When Elizabeth began writing Broken Open, she didn't intend to share her personal story, but in the end, that's exactly what she did. "I was one of those little kids who started thinking the deep thoughts from a ridiculously young age," she says. "Probably at 3 or 4 years old I would lie in bed and think, with my heart beating, 'Where does this all go when I die? And what is the meaning of my life?'"
Growing up in the late '60s and early '70s, Elizabeth says she was influenced by the Beatles, who were in India learning Eastern meditation and music. "I thought, 'I want one of those wise teachers from the East too,'" she says.
At 19, Elizabeth and her soon-to-be husband found a spiritual teacher and moved to a commune in upstate New York. They got married shortly after and had two children by the time Elizabeth was 26. "When I got married, I thought it was going to be forever. You make a promise, and you keep it," she says. "But I began to feel that something in me was dying. I began to feel pretty much exhausted and sick most of the time, and I didn't want to listen to that, and I also was angry and not being very patient as a mother."
Elizabeth says that in the family and culture where she was raised, it was looked down upon to get a divorce and be a single mother. But after years of unhappiness, she knew she had to make a hard decision. "I felt like, 'If I don't make a move, if I don't make a change, if I don't answer this call within me to blossom and I remain tight in a bud, I am going to shrivel and fall off the vine and never know what life really can be.'"
After 14 years of marriage, Elizabeth left her husband and became a single mother of two young boys. "I lost everything—my financial security, my self-image, my home…and in the depth of that loss, I found out who I really was," she says. "I began to find a genuine me that could withstand anything."
When faced with a difficult situation, Elizabeth says you can either break down or break open. "It's a decision you make," she says. "It's a commitment. [You say:] 'I am going through a very hard time. I'm not going to waste this precious experience, this opportunity to become the best me.' … You say: 'This has got to be for a reason. If it isn't, I'll just repeat the same mistakes over and over. I don't want to repeat them. I want to learn it this time. I want it to help me become a better person, a better mother, a better person in my relationship the next time."
Elizabeth says her divorce taught her to take ownership of her life. "I couldn't blame anyone for what had gone wrong in the marriage. I had spent a lot of time blaming my ex-husband. But I had to take the responsibility myself," she says. "I had to say, 'What does this have to teach me about me?' Not about him and not about how unfair life is. It wasn't about that. It was, 'What did I do to make this happen?' The pain is really looking at yourself and what you did to create the mess you're in. [But you need to] look at it head on, fearlessly, and say, 'Teach me. Teach me about myself so I can grow.'"
Elizabeth doesn't just share her own story in Broken Open. She also tells the stories of ordinary people who were broken open into a fuller life, often through tragedy. Elizabeth met Glen and Connie at Omega Institute—they had gone to hear Elizabeth speak—and their story is featured in a chapter of the book.
Two years after Glen and Connie were married, they had twin boys, Eric and Ryan, who were born on New Year's Eve 1978. Five years later, they had a daughter, Kate. "I really thought I had the life scripted right out," Connie says. "I thought, 'These boys will ride their bikes down this little street, and Katie will go to nursery school here, and then they'll grow up, and then they'll be married and Eric will be Ryan's best man.'"
Glen had a vision for his sons as well. "My sons would be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Which is the Boy Scout motto," he says. "And they turned out to be that way."
Eric had always wanted to travel to Australia, Glen says, and in his junior year of college he was accepted into a program to study abroad there. "He was absolutely enamored with Australia," Glen says.
After the school semester ended, Eric took three weeks to travel in New Zealand. His parents were set to pick him up at the airport on December 17, 1999.
"We thought it was very cool that our twin boys were going to turn 21 on the millennium," Connie says. "So we had anticipated quite a big birthday party."
Just as Connie and Glen were preparing to leave for the airport to pick up Eric, they got a phone call from someone in the State Department. Eric had been in a motorcycle accident.
Eric died in the motorcycle crash, just 30 minutes from the airport where he would have boarded the plane to come home. "The police officer that attended the scene of the crash said, 'He was traveling near Mount Cook, on a dry, straight stretch of road, with an incredible view of the snowcapped mountains. As near as we can determine, he must have had his eyes on the distant view when he drifted into the ditch,'" Glen says in Broken Open.
Connie says she can remember the agony in Glen's face when he told her the news. "I remember saying to him, 'I don't know how to do this grief thing,'" she says. "And he said to me: 'Well, I don't know how to do it either. But one thing I do know is we must do it well for Ryan, our son, and for Katie, our daughter, because we are the only models they have.'"
