"Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy."
<Pictured above: Dad and me, May 1997 in New Orleans celebrating my graduation from Tulane University>
It was a beautiful sunny Thursday afternoon on October 7, 2004. I vividly recall sitting on a bench in Tuckahoe, NY with my bridesmaid at the time eating a Carvel ice cream cone. I was 29. My wedding was three weeks away. I felt the world was at my feet. Dreams were coming true. I was in between corporate jobs, taking time to enjoy the wedding prep and deciding what job I would embark on post wedding that felt more aligned. Nothing could stop me now.
Two hours later I received a call from my mother asking me if I had heard from my father. She told me she was expecting him home for their Thursday night dinner out and he was late. After that I get a call from my sister saying she was driving and saw my father's car being towed. A few minutes later my mother called me back telling me to pick up her and take her to Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville (now named New York- Presbyterian) where a nurse said, "get here now".
We were all living in Yonkers at the time. I recall tearing through the streets of Yonkers to pick up my mother and drive us to the hospital. I pulled up in front of Park Place Bagels and we walked into the ER. As soon as the nurse saw us, I knew my dad was gone. My sweet kind loving father. Just like that. One of the happiest moments of my life quickly turned into one of the saddest.
The nurse led us into the quiet room. When the doctor came in he started by asking us where our father was going. We said he was driving back home from a doctors appointment to take my mother out to dinner. The doctor proceeded to tell us my father had a massive heart attack while driving and was dead.
Excuse me? All I remember hearing next was my sister saying, "who will take care of us". I went into shock. I completely disconnected from my heart and would stay there for several years to follow. My heart was shattered. I was ill equipped to handle this. Emotions were never my thing.
We asked for more details from the doctor. He said my father was driving on Tuckahoe Road, ironically the street I was living on at the time, had a massive heart attack, veered across 3 lanes of oncoming traffic and hit a tree. A paramedic happened to be driving behind him and said my father died while driving, and before impact. Miraculously no other people were hurt.
After the doctor described the details he asked if we would like to see my father's dead body. We said yes. By this time my great aunt Rose (RIP sweet Aunt) and then fiancé had arrived at the hospital. It felt like I was in a fog as I pulled the white sheet down to see my father's sweet face one last time. Beautiful as ever. It's 18 years later and now the tears flow easily. The emotions arrive like guests to visit me: sadness, grief, anger, confusion, rage, terror, hysteria, nothingness... Back then I was frozen. Frozen kept me safe...until it didn't.
The next thing I remember is going to my parent's house that evening. It felt lonely, cold and dark. I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I don't remember much else except immediately going into logistics. I was that one, still am I guess. I was concerned with what needs to be done rather than what needs to be felt. Exhale.
The tears I cry today are for the way my father's passing impacted my mother, my sister and myself. I cry tears of compassion for us and the hard road we had to travel following his death.
His death was unexpected. On the outside he was healthy. He ate well, didn't drink or smoke. He walked and took care of his body. What I would later learn is that he was under tremendous stress, the chronic kind. By chronic I mean constant. It's the kind of stress that feels like there is no end in sight.
Chronic stress is a silent killer. Once I learned this, I had to investigate deeper. After all, I am my father's daughter and had many similar tendencies, i.e.: keeping all the stress and emotions bottled up.
Here's what I learned. When the body is under stress, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are dumped into our bloodstream. This was useful and necessary for our survival in times of "fight or flight", as in the days when we hunted for food and even today when are in real danger. When these hormones are released, our heart rate and breath rate increase, our senses become sharper, and we have more energy and strength to fight off our predators. Our body gets activated to support us through a temporary situation, an acute stressor.
When the body stays in stress mode, it becomes chronic stress, which many people experience today and what my father was living with. In chronic stress we live in fight, flight or even freeze mode. Our modern day predators may be anything from never ending to do lists, to relationship drama, job insecurity, and our inability to process emotions/deal with life, etc.
Over time, the effects of these stress hormones take a toll on our body. They include muscle tension, headaches, digestive issues, weight issues, anxiety, depression, anger, inability to sleep and concentrate, memory loss and heart disease to name a few. In her Washington Times article, "Chronic Stress: The Silent Killer If Not Managed," Dr. Nina Radcliff writes, "In fact, the American Medical Association states that chronic stress has put us 'in the midst of the worst degenerative crisis in the history of humankind.'"
I believe chronic stress is what took my father's life. His heart simply couldn't take it anymore, and his physical body stopped. Stopping was his survival which ended in death.
The way I see it now is my father's death was the ultimate sacrifice he made for me and my family...for humanity. Why do I say this?
