Second Acts is a series of interviews with interesting people who discovered new pathways midway through their lives.
Mirabai Starr is professor of comparative religions at the University of New Mexico, Taos. She translated Dark Night of the Soul and The Interior Castle, and then a cascade of other works based upon the teachings of spiritual mystics. Her first book in her own voice, God of Love, delves deeply into the heart of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and celebrates the interconnectedness of all spiritual paths.
The tragic death of her daughter moved her to begin counseling others on loss and grief, not as an affliction to overcome but as a sacred opening to the divine.
AK: How did your daughter’s death transform your life?
MS: I had been on a fairly serious spiritual path since I was a young teenager that included multiple spiritual and religious traditions, but I feel that my spiritual life truly began on October 30, 2001, when my fourteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in a car accident.
On that same day, my first book, a translation of The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross, was released. Literally, UPS delivered my advance copy—the first time I ever saw the book—and half an hour later, the police came to my house to tell me that Jenny had been in an accident and that she was gone. The coinciding of these two events has really set the course of my life ever since.
AK: It’s not everybody who would take this loss and turn it into a calling, so what was the inner process that happened for you?
MS: The Dark Night of the Soul is about being stripped and becoming empty so that you can have a direct encounter with the sacred, and grief does a very similar thing. It has this very potent stripping quality.
Early on in my loss, it was as if a fire had come roaring through the landscape of my life and taken it all down to the ground. In that shattered, empty place, there was a deep quietness that resembled states of meditation. Underneath the feeling of emptiness is this sense of ineffable sweetness.
That’s really hard to talk about when you’re talking about grief and loss, especially when you’re talking about the death of a child. Not one thing about it is supposed to be good or okay or sacred, and if you do experience the sacred, people chalk it up to being in denial. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross named the first phase of the grief process denial because when we have a catastrophic loss, we go into shock and our brain protects us from the full onslaught of this unbearable thing by sometimes putting us into a kind of altered state that may feel holy.
Science can prove and I can corroborate that our brain chemistry does provide us with a protective filter or screen, but it’s also its opposite. The veils that normally obscure our consciousness are blown away by catastrophic loss and then, because they are gone, we truly see that whole, that reality of spirit where we are not separate after all. What I realized was that my being, and all of our beings, are vast enough to contain both realities.
AK: Did you have a spiritual practice that supported you during this time?
MS: Yes, but I couldn’t do any of them. I was so shattered that I couldn’t, and it made me mad. And it wasn’t just that it was uncomfortable and hard. It was like holding a candle to a fire. It just felt ridiculous, and I’ve worked with many parents who have lost children who felt the same way. It’s too much like a platitude or like a Band-Aid on an amputee. It made me angry to even think about spiritual practice, but somehow all the prior spiritual practice enabled me to be in the emptiness and just show up for that.
Because of my years of contemplative practice, I had this little, tiny toehold that helped me to know that it was okay to know nothing. I didn’t have to understand or make sense of what was going on, and I didn’t have to remake my shattered self. It was okay to be nothing. I didn’t have to put myself, my identity, back together in any rush. It would happen on its own and in a divine way.
Before Jenny’s memorial, I had this moment when I was on the floor rocking in pain, probably sobbing, maybe even screaming. I don’t remember. I suddenly felt myself held, as if in a net. That’s the only way I can describe it—like a net suspended in the air. That net, I recognized, was made up and woven by all of the women who had ever lost a child in the world, backwards and forwards in time and right now.
Jenny died six weeks after 9/11, and there was this palpable sense of the world grieving and the United States was getting ready to invade Afghanistan, so I was acutely aware of other mothers losing children. That was probably what most made me feel like, “Okay, Mirabai, if you can survive this” —and at that time, I wasn’t at all sure that I could survive my loss— “then you will become one of those women, holding all the other mothers, and that’s your path.”
Jenny has always been part of all this: every book I’ve written, every book I’ve translated, every talk I’ve ever given. She’s become like my spiritual resource, my guardian angel, my ancestor, to use indigenous religious language. My child became my ancestor, and she’s my guide through this whole adventure I’ve been on ever since.
For more information, see MirabaiStarr.com and read Mirabai’s entries on HuffingtonPost.com. Mirabai is leading a workshop, This Beautiful Wound: Grief As a Spiritual Path, October 30 to November 3, 2013 at the Old Stone Farm in Staatsburg, New York.
- Second Acts: A Bright Light and Flax Oil
- Second Acts: Brace for Impact
- Second Acts: Living at Large in the World
- Second Acts: Embracing the Chaos