Navigating Sudden Loss in the Season of Rebirth

Memorial altar for Stephanie Li Chinn, 1990-2022
Memorial altar for Stephanie Li Chinn, 1990-2022

This past weekend, I gathered with local community to honor the life and mourn the passing of the daughter of a close friend. I was one of Steph’s witchy aunties as she was growing up. Stephanie Li Chinn died on the night of February 1st after being hit by a driver under the influence. She was headed home after spending several days comforting the family of a friend who had just died. She was not quite 32 years old. 

Steph was deeply loved, and had a gift for creating family wherever she went. I am profoundly grateful that we were able to gather in-person to mourn her, thinking of the thousands of memorial services that took place over Zoom during the last couple of years. To be able to look each other in the eye, to hug and hold each other, to weep together — these are precious gifts that we once took for granted and never will again.

With friends in Hawaii, celebrating my 70th birthday.
With friends in Hawaii, celebrating my 70th birthday.

I started this year of 2022 with great hope and joy. I turned 70 years old on January 7th and decided the occasion was worth the risk of traveling for the first time in over two years. I celebrated with friends who have a winter home on the Big Island of Hawaii. We swam in Mama Ocean’s waters, we hiked, we danced, we ate fresh fish and fruit, we walked a labyrinth lined with coconut palms, we lost our hearts to orchids, sea turtles, and big foamy waves. Magic happened over and over again. It was the best birthday I ever had. After all those months of isolation, I was overjoyed to live in community for ten days. 

A week or so after returning home, I heard the news about Steph and was not only plunged into deep grief over her death, but also re-experienced older deaths, older losses. Then came the news of war in Ukraine. And through it all, Spring began to show her face, in soft green shoots, buds, and rainbows. 

Humans are meaning-making creatures. But I don’t have a lot of patience with those who say that suffering is the result of negative thinking or an agreement we made before we came into this lifetime. That attitude can lead to blaming the victim for their own misfortune. And it does not take into account systemic injustice and inequities. I still remember the cruelty of a well-meaning remark someone made to me when my 15-year-old son died in 1990: “He chose to go,” she said, intending to comfort me. Actually, he did not. It was a random, tragic accident that took his life, much like the death of our sweet Stephanie. 

How do we make our own meaning? How might we experience loss as a doorway, a portal, a threshold? Might our compassion for others deepen? Shall we continue to risk our hearts? Will we allow our capacity for joy and love and connection to increase? Can we use our own pain to make a difference in the world, in small or spacious ways? 

Looking for sea turtles in Hawaii
Looking for sea turtles in Hawaii

Steph wrote this post on Facebook, thinking of the loss of her friend, just hours before her own death:

“Say I love you. Make amends with whomever you’re fighting with — even if it’s to disagree. Don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t really matter. Life really is too short, unexpected, and constantly changing.”

I don’t know why I’ve reached the age of 70 when so many others have died at much younger ages. I don’t have a lot of ambition left (heresy for a Capricorn, I know). But I do know that I want to be of service, whether I have days or decades left. I want to be present in any way I can for the people I love, and for the communities that I’m part of. I want to be able to comfort and help, to provide a little illumination when possible, and to share a laugh or two. 

Let’s make meaning out of our losses in the ways we choose to live our lives.

Gaian Tarot Death Card
Gaian Tarot Death Card by JPC

As I mentioned, Steph’s death triggered memories of my own son’s death in 1990. He was 15 and I was 38. I want to share with you part of a memoir piece I wrote in 2020 from an unpublished manuscript, “Walking the Sacred Wheel”:

When I meet new people I’m often asked if I have children. I sometimes say “one,” and sometimes say “I have one living son and one who died,” depending on my mood, the situation, and how I feel about the person I’m meeting. Invariably people, especially mothers, will respond: “That has to be the worst thing that can ever happen to a person, to have a child die.” I’m not sure that’s true. I’ve never been raped or molested or beaten, or tortured for my beliefs. I’ve never known what it’s like to be targeted because of the color of my skin. I’ve never had cancer. I’ve never known hunger or drug addiction or war. The “worst that can happen” is different for every person.

When I was 18, the death of my first love Aaron set me on a spiritual quest. I retreated into the safety of the church, following a path laid out by people who claimed they knew the secrets of heaven and hell. When my son died, I stood on firmer ground. By this time, I had been celebrating the Wheel of the Year and the lunar cycle for six or seven years. The circle of life / death / renewal had become second nature to me, as if it was encoded into my DNA. It never once occurred to me to retreat back into Christianity.

As a young woman, I searched for people who had answers. Now I search for people who have questions.

It’s been three decades since my son died. I have another grown son who is thriving and a beautiful, cherished granddaughter.

There are times when I remember with pleasure the joys of Jake’s childhood and the difficulties of his adolescence. There are other times when the grief is as fresh and potent as the day it happened.

The best part is when I dream that I am a young mother again, and both my blond-haired baby boys are there, sweet and loving and full of hugs and sticky kisses.

I’m a grandmother now, walking the shoreline of a small island in the Salish Sea. I share the beach with friends: delicate wild roses, towering Douglas firs, pungent San Juan sage, and stones that tumble and roll with each ebb and flow of the waves.

A heron swoops low. A raven caws. Sunlight sparkles on the water and opens a pathway to the Western Isles, the otherworld of my Celtic ancestors. I can feel those ancestors at my back as I catch a glimpse in the distance of generations yet to be born.

The Wheel has turned. The moon has moved faithfully through her phases countless times. And I am here to say that grief and joy walk hand in hand every step along the way.

Detail, Gaian Tarot Death card

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