Grief to purpose

The most unexpected lesson from my self-care trip to the Korean spa

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Between birth and death, 3 in 10 are followers of life;
3 and 10 are followers of death.
And men just passing from birth to death also number 3 and 10.
Why is this so?
Because they clutched to life and cling to this passing world.
But there is 1/10, they say, so sure of life that tigers and wild balls keep clear.
Weapons turned from him on the battlefield,
rhinoceroses have no place to horn him,
Tigers find a place for clause,
and soldiers have no place to thrust their blades.
Why is this so?
Because he dwells in that place where death cannot enter.
Realize your essence and you will witness the end without ending.

Tao Te Ching, verse 50


Realize your essence.
But what is essence?
What is real?

Think about this in the context of exfoliation. I know this may seem like a stretch for transforming of grief the purpose, but work with me. Let’s begin with a look at the word exfoliate as defined by the Oxford English dictionary:


  • Be shed from a surface in scales or layers.
    ‘the bark exfoliates in papery flakes’
  • Cause (a surface) to shed material in scales or layers.
    ‘salt solutions exfoliate rocks on evaporating’
  • Wash or rub (a part of the body) with a granular substance to remove dead skin cells.
    ‘exfoliate your legs to get rid of dead skin’

On my most recent trip to Northern Virginia, I decided to take time to work on healing myself by paying attention to my derma. I realized it had been so long since I gave myself permission to take care of me. So I set aside a day to go to a Korean spa (there are none near my home in Eastern North Carolina), not to be pampered, but to be cared for and healed.

I went with the intention of soaking in the bade pools, sweating in the poultice rooms, doing some yoga stretches, napping, and relaxing. But I got a most unexpected lesson.

I decide to sign up for a 90-minute body scrub and massage, which begins, as the spa brochure explains, with a traditional Korean-style “vigorous rub down of the skin resulting in a remarkable new fresh skin all over again.” There’s no way to capture in words what it’s like to be rubbed and scrubbed for the better part of thirty minutes. But trust me, no dead cell was left by the time my caregiver had finished this part of my session!

Before she cleaned the table to prepare for the exquisite massage yet to come, I opened my eyes just a peek at what this remarkable Korean woman had accomplished. And there it was, my dead skin in small detritus piles, looking a bit like seaweed washed ashore. For a fleeting moment, it occurred to me to wonder if this, like coffee grounds, would make good compost.

Well, by the time I left the spa, I was indeed glowing, and my skin felt soft and fresh and new.

Now fast-forward… I decided to drive and walk around Arlington and Falls Church, VA, going to places where we’d lived, where Angus had been walking and running and laughing and enjoying life with Carson and Eric and Ethan and Camille. Where we’d had Christmas and Thanksgiving and fun times in the yard jumping on the trampoline. Where we’d worked together and played together and enjoyed the moment.

I do this every time I’m in the area, mindfully knowing that I’m going to swoon and feel that kick in my gut when I focus on the fact that Angus is not with me now in his physical form.

As usual, I drove by the Local Market in Falls Church, where Angus had worked while he was studying to be a masseuse; where he met Camille; where he first started putting marketing principles into practice. But the Local Market was closed and a children’s clothing shop was in its place. Oh, no. No!

But on the brink of a meltdown, I realized something that changed my perspective completely.

Even if Angus were still with me physically, the body that would be walking with me, the arms that would be hugging me, and facial muscles making that ear-to-ear smile would not be the same body that was with me in Northern Virginia five or six years ago. And my body today is not the same body that it was…

The trips to the Local Market (after Angus had passed) were important to me because when I would visit, I could still imagine him coming around a corner to smile and give me a hug and to see if he could help me find the perfect apple or pepper. But he has transitioned and the store has changed…

And the only thing constant in nature is change.
We recreate our bodies as cells die and are recreated.
We can walk around with that layer of dead skin and still be OK, but we won’t glow until we shed it.

Sometimes the layer of detritus, the dead skin that’s heavy on our hearts, is the symbolic of the way we layer and try to protect and to hold onto things of the past so as not to lose connection with the one who passed away. Sometimes we need to make a mindful decision to exfoliate so that we can glow again.

At 19, Experiencing Death Gave Me Reasons to Live

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It wasn’t his time to go. He didn’t die for a reason, as they say. God didn’t look at his watch and go, “Well, I’ve decided. His life on Earth is done. Welcome to heaven, dude! Right on time.”

It was a stupid mistake. I saw the video.

As his long limbs were desperately latching onto the unstable surface of the rock, his right foot slipped. It was a one-second misstep. His grip loosened, and then he fell. In the silence of that moment, his body being pulled by gravity, he was accepting of the circumstance and unafraid. The steep, downward hill filled with trees and rocky ground awaited him. Then it greeted him with full force. His head hit something hard, and he was dead in an instant. As his limp body tumbled down the rest of the incline, the autumn leaves rustled, making some noise, and after a bit, everything was silent once more. Two days later a couple of ladies hiking off-trail found his body. Already, some worms and insects had made it their home. I saw the photos.

