No False Strength

My grief counselor, John*, is a friend of Ram Dass. In one of my first sessions he read a letter to me that Ram Dass had written to a couple whose child died. A short time after that, my friend Melanie came across that same letter and emailed it to me. I thought it worth sharing with you all.

People who’ve lost loved ones often say how others think grief has a timeline, how they’ve been told it’s time they “move on.” Or whatever words were used to say, “enough.” That just tells you how scared and unprepared whoever’s saying that is to deal with loss. Phil never said anything like that to me, but he had a hard time talking to me about Philip. His way was to push forward, and he knew my grief weighed more than his resolve. I think it’s that dynamic that makes people say things like that; they want to get on, they want to get comfortable.

Of course, they could just be callous assholes. But on the whole, I bet not.

Anyway, that’s not been my experience. Once someone who couldn’t have known any better said to my daughter – a mere eight months after Philip’s death – that she couldn’t bring her brother into everything. Natalie did not and does not do that.  I saw the comment as a deflection from the real thing my daughter wanted to talk about.

The closest anyone came to suggesting an “enough” factor was my mom, who kept telling me to “go out.” But that was her worrying about me. For the better part of a year I only went out if  I couldn’t help it. I spent most of my time in the same corner of the couch I scrunched myself into the night I found out that Philip died. Knitting. Watching TV. Any series I could get my hands on. I watched 13 and half years of ER in as many months.

I brought this up because of something Ram Dass wrote in that letter: “Now is the time to let your grief find expression.  No false strength.”

That’s why I was on the couch for a year. Much as I hated this monstrous partner called grief, I couldn’t be parted from it.  Every trip to get groceries or gas or even the meds that were helping me though this was agony. My only business was mourning.

Now, a year-and-half later, I can and do “go out.” But I am not done mourning, nor am I part of the world in the way I was. And it seems a lot of my “going out” has more to do with responsibility than pleasure. Where do I go? To work. To therapy. To walk the dogs, to run errands. But I do go out with Natalie, and I do spend time with friends who get it, who’d never say, “enough.” I don’t have to talk nonstop Philip, but when I need to talk about him, I do. There is nothing – nothing – more important than Philip and Natalie, and nothing more momentous than Philip’s dying and how I’m supposed to live with it.

Here, then, is the letter:

Steve and Anita,

Rachel finished her work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that
leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the
fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong
enough to stay conscious through such teaching as you are receiving?
Probably very few. And even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and
peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror and

I can’t assuage your pain with any words, nor should I. For your pain is
Rachel’s legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice,
but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For
something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that
dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love
as God loves.

Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength.
Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Rachel, and thank her for being
with you these few years, and encourage her to go on with whatever her work
is, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience.
In my heart, I know that you and she will meet again and again, and
recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you
meet you will know, in a flash, what now it is not given to you to know: Why
this had to be the way it was.

Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts
– if we can keep them open to God – will find their own intuitive way.
Rachel came through you to do her work on earth, which includes her manner of
death. Now her soul is free, and the love that you can share with her is
invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love,
include me.

In love,

Ram Dass

*It was John who said to me, “A broken heart is open to receive.”

© 2013 Denise Smyth


20 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rose
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 12:08:43

    I’m speechless…this is simply beautiful. Thank you for sharing with us.




  2. Denise
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 12:10:12

    Isn’t it, though? I’ve read it often, and it still brings me to tears…


  3. afichereader
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 19:52:47

    I’m so taken with that concept–give expression to your grief. It’s not going anywhere, might as well make something of it. Thank you for sharing it!


    • Denise
      Aug 22, 2013 @ 11:29:27

      And you’d think we’d just know that; I mean, what else are we supposed to with such overwhelming loss? Make believe it’s all good? I guess the question is how to express it in ways that will teach us to live with it instead of self-destructing. Which, to me, seems far easier than anything else.


  4. Maura
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 20:46:28


    It takes time for the healing to happen, where you don’t feel the guilt anymore. I didn’t lose a son, but two of my children made some awful choices, the kind that call into question any idea you ever had that you “did a good job.”\Without fully understanding the depth of my guilt, I carried it around for a long time. Eventually I came to realize that our children’s choices are their choices because they belong to God and not to us. And everything that we have in this life – good and bad – comes from God. So people like me who didn’t lose a child to their bad choices can’t take credit for it – it was a grace and a gift, and one that was more undeserved than deserving.



    • Denise
      Aug 22, 2013 @ 11:24:26

      Thanks, Maura. I thought I understood that my kids’ choices were THEIR choices, that they were who they were. Of course, I wasn’t thinking life and death then. Now comes the hard part; the really hard, shitty part. You said “time,” and I guess I need patience.


  5. grahamforeverinmyheart
    Aug 21, 2013 @ 23:10:43

    I just don’t think I can accept the idea that a child has “finished their work on earth”. I just don’t believe that. That sort of says that that child was meant to die at that age…and I don’t believe that.
    I think my son had barely even started his life and was meant to do so much in this world. Bad luck, an accumulation of random events….I don’t know what…all led to his much too early death. I don’t think that I will ever be able to make “sense” of it or accept it as something that was meant to happen.


    • SusanB
      Aug 25, 2013 @ 22:14:04

      Since we were created we’ve been mourning the death of loved ones. There is no way around not experiencing loss. In my profession I care for the dying. For some of us dying is very hard work as in a 90 year old and organs beginning to shut down. Death takes them in stages. But 90 is a life! A helluva life! And we accept that. It’s when death takes a child that it is so very difficult to accept. The thing is… twelve years was his life. It was his allotment of time. His amount of passing seasons and birthdays and that’s it. For him it’s over. His work here is done. He did what he was meant to do and now I do my time until it is my time and then I will find out if the dreams of seeing him again will come true.


