Susan E Casey

Mining for Joy in the Deep River of Grief


Until Our Lease Runs Out


We do not own each other. Kids don’t belong to their parents. Spouses don’t belong to each other.  We are lent to each other until our lease runs out. The only permanent truth is knowing that everything is impermanent. It’s knowing that we take our first breath alone. We take our last breath alone. We have no idea the time we have in between those two breaths, but we do choose what we do between the first inhale and the last exhale.



I’ve been a big proponent of leaving regrets and grudges by the wayside. It’s a waste of time, I’d say, to cling to anger, and to beat ourselves raw over past decisions,  lost opportunities, failed relationships. A more productive use of our energy is to  spend some quality time on self-reflection, on experiences we can squirrel away in our life’s knapsack, and pull them out when we find ourselves in a similar circumstance. “Ahhh, yes,” we can say, “I’ve learned that lesson. Thankfully I don’t have to live through it again. Phew.” That’s until we find ourselves in a different situation, repeating the same old tired patterns, asking ourselves, Why can’t I get it right?




Every day we pick up the newspaper and read about horrific tragedies in the world, the Newtown shootings, Boston Marathon bombings, a missing airline, to name a few more recent ones. We close our eyes and thank the celestial beings for our countless blessings, shake our own hand, and make a promise to be kinder to our spouse, spend more time with our children, call our parents and siblings more often. We take a last sip of coffee and go about our day.


It’s not earth-shattering news that tragedies make us pause, take a quick inventory of our lives, and make any necessary tweaks to live a more conscious life. It’s natural and important, but rarely does it stop us from going to bed angry when we’ve promised ourselves we wouldn’t, or stop us from screaming at our kid instead of remembering those who have lost theirs, and ask ourselves, “How would love respond in this moment?”


After my mother’s stroke, I was certain I’d never take any time with anyone I loved for granted. I’d not waste another breath arguing with my husband. I’d no longer become frustrated with my parents, siblings, friends, colleagues, and strangers. I had earned this new-way-of-being badge and pressed it into my heart.

A truth I’ve not shared with anyone before now, because I didn’t have the guts to stomach it, is the realization of a regret I’ve carried around since my brother’s death—not reaching out to him more frequently while I still had the chance. Instead, I waited for him to reach out to me, because I was right. During his last visit in June, he had a conversation with me—he felt that I’d abandoned him in the past year. When Skype had been removed from my work/home computer by our IT department, I could have bought an iPad to FaceTime. I could have learned the other numerous ways to communicate with a brother who lived on the other side of the globe, but I didn’t—I had PLENTY of time. And yet… there was a little more to it.

Rocky wasn’t here. He hadn’t lived through the day to day heartache after my mother’s stroke. He lived in Bali—a life so far from my own. Maybe I was angry at him for leaving, for moving so far away, for not being here with me and my brothers’ and my parents. Maybe I was angry he had a child who I couldn’t see and share in her life in some meaningful, tangible way. Or maybe the sadness in his voice and in his eyes hit me in those places where my fear ducked for cover. I couldn’t bear that he was right. I couldn’t bear that I’d hurt him.Image



I put my arms around him during those last few moments I’d ever be face to face, body to body, and said I was sorry , said I’d try harder, and that I loved him with my whole being. But I didn’t try harder, because I wanted him to try harder, too.





I talked to my brother over Christmas in a room full of people over a bad internet connection. I’m waiting Rocky, I thought to myself, I’m waiting for you to apologize, to tell me that you didn’t mean what you said. To tell me that you didn’t feel abandoned by me. To tell me that moving to a thirteen-hour-time-zone away was your choice, not mine. To tell me you’re coming home to be close to our family. I waited for all these declarative statements that would never come. I waited in my place of rightness, in my place of knowing that we had a miniscule window of time to connect during our hectic days. I waited for him to say, “I abandoned you, too.”

I was still in Maine. I went to all my family functions. I was the good and dutiful daughter, but more than that, I was his older sister who he used to talk through everything with before he made a decision. I missed him, and connecting more frequently only reminded me of how much I wanted him home.


Death has become a long dark roadway, giving me time throughout the day and wee hours of the night to drift along, imagining how I’d redo the past seven months if only I was allowed a second chance. It’s given me time to play the “what if” game. Fruitless? Yes. Does it change anything? No. So what’s the point? I’m not sure if I have, or will ever have an answer to this question. It just happens all on its own.

I’ve mined my inner depths, digging through the archives of our time together. My brother loved me. I loved my brother. Both are true. He didn’t abandon me and I didn’t abandon him. We were different creatures. He was a free-spirited ethereal being who could not be contained anywhere for long. I knew, and have always known this about him. And he knew that I’d live out my life in Maine being here for my parents.


As siblings, we weave stories about each other. Some are true and some are not true. We play roles within our families and trying to break out of them is like to trying to break out San Quinten, but it’s worth the energy and sweat to see and to honor our siblings as the men and women they’ve grown into, and not freeze them into the role they once played.




If I could hold my brother’s hand,  hear his laugh, and  walk along a wooded path with him one more time, I’d give up everything I own. I’d say to him, “I love you in the only way an older sister can. I  will roll in a bed of coals for you,  or give you my heart if either will  save your life.  You’ve been a beacon in my world since the day you were born. I know you had to move to Bali. I don’t blame you for leaving. I’m not angry at you for going so far way. I just miss  you so much sometimes—I do what I can to push it out of my mind until I’ll get to see you again. Maybe that’s why talking to you causes pain that I didn’t understand before. Forgive me.  Your travels allowed you to bring your love and light to more people. You don’t belong to me; you never did.  You’re on loan and I swear I’ll cherish our time together no matter how fleeting. As you said about life, ‘You love every single minute of it.’ Rocky,  I love every single minute I’ve had with you. Every single one.”


Here and now, I promise you, I will not avoid what causes me pain. I will learn from this most recent lesson that you’ve handed to me: there is nothing more important than to love the people who matter most, and to show that love each and every moment we’re given together until our lease runs out.




A Conversation with Grief

Image There’s no getting away from myself when Day’s incessant chatter quiets. After her shift ends and Night’s long shift begins. There’s no crawling out of my own skin and kicking it into a corner after the pitter-patter of feet, heading to bed, fade out. When phones are charging and message alerts have been switched to the “silent” mode. When TVs are clicked off. When dogs are sleeping. When cars are tucked inside garages and kids into their beds. There’s no scooping thoughts out of my head, or the ache out of my heart, like seeds from a pumpkin. There’s just me in the pitch-black of my kitchen, sitting by the glow of my computer, tasting the salt on my tongue from my own tears as I watch a slideshow a friend has put together for Rocky’s memorial. A slideshow I’d been dreading for weeks.

ImageForty-three years of my brother’s life are captured in frozen moments strung together as he grows up in front me. A newborn tucked against our mother’s chest. A one-year-old, enamored with toes he’s discovered on his baby feet. A toddler in a highchair, smearing chocolate cake on the tray. A five-year-old, clutching an orange Popsicle, my youngest brother nuzzled beside him, licking his own. Now six, he walks along a beach on a winter day, dressed in a snowsuit. In the next shot, he blows out ten birthday candles. In his teens and twenties, he gazes up at stars, dribbles a basketball, heads a soccer ball, slings arms around college pals, and kisses the cheek of his newborn son and years later, his daughter. His thirties and forties, a Balinese wedding, riding boats in Egypt, elephants in Thailand, motor scooters in Bali. Then there are pictures that mark beginnings before endings. My mother smiling with her son before her stroke, a wedding before a divorce, five siblings, arms around each other, before there were only four.

I reached a hand out (as I often do) to touch his face, to touch a moment that had passed at the same time the camera clicked.
My old pal Grief leaned over my shoulder, brushed my neck with his lips. “I’m here for you,” he said.

I turned, shined my light on him as he draped a black cape around my shoulders, mumbling, “You can wear this for the rest of your life if you choose as a reminder of how heavy I am.”

I sunk into the cape, felt its weight, tied it under my chin. “Yes,” I said. “It will remind me of all I didn’t do while my brother was alive. The trip to Thailand I didn’t take to visit him when I still had the chance. It will remind me of how he was taken away too soon.” I stroked the rough fabric of the cape. “I will wear this to remember all those moments I took for granted, because I thought I’d have more time.”

I wanted to bow at Grief’s feet, shine his boots and say, “I surrender.” But instead I said, “I want to go back to the person I was before.”

“You can search forever,” he said. “But you’ll never find her.”

I let out a sigh, relieved that I’d learned the truth. I drifted, remembering a piece of writing I’d been working on before February 14th at 3:30pm EST; the moment my brother left; the moment I wanted my soul to knock down the walls of my bone and skin and join him there on a fat downy cloud in the sun, dancing to his favorite Grateful Dead tune.

It was a night in January when life was just life and I thought I understood what it meant to have a hard day, the kind of day that stretched back into yesterday and dipped its toe into tomorrow. Snow fell hard and fast, the wind blew. I dressed in full Nor’easter gear and took myself and my thoughts and my endless day out into the night. I stood under the floodlights in the back of our barn, watched the snowflakes slice through the light.

Everything changes shape when you stare at it long enough.


Faces appear in stones,








animals in the clouds.





purchased minnows


There, under those lights, the snowflakes turned into sleek silver minnows, swimming through the air; their magic dissolved whatever “bad” had been in my day.




I stared Grief square in the eye, willing him to take on a new form. The beam of my flashlight stayed steady on his face, the lines of hopelessness etched into his skin, along his forehead, around his mouth. There, in his eyes, Joy gazed back at me, waving a thin-fingered hand and blew me a kiss.

“When will you come back into my life?” I asked her.

“I never left you,” she said. “Swim beneath the layers of who you thought you were. There’s someone new waiting for you there and I’ll be waiting for you there, too.”

I hit play on the slideshow. This time I looked into it, rather than at it. Listened into the music rather than simply to it. Something new emerged in the pictures.  I’d been given the gift to have Rocky as my brother—not ONLY for 43 years— but FOR forty-three years. I listened to the lyrics of his favorite songs. I shifted my beam of light on the Joy he brought to my life and everyone else’s life he touched rather than on the grief his death left behind. And it hit me. Grief and Joy are wedded; they’re one. Where there is joy there is grief. Where there is grief, there is joy. One is more predominant than the other at any given time, depending on which one we shine our light on.

“I get it,” I said.

“Yes,” Grief said. “Joy and I are partners. We’re here to help deepen your understanding of love, of life. You think I’m trying to crush you, but I’m not. You think I’m the one to be avoided, the one to run away from, the one to distract yourself from as though Joy is the only one who matters. Know me so you can know her. Feel me so you can feel her. You need us both. I help you to appreciate her more. She lives in the most ordinary moments—notice her. Pay attention—any moment can become minnows in the snow. We are both a gift in your life. I’m not about what you should have done or what you could have done or time that has slipped away. I’m about what you’ll do now with the time you have left. I’m here to show you that Joy is everywhere. Feel the grass beneath your feet. Watch a hummingbird suck nectar from a Lupine. Talk to a hurting friend and listen without distraction. Hold your mother’s hand and soak in the wails of a newborn. And remember: You can take that cape off anytime you’d like to.”

My brother and I shared moments that belong to us. They are mine. They are his.


They are our gorgeous-soaked memories and I’ll continue to shine my light on them.

Thanks, brother, for introducing me to Grief, another gift you’ve left behind. I’ll look for faces in the stones, animals in the clouds, and minnows in the snow.


Dance In The Flames



One mid-afternoon, I took myself on another walk over crunchy snow, along crooked trails. My shadow followed me until I turned and waved goodbye to the person I used to be before I had to say goodbye to my brother. Before I knelt, bare knees on hard rocks and watched his ashes blow from a sack and float atop the Indian Ocean, drifting away from me under the heat and brightness of the Balinese sun.


My shadow waved back as I turned away from her and wondered how much was left of me now? Who would take her place? Who will emerge as Grief sinks into cells and bone, seeping into the muscles of my beating heart. I tried to outrun the HERE and NOW,  the place we’re supposed to be, because it’s the only space and time that’s real. Don’t look ahead, don’t look behind. Keep the past where it belongs.



On this day, I kicked the moment, and Grief aside as I stepped with intention and will into the past. That place where my brother still lived and laughed and cried with me.



That place where his smile could light up a midnight sky and his hug could melt a glacier.

That place where I watched him soar across the soccer field, the checkered ball an extension of his foot. That place when he was nineteen, sitting upright in a salon chair, inhaling a fat breath as I laid a hand on his shoulder, and said, “It will be okay.”

The hairdresser opened the two silver blades of the scissors, snipped his dreadlocks as he leaned into me and sobbed, while they piled into a gnarly heap on the floor. A sacrifice he’d made as a birthday gift to our mother.






That place where he shared his passion for Spas and travels to Egypt, Hong Kong, and Thailand.  A time when his voice would rise as he expressed his love for his wife, and told me stories about my niece, his 3-1/2-year-old daughter, Sara, who loved her pink guitar.




There, in the past, I could thank him for expanding my life in the most unexpected ways. “Without you,” I’d say, “I never would have felt the Indian ocean on my skin or run breathless into those waves. I never would have eaten sticky rice and grilled fresh fish under a smoke-filled sky on the Balinese beach. I never would have squinted at the blinking lights and neon signs during the Night Market in Hong Kong. And I never would have known how one small child, her arms around my neck, could bring sparks of joy after you left.”

Back there in those places that were so far behind me, I could read his email messages and smile at how he measured time before we’d see each other again through “sleeps.” Three days before his last trip back in June, he wrote, “3 more sleeps, sis.” The next day, “Two more sleeps, sis,” until there was only one more “sleep” before I’d see him again.

I asked him on this day when I slipped back into places far from the present moment, “How many more sleeps do I have now before I’ll see you again?”

“No more sleeps, sis,”  I heard him say. “I’m with you now.”

“You taught me so much,” I said, feeling blisters rise on my heart as if it had been burned. I continued to walk through my memories until the sun inched its way below the tree line and thought about what I’ve learned from my brother and am learning still.

Grief runs as deep as love. We must grow down to grow up. We can’t know one without the other. We cannot feel one without the other. They are intertwined like the reeds at the bottom of the Indian Ocean where my brother floated away. If we do not open our hearts to love, true, real, intimate love, how can we know the depth of loss? How can we celebrate life if we do not have the courage to live it fully—to dance in the flames rather than skip around the fire where it’s safe? No chance of getting burned, and no chance to feel the heat of passion for life.

If we’ve lived long enough, we know what it means to fear love, to fear loss, to fear life itself, and ultimately to fear the bone-crumbling ache of death. We know what it feels like to get burned. We make a choice to either jump back into the fire or protect ourselves from the flames.




My brother chose to dance in the flames until he became one, lighting up this world with the spark and heat of his passionate heart. Everything he did, he did with his whole being, whether it was giving his love and compassion to others, mourning over a loss or regret, or celebrating the blessings in his life.



He wrapped his arms around LIFE and squeezed the eeek out of it, wrung it out dry and soaked it all over again.  He taught me that money was meant to be spent. Life was meant to be lived, and we all deserve a second chance. Make every day matter…even if that means shutting your phone off, getting on the floor and having a tea party with your daughter, massaging gum out of your son’s hair, or making love when you have a deadline.

My brother wrote, “For anything new to begin, something has to end……this is the journey of life….and I love every minute of it!”

What “new” will begin, my brother, now that your life has ended? What miracles will occur in the space you’ve left behind? I will watch for them. I will wait for them. I will shine my light on the countless blessing you’ve left behind,  not on the dark grief of your absence. I will accept the lessons you’ve taught me. I will dance with you in the flames. And I will invite others to join us there, too.


The Crunch of Snow


Shock. It paralyzes the senses long enough for the body, the spirit, the mind to catch up with each other, to absorb whatever terrible news that’s been delivered to us. For me, it was a 30 second phone call from my sister-in law, Dewi that lingered for days and lingers still.

“You have to be brave, Sue. Brian (Rocky) is gone.”

A small voice rose up from inside of me.  “What? Gone where?”

“He’s free, Sue,” Dewi said. “He’s free.” 


I imagined her standing in a crowded hallway inside Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong as her own shock held her body like a netted fish, while pure, unrefined Grief waited his turn, ready with outstretched claws to sink into skin and bone when Shock released her.

“I don’t understand,” I said. My brother hadn’t felt well. He went to the hospital. He was stable. He would fully recover. I had been told this only hours earlier.

“I have to go, Sue,” Dewi said. “I have to call my family.”

I was left holding the phone in my hand as if it had turned into a hand grenade. I pulled the pin and  pressed numbers on the key pad and made the calls. First my father. Then my brothers. Then my husband. And one by one, I blew their world apart. For all of us, our first thought was how would my mother survive this?

We all met that night at my parents. We sat in the living room where my four siblings and I had grown up and fought over  TV shows, unwrapped Christmas gifts from Santa, ten-speed bikes, beanbag chairs, and soccer balls. The same space where we hunted for chocolate Easter eggs, spilled juice on the carpet, and had Backgammon tournaments. The space where I used to wind my brothers hair around my finger during a phase in his life when he wanted dreadlocks.  He thought my finger-twirling assistance would help to expedite the dreading process. It was the same space where my brother had been only seven short months before when he and his family made the long trek from Bali to visit us in June. His daughter, Sara turned three while they were here. She closed her eyes, sent a wish out to the universe and blew out three candles. I wonder now if whatever she had wished for has come true.

As we all sat drowning in our own personal memories, we did all those things people do when that hammer whirls through the air and smashes your life once again into shards of glass. We hugged, we cried, and worked at the failing task to console each other.  

When I returned home that night, Friday, February 14th, the day for love and for lovers, I was a foreigner to myself, having no idea what to do with the stranger that had taken up residence in my body. I opened my computer and worked until 3:30 in the morning, completing tasks for a leadership summit I was supposed to attend the following week. I tugged and yanked and pulled as many loose ends as I could together for the summit as my ends were unraveling—my mind, my heart, my nerves. I sent the materials off in a neat little email attachment, while I numbly stumbled around in my shell of shock. I stared at the computer screen. I got on Facebook and ran fingers over my brother’s beautiful smile and whipped myself raw as I scrolled through picture after picture, sure, so sure there had been a mistake of some kind.

“Where are you?” I asked my brother.

The hand on the clocked moved around and around until it was morning and I still sat and stared at his face, read his posts. In those early hours of learning what couldn’t possibly be true, I reflected on my blog post. The bag of glass, creating a new mosaic design. Hadn’t I already done that after my mother’s stroke? Is there truly no bottom to how much heartache a person, a family can endure in one lifetime? I’d carry these questions around with me as my oldest brother and I made the dazed trip to Hong Kong and then to Bali where we would enter my brother’s house, feel his ghost-self, sniff the air for his scent, while grief and reality collided, knocking air from our lungs.

