What? I have to surrender too?!

By John Gatto, Art’s husbandblog-pic

As Art’s disease progressed and we moved towards the end of his life, he became well-practiced at the art of surrender.  (He wrote about it in a blog that’s available on www.gratefulness.org if you haven’t seen it).  We regularly talked about this idea and the ways in which surrender was made real for him.  He surrendered to his body, its decreased capabilities but also to love and the mystery that lies beyond the end of life.  He surrendered to his increased dependence and vulnerability.  Together we grieved our losses — both individually and as a couple.  We grieved our inability to move more freely and walk our dog to some of our favorite places.  We grieved Art’s inability to complete daily tasks that provided a sense of purpose, and we grieved the loss of the life we imagined we would share into old age.


For approximately the first year of Art’s disease, his condition would remain stable for a couple months at a time.  We developed an adaptive pattern with each decline.  First we would simply observe it and acknowledge the change.  Next we’d discuss strategies for adapting to it like upgrading to larger oxygen tanks, moving more slowly, adjusting our schedule, etc.  Finally we’d implement the changes, restore some sense of normalcy then a few months later do it again.  When the speed of his decline accelerated, we realized that our old strategy would no longer work.  Increasingly we needed to surrender more quickly and not become too attached to his new level of functioning.  It was as if we had been living on a sheet of ice. Though slippery at first, we could eventually find our footing and restore our balance.  But then the sheet of ice was placed in a river and began to move downstream.  There was nothing that could ground us anymore.  We could no longer find solid footing amidst constant change.  For Art, each day brought something new to surrender.  Somehow amidst my focus on him, I lost sight of my own process and version of surrendering.


Now in the month since Art’s death I see that the sheet of ice has melted and I now find myself flailing about in the river.  I now have my own surrendering to do.  An important choice faces me:  I can either swim to shore and stand on firm ground or I can surrender to the currents that are now carrying me in new directions.


It only recently occurred to me that as Art was declining, I was treating surrender as a zero-sum game.  I now realize that I tried to compensate for all that he had to surrender.  When he surrendered to uncertainty, I tried to make things more certain and predictable.  When he surrendered to physical limitations, I tried to compensate by doing what he could not.  When he surrendered to vulnerability, I compensated by trying to create more safety.  These were all the right things to do and part of what allowed him to navigate his journey.  And now mine begins.


When I think about surrendering to the currents of the river, I don’t think of it as defeat in any way.  It isn’t a fatalistic giving up or being pulled under in a panic.  It is joining with the natural order of things and trusting that a force greater and wiser than me will guide me.  It is about not trying to control the currents or swim against them but to join with them in curiosity, openness, hope and faith.


So what exactly do I have to surrender to?


First I surrender to grief.  I feel fully what it means to go to bed alone at night and wake up the same way without the comfort and joy of Art’s presence.  I surrender to the physical and emotional manifestations of grief…the waves of nausea and dizziness that hit me…the sudden, uncontrollable sobs that happen in the supermarket, shower, car, or anywhere at any time.  And when I surrender to the currents of grief, I notice that they lead me to a place of love and gratitude.  When I let myself experience grief fully, I open myself up to the depth of love I feel for Art and the love he felt for me.  Yes, the sadness is crushing.  But it is so because the love was and is limitless.  Sometimes surrendering to love leads me to more grief and sometimes grief leads me to love but either way, the cycle almost always includes both.


Next I surrender to the forward movement and momentum of life.  The other day, amidst the bone-chilling cold of winter, there was a spring-like afternoon.  People shed their winter coats, slowed their pace and happily soaked in the unusually warm sunshine.  It suddenly hit me that we were moving towards spring.  I realized that we will no longer be in the dark winter of Art’s death.  I panicked.  I’m not ready to leave that time and place.  The fact that life moves on often feels like good news and bad news.  I’m not ready to surrender to the passing of time and the season of re-birth.  Yet when I begin to surrender to the currents of time, they carry me to a place of new possibilities.  As time passes I notice that Art’s footprint in the physical world starts to decrease.  Things in our house no longer look the same as when he was alive.  His phone doesn’t ring.  His mail has slowed down.  I realize how much I still want him to be seen in the world so I press down hard, as if applying the brakes.  But when I surrender and lighten up on the brakes, I feel a flicker of hope and begin to dream into the future a bit.  I stop counting the days since his death and start to look forward, beginning to open myself to the unfolding that is happening even in this moment.  Art and I had talked about this – where might I live after his death?  Might I find love again?  What places do I want to travel to that we had never gotten to?  None of the answers matter but the simple act of wondering about and embracing a future does.


