I've been asked more than once, "Sylvia, if you're so convinced that we never die, and you can see and hear spirits on The Other Side, why would you of all people grieve?" The answer is "Because I'm selfish, I'm human, and I'm here."
Grief is the ultimate pain, the most hollow, numbing, paralyzing, hopeless, helpless aching on earth. It is a lone leaf blowing lost and futile in an empty doorway, an irreversible finality. When we're in its cruel grip, we would give anything-anything-to make it go away, to have everything back the way it was before this darkness came, when we had problems we could fix and options that we had some say in, if we could only remember what it was like to feel something besides such a stunning, overwhelming void.
I've been there. So have you. So has everyone on earth, which makes it even harder to imagine why we're not more universally compassionate toward each other. In fact, part of the unique depth of grief is its awful familiarity, because the truth is, it's an inevitable sorrow in our spirit from the moment we enter the womb.
Arriving in Grief
With the rare exception of those who only choose to spend one lifetime here, our spirits make the round-trip from The Other Side to earth over and over again in the course of eternity, at our own insistence, in pursuit of our greatest spiritual potential and service to God. Our lives at Home are busy, stimulating, euphoric, surrounded by exquisite beauty, friends, soul mates, Angels, and messiahs, thriving in God's awesome, palpable presence. It takes courage and enormous commitment for us to decidewe need the tough challenges only life on earth can provide, and to leave a paradise of unconditional love for this place where lasting love of any kind is a scarce commodity. On The Other Side, we understand that eternity eliminates the concept of time altogether, and when we leave Home we know we'll be back again in the blink of an eye. But here, where we measure our lives by linear days, weeks, months, and years, that "blink of an eye" seems like an eternity itself or, in our darkest nights, that awful word never.
So when our spirits arrive in the womb for another temporary leave of absence from The Other Side, even though it's exactly what we chose to do for our own important purposes, we lose our sense of timelessness and are born grieving our perceived separation from our loved ones at Home, just as we grieve on earth at our perceived separation from a loved one who's gone Home again. In a way, then, we're born grieving, and part of the profound impact that emotion has on us when we reexperience it during our lifetimes is its deeply resonating familiarity from the moment of birth. I promise there are babies all over the world right this second who are looking around at all these strangers making idiot faces at them, having fleeting recall of those adored, adoring spirits they just said good-bye to on The Other Side, and wondering, What the hell was I thinking?! No wonder the first thing we do when we leave the womb is burst into tears.
The Grief Continues
One of the most distraught clients who ever sat in my office had had her life turned upside down in less than a week. On a Tuesday morning she'd been fired from a high-profile job she'd been devoted to for more than a decade, so that the company's new owner could replace her with his brother-in-law. The following Saturday her husband of sixteen years packed his bags and left her for her best friend. She wasn't there for me to tell her what her well-meaning friends had been assuring her, that her husband was a shallow opportunist whose love for her was solely dependent on her considerable career prestige. (It was true, but this was no time to tell her that.) She wasn't there for me to assure her that the affair between her husband and her best friend wouldn't last. (Also true, by the way. Her husband was cheating on her best friend within a year and begging my client two years later to take him back. She firmly and easily responded, "Thanks, but no thanks.") And she wasn't there for me to confirm that her career wouldn't just survive this outrage, it would flourish, although that was true as well. She was there to ask for my help in her emotional recovery from these two life-altering shocks. It had been several months and she felt she shouldn't still be feeling as devastated as she was. This was years ago and I can still hear her saying, "I should be doing better than this by now, Sylvia. After all, it's not as if somebody died."
She was a perfect example of the fact that very deep, very legitimate grief in our lives isn't just limited to the death of a loved one, and we do ourselves and each other an injustice when we fail to recognize it so that we can ask for or offer the special support grief demands. A broken relationship, a home destroyed either physically or emotionally, the termination of a valued or needed job, betrayal by someone we trusted, children "leaving the nest" or a dear friend moving far away, a separation or divorce, a major financial setback, an unwanted relocation-any loss of someone or something enormously important to us that severely alters the structure and security of our lives can trigger grief every bit as real as death.
I'm not talking about those drama addicts we've all known, who demand attention by "grieving" over everything from a flat tire to an overcooked meal, as if they equate their importance in this world with the exaggerated importance of their emotions. Trivializing grief does as great a disservice to humankind as being reluctant to recognize it. I'm talking about having the compassion to respect the enormity of grief when it hits us or someone close to us, whether or not there's an actual death involved, and act accordingly.
When a Loved One Is Grieving
A loved one's grief is a hard thing to deal with, let's face it. It can be more difficult to watch someone else's pain than to go through pain ourselves, because at least when it's our pain we can make decisions about it, tackle it, not tackle it, and feel some sense of control, even if it's minimal. But sooner or later, unless we're hermits or cowards, we're likely to be faced with a grieving loved one and have that helpless, horrible feeling of not knowing what to do. I call what they're going through "the dark horse of grief." I call what they need from us "riding that horse right along with them." There are sensitive ways and insensitive ways to do that, a kind of "grief etiquette," for lack of a better term, that are worth remembering and following as best you can.
A person in grief is a person who's in pure survival mode. Breathing, eating, and sleeping may be about the best they can do for a while. Taking care of the basics for them without their having to ask-grocery shopping, tidying up, doing their laundry, whatever you can manage without making a pest of yourself-can make an enormous difference until they care enough to start wanting to do those things for themselves again.
Don't decide what their emotional needs should or shouldn't be at any given moment. Take your cues from them. Listen when they want to talk, be quiet with them when they don't, hold them when they want to be held, and give them their privacy when they think that somehow solitude might make the pain more bearable. "It will help you to talk about it" or "It will do you good to get out and see people again" may be absolutely true for some people and completely wrong for others. But it's their decision to make, not yours, and you can help most by being available to support what they feel they need.
Don't try to make them feel better by minimizing their loss. This is not the time to remind them of all their former complaints and frustrations about the person/pet/relationship/house/job they've lost. That amounts to expecting them to go from searing pain to "You're right, good riddance!" on cue, and if they're able to do that, they genuinely need psychiatric help. Grief is a process, not just a temporary state of mind, and everyone has to work through that process in their own way in their own time.
Similarly, don't try to offer misguided perspective by topping your loved one's grief story with one of your own. As I've discussed often at lectures and in other books, I lost nine people close to me in just three short months a few years ago, including, most horribly, my daddy, whom I adored. I was so numb with shock and sheer anguish that I barely remember much of anything from that dark, awful time. But I do remember a strange woman coming up to me at Daddy's memorial service, patting me on the back, and clucking, "This is nothing, dear. I once lost both my parents and my only brother all in one bus accident." I also remember wishing I had enough energy to strangle her. I'm sure her point was that if she could survive what she'd been through, I could survive too. But even if it's just a figure of speech, no one who's emotionally devastated appreciates hearing it's "nothing," or the popular and equally ignorant alternative, "You think this is bad ...!"
Proximity to grief can trigger some very odd reactions in us. On top of how hard it is to see someone we love in pain, we're either consciously or unconsciously aware of that grief we were born with and the grief we're likely to go through again, so the dread of "Next time it could be my turn" is both natural and scary. If you can rise above that natural dread and lend your support, in the hope that people will do the same for you when your turn does come, great. But if you can't, if their grief causes you enough discomfort, sadness, or panic that you can't contain it in front of them, make some gesture to let them know your thoughts are with them, but then stay away. There are few worse things you can do to a loved one than put them in the position of having to comfort you through their anguish.
If you suspect that your loved one might want or need some trained help with what they're going through-a minister, a rabbi, a counselor, a medical doctor, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a support group-track down and talk to some viable candidates for them before you even broach the subject. Again, you're dealing with someone who's in pure survival mode, who's performing even the most basic functions purely by rote. Suggesting, "You should find someone objective to talk to," is likely to sound as overwhelming to them as suggesting, "It's such a nice afternoon, why don't you run out and scale Mount Everest?" On the other hand, saying, "Here are the names and numbers of some people who'd love to help if you need them," makes it much easier for them to pick up the phone. Then let it be their decision, not yours. Take it from someone who's been working with grieving clients for almost half a century, it's okay if they're reluctant or skeptical and if you need to hold them by the hand to get them there, but ultimately they can only get meaningful help if they take the first step across the threshold by their own choice.
There's no question, riding the dark horse of grief with someone you love isn't easy. But sadly, it's a challenge you're almost guaranteed to face in this lifetime. And even more sadly, it's just as likely that you're going to be that grieving loved one sooner or later, and anyone who's been through it will agree with me, I'm sure, that it's the hardest challenge of all.
