How I Practice

I’ve been getting rid of stuff. Because when there’s too much of what you have, it becomes stuff instead of what it really is. It’s not clothes, books, shoes, jewelry, fabric; it’s stuff. And when there’s too much around there’s that much more of a psychic load to carry.

But it’s a mistake to get rid of things for the sake of getting rid of them. Things have value. I don’t want to worship what I have – I just want to understand what it all means. I want to remember everything has a life cycle. If I buy something, I’m responsible for seeing it through to the end. Whether it’s become garbage because it’s useless, or it’s something I donate it because I’m overwhelmed at the thought of dragging it to consignment, I am responsible.

I this started back in November – I took every piece of clothing and every pair of shoes I owned and put them on the living room floor. Panties included. Then I picked up each piece and asked myself if I loved it – I did not ask when the last time was that I wore it. And if I didn’t love it but didn’t want to give it away, I asked myself why? Like the dark green sweater that found its way back into my drawer. It depresses me when I wear it – it feels dark and sad and I’ve enough of that inside without wearing it outside. I kept it because it was expensive, because I bought it only last year, because Natalie really liked it and part of why I bought was so she could wear it. We often share clothing (which means she borrows my stuff) and I find myself greedy to be the one who can claim ownership. But she’s the one that likes the sweater and now she’s the one who owns it.

If I can’t let go of a sweater, what am I going to do about the last letting go, the biggest one of all?

During this purging, Laura, Philip’s first serious girlfriend, came to visit with her friend, Ella. Natalie and I lived with Laura and Nadiya, her mom, for a few years before I got my own apartment. Laura wanted to come over to see my apartment, to meet Nikki, to rummage through my clothes before I gave them away. While she and Ella were here, I told them the story of the day I was packing to move, and decided not to drag along the 3,000 or so pages of emails that I’d stored under my bed (which is a story for another time). Downstairs I went with boxes full of paper, sat on the bottom of the staircase and started tearing. Two good long rips later I balked. Was I doing the right thing, was I going to need these one day, what if  I needed them to write the book I thought I was going to write before Philip died, the book about something that seemed so important and came to matter little after I discovered just what life could do to me.  That’s when I noticed a something on the on the floor. I picked it up to find it was a clothing tag from the store called Forever 21.

I saved that tag, and as I told my story, I pulled it out for dramatic effect. And since I have a habit of putting things down and forgetting where I put them, that is exactly what I did. A couple days went by, and it hit me that I remembered picking up the tag, but I didn’t remember putting down the tag. I went to the cubby in my desk where I kept it, but it wasn’t there. I tore my desk apart, looked under the couch and the bureau, picked the edges of the rug. It wasn’t anywhere. That tag was proof that Philip was around I needed it. But a few panicked minutes later I stopped – I cannot stay upset for things I can do nothing about. And if I’m practicing letting go, then what did it matter? What mattered was that it happened, and what it means to me. I still have my story to tell. Maybe without the dramatic flourish at the end, but it’s still my story.

Then came Thanksgiving at my brother’s. Late in the evening, when I got home,  I got out of my car and said, “Philip, I want something.” I opened the door to my building, and in the entry was a box of recycling with a glossy flier on top with a store announcing a 21%  off sale. 21% off?? Who has a sale for 21% off?? So I lost a tag but have a flier. For now.

The phenomena of the tag and the flier are not isolated incidents. Philip communicates with me every day, in startling ways. I have stories and stories. I am graced, for sure. I’ve no doubt he’s here, and he won’t let me forget. Still – he’s dead and it terrifies me. But…he’s here. Not his body, but his presence is clear. So I find myself choosing my words more carefully. I can’t say Philip’s gone because that’s not the truth. But he’s dead and I’m still trying to figure out what that means because it’s the end of our lives as we knew them, but it’s not the end of the story.

