Its my pleasure to share this great article by one of my lovely clients, Ann Leach from www.life-preservers.org In it she interviews SARK, the well known artist, author and creator of all things lovely … they have a wonderful virtual tea chat about loss and grief, Ann’s specialty area.
I can’t remember exactly when the whimsical art and the bright colored words first caught my attention in the bookstore, but I do remember the very first book of SARK’s that I read: A Creative Companion. Turns out it was her first book too, written in 1990. I was delighted to find someone who so easily captured my life’s view on paper and felt an immediate connection to her spirit.
Since then, she’s written a book a year and offered up posters, calendars and other creative living products all designed to help us Live Juicy, practice ‘micromovements’ to achieving our goals and give ourselves permission to live an authentic life. Her most recent book, Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, helps me with my writing goals.
Now she’s helping her readers and fans around the world understand and cope with life’s losses in the forthcoming book, Glad for the Grief: Transforming Grief and Loss into Gift and Opportunity, and workshops on the same.
I was thrilled to discover that this inspirational woman is indeed my kindred spirit in her views about death and loss. I immediately contacted her amazing assistant, Trisha and said “I want to invite SARK over for a cup of virtual tea and a chat about grief and loss.” I knew we were all on the same page when Trisha, who didn’t blink an eye, simply said “I’ll check her schedule”, as if these kinds of invitations for frank talks about a tough topic happened daily.
What follows is a transcript of my tea party with SARK, Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy. So pour yourself a cup, settle in and join us as we chat and chew over a few of life’s biggest events; death, grief and loss.
AL: Susan? Hello?
SARK: Hello, Ann! I love what you do, Ann. I love your site. I read everything on it. I think you’re doing great work.
AL: Thank you! Now, tell me what is leading you to this topic right now?
SARK: Great question. You know the title of my new book, “Glad for the Grief: Transforming Grief and Loss into Gift and Opportunity.” My mom died six years ago and my cat died five years ago. My dad died about 12 years ago. But the real lessons came through my mom and my cat. And I was ready, I believe, for transformation. I was one of the major caregivers for my mother during the last three years. My brother and I both helped her in her dying process for three years.
And it was fairly expensive and I created teams from a distance. She had many dramatic incidents and really shocking discoveries about the health care system and nursing homes and how friends react when someone changes a great deal and loses a lot of their mobility and I really got to witness a lot of things that I just didn’t know about. I didn’t know about the gifts and loss. I didn’t know about what it would be like to have my mom lose a lot of her things that had become familiar.
Her personality things. A lot of them were lost. But new things came, which were – she was not an easy personality. She was not an easy person. And she became softer. And she became more loving. And I got, consequently, much closer to her that I’d ever been in my life. So even though she was physically dying, I felt spiritually loved by her and loving her.
So I started really looking at everything through this lens of what does grief or loss appear to take away? And just as strongly, what does it give? And with my cat , magnificent Jupiter who had been with me for 17 years… so when he started his dying process, I mean, I was convinced he would live to at least 30! Because he was going to be the remarkable cat that never died, first of all.
SARK: This cat had acupuncture and chiropractic care and energy medicine. And every possible thing to, not just preserve life but to give a great life. And, so I was absolutely shocked when he manifested several conditions that eventually led to his death.
And I got to spend a year with him, taking care of him until it turned into a hospice in my house for the last few months. And then I learned so much. I really, I’m sure you have heard every variation of this, I was convinced I would die if he died. To the point where my brother and friends were very worried about me. Because I was so bonded to this animal because I had never had an experience of unconditional love before.
And so the gift of his death – the biggest gift of his death was he showed me that he lived on in the spirit world so profoundly that it didn’t really matter that he wasn’t here physically. Although it was still very sad, it was a great liberation. And I had been someone who was almost irrationally affected if animals were being hurt in any way, and one of the great gifts is, is I now absolutely trust that every animal and person has their own very necessary journey. And that is something you never could have told me that I would receive that gift.
AL: And what about your mom’s death?
SARK: She had so many near-death experiences that it became almost standard, like I became very pragmatic about it because I had just been through so many things. And I was invited my friend’s wedding in Italy. And I said, I was trying to very delicately talk to my mother about this subject. And then I forgot – my mother was extremely pragmatic and she didn’t really go for gentleness.
And so I finally said, “Well, mom, I’m just afraid you’re going to die while I’m there.” And she said, “Well, I’ll be just as dead as if you were here!” She said, “You have to go. And besides, I want to hear about that wedding.”