I must surrender, too, to the mysteries of life and death.   In my head I want to make sense of it all.  Like countless philosophers, theologians and otherwise curious humans, I want to know what lies beyond.  I want to know where Art is and in what form.  Before Art died, we talked about the ways I might feel his presence after his death.  I’ve gone searching for him like a private detective, hot on the trail to find evidence that his spirit is here.  I impatiently look inside and out to catch a glimpse of him.  If my brain can just figure it out, I can rest with more certainty that Art remains with me.  And then I surrender to the mysteries of life and death and wonderful things happen. I shift my focus from my head to my heart and begin to feel awe – a marveling at the universe and the Universal spirit that Art and I believed surrounds all of us.  When I surrender to the mystery, powerful things begin to happen.  This requires some explanation:


I’ve always been fascinated by dreams.  When I worked as a therapist I studied dreams so I could explore them with my clients.  For several years I was in a group with other therapists where we would assist each other in analyzing our own dreams, searching for clues to our subconscious.  Art and I always discussed our dreams in the morning.


One night a few weeks after Art’s death, I went to bed and reluctantly talked aloud to him for the first time.  I told him that I was ready to experience his presence and my heart was now officially open to receive him.  I told him that I had been afraid of experiencing him…afraid it would overwhelm me.  I told him that I knew that if he had any say in the matter, he would make his presence known in a way that would be meaningful and comforting to me.  I trusted he wouldn’t make our chandelier rattle or the lights flicker, but rather come with his loving gentleness and bright smile.  And he did!


For the first time since his death, Art appeared in my dreams.  Before Art died we had agreed that I should take a trip following his death.  It would be a time for reflection and healing.  In my dream I arrived at the airport to take this trip.  The airport was crowded and as I walked toward the ticket counter I saw Art standing there, preparing to take a trip of his own ahead of me.  He turned to me and we made eye contact through the crowd and smiled.  Neither one of us panicked or ran towards the other.  We simply noted one another’s presence, had a deep sense of connection and then he disappeared into the crowd to catch his flight.  He was wearing my clothes, as I have worn his since his death.


When I awoke and recalled this dream, it was perfect!  Our connection was exactly what I needed.  It wasn’t too intense or overwhelming and there were so many comforting symbols in it — him travelling ahead of me, him wearing my clothing and the calm we both felt.  When I finally surrendered to the mystery of death, the dream came.  I have come to believe that there is no singular or right way for me to feel Art’s presence.  I just need to open my heart to wherever the currents are taking me.  Get out of my head and get into the river and trust.


Most importantly I must surrender to love.  The wounds of loss cut deep and sometimes love feels like salt on the wound.  Grief and loss can harden me.  I feel alone and vulnerable.  Things that never were scary suddenly frighten and overwhelm me.  There are countless decisions to make and problems to solve.  Yet, when I soften and surrender to love, color returns to my world.  I feel the generosity of family and friends who surrounded us and have stayed with me in my grief. When I surrender to love I feel alive.  I feel connected to the Divine – to the universal spirit that unites all of us and is at the core of us.  I recognize that I am not alone.  I am not the first nor last person to lose a spouse.  At a time of turmoil in our country and world, surrendering to love eases my anxiety and refreshes my perspective.  It illuminates a path forward and renews my spirit, when there are so many forces that can seemingly crush it these days.


None of these things eliminate my sadness or stop me from wanting Art back beside me.  I would give anything to have these insights AND also still have Art here with me.  But I also surrender him to the Universe – I release him and celebrate the freedom he sought from his body so that his soul, in its purest form, can soar.  I feel weak at the knees in doing so, as if I may crumble.


