My House Burned Down and Now I Can See the Stars: Reflections on Losing and Finding

My House Burned Down and Now I Can See the Stars: Reflections on Losing and Finding

by Ann Hisle


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"Bereavement counselor Ann Hisle's book of stories, poems, and quotations illustrates spiritual practices that strengthen and prepare us to meet and adapt to the inevitable losses of daily living. The practices help us navigate through these losses so there can be findings. The book is comforting and challenging, personal and professional, inspiring and practical. The eleven spiritual practices/chapters can be read independently for reflection or sequentially as a spiritual journey. This book is a unique gem." — Helen Fitzgerald, author of The Mourning Handbook
Losing and finding are equally fundamental to life ― and loss is not the end of the story. Psychotherapist and bereavement counselor Ann Hisle offers sound advice and uplifting spiritual practices that help people cope with loss. Hisle's inspiring stories of hope, along with her selections of thought-provoking quotations, form the foundations for deeper living, greater loving, and a more powerful sense of humanity.
Starting with an acknowledgement of the need for both good and bad luck, the author discusses how we can learn from our suffering, the value of sharing our experiences, and the appreciation of apparent coincidences. She considers the innate rewards of forgiving and asking forgiveness, letting go and lightening up, and opening to a higher power. In addition, Hisle explores how our personal histories can instruct us; the balance of mental, physical, and spiritual needs; and the pulling together of collective wisdom for personal growth. Anyone who has struggled with accepting loss and moving beyond heartbreak toward a more balanced perspective will appreciate this book's practical and philosophical encouragement.
"Ann Hisle has written a wonderful book about life, loss, and coming to terms with grief. It is not a panacea for grief or a superficial 'fix it' book but it is insightful, thoughtful, and profound." — Books and BBQ

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780486794969
Publisher: Dover Publications
Publication date: 09/16/2015
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.30(d)

About the Author

Ann Hisle has been a psychotherapist and bereavement counselor for more than 30 years. In addition to professional counseling, she has done extensive hospital volunteer work.

Read an Excerpt

My House Burned Down and Now I Can See the Stars

Reflections on Losing and Finding

By Ann Hisle

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Ann Hisle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-80637-2


Playing with Paradox and Irony

An old clay Buddha statue had been a time-honored treasure in Thailand for millennia. My "English as a Second Language" student from Thailand told me that over many years slight cracks gradually deepened and pure gold was found underneath the statue's exterior. Unknown to anyone, the clay exterior was just a protective covering over a pure gold Buddha which had been hidden for centuries. My student smiled: "We don't all the time see."

When we humbly recognize our sometime-blindness, we open to mystery, surprise and irony. Playing around with and being open to irony is a rich spiritual practice.

We do know, but often forget, that the feared and resisted move to Chicago can — ironically — become, just a year later, "the best thing that could have happened to our family." The devastating birth of a Special Needs child can become a family's great blessing. And the outcast can become "the Good Samaritan." "We don't all the time see," or understand. An open, almost playful, "who knows" posture invites an openness to and a "wondering-about" what's around the corner.

Opposites do not necessarily oppose one another. Indeed, opposites regularly need and complement one another. We may have first learned about the connectedness of opposites, non-duality, in the wonderful games of peek-a-boo and hide-and-go-seek. Absence and presence are holding hands. Daddy's presence is taken for granted, but once he hides, his presence is cherished. We lose our power during a winter storm and when the heat and light return, we are electric with joy. Do we have to lose something before we really find it? The losing and finding in these simple childhood games can be a metaphor for our life journey of losing and seeking, seeking and finding, finding and appreciating.

* * *

Marlene's loss of good health was initially "bad news, bad luck, bad everything" — an enveloping dark cloud prevented any light from reaching her. However, frustrated by the irritation, worry, resentment, and ever-present cloud in her daily life, she began searching for something more.