Surviving Your Own Grief
As I mentioned earlier, there are those who find it odd that I grieve at all, since I should be spiritual enough and psychic enough to know better. Does my grief mean I privately question the reality of The Other Side and the eternal lives of our spirits? Absolutely not. I don't just believe, I know those are simple, sacred truths. Even at my most decimated, my devout spirituality never waivers for an instant. As for my psychic gifts, yes, it is a fact that I have seen and heard thousands upon thousands of spirits and Angels in my lifetime, and that will continue until the day I go Home and live among them again. I've made countless astral trips to The Other Side and helped countless clients travel there as well, so I can guarantee that it's as real as, or even more real than, this earth we're visiting now.
Make no mistake about it, when I grieve, there's not a moment when I'm grieving for the loved one I've lost. I'm grieving for me. I'm grieving because I miss Daddy and my Grandma Ada and my dear friends, and I'm selfish enough to want them here with me, despite all the undeniable proof I have that they're still alive.
Even though only three short feet separate us from Home, as we discuss in the chapter on "Contacting The Other Side," earth and Home are two different dimensions with two different vibrational levels, theirs much higher than ours. Like most psychics and mediums, I was born with the ability to perceive that higher vibration. I can see and hear spirits on other levels, both ghosts who have left our level but haven't completed their transition to The Other Side yet and the many more transcended spirits who have. I've never kept count, but I can safely guess that I've seen and communicated with hundreds of thousands of them in my sixty-four years of this lifetime, as well as thousands of "normal" clients who have had encounters with spirits on those other levels.
If grieving were really limited to worrying about whether or not our loved ones are still alive and happy, I would cheer at every funeral. It's the practical difference between the two dimensions that causes me to grieve. The spirits I see are not these dense, gravity-bound bodies we live in while we're on earth, and their voices are quick bursts of high chirping words, distorted by the transition from one vibrational pitch to another. I'm blessed that I've seen and heard Daddy many times since he went Home. I cherish the signals he sends me, from the occasional unmistakable whiff of his beloved cherry-blend pipe tobacco to his well-timed playing of the music box he gave me, which won't make a sound on its own since I haven't wound it in at least twenty years. But I'd be lying if I said any of that is even a pale substitute for my yearning to have him walk into this room right now, put his strong arms around me, and, in his smooth baritone voice, make me laugh as no one else could but him. It's selfish and ungrateful of me, but the truth is, I grieve because he's on The Other Side, having a great time, happy and healthy and not even missing me because as far as he's concerned, I'll be there with him in another minute or two, while I'm stuck here living out my own chart, trying to make the most of the thirty long years I have left until he and I are living full-time on the same dimension again.
It always fascinates me that when I'm writing, it's as if my clients find out somehow and gang up to bring me relevant contributions, no matter which subject I happen to be working on at the time. During this particular chapter, I talked to two separate grieving families with beautiful stories to share, all the more touching because these people didn't consider themselves extraordinary, and because both stories involved children.
You may have met William and his daughter Amy right along with me, at a taping of The Montel Williams Show. When Amy and her twin sister were three years old, the sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She died at the age of six, and Amy, now a young adult, has been visited by and seen the spirit of her beloved twin ever since. Almost more amazing to me, since it's a comparatively rare experience, was what William had witnessed. He was a sweet, soft-spoken, modest man, certainly not someone so eager for attention that he'd make up a good story to get himself on television. He was afraid I'd think he was crazy, as if I'm in a position to think anyone is crazy. But William was alone with Amy's six-year- old twin, a foot or two from her hospital bed, at the moment she "died," and he was blessed to actually witness her spirit, an unmistakable mist, leaving her body. I remember his saying that when he looked back at her body again, he knew it was vacant, it was just the vehicle she'd occupied during her brief stay on earth. He didn't need me to confirm that he hadn't imagined it and that that's exactly what he had seen. In fact, he wasn't asking. He was just a lovely man who wanted me and the audience to hear the exquisite news that he hadn't seen his child die at all. With his own eyes, he'd really seen his child live. Fifteen years later, his voice was still a mixture of joy and sorrow as he told me about it. But sorrow for her, after that quiet miracle? Not a chance.
I was also very touched by Alexis, a quietly elegant client in her early thirties. Her four-year-old son Ethan had passed on only a few weeks before I met her, after a brave battle with leukemia. In his last moments on earth he'd looked up at her with absolute peace and said, "I'm going to die, Mama. It's okay. I promised God." At Ethan's funeral, Alexis was sitting in numb shock, wondering how and if she could survive without this child who had given her life such love and purpose, when she unmistakably heard his voice, whispering in her ear, strong and playful, "Mama, I'm going to kiss you on the nose," followed by a tiny, gentle breath of cool air on the bridge of her nose, exactly where the two of them made a private habit of kissing each other good-night. It was so real it made her gasp, and she found herself smiling, filled with a rush of joy. Her friends and even her minister listened patiently and compassionately when she shared this wonderful moment with them later, and then one by one they assured her that grief can create all sorts of hallucinations, but if it brought her comfort to think it was real, there was probably no harm in it. "Sylvia, I was in a lot of pain," she told me, "but I wasn't far enough gone to hallucinate. It happened. Ethan talked to me and kissed me on the nose at his funeral. What I can't understand is, my friends and my minister claim to believe in life after death. Ethan gave me proof that life after death is real. So how can these people turn around and insist I only imagined a sign that what they believe is true?"
It's a question I've asked myself a million times. Why believe in something as joyful as the fact that our spirits have eternal life, but promptly scoff at all the proof around us that we're right? Grief is excruciating enough as we face the rest of our lives without the human presence of our deceased loved ones. If I didn't know with absolute certainty that our loved ones are still as alive as we are-actually more alive-and that they're around us all the time, I would just crawl into a corner, curl up in a ball, and never come out again.
Another question that comes up often that I can answer, though, which both of those clients' stories remind me of, is "Why did God allow this innocent child (or this good person) to die?" That's easy. He didn't! A God of perfect, eternal, unconditional love doesn't suddenly turn mean, vengeful, and sadistic, and just swoop down and take us against our will as some kind of cruel hobby. No, like everything else in our lives, as we'll discuss in the chapter "Charting Our Life's Purpose," we make that choice. Yes, even children, whose spirits are as ageless and fully developed as ours on The Other Side-we all chart the timing and the circumstances of our trip Home before we come here.
So please, please, when you're facing the utter despair of losing a loved one, don't add to your grief by worrying about their well-being. My book Life on The Other Side can offer you a detailed description of where they are and what they're doing, but the bottom line is that, like everyone else at Home, they're happy, they're in perfect health, they're busy, they're surrounded by countless friends from many lives, they love you completely and unconditionally, if there were any hard feelings between you they're completely forgotten and understood, they visit you often whether you feel them or not, and as far as they're concerned the two of you will be together again in no time at all and they're probably already planning the party for your reunion. Whatever part of your grief is about them, I promise it's safe to let it go and limit your pain to how terribly you miss them.
And by the way, there's an old wives' tale that when we grieve, we bind our loved one's spirit to earth and keep it from transcending to its rightful place on The Other Side. Believe me when I tell you that's not true, but I can tell you where it came from. For one thing, as I also describe in Life on The Other Side, our loved ones go through several different orientation processes when they first arrive back Home, so in many cases they're temporarily unavailable until they've finished their orientation. For another thing, one of the many awful effects of grief is that it throws us into such a numb state of sorrow that we're often blocked from any ability we might have to sense visits from our loved ones until we're starting to heal and recover. I saw my cherished Grandma Ada almost immediately after she died, but it took Daddy eight months to show up. And knowing me as he did, it didn't surprise him one bit when I greeted him with a relieved but impatient "What the hell took you so long?!" So don't let it throw you if you don't notice signs from your loved one right away. They have their orientation to deal with, you have your grief to deal with, but it's a guarantee that sooner or later they'll be with you again, and all you have to do is keep an open mind and pay attention.
Getting Through It
I wish that, as was with all the other chapters in this book, I had some wonderful exercise to help lessen your grief, or to speed you through it when you're in its grip. Unfortunately, learning to survive it is part of the reason we chose to experience another life on earth, since it's absolutely true that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Grief ultimately strengthens and expands our spirits, however small and powerless it makes us feel at the time. There is no grief on The Other Side, so this is the only place where we can confront it, grow from it, and add its depth to our eternal wisdom. Remember, our time on earth is school. Grief is the toughest course we sign up for. To pass that course, we have to survive it, it's as simple and as hard as that, and here are a few tips that I hope can help you through it:
As I mentioned earlier, grief, whether it's a loved one's or your own, puts you in a survival mode. Nothing more, nothing less. Normal life seems like an alien concept. You can't remember what "normal" felt like, and you certainly can't believe it's something you can ever look forward to again. As basic as these reminders are, be sure to eat and sleep as regularly as you can, because in survival mode, basics become all the more important and yet the easiest to disregard when you truly believe that nothing, including your own maintenance, seems worth the effort it takes. And then, just hang on. You will be back to normal again someday. It won't be the same, and I won't give you the false hope of telling you it will. But one day in the near or distant future, you'll wake up one morning with some purpose and some form of peace in whatever your new definition of "normal" turns out to be.
Ask for any and all help you need. Those who truly love you want to help if you can give them even a hint of what they can do, and there are doctors, psychologists, and support groups who really do understand exactly what you're going through and are trained to make a difference. Take advantage of your standing invitation to call the crisis hotline at my office, any time of day or night, at (408) 379-7070. No one can take your pain away, but there are people out there who can and want to take your hand and guide you through it, so that someday you'll be strong enough to do the same for someone else.
This is just a fact, no matter how tempting it might be to fool yourself about it: Drugs and alcohol can't take your pain away, either, they can only postpone it. Hard as it is, with the exception of prescribed medication from a qualified physician, don't anesthetize your grief. Feel it, endure it, and get it over with. Artifically putting it off gives grief the power to jump out and take you down when you least expect it, and an emotion that strong, hidden in denial and buried in the body, is guaranteed to take a horrifying toll on your physical health if you don't let yourself fully experience it at the time it hits.
Every single day, put out the most effort you can possibly muster. Don't wait until you "feel like it," because very probably you're not going to "feel like it" for quite a while. The truth is, the more you can gently push yourself, the more quickly your healing is likely to begin. I recommend going back to work as soon as possible. If work is too much to handle, settle for something as basic as getting out of bed and getting dressed. There will be mornings when even that will seem like an overwhelming, pointless chore. But it will send a message to your body that you're still alive and functioning, and your mind will catch up with that message when it can.
Be more selective than you've ever been about who and what is around you. Even the most subtle negativity is unacceptable now, from people, reading material, television, or anything else in your environment. This is the time to take the loud and clear position "Be supportive or stay away from me."
Embrace everyone and everything that is positive, supportive, and spiritually nourishing. Read every word of comfort you can find, and ask your friends to pray for you and with you. Don't be discouraged if you feel as if it's not doing any good or making any immediate difference. One extraordinary fact about grief that you'll only discover when you're emerging from its darkness is that it truly does expand the soul. Your capacity to give and accept love deepens as you heal. You absorb more hope, comfort, and truth about your divine, eternal connection to God than you'll probably recognize while you're grieving, but the day will come when you look back and marvel at how much closer you've grown to Him just from the sheer strength it took to survive this unspeakable pain.
Hard as it is to believe, whatever event triggered your grief is an event you charted to confront before you came here. The rest of that thought isn't "So stop complaining, you asked for this." The rest of that thought is the very important point that in the larger view of your life and the lives of those you're sharing it with, there was and is a greater purpose to this loss than you can possibly see from the temporary abyss of your grief, so hang on-precisely because you charted it, there is a result around the corner that you'll definitely want to be around to witness. Such clichés as "Sooner or later, some good will come from this" and "One way or another these things always work out for the best" are, without realizing it, another way of saying, "Since this is a part of the contract I made with God, there's a reason for it that I'll understand and appreciate someday."
Finally, if there's anything you feel was left unsaid and undone between you and the loved one who's gone, say it and do it now. I swear to you from the bottom of my heart that they're around you, they'll hear you, and they're watching over you and loving you with the infinite understanding of The Other Side until the day you step into their arms as they joyfully welcome you Home.
"Dearest Mother and Father God,
"My despair feels like a tangible force, so engulfing that it encompasses my thoughts and my heart. Knowing and accepting this, I ask You to help me ride it through and emerge from it brighter, stronger, more loving, and more loved than ever before.
"I realize that reaching the depths of my soul's sorrow is a ferocious lesson. But I have faith that, armed with the power of Your mighty golden sword of pure, infinite, perfect love, I will triumph over my pain, loss, and suffering and finally find Your light waiting to guide me through this vast, dark desert. Amen."