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One Afternoon in August - Jessica Chun Williams

Death and loss are surprising catalysts for new beginnings

Now, it’s late afternoon.

I’ve missed breakfast and a walk with my husband and a friend. I’ve missed any kind of food or drink for the past 24 hours. Outside, it’s a sunny Southern California Sunday. Inside, sitting on my couch, I’m in a dark distressed place, one I’ve never been to before.

My once vibrant, charming and beloved younger sister-in-law was only 49 when her eight year battle with breast cancer ended. She left two kids, 17 and 21, who mirrored every one of her good qualities, which were many.

Maybe it was a bad idea to watch her funeral video the night before, lying on my side, staring at the images on my iPhone before drifting into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. Or maybe I shouldn’t have spent the next morning contemplating a profound favorite poem, “The Guest House” by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, and journaling, still in bed, tears blurring the ink. “Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade. Joke with torment,” Rumi advised. “Yeah right,” I sighed, “Welcome, Difficulty – with a capital D. So glad you came.” I definitely didn’t feel up to joking.

I wasn’t tired, hungry, or thirsty. I wasn’t exactly sorrowful, but rather, oddly numb, rooted to the couch, unable to move. Tears may have been streaming down my face, but I’m not certain. The swollen turbinates in my nose made it hard to breathe. I had the oddest sensation of wanting to throw up and pass out at the same time.

Inside my head, a dialogue – maybe more like an argument – was going on, between one party who was detached, logical, and reasonable, and a stranger, someone I’d never seen before, someone I didn’t recognize.

Nothing matters, I feel terrible and hopeless, the stranger asserted.

The logical one brought up all the things I had to live for: family, home, career – and what was good about each one.

Who cares? It doesn’t matter if we live or die, the stranger ranted.

The logical one insisted on fighting back, imploring the stranger to look at celebrity suicides like Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, and Robin Williams and the sadness and fallout their actions caused.

I can see why people commit suicide – if I have to feel like this every day I’d rather check out! I can’t take it, it feels awful and I don’t know how to get it to stop, she whimpered.

The stranger was mute, undeterred.

I felt frozen in one position, unable to sense time, unable to function, as if the desolation would never leave. I noticed a metallic taste in my mouth and my stomach growling though I had no desire to eat. My skull ached, but sleep was not an option – I’d slept all morning. I did not feel glad or welcoming.

I wanted to scream, “Go away! Leave me alone!” like my child used to do. Like I did as a child. I wanted to curl into a fetal ball, make it all just go away. On the surface, my life seemed fine. Underneath, I was in tremendous turmoil – my losses seemed so deep, so overwhelming at that moment. It seemed like hours, though it might have been less than an hour.

Then like a flickering candle threatening to go out, across the void of time, Rumi’s incandescent words whispered to me, “Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” Not acknowledging my pain had simply pushed sorrow into some dark recess, still wounded, but hidden, waiting to come up another day and time.

I stopped fighting and just let the stranger be. Let sadness in, let tears fall, allowed myself to feel swallowed by the enormity of the loss. All the dreams that died. Gone. Ashes.

At some point, I laid down on the couch. When I awoke, it was dark.

The stranger was gone. And with her, the avalanche of emotions the stranger brought had passed, like a storm or a breeze through a screen door.

Six months later, again reading Rumi, this observation hit different: “The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door opens.” Resistance brought pain; the way to relief was only through embracing difficulty and surrendering to grief. Instead of running away from the stranger, paradoxically, I could not heal until like a seed, an egg, or cocoon, I ran towards her, went though the darkness. Only after she was gone did I see the three gifts she left me: acceptance, healing, and peace.


Jessica Chun Williams is an organizational effectiveness consultant, course creator, and storyteller. Originally from Honolulu, HI, she now lives in Venice, CA and is working on a memoir about her Asian ancestors' journey from Qing Dynasty China to the "Sandalwood Mountain" as the Kingdom of Hawai'i was then known. Follow her on Instagram at @jcwpoet.


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