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


From Her View

Philip’s story isn’t one story. I have my version; Phil, his; Natalie, hers. I asked my daughter if she’d take a few minutes and write a little about what it’s been like for her.  She’s a tough kid, and she’s handled Philip’s death by coming more into life. And in this she inspires me; on my own, I would have been happy to wither away, have the wind blow me somewhere that might feel like home. But she suffers Philip’s death too, and sometimes neither of us know what to do.

“How can I live without him?” I ask her. “I was supposed to go first.”

“How can I live without him?” she asks me. “He was supposed to be here when you did.”

From Natalie:

My time spent at Rutgers was a rough patch in my life. My first semester I was unhappy there, but it didn’t compare to the tragedy that occurred on February 22nd, 2012.

A big comfort to me at school was the support of my family and close friends. I was lucky my parents were 45 minutes north, and that my boyfriend and closest friends were in New York City and Philadelphia. It was easy to see either of them on a weekend, even make just a day trip if it felt necessary. But best of all, my brother Philip lived five minutes from me. I could go to him anytime. Sometimes I would see his car when I was walking to class and it would make me smile. We ate lunch together, and I’d go to his house on the weekends. He was loving, sweet and caring. I have never known anyone like him.

When he first died, I didn’t feel it. Not really. When the police came into my dorm and said, “Is this your brother?” I knew he was gone before I looked at the picture they were handing me. When the policeman said, “He’s dead,” I started hyperventilating, shaking and crying. When I finally stopped, I felt close to nothing. I was numb. Numb throughout the wake and the funeral. Numb throughout the days afterward.

A week after he died, I went back to school. My mom came with me and helped me unpack the few things I’d taken home with me. Then she drove me to class and went home. I watched her drive away, and had a growing pain in my stomach. I had to suppress the urge to run after her. I watched her car until she was out of site, turned around and walked to class.

“It’s okay,” I thought, “I’m fine.” And I was, for like, a minute.

In class, I sat down and tried to pay attention to my food and health teacher. For the first few minutes I listened, I took notes. But after a while, I started feeling uncomfortable. What was the point? I didn’t even like this class. My brother was gone and I was sitting in the lecture hall listening to a woman talk about things I didn’t care about.

“It’s not like anyone would even notice if I wasn’t here.”

But I stayed. Until it got hot. Until I couldn’t sit still. My legs trembled. My eyes watered. There was this pressure; like the air suddenly weighed 500 pounds, pressing on my body.

What was happening?

Enough. I snapped out of it. I stood up. I left the lecture hall, walked into some empty computer lab, sat down on a chair and focused on my breathing. After about fifteen minutes, I got up and went back to class. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, not really. I managed to go to my next class, but around 5:30, something changed.

Back at my dorm, I unlocked the door and went inside.


The smell was putrid. I hated this room, where my life got turned upside down. I hated the bed I was sitting on when I found out I would never see my brother again. I hated the computer I was using and the books I was studying when the police came into my room.

Why was it all the same?

And everything that I’d been feeling all day just rose to a peak and I knew. Without thinking, I was running. Out of that room. Down the stairs. Out the door. Running. Until I reached the train station.

I could not stay at that school. The problem wasn’t the smell of my dorm or the bed or the computer or the books. The problem wasn’t Rutgers, but that Phil was no longer there. I needed to get away from there, I needed time to heal, I needed to be with my parents, I needed the comfort of home.

© 2013 Denise Smyth

Happy Birthday?

Tuesday was my mom’s birthday. Natalie and I went out to dinner with her and my dad, my brother Robert and his wife, Maria (if you’ve been reading along and are confused about “Maria,” one is my cousin and one is my sister-in-law. It’s an Italian thing.), my nephew and two nieces. My other niece is away at college in Boston. Yes, that Boston. She was in the area an hour or so before the bombs went off.

Last year, Philip hadn’t even been dead two months when my mom turned 80. That was the end of the surprise party. Birthdays are way too ironic in the face of death. We weren’t about to celebrate life after it had turned on us, and in such a vicious, impossible way.

