It’s Not Personal

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Marcus Aurelius

My friend Harriet has MS. She developed it late in life – in her 50s.  She uses a walker on wheels to get around the house, a scooter when she goes outside. She lives alone, but sometimes she needs help – and she says she’s finally learned to accept it. Funny how that isn’t a loss of power, but a claiming of power. Because it’s saying this is the situation I’m in, what resources will I use to deal with it? Harriet lives with depth and grace because of acceptance – or what I’m more comfortable calling it: non-resistance. Non-resistance is breathing. It’s, “Okay. This is where I find myself. How do I work it?” Instead of, “Oh my God how could this happen to me and what the fuck am I supposed to do now?!?!?!

Which might’ve been Harriet’s initial reaction, and who wouldn’t? Krishnamurti, probably. But let’s talk the rest of us.

At dinner one night, Harriet told me: “Someone asked, if you could take a magic pill that would allow you to walk again, would you take it? I said, I’d have to know more. If the pill erased my whole MS experience and all I’ve learned from it, I’d say No…but if I could be who I am now with all my memories intact, I’d say Sure.”

Which is pretty much saying, “No,” because she can’t have one without the other. It’s an impossible question, but it sure is provocative.

Decades ago I read W. W. Jacobs’ short horror story/parable, “The Monkey’s Paw.” It’s something I’ve thought about from time to time, and – like so many other things that have struck me over the years – it’s become more layered and meaningful since Philip died. Its particular content heightens its message. If you’ve not read it, in short, it’s about an old couple and their son who are given a monkey’s paw that has the power to grant three wishes. They have, the father claims, everything they want, and they are not selfish, greedy people. This isn’t a story about punishing the wicked.

They don’t exactly believe there’s any truth to it, but I suppose like any of us, they kinda sorta wished there was. The son jokingly suggests the father wish for 200 pounds, just enough money to pay off the house. He does. Next day, a man shows up at their house. Their son, he’s sorry to tell them, got caught in the machinery at the factory where he worked  and has died. The firm is sorry, and while they claim no responsibility, as compensation they’ve sent the old couple 200 lbs.

After ten torturous days, the mother realizes there are two wishes left. She hysterically insists the father wish the son alive. He doesn’t want to – he’d seen the boy’s mangled body and can’t imagine what it would look like ten dead days later. But he gives in – and in a short while, they hear knocking on the door. The mother runs to the door and as she’s desperately trying to unbolt it, the father frantically searches for the paw and undoes his last wish just as his wife flings the door open.

The first wish was for what they wanted. The second was to undo the consequence of the first. The third was to undo the worse consequence of the second. And in the end, they’re worse off than they were before.

What’s this say about fate, about destiny? About accepting what is? I think there’s a massive picture that we don’t see, and within this play of form, yes, we have choice. But there’s a difference between magic and choice. Magic is trying to wish away what is and being miserable because we can’t. Choice is the way we deal with what’s so. And it’s in choosing that we create our reality.

We can’t necessarily make our life situations what we want them to be. We can move toward what we feel called to do, and we can stay present to the reality of it. But we’ve not the power to bend situations to our will because that’s what we think will make us happy. We’ve not the power to bring our dead children to life. And dare we drag them from where their destiny, their choices, led them – do we really think we know what’s best? What would we risk with our own monkey’s paw? I want my son here. I want him to come home. I want his physicality, not just his whispers in my ear. But is something as sacred as life and death up to me? Do I really want that responsibility? I hurt. I think I’m not going to be able to bear what I feel about Philip dying, I think life’s too long without him. But do I really know what’s best for him right now? Is it for him I want him here, or for me?

And here’s the truth, terrible as it is. Death is not personal. We all die. It’s not a punishment. It’s not inflicted on us by some judgmental Being. It’s not about “good” or “bad.” The only punishing is what we do to each other, what we do to ourselves. Death is, the way birth is. And what would be, then, without death? If we didn’t die we’d become a monstrous cancer on a planet that couldn’t sustain us – couldn’t fit us – and we would destroy it. It’s death that allows life to be.

I’m different since Philip died. Closer to the bone. I’m kinder, more helpful. I smile at strangers. I listen harder. I make people laugh, and then I laugh with them. I have no drama in my life, and I feel loved. All of this is the other side of my raging grief. If I was asked what Harriet was asked – provocative as it is – I wouldn’t answer. It’s an impossible question because it can’t happen. Do I wish Philip was here, alive – Christ, of course I do. But he isn’t and he’s not going to be. I don’t care what you call it – fate, destiny, an accident – it doesn’t matter. I don’t have control over Philip’s death. I can only choose how to live with it.

© 2014 Denise Smyth


21 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Joyce McCartney
    May 07, 2014 @ 21:12:05

    This is so ridiculously beautifully written Denise. I am so glad I found you


  2. behindthemask
    May 07, 2014 @ 22:58:35

    Wow there’s just so much to that. Hugs to you xo


  3. tersiaburger
    May 07, 2014 @ 23:57:54

    Thought provoking post. I too think I am kinder post Vic… Hugs my friend as you continue your journey of grief and acceptance.


    • Denise
      May 10, 2014 @ 11:07:42

      Kind you are, Tersia – and what power there is to that. Thinking of you this difficult weekend – never has the word mother caused such a maelstrom of feeling as since our children died.

