Monday, October 26, 2020

Voices of Experience: The Gift of Goodbye

Rebecca Whitehead Munn is passionate about rethinking possible and brings intellectual humility to all of her endeavors, including several teaching roles at the master’s level. Her passion in writing is to demystify taboo topics, such as cancer and death, and to inspire others to be courageous and learn about their loved ones’ wishes, while creating lasting connections. In this excerpt from her book, The Gift of Goodbye: A Story of Agape Love, she shares part of her personal story of walking the End of Life path with her mother. 

While I felt very lucky to have the gift of time to say goodbye over a long period, it was quite a struggle to manage my grief and pain day by day. One of the tools I used for support and calm in the storm was getting regular massages to help my body release its sadness. When I visited Mom in Austin, I continued this practice and extended it to her. We would have someone come to Mom’s house, and we would both enjoy the peace we felt following every treatment.

 On my trip in April 2006, my discussion with the massage therapist took a slightly different turn down a path I was not expecting or even could have imagined. As Amy, the therapist, worked on releasing the tension in my muscles, she acknowledged how I was feeling, as she had lost her mother at age three. She said, “Rebecca, I can empathize with how scared you feel knowing your mother will die soon and not knowing what to do or how to prepare for such a deep loss. I lost my mother at a very young age. I still remember how sad I was every day without her. My sadness came out as anger some days, tears other days. I was desperate some days to feel connected to my mom. I felt closest to her outdoors in the woods or by a stream. I would grasp at the smallest symbol that might have represented my mom after she died.” 

She paused for a moment to work out a knot in my shoulder, then continued, “On one of my tougher days, when I was walking on a trail near our house with my father, I felt a surge of energy and joy when I saw a certain kind of rock that reminded me of her, thinking it represented my mom. Then I convinced myself that was just my mind making up stories and dismissed the thought. I wondered around feeling like I was in the dark for a long time after my mom died. I really struggled with how to find peace.” 

As she spoke, she started to make connections to my situation and quickly transitioned to talk about my own mom, to whom she had given a massage before me. Amy said, “It really felt like your mom was different this time, like she is preparing to leave. Her body felt different also.” She stopped and worked out another knot in my back. She said, “Rebecca, I really want your experience to be different from mine. I am hoping this does not sound crazy to you, but I have learned as I have become an adult that it is possible to connect with loved ones after they die. You have a choice to create a lasting and true connection to your mom, if you are open to considering it.” 

I was relaxed by this point and was wanting to grasp onto any way I could to stay connected to Mom. I said, “I’m not sure I really understand what you’re saying, although I’m interested to learn more. What do you mean, exactly?” Amy responded, “I would recommend talking with your mom and explaining my story. Let her know that you want to work with her to define a special symbol of connection. The symbol needs to be something so unique to the two of you that you will not question it once you see it, like I did with the rock.” 

Amid my grief and pain, this concept felt like a glimmer of hope on one hand and far-reaching on the other. I still did not fully grasp what she was saying or what it meant at the time, but later that day, the thought of having a lasting connection with Mom kept popping into my mind. Every time it did, I felt joy and peace. Something was guiding me forward to take the next step. Maybe it was an extension of believing in something magical, as I did when I was a child, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, that led me down a path to want to learn more and to bring it up with Mom. That comparison to something childlike and magical helped me feel in my heart that it was okay, that I was not crazy, to want to pursue such a thought. 

The idea stuck with me and continued to gain traction, so I decided to ask Mom. I shared Amy’s advice and told Mom the story of when Amy lost her mom and how she struggled to connect. When Mom said she was open to hearing more, exploring the idea further, and creating a symbol, she gave me more positive reinforcement to continue down this path. Mom wanted to figure out together with me what that symbol might be, so that when she connected from heaven, I could be sure it was her. We talked about how to make such a decision, how to pick something that was unique enough that I would not question it yet clear enough that in the moments when it revealed itself, I would feel her love. Mom wanted me to bring her some suggestions. She did not feel as if she was clearly thinking these days. She asked me to go down to the lake, stand in the water, and stare across to the other side. She said I should clear my mind and allow the answer to come forward. 

As a people-pleasing type of person by nature, I felt compelled to follow her direction. Although I was still not sure what I was heading off to do, it was probably my desire to continue my deep connection with Mom after she passed that pushed me forward on this journey. So off I went. I walked down to the lake, waded out into the water about knee deep, and gazed across to the other side of the lake, taking in the beautiful view. I looked around me, watching the waves as they washed to the shore around my knees and crashed up against the limestone retaining wall behind me. I looked up at the trees and watched the leaves sway in the breeze. I looked back across the lake and saw a dragonfly with purple wings fly by, then land on a leaf nearby. I had come here many times, yet this time felt different. I felt especially calm and peaceful, and I sensed pure love around me, as if someone I loved was holding me. I closed my eyes and asked God for an answer. What kind of symbol of connection would be meaningful to both Mom and me? I let go of the thought and waited patiently for a response. I kept my eyes closed. 

Surprisingly, the answer flowed into my mind quickly. Mom and I shared purple as a favorite color. Seeing the dragonfly with purple wings made me think of our favorite insects. The thought that popped in my mind was a purple butterfly, although I did not understand it at the time. We both loved butterflies and used to enjoy going to butterfly museums. Dad had planted alyssum plants and butterfly bushes in the front yard to attract butterflies. And here I was with an answer, even though I was not sure exactly what it meant or even that I trusted this process. I thought of this concept over and over as the water rose and fell around my legs. 

This entire exercise was happening because I had made a choice to believe and push my edges beyond the black and white of life, to the gray I was learning to embrace. I was willing to do almost anything to create a lasting connection with Mom, knowing she was dying. Amy had inspired me and given me hope, so I held on to the answer and decided to pursue it further. I walked back up to the house, somewhat in a daze, thinking of this answer but not sure what to make of it. Mom was asleep, so I spent time playing with my children. 

When Mom woke up, I went in to share what had come to me. “Mom, I think I have an idea of a symbol. What do you think of a purple butterfly as our symbol of connection?” Her eyes lit up, and she said, “Oh, Rebecca, a purple butterfly is perfect.” She beamed as she considered this symbol of our connection—purple was our favorite color, and our favorite insect was a butterfly. Silently, I questioned how it could be perfect, since it was not even something that could be found in nature, and, as such, I felt a little strange agreeing to something so unique, since I was not sure I would ever see one. However, I decided to quiet my internal critic and sit with how this felt. I truly wanted to believe—what a blessing it would be if this could be real. When I chose to embrace this symbol, it was truly magical how quickly I experienced that purple butterflies are real in nature. I cherished this special moment with Mom as we co-created a symbolic connection that would last forever, across different realms.

© 2020 by Rebecca Whitehead Munn

About the Author: Rebecca Whitehead Munn is an award-winning author and speaker whose stories of loss, grief, and coping help others facing these challenges. In her first book, The Gift of Goodbye: A Story of Agape Love, she shares the story of losing her mother and coping with the immense grief that follows such a loss. Her latest book, All Of Us Warriors: Cancer Stories of Survival and Loss, provides resources and inspiration to people living with a cancer diagnosis and their loved ones. Rebecca is happiest spending time outdoors, being a mother, eating Mexican food, practicing yoga, listening to live music, and using her chaotic Aries energy for good. She was born in Bloomington, IN, grew up in Houston, TX, and has lived in Nashville, TN since 2005. To learn more, visit her website, Rebecca Whitehead Munn.


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