      • Denise
        Aug 25, 2013 @ 23:26:31

        We’ve been mourning since we were created – still we don’t understand death, we fear it. I am so sorry for your loss, as you are for mine. For all of us who’ve lost our children; I had no idea so many suffer this. Why would I? I didn’t think about death, certainly not my kid’s. It feels too much to bear, but bear it we do.

        Thank you for taking the time to comment; it’s connecting with others that’s getting me through.

  6. Denise
    Aug 22, 2013 @ 10:48:19

    I think acceptance means accepting what IS, not whether it was meant to happen or not happen or whether it was a good thing or a bad. It happened; now what? One of the things I’m working through is what I see spiritually vs. what I see in front of me. And by “spiritually” I mean looking for meaning beyond the five senses. I’ve talked about death being a fact of life – and that it is. We are all going to die; who’s to judge when that time should be? To those of us who lose a child, there’s nothing more monstrous. Better it should have been me, is how I feel. But I’m willing to say I don’t know the bigger picture. There’s a particular post where I talk about this: As I piece my story together, I see connections I didn’t see before. So was Philip “supposed” to die? How can I answer that, either way? I hold conflicting thoughts about these things because I have to, because I don’t know the answer and because that’s what faith – to me – requires. And if I don’t try to find some faith (which is what my son is trying to teach me), I believe I will lose my mind. And I might yet, because this grief is hideously relentless.


  7. Lucia Maya
    Aug 23, 2013 @ 12:05:33

    I love this post, and am planning to share this same piece by Ram Dass…I agree with your comment above, so eloquently said, that acceptance means accepting what IS. You have said it all! thank you.


  8. Denise
    Aug 23, 2013 @ 12:09:23

    So good to hear from you; I was looking at Elizabeth’s pictures this morning and thinking of you. Yes, it is what it is, and that’s the work of this moment. Peace and power lie in THIS moment, no other. Why is it so hard to really get that? (she cried, along with millions of others..)


  9. moglantine
    Aug 26, 2013 @ 04:43:59

    Oh god thank you – at last I found a bereavement blog by someone who understands and expresses so many of my feelings ~ my loss is not of a child; there always is someone worse off than me and here you are! but I am so appreciative of your posts ~ I only just found them and maybe I can begin to backtrack some of my feelings about Paul and his death here in word press ~ I have shut out so much of the fear and horror linked to his death in my attempts to look like a person coping………


  10. Denise
    Aug 26, 2013 @ 09:51:09

    Why try to look like a person “coping?” What worse thing than losing someone we love? I’ll tell you – I was so wrecked I couldn’t have tried to make like I was anywhere near okay. I sat on my couch for nearly year; if you read my blog, I talk about that. For whatever misery I ever thought I suffered, it wasn’t anything compared to facing Philip’s death. And still – I am devastated to have to say that he died. Mourn and grieve as you need to. Your life is different now. YOU are different. If it gives you any comfort at all – and for me, it didn’t, not for a long time – you are not alone. There are so many of us suffering. Let’s help each other through it.

    I’m glad you found me, and thank you for your kind words.


    • moglantine
      Aug 26, 2013 @ 12:36:32

      Thank you so much, I’m going to read your blog along with exploring the feelings I have about my loss in writing my own ~ there are some things I need to say that I haven’t found found it easy to express or even let surface yet ~ three months in still flailing ~ maybe this is the place, you write it so well


  11. Denise
    Aug 26, 2013 @ 13:07:06

    Thank you; listen. Three months is nothing. I mean it. It’s been a year and a half…I can say it’s different, I function better, and I started this blog back in March which is a tremendous help. Putting words on my story helps. As a writer, that’s how I deal with things. I couldn’t write – even emails – for a good year after Philip died. So I commend you. And if you start “shoulding” yourself (I should be better, stop crying, suck it up, etc.) try reading some blogs. There’s a ton of us out here suffering. And I’m one of the biggest criers you’ll meet. Seriously. If I’m upset, you’ll know. So I could use a little more you, and you could use a little more me ;o)


  12. lensgirl53
    Sep 14, 2013 @ 19:45:57

    A very wise and profound letter. It brings me a measure of comfort, as I know it did you. I am always glad for wiser people than me. Thank you for sharing this. I will make a copy to put among the things that have come my way to help heal my heart. Love to you.


  13. Denise
    Sep 15, 2013 @ 06:31:41

    And right back to you.


  14. Becki Duckworth
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 11:43:58

    Powerful letter. John is right a broken heart is open to receive. Most of my friends have never suffered trauma or any significant painful event. As much as I love the all they just do not have the compassion for others or a need to reach out and comfort someone in crisis. Their hearts have never been broke, they have not experienced trauma, their hearts are colder, not in a bad way and it’s hard for me to explain in words. An example is I can cry over a commercial and they will laugh at me. I just have more compassion and understanding for fellow human beings that are suffering and in need. I can’t look beyond the homeless person on the freeway ramp begging for spare change , I have to give it to them even if they are going to spend it on a drink. My friends would look the other way and criticize.


  15. Denise
    Dec 18, 2013 @ 12:35:42

    I know what you mean, Becki. I’ve heard the classic, “Why give them money? (‘them??”) How do you know they’re not going to drink with it?” What the hell business is it of mine what they’re going to do with it? It’s a gesture, some tiny way to say, “Here, I want to help.”

    And yes, things make me cry much more easily now.


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