Loss: Significance Illuminated

Out of nowhere, an overwhelming sorrow burst from my chest. My once relaxed mouth was now pursed, hoping to prevent the deep sobs threatening their escape.

Just moments before, I was laying flat on the floor, eyes closed, arms at my side, palms upward and open, with my stomach and back muscles relaxed.  I felt a sense of deep calm and surrender in this final yoga pose.

My first ever yoga class in Maui was a step toward fulfilling my aspiration to be more present, mindful, and serene in “life after corporate America.” Instead, I experienced wracking emotional pain and intense physical shock waves.  What I did not know then is that it is not uncommon to release unexpressed emotions stored and held in our bodies during a yoga session. 

My new-found yoga practice had acted as a pressure release valve; moved to the fully open position. The emotion that I had been holding in was a profound sense of grief from the loss of my sister.  I, the first born of nine siblings, had lost my second-born sister the month before.  At the time of her death I remember thinking I could handle it if I could just make it to our winter escape in Hawaii, miles away away from the raw grief of my mother, siblings and nephew.  The enormity of our shared grief was simply more than I could bear. 

As I reflect back on the experience in yoga class that day, it reminds me of a roller coaster ride I took as a girl.  As the car ascended to the top of the tracks, I tightened my stomach muscles to avoid the sensation of falling.  For some reason as we climbed the second peak, just before the drop, I relaxed my muscles. I remember the frightening sense of a loss of control. 

The loss I felt during my class was so much more than one of control. It was the irreplaceable loss of a person whose bones, flesh, and heart had traveled with me through our childhoods. My siblings and I lost our very identity as a close knit tribe of nine. One of my sisters had once likened us to a strong chain with nine interconnecting links. Now a link was forever gone.

I will never forget a conversation I had with Pastor Marina on Madeline Island.  After the death of her sister I had offered my condolences for her great loss. As was typical of this wise and caring woman, she asked me about the loss of my sister.  She asked, “What was her name and what is your story of her?” 

So now, seven January’s since her death, I will answer those powerful questions hoping to inspire you to speak the name of your loved one and tell your story of him or her.

Her name was Jeanne Marie Corrigan Shields and she was my sister. My story of Jeanne begins with the trait that most defined her to me: compassion for the underdog. Whether it be a bird with a broken wing or a person with a broken body, mind or heart, Jeanne, with her tender care, would seek to lessen suffering.  Our younger siblings knew well who to go to for comfort if they were scolded by our parents. Her care for the broken was never more evident than when she worked with patients in an Alzheimer’s unit.  One patient’s family, noting her thoughtful care, sent her a note calling her an angel. I think they actually believed she was. Sometimes I did too.

Other times I was under no such illusions as to her cherubic nature.  I have many memories of her daring, teasing and taunting me. Jeanne was known for her wicked humor and pranks. Well into our teens, there was a commercial for Nine Lives cat food featuring a droll cat named Morris.  Jeanne could incapacitate me with laughter as she perfectly imitated the cat quips and made up some original ones of her own. 

Two sisters could not have been more opposite; she with her dark hair and me a blond, her body an apple, mine a pear; she a quiet introvert, me an outspoken extrovert. Yet for all of these opposites, like two halves that perfectly fit, we snuggled under the covers in our shared childhood bed, held hands and explored woods and farmlands on our grandparents farm, and told one another our deepest secrets. 

Even though we were  grounded in the surety of our love for one another, I can’t escape the regret over lost opportunities to show care and compassion for her, versus the judgment I sometimes felt at her reliance on medicating to ease extreme physical pain. 

My sister taught me many things in her life and through her passing taught me that death serves as a magnifying glass, amplifying a loved one’s significance.  Well loved traits suddenly stand out in high definition, random memories come into clear focus, and missed opportunities to show love dampen the spirit. 

I do not write to exercise my grief; time and prayer have dulled its sharp edges.  I write with the purest desire that, like me, you may learn to revel in the sheer beauty of the memories that come to you like random gifts; that the shining traits of your lost loved one inspires you to be your better self, and finally, that you are able to forgive yourself for missed opportunities to show perfect love. 