      Peace and love to you, as always xoxoxoxo


  4. anita
    May 08, 2014 @ 12:36:54

    Hi Denise: I follow your blog and after every reading I am so touched and filled with emotion and i think to myself, you should really consider writing a book. I know it would be so helpful to so many others who have lost someone they love. You are a wonderful writer and i only wish you didn’t have to write these blogs that come from a place of such sorrow, pain, and loss, but i truly believe you are helping not only yourself but alot of other people who have gone through the same loss. Sending you a virtual hug. I know Philip is so very proud of you and guiding your hand with every word you write.


    • Denise
      May 10, 2014 @ 11:11:08

      Thank you for your kind words and encouragement, Anita, and for saying that Philip’s guiding my hand. Yes, I’m doing the writing, but he’s my muse. I do want to write a book, and hopefully the blog will get me there. It’s still so hard to concentrate at times…and I think that tomorrow is Mother’s Day has me deeply down again.


  5. Rose
    May 08, 2014 @ 14:18:22


    you’ve mentioned a couple of times that I was a gift from your son to you. Well, today, after reading this post I came to the conclusion that YOU are my gift from life. This post, just hit me like a brick right on the face. And it’s sooo real, so deep and so touching that put me in tears. Tears that I’m shedding because of my own choices…choices that I regret to have taken and choices that I have to make it now…but like you’ve said, we have to face things as they are and leave with what we’ve gotten. I truly respect you and all your wisdom. You are such an inspirational human being to me. Even though, the road ahead of you might look like gray and full of gravel, you are still trying to plant some flowers along the way and make it beautiful, to me that shows how much your soul is bright and full of love once more.




    • Denise
      May 10, 2014 @ 11:16:49

      Rose, I wouldn’t have met you without Philip and you are too kind and caring for me not to know he sent you. No regrets – only making peace with ourselves. It’s a tall order, no? You put me in tears, too; I wish I felt “wise.” It’s Mother’s day again, which is so fraught with emotion. My daughter’s been away a few days. But she’ll be home today and when she gets here, I’ll remember it’s both she and Philip who are teaching me what it means to love.

      Thank you for being there all this time – I know you suffer, too, but look at what a light you are.


  6. lensgirl53
    May 09, 2014 @ 09:52:03

    I am different, too, since Brandon died. I think I am bolder, braver, and sadder. I don’t always choose to be sad but it is the remnant of what has happened that I did not choose. If it were not for God’s love and promises of eternal life, I could be so much sadder. Right now, I am at a place where I know more than ever the Truth and from that Truth, both my son and I have been set free. I wish for you that peace and understanding. You are a sweet and valuable friend….much love to you as we face this Sunday, Mothers Day, together. xoxo


    • Denise
      May 10, 2014 @ 11:21:14

      Such grief and such love Mother’s Day brings. This one is feeling particularly lonely…or maybe I’m forgetting the last two? I think I’m might’ve been more numb then. I’ve written – and keep thinking about – death being an opening into the divine. I’m trying to get that clearer, to put words on it. It’s hard, much as I know it’s true.

      And thank you for reminding me we face tomorrow together. I don’t walk this path alone, much as it often feels like it.


  7. suziconfuzi
    May 12, 2014 @ 11:15:17

    Reading through your blog has been supportive of my own grief in an odd way. I attend meetings with Compassionate Friends and as we share the stories of our kids, we are each supported in the knowledge that though each of our stories differ they have the same end result. We understand and listen without comment or judgment. Thanks for posting and so beautifully too. I’m pretty new to blogging and don’t really even know how to “like” or follow:)) funny isn’t it? I’ll catch up… I’ve been in a learning curve fog since Jason’s death.


    • Denise
      May 12, 2014 @ 21:13:46

      I knew nothing about blogging until Philip died. It’s a way to connect, to talk. I know you know what I mean when I say I can’t stop talking about him, about his dying, about what living without him is. I’m in constant conversation with myself, then I come here to share it. It keeps me some version of sane – because really, what would we do without each other?


  8. grahamforeverinmyheart
    May 12, 2014 @ 20:26:11

    So much to think about in this post. But knowing we only have control over our reactions and actually living and accepting that are very difficult.
    I have a sad update to share with you: last night (Mother’s Day) as my husband and I were returning from a slow stroll with our dog, he suddenly had a heart attack and died. Obviously we knew his heart was not in good shape (5 medications, 3 times a day), but he was still enjoying life (though at a more subdued level) and loving his meals and walks. He was only around 6 years old, but we had adopted him less than 2 years ago. Needless to say, we already miss his joyful presence in our life.


    • Denise
      May 12, 2014 @ 21:09:53

      Oh, no – again, in May, and Mother’s Day, no less; I am so, so sorry, so very sorry. And how are you? I’m trying to write about yesterday, about a loss concerning my daughter. But I’m talking about a transition, and much as it hurts, she’s still here. I’m asking how you are because much as yesterday was a “perfect storm” for me, how much more so for you? I know I can’t say anything, but do know that I’m thinking about you and – it goes without saying – I’m listening for you, too.

      Peace, my friend; peace, love and blessings, no matter how impossible it may seem.


  9. grahamforeverinmyheart
    May 13, 2014 @ 06:49:18

    Oscar was the first dog we ever owned (Graham was allergic to dogs and cats so we never had one). We decided to adopt him as a “therapy” dog, to help us cope with our grief and find bits of joy in the world. He was the one bright spot in our lives these past 22 months, always full of love and enthusiasm and silliness. We feel crushed that he’s gone so suddenly and so young.


  10. Denise
    May 16, 2014 @ 13:56:01

    What to say – you get a dog to help cope with grief, only to have more of it. I’m so sorry. I know every loss is – and I think always will be – magnified by Graham’s death.

    Forgive me – I don’t remember what day Graham died – I know it was in May. Did it pass already?


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