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Carrying the Torch of Finding Gratitude in Grief

Do you wonder if those you love still exist after their physical body dies? In my experience people and pets who I have loved are still here in some mysterious way. When I remember them I sense their existence around me or within me. They are me and I am them.

I reflect on this a lot these days because my friend Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, recently passed away. As I seek to accept this new reality that I will never see or touch her again, I look to her words for comfort. She believed that "people come and go in our lives but leave a permanent imprint on our characters and we inherit traits from everyone who crosses our paths or touches our hearts." This comforts me to believe that who I am is inherited from my encounters with her.

I have been touched by our relationship and am moved to carry the torch and pass on what I have experienced and is now part of me. Some of the students who have met Isa on her visits to our classes are joining me in spreading the messages she generously shared with them. We recently had the opportunity to host a group of Japanese educators in a Stanford classroom where Isa often taught. From there we can see the dorm room she shared with her twin Ana when they were Stanford students.

On her visits we sat in a circle where Isa, who was a specialist through personal experience, study, and professional work, explained that grief is mitigated by gratitude. She assured us that we can bear the greatest losses by feeling gratefulness for what we and the other person had together. During the pandemic so many survivors have lost loved ones and everyone has suffered losses of the things that make life livable and enjoyable.

Isa invites students to share one by one a loss that they have suffered. She listens carefully and responds compassionately. No loss is too small for Isa to embrace. Everyone opens up creating a warm feeling of being held gently with loving kindness. The connection she provides allows all of us to feel connected not only to her but to each other.

Gabriela Lipson is one student who encountered Isa and now is moved to carry the torch. She talked with the Japanese educators about how meeting Isa was a transformative experience for her. She was so moved that she sent this message of thanks to Isa.

Words cannot express the depth of my gratitude for your compassion, strength and poignant words. You are such a gifted speaker with so much heart and grace. I walked away from class, feeling grounded, and power, and hopeful.

I am in touch with the fact that death and grief are inevitable in this life, but I can trust that I will grow and create art through it all and can and will find strength and beauty in the world around me.

It was so beautiful how you held space for all of us with so much kindness, mindfulness, and presence when we shared deep and vulnerable parts of ourselves. Your TEDx talk also resonated so deeply with me. Your powerful words let me to compassionately reflect on the parts of myself that I have lost to illness and have grieved in the past and currently grieve. My grief comes in waves. Your talk also spoke to the experience I had this past year losing my best friend Nina to terminal cancer. I felt heard and seen by your words.

Meeting another member of the Stanford community, who has navigated disability, while being at Stanford, inspired me to have hope that I could do the same. I feel much more empowered to reach out for support when I need it. I feel hopeful. I feel strong. Words really can't sufficiently capture my profound gratitude or my transformative experience listening to you.

Other students easily relate to Isa's message as they too are trying to find meaning in life's struggles. They also deal with the constant pressures they feel in school, socially, and with the fear brought on by their increased awareness of their mortality. Students tell me how much Isa teaches them about living with acceptance and appreciation, for what we have been given, and how this way of living gives them the courage to live more fully, with gratitude for the small things, and acceptance of their own, and others' frailties and vulnerabilities.

And perhaps this is our way of finding meaning in her life's struggles that extend beyond her individual existence to benefit the lives of others. She inspires us to live each day the best we can and believe that rather than denying and numbing ourselves to the difficult reality of death, it is better to face it, and accept it. In this way each and every moment is new and precious, lived with the awareness that this might be the last time we may experience such a thing.

It helps me to remember Isa's words:

"I firmly believe that by embracing our mortality with whole awareness we can learn to experience life in a deeper and more compassionate way. And if we can acknowledge that someday we may say goodbye to our loved ones we can cherish and love them more and remember them with gratitude more than with pain."

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