So, what is his or her name?  What is your story together? 

A CALL TO ACTION  

Bearing Witness to Pain

  • Author and spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson writes about the idea that unprocessed pain expresses itself somewhere.  Are there signals in your body,  mind, or behavior that indicate you may be holding in or holding onto unprocessed pain over loss?
  • Reflect on what those signals are telling you and journal or share with a confidante, the unprocessed pain behind the signals that you are experiencing.
  • What are ways you can show self-love to open yourself to a measure of healing?

Giving Voice to Significance  

  • Journal, speak aloud to yourself, and/or share with someone who cares enough to listen:
  • What was your loved ones’ name?
  • What is your story of him or her?

Healing by Intention

  • Rituals – After losing her mother Juliet, my niece, Melissa, while still a young mother herself, created a beautiful ritual to celebrate Juliet’s birthday every year with her husband and four children. Their family tradition includes making a cake and telling stories of Lola (the Filipino word for grandmother). What rituals can you create to continue to show the love and regard you hold for your loved one? 
  • Creative Forces – What creative mediums might you consider to invite healing into your life (e.g.painting, dance, quilting, writing)?  
  • Memories – Take a moment to savor the memories of your loved one, that come to you. What are creative ways to documents those memories to further savor them?
  • Books –  Read Jeannie Seeley-Smith’s book, “Nine Friends: In Time of Loss”. This compelling story introduces nine friends who enter our lives as we anguish over the loss of someone or something we love. Welcome as I did,  the comfort, understanding, and healing that comes from reading this book.
  • Artifacts – Think about artifacts that may serve as a physical reminder of the love you keep in your heart for the one you have lost.  As for me, I have a tile painting of an acorn.  The artist was my sister Jeanne and the acorn represents a childhood caper we shared.  It is one of my most precious possessions. 

Forgiving

  • Acknowledge regrets you have about what you might have done more of, less of, or differently with your loved one.
  • Consider the empathy, love and compassion you have shown others in your life. Then ask yourself; what would it look like to show yourself the same empathy, love and compassion in this situation?
  • Reflect on what you learned from your regrets, and think about how you will apply that learning in the future. 

10 thoughts on “Loss: Significance Illuminated”

  1. Hi Rae,
    This one brought a tear to my eye.
    Suppressing emotions will come out somewhere and maybe in unusual places or time. I’ve learned to acknowledge and feel the loss. Ride the wave of grief to make you stronger as it makes it easier to bring up the great memories and appreciate the moments.

  2. This beautiful story is like a poem in my heart. As I read this blog I sobbed with sorrow and a sense of peace at the same time. Being one of the clan that bound this family, it brought back very happy and sad memories.
    Rae, you captured her beautiful spirit and our extreme sadness. Thank you for writing this blog. She has created Significance in many lives and will be forever missed.

  3. Your story about your sister and you is poignant…and the wisdom you gained from it that you share in the last couple of paragraphs is a deep gift to all of us.

  4. That was beautiful Rae. Not only did you share a memory but you shared an Angel. As tears stream down my face I feel the loss of my Mother and Father. As you and your sister were opposites so were my parents. Together they were complete. I miss my dad’s huge smile and my mom’s clever retorts. Thank you for sharing Jeanne’s story. I am not in Savasana but I feel the surrender as the memories flood in.

  5. What a beautiful, moving story of the bond you shared with Jeanne and the ongoing special bond you share with your family tribe. As I read your words I could feel their effects in my heart. Our bodies do hold emotions and memories, and your account of the body/heart opening yoga pose that released these emotions was powerful. There are many ways to move through grief. Allowing the body and mind to find safe moments to express this grief is a gift, although difficult to recognize at the moment. Thank you for sharing.