I’m 22 now—which doesn’t make sense to me, because I’m supposed to be younger than him. Angus will be the same age forever. The worst part of losing him was always that—knowing that he would never be able to live out the full extent of his life span on Earth. He was unlike anyone I had ever met. He had already found his purpose: to learn as much as possible and become very successful so he could help the ones he loved. He had the strongest desire for success I had ever seen. He constantly craved new projects. Every day he would gush about some other thing that he learned in his books and on the Internet.

What’s the best way to optimize my sleeping patterns? What is astral projection and how do I do it? What does it take to become a speed-reader? Where did humans really come from? What are the best strategies to start a web design business? Does my mindset really affect my success? What are the physics of water?

He had 5, 10, and 20-year plans. He knew where he wanted to go and he was working on the ways that he would get there. So no, it wasn’t his time to go.

When Angus’s mother called me to tell me he had been found dead, my entire world collapsed. I didn’t sleep or eat for a week. My best friend was gone. I was angry with him for leaving me when he had always told me he’d be there. I couldn’t stop talking to him, reprimanding him for be so stupid and unsafe. For hours on end I cried, incessantly asking him Why, why did you do that, to stop kidding around and that he could come back now.

I went through a lot of phases. At 19, I had never dealt with grief before. His absence created an absolute emptiness that surrounded me in whatever I did. No matter what, I was alone. My depression haunted me so much that I found myself hating the things I used to love. I refused to go out or see anyone except my mother. I smoked weed whenever I could; getting high so I could escape the infinite sadness. Lethargy took over my life. Having fun without him would just be a waste of time. I wasn’t myself anymore, since he had left, and I needed it to show. I had to manifest my internal wounds in the world. It was the respect he deserved.

But when I started hating myself, I knew something was wrong. Like a bad trip, I didn’t want to keep feeling like this forever.

My way out came when I realized that Angus had been preparing me for this moment all along. He taught me…

  • To always be curious seek knowledge. There’s so much to explore and learn. Take the extra time to sit down and read about something new.
  • To not be afraid of commitment because it is a beautiful thing.
  • To put my sheets in the dryer before going to bed— it’s the little pleasures that count.
  • To spend money on good food. Always invest in my health.
  • That audiobooks, podcasts, online books, video tutorials, and documentaries are all acceptable and more accessible ways of learning.
  • To be fearless and endlessly take risks. This one is still hard for me, as it ended up being Angus’s own fatal flaw. He was never careful.
  • How to love someone more than anything else in the world, and to accept to be loved back in the exact same way.
  • How to use Adobe Illustrator which launched me into my love for graphic design.
  • About quantum physics and how to harness sound power to create electromagnetic energy and how this is probably all wrong because although I didn’t understand half of it, I loved listening to his voice.
  • How to use a power drill and build a shelf, among other items.
  • How to drive stick.
  • How to do a billion things on my laptop including building a website out of nothing.
  • How to be confident in my own abilities and to use my skills for good.
  • How to be positive about whatever comes my way and that I deserve to be the happiest I can be.
  • That it’s important to be goofy.
  • That if I set my mind to something, I can do it.

Once I started listing things and writing down memories and thoughts, I slowly realized how him teaching me skills, empowering my confidence, and helping me engage in good, healthy habits were the key to my movement through grief. I remembered how we always ate so well together and how he would want me to be making good food for myself, so I started eating better. I remembered some of the web knowledge he had given me, so I started taking more interest in building my nonprofit’s website and my own. I started to enjoy life a bit more, knowing that Angus might be watching me build my skills to help others.

The most important thing I remembered was the full optimism and joy that always radiated, stemming from his innermost soul and beaming out through his comforting words and smile. No matter the situation, there was always a solution, and there was no need to stress. The world would keep on living. Breathe in, breathe out, smile, and fix the problem. So that’s what I started telling myself. I allowed myself to feel happiness in everyday experiences. I started laughing more, and being nice to strangers more. Reconciliation came not from pleading for happiness, but from permitting myself to accept joy, just in the small things.
Gradually, I saw my pain turn into love. And I wanted to spread that love everywhere—my relationships grew stronger, my skills multiplied, and my sense of spirituality became so strong that I started getting answers to questions I never knew I had.

I understood that Angus’s death played a part in the cycle of the universe—the cycle of impermanence and small deaths. I understood that his presence in my life for two years was not a coincidence. I understood that attachment is often mistaken for love and that if I loved him truly, I would let him go. I understood that with every new change that arose from then on, something in me would be different, and I would be more resilient than ever. And that was good news.

Grief escorted up a deep feeling from my soul, a truth about my life and about Life; it showed me what I value most and what I need to do for the world. It’s with me still, and it harbours suffering at times, but I’ve learned to only reach for that when I need a good cry. Angus didn’t die for a reason, but his death did give me a whole lot of reasons to live.
— —

I dedicate this personal essay to Angus’s mother, Jean. Thank you for giving Angus life and changing mine forever.

Our nonprofit:
Our guide from grief to purpose:

Why I Stepped Back From Grief

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The transformation of grief to purpose is my life’s work.  Maybe it always has been, but I know for sure that it’s been my life’s work since the 27th of September 2015.

I’m not able to put together the “How I Did It” template on transforming grief to purpose.  However, I am able to share my story, and by doing so, I may be able to help others find their own way.

Frequently, people tell me how strong I am, but I don’t feel any more or less strong than I did before Angus passed away. They say that they don’t know how I “do” it…but I’m not even sure what “it” is.

I don’t know how to describe why or how I redefined normal and began moving from grief to purpose, but I know exactly where and when I became mindfully aware of my decision to transform:

  • I remember the feel of my iPhone and touching the screen to call Camille.
  • I remember the sound of my voice telling her that the Coroner had called and that Angus was found on a trail and that he was dead.
  • I remember her screaming.
  • I remember that it was around eight o’clock on Sunday night…and I was sitting in the floor in the hallway of my house in the dark.

When Camille could speak, all she said was, “He was gonna change the world.” At that moment, I mentally stepped back from the edge of a deep, dark abyss where I felt myself delicately balanced.  I consciously made the decision to turn and walk away from despair.  Less than 24 hours later, The Stardust-Startup Factory was created.

It’s six o’clock in the morning;  I’m sitting on a swing in eastern North Carolina on the 11th of September 2017 looking out over Bogue Sound.  Is my son any more or less with me right now than he was almost 2 yrs ago…when he was in Colorado, staying with his friends and having a heck of a great time laughing and smiling and learning and sharing?  I know he’s still with me.  He’s on this swing, and that together, we’re experiencing the high energy of this day.

As the mom of a young man who died at 22 of what some would call a “freak accident,”  I think most of my friends believe I’m crazy.  Most of them are at least thinking, if not saying, “Wait until she hits the wall and collapses into a heap on the floor.  It has to happen; she can’t keep this up.”

But it’s not at all pretend. There’s no “act” that I’m performing. I’m honestly at peace…and I’m happy.

When I enter the space of feeling the mortality of this body, when I feel myself going into a place where life feels helpless and hopeless, I mindfully back out, step aside, move away from that space.  These times happen when I forget that there’s a sky full of stars, even though I don’t see them.

This is about perception.

We’re having a bit of Hurricane Irma impact here on the Carolina coast this morning with gale force winds and crashing waves.  At this moment the sky is full of swirling clouds… Beyond these clouds, there is a sky full of stars, the vastness of space.  It’s all still there; it’s no less there.

I just don’t see it!

I remember one time, when Angus was in 2nd or 3rd grade—probably 2nd—when Jim and I were having a bit of a disagreement.  We were living in upstate New York, in Oneonta, and, thanks to lake effect clouds, it’d probably been a week or two since we’d seen the sun.  In the midst of a little squabble in the kitchen, Jim looked at me and said, “You make me so mad.”  And I commented that I didn’t realize I had that kind of power over him–to make him mad or happy or however I wanted him to be.  This didn’t help solve the situation in the kitchen at that moment, but it was a very interesting epiphany for me about responses to stimuli.

We are presented with circumstances every minute of every day.

How we respond to those circumstances is what we have power over.

Discovering opportunities, challenges, the different feelings of life without angus in his physical form have been interesting.  I absolutely miss his hugs, and I miss watching him dance and dive and drum and drive away in Yuri the Yaris heading out on some adventure.  I realize that many people I know are grieving Angus’s loss because they can’t imagine how they’d cope with the loss of their own child.   Many friends and family members don’t feel comfortable working with me on Stardust or talking positively and happily about Angus because they don’t want to face or can’t face or aren’t ready to face aspects of their own physical mortality or that of others whom they love.


The Stardust-Startup Factory is offering the Spiritual Alchemy group as an opportunity for community building and support. We’re offering a forum for sharing and discussion and discovery.  We’re not presenting ourselves in any way as spiritual alchemists.  There’s no conjuring that Stardust or Camille or Jim or I do that holds the magic that will transform you.

The Stardust Spiritual Alchemy group is an opportunity for YOU to mindfully transform yourself.  That’s where the power and the magic reside.

Sometimes we may not be ready to transform grief to purpose.

Grief is place where people find themselves when they are dealing with profound change, profound loss. Stardust’s Spiritual Alchemy group is not here to rescue you from grief.

But when you’re emerging from the fog of grief that we’re here to help you redefine normal.