The first night in my brother’s house, I was aware that Grief was dressed in full Grief regalia, present and waiting to be acknowledged. But I took my time as I listened for my brother’s voice, and waited to feel his arms around me and say, “I love you, sis. Thanks for making the trip.”

I searched for him in his closet, pressing his favorite t-shirt to my face. I sat on his porch swing, alert, ready to hear his footsteps on the Balinese grass. Grief wouldn’t wait any longer. He sucked up all the space, brought my sister in law to her knees as she pounded the earth and begged to understand what she’d done so wrong in this lifetime to deserve a visit from Grief; she looked around in the darkness, searching for God, but did not see nor feels God’s presence.

Grief is a wizard and can do wizardly things to the body, to the mind. He’s an illusionist, can make you believe with a single swipe of his wand, he can make God disappear. Grief can crush the heart and sit on the soul and smother it if you let it.

The minutes nestled within each hour ticked by as though an angel had reached down and hit the slow motion button on the world. I knew the stages of grief, rehearsed them in my mind. The stages take time, I said to myself. They take time. How much time? Grief can’t be rushed, or pushed, or shooed out of your heart like an obnoxious house guest.





Each day, I wake up from restless sleep, and remember my brother is gone all over again. I get myself out of bed, without the energy to complete simple daily tasks. Disrobing, showering, dressing feel as daunting as climbing up Mt. Everest. When the sun sets, I Face Time with Dewi, my widowed sister-in law, feel the intensity of her pain across the thousands of miles, praying Grief doesn’t hang around for good. My words that I hand over to her, slip through my fingers and lie between us, motionless, useless. Nothing brings her relief accept the thought that one day she will re-join him. 








Two days ago, I walked through the snow, felt the crunch under my boots, searching for clues, something tangible to give Hope shape. As I sunk through the hard crust of snow to the softer underbelly, I had this thought: Grief  can wrap its hands around your heart and imprison you in the past, turn your heart cold and hard, pulling the shade on light, slamming the door on beauty, on love, on all that’s good, and real and worth living for.  Grief can do that…it can.


But here’s something else I’m learning about Grief. If it has the power to harden the heart, it also has the power to soften it, like that underbelly of the snow.  

ImageWith each tragedy, every loss, space is left behind, leaving room for hope, for new love to bloom, for deeper roots of gratitude and appreciation for the good, the joy, the laughter and beauty in our life. For me, I’ve prayed for my brother’s passing to soften my heart and to make those moments of joy that much sweeter than they were before.


Shattered Glass

black and white hammer

To all of my beloved followers,
We have had a deep tragedy in my family. My younger brother, Brian (Rocky) Hathaway suddenly passed away on Friday. I will be suspending this blog for two to three weeks. Thank you for your love and support.

Love each moment, cherish each second with those you love and NEVER, EVER, spend any time in anger or resentment…just be “in” love with those who you love and tell them as often as you can.

All my love,


A 1/4 Mile Left To Go

woman in riverOne gorgeous sun-drenched day you’re floating on your back, satiated by the cool water on your body. Two short minutes later, your life is pitched over a cliff, and you’re slogging through a shitty river with aching bones and bloodied feet.

As soul-sisters, we can’t step inside each other’s shoes. But you can bet your aching ass, we’re walking beside you on the riverbank, pulling the trigger on the flare gun to light up a piece of the sky, guiding you home. Maybe we can’t hold hands while you slip and slide over jagged stones, dragging your deflated self through the muck, but feel our spirit, sister. We’re your crutch when you’re sure you’ll be sucked under and drown in the depths of your grief. We’re the brace for your cracked heart. We’re the voice in your head, whispering, “I know how strong you are. I know you can make this journey. You have what it takes to go the distance. “

It’s inky black, where cold settles into the marrow of your bones. It’s that space where even our nightmares don’t dare go. Though you can’t see the light slicing through the clouds, we can, and know you only have a ¼ mile left to go. When you climb out of the river, we’ll be there waiting for you. We’ll have a towel, a glass of ice tea, a blanket laid out for you on a lush patch of green grass where you can rest your weary body, re-acquaint yourself with the sun, and feel its warmth on your bruised skin.  