  6. You definitely captured a perfect story of Jeanne. As I lay here in this hospital bed at 1:57 a.m. in the morning with my knee replacement completed I found myself reading and relating to your blog. Waves of tears fill my face as I connect to the loss of my brother Joe. There is no one walking this earth that knew him better than I, as he could have said the same for me. We had a lifetime growing up together through good and bad life events. Joe had a zest for love and life that was untouchable. Like Jeanne, Joe was always busting with compassion for the underdog. He found good in EVERYONE, and his love for his dog and animals were unlimited. As much as our family tried, in the end, we couldn’t get him to make the correct decision to let his vices go. Joe and I had spoke on the phone during the week, almost daily on my 30 min road trip to work. To this day, driving alone in my car is where I let my tears and sobbing pain of missing him release. I agree with you Rae, that it will catch you off guard, with uncontrollable emotion. Joe made me want to love, forgive , and give more in life in general. Loss of our loved ones is definitely a powerful force for me to appreciate all my blessings.

  7. Rae, thank you for sharing the relationship that you have with your sister Jeanne and the journey you have been on during this time of transition of your relationship to one that is completely spiritual. For me I have always struggled how we characterize the death (loss) of a loved one and since “losing” our daughter have come to believe more completely that I didn’t lose a daughter, rather our relationship changed, it transitioned to one that is completely spiritual, one that is at peace and provides wisdom and grace as we continue our life journey here in both the physical and spiritual surroundings of our life as we know it today. I have come to embrace, as you have shared through your story, and experience the full range of emotions that we feel with this significant change in the nature of our relationship. It is through those emotional experiences we enrich our physical lives and move closer to understanding the spirituality that is within and around all of us. To be Significant to ourselves and those that are around us.
    Thank you.

  8. Hi Rae – I am so appreciative of the opportunity to read and share your blog with others. The relationship that you shared with your sister, Jeanne is a special bond that speaks volumes of your very compassionate and caring spirit. Your experience of a deep loss resonates with many others. Grief is a gift on our journey in life and our many and diverse ways of expressing our loss is each of our individual stories to tell. I find that it is a courageous journey and finding healthy ways of expressing this becomes so significant and important. After my husband, Ken and I lost our daughter, Abbey 8 years ago, it was the most difficult and unimaginable loss. I experienced complete despair and the first year was so difficult to get through. As I think back about her beautiful soul, I believed that Abbey would want each one of us in her family to carry on and live our lives on a much deeper lever. On my personal path towards wellness, I have found solace and peace through my art, both painting and teaching. I am blessed and grateful to be able to share this with others and it has and continues to be my healing journey. Thank you Rae for your continued wisdom and grace.
    Pat Duncan

  9. Wow, Rae, that was a hard, yet, healing read. The beauty and heartwarming devotion that you and your sister, Jeanne, shared and then lost by a premature death will be felt by every one who reads this. But those of us who have experienced the profound loss of a loved one that you write about, will actually feel their heart’s rip open, and tears swell and spill over, as mine did. The great empathy I felt, as you shared your loss is because I too have felt the gut-wrenching grief that comes when I realized that I only have the memories left of my life with Kathy, my twin. Just as you with, Jeanne. Oh… wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of our memories were blissful? But we are not perfect people so life doesn’t give us that. So, we grab and hold on to the ones that are (thankful they are the majority) and let the wind and/or the waves carry the rest away. My little gift book that you so graciously recommended, NINE FRIENDS – In Time of Loss, https://ninefriends.net – was actually published eight months before my twin’s cancer diagnoses. I have to think it was divine intervention as she was able to read it when it first came out.
    As you so beautifully write, Rae, the grief stays deep within unless purged. I sensed for many years that the body knew how to manage our devastating grief – it could heal itself physically so it made sense to me the body could also heal its self emotionally. Since I wrote this little story, I have found much of what I wrote to be substantiated by understanding even more of our physiology and the enlightenment we have received through neuroscience. Our brains hold trauma but if allowed – can also heal it. Thanks, Rae, your blogs not only challenges our minds – but also our hearts.

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