the person I loved this April
And I feel like i dont have any will to live.
Your TED talk was different and I want ti know how do you feel the presence now. If I can feel that maybe I will be able to live every day more better?
Hi Prachi. My heart truly goes out to you. One of the main things I have learned – as I mentioned in the TEDx talk, is to be aware of where my focus is and know that I can focus on presence. My experience is that it’s painful if we mainly focus on the absence of the person in our lives. Yes, they are no longer around physically, but they still have a presence in our lives – whether that’s a spiritual or energetic presence, or memories, or the ways they touched your life and are now ever-present within you. Of course, there is the emotional adapting, which can be challenging. But there is a difference between “feeling” an emotion or sadness and “feeding” the emotion or sadness. You can feel and allow the sadness and pain to release through you, and then not attach yourself to the pain or not feed it with thoughts of absence. Instead, allow it to move, and then shift your focus from absence to the love you have for your mom and your gratitude, to her presence in your life now in the small ways, to how she is always with you. Try this and see what happens. You will notice when you feel the pain of loss, it’s because you are focused upon absence. And noticing this is huge because then you have a choice and can shift your focus to her presence. I hope that makes sense. Yes, you CAN feel presence and the gift of the person who is no longer in the physical. Allow your emotions. AND watch your mind’s tendencies. Also, find connection in any way you can with nature, animals, art, music, meditation – any way you can feel more connected to yourself and your life. This will help you connect to your mom. When we experience connection, the loss disappears in those moments. Blessings to you and I hope this is helpful. Warmly, Jen
When I found your Ted talk on grief it was incredibly reassuring, I realised that perhaps I wasn’t “crazy” and that it IS ok to be OK with the death of my mum (who died when i was a teenager).
I’m currently training as a Counsellor and I recently I bought this up in a group discussion in class, referring to your video and speaking a bit about societal expectations put on us when somebody we love dies.
Needless to say, I just got some funny looks as though “wow, you clearly haven’t grieved properly”. I found it kind of frustrating, how did you approach situations like this?
My apologies for not having seen your comment until now, nearly 6 months later! I hope that you will see my reply. I am very grateful to you for taking the time to share your experience of my TEDx talk. I truly hope to reassure others that it is OK to be OK, even though that is not the dominant message we get out there.
The fact is, as we both know, that there is a double message from society: “You better get over death quickly and be fine with it” and a “You must be sad and grieving or else you are in denial or something is wrong with you.” It’s odd to navigate both messages.
Thanks for having the courage to bring this message about societal expectations to your group discussion. I have been met with the same resistance (as you can see from the disclaimer on the TEDx talk), but then again, that’s the whole point of my talk! We are not there yet, but I hope we can make some progress toward people (esp. counselors) seeing that some of us actually have tools and perspectives that allow us to be genuinely, authentically well-adjusted and emotionally stable and healthy after someone we love dies.
I still hear from some that “not grieving” is bypassing or repressing feelings. The truth is that some people really are in denial or bypass their feelings. But we know ourselves best, and we can’t prove to others that we are actually in true deep acceptance of death. To me, it’s inviting others to consider that we accept death as part of life. And perhaps even share with them other perspectives that we personally have (such as how I feel it is a graduation and I am excited for people to take their next steps as a soul, even though that means they won’t be physically here with me).
Another approach is to share that the tools for wellbeing that we already have to deal with challenging situations can even be applied to death and dying. For some reason that seems revolutionary (though it’s simply resilience). If people aren’t willing to question why there is a cultural expectation to grieve when someone dies, and why it’s not acceptable to treat death as any other change or transition in life, I’m not sure how to have the conversation.
If you receive this reply, please know I am available to connect with groups and would be happy to do a Q&A via Zoom or something like that. I know that it has been many months now since you’ve written. Also, I will soon be offering online classes about these topics, as well as hosting an open Q&A about the TEDx talk.
Again, thank you thank you for sharing! Please stay in touch.
Loved your Ted talk….. are you the same Jennifer Mathews who wrote Radically Condensed Instructions for being just who you are?
