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Finding My Way Back


Today is the day that Keaton died in 2001, just before his 4th birthday. November 23rd: it’s a different experience each year. Sometimes it falls on Thanksgiving, as it was that night. The emotional experience varies each year as well. That it has become easier over the years has made it harder in another way. This year the difficulty is the time that has passed and the distance from the tender grief of those early years.

Distance from the grief that is inseparable from love and gratitude, when someone so immeasurably precious and radiant is gone, in a flash, and you need so much love and sustenance from others that you learn, in another flash, to let yourself to be loved and supported as never before. When you begin to experience, in hazy increments, the viscerally-felt truth that beneath our acute grief and loss lies the only thing we really get to keep: love — love of others and love of life, and that surrendering to grief is the ultimate expression of love through which we heal. When you are so utterly stopped that the roles and parts you constructed along the way disappear and you begin living from your heart as never before, and realize that love is the only essential.  That love spins out like a fugue and invisibly touches and connects us all, and that this is what we’re here to learn: to love and let go. That love is letting go. And that while we may be separate beings we are not truly apart from each other, that we co-create our lives together and “get to carry each other.” And then every day feels like Thanksgiving, and that this is the sacred that it took so long for some of us to find.  That you sensed some of this before, when you held your children, but never put it all together, until there was this stopping, and a cavernous emptiness that also created space for wonder, openness, peace, and a necessary but painful new beginning.

For a long time, I was so vulnerable and felt so little again that I wondered: had I somehow inhaled Keaton’s last breath as he was next to me, and life began anew? For eventually, in addition to grief there was levity, exploration, bliss, acceptance, openness, creativity, and joy. No more complaining, or hard-core academic dualism, no more us-them thinking. There was artwork, then yoga and meditation, dance, community involvement, volunteer work, and finding spiritual teachers and mentors that supported my practice. Small and quiet graces. As I shared our story of healing with others, I heard our family-narrative emerge and wondered: what it would be like, some day, when we had long lived in the “new normal,” and acclimated to life without Keaton? That kind of letting go was also important to our well-being and I had to want that for our family, but I felt sad and maybe a sense of dread to think there’d be a time when we’d normalize to this new life.  I wanted to remain in the tender, compassionate, and present realm of impermanence and loss.  I found a way.

I returned to school for another degree, an MA in counseling and a couple of years ago I became a therapist. I work with the ill, terminally-ill, with bereavement, and the challenges that comes with the full spectrum of life development and transitions, especially young adults and parents. Working as a therapist at counseling centers and more recently as a Buddhist chaplain in Seton’s CPE program is deeply gratifying. When I meet with a client or a hospital patient and their family members, I walk into a sacred space where people are experiencing the immediacy of their own relationship to impermanence, as I did 14 years ago, and it’s a privilege to be on the helping side of the relationship.  We are all lucky to be anywhere on this spectrum.

But the transition has also required great effort and challenged my ability to stay in the present moment: so much planning and accomplishing, and reaching for skillfulness and competence.   Now I am strong again, and sometimes feel that too much strength is itself a kind of weakness: dedication to life’s call to action and an engaged practice make it easy to lapse into being “on the run,” and grow distant from my feelings and the sense of grace.  There are things I want again, and along with the new roles, there is grasping behavior and reconstructed parts: the costs of a forgetful human seeking an outcome. Keaton would be 18 years old this December, so maybe I have been growing into adulthood on his behalf.  And I sometimes wish I could be little again. I miss the vulnerability and love that comes with the “strange gifts of loss.” Many grievers have experienced this loss of loss. Sometimes November 23rd is simply November 23rd: make the oatmeal and take out the trash.

But then I remember to slow myself down, and allow myself to become still.  I replay the footage, and feel into it all, and let myself steep in “what’s really going on below,” what it means to love and to lose.  I smile at the bothness of it all.  Once again, I feel the tender self-compassion, the so-muchness of it, and there is the tearful softness, the grief that is inseparable from love: I find my way back into the woods.  Now I can bow in gratitude to Keaton, my son, the ancestor who has gone before me, and to my other two children, Dakota (Keaton’s older brother), Sakura (born two years later), and to their father, Scott, a good man and loving father. All of them are my teachers. I am vulnerable again and I know how truly blessed I am.  Hallelujah.

The letter “K” is in all three of my children’s names.  It just happened to be that way.  “K” comes from the Greek (originally Phoenician) letter kappa, which was taken from the Semitic kap, the symbol for an open hand. An open hand is one that hides nothing, welcomes and offers support, and reaches for connection.  And lets go.  Feel the ribbon as it slips through your fingers and smile as you watch the balloon float away.

Our family is deeply appreciative for the support we received from Hospice Austin’s Parental Bereavement group, Families in Grief program, and Camp Braveheart, and send loving kindness to all beings.  _()_


Jinji 2



Jinji Willingham
Hospice Austin volunteer

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