Glen told Connie there were two paths they could take—despair or hope. "[He said], 'That doesn't look very welcoming down there, so I'm going to the place of hope,'" Connie says. "And I said, 'I'm coming with you.'"
Following the path of hope wasn't always easy for Connie, but she says she remembers the exact moment she knew she could move on. For the first six weeks after Eric died, Connie says she couldn't eat and had hardly changed out of her pajamas. Then, a friend on her street left a pair of mittens in her mailbox. "It was January in Maine, 13 [degrees] below zero, and she said: 'I haven't seen you taking your walks. Let's walk,'" Connie says.
While they were walking, Connie dropped one of her mittens. "I went to pick it up, and as I came up I was very light-headed, understandably—no sleep, loss of appetite," she says. "I looked up, and in January in Maine there's no meteorologist who can explain why you would see a rainbow in the sky. It was just a snippet—green and yellow and pink. And I grabbed my friend and said, 'I'm hallucinating, right?' And she said: 'No, I see it. Perhaps it's God. Perhaps it's Eric. Perhaps it's hope. But let's take it.'"
The next day, Connie called the director of her local hospice center and decided to start getting help for her grief. "When there's something that happens that you cannot explain, you know there's something out there to help you—a lifeline," she says. "That single moment—a gift of nature, a gift of comfort—helped me to take that step out of what I thought would be never-ending pain."
Eric's twin brother, Ryan, says he too was broken open by Eric's death. "The way I see it is that there's this picture on the wall of what you think your life is and where you think your life is going. And you take that picture and you pull it off the wall and you smash it into a thousand pieces all over the floor, " Ryan says. "For a while you just sit there and look at the pieces, and there's no way to put them back together. For a long time I was stuck looking at those pieces."
Ryan, an engineer, says his inability to solve the problem in his life was eating away at him. "For the longest time, I thought, 'I'm never going to stop feeling this way,'" he says.
Finally, Ryan realized this was one problem he wasn't responsible for fixing. "It was somewhat of a spiritual experience for me," he says. "I got a release that said: 'Stop. You really don't get it, Ryan. You just don't understand what's going on here, and you're not going to solve this problem, and you need to stop.'"
Once Ryan realized his brother's death was a problem that didn't have an answer, he says plugging back into his own life was the only way he knew to move on. "I was working with my uncle's lobster bait business in Maine," Ryan says. "This was the opportunity to say my mind had broken free of all this stuff that I was intertwined in."
While he was working for his uncle, Ryan says he experienced a moment that changed his outlook "[I realized] if I can be happy here in dead fish, then I can be happy doing anything," he says. "I'm going to move forward and try to put that picture back up on the wall. And it's not the same picture. I'm going to make a new picture."
Elizabeth says that if you don't take the time to grieve for the loss of a loved one, your feelings may fester and turn into something else. "Perhaps it turns into bitterness or anger or blame and you never get over it," she says. "So letting yourself descend into grief and letting it do what it will with you for as long as it takes is a much more intelligent response to loss than cleaning up real fast and going back to work."
It's impossible to truly get over a tragic loss, Glen says, but it is possible to move on. "It's always there. You always live with it," he says. "And you use it as who you are to become more of a person."
"You wear [grief] as a badge of how well you loved," Elizabeth says. "Grief is an expression that you loved well."
While grieving for Eric, Connie says she and Glen got much of their strength from their community. "We were so showered with love and support that Glen and I often equated it to a fire hose. It knocked us over," she says. To give back, Connie became a trained hospice volunteer. "I'm here to tell you hospice is about the living. Hospice is helping the people left behind," she says. "When there is great loss, there is a wake of loneliness and isolation, and hospice volunteers will wade into your pain and say, 'I know.'"
Connie says working at hospice had unexpected benefits. "I didn't even know it, but when you help, you heal," she says. "And the gifts that came back to me ... were part of my healing."
Connie and Glen say they have now dedicated their lives to serving others. After Eric's death, Glen quit his job of 25 years, and they sold their home and disposed of most of their material possessions. "You realize, 'I'm now attached to nothing. I'm tethered to nothing. I can just go,'" Connie says. "That was the most freeing feeling in the world. ... We took the time we needed to grieve and then we took a leap of faith."
When helping others comes from a genuine place in your heart, you are on a spiritual path, Elizabeth says. "When you've experienced your own dark night and you've been helped by others, you have a genuine desire to give back," she says. "And when service comes from that really open vulnerable heart, there's nothing like it."
Are you ready to find your spiritual path? Get Elizabeth Lesser's steps for starting the journey.
Printed from Oprah.com on
© 2014 OWN, LLC. All Rights Reserved.