Oh my, I didn’t see this comment from you way back when you posted it. So glad you loved the TEDx talk!! And no, I’m not the Jennifer who wrote that book, but I love the title 😉
Hi Jennifer, I found your website/blog after I happened upon your profile on Facebook through a mutual college friend. I am happy to see that you are celebrating life and living it your way. I remember you from college as being a very positive and happy person. I am not surprised that you could take a tragedy and make something positive and beautiful from of it. Your story about Kate touched me because in 2011 I lost my Father after a five year battle with cancer. I still miss him everyday. My journey through grief was something for which nothing had prepare me. I wish that I had a blog like yours to help me get some insight into the grieving process and help me work my way through my grief. I have come a long way in eight years. You certainly have too. What you have built here is wonderful. I am sure that Kate is very proud of you. — Anthony
Hello Anthony! My apologies for not seeing your comment on my blog sooner. I just discovered it now on WordPress. Your words are so meaningful to read and I’m incredibly grateful that my words have touched you. Truly, I have tears in my eyes receiving your validating message. May your journey with your dad’s death be one of connection more and more each day. I am certain he is proud of you as well. I remember you as someone who was very focused, considerate, and of service. All the best to you, Anthony! Thank you again for reaching out and reading my articles. – Jen
How to start? I am a Laughter Yoga Leader. (‘ordained’ by Teresa Corrigan at UCSF a few years ago). I am 82; still working as a teacher for 5 months a year at USF. I am learning that I too will die, and sometimes don’t know how to plan. My beloved is only 56 and we have been together since 1981. Since I cannot plan, I decided to expect to die at 101, which will be 2036.
In the meantime, I have been looking for a place near San Francisco for a type of green burial (unembalmed, in a shroud, and a tree planted on top) and keep asking everyone where that might be. Perhaps you know. Is there one off Tennessee Valley Road in Marin?
I do want to attend your Laughter Event on April 22.
Thanks for your message and for sharing all of that! It will be wonderful to meet you on April 22. You can register in advance or just show up.
I live in Mt. Shasta so I’m not familiar with green burial options in Marin, though I’m sure others who are offering events with Reimagine End of Life would know. If you peruse the event lists, you are likely to see organizations who are knowledgeable about that.
Here’s the registration link, and it will take you to the main Reimagine pages as well – https://letsreimagine.org/san-francisco/schedule/2018-04-22?event=20602
See you next Sunday at 2:00!
I came to see Death Makes Life Possible in Ithaca this past week. I really enjoyed it. The group discussion afterwards was very nice too. I’m not too accustomed to speaking in larger groups as was there, so I shied away from that. Anyways, part of what brought to to see the film was the passing of my father…which was almost 13 years ago, but in the past few years I’ve felt more “connected” to him. He visits me in my dreams, it’s beautiful 🙂
Thanks again for facilitating the event. You’re a lovely soul. 🙂
When I read about you being a Yoga Laughter instructor, it reminded me of something I read recently…’We learn to laugh before we learn to talk.’. I had never thought about that before, but it’s absolutely true! Take care.
Hello Carole! Thank you so much for your comments. I understand that not everyone speaks in large groups and so I appreciate you sharing here about your father. My mom died about 13 years ago as well. I love hearing that your father visits you in your dreams. I am hoping for more “dream visitations” myself from various loved ones in my life.
May you continue to feel connected and to laugh! Yes, interesting about laughing before we talk. That says a lot! Big smiles and gratitude from here. I’m back in northern CA now. Thank you again for attending the film in Ithaca. What a wonderful group of people!
Hi Jennifer, I just love your journey and can relate to you in so many ways. I feel like we would have a lot to talk about. Thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to continuing to connect in the future.
So excited to see the launch of the website! Blessings on this new chapter. I know that we will all benefit greatly from your work. I always learn something, and am moved, when I read what you share. Thank you Jen.
What you are doing is tender and important work. Living as we do in a community of elders, we know that preparing for death is a crucial part of life. If we can learn intellectually and emotionally a new way to understand the profound sense of separation death brings that is truly a gift. May it be so. Blessings to you.