What I also know, though, is that our vulnerability is our strength.  Art and I made conscious choices to try to open ourselves up during his illness and death.  As frightened as we were and often as embarrassed as he was, we believed that there were lessons in all of this.  We believed – and were proven correct – that the most powerful conversations and connections happen amidst vulnerability.  We often fight the currents.  We choose to swim to more solid ground.  We try to change the shape or flow of the river.  We try to solve the mysteries with knowledge and intellect.  We extract our self-worth and sense of competence from feeling as if we have regained control of a chaotic situation.  But when we admit all we don’t know and all that seems so uncertain, we become more human and accessible to one another.  We open up in a more real way and our connections deepen.


I cannot conquer grief, the forward movement of life or the mystery of death.  I can surrender to it all.  And if, together, we could collectively surrender to the deeper wanting of the currents…to the wisdom of the forces that surround us, I believe it would transform us.  It is already doing so with me.



~ by Art on February 15, 2017.

15 Responses to “What? I have to surrender too?!”

  1. John, your writing is exquisitely healing to me. I loved Art so much, even though we didn’t see each other at all during the past 8 years. I’m so touched by your recollections and insight. xo

  2. Dear John,

    I completly feel with you and I want to thank you for discribing your thoughts and your surrendering.

    Since we have met in London and digged deep together with Art and had Dinner in the evening, I could follow Art & yourself from distance nevertheless deeply moved.
    If you remember me, you know that I have a similar way.

    I was relieved, that Art had decieded for having hospice care. I knew there would be care for both of you.

    Between Christmas and New Year’s came the idea to send greetings to you with a small video (I think it was an idea from the Doves). I thought it was the perfect time. These days we call “zwischen den Jahren”: between the years. For me it is a very special time in the year when the old year wanes, life slows down, it is time to reflect on ourselves while the new year seems to be already prepared somewhere around the corner.
    Mostly for me it is like time is ready to go but I am not.

    A time while Art and you, dear John, were between the years and and what’s more, between lives…

    For some sad reasons our minfullness was confused and we failed to send our greetings and an assuredness I wished to give both of you.

    Now while reading your words I feel regret and I feel great relief.

    When my husband Dirk became ill (braincancer), we had to start surrendering. In very different ways and most time not as close together as you both did. In the course of his illness I lost him sitting next to him. His cognitive ability changed. A-22-months-step-by-step-good-bye.

    When he died two and a half years ago I learned that death could not disunit him and me. He came back to me.

    Like you (and for knowing this I am really grateful) I was contacted by him in some rare and preciously dreams and visions. He seemed to be on the mend. He gave me self-assuredness for my new way and he remembered me beeing mindful with myself while I tried to find orientation for my three kids and me struggeling in a deep, wild and unknown streaming.

    As time passes by the streaming wasn’t completly unknown, it seems to become more leisurely. And while I grew into my new life, he takes himself back. I imagine him or his soul traveling around free from his old life and the failing body. Saling somewhere in the wind as a bird or a small butterfly in summer. But sometimes he is still coming around for a warm, small contact. Perhaps he wants to check if everything is in order.

    My regret is that I didn’t give this assuredness to Art before he died.
    I know that he now wouldn’t blame me.

    You both were great. And you, dear John, are still great.

    On my way into my new life I still stumble. Sometimes I feel like sitting in a free falling rollercoaster while playing a puzzle. The vision of my life has gone. And I need to build a new life planning. I am not sure how the new picture looks like and so it is difficult to decide which piece is still in game and which isn’t. There are new pieces and I don’t know if they will be a part of my new puzzle of life.

    But I want to live and I want to device something new. And so I am still playing.
    I want to find a colourful life worth living.
    Dirk wanted me and the children feeling happy. I think we should give him this flavor.

    As you I have a treasure on my way. Love.

    You have your love for Art. And Arts love is with you forever and ever.
    You perfectly now what it means to love and to be loved in good times as in bad.
    Nothing and nobody can take this away.