This year, my dad kept it simple. I don’t think my mom wanted a bigger celebration. Last year we were in our separate orbits around Philip. This year, not so much. This year, I remembered that everyone had lost him. Philip was a brother, a nephew, a cousin. He was a grandchild, the second one who had died. See, I have been greedy in my grief, wanting it all, allowing no portion to anyone else. It bound me to my son, and I believed it was all that was left between us. I was not about to share. It was Natalie who had to remind me that yes, I lost my son, but she lost her brother, and that very much mattered, too.

Tuesday I didn’t need to be reminded. Tuesday I looked around the table and had a collapsible moment where I realized that these people are my family and I love them. Don’t “of course you do” me. I do not love so easily. In that moment I knew why. Because it hurts too much. It hurts. I am helplessly in love with my children; thank god for that. But Philip’s death left my heart roadkill, and when love reaches in and touches, it does not soothe.  It reminds me of its cost. I see the terrible beauty of grief, the cost of a life deeply lived. I have spent my life wanting to live deeply; did I understand what I was asking for?

I have to take it in bits and pieces.

Full disclosure #1: I’d considered writing about my mom’s birthday, but decided not to – time to get back to the narrative. But Natalie had been taking pictures that night, and she posted some on her blog. Just a few; my mom and dad, Robert, me, Natalie. It’s a happy blog; she’s a happy girl. So if you want to see what some of us look like – and give her a little more traffic while you’re at it – you can find her at .

Full disclosure #2: Natalie told me that the reason my gravatar is my picture is because it’s my Facebook picture and it’s somehow linked to everything else I do online. So in case you think you know what I look like, that is my face dressed up for a gala that was five years ago.

Just sayin’

© 2013 Denise Smyth

“Is this your brother?” (Day 2, Part 1)

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 – Philip still hadn’t called me back. I still didn’t think anything of it. I figured I was on his mental to-do list. But I wanted to talk to him, so by afternoon I called and this time, I left him a message: “Well, I know you’re not dead in a ditch ‘cause someone would’ve called me by now. Call me.”

He was not in a ditch; at least I got that right.

Later that night, home, alone, I turned on “Lost.” It’s available on instant-watch through Netflix. I didn’t much like “Lost,” but I’d been watching it with Natalie during the summer. When she left for Rutgers and watched a few episodes without me, I figured I’d let it go. But I was afraid something really good and mind-blowing would happen and I would miss the Big Point after all the hours I’d spent watching this crap. We were, after all, up to season six. And much as I swore I’d never forget what scene I was watching when I got The Call, forget I did. Juliet and Michael were on the beach, I remember, but that narrows it down to exactly nothing. It’s Lost, for God’s sake. Everyone is always on the beach.

But the first time the phone rang, it was not The Call. It was Natalie. When I answered, she was choked and panicked and saying, “Mom, mom.” Since she often called choked and panicked and saying, “Mom, mom,” I did what I always do.

“Natalie. Natalie. Breathe.”

“But mom…”

“Natalie. Take a breath. I can’t understand you when you’re like this. Take a breath and tell me what happened.”

Nothing unusual about the silence that followed. Nothing unusual, either, in the abrupt change in her voice when she said, “Mom, I have to go.”

“Oh no you don’t. You’re not hanging up like this. Tell me what happened.”

Mom. I have to go.”

“Okay, okay. But call me back and let me know what’s going on.”

On my end, I thought her roommate walked in or someone started pounding on the door and that she would head for the nearest empty hall, stairway, bathroom or closet, wherever she could find somewhere to talk to me in private. It’s happened before. Uncontrollable weeping gets controllable real fast when you’re afraid one of your peers might catch you doing it.

On her end, she hung up, holding the photocopy of Philip that the four policemen who were standing in her room had given her when she opened the door and found them standing there. “Is this your brother?” they’d asked. A question harmless enough, except when it isn’t. Except when you realize it’s a question you’ve heard your entire life but you probably weren’t going to be hearing very often any more. And since she realized I didn’t know, she figured she’d give me a few more minutes peace before I woke to the nightmare that would become my new reality.

© 2013 Denise Smyth