Asking “What if the worst thing happens?” is a great way to up the stakes in a thriller. Or help a client plan and pursue legal strategy. But it is not a recipe for a peaceful life. The same mind that helps me take every possible plot line or legal question to nth degree also imagines or replays painful and tragic events and ideas. For months after my parents’ deaths due to a drunk driver, I imagined the scene, which I’d learned about through police reports and witness statements. My dad’s body flipping over the top of the SUV that hit them, my mom lying in the road alone. My dad survived about 6 weeks after the crash, and even now, 4 years later, I flash back to holding his hand and telling him my mom died, or sitting in the straight back chair by his hospital bed with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece through his last night with us.
Before my parents’ deaths, I mediated fairly regularly, not as a religious or spiritual practice, but to help clear my thoughts. My practice was to focus on one word as I breathed in and out, letting go of all other thoughts. Eventually I simply focused on the breath itself. It rested my mind during the fifteen minutes a day that I sat, and also helped me focus more on whatever I was doing at any particular moment, rather than letting my mind run off in all directions (unless I was actually plotting a story or writing a legal brief, in which case I let it run). After the crash, sitting still, or only handling one thing at a time, felt impossible. To not multi-task – such as by eating while listening to public radio while paying bills – seemed like a terrible waste of time. Every free moment lost was a moment with my dad I wouldn’t ever get back. I also couldn’t handle stillness emotionally. I played the TV whenever I was home, I paced when I talked on the phone, I read and ate and ruminated about what else I could be doing for my dad or how angry or sad I felt all at the same time. To stop, to sit, to simply breathe to me meant opening floodgates of emotion I might never contain. Yet as I raced away from my pain and anger, it rushed back to me, overwhelming me.
About 5 months after my dad’s death, I took all my vacation time in one block. After visiting with family and friends, I spent a few days in Hawaii alone. Often I just sat on the grass, listening to the ocean, breathing salty air, and crying. At night, I stared at the stars spread across a sky darker than I ever see in downtown Chicago, and I cried. It was such a relief. No place to run to, nothing to do. Just the chance to be, to feel sad, to miss my parents.
I won’t say I felt wonderful from then on. I still struggled with grief, loss, anger, all the feelings that go with a traumatic loss. I felt ungrounded with both my parents gone almost in an instant. After that break, I still felt sad, angry, and afraid. But I spent just a little more time each month being with people I loved, doing things I enjoyed, and planning my future.
Recently, I started meditating again. And focusing on doing one thing at a time. I’d forgotten the peace it can bring. There are moments when it’s hard, when it intensifies feelings of sadness or pain. But it also means I am truly present for good feelings and good times too, rather than letting them rush past me in the scramble to juggle my law firm, my writing, my friends and family. I still miss my parents and always will, and still grieve for them. But I let myself remember the wonderful things about them, and notice how much of who they were exists in all the people who knew and loved them. Something I would have missed had I just kept running.
Lisa M. Lilly
Author of The Awakening