Soul sister, reach your frightened self out to us. Give us a chance to be your flare gun, your crutch, a brace for your cracked heart.  Yes, we’re BUSY. We are all BUSY, but hear this: Soul-sisters are NEVER too busy to be there for each other. You’re not weak. You’re not a burden. When you allow us to walk along the riverbank, you’re offering us a gift to be of purpose. We love you. We want to be there for you. Please ask us, and we promise, we’ll ask you. We’ll help you to see the hope that awaits you at the other end of the river.  


I write this post, understanding that we teach what we must learn. I’ve been a therapist a long time and assigned myself to the role of listening to my soul sisters. And here’s what I’ve learned, it’s safer, too. The truth is, to knock on a door or pick up the phone and admit to feeling scared or lost or weak takes the courage to be vulnerable. This is the foundation of a two-way friendship. This is the foundation for soul growth. It’s the dance between Giving and Receiving, Openly and Willingly (G.R.O.W.) that cracks open the portal for growth.

Two tragedies back to back slung me over that cliff and into that river. A month before my mother’s stroke, my Golden Retriever, Luke, chased a squirrel into the road. I heard the tires screech, heard the thump. Slow motion. The woman walked down our walkway. No Luke chasing after her as he normally would. A knock on the door.  “Do you have a Golden Retriever?”

The tires screeched. The thump. The sounds snapped together in those suspended seconds of time. My husband and I stumbled over our feet, through the back door. Luke lay lifeless in the ditch across the street. My husband collapsed on hands and knees, ran his hand along Luke’s broken spine, and lifted his head as our companion slipped away from us.

I felt the crack of my own heart, and was sure, that I’d never felt anything so painful. I waded through the river in the dark, hands flailing, searching for anything to hold on to. I needed a crutch. I needed a soul sister. I called one of my best friends and told her that Luke died. She didn’t ask me, “What do you need me to do?”  She drove to my house, wrapped me and my grief up in her arms and said, “We are going to get you another dog.” In that moment, she became a flare, a crutch, a brace for my heart and held hope for me.   

Luke died on November 3rd, 2006, and Indy came home with us three days later, thanks to my soul sister.  

How could she have known that puppy would keep me afloat in the river, when I was hurled into darker nights and deeper waters when my mother had a stroke one month later? My soul sisters would be there for me and my puppy, Indy. While my mother fought for her life, Indy drove back and forth to the hospital and the rehab center with me for weeks. After being by my mother’s side, wailing inside myself, I’d come back to the car, nuzzle my face into Indy’s neck, reminding me that hope lives all around us in the most dire of circumstances. When I let my soul sisters walk beside me on the riverbank, they offered up a brace for my cracked heart.

When have you let your soul sister in? If you haven’t, reach out to her. She’ll gladly offer a flare, a crutch, a brace for your heart. “Sister,” she’ll say, “you only have a ¼ mile to go.”


My Little Red Shoes

Two year old girl's worn out shoes

“I abort everything,” my friend said to me the other night.

“What do you mean by that?” I asked.

“First my baby, then my dream.”

“What was your dream?”

“To have a baby. Now I don’t deserve one,” she said.

Shame has a way of growing inside the womb like a fetus, like that baby my friend believes she no longer deserves, because she carries Shame around instead. With enough sick-food talk, by the time you give birth to it, it’s a grown sociopath, wrapping its hands around your neck till you beg for mercy. Shame over that one thing you did or didn’t do, or should have done, or could have done, if you weren’t so weak in character. If you had a kernel of courage. If you were a different person entirely. If you were kinder, more emphatic and had a moral compass that points true North instead of one with a needle that spins around in dizzying circles.

