Michele Neff Hernandez is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Soaring Spirits International, a non-profit organization providing peer support programming for widowed people worldwide.
Michele is the author of Different After You: Rediscovering Yourself after Grief or Trauma set for publication by New World Library in February of 2022. Her passion for supporting widowed people and the power of integration fuels her presentations and her community activism and recently led to her being honored as a 2021 CNN Top Ten Hero.
Michele's website is:
Michele's book is:
Different After You: Rediscovering Yourself and Healing After Grief and Trauma
Soaring Spirits International: www.soaringspirits.org
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Now that you're here at Grief 2 Growth, I'd like to ask you to do three things. The first thing is to make sure that you like click Notifications, and subscribe to make sure you get updates for my YouTube channel. Also, if you'd like to support me financially, you can support me through my tip jar at grief to growth, calm, it's grief, the number two growth.com/tip jar, or look for tip jar at the very top of the page, or buy me a coffee at the very bottom of the page and you can make a small financial contribution. The third thing I'd like to ask is to make sure you share this with a friend through all your social media, Facebook, Instagram, whatever. Thanks for being here. Close your eyes and imagine what are the things in life that cause us the greatest pain, the things that bring us grief, or challenges, challenges designed to help us grow to ultimately become what we were always meant to be. We feel like we've been buried. But what if like a seed we've been planted and having been planted, who grow to become a mighty tree. Now, open your eyes. Open your eyes to this way of viewing life. Come with me as we explore your true, infinite, eternal nature. This is grief to growth. And I am your host, Brian Smith. Everybody, this is Brian back with another episode of grief to grow. And I've got with me today Michelle Neff Hernandez. She's the founder and CEO of soaring spirits International, which is a nonprofit organization providing peer support programming for widow people worldwide. She's the author of the book different after you rediscovering yourself after grief or trauma, which is set for publication and why 2022 which is the month we're recording this, her passion for supporting widow people. And the power of integration and we're gonna talk about integration is fuels or presentations enter community activism, and recently led her to being honored as a 2021, CNN top 10 Hero. So with that, I want to welcome to groove to both Michelle Neff Hernandez.Michele Neff Hernandez:
So great to be here. Thanks so much for having me, Brian.Brian Smith:
It's great to meet you. We were talking before we started here we met through a mutual person that we both know, Kristine Carlson who introduced us she she's done the program. She was a great interviewer. She said you'd be a great person to talk to so I'm really looking forward to talking to you today about why you started soaring spirits International. And just tell me about that. How that started.Unknown:
Yeah, my first of all, I'm so grateful to Christine for recommending that we are connected, because I think it's a perfect fit. I love what you do. And obviously I love what she does. So thank you to both of you. My husband's went died when I was 35. He was hit from behind while riding his bike. And so my world went from mother to a blended family of six and a wife to an athlete and businessmen and partner to 35 years olds, managing the grief of six children and trying to figure out what to do with myself realizing that it was very likely that I could live another 50 years without my husband. So I didn't know anyone at the time who was widowed, I had an incredible support network. So I know that many people who are going through grief or traumatic experience don't have that. So my heart goes out to everyone who struggles to do this on their own, or to find their community. I was I was super fortunate. I had great family, great friends. But here's the thing. None of them are widowed. Nobody knew what to do with me. I didn't know what to do with myself. And I thought who knows how to do this. And the only thing I could come up with was maybe other one of people would have some idea. And so about four months after Phil died, I set out on this kind of crazy road trip to find other widowed people to interview I armed myself with 50 questions, practical ones. Do you sleep on the same side of the bed? Did you put up more pictures or take down pictures? What do you do with the shoes? Where Where do you put the shoes? Tell them to wear your ring? All of these things I just felt like there was an answer to and of course discovered through my process that there were 100 million answers to each of those questions. But I didn't know that at the time. And so I began a year long journey of interviewing widow people across the country. And I would just go wherever someone said there was a winner or widowed person like if they said they were willing to be interviewed. I traveled there. I traveled on weekends because I had a full now I had a more than full time job because after my husband's death obviously See, the financial burden was entirely on me. And so my parents would watch the kids, my family will watch the kids on the weekend. And I would travel to wherever somebody would be willing to be interviewed. So at the end of that, I thought I was going to write a book. And I was going to include all of these answers. So that 50 questions that I had asked each and every one of these, what ended up to be 30 interviews. But I would been widowed only a year, there was not a lot of interest by publishing world in a book written by someone who had just been widowed. Of course, I was horrified. I thought that I was all prepared to share my wisdom with the world at that point. But what what came from that was this understanding that the difference that was made for me in that year, was the confirmation that what I was living through was difficult, that