I haven’t known Erin Miller for very long, a year or so maybe. For some reason, she invited me to be friends on Facebook. We have much in common really, in spite of our 17 year age difference. Life experiences bring people together, commonalities make us close. I guess that’s what happened here.
I lost my son Shane in 2009. Erin lost her son Chad Miller in 2014. Our boys lived completely different life stories. Shane lived his life with a diagnosis of Cerebral Palsy and all the fullest, most challenging pieces of what that means. Chad lived life large as a very talented hockey player, and athlete. But what they had in common was mothers who adored them, families that loved and supported every step of their short lives, friends whose lives were forever altered when the unthinkable happened. The devastated Moms they left behind were also a common thread in the fabric of the story of their lives. Women whose lives were forever altered having lost such huge pieces of their hearts.
Although Facebook connected us, we didn’t actually meet until late last fall, after the launch of her foundation #MillerStrong17. Before we escaped the harsh Canadian winter by heading south, I messaged Erin when I was heading into Winnipeg. We met and the connection was instant and deep, as we realized our shared experiences.
A couple of months ago, Erin sent me a page from Chad’s journal. She hadn’t known that he kept one until after his death, but in discovering it, she’s received an ongoing gift of words, wisdom and love from him. The page she sent to me told of his love and admiration for his Mom. How ‘Strong’ she was. About her having had him when she was only fifteen. Of all she did and gave to ensure that he had the amazing life he was living. Of her strength in being able to ‘keep giving love, and giving life’ regardless of the circumstances of their lives or what people might believe. Erin asked if I might be able to write a song reflecting some of what he had shared through his own words. The result was my newest song, simply titled ‘Strong’.
‘Strong’ is in honor of Chad, but is a tribute to every single person who has walked through the fire and come out on the other side. Singed by the flames of life, altered by events and in reality, changed forever…but ‘Strong’ because of it.
There was a time I really hated when people would refer to me as strong. “You are so strong, being able to handle having a child with a disability. You are so strong in the way you supported your loved ones through cancer and their eventual deaths. You are so strong to be able to share your experiences. And the ultimate….what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…or the Big Guy only gives you what your’e strong enough to handle.” There comes a time when you just want to shout ,ENOUGH ALREADY! I really don’t need any more strength!
But in reflection, strength has been the gift that has allowed us to come out the other side of the imaginable. It’s what’s allowed us to offer hope and inspiration to others who just don’t know if they can get through the next hour, day, week. It’s what has supported us to move forward into the new now that is our lives, and offer support to others that may need to borrow from the strength that has gotten us to where we are today.
That is what the hope for ‘Strong’ is. I want those that hear it to know that strength is within them as well, and that there are many of us walking this road alongside them. There are so many people making the best of life’s worst situations, keeping our heads above the waters of grief that threaten do drown us. Scarred people who are changing the world in little ways with the hope of leaving it a better, gentler place for others following in their footsteps. People who have found their own ‘strong’ and are using it as a force of good for others.
#MillerStrong17 is in its infancy, but as the #MillerStrong17 family continues to grow its reach and numbers, the strength of those numbers has the potential to elevate the vibration of this struggling world, one person at a time. Together, there is the potential to make change through finding and using our own strength and utilizing it to its best purpose.
As Rumi said, “we are all just walking each other home.” May we each take whatever it is that makes us ‘Strong’ and resilient and use it to make this journey the best it can be for each person we meet along the way. May we find ways to support each other, lifting each other up and offering a lifeline when we can. May our love enable others to find their own sense of ‘strong’ when they don’t think they have the ability to get through one more day. You can! You will find…you will know…then you will be ‘strong’ and your story may be the one that others will rely upon to know that they can get through life’s worst moments as well.
DD entered my life when I was six years old, two years after we’d moved back to the prairies so that I could start school, leaving behind the coastal world that had been my life up until that time.
It was a very difficult time for me, a chubby little outsider, as I entered the walls of that system not knowing any other children, not knowing until then that I was ‘fat’, not knowing it wasn’t okay to be too smart or even talented because that made you a teacher’s pet in the eyes of the other children, not knowing how tough life could be just being a kid.
DD was Mr. Dobbin to me then, the principal of the school. He was a different Mr. Dobbin on weekends, as one of my Grandfather’s best friends. We’d often venture into the hills on Sundays to visit him and his wife Doris. That relationship put him in an awkward position the first time I was sent to his office when I was in Grade 2. I had blurted out the F word in a fit of anger at another 7-year-old who was tormenting me with teasing and hair pulling. I’d only just learned the word days before when I’d seen it written on the school wall and had been told it was a very bad word that you only used when you were really, really mad at someone. At that moment I was really, really mad. Standing in the principal’s office I waited for the strap that everyone had said was inevitable if you ended up being sent there. It didn’t come, instead I received a stern but compassionate explanation that even when you are really, really mad in grade two, using that word still wasn’t a good idea.
Fast forward 30 years, and Mr. Dobbin became DD, my father-in-law. He remained in that role until the day of his death in April, for although I had been widowed when his son passed and I had remarried in the years following, there was never another father-in-law. He, in return, never let me forget I was his favorite daughter-in-law, and even created a day in June to celebrate that sending a card amended to read just that each year. We had a deep and special friendship for many, many years as he supported my continued farming of the land that had once been his. He embraced the new people that came into my life as a result of my own remarrying, and he was a kind and patient confident for so many of my life’s events.
When I decided to make the move back out to the coast last year, I worried about how I was going to tell him that we were selling much of the farmland that had once been his, and that the house he’d built would be lived in by a renter while we explored other possibilities for our lives elsewhere. When I visited to tell him, it turned out he already knew about that, as people who felt it was their duty to relay all that they ‘thought’ I was doing had already been busy on phone calls to him. His words to me were that he knew that we loved the water and fishing, and we were young and should be exploring other things in life while we had our health and energy. His words regarding those that had meddled in the business that should have been between he and I were not so kind. It wasn’t often you saw DD angered by people, but he had little tolerance for those that chose to stir pots in an attempt to cause unnecessary trouble for others.
One of my fears about moving away was that I’d be so far away from him, but we kept in touch bi-weekly through phone calls, and I made sure we had good, meaningful visits when I was back in the province. I also promised him that I’d be there when needed, and when his daughter called to tell me that things were not good and that he was being put on comfort care, I was on the next plane east to be there for him.
He was the fifth loved one that I would sit vigil with as his days wound down. I’d learned much from the previous deaths I’d walked alongside and through the interest I have in reading end of life support books. Still, with every new death, much of what is forgotten resurrects itself, and new learning takes place. As had happened previous times, in being there, I found myself becoming more present and responsive to the hours and needs of this man who had been a part of my life for so long, and was grateful that I had the means and the support to be with him on this last leg of his 98-year journey.
The first night I arrived I feared I was already too late to enjoy that small, last window of time where communication and sharing was possible, as he was so unresponsive when I arrived at the care-home at midnight. But the next morning when I returned at 7 he was wide awake and so happy that I was there. We spent much of the next few days reminiscing about the loved ones lost, and I was grateful that I had memories of many that so few are left to remember now. He shared more stories of his childhood and his family. He relished moments with his wife, daughter and grandchildren, as life had blessed him with a second family late in life, and you could see the adoration he had for the little ones that were so important to him.
We took turns as a family spelling each other off when needed, and being there together for support when that seemed the more important choice to make. Throughout the days, I started to be reminded of things that often only the dying can remind us about. These are some of those things.
I waited for several weeks, in anticipation of what Gord Downie's release of his graphic novel, multi-media project 'Secret Path', was going to be like to actually watch. I'd watched all the promo clips, and posted many on my personal social media pages, as well as the pages I'm connected to through my work with Artists Against Racism. I was not oblivious to the part of our history that was the Residential School system, I'd been granted opportunities to know and expand my understanding of it, and have delved into learning more about it for myself in recent years. I was always glad for that knowledge and those that had shared their stories with me, but also sad for the time it took me to really embrace the need to learn about it.
I barely remember a time in my life where Indigenous people were not a part of my own story, from the age of six on. In the years beginning in 1984, when I had the local country store, dozens of my customers from nearby Long Plain Reserve tried to share their stories of life in those schools. But being younger and more naive, I heard...but I didn't really listen. I don't know for sure, but I believe that part of that inability to truly listen was the little voice in my head that wondered what the complaining was about, rather than their being glad they had the opportunity to receive an education? I really never asked deeper questions. I didn't have the maturity. I heard what they were willing to share, but I didn't listen to the deeper meaning they were trying to share with me. For that, I will always be deeply sorry, and sadly most of those that tried to shed light on their path for me to better understand their experience are now gone. I will never have the chance to honor their truth the way I now wish I could.
October 23, the 'Secret Path' was released to the public through a CBC special, where the graphic novel was brought to life for hundreds of thousands of Canadians. Gord Downie had pointed his finger at all of us as he'd ended his last Tragically Hip concert in Kingston, and challenged all Canadians to take notice and to do better. Through sharing the Secret Path with us, he is giving us a door to walk through and open up communication that can start the road to our doing better. I was excited that the unveiling had come.
I watched a recording of the streamed event late that night, alone in my room at a friend's home in Redondo Beach, California. There was no surprises to the story, it's fifty years old and I have familiarized myself with it in recent years. What did surprise me was the impact of watching the animated book come to life through the songs that Gord had written to share Chanie Wenjack's experience as best he could...through his music. There was no doubt in my heart that a piece of Gord's soul is attached to this project with a direct link to Chanie's spirit. That became more and more clear as the experience unfolded before me.
When the animation was done, and the opportunity to watch a very ill Gord Downie sing one more rendition of the opening song was over, the pain in my own heart was measurable. I could feel the weight of Chanie's misery, a 12 year old boy, the same age as one of my own grandsons, struggling to escape the horror that was life at that institution in a hopeless attempt to find his way home. I could feel the weight of Gord's passion and purpose, as he'd shared what he refers to as his most important work ever. I could feel the weight of the gift and the responsibility to become part of the change that we are all challenged to be. Those weights resulted in a restless and dream filled night of Ravens, railroads and reconciliation.
In the light of day the real challenge still stares me in the face, as I try to put into action what my heart calls me to do. I was in Redondo Beach because I was attending the first International Grief Recovery Conference. It was a weekend of celebrating an accomplished model for mending broken hearts that has been around for over thirty years. We learned that we now have 5,000 Grief Recovery Specialists doing this deeply heart centered work in all but one continent, that one being Antarctic. We were given ideas on how to offer this tool more widely to children, to reach out to other businesses in our areas to reach a wider audience, how to better market our skills so that we can 'help the most amount of grievers in the least amount of time.' We learned that there are changes on the horizon that will help us to better keep up with the changing times, and that this will not be the final gathering of so many like minded people. Through it all, I was deeply reminded of the power of this tool and the need to be offering it more in the world.
When I returned to my room to watch the Secret Path, I was also reminded of how very, very badly our country needs healing. Healing between those of us that are considered the settlers, and those that were here before us, our Indigenous cousins. There is so much work to be done to make our country the truly great place that we were allowed to believe that it was...and that it can be...but it isn't yet.
So now the real work begins of finding ways to bring my ability to help people heal their broken hearts to people that badly need that opportunity to heal. People who need to have their own personal truth heard, honored and valued. Who need to have the opportunity to find completion to some of the grief and losses that have been holding them in a place of pain for much too long.
I will not be leaving this world a lineage through my bloodline, but I can leave a legacy through my actions. I need to do this for my 'children', and my children's children. I need to do this for my ancestors and those that went before me, instilling the value of all people deep into my being, and doing what they were able to from where they were at the time to make the world better. I need to do it for my friends past and present, who entrusted me with their stories and their experience, a trust I believe I have finally grown into. I won't forget what they experienced and shared, and I promise to find a way to help others understand the depth of the wounds that our history has left. I need to do this for my own heart, which has reminded me time and time again that I too have a deep purpose to fulfill in this life, and as the speed of the pounding in my own heart increases, I know that this work...this healing...this path...is part of the Secret Path that I have been working my way towards for so much of my life. It is slowly, and steadily being revealed to me, and I look forward to traveling down it with all those others that choose to mend this divide.
Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, was truly one of the most passionate and profound poets in history. These hundreds of years later, his poems and quotes still find their way into the fabric of our world, still striking chords with those that read or hear them. Still leaving people wondering what the intention of a particular quote may have been. One of my favorites is this one...
"Out beyond right doing and wrong doing, there is a field.
I will meet you there." Rumi
As with many of his quotes, there is still much debate of what he was referring in his poetry. With this quote, I like to think he means that there is a place where our limited beliefs and ideas on what is right and wrong are no longer important. A place where we can communicate with each other. A place where we can leave our conditioning and old understanding behind, drop our defenses and open our hearts. A place where there is hope for reconciliation and mutual understanding. A place where the first seeds of forgiveness can be sown.
In working with people through the Grief Recovery Method, although forgiveness is one of the three components of completion, it can be one of the most difficult concepts for people to understand. Through time, we have confused forgiveness with condoning an act or event that impacted our hearts in a painful way. We believe that if we forgive another, we are trivializing the pain that they caused us. We feel that we are letting them off the hook for something horrible that they did, and accept that their actions were okay. That is not forgiveness.
The definition of forgiveness in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary defines forgiving as "to cease to feel resentment against." When we think about forgiveness in those terms, we begin to understand that continuing to harbor the resentment and anger towards someone who offended us begins to limit and restrict our own ability to move forward and participate fully in the life we are living today. That anger and pain continues to resurface and invade our life whenever something stimulates the memory of the event and the hurtful emotions that are attached to it. We continue to hurt ourselves because we hold on to the hope of an apology...an acknowledgement...or some sort of retribution for what was done to us. We continue to hope for a different or better yesterday when all we really have the power to do is the ground work for a better tomorrow.
As people slowly come to realize the definition of forgiveness and to understand that we forgive in order to reacquire our own sense of well being and joy, you see the change begin. That subtle shift where the anger starts to lessen, where the painful lines of hurt begin to soften a little and a different view of the world begins to seep in. It is beautiful to be part of and to witness. It is more amazing to experience within one's self.
"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong."
When Gandhi said forgiveness is an attribute of the strong, he understood that forgiveness is hard work. It takes intention, and commitment and it takes a strong person who is willing to revisit the pain of the past and make a decision to let that pain go. It takes a willingness to let go of the hold that the past has on them, and build up from where they are today, without the pain of the memory dragging them back down.
Often, the act of forgiving opens up the possibility of looking at the event through different eyes. When you forgive and set aside the pain, there can be an new awareness develop as well. Not always, but sometimes. Sometimes the event was so horrific, that the perpetrator can only be viewed as evil. Again, your forgiveness of them does not take away from who they are or what they did, it is solely to relieve your heart of the pain that it has carried.
But every now and then, I see Rumi's quote come into play. 'Out beyond right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I will meet you there' Every now and then, by making the conscious decision to take the action that is forgiveness, we open our hearts up to something more. Sometimes in forgiveness we see what happened, or what was said, was a difference of beliefs, education, life skills or upbringing. It was not necessarily a matter of right doing or wrong doing, but rather a difference in understanding as a result our individual beliefs or stories, based on what others might have believed to be true at the time. Sometimes, if we can drop that view of rightness or wrongness...we can see the field beyond. And in that field, there is hope and possibility. In that field, by planting the seeds of forgiveness, there lies the potential for growth, reconciliation and a softer, kinder world than the one we often see today. In that field lies the opportunity to seed change.
It takes time and energy to become who we truly are! In life, so many things can get in the way of our figuring that out..but the time comes in each of our lives where we need to be able to do that if we're going to live happy fulfilling lives that are authentic reflections of our best selves. These are just things I've learned along the way. I hope that they might help you in your own journey into being Truly You!