She found a "One Day at a Time" support group and began feeling less devastated and more empowered and motivated. It was at this time that she visited her daughter on the West coast. En route home, she noticed me and my husband walking back and forth in the airport while we waited for our plane. She subsequently boarded the same airplane with us for Washington, D.C., and happened to sit in front of us. Marlene spontaneously turned around to face us and mentioned that she had been inspired out of her sad and lonely feelings when she had noticed us walking before "take-off." She told us: "I too started walking — I lately walk and talk myself into better moods."

We chatted about our respective visits to the Santa Fe area. I commented that while in Taos I had accidentally run into the man who initially hired me for Hospice work in Washington, D.C.

Marlene responded:

"This is unbelievable. You are the only person I have spoken to since leaving my daughter and just the person I need. I have terminal cancer and I came last week to Santa Fe to personally tell my daughter about a metastasis. She just dropped me off at the airport and got lost on the way here — she's beside herself with worry and also already busy managing my care. Her parting words were, 'Mom, promise me to find some kind of grief counselor to help you with your cancer and other losses.' And about one hour after I left her I met you and you just happen to be a grief counselor. How amazing is that?

"My smart daughter told me that nothing alive was static and challenged me to keep being alive till I'm not. All her suggestions were beginning to exhaust me — -she worked hard to show me she could, we could ... we would get through this together and get help when needed."

Marlene was eager to share her story. She reflected:

"As I tire more readily and try to orchestrate situations less, more serendipitous gifts seem to come my way. My slowed-down mornings allow for time to pay attention to the gift of dreams. While in Santa Fe, I dreamt I was standing in my grandmother's vast vegetable garden teaching a course, 'Don't Just Do Something, Sit There.' Watching with wide-open eyes has become more and more of a cure for me as I gradually am accepting the terminal nature of my diagnosis. I sense a mysterious, profound soul-confidence and a decreasing hunger for others' approval. I initially felt free to thrash around in the dark with my anger, with my feelings of unfairness, and with my isolation, because deep down I had unacknowledged faith. [I thought to myself: deep down there was pure gold.] I had faith that somehow I'd 'get-through' things. [She stopped and smiled] It's quite remarkable ... as I stop fighting what I can't change; things seem to change. ... As I let go of striving for the right thing to say, the right haircut, the right gift, I can relax and enjoy what simply comes my way. ... Rich is how much you can do without."

On the plane I mentioned to Marlene that she seemed both exhausted and empowered, sad and joyful right then as we talked. A couple of weeks after returning home Marlene, again eager to talk, phoned me, saying:

"I'm getting it. I'm feeling independent and strong by my reading, centering prayer, and my 'One Day At A Time' support group. At the same time I'm feeling dependent on friends and on doctors for my chemotherapy treatments and at times am damn scared and tired. I'm restless and peaceful, I'm selfish and generous, I'm fearful and confident — all in the same day. I'm full of weeds and wheat. It's not the losses or the conflict that has been my problem; it's been my avoiding of conflict that has too often deadened my spirit [long pause here]. ... I agree with you, creative tension is mandatory. My wonderful friend reminded me that a beautiful pearl is formed by the irritation of a grain of sand in the oyster, and grapes must ferment before there is fine wine. I'm opening to the natural cycles of life and so much more appreciative and amazed by the rhythms of life all around me, in me ... for me. Nothing is static. I want to terminate my overwhelming preoccupation with myself and live bigger [again, a long pause and some deep breathing]. Sitting by my front window and watching children daily return from school now is great theater. I was so happy when I saw my neighbor's child stop a bully from throwing dandelion weeds at an awkward often-alone young boy. ... Ultimately my soft dying will be my final gift to God and my daughter and maybe even my ex. Since death's visit is closer and closer, I appreciate even a sneeze. I no longer rush — I don't have that kind of time. When I'm in my accepting mode [and here, she had a soft laugh], I'm kind of living in heaven or luminous space right now. I feel light, I'm bathed in Light, Light is in me. Oh, my God, thank you for the time, for the Process of my slowly letting go of the junk — all my worrying, my fears, my grasping. ... Rich is appreciating how much you can live without."

Marlene read that many dying patients report having dreams about some sort of journey, whether by foot, train, or mule cart. Additionally, many such patients have had visits in their dreams from deceased relatives or friends. Marlene decided to keep a journal of her dreams and was thrilled that my Hospice experiences corroborated her reading and her experience. The veil between life and death was thinner and thinner.

During the five years between her life-threatening diagnosis and her death, Marlene was both awakefully dying and awakefully living. She was vulnerable and resilient. As she became weaker physically, she awakened to the peaceful silence underneath all the sounds of life surrounding her. While on oxygen the last days of her life, she scribbled: "I cry to leave here and my heart is filled with ___." She drew a light bulb.

Inspired by Marlene and others like her, I often ask clients to play with this "Both-And" concept. Here are some of their responses:

"I was upset that my old air conditioner broke down, and now am glad I can better hear the birds, wake up in good fresh air, save on my energy bill, and am not blasted by heat every time I go outside."

"I was truly devastated upon becoming blind at age of twenty-six, and now at age thirty-five I am thankful for my blindness. I can not only hear, smell, and feel better, but see better. I was so distracted — blinded — by outer appearances that I never experienced all the light and life right inside of me."

"I'm both frustrated that my car is in the repair shop and happy that I'm now getting the exercise that my doctor ordered for my diabetes ... and am more environmentally friendly."

"My divorce was both absolutely horrible and over time an opportunity for new behaviors. Now I am less bossy and have a much deeper relationship with two of our three grown children."

"As I grow older, acquaintances and friends of mine are sick and dying, but I'm so much more appreciative of my daily living."

"Both/and" qualities of life are continually dancing together all over the place: the tide receding and returning, the sun setting and rising, the acorn dying and the tree growing.

I particularly appreciate the "hand-holding" of both contemplation and action (humble listening and active participation). I can appreciate the African proverb: When you pray, move your feet. The God of my understanding invites Sabbath time, still time to humbly withdraw from the world and be in the presence of the extraordinary in the ordinary; and my God invites empowered "feet-moving," "seeking-justice," "loving-tenderly," "walking-humbly" action as I participate in the world.

Jesus suggests this balancing connection in the New Testament, in Matthew 10:39. Jesus declares that it is in yielding ourselves (losing our self-absorbed, controlling, competing, comparing false self) that we find ourselves (our generous, creative, loving true self). Most of Jesus' teaching parables are paradoxical, and several are about losing and finding — a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. In John 12:24 we are further taught: "unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies it produces much fruit." Poet Mark Nepo adds:

"All the buried seeds
crack open in the dark
the instant they surrender
to a process they can't see."

Marlene surrendered to a mysterious internal process. She came to agree with thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart that healthy living was much more about subtraction than addition. She became a noticer — a noticer of irony. "I had to empty out, let go of so much to see what real life was bubbling forth from within. I'm now a noticer of goodness," she pronounced. "I've lost my negativity — well, decreased it!" What if she had chosen only to focus on herself and her cancer?

When our focus is more narrow and we are cut off from the wide expanse of the stars, it is a disaster. Isn't it interesting that the etymology of the word disaster is: dis-away from; astro-star? To be away from the starry mysterious heavens is soul-killing, is disaster.

Indeed in embracing the larger life-story as it presents itself, we may, along with author Reinhold Niebuhr, hope to mysteriously have "the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Actor Michael J. Fox mysteriously accepted what he could not change. On a June 2012 episode of Frontline, he shared that Parkinson's Disease helped him ask questions he never would have asked. He said he wouldn't want to go back to when he was pre-Parkinson's: "While I have a loss, I have much more ... better to look at the better part of what exists as a way of potential rather than bad as dominant reality."

We can learn from the Buddhists who suggest we all have 10,000 sufferings and 10,000 joys, each complimenting the other. Playing with paradox, we may see we need our physical limitations and our physical abilities; our crosses and resurrections; our need for contemplation and for action; our need for rainy days and for sunny days; and, finally, our need for conditional love and unconditional love. All of it together.


Playing with Paradox

"... So the soft and supple are the companions of life While the stiff and unyielding are the companions of death."

— Lao Tzu, author of Tao Te Ching, 500 B.C.

"It is a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet and what is sand."

— Madeleine L'Engle, author

"Stillness is what creates Love
Movement is what creates Life.
To be still
Yet still moving —
That is everything."

— Do Hyun Choe, Sufi Master

"When we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded spring is the one that sings."

— Wendell Berry, poet

* * *

"A Chinese farmer had a horse that ran off.

He said to his neighbor, "What bad luck I have."

The neighbor said, "Bad luck, good luck, who knows?"

The next day, the horse returned, over the hill with five wild stallions and the farmer said, "What good luck I have."

The neighbor said, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

The farmer's son, in attempting to train the stallions, was thrown and broke his leg. The farmer again said, "What bad luck I have."

The neighbor said, "Bad luck, good luck, who knows?"

The next week, militia from the neighboring village came to conscript all young men for war and the farmer said, "What good luck I have, my son will not be able to go."

The neighbor said, "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?"

— "The Chinese Farmer," an old Zen tale.


Acknowledging Our Suffering

When I did my School of Social Work field-placement, I worked with Jerome, a grieving four-year-old. His father had recently died from a tragic work-related accident at a construction site. Jerome acknowledged his pain, cried daily, and consistently begged me to make a home visit after preschool. His home was full of absence. Jerome responded. At his apartment, Jerome repeatedly acted out the "Humpty Dumpty" nursery rhyme. It had been read to him in our federally funded Pre-K program for at-risk children. He always asked me to read about Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall. Then he play-acted falling off the chair and asked me to help wrap him "back together again" in toilet paper.

Jerome had a "conversation" with his suffering. He allowed and acknowledged his pain by searching for meaning, companionship, and healing — a spiritual practice.

He seemed to metaphorically look for a flashlight or candle rather than just curse the darkness. Hoping to feel better, he humbly responded to an inner prompting — he "conversed" with the mystery of his vulnerable, anxious feelings. He was healing. He connected with another broken creature who gave him hope. Humpty and he could be put back together. Jerome gradually moved from wrapping himself to wrapping a ripped pet monkey, and eventually to interest in other things. Something within, a grace, inspired this creative and life-affirming response. There are other responses. Jerome could have become angry or numb; he could have fought with his mother and others about the reality of his dad's death. He could have denied the death and the fearful emotions accompanying the loss of his special parent. He could have become negative, depressed, and dark.

* * *

Poet Emily Dickinson wrote: "We grow accustomed to the Dark — When Light is put away — ..." Jerome and Lisa McFarland, a young woman with whom I worked in therapy, both struggled not to put Light away. Like Jerome, Lisa also wrestled and dealt with her raw feelings of hollowness, loneliness, and gut-wrenching pain. She wrote this reflection:

"Our only daughter Alexis died four years ago at age 13 months. Her life and death have impacted my life in numerous ways, both joyous and painful. I never knew how deeply I could love, or how empty I could feel, until she came to us.


Excerpted from My House Burned Down and Now I Can See the Stars by Ann Hisle. Copyright © 2015 Ann Hisle. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Playing with Paradox and Irony
2. Acknowledging our Suffering
3. Sharing our Story
4. Volunteering
5. Appreciating Coincidences
6. Forgiving and Asking Forgiveness
7. Letting Go and Lightening Up
8. Opening to a Higher Power
9. Looking Back
10. Caring for Ourselves
11. Reflecting on our Legacy
My Personal Story of Losing and Finding

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