You know, like that PTA Mom. The one you admire; the one you look up to as if she were ten feet tall. The perfect Mom. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. That woman whose world is a fine tuned instrument. She’s the one who has that something that if you had it too, you wouldn’t be lugging Shame around in your womb, waiting for that birthing day, waiting for Shame to kill every dream you ever had, because somewhere, deep down where you don’t dare tread, Shame whispers, “Let me remind you of your mistakes.”

And then a long list follows of where you fall short. You suck at parenthood. I mean, how could you have said that hurtful thing to your kid? Yup. You had to go and pop that movie in so you could make dinner for the tribe. You’re not that great of a friend, either, but you would be if you had more time. How come you can’t manage your time better? And while where on the topic of time, how come you can’t eke out a few more selfless hours to spend with your aging parents? And as a lover? Forget about it. On the sex-o-meter, you come in at about a 2 on a 10 rate scale. Your too-not-something-self curls up inside your own shadow at the end of the day as you get on your knees and make a rock-solid promise that tomorrow you’ll be a better mother, wife, daughter, employee, lover. You WILL be better at your X’s, Y’s, and Z’s.

For some of us, Shame plants its seeds inside the womb later in life after we’ve had ample time to fuck up in some substantial way that’s gossip-worthy. For others, like me, the seeds are planted earlier without our knowing, until one day Shames bubbles to the surface and we cock our head and say, “Hmmm, I wonder where that came from.” This kind of shame is a result of harm that was done to us and we internalized it; we feel ashamed because of it.

It took me decades before I understood when and where and how my first seed was planted. Shame didn’t kill me, but it wanted to. I saw it every time I stared into those black, bottomless eyes. If I jumped into them, I never would have hit bottom. I’ve always been a small person, and as I child, I was barely there at all. I was in the second grade. I wore a red velour dress with a white collar embroidered with Snoopy, and matching red shoes. Three boys stood around me in a circle, pointing fingers, laughing and hurling insults. “I’ve never seen a real midget before.” “Go back to Kindergarten.” “You’re a baby.” “Only babies where red shoes.” “Go home and cry to your mommy.”

I don’t recall where the teacher was at the time, because I crawled under my desk, stared at my ugly little red shoes, and ran a tiny-trembling finger over Snoopy, willing him to magically come to life and bite those boys. But snoopy was nothing more than threads on my collar. So I pulled my knees into my chest, slapped my hands over my ears, and cried my little-girl grief back into myself, where it traveled through my body and planted my first seed of Shame.

That’s the thing about the first memory of Shame, it burns the skin like a hot poker. I fed that seed for a good part of my life, because my child-self had taken that experience and decoded it to mean: “I am small and ugly and insignificant.” Of course I hadn’t connected my later years of being afraid to takes risks, or whip-lashing myself every time I made a mistake, big ones and small ones—of which I’ve made plenty—to that one moment when I crawled under the desk and wanted to scrape my nails against the floor and dig deep down into the bowels of the earth.

I continued to feed my growing seeds of Shame throughout middle school and high school. I opened my mouth wide, like a hungry bird and devoured comments made from my tall beautiful friends. “You ought to wear heels to give you a little height.” “I feel like an amazon when I’m around you.” “Where do you find clothes that fit? You must have to shop in the kids’ department.” “You shouldn’t really wear long skirts; it makes your legs look even shorter.” Though my friends were not trying to stick me with that hot poker, I became that ugly-red-shoed girl under the table, seven all over again, feeling the smallness of my being.

It would not be until I went to graduate school for a Master’s degree in Social Work that I’d be given the gift of understanding Shame, my own and others. I was able to give birth to my Shame and watched as it walked away, leaving me free to believe, to know, to embrace the shining light of my own soul in my small body.

Have you given birth to yours yet? If you haven’t, it’s time. Wherever it came from, whatever you did or didn’t do, whatever was done to you, know you have a perfect, unique blazing light glowing within your perfectly imperfect self.

If you’re willing, share a time of when you remember when your seed was planted.