Experiencing Grief: My Story of Loss and Love
This talk was presented at our 2015 “Light Up A Life” remembrance ceremony by Suzannah M. Stason, L.Ac., a licensed acupuncturist who lives in Bernal Heights, San Francisco.
Good afternoon. As many of you know, today is a day called the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day, when we gather to remember and honor the ones we have lost. Today, I want to honor Suzanne, my dear beloved partner who died last year. She was an incredible woman who touched many people with her humor, generosity, and undying commitment to life and service. For me, Suzanne was a saint who came into my life and gave me the most amazing gifts, ones I am still uncovering as I continue forward in my life here without her.
Suzanne was an immigration defense lawyer turned Chinese medicine doctor turned Zen Buddhist priest. She was 45 years old when she died and lived a short but magnificent life. When I think about Suzanne, I remember her voice, her laugh and the way she looked at me. I remember the way we went through the world together as a team with such ease, kindness and fun. I can hear her hilarious jokes and remarks and I admittedly steal her lines sometimes and continue her humor in the world. I talk to her and ask for help when I’m really scared or unsure what to do. I think WWSD – What Would Suzanne Do – on many occasions and listen to her wisdom and guidance to help me navigate my life. I feel her love in my heart as I move forward.
I invite each of you now to think about your loved one lost and to call him or her in this room here with us. Take a moment with your loved one at your side to remember the love you shared. And take a moment to honor yourself, your story, all that you have been through.
When I think of “Light Up a Life” I think about our loved ones lost and I also think about your life and mine. I think about the light within each of us that can and will get us through this difficult and transformative time. And I think about all that we can do to honor our loved ones by honoring and loving ourselves.
I tend to talk about things that are not easy. At my partner’s funeral last March, I shared the story of her death, the beautiful sunrise that followed and poignancy of her passing. My words from the service are captured here in the back of this book, Zen Cancer Wisdom, which my partner, Suzanne Friedman, wrote during her cancer years.
My partner died last spring after three days of hospice care and four years of lung cancer. It was a most profound and life-altering experience to watch her fade and take her last few faint breaths. Being the one to make call to start hospice and orchestrate the steps that followed while on very little sleep left me weary and worn, but somehow, with the support from the Mission Hospice team, my dear friend Gary, and family and friends, I was able to get through it and help my beloved wife to die a serene and peaceful death.
Today I want to talk about grief. Your grief and mine. Grief is not easy. But for you, for your loved ones, and for me, it’s what is here today. Grief may include many things: shock, guilt, sadness, loneliness, dread, depression, fear, paralysis and perhaps even giddiness or laughter at times. For each of us it is, will be, and must be different. Your grief is your own unique experience, it’s a private journey that is rarely understood by others. But I do believe it’s an important journey to share, as I am doing with you here today.
I ask you to think for moment about what words you would use to describe YOUR grief so far. And for many of you, I know the journey has just begun and still feels quiet new.
For me, the words that most describe my grief experience in the last 20 months following Suzanne’s death are confusion, sadness and transformation.
First came confusion.
For a long time, especially early on, grief felt like being in a vast ocean of turbulent waters in a small rickety boat with no oars. Unable to tell which direction was which with no bearings, no landmarks, and no strength, I felt lost and uneasy. It was like I was floating helplessly with no sails and no course to sail. Confusion arose and stayed for what felt like days, weeks at a time. Nothing felt real. I felt I was doing everything wrong. And as soon as I started to think I had found a way, something to hold onto, the winds would shift or my boat would fill with water once again.
I recall waking up to the marathon of heart it took each day to engage with the world. For me, the mornings were the worst. The mountains of paperwork, the new responsibilities around the house, the silence and loneliness that brought painstaking tears, all with the daunting project of starting my own acupuncture practice in the midst of this loss.
I began to notice I felt in awe of grief. It surprised me at every corner. I never knew what would come next, how I might feel, if this day was going to be an okay day or not.
This brings me to my sadness.
I have never known such sadness before. I have lived a happy and fulfilling life and nothing did or could have prepared me to feel this much. And yet a huge part of my grief journey has been exactly this. To learn how to feel. To learn how to feel this much emotion.
Emotions are like powerful waves that come and go. At first, my little dingy was overwhelmed by them, but in time and with help from grief counseling, friends and meditation practice, I learned how to work with them. I sometimes saw them coming and sometimes was hit directly in the face. Either way, sadness came and I learned it was useless trying to keep it out.
Suzanne, my partner, a wise woman used to say, “Emotions are meant to be felt, not held on to.” Over the past 20 months, my sadness has been my teacher. I have learned to cry, to wail at times, to be silent and to share. I have learned that emotions are energy, and they move and shift and sort themselves out through our human experience. And I have learned to step out of the way just a little to let them run their course and to watch them with a kind and loving mind.
What else have I learned about grief? I have learned that grief is painful. It is heartbreaking and consuming. It is also extremely powerful. It has the energy to move mountains, to shake the very earth, the very ground that we have come to rely upon. For a while, I felt that the foundation of my life was gone, that I had nowhere to stand. My heart was broken. And to this day there is a piece of my heart that is still cracked and will never fully heal, but I have also learned that the story does not end here.
This brings me to my third word: transformation.
Suzanne was the love of my life and me hers. I was able to give her tremendous gifts and she gave me more strength, love and laughter than I could have ever dreamed. She is a part of who I am and how I see the world. And she always will be. I stand here before you to tell you that I am still grieving, still learning, and still growing every day from having lost Suzanne.
I look at my grief as an incredible journey that has beckoned me to open my heart and find strength and resolve at every corner. I am honest in saying that my heart bleeds, aches and hurts all the time, but I can feel it growing stronger too. There are moments, slices in time, when I know transformation is happening. It happens slowly and is almost imperceptible, but I can feel it and I believe it.
I no longer feel so vulnerable in the open waters. I have fixed up my boat and learned to put up my sails. I have gained strength and confidence to move forward with the shifting winds. I have found a course and let both my loss and love be my guides. I have learned to keep going, to be gentle with myself and to follow my heart on this path of grief.
I now have a successful acupuncture practice in San Francisco and finally feel I have a grasp on my life and responsibilities. I have slowly learned to accept and adopt my new identity as a house and pet owner and single woman living in the big city. I am dating and enjoying meeting new people. I have traveled and seen vast new worlds and done service work abroad. I am close with Suzanne’s family, niece and nephew and feel so grateful for them in my life. I miss Suzanne everyday, and I feel her close.
One last thing I will share with you today is my new year’s resolution from last year, 10 months after Suzanne died. It was, “To fall in love with the world again.”
Finding beauty in the world and in others has helped me get through the most difficult times, and this is my wish for you – to find your own unique path through your grief and to move towards beauty, goodness and growth. I know it will be difficult, and I know it can be beautiful.
I thank you each for listening and for bringing your heart and loved ones into the room and to the world. I offer you deep condolences for your loss and offer you my love – my full, open, broken-hearted love. Thank you again, Thank you Isabelle, Thank you Mission Hospice, and Thank you Suzanne.