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 was a founding member and active organizer of the Ashland Death Cafe and the Living/Dying Alliance of Southern Oregon for many years. And 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 life-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 Vermont 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 and soulmate 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 thirty 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!