    Surrendering needs its time. Grief needs its time. Let the time pass by until you are ready to go into a new life.
    And then one day more the next day less you will find your way. Maybe the way will find you.
    Art’s love will be with you all the time.

    Dear John, I am with you in my thoughts.

    • Dear Elis – I apologize for being slow in responding. I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me! Even before receiving your comments, I remember our conversation at dinner & first learning about your journey with your husband. In your quiet, gentle way you immediately became a role model for me – a story of how grief can lead to transformation and even re-birth. I relate so much to all you have written here – to feeling as if you are on a rollercoaster, to wanting to honor your husband’s desire for you & your children to find happiness, and also for your words about letting things evolve in their own time. Mostly I am just deeply moved by your honestly, love and thoughtfulness in sharing so much with me! Your words are like a refreshing drink of water on a hot day – they soothe me and give me hope. Like your process, I’m slowly finding Art’s presence in my own life in little ways. I don’t miss him any less than the day he died but I am slowly feeling the pull of life and movement towards the future. I also have moments where I can think of him in the years before his illness when he lived most joyfully. And I am always inspired by him. Know that I am with you in your journey too. Even though you are further out from your husband’s death than I am, I’m sure it still has an impact. I’m sorry for what you and your children have had to endure and I also admire your courage and strength in choosing to live fully.

      My email address is jpg02155@yahoo.com. I’d love to be in touch.

  3. What an Amazing love you shared ❤ Beautifully written thank you for sharing your experience .

  4. Dearest John,
    Your words are nourishing, deep, poignant and filled with wisdom and love. I feel so privileged to be able to “see in” to your heart and mind. You words and thoughts continue to be such a gift to me – the way you share your vulnerability and openness as you process your grief and move forward in your life is beautiful…you put into words so much of what I feel as a human who has experienced deep, gut-wrenching heartbreak (albeit, very different circumstances). Thank you for being so brave, so courageous, so open and willing to share your deepest feelings, struggles and victories as you continue to exemplify what it is to live as a beautiful soul, pure of heart and committed to serving the hearts of those of us whom truly value the exceptional human that you are…and feel so much less “alone” because of you. I send you much, much love and deep gratitude!

    • Tracy – I’m so moved by your comments. Among the many lessons Art & I learned in powerful ways these past two years was that none of us need to be alone. The more we step into these places of vulnerability and uncertainty, the stronger we all become. Thanks for going there with me! XO

  5. Dear John…I have been reading both yours and Art’s posts. I’m sitting on the train, with moist eyes, immersed in your love…this love has made my love deeper. I read the words to Peter and we cry and appreciate each other in a way we may have minimized before. You are making me a better lover. Thank you and know that my positive energy is with you in your struggle and joys.

  6. Dearest John, I was moved to read your words, so deep, so pure and so true. I could feel your deep connection to yourself…
    I also wanted to share with you that I have felt connected to Art many times since he returned back to spirit. Whilst out walking he has literally stopped me in my tracks… that crystal clear winter sun ☀️ I have stopped (as intrtucted by Art) and surrendered to the connection and his presence!
    Sending love to you special one and holding both of you right now! Rx

    • Thanks for your sweet words and for the reminder to slow down by half. I have noticed since Art’s death how easy it is to speed up again without awareness and miss so much. XO

  7. John i don’t know you although have heard a lot about you and art from CTI colleagues. I am deeply touched by your words as I sit with my husband in the hospice where he has been for 4 weeks and where he is now closer to leaving his physical body. Everything you wrote resonates with me in this lonely difficult and yet strangely priveliged journey alongside my beloved.

    • Hi Daphne – Your words about the journey being lonely and privileged resonate with me. From the day of Art’s diagnosis I told him that accompanying him on this journey was the single most profound and important thing I had and may ever do. i wish you and your husband a peaceful journey. I am holding you from afar and would be honored to support you in any way I can. John

  8. Dear john. Yr words are so profound and r pearls of true wisdom. Thank u for sharing yr inner most feelings and reflections. U r a great teacher and mentor and thru Art im honored to b with on yr journey.
    Yours in friendship

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: