Ten months ago, I paired up with two other women to begin planning for a “Heal Your Grief” retreat to be held in Dubuque this October. That day is almost here. (October 7 and 8th) The programs are beautiful, tote bags for attendees are packed, and we are working on tying up all the loose ends of what promises to be an annual event. We’ve already reserved the lovely Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque for next year’s retreat.
Where did the idea for this event come from? I believe the seed for it came from having experienced the multiple losses of mother, husband, and grandson in the space of three years. While the hearts of those who have faced loss have the potential of becoming hardened and closed, mine was broken wide open. I found healing for that wound through prolific writing and public speaking, doing speeches on finding hope in the darkness of loss.
“We can become broken, or broken open,” one of my speeches is titled. That was the one I had accepted for the Compassionate Friends conference in Dallas, TX, last summer. Attending that conference was a leap of faith on my part. I was speaking on the behalf of a daughter who was not ready to attend the conference herself. I didn’t pretend to know the loss that brought attendees there. I do not know, do not want to know, what it is to lose a child. Yet my daughter asked me to go, and so I went. There, I avoided the grandparent groups, drawn instead to those young mothers who had faced what it was my daughter and her husband had faced, a particular kind of loss that I thought must permeate every moment of every day in their lives.
I’d been similarly drawn to one young woman at the National Grief and Hope Convention I’d attended in April of last year. When Angela Miller stopped at my vendor table, I somehow ended up with her book, You Are the Mother of All Mothers in my hand. During a break, I sat and read it, tears streaming down my cheeks. It was as if she was speaking all I wanted to say to my daughter, the mother of all mothers; the woman who’d spent years caring for her son during his cancer treatment, who’d only grown in her faith despite losing her most precious son. I felt an instant connection with the beautiful young woman who’d written a book that would touch my daughter’s heart, and somehow give her strength. I sought her out to tell her this. Angela and I agreed; we had crossed paths for a reason.
Months later, I followed my daughter’s wish, to step out in faith and travel by airplane to Dallas, TX, to speak, even though I was not sure why I was there. Walking through the hallways upon my arrival, and seeing so many women and men who had faced a loss so profound I couldn’t begin to understand it, I wanted to bolt. Then I spotted Angela Miller’s lovely book displayed on the speaker’s table, and I felt a renewed sense of strength. “Angela is here. Angela will make me brave. I can do this,” I thought. I went up to my room and messaged Angela.
“Angela, you are here at the Compassionate Friends! I was going to hide out in my room until I saw your book on the table and realized you were one of the speakers too. Where can I find you?”
“I’m not there,” came Angela’s prompt reply. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would my book be on the speaker’s table?” And then, this young woman admonished me, telling me to get out of my room, go back downstairs, and sit by someone who looked lonely. Then she wrote something that two other women (my two co-coordinators, Julia Theisen and Cathy Corkery) had said to me at one time.
“I feel like we’ve connected for a reason; that we’re supposed to do something together.”
Then I knew. There was a reason Angela’s book was on the speaker’s table. I would have hidden in my hotel room for most of the weekend if it hadn’t been. Angela Miller made me brave. Because of her encouragement, I stepped out of my comfort zone and went back downstairs, spending most of my time at the conference listening to young mothers, hugging bereaved women who’d lost a child, just like my daughter had. Because of that, I knew to change the beginning of my prepared speech, to admit first that everyone sitting in that room had experienced a kind of loss I had not. Despite how well the speech went, and how grateful I was to the women who’d shared their stories of loss with me, and helped me understand my daughter’s, I still wasn’t sure why I was there.
Until I entered a workshop where a man named Mitch Carmody was speaking, that is. You see, I had been experiencing some very unusual and inexplicable events since losing my loved ones; experiences unlike any I’d ever had before. So was my daughter. I’ve shared some of those experiences on this blog and in a recent book created by Lynda Cheldelin Fell, the woman behind the April convention where I’d met Angela. That book is Grief Diaries: Hello From Heaven.
Despite those experiences that gave me hope and lifted me, I’d started to notice that people who were not open to the idea that we could get messages from Heaven, or had not experienced something similar, didn’t really want to hear about those experiences. Or worse, they might diminish my joy with a shuttered look in their eyes that I’d began to recognize, or with a comment like “It’s nice that you can see what you want to see.”
Yet there stood a man in front of a packed room, talking about “Whispers of Hope; Signs From Our Loved Ones.” His slide show not only validated what I had been experiencing, it gave every single person in that room hope. There is so much we don’t know about Heaven, or what happens after death; that the possibility of there being such a thin veil between life and death is not anti-Biblical. Whether we are devout Christians who believe the message is from Heaven or someone searching for a tangible sign from our loved one, Mitch Carmody spoke to the hearts of the bereaved in that room. I sat there and cried. I was in a room full of people who accepted, or at least were open to, the possibility that God or our loved one could reach out to us and give us comfort.
The following day, I picked up Mitch’s book, Letters to My Son. I devoured it in less than two hours, and immediately knew I must find him. I heard very little of the speech I crashed, because my mind was centered on the connections between Mitch and my beloved nephew, Steve Potter, who’d gone through a childhood cancer as an adult, and who’d used his art as therapy to get through that tough time. I approached Mitch after his presentation, and explained an unusual connection. Mitch listened to me blubber, probably understanding only half of what I said through tears, and then he looked at me and said; “I think there is a reason we met. I think we are to do something together someday.”
I’ll let Mitch Carmody’s words from a Facebook post this morning explain a little of that connection: “Barb Carmody and I are looking forward to this wonderful event Mary Kenyon has worked so hard on since we met in Dallas at the The Compassionate Friends/USA conference. I am so looking forward to meeting her nephew Steve Potter who will be co-facilitating a healing through creativity workshop with me. Steve is a cancer survivor of the same rare brain tumor that killed my son in 1987 ( most do not survive) Steve and Kelly, both Garbage Pail Kid card freaks and about the same age. Kelly had a near death experience on the operating table when his heart stopped for a few minutes. He recalled floating out of his body and holding hands with Jesus. He said Jesus looked just like Half Nelson ( GPK card). Steve is a GPK artist for TOPPS. This would have been a dream come true for Kelly to meet a creator of his beloved cards. If you draw it… he will come, like the movie “Field of Dreams in Dubuque” which I plan to visit. This movie project was started in 1987 the year Kelly died. The movie is based on the phenomenon of “Whispers of Love,” our Friday night opening event. The movie stimulated in me in my early grief to ask for signs. Ask for it…and he will come…..so I asked, Kelly came to me. It changed my life forever and those countless of thousands who now know Kelly’s story and the validation they received that whispers of love are real, they happen. The movie a fantasy; that love never dies is not. We plan to go to the Field of Dreams movie site & meeting a GPK artist the same age as my son would be & who survived the same cancer is something very full circle for me.”
Four people placed in my path at different points in my life since the death of my husband; each who said the same thing; “I think we are supposed to do something together.”
First, Cathy Corkery, who I didn’t really know, but hired to do a yoga class when I was a library director in Winthrop; whose true heart was revealed when she lovingly offered to help my daughter through her journey of losing Jacob. Julia Theisen, who took my Beginning Writing for Publication class at River Lights bookstore in Dubuque, and whose heart was revealed through her lovely writing that appears in Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. Angela Miller, a woman I met in Indiana, who has used her heart broken by the loss of her son, to reach the hearts of other bereaved mothers. And Mitch Carmody, a man I met in Dallas, who does the same because of his multiple losses, including the heartbreak of losing a son. I had no idea back then that Cathy knew Julia and Mitch knew Angela. When Julia, Cathy, and I sat down to make preliminary plans for bringing healing to the hearts of those wounded by loss, it was easy to choose the team that would bring that healing; Mitch Carmody, Angela Miller, Steve Potter (the nephew who would use art to get him through cancer and who is now a Garbage Pail Kids card artist). Julia and Cathy would offer yoga and Cathy would utilize art as therapy in a journal-making class she’d done before. I would offer a workshop on writing our way through healing. To bring some balance for men who might be struggling with grief, I would bring in a man whose book-signing I had attended with my husband; Jim Swenson, whose wife had died of cancer. Jim had served as my editor for three years when I wrote a coupon column for the Telegraph Herald newspaper. Somehow, it seemed fitting that a man who’d gone down the path of grieving a spouse before I imagined going down that same path, would be added to the roster. Jim kindly mentored me through some of my grieving after I lost David.
In a little over 24-hours, these souls who have connected with mine will be in one room together.
Read more about the event, and sign up on Eventbrite.com
There is still a scholarship available from New York Times bestselling author of “90 Minutes in Heaven” Cecil Murphey. if money is an issue. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.