July 15, 2014

Our Hearts Are What Keep Us Alive. ~ Bronwyn Petry & Hannah Harris


Each of our lives is a hero or heroine’s journeys. We trek and traverse and do battle in honor of the people we know we can become. 

Below are the stories of two women who survived the loss of their mothers, fought their own ways back to life, and found their creative fires in the process.


I was in the room with my mother when she died.

She had been in the hospital for a month. She had not been conscious for a while, days even.

We gathered: my sister and I, our stepfather, my sister’s partner and his mother, my mother’s two sisters. And we stood over the bed and kept vigil, touching her hands, smoothing the worry from her face.

But then, she slowly started ebbing from us. Her breaths started sounding like she was pulling them up through gravel and then started coming more and more slowly. More slowly still.

The moment her breaths stopped coming, emotions flooded everyone in the room. Everyone grabbed someone else. Someone reached for me, but I ducked them. This howling knot of grief in my throat rose and I looked around the room and thought, “Someone has to stay calm,” and so I swallowed it.

It felt like a basketball made of ice going down.

I look back at that moment and say: that is where my problems with words started. There were lots of other things, but this, this is when they tore away.

Swallowing such primal grief severed me from myself.

My reaction to my mother’s death cut me off from my writing—the hard stuff I have to work through to contribute to the world. I said “no” to my feelings and separated myself from my intuition, where my heart is the best headlamp I have.

Or so I like to romanticize.

With wisdom and time, I’ve come to understand I didn’t trust the enormity of that emotion to come through me—I didn’t know what would happen if I let it. Even now, when I have had so much time to deal with the loss, I feel myself skipping away from the edge of it.

But In my mid-to-late twenties’, I saw that I needed to dig around in my psyche to find the poison that was killing me—I felt cut off from life, from the source of all energy, from my own internal drumbeat.

I needed to write, I needed to heal and the work that followed was some of the scariest shit I have ever done.

It was like I played Bloody Mary with myself in a bathroom. The ghosts of everything I’d done wrong and the demons of my regrets wafted up in the mirror and we all had to face each other. I had to find a way to forgive myself for all my decisions, informed or otherwise. Not only that, but I had to try and integrate all those aspects of myself to move forward.

Doctors who saw me for my depression at the time told me they couldn’t believe I was still alive.  Sometimes I couldn’t believe it either.

Sometimes it was all I could do just to keep breathing—which didn’t feel brave at all.

Underneath it all my words lived in a glass box buried deep in my heart; I could see them, but I couldn’t touch them.

Then, finally, everything that I had been trying to make myself feel better started falling into place. It didn’t happen all at once, but I started to realize that I was able to feel things again.

Feeling things meant the dam inside of me broke open. I had isolated myself for years, missing parties and not returning phone calls—all a sudden I wanted so much to reconnect. As I sent out search signals for community, my thirst for writing kicked back in.

And when the words started to come back a basic part of myself returned.

It had returned because I had got down on my knees. I was honest with myself about where I had failed and where I had given up on myself.

I feel any act of creation starts to open up once we make the brave decision to be real with ourselves. That path is different for everyone, as every person is different, but it is not only about facing ourselves. It is embracing those parts of ourselves that we once despised.

We’re not going to be perfect with loving ourselves, but if we keep trying, our hearts will respond.

It is brave and f**king terrifying to create, but we are creative beings and that instinct must be nurtured—however it can—so that we not only stay alive, but feel everything that we are meant to feel.

The first step is to listen to the small voice inside us.


I was in the room with my mother when she died.

My dad and I came very close to missing her last moments. Neither of us had left the house for any significant length of time in months, Mom had been in the same shuddering, near-unconscious state for days, and all of our closest family members and friends were there.

He and I were going to step out together, just for a moment, just to find some new air to breathe, to see if sanity still existed out from under the smothering weight of our rooftop.

Instead, someone yelled my dad’s name from the top of the stairs with such restrained urgency that we both knew; we sprung up the stairs, blinded and unthinking, to lie by her sides.

The last moments of her life were a fight, a wrestling match between those two most elemental forces. It was a wretched and otherworldly thing to witness, and even as I curled next to her body and sobbed in a way I never had before, numbness was already beginning to creep in.

It climbed up my body’s center line like an ivy vine, rooting down in my chest and anchoring its tendrils around my bones.

This contradiction of emotion was the beginning of a confused and exhausting half-decade of such opposing forces nesting down in my life and whipping me around like a rag cloth.

How could it be that I discovered for the first time what despair felt like during the same period of time that I was so zoned out I was sleeping 14 and 16 hours a day? How could I sit on a blanket on the cliffs by school and scream alone into the clouded sky and then come back and drop once again into glazed unfeeling?

During much of that time, interacting with my grief and my resistance to grief was the only thing I could do each day.

For years now, I’ve taken it—unconsciously—as a matter of fact that my mother would not approve of the person I’ve become. I knew she’d always love me, but because I eventually but definitively turned away from the religion we’d shared, I assumed that my mere manner of existing now would break her heart.

What a heavy thing it’s been, to carry both her absence and her perceived disappointment in me.

And yet I knew I had to do it anyway. I had to begin making myself into a person that I could live with, satisfied, for the rest of my life. This is what we are all tasked with, every one of us. It is no one’s responsibility but our own to face our wounds, initiate our healing and hand ourselves the permission to be expansive.

I recognize now that I birthed the person I am meant to be when I carried on regardless of whether I thought I would be met with approval.

And because there is grace in the world, the story doesn’t end there.

Because there is grace, I have begun to receive snippets, memories and insights into the truth that my mom was a woman who was wild and free. It was she who planted in me some of the very things I am growing now.

Throughout my life, she’d carried an overwhelming desire that I find a passion. “I want you to be passionate about something,” she’d say repeatedly. I resented it then; it felt heavy and somehow I’d always end up feeling guilty that I wasn’t interested in things with the fire she both hoped for and foresaw.

But now I write.

Now I write, so I understand and I am grateful. Since I’ve found words and stories, a primal fullness I’ve never before known comes with me everywhere I move.

I think my mother might have called it passion.

So I sit in the bathtub and tears fall and burn my cheeks like hot oil, but I turn my face upward and whisper:

“Mama… look! Now I work every day to try and make things that are beautiful. I create. I found the passion you always hoped I’d find.”

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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: martinaK15, Flickr Creative Commons


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