Many reasons. Partly because it helps me give meaning to my heartbreak. Mostly because I feel nothing is wasted (lessons from my path of yoga and studies of The Bhagavad Gita). While his physical death set him free from the emotional, physical, and mental pain of being such a tender soul, it also set me free. How so?
It set me free to make courageous and sometimes hard choices about how I would carry on in the aftermath. Would I use his death as an opportunity to awaken and live the life of my dreams, or would I bury my head in the sand and stay stuck? I decided to awaken.
You can learn more about my first steps in awakening and what else "happened" in my book Reclaiming Joy. A few tidbits for now- the wedding went on 3 weeks later and 6 years later we got divorced. More heartbreak. It was very painful. I also learned incredible lessons about the grieving process and relationships.
I stayed in corporate for another 3 years then embarked on my own path to bring wellness to my community. I got certified in yoga, meditation, shamanic energy healing, transformational coaching to name a few. I dove deep into my fears and excavated a lot of baggage. I reclaimed soul parts and experienced a soul death and rebirth.
It's impossible to put into words everything that has shaped me. I trust if you are still reading this you get what I am saying. Some things in life need to be felt instead of explained.
I will say there is more beauty than sorrow in how I hold life experiences. That's how I choose to see it. It's a powerful choice and we all have the freedom to choose. Perhaps this is one of the greatest lessons I can share. We have the power to choose how we see what we see. Life is a paradox. No joy, no sorrow. No mud, no lotus.
In 2004 when I was walking down the aisle 3 weeks after my father died, I remember feeling this paradox. It's all I felt actually. There I was on my wedding day, wanting to be filled with joy, love, excitement, and possibility. What I felt most was heartbroken that my dad was dead. I remember trying to smile as I was led to my husband.
Death awakens us. It awakens us to LIFE. By life I mean to the pain, injustice, sorrow, as well as to the beauty, grace and forgiveness. It awakens us to what is possible as well as to what is no longer possible.
Death is a constant reminder that we have no guarantees and we are ultimately not in control of anything except our choices.
Death is a reminder for me to keep waking up to my authentic self, to my inner purpose and what I am "here" for on this brief Earth journey.
We all awaken in different ways and at different rates. It may happen slowly over time, or there may be an event that opens the door. For me it has been a combination of slow and fast awakenings that continue to happen. Over the last 18 years as I have dedicated my life to finding my purpose and supporting others doing the same I understand and accept that the timing is divine. It's our job to keep showing up with love, compassion, patience, acceptance, enthusiasm ,and curiosity.
Why I have shared a little more of my story? A few reasons.
I have found it's helpful to understand where we come from and how experiences have shaped us in order to get clarity on where we want to go...and why it matters.
My experiences - the most painful ones - are the ones that drove me deeper into myself. While I have always been a student of life and have dedicated myself to being the best version of me, pain and my desire to transmute pain into fuel for my journey has influenced my choices to explore the darker places. Ultimately those dark places were brought into the light and healed. No dark, no light. We are both.
The journey of life is to awaken by bringing what is in the dark into the light of awareness with compassion and love in order for us to heal. It is then that we can begin making choices that align with our life purpose.
I have also found it helpful to remember that situations, people, events, and circumstances don't define us. They can inform us, guide us, and show us what we want and don't want.
Ultimately it is our choices that create our life!
This recognition brings deep appreciation of how powerful we all really are. Not ego power by the way, divine power.
This recognition also begs the question - what life are we creating and why? Why are we here? What does it all mean? Who am I? What's the purpose of pain? What's my life purpose? Are my inner and outer purpose aligned? If not, why not? What am I willing to do starting NOW?
I love these questions. Are you asking them? They are a catalyst for deepening into how life purpose wants to be expressed and fine tuned in the present moment.
My purpose has always been to transform lives. How I "do" that has evolved over the years and will continue to evolve. The inner work of self discovery brings wisdom of what's next.
Eighteen years ago the way I brought my inner purpose out was through nutritional coaching then teaching yoga and meditation. From there it morphed into shamanic energy healing, writing, podcasting, and now it's mentoring. Today I use all the tools to guide others in uncovering, connecting, and aligning inner purpose with outer purpose. Whether we are leading organizations, communities, our family, we start by leading ourselves.
Death awakens us. My fathers death was a catalyst for me to start waking up. I am so grateful I chose to wake up and I continue to choose to wake up.
In 2011 we founded Bronxville Wellness Sanctuary, our healing space for body, mind & spirit. Know where it is located? Across the street from the hospital where I touched my father's face for the last time.
With so much Love,
"I discovered that people are not really afraid of dying; they're afraid of not having lived, not ever having deeply considered their life's higher purpose, and not ever having stepped into that purpose and at least tried to make a difference in the world." -- Joseph Jaworski, Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership