Beneath All Appearances

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Beneath All Appearances was originally intended as a refuge for grieving parents. During the process of its creation, however, it became clear that this is a book for all who are immersed, or unmoored, in the estuaries and currents of grief, in the waves and/or rip tides of sorrow—and for all who are pondering, or discovering,  “deathlessness” while traversing the diverse eco-systems of grief.  

May this book be a pole star of sorts throughout your sacred, mapless pilgrimage of grieving; a restful shelter  —for deepening self-compassion and emotional self-regulation. Or, may it be a caldera of alchemy—for the exploration of rupture and repair and the transformation of rage, wrath, regret or anger. Or, may it be a  peaceful chrysalis, in which you quietly melt and liquify. Or, a symbolic labyrinth—in which you re-examine your ephemeral earth walk and, in doing so, effortlessly relinquish stressful beliefs and untrue narratives, and repattern your nervous system.

May it be whatever is needed for you at this time. Perhaps it will be something that I have yet to imagine.

May it serve as a beacon for navigating the jagged, unexpected, sometimes frightening, bittersweet, overwhelming and desolate landscapes that often follow loss. 

This book offers an opportunity to deepen and cultivate contemplative inquiry and is an invitation to dismantle the notions of “birth” and “death,” which many people have mistaken for reality.

May the collages and words in these pages remind you that you are being liberated within grief, not from grief. 

May you find in this book an eloquent silence and an encircling presence of love. A tenderly polished mirror for reflecting to you deep-abiding stillness and resilience—both of which are basic, indestructible aspects of who you are.

 Rashani Réa

Words by Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

This book is a beautiful guide through the process of grief, of realizing that your loved one is now living through you, that everybody you’ve ever loved is part of the fabric of your being. It is a message for everyone, wherever you are on the journey.

— Mirabai Bush, author, with Ram Dass: Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying

In this beautiful and moving book, four mothers who’ve lost their children join hands in an artistic collaboration that invites all who grieve into their healing circle. Their invitation came my way in a time of personal grief, and the words and images they offer here helped me take first steps toward “the peace that passes all understanding.” At a moment when heartbreak might have taken me down, the spirit that infuses this book helped me find a way forward: my heart is breaking open toward larger life, not in spite of my grief but because of it.

— Parker J. Palmer, author of On the Brink of Everything, Let Your Life Speak and A Hidden Wholeness

In this luminous collection of words and images, beauty collides with beauty and everything changes. Our shattered heart is remade. Our longing for the sacred simultaneously burns brighter and settles into our cells, integrating the whole of our being. For me as a bereaved mother and a lover of the holy, this book is a wellspring of healing water, a tender thread linking me to the soul of my child, a full-body blessing.

— Mirabai Starr, author of Caravan of No Despair and Wild Mercy

This book is medicinal, a healing salve for the shattered heart. When grief arrives at our door, we are asked to not simply endure our times in the shadowed terrain of loss but to also engage the difficult and powerful energies found there. Those who find the courage to do so, are remade during this long season of descent. They gain a second sight that enables them to see beauty in the darkness. Beneath All Appearances: an unwavering peace is a gift brought back by four women who have returned from their sojourn into the holy grotto of sorrow. This is a sacred text.

— Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

They have given you their love light to carry.

Six hours after my son Finn took his life, I was walking in the heat of a Georgia summer night on the same street where he and I had walked and laughed and made plans only two nights before. As I wept in the  darkness, my friend Wendy Videlock said through the phone, “He has given you his love light to carry.”

What a gift, what grace, these words. In that moment of despair, Wendy helped me frame my life as a chance to be in service to a legacy of love. I wish I could whisper these words to everyone who has lost a beloved:  They have given you their love light to carry.

The words gathered here with Rashani’s collages are infused with the love light of Finn Thilo Trommer. I  would love to introduce you to him here. Born a month early on September 11, 2004, he exuded radiance.  Wherever he went, he brought his curiosity, tenacity, discipline, integrity and goofiness. Finn loved using his body: He won the fencing championship and shined on the dance stage for eight years with tap and hip hop and had just begun ballet. He loved using his brain: He won the chess tournament and the science fair. He  built his own gaming computer, then built computers for his friends, too. He loved using his heart: One classmate recalls how when she was struggling on a backpacking trip, Finn carried her backpack for her.  Another remembers how he helped her and other younger dance students feel included when they leveled up.  He traveled to Guatemala and participated in mission work. And for years, he volunteered weekly at the library tutoring math. He deeply loved his country and planned to join the military.

Because he was so blessed, it is hard, perhaps, to understand why he took his own life on August 14, 2021. I  believe some people are wildly radiant because they have to be—because an inner struggle forces them to show up brilliant just so they can meet a morning. This was the side of Finn few outside his closest circle knew. He was never satisfied. He was insatiable for experiences, knowledge, things—as if there were a hole inside that could never be filled. He desperately wanted to feel at peace. Despite therapy, mentorship, medication,  unconditional love and other healing modalities, peace eluded him. His first word was “shadow”—a word that now feels prophetic. He was forever linked to both light and darkness, and though it was darkness that took him, it is also what shaped him into the luminous being he was.

When Finn was two, I began writing a poem every day. I had already published several books of poetry, but the daily practice transformed my relationship with writing. I learned to focus less on writing something  “good” and leaned instead into the value of saying something true. I came to see poems as the byproduct of the real practice: showing up every day and wondering what is here? What is true? What else is true? What does it mean to be alive in this moment? Writing became a way to meet the world as it is, not the world the way I wish it would be.

Never was that practice more important than when Finn died. I wanted to scream No, but the only real choice I felt I had was to say yes to the world as it is. I didn’t write for the first seven weeks, but I profoundly felt the invitation to show up completely, to feel all the pain, love, compassion, devastation, loss, fear, and to my surprise, all the beauty, tenderness, kindness, grace and gratefulness. My constant prayer since Finn’s death has been Open me. Writing has been in service to that opening, helping me heal as I continue to encounter grief in its infinite expressions. What a paradox. Since losing my child, I have never believed more in love. I have never had so much trust in life, in humanity, in the divine. I have never experienced such spaciousness.

Finn’s love light is not the only love light I carry. I carry, too, the love light of my daughter Vivian, my husband Eric, my stepdaughter Shawnee, her husband Drew. I carry the love light of my beloved parents, my brother Cully and his family, and my friends. I carry the love light of my spiritual teacher Joi Sharp, and the light of the thousands of people who read the daily poems and beam love to me. I feel their love enter me, rewrite me, and continue to transform me. How would I have ever survived the loss of a child without the infusion of love beyond measure?

If you are grieving, I open my heart to your heart. I do not know your grief. I do not know your story. I do not know how you have managed to wake up, to live, and to continue. But you have done this. And I honor you.  However you have met this unthinkable loss, I honor your path. I honor your loved one. I honor the love you have for your loved one, and I honor your loved one’s love light that you carry. I honor that you are forever changed.

There is no word, no poem, no image, no story, no anything that will make things “right.” But if I had a hope for this book, it is that it somehow provides a doorway into the communion of hearts where we can find compassion, connection, and love. A doorway where we might find an unwavering peace. I am so grateful for the talents, generosity and open-heartedness of my soul sisters Rashani, Damascena and Lynn as they co-create this refuge.

On that terrible night in Georgia, at the exact moment my friend spoke the words love light, a firefly lit up inches in front of my face. A fleeting illumination. I wonder at it still. Coincidence? Miracle? A sign? Does it matter? That tiny radiance helped me, in that most heartbroken of moments, to fall more deeply in love with the mystery of life and to be open to what happens beyond the veil of death. With these poems, perhaps you will catch a glimpse of your own astonishing bioluminescence—and know from where it has come. May we all find in ourselves the essential, integral gift of the love light we carry.

— Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
just before the full moon,
January 2023

Words by Damascena Tanis

Excerpts from the Introduction

Bearing witness to the unexpectedness and sheer shock of Beate’s son’s death reminded me of the shattering miscarriage I suffered in my early twenties and my brother’s sudden death when I was eleven years old. One  February morning my parents received a telegram from the American embassy in Spain saying that Charlie,  my nineteen-year-old brother, had been found dead in Madrid where he was studying Flamenco guitar.

My family was immediately flung into an abyss of disbelief. Nothing had meaning for quite a long time. The illusion of security was instantly annihilated. Groundlessness became the new norm. I never saw my mother cry (until many years later, when she was dying), and only once did I see tears pouring from my father’s eyes. At some point, during those unforgettable, indecipherable, seemingly endless days and nights—which became weeks, then months—absence morphed into presence.

One day, much to my amazement, absence and presence simply co-existed indivisibly as one amorphous,  silent song-cry. Charlie was nowhere and everywhere. The confluence of stillness and movement, light and shadow, silence and sound, the known and the unknowable, became a seamless dance of which I was an infinitesimal fragment—a microscopic particle in and of—a dynamic tapestry of timeless Mystery.

Words and concepts often divide the field of experience into seemingly opposing dualities and we forget about its unfragmentable entirety.

My living brother, Bruce Harris—aka Roshi Sôun—was twelve years old when Charlie died. He beautifully describes this transition:

I was plunged, in spite of myself, and for several years, into a strange state of darkness and light at the same time. All beings and things around me, including myself, were emptied of meaning, emptied of consistency. Yet, everything was infused by a clear, loving trust/presence.

I came to understand how grace (Pure Presence revealing itself at the heart of all experience) is sometimes experienced “negatively” as an absence, in the form of darkness. This is because our body/mind is not yet able to contain such grace. It is the hallmark of any valid spiritual practice to render the human body/mind strong and supple enough, or should I say transparent enough, to receive the powerful charge of grace/awakening and embody it fully. Thus, the other face of this utter darkness is revealed — pure light/awareness.

Though I had no idea at the time, I later discovered that what we were experiencing after Charlie’s death, and  what many others also experience after losing a loved one, is called “non-dual awareness.” Sometimes it is experienced immediately after the death of a loved one. Other times it takes longer, and some people may never experience this. It’s important to remember every person’s grief walk is different and unique.

Shortly after my twenty-third birthday, I miscarried my second child. I wept uncontrollably for months.  Nothing could fill the void! I continued to feel an indescribable hollowness for many years. My friend,  Mirabai Starr, recently said, “Where death touches our lives, it transfigures the inner landscape. Nothing will ever be the same after someone we love has left this world. Whether they drew their last breath at one  hundred or never had a chance to draw their first breath at birth, our loved ones who have died seem to teach  us the most about being alive.” I have also found this to be true.

And now, having lost ten family members and several close friends, the aftermath of each death brings me again and again into this great paradox where dark and light co-exist, where birth and death simultaneously occur with no-birth and no-death; into a timeless domain where brokenness reveals that which cannot be broken, where shatteredness becomes a portal into that which is unshatterable and “loss” becomes a gateless gate into that which is unperishable. We are not broken—though we have broken open so many times.A-n-d: this doesn’t mean I don’t cry when a loved one—human or non-human—physically departs from this earth realm. Expressing grief is an essential part of being human. Staying close to the raw, nakedness of my direct experience is a great gift, to myself and to those I love.

Occasionally I still shed tears for my parents—tears they were unable cry. I cry for others, too, who could (and can) not allow tears and anguish to spill forth. How can we ever really know where another’s grief ends and ours begins? Grief is grief. It is not mine or yours. It is ours.

In the past, I cried with, and for, others who had become overwhelmed with—and paralyzed or silenced by— trauma, sadness, sorrow and grief. This allowed me to understand the existential, shared suffering that all humans experience. For years, I wept for a collective grief, far greater than my own, in a lava tube cave here in Hawaiʻi. I felt lovingly held, encouraged and supported by unseen ancestors and the Great Mother…..

Whether you worship Christ, Krishna, Kali or Allah,
you actually worship the one Light that is also in you,
since It pervades all things.
–Anandamayi Ma


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