And I had said to my brother, my younger brother, who I’m very close to – I said, “Mark my words, Mom is going to send us away because she doesn’t want anyone that she knows there when she dies.”
AL: Yes! They’ll do that, won’t they?
SARK: And sure enough, she sent me to Italy. And she sent my brother – he was living in California at the time, so she made sure he wasn’t in Minnesota. And then there I was at the wedding with 200 people and an Italian interpreter and doves flying and the Tuscany hills. It was just unbelievable. It was a movie.
And there wasn’t that much cell phone reception. So I had to hang out the window over the little cobblestone lane to call my mother to tell her about this wedding. And we talked for an hour. And she wanted to hear every detail. And then what happened. She was doing very well and everything was fine.
And then the next day, I was still there in Italy, and I got a call and my brother called and said, “Mom’s not doing well.” And I called up immediately and got the nurse and said “What do you mean, not doing well?” And she said, “Well, she’s begun her dying process. Her active dying process,” she said. She hasn’t eaten anything in ten hours. She hasn’t spoken in ten hours. She’s has internal bleeding. Etcetera.
And I said, “Well, hold the phone up to her ear because I know she could hear me.” And she said, “Okay. But I have to warn you, she probably can’t.” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you think.”
AL: That’s right.
SARK: So she held the phone up to her ear and I said, “Hi, Mom.” And then in this very loud voice, she said, “Hello, Susan! How are you?” And the hospice care people almost fell over. And I knew in that moment that she was in there hiding because she didn’t want to talk to these people. So she had fooled them into thinking she was on her way out.
But I knew, of course, that she was on her way out or they wouldn’t have known all these indicators. I said, “Mom. I hear that you’re dying.” And she said, “Oh, this isn’t serious!” And I said, “Well, it might not be serious but I think you’re dying.” And then, in this very tiny voice, she said, “I love you, Susan.” And that’s when I knew that she knew she was dying.
And I said, “Well, I’m on my way back.” And I was set to go to Venice. And I said to my friend who was there, “Well, she better die this time or I’m really going to be mad!”
And so then I went on this unbelievable journey to get back. And she did die. Actually, It was a remarkable moment where she died. I was getting on a bus there. I arrived at the airport, which is a whole other story. But they handed me a piece of paper and said, “The airport is broken. You will have to take a bus to another airport.”
And so I ran to get on the bus. I was the last person on the bus and it was pouring rain. And as I sat down, I didn’t have any more cell phone reception. I used it all up. I didn’t have any more minutes.
So the phone was supposedly dead and then the clouds broke and the sun streamed into the window of the bus and I looked over and I said, “Oh my God, she just died.” And then the phone rang and it was my brother Andrew saying “Mom just died.”
And so now, I was on a bus for three hours with people who didn’t speak English, having just found out that my mother died.
AL: That’s a great story of connection. And you found the gift in that?
SARK: Here comes another one of the gifts. The world completely rolled out the beauty because it was like birds were flying by the window and wildflowers were in view, and waterfalls and it was that experience of her being part of everything and she was free of that human body. And I was sobbing and liberated and laughing all at the same time.
AL: So, from your perspective. What do you think happens after death?
SARK: Well, I think what happens is the person is in a state of open liberation and ecstasy. I think that it’s just as powerful and profound as birth. In another direction. And so I really see it as, you know, sacred and joyful.
AL: So. I agree with that too and I think that we are finding more and more people who accept that. And there’s still so many who get sad. Why is that do you think?
SARK: And I think it is people feel safer being sad than they do being joyful. And I think it gives people a reason to be sad. “Well, I have a good reason. This person died.” And I think that there’s a lot of allegiance in groups. I mean, I think it’s very powerful. I think if you interview people and said, “Is death sad or glad?” The majority of people would say “Sad.” You know. My first response when Michael Jackson died was “Oh, goodie. Free!” And this idea of this tragedy and this mourning. I think it’s very useful. I think it was wonderful when Princess Di died so that everyone could cry in unison. I thought that the crying together was the most powerful gift that she gave in her death.
AL: Right. So your books are reminders to take care of ourselves and to give ourselves permission to be who we truly are. Is there kind of a checklist for that process when it comes to loss and grief?
SARK: Well, yeah. I think to really live – to be who we are is probably the biggest item on that list. Because if you’re not embodying and living in who you are, you’re going to have – it’s going to be like fragments. You’re going to have all these different aspects and sub-personalities that don’t get managed and handled. That don’t get managed and handled. And I think that’s probably a lot of the agony that comes in death.
