We all have different ways of processing grief. When social worker and dancer Sheila K. Collins was faced with the loss of not just one, but two, of her grown children, she faced the darkness head on. She wanted to talk about it, perform rituals to process it, and ultimately, write about it. Her husband, Rich, was not on the same page. After two deaths, he just wanted to move on, and not relive the nightmare. Collins, on the other hand, needed to share her story—for her own healing and to offer her unique perspective to other mourning mothers. Collins did just that, and the result is this remarkably frank and unexpectedly hopeful memoir: Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals that Heal.
When her son, Ken, is diagnosed as HIV-positive, Collins leaves no stone unturned in trying to help him. Dancing at his bedside and bringing in a Sufi energy healer seem just as important to her as the ever-changing drug cocktail recommended by doctors. Similarly, when her daughter Corinne develops a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer, Collins is not content to listen to doctors' recommendations of chemotherapy and radiation. Yes, of course she goes to the hospital with her daughter to explore bone marrow transplant options, but she also heads to the wilds of Brazil to consult with the mystic healer John of God.
Most striking to me is the way Collins manages to be clear-eyed and observant—she is the first one to acknowledge when physical death is near, even before her children realize it—and simultaneously open to the power of symbols like an owl's feather that brings a message about "being able to see in the darkness." I recognize the duality from my own losses. I remember writing down every word the oncologist would give me when my mother was being consumed by metastasized lung cancer. It seemed crucial to know the medical details, to make concrete sense of such an overwhelming moment. At the same time, when my mother started talking about opening doors and windows a few days before her passing, I also saw evidence of a spiritual afterlife I had never been sure of.
Collins does an excellent job of capturing the fragile experience of living between two worlds. Not every reader will agree with all of her choices. Some will question the many incidents that may be coincidental but that Collins takes as signs and portents. But few can miss the fact that her unique process was necessary, not only for her children's sakes, for her own healing.
A self-described "dancing social worker," Sheila K. Collins has also been a professor, clinic director, writer, and performance artist. She is also an author who previously wrote about the power of play, dance, and expression in her book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing. She maintains a blog for healers, Dancing With Everything, on her website.
Check out our interview with the author of Warrior Mother.
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