So why this raging grief, and what am I terrified of? Am I afraid to die? There’s a correlation between my fear of letting go and my fear of death. The less I’m attached to what or who is part of my life, the easier it will be to die. This life needs to be let go of and I can practice doing that every day. That’s not to be confused with, “Who gives a shit? I’m going to die anyway.” Because what I’m talking about takes courage. It is a conscious, meaningful decision to stop resisting what is. And the more I stop, the more I know love. Because love cannot be grasping and clinging. Which makes me question if I’ve ever truly loved, and what I really meant when I said, “I love you” to someone. Was it them I was really loving, or was it my need for them to love me?

The one true love I know is that for my children. That’s why I knew how to let them go. Let them be. And that’s why I’m in such deep communion with Philip now. What was between us in life doesn’t change with his death.

It was three years ago today – 2/01 – that I last saw my son. This is the season of his birth and his death. I find myself doing exactly what I did when he first died. Sitting on the couch, knitting and watching TV. If I have any advice for people who lose loved ones, it’s what someone told me when Philip first died: Follow whatever creative urge you have. So I knit, I write, I sew, I cook. I’m alone and quiet in my mourning because it’s time to tend to it.  Whatever letting go needs to be done around Philip’s death, I cannot yet do. When I say, “letting go” what I mean is to stop resisting what I feel. That doesn’t mean I won’t grieve any more, it does not mean it’s okay that Philip died. It just means I allow what I’m feeling to be as it is, knowing that – whether I like it or not – it will pass into something else.

It is in not resisting that I will mine the riches of Philip’s death. I am coming to understand that is the way to honor him, that is the way I can see his death was not for naught. His death means what I make it to be – and he’s asking me to make it my way into life.

© 2015 Denise Smyth


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. tric
    Feb 01, 2015 @ 18:40:38

    Thinking of you as you remember Philip. We have only had one anniversary for young Daniel and two birthdays, both took a large toll but so too does the random days when it all becomes real and I watch his mom work so hard to get through it. Do you still feel he is 21? My friend, young dans mom, sees his friends and watches him grow, but in her heart he remains 13.


    • Denise
      Feb 03, 2015 @ 20:37:19

      Yes, he remains 21. He was 24 last month. But I think of when he’d be 30…40…and I tell myself STOP. Just now, Tric; just for this moment do I have to live with his death.

      Good to hear from you.


  2. kmlagatree
    Feb 02, 2015 @ 09:18:37

    This post is so inspiring, Denise. Let’s get together: Soon!


  3. lensgirl53
    Feb 02, 2015 @ 11:28:36

    It is a “practice,” so to speak. I have to practice each day at something new or even something old that grief makes you forget. I like delving into the creative me even though during that process I fight it because my son was always creative and talented and everywhere I look there he is in his photos, drawings and writings. In my own way, I believe I don’t deserve to finish it out because he never got the chance. There was so much more he could have given. His death was mine. It is a struggle that all of us who have lost a child are up against.

    My heart is aching for you in this season of loss. I like that you feel urged onward by Philip’s constant gentle prodding to do so.

    Brandon’s Heavenly Date is a month from this Friday. Oh, how I dread and hate the season that brings in Spring. But….more on that later. Much love, Dale


    • Denise
      Feb 03, 2015 @ 20:41:10

      And much love to you, sweet Dale. Brandon really was so talented, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. Every time you share something he painted…well, it’s amazing. I don’t have to tell you he knows you “deserve” to do whatever gives you pleasure, and no doubt you’ll feel closer to him every time you do. xoxoxoxo


  4. Tamara
    Feb 03, 2015 @ 16:08:17



  5. Lucia Maya
    Feb 15, 2015 @ 17:29:52

    Dear Denise, I finally read this after letting it sit and steep in my inbox until I was ready to read. I love your writing, and all your posts have been wonderful, but this strikes me as your best so far. It (you?) feels so clear, so eloquent, so wise and it all flowed effortlessly. Truly you are gifted and inspiring, as a writer, as another mother in this tribe we never would have chosen to be part of, as a human being.

    You have my love, and are in my heart. So grateful to be on this path with you.
    love, Lucia


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