There’s probably a disconnection for people. I mean, you hear all sorts of things. There’s people who are very peaceful people and you’ve heard – I’m sure you’ve heard every version of this story – people who are very peaceful who have very violent deaths. And people who are very angry and cantankerous can have very peaceful deaths.
I think the Higher Self gets in there. I think that whatever death the person is supposed to have. I think that you can meditate. We all know this. Meditate. You can eat perfect food. You can do all the things and you’re still not protected from feeling all the feelings.
SARK: And so, I don’t know. Again, if we interview people, probably the biggest thing people would say is that they want a peaceful death. Because we’re all afraid of suffering or agony or torture. It’s only natural in some ways. It’s only human, let’s say. I don’t know how natural it is. It probably is conditioning.
So as a checklist, again, I think the biggest part of a checklist would be profound experiences and practice of self love. Because the solitary nature of death is bound to bring up all the un- integrated parts. So, if you haven’t done your psychological work or you’re not actively doing your psychological work. I don’t know. You know? I’m not sure. I’d love to say that there was this finite thing you could do and then you would have x type of death. But I really don’t know. I sort of love the mystery of it.
Years ago, I went to an astrologer who told me that – and this is one of those astrologers I absolutely don’t believe in. Any astrologer who does prediction. I don’t believe in them. But this particular astrologer was so – this was many years ago. It was very unprofessional. And said that my younger brother would die at 21.
AL: You’re not kidding?
SARK: Yeah. So I probably spent his whole 21st year holding my breath. And, of course, why did I listen so intently? And why did I believe it?
AL: Right, totally ask yourself “why?” Well, that makes me think of one of my next projects, for lack of a better term, I’m going to create a death planner. You know, there’s a wedding planner for recording how many bridesmaids you want and what music and readings and so forth, so why not a book for how you’d like to die?
SARK: Oh, you need to – thank you! Because I’ve done somewhat of that in my book. But I definitely want more in that realm. Well, and I’ve done a whole – you’ll appreciate this. I’ve done a whole painting of an unbelievable death bed. It’s like a magic sleigh!
AL: So I came up with this and I think that Martha Stewart should right the foreword. I mean, really, she’s one of the biggest event planners out there.
SARK: Oh! I like that! I think it’s great! And then SARK can write the afterword. I’ll just put myself in there.
AL: You go right ahead! I’d love that.
SARK: So yeah. So then I have a chapter called “What’s Good When Your Parents Die.” Because people don’t get told that. It felt blasphemous even to write it. We have this assumption. I have a strong theory that all the dead people are looking down and laughing and smiling and saying “Oh look, they are so upset about the death thing.”
SARK: And they are so happy to be dead. So I take every opportunity to tell people how happy my mother is to be dead. And they get so shocked. They say, “Oh, did your mother die?” “Yes, and she’s so happily dead! She’s very happy to be dead, you know.” And then they say, “Oh, well…” and they try to change the subject.
Well, and then let’s talk about loss. Because let’s talk about what people – there are incredible transformations people do with loss.
AL: Well, you know, we’re going through that now. Because I just did a media interview this morning. This woman wanted to know “Well, what about these people that are losing their jobs?” Yes. What about it? You know, they are going to create something even better!
SARK: Yes! I had a wonderful mentor in that. Her name was Isabel Collins. I profiled her in my book, Succulent Wild Woman. I always talk to people. I seem to talk to them before they die and ask for their death wisdom. Because they often will have wisdom that they’ve gathered and want to share. My mother’s was “If only I hadn’t resisted everything so much.” And that’s been a real teacher for me.
So Isabel’s wisdom was: In every single case, without exception, every single change was always for the better. And she lived it. And she knew it and she shared it and I consequently live it more than ever from knowing her. So however shocked we get, like “Oh, the job is lost!” or “Oh, the house burned down!” That’s my favorite quote, “Oh, good. The barn burned down. Now we can see the moon.”
AL: That’s right. I love that quote.
SARK: And I’ve certainly been tested. When I look at the gift – I am a survivor of sibling incest. And when I look at the gift from that, it made me live in my imagination in a profound way. It made me go outside of the family to find support and mentors, which I did. And one of them was Mr. Boggs, who I’ve written about. And he’s the reason I announced I was supposed to be a beacon of hope and write books for the world.
So I was able to alchemize and transform the material. Now, some people aren’t as able… They haven’t had that experience. So it gets in a constellation or a description where that’s – so it worked for you. But it didn’t work for them. So therefore, they’ve had a terrible life. Well, I maintain that it’s still part of their spiritual journey and if they need to feel lost longer, then that’s what’s serving them.
AL: Right. And so in that, literally, that getting go. It transforms that way as well.
SARK: Right. And as we know, and it bears restating, if we’re not attached to anything, nothing is an issue. Sherry Hubert, my friend and Zen teacher, says this and many other spiritual teachers have said it: “Pain in inevitable. Suffering is a choice.”
AL: That’s right.
SARK: So yes! And then, people say – “Does that mean you’re not going to be sad if someone close to you dies?” Of course, I’m going to be sad. I’ll probably be sadder than you! And I’ll be sad as hell and scream and yell and burn a bonfire and run naked down the street. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stay there. I’m talking about feeling the feelings and then doing the transformative work. And that’s the part that we don’t support in society, of people doing that transformative work.
SARK: If someone says you’ve lost your job, 80 percent of the people will say “That’s terrible.” Instead of saying “Wow, what’s next?”
AL: Exactly! Exactly. Because that was the same job that you were just complaining about last week.
SARK: Right. Exactly. And we can go back through history and find countless examples. What about the people who were bummed out they couldn’t get on the Titanic?
Like, “Oh my God.” Like this: I went into a bookstore a year or two ago and I picked up a book. Now they are everywhere. But – I’m sure you’ve seen it. It says “1000 Things to See Before You Die.” And I picked up the book and said in this anguished voice, “You mean I’m going to die?” So, Ann, I’m never going to have a tombstone. But if I did –
SARK: It would just have one word on it. Are you ready?
AL: Let’s hear it…
AL: I love it. Absolutely!
SARK: There’s a wonderful, this goes into that same realm about loss. There’s a wonderful band called Poi Dog Pondering. And they have a song called “Thanksgiving for all the Wrong Moves.” And it’s more support about what ever has happened to you, or is happening to you, is serving you and part of your spiritual journey.
And you can do alchemical and transformative work to change your response to it. Instead of reacting to it. And I know you know this. I’m just saying it. You know?
AL: Oh yeah.
SARK: Because many people don’t know that. They really do subject to the whims of whatever is happening. And they have big ole’ reactions and then they go into coils of resistance. And then they are stuck! So it really – it’s all of our opportunity to find ways to respond that are transformational in nature rather than reactive and resistant.
AL: And we do that by being willing.
SARK: Well. I think again, doing one’s psychological work. And be willing. Willing is probably number one. And number two, right along with willing is being open.
AL: I can’t wait to read the book! Now, your next card deck has to be postcards from heaven.
SARK: Oh, yes! Yes! Well, that’s so funny that you said that. Because I’m thinking of putting together a loss deck. Because I have a whole section on doing a real loss list and working with that loss. Those loss materials. Oh my God! My loss list. I was sobbing for days.
AL: Yes. You have to draw the car keys.
SARK: Wait. What do you mean?
AL: That should count as a major loss. It’s always traumatic for me when I lose mine.
SARK: Well, it’s funny that you said that. I just ended a 16-year relationship with a Mazda and just brought a brand new car over the weekend. And I was really clinging and going through all kinds of sadness and realized that my mother had ridden in that car and Jupiter had ridden in that car and I started my business when I got that car. And, oh my, how could I go on without that car? So I devised a series of rituals, one of which was putting the new car up to touch the bumper of the Mazda and then asking the Mazda to transfer all the good memories and experiences into the new car.
And then it just turned out to be – so now I feel complete and ready and now the Mazda actually just got sold to a wonderful woman who loves it and adores it.
AL: Oh good! Susan, our time is almost up! I have enjoyed this so much. I think we’re going to have a wonderful future together!
SARK: Oh, I do too! And good luck with the death planning! Thank you so much, Ann.
Ann Leach is a life coach, freelance writer and director of Life Preservers: a global grief support community. She is a certified grief recovery specialist and founded the Cancer Support Network when living in Illinois, where she facilitated support groups for those living with cancer and AIDS and their caregivers.
An only child, Ann lost both parents to cancer and, by the time she was twelve years of age, had lost every male in her life through death. Ann’s experiences with loss have shaped her approach to life, causing her to celebrate each moment and explore what’s truly important for her life. She started Life Preservers as a way to support others in doing the same and to have a global impact on how our current society views death and the emotions associated with it.
You can learn more about Ann and her organization’s outreach by visiting www.life-preservers.org.