Crossing Muddy Waters: Feeling Deeply Through Loss

I am crossing muddy waters. Now the water’s wide and deep and brown. - Crossing Muddy Waters by John Hiatt
I am crossing muddy waters. Now the water’s wide and deep and brown.
– Crossing Muddy Waters by John Hiatt

What awaits all of us is loss. This is a grown-up truth.

Loss sneaks up on you. Suddenly it becomes harder to breathe.

Loss is large, small, often unexpected and unwanted. We all know individuals who face destroyed or derailed careers, tumultuous terminations of marriages, the negative biopsy report, cruel aftermaths of an unfortunate financial move or the plight of frail parents as they nosedive toward an end.

Loss can defeat us. Loss will bring you to your knees.

I am on mine.


In Sorrow’s Arms

According to the research, psychological well-being increases later in life, following a well-known U-shaped curve: people report less satisfaction in midlife and more at either end of the age spectrum. Paradoxically, though, suicide rates rise sharply. Older white men are at risk.

I included this statistic in a prior post and remember thinking how sad to choose to end living after so many decades of the checks and balances of life.

That fleeting moment of sadness is now deep and personal. Five weeks ago my brother, Stephen, – one of those older, white men – died with a self-inflicted gunshot to his head.

I am heart wrecked and exhausted.

Sorrow is now my companion and confidant though the quiet thin air of absolute dismay.

At first, I cringed when sorrow met me before the dawn. Go away.

Now, I don’t much love sorrow but I need the calm of unhappiness he offers. So I let him in – into my heart, my mind and my soul. Deep, deep into my soul.

In moments of great sadness when something new enters into us, our feelings grow mute and shy. Stillness comes. Honestly, I ramble through days without me knowing much about it.

My friend, Julie Auton, sent me a Facebook posting by Dr. Glenn Etheridge, Pastor of Oak Grove Methodist Church in Decatur, Georgia. Dr. Etheridge just lost his 23-year-old son, Andrew, to brain cancer.

I must name the grief. I cannot ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. No, I will name it. I will name where it hurts, how it hurts, and when it hurts. Unspoken grief or grief denied has more power over me than named grief.

Sometimes my wail of grief – so full of anguish and suffering – is frightening and startling. I am amazed and often uncomfortable when my suffering seeps then rages into a fireball.

Then We All Fall Down

“The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with a scent. It was about to begin,” writes Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award. Macdonald’s memoir begins with the lingering bouquet of death – her father’s – and we follow her two-year grief journey as she tames a Goshawk.

The NY Times lauds the prose exquisite her words mimic feathers.

Her words are also raw.

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning “to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.” Robbed. Seized. It happens to all of us.

When something or someone that used to be there isn’t anymore, misery follows. We fall down with sorrow decreeing the time and place.

After her husband leaves her for a younger woman disintegrating over forty years of marriage, Shannon (not her real name) screams in torment “at the top of my lungs in my living room” at the loss of the love of her life. “It was so uncharacteristic of me,” she says.

During the last few weeks I sob in front of large groups of people I don’t know. It’s not by choice. I cry as if tortured.

Standing as we sing the the last hymn at my daughter’s church in Nashville, I am overcome and sink into the pew with sadness. I pitch into grief’s soft moans and tears. My daughter reaches for my hand. At the end of the service, a woman whose face I never saw reaches from the pew in back of me, touches my shoulder and says, “Peace be with you.”

Another time as I drive on a Sunday evening to a program I saw in the church bulletin but know nothing about I say to myself,  ‘this is the most woo-woo thing you’ve done in 30 years.’

Taize, a quiet service of meditation, reflection, reading, music and healing of our lives is named for monks in a town in France called Taize. (Pronounced tiz-AY.)

I check it out on YouTube and in my internet search discover that what began in the village of Taize 65 years ago is now an international phenomenon, with weekly services held in over 100 countries across the world. At the original Taize site, the Friday evening service typically draws between 2,500 and 3,000 people each week.

The darkened church, the chants – simple melodies, barely accompanied – and silent reflection did quiet my soul. When the invitation to approach the cross, kneel at the communion rail and meet a person who can offer prayer and anointing, I was surprised and cautious.

Who does this? No one. Except me.

Working from a level of instinct as my head said, ‘you don’t have to do this,’ I rise from the pew, go to the rail, kneel and collapse in sorry into a stranger’s arms. The young man held me within his strong arms and I cried until my head throbbed. He wept.

The chanting from the attendees will go on for as long as a person is at the rail.

When my heaves and shudders subside, I name my pain and ask him to pray for my brother.

“Out loud?” he asks.

Out loud.

“What is your brother’s name?”


 The prayer was a beauty.

Big sister. Little brother. Kettering, Ohio, 1953.
Big sister. Little brother. Kettering, Ohio, 1953.

Co-Conspirators Were We

Loss is the awareness of everything.

I lost the longest relationship I had in life and a person I loved. Just a few years younger, Stephen and I were aware of one another, witnessed more life events and changes than anyone else – longer than my parents, husband and child.

My brother did not take care of me nor did I take care of him in financial, social or everyday ways. We created lives with fierce independence, striving to accomplish what was important to each of us.

We found joy in sharing our chosen geography of places across lifetimes. Colorado and Arizona gave me beautiful vistas of grand mountains, blooming deserts, and hikes among towering Saguaros. He loved my water. The picture of our sailboat alone in an anchorage off ST. John where we had sailed together for four days was left on his desk.

In a letter to me in the days before he died, he wrote, “I treasure the memories of our float down the Chattooga to celebrate my MBA and especially those sailing trips on ‘Das Boot.’”

We were confident in our ability to navigate life with good heart-to-hearts about our love lives, marriages, divorces, and ambitions. As the years passed we learned more about one another, respected our differences, shared a joint or four and laughed a lot. The relationship was nourished with weekly Friday morning calls as he drove to work.

We were imperfect siblings. He was slow to forgive me when his best friend and I became lovers. I was slow to forgive him when he cheated on his wife.

Kin come with no guarantee of adult friendship. But if you and your sibling create an enduring alliance that becomes a clarifying force for your own interior life.

Siblings are often called the forgotten mourners who take a secondary status to parents, spouses and children. That’s a hard sell. Who else but a sibling has better memorized your childhood?

  • Remember those Christmases in Kentucky when we were upstairs in bed at Grandpa Rucker’s and Daddy would come to stoke the fireplace then go into the closet to drink his whiskey? Anderson Rucker, my grandfather, was a Free Will Baptist who did not allow dancing, drinking, cards or women wearing shorts in his house. Daddy got drunk many time after visits to that closet.
  • Remember when we got caught selling our toys from the bedroom window to the other kids who lived in the projects?  Stephen’s idea. We made money.
  • Remember Mom screaming in the shower when those little colored chicks from Easter got loose?

Is there a gift in my brother’s death? You do hear from a lot of old friends and acquaintances.

Suicide is socially awkward. Those with previous experiences give you unsurpassed insight.

Your daily routine may not go as well or as planned because while the world continues to spin you may feel as if you’re standing still. – Nina, Stephen’s ex-wife. Her brother committed suicide.

Some people forgo any soothing platitudes or try to put words to your feelings.  They call in the truth. You appreciate it.

I know you hurt beyond anything I can imagine or understand. – Jean, a new friend.

Others want you to turn away from sadness and snap out of it. You’d like to strangle them.

Hope you are doing better today! – A text received ten days after Stephen’s suicide. It ended with a smiley face.

When cards arrive, I most often open my lower desk drawer and drop them in unopened. The videos of the memorial service held by Stephen’s friends in Tucson are not viewed. I’ve returned few calls.

The world will right itself and I will remember how kind and warm the world can be. I believe this.

But looking for the end of mourning is like looking for grace: it comes. You just don’t get to say when and how.

Our Rugged Hearts

With our longer lives, we’ll experience plenty more loss. Little can be done about that.

But how you mourn and for how long?

Sheryl Sandberg’s grief post marked the end of the Jewish period of shloshim, the 30 days of mourning following the death of a spouse. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, 47, died suddenly in a tragic accident.

For some, the digital grieving from this COO of Facebook was too tidy and too soon. Yet the post, liked more than 635,000 times on Facebook and shared more than 271,000 times, opens up a conversation about loss and grief.

Let’s talk about it.

The full spectrum of human experience is fertile and abundant. Loss teaches us how to be human and grief offers her embrace. We can struggle and spar. We can bail.

Or we can anoint and blot ourselves with sadness alongside quiet confidence and quiet self-assurance. We’ll take hard, straight, unflinching despair because it offers discovery of self and redemption.

I believe what makes us complete individuals and enables us to create rich, dimensional, meaningful lives is for sure intention, mindfulness and action. But above all, we must attach ourselves to emotions –sincerely, totally and intensely.

Easy to do when the feelings are joy, love, gratitude, satisfaction and pride. But so hard, so very hard, when it’s loss to feel. Yet, numbing ourselves to loss even as we are ‘robbed and seized’ dooms our potential for an extraordinary life.

Funny as it seems, I find it is through my grief that I understand there is life ahead of me that I have not lived yet. And I want that life with all my heart.

Roll the dice and sail the ship. And all the world will open.  -Lyrics  from “Believe” by My Morning Jacket
Roll the dice and sail the ship. And all the world will open. -Lyrics from “Believe” by My Morning Jacket

Mortality, Life Span and the Meaning of Life

To walk in sorrow is to meet up with what was and meet up with what could be.

Vicky Van Meter first manipulated the controls of an airplane at the age of 10. On September 20, 1993, at the age of 11, she made headlines when she flew from August, Maine to San Diego, California in a Cessna 172. A year later she flew a Cessna 210 over the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland.

After her flights, she appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and visited the White House. Because of the Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton on October 9, 1996, after the death of Jessica Dubroff it is no longer legal in the United States to attempt to set records as a student pilot, which effectively means that some of the records set by Van Meter will never be broken.

At the age of 26, Vicky Van Meter’s suicide by gunshot left behind a brother and sister, Elizabeth. ”As a “ghost of herself,” Elizabeth struggled to learn how to care enough to keep going. In the midst of her crippling depression, a friend shows Elizabeth a black-and-white photograph from a recent trip abroad.

The image haunts Elizabeth. It shows Thao sitting in a wheelchair outside a shed that houses pig feed, fertilizer — and books. “Thao’s Library,” her stunning solo documentary piece, premiered at the Bentonville Film Festival on May 6.

I didn’t choose this story. It chose me, and I had to tell it for my own sanity. It was a way through my own darkness. This was truly a unique experience, in that I didn’t necessarily set out to make a documentary film. I had been searching for a sign, meaning, purpose and understanding. I saw a photograph that spoke to me.  – Elizabeth Van Meter

Most of us will not find our journey in grief ending with creative endeavors like films or award-winning books, but in the living of our remaining days.

Tomorrow life’s going to change.

How will you find your way after your next loss? How will I find my way through this one?

Unsealing a letter written to you from a loved one who has taken his life is cruel. But I am beholden to the words and grateful beyond reason.


You once sent me a card that said I had “a life well lived” and I did. I saw places, lived places, had experiences, made friends and had lovers that no poor kid from Kettering, Ohio could have expected. So remember your brother as someone who had a life well lived. Always tried his best, treated people well, loved his friends and family and gave as much as he could.

A series of losses and mishaps overwhelmed my brother. But the part of life that was “his life well lived” mattered in the final inventory and summation of his time on earth.

The Manifesto written to launch the InventiveLifePost50 website over one year ago still holds this truth:

No one but you is in charge of the time left and what to do.

Grief’s grip on me goes slack at times and it’s then I know I want to live more fully than ever in the time I have left.

This wouldn’t seem so strange if I hadn’t already been doing a damn good job. It’s hard for even me to fathom my future going more full tilt.

But powered by the very thing that has left me bereft, I will become better than I was.

My life will be fuller. I will dream, love, be loved, laugh, seek, serve and learn. It will be my old identity and more.

I will work harder.

My life will please me even more. All the while never forgetting I had a brother I loved and lost.

May my misfortune inspire grit and determination for you to create a well-lived life.

Take the new road through the secret gate. Try your best.



Tolkien-lore: The Road goes ever on and on. Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone. And I must follow, if I can. Pursuing it with eager feet. Until it joins some larger way. Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.

 Still round the corner there may wait

A new road or a secret gate,

And though I oft have passed them by,

A day will come at last when I

Shall take the hidden paths that run

West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

                –J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I wish to say thank you for all your love and support.

Requiescant in Pace

Stephen E. Stapleton          1948-2015
Stephen E. Stapleton
The annual Kentucky porch picture.
The annual Kentucky porch picture.

About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
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