it was normal to be confused that there were a lot of answers to the questions I was asking. And that whenever I was in the presence of another widowed person, I felt understood. And that sort of spark of understanding is the impetus for soaring spirits. I really wanted like, at the end of my year of interviewing, I thought, gosh, if I could only get all 30 of these people in the same room would not be awesome. And then I, you know, I literally traveled the country. And so thinking there's no way I'm going to find a way to get all of them here or convince them all, they should travel to a single place. And I thought but wait, what if it's just anybody who's went out. And so that became an event called camper widow and soaring spirits was born in order to house that event, and then developed into a full network of virtual and online, virtual and in person programming, that our goal is to help people rebuild their lives after they've been widowed. And so many times the misconception is that coming together for a weekend long retreat, when you're grieving is really just about, you know, being mired in the sad and difficult parts of grief when the truth is that the sad and difficult parts come along with you wherever you go, whether you're away on a weekend, or you're home in your living room. And that what the unique thing that being in a community adds is the the lightness, the feeling understood, of not having to explain yourself over and over again, of being able to say your person's name freely, or being asked questions about who they are and what they did and what you loved about them. Without somebody being uncomfortable, are worried that they're going to they're going to hurt you. And so there's really equal amount of laughter and smiles as there is tears at our events, and the community that's built, walks with people through the rest of their lives. It's not a short term, we think that you're going to be fixed over a certain amount of time. Instead, you are now a part of a community that you have access to for the rest of your life. It's been incredible work that I've been really honored to do.Brian Smith:
Yeah, I wow. As you were talking, I there's so many parallels to what you've gone through and what I've gone through and your organization, and I was telling you, I work with helping parents heal, which is similar type of organization. I can, I can kind of imagine, but I can't really imagine the just the utter shock of being 35 years old, having these children your husband's healthy, he's an athlete. And then it's just your life changes in the moment. And I know this happens to happen to me, I'm having dinner tonight, just coincidentally, with a guy had happened to him, his wife, 49 years old, was was healthy, had surgery and just suddenly passed away. So these things do happen. I'm curious. After happened, what was the time like between then and when you decided to go on this this mission.Unknown:
The funny thing is that I'm that I'm that kind of person. And I always like to remind people when you're grieving, like your your yourself, and and it might seem confusing and upside down and all of the things but you know, if you're an introverted person, the likelihood that you're going to become an extrovert is slim, right? So you look for resources are really gonna matter to you. I'm the kind of person that wants a checklist, I really, really wanted a checklist. And that was really honestly what I was going out there to try to find. And what I discovered instead was the power of community, which I had been fortunate to be raised in an atmosphere where community was not only supported but built. My parents were community builders, our community builders, my dad actually just recently died. And the community that was built, you know, in taking care of him was an incredible gift, in part because that's what they taught us. And so for me, it was natural. Once I discovered it, once it came to my mind, like, oh, wait, it's community. Then I thought, Oh, okay. So then that's how we, that's that's the direction I went. So, you know, we went from thinking that it was going to be a solitary experience of writing a book and then putting it out into the world to understanding that what I first needed was to build a place where people could come and be themselves. and experience what I experienced 30 times in a row, you know, every every in the thing I think that was most interesting to me and maybe most impactful about how my interview process influenced the way soaring spirits was built, eventually, was that I went into my very first interview was with someone who was, I think she was 75 at the time. So remember, I'm 35. So I'm 35. She's 75, she had been married for over 50 years, I had been married for five, she had taken care of her husband for six or seven years, he had a long term illness, a lot of ups and downs, very difficult. She was a friend of my family, and so I knew of her experience. And so right, my husband dies in less than an hour. I think to myself, Okay, this will be a great interview, because I can practice and we're not gonna have anything in common, so it will be less painful for me, I'm thinking, this is my, this is my four month widowed self telling myself this. And so the funny part of the story is that I have a, you know, in your early grief, a lot of people just want to do something for you. And one of my friends had just bought a brand new, still makes me laugh to think about canary yellow Corvette, and brand brand new. And he says to me, I was driving about three hours to go to this interview, and it was his mother in law was interviewing, he said, You should take the Corvette. And I was like, no, like, I should definitely not take the Corvette No, no, no, it would be so great. Like, wouldn't want to be nice, you could just cruise along, like, and he was clearly so into it that I was like, Fine, okay, fine. And I was terrified. Driving this new Corvette thing, you know, who trusts me with a new Corvette, especially as I'm going to do this first thing ever. Anyways, I go and I sit down in her living room. And suddenly, I'm understood with what I think is nothing in common, we have nothing in common in my mind, except for the fact that we both have experienced the death of our husbands. And that was such a big connector I didn't know at the time was my first interview. And so having that first interview be so different than what I expected, helped me shape soaring spirits to be a place we use a very broad definition of the word widow. If you are a person who has experienced the death of someone you thought you were going to spend your life with, we count you as a widowed person, and you're welcome in any of our programs. And what that does is opens the door for any kind of relationship. Any you know, we've had young people who were 18, and the person they thought they were gonna spend their life with died, their whole family network is telling them just you know what, it's your boyfriend, get over it, like your boyfriend, you'll have another boyfriend, we allow them to be in that space of mourning, the person they thought they were going to spend their life with whether or not that was going to eventually is not the point, especially not in your grief. And so those early days of learning that really shaped how soaring spirits became an organization that is entirely inclusive, we that is one of our key values. And we work very hard at making sure that any person who's out who has outlived the person they thought they're going to spend their life with feels comfortable in our programs. But to come back to your question, How did I like I think I just wanted to know how to do this thing that was so foreign to me that the only thing I could think to do was go ask other people who were doing it because I didn't have anybody in my network, who was I did go to a local grief group briefly and made. And now I know I made the mistake of but at the time, I basically looked in the window and saw that I was the youngest person by far. And thought to myself, this is not for me, I don't see myself in this group. And so I didn't give it a chance. And what I know now is that it probably would have been very comforted. While also probably still looking for other people who are raising like how what do you do with grieving kids, let alone six over you know, to one set that's mostly adults in one set that's mostly preteens with varying needs, and you know, really just being the push and pull of a grieving parent. So it was an interesting experience to look in that window and think it's not for me, and that truly did lead me down the path of looking for people. And that led to the creation of soaring spirits eventually, and to my book eventually after that, but in that first moment, I felt really alone looking in the window and thinking okay, that's I don't know where to go.Brian Smith:
Yeah, I think I think it's a universal thing that when we're in grief, we feel like we're alone. We always feel like no one else is going to understand what I'm going through and no one's gone through exactly the same thing that I've gone through. And I it's really, really important to find community, as you said, so your community is set up for widows, helping parents heal set up for people that are children past, but even then we said well, but my child was sick for a long time and your child died suddenly. So we have nothing in common. And it's interesting to find out and also that thing, and I'm kinda like you, I want to know how to do things right. So we want to know, how do we do grief and as you said that they And you'll learn by interviewing people as there is no right or wrong way.Unknown:
I think that's also the thing we learned from community, and why it's so important in grief. Because what I tell people is when you come to an event or when you engage in a community, you suddenly understand that there's so many different ways to do this, that what the way you're doing, it fits in somewhere, right? It fits in this place somewhere. And even if I always tell people, even if what you heard was something that wouldn't make a single lick of sense to you, or something you can't ever imagine doing personally, it still provides us like scope. Another interesting story from my, from my grief, or from my travels was, I had a dear friend, and she was a dear family friend. So I was the young girl child of this, you know, she was like that, that family friend, where you look up to and think, oh, gosh, she's so beautiful. And she has all the things and I'm 12 You know, so I used to get her her clothing cast offs, it was the best day of the best day of the week, if I got a bag of clothes. So anyways, she her husband was murdered, and died in their home. And so when I started this interview process, I hadn't even thought of her. I knew I went to the funeral, like, but I was in such a different world at that time. That didn't occur to me to think, Oh, that's right. She's widowed. And so as this process was going along, someone said to me, you know, you know, what about Karen, and I was like, Oh, my gosh, Karen, I wonder if she'd be willing to talk about it. But then it had been 15 years, then of course, my newly widowed self 15 years sounded like an eternity being widowed myself 16 years now, it's funny to think you know, how close it still is. And that that was clear to me when I interviewed her. But what she said to me was that when he was dying, she was there with trying to do CPR, and so her clothes were covered in blood. And so she had family that would come every night after he died. And she kept washing these clothes and wearing them. And her sister finally said to her, like, I cannot we can't do this anymore. If you are going to continue behaving like this. Like I can't, I can't be in the house if you're gonna wear those clothes. And so she so she stopped. And so I am at To be honest, at that time, I'm kind of horrified. But what I'm hearing, and I'm also thinking to myself, like is that normal? Like, I don't even I'm an interviewer, right? I'm brand new to widowhood. I don't know what I'm doing. And I'm like, What do I do? I ask about it. And so I just thought, you know, I'm just gonna say what comes to my mind? And I said, What made you do that? And she said, It's the closest, the closest I could get to him. And then it was just like, see, there's always something in the background of the behaviors, that don't make any sense. And even if that doesn't make any sense to you, to hear what the motion that was driving what she was doing, was such a good lesson for me in not judging. And taking a minute to ask the question, why? And taking a minute to understand that though it doesn't make it not something I would do. That doesn't mean that there isn't some kind of emotional background to why it comforted her.Brian Smith:
Yeah, I think that's so important. Because as we were talking about everybody does grieve differently. And whatever works for us is just what we have to do. And, you know, you talked earlier, you know, if someone passes in urine, you're an introvert or an extrovert, you're not going to change who you are. And I was just talking with someone early this week, I was interviewing, that works with people in grief. And she said, you know, different personality types go through grief differently. And we've got to make allowances for people to be who they are you, you obviously are doers, you're like I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out I'm going to do, I'm going to make something of this, which I think is an awesome way to, to process it right to go out and actually do something.Unknown:
The other thing I'd like to point out is that just just what you said, That's so true, I am a doer have always been that's just a part of my personality. And sometimes people will look at that and think, Oh, so that's the right way to do it. Like, oh, so I should be doing that. And so I love that the sense of an eye, and I reinforce over and over again to people, every one of us is going to do this differently, which means that each one of us are going to find our own way to make meaning. And so because making meaning of our experiences is such a critical element to building resilience. It's important to find your way but that could be any number of things, including volunteering for an organization that cares for animals, because you care for animals and you know, suddenly you're realizing that life is short, you want to do the things. There's so there's 100 million different ways to make meaning. And so while my making meaning turned into an organization that has now served millions of widowed people, that was never the intent. Initially, the intent initially was how do I find my people? And once I find them, how do I create a space for them so that they keep finding each other. And so I just like to say to people who are listening, or watching that it be, it doesn't have to be a big thing that helps you make meaning. It can be whatever fits best for your personality for your life for your grief experience. And that can take a number of different forms.Brian Smith:
And let's talk about making meaning because I think that's so important. And, you know, there's there's debate in the community, diamond, does everything happened for a reason, or design? Or the things happen randomly? So like to know your thoughts on that? And then you can tie that into making meaning also,Unknown:
yeah, I love that you asked that question. So to circle back to the book, the book that didn't exist now does exist. 16 years later, I was in a very different place and wrote a very different book than I would have at the time. It's called different after you. And in my book, one of the things I, I want to point out so important for Grievers is that when we say making meaning, I don't, I don't imply that that means that your person died for a purpose. So oftentimes, people will say to me, oh, you know, that's why Phil died, so that you can make this, you know, and the implication then is that Phil's death is good. And so for me, that doesn't resonate. I don't think Phil's death is good. And I don't ever wish that I mean, if I could trade him back in for all the work that I've done, you know, sorry to have to say it, but I would like the idea that you could get back your person, the person you love and live that different life that you intended with them in as your as your person and part of your life. So right, of course, we don't have that choice. But what I what I always want people to understand is that, for me, the bad is, is not optional, right? The bad thing already happened, the hard thing already happened. And for us, for you and I that's the death of a person that we love and wanted to have in our lives forever. For other people, that could be even different traumas. But but that bad things already happened. The good that comes after is optional. We can choose to accept it. Or we can choose to continue to say, it's only bad because we don't want to make the constituent we don't want to validate the experience, or act as if this death had any kind of good purpose in any way. And so I was like to separate those two things. It's not that the death was good. It's that what you did afterwards, to make meaning of what your experience was, change the world in a good way. That's a lovely legacy to leave for someone who has shifted your life by being alive by loving you like, by being loved by you. It's a beautiful thing. It's an extension of the legacy. It isn't to in my opinion, it isn't because that was what was supposed to, you know, I don't know what what whether or not Phil was supposed to die. Clearly, he did. It was his time, whatever that means to anyone. But what I know for sure is that it wasn't something that I will ever consider to be good that he's dead. But rather that what came after there are many gifts that came after there were many clips that were a result of his death, which does not make his death. Good. And I think for Grievers, especially if we set it up so that making meaning equals death is good. That's where they stumble, because it's like I'm not I'm not interested in confirming that death is good, or that my person's death has made my life better. Even when the gifts that come after do improve your life can improve your life. That still doesn't make the death good in my opinion.Brian Smith:
Yeah, I think what you just said was perfect. You know, and it's interesting, because people do push back against the idea that everything happens for a reason. And that's debatable. And that's really that's a matter of fate, you know, and and there's no way to prove that to anybody. But what I've come to understand, as you just said, so well as we can choose to make meaning from it. That's a choice. That's got nothing to do with fate that's got nothing to do with whether the you know, what was fated or not or the universe or God did it? That's that's our choice after this has happened. And you like you said, it's like, it's already happened? We can't We can't take it back. So where are they going? What are we going to do it and I love what you've what you've done with this situation that you didn't choose. But there is there's a, there's a pushback on that. But even because people are like, I don't want to validate this, and I don't, that's a great word. I don't want to validate this. I want to I want to choose to believe that this is just bad. It's the worst thing ever, and they feel like that's kind of a way of honoring their person.Announcer:
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By by going into that,Unknown:
and I think honoring us too, and our experience of what we've lived through, because that's the trouble, right? That, that those early days of grieving your person. And even, you know, it's always funny to consider that most people assume that when your person dies, like that's the worst day, the worst day of your life was the day they died. Oh, heck no baby. There's more common. And it's hard. It's so hard. And so when we look at that, if we ask people to, to say that was good, then we're asking them to own for themselves this space that was so tragic. And the things you know, that looks different for each of us how we dealt with it, and what that how that evolved mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all the things, then we're setting them up to make a really difficult choice. But if we can instead say this is hard, it was horrible. And what I chose to do after was up to me, then that validates the hard part that we did as Grievers and the absence of our person from the world, which is never a good thing. In my opinion, the world is not a better place because Phil's dead. Now, the world is a better place because of what I did after Phil died. But it is not a better place because he is absent from this planet. And so that's the part I think that when we can separate them for people, it makes it so that you don't feel I think we get there often anyways, right? We find our own way through the the kind of landmine that is trying to figure out how to create a path forward through grief. But I feel like it's so much easier if we can separate it for people and not have them feel like they need to make the choice to say yes, those death is was a good thing. Because all of the things that came after I'm never there's no world where I'm gonna say Phil's death was a good thing.Brian Smith:
Yeah, and that's okay. You know, but you know, if you just said something really quickly, you said, we will get there. And I would say that's actually a choice whether we whether we get there or not. I went to agree fruit early on right after my daughter passed, and I was in that stage where it's like, I don't think I can get better. I don't want to get better. I just don't want to be here. I mean, I'm like, don't talk to me about healing, I don't want to hear but my wife and she wanted to go to the group. So we go to the group. And we go to the group, and there's a woman there whose daughter died at least 10 years before. And she was right where she was a day her daughter passed away. I mean, same place, angry, bitter. There's no purpose in it. There's nothing good that will ever come of this. I don't know why she came to the group. But I remember, I still remember that woman to this day and saying, I don't want to be her. And that's a choice that you made. That's a choice that I made. But not everyone makes that choice.Unknown:
That's so true. And let me rephrase. Because what I meant was that we don't have to, we will often decide for ourselves that we're going to make our way through, even when we haven't had the choice to have these two things separated, even when people around you are still gonna say, Brian, look what you're doing in the world. You know, your daughter's death made such a difference. You know, you're like, yes, it did. But don't you know, it's like, okay, but I get to choose how that looks. Right? I get to make those choices. So that's what I met. You're 100%. Right. And it's so funny that you said it in that way. Because one of the interviews that I did the very last it was the last one. And this interview. The woman had been widowed 10 years, her husband had been hit by a car. She had kids at home and I was like, This is my person. Like after a year of interviewing, I'm meeting someone. She was a similar age to me when her husband died. And I thought, Okay, this is like, this is the closest situation I've gotten to what I lived, and I had been looking forward to the interview and it got bumped a couple of times, it looked like it wasn't gonna happen. And finally, we found it. I was like, she cancelled again. And I was like, Look, I totally get it if this doesn't work, but I do. I had given myself a deadline, of course, because I'm a doer. So I had wanted to get it done by a year and I was already into 13 months, which in my mind was not acceptable. So I was like, Look, if it doesn't work, I totally get it. I'm gonna be done, you know, with the interviews. And she was like, No, you know what, just come over. And I'm like right now, and she said right now, and so I go. And what I learned was that, right after her husband's death, she started using alcohol and pills. to manage her pain, she ended up with a 10 year journey through addiction that ended up with her in rehab waking up 10 years later, feeling like it was the first day after her husband died, because she had numbed the pain for 10 years. And I had almost a panic attack. I'm like, I'm grieving, right? I'm grieving. Like, I'm grieving. Like, I don't want to wake up in 10 years, and realize that I still have to grieve him. I don't know. Thank you. And so I had a very good friend, I called her I'm like, we're grieving, right? Like, we are really doing this. We are not pretending we're not numbing. We're actually it was the, it was one of the most powerful interviews I did, not because of the content, but because of that. And she actually was the one who was very aware of it. And she was like, just don't do what I did. You make sure that you live this because it doesn't go away. And if you don't, it's coming back. And it was almost like she was telling me grief is coming for you. And I was like, okay, okay, okay, I get it. But my poor little not even one year widow itself was like, Oh, what have I done? Are we gonna do this? It was it was a really pivotal moment for me. I've just been, and I think, you know, I had been grieving certainly, and I hadn't been do, I didn't have the same path she had. But again, it was another example of why in community, it makes so much difference to realize, like, if she'd been only what a person I met, and we had such a similar experience, you know, what's the message I get there, but because I had interviewed so many other people, and been had access to a community, I was able to put what her experience was in the scope of experience, instead of having not be the only experience that I that I had, had really dove into with someone, and I was really grateful that it was towards the end, so that I had some framework for it.Brian Smith:
Yeah, that that is so so very important, you know, to have those those role models that and to know that different people do it different ways. And that's, that's, I found, for me also be the power of community. I think, my healing, I mean, I probably would have held some other way. But when I found the organization that I found, having those, like I said, those role models, you know, for, for me, I was less than a year, and I think when I found the organization, but people are 567 years, and as you said at the time, it seems like forever, I'm like, I'm never going to get to seven years and it'll be seven years for me in June. I'm just I'm still here. But it's just having those people on the path a little bit ahead of you. And that's that's the power of the of the community. So I want to ask you what is like when someone is a newly widowed person or someone's daughter traumatic experience? What's the first thing that you would tell them?Unknown:
Be kind to yourself? That's always my very first, my very first bit of advice. And I, it's because more than any other person who's going to influence your grief experience, you are the key person. And if you are able to be kind to yourself and offer yourself grace through the process, you will save yourself a lot of heartache, because, you know, for me, you know, coming back to the doer, Ray, I wanted things to be perfect. I wanted to do things perfectly. I wanted to have a checklist, so I didn't miss anything. And what that set up for me was this desire, coming back to different after you one of the other things I think that is so difficult for anyone grieving but widowed, widowed people in in my circumstance was that I kept wanting to get back to normal to my regular self. And so I and I viewed the self that had lived through Phil's death, as less than she was less than she couldn't remember anything. She She forgot the chicken when she was making big chicken. She was tearful and fearful and full of anxiety and depressed and all of the things and so I kept comparing my past self to my current self. And my current self just was constantly getting beat up by my expectations. I couldn't see that my current self was the one getting out of bed every day. My current self was one parent and grieving children. My current self was working two jobs. My current self was interviewing other word of people, even when it got to the point where my current self was building a community for widowed people and holding these events. Still, that person wasn't good enough. And it was not that it was because I couldn't be kind to myself, because I wasn't living up to the standards that I had my prior life had set for me. And I hadn't wasn't willing to be changed by my experience. And to me, one of the pivotal things that we can do for ourselves is acknowledge that we have been changed. Because then when we can say we've been broken, then there's time and space for healing. If we just keep saying I'm going back to my old self, I'm going back to my old self. We set ourselves up for failure over and over again because your Ansel your old self didn't know what you know, and there's no way to unknow that So because we have been changed by our experiences, we make space for healing, but only if we allow ourselves to be broken. And because as a society, we're like, fix, fix, fix, put a bandaid on that. We are encouraging people constantly to make sure that they can get back to normal. Even if we talk about the pandemic, what are we all, you know, the constant messaging is get back to normal, there is not a normal again, that is going to look exactly the same. We have all lived through a circumstance that we will never forget and has altered the way we do things, and just changed some things in our lives. And we aren't going going going to go back to the people we were before, we have the opportunity to evolve into a new person that includes a lot of what we knew before. And that's that's what the power of integration really is.Brian Smith:
Yes, absolutely. I you know what you just said, I think it's extremely essential for people to understand, then we go through grief. And I love the way you put it. Because I was talking with a mother yesterday, it's been 19 months since her son passed. And she's just like, really being hard on herself. You know, she's going through this process. And, you know, when I was at 19 months, I would I thought it was a long time to but now I'm saying look, I'm at six and a half years now, let me tell you 19 months, is just the beginning. You know, and you're and you are changing a different person, I use the analogy of a caterpillar, it's overused, but you know, Caterpillar changing into a butterfly. But when the caterpillar is in the cocoon, when a lot of people don't know is, there's a point in the process when the caterpillar is completely dissolved. It's nothing but liquid. If you were to cut the cocoon open at that point, you would just just go and I tell people, you're in the goo phase right now. And that's okay. And and they asked me like, What am I going to get back to who I was? And I say, I hope you're not going to go back to where you were, why would you waste this pain? You know, you've got this pain that's transforming you. Why would you waste it? Why would you want to go back to who you were, but we are. We're hard on ourselves. Like you said, the fog, the grief fog that you talked about that I know, you know. And people that have gone through grief know what this is? You can't remember anything you don't you know, you don't care about things. You're not getting things done. And people they judge themselves. SoUnknown:
I really do. Yeah, the thing to remember, I think is that, you know, depending on who you are, and what your unique makeup as a person is, how you deal with that goose stage, you know, is different. And so for me as a doer, I'm like, Okay, I'm judging myself because I'm not doing enough, or because I'm not doing it well enough for people who have struggled with depression already who have other mental health challenges. When you add grief. On top of that, you have to always just take a count of who am I personally, and what are the things I already struggle with. So that we can be kind to ourselves as we move forward, recognizing we're adding a whole new layer, grief adds a whole new layer of everything. And so, for me, you know, that's the other thing is that when you're when your default is Dewar, then a couple things happen. One, people assume you're better than you are. And two, they also assume that that's the best way to do it, it isn't necessarily it was the best way to do it for me, but it is not the best way to do it for someone else who may be struggling with a number of other things that just aren't a part of my genetic makeup. And so it's been an interesting experience to be able to speak to this idea of integration. Because, you know, in my, in my simple definition, it's allowed, you know, recognizing that our past is influencing us every day, every day. And so, so much of what we do from so many of the messages that we receive, culturally are about one time perspective or another past present future, right? It can be mindful being in the present, it can be, you know, are you really focused on what you want in the next 10 years? Like, let's talk about the future, mostly about the past. It's like, Okay, put that in the back yard, you know, that's already happened, we're supposed to be done with the past. And the truth is that all three of those things work in a cyclical matter, every single minute, from you know, right this minute tomorrow, you're going to be thinking about that interview that you had yesterday. And that yesterday interview is going to change the way you do an interview tomorrow. And that change that cycle keeps going every day. So how is it then that your grief experience couldn't be a part of you every day, it now lives within you. It's a part of who you are, is a part of what you know. And then a for a personal experience. As I said, my dad died recently. And the person that I am today was really able to help my family walk through my dad's death, because of what I know personally. And of course, they also had their grief experience, right? But I have my grief experience. Plus I have my experience of leading an organization for grieving people have all of this different information. All of that came to bear to be able to help my dad, but if I don't allow myself to be changed by my past and incorporate that into my Present, which turns into tools that I use today, and will turn into how I shaped my future, then I wouldn't have had access to that to help in a situation that really was beneficial because of what I've lived. And that includes the same thing about any other traumatic experience we've lived through in our lives, or any even positive experience we've lived through right? becoming apparent, you're never going to be the same person you are again. And that's going to influence who you are, what you do in your present and how your future is shaped. And so if we can take that idea of integration, and instead of saying to ourselves, I need to be the person I was yesterday, understand that the person you were yesterday, shaping who you are today, and both of those are going to shape who you are in the future, then it's a constant rolling through of every experience we live, allowing it to shape who we are, so that we can evolve to be our best self, and also have access to all the tools that we've developed over the years to help us get there.Brian Smith:
Wow, I've never heard it put that way. And I love that, I think that's fantastic. Because as I said, we do have this thing about like, getting back to normal. And you just gave an example about the pandemic, I can think of so many things, as human beings, we don't like change, but life is all about change. And then the Okhla say the only thing constant is change. And, and so things change, and then we fight the reality. And we say I don't want to be the person that I am that I want to go back to the person I was before. But I love your example she gave like, once you're a parent, you're once you're a parent, you're never gonna be the same person you were before. It's, it's never going to happen.Unknown:
Yeah. And I think the other thing too, is that when you experience the death of a child, you're never going to be the same parent again, right? And so like, it's, it's this recognition that both the positive part of it, and the difficult parts of it, they they change us, we have to be changed, because now we know things we didn't know before. It's as simple as that. And I, I use in the book, the idea of a three legged stool. So if past, present and future are your three legs on the stool, and if the three legs are the most stable, you know, something on three legs is the most stable shape that you can sit on. So right, we're sitting on the stool, can you take one of those legs off and sit on the stool? Sure, you could. Because as humans, we figured things out that the amount of energy that's required to sit on two legs, or even on one is so significantly different than when we're solidly based in three. And so what we end up doing is fighting ourselves, fighting our nature, fighting the fact that we are changed by our past whether or not we want to acknowledge it. And so that energy that we're putting into fighting is taking away from the energy we could we could have for healing, because we're too busy fighting to stay on two legs, because we don't want the past to influence us. Or it could be true of any one of the other legs. You need all three in order to be stable.Brian Smith:
Yes, that's so that's so profound. I love that. So we talked about the advice we give to someone who's just gone through a loss. What advice would you give to someone who's dealing with someone who's just gone through a loss?Unknown:
Yeah, it's almost the same. But be kind to them. I mean, I think the thing is, that what people think they have to do is fix something. And the truth is that if we can all accept the fact that this cannot be fixed, there is no fixing, and be present. That's the best thing you can do for someone, just to be willing to be present, wherever they are, whatever they're doing, if they are in a good place today, or if they're in a hard place today, if today's a tiro day or a laughter day or tears, laughter, tears, laughter tears day, that if you can be present for that, that's the best gift that you can give. Because there's no way to fix this. It's impossible to fix. And I think that's the most difficult reality for someone witnessing grief. And I'll use this example, you know, my mom is now widowed. And, of course, all of my siblings are grieving. You know, we're all grieving my dad in a different way. And my mom was having a hard day and one of my siblings is like, Okay, so who should we send over to go over there and help her, I was like, she has to do this. We can't fix it for her. And so we can ask her if she would like company. But if she says no, she would not like company, then we need to let her be sad. She has to be sad. This has to be sad and hard. And she's going to learn some hard lessons. And they're going to be really, really hard days. And we can't take that away from her as much as we desperately wish that we could. And so you know, being able and I, I recognize that not everyone is capable of that. And I asked people to think what am I capable of, if I'm capable of mowing the lawn for someone who's grieving and I can see that their lawn is mowed that hasn't been mowed and you know, three months, go over there mow the lawn, you don't, you know, mow the lawn as a gift. But if you're a person and if you're a person who doesn't want to hear the answer to how are you don't ask that question. So Don't ask the question. How are you? If you don't actually want to hear the answer instead say something like, I've been thinking about you.Brian Smith:
Yeah, you know, how are you? It's funny you bring that up, because that is such a, we ask it, we don't really mean it. It's just it's a greeting in our society, I find myself doing it, even though people that are in grief, we hate that question. But the thing is, I still ask my clients that because I really want to know how they are.Unknown:
You're willing to hear the answer, right? Herein lies the difference. It's like, so I used to do some trainings, I'm still somewhat doing trainings for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. And one of the things that I do is help them understand the widowed experience of how best can I support people who are grieving when we're planning funerals, and doing those kind of things. And I always say to them, if you are a church, and you say to someone, how are you don't ask that question unless you can stop and hear the answer. So if you know like, let's say you have only 10 minutes, and you're not certain that you can get the answer in 10 minutes, then what you say instead is it's so good to see you. I've been thinking about you. Because that lets them know you care. And it does not put you in a situation of them feeling like you've opened the door for them to tell you how they are only to put yourself in a position of not being able to stay for the whole answer, which is devastating to someone who feels like they're getting to the point where they have someone that can speak to and now suddenly they don't. And so, I agree with you that how are you a question asked flippantly is the worst question for Grievers. But how are you question asked with intention? And with time to hear and willingness and ability to hear the answer is sometimes a really beautiful, beautiful question.Brian Smith:
Yeah. Because the thing is, we want to be heard, I think that's another thing that people that. They're like, Oh, I don't want to bring it up. I don't want to bring up her name. I don't bring up his name. I don't want to make you sad, you know? Yeah.Unknown:
I also think that's nice, too. If we're worried about asking the question to say, how are you today? Because that implies that how you are is a fluid concept. And so you know, how are you today? How is your morning, Ben? You know, those are questions that if you want to narrow it down and be able to check in, it's funny because my sister, one of my sisters right after Phil died, called every day, and every day, she would say how are you? And I don't know how many weeks we got into it. But I was like, Okay, here's the thing, I need you to assume that I'm either medium or bad. Those two, so why don't you ask that question. So she would go and say, Is it a medium day? Or a bad day? Right. And so there came to be a point where we could add another option. But in the beginning, it was like I can't I just please stop asking me that question. I get asked by everyone I and and of course we were just like, Okay, so let's find a solution. What's the solution? Is it the bad day or medium day? That lasted for a good while.Brian Smith:
I like that. I like that, because that's about as good as it gets, you know, your first day and so yeah, yeah, I'd love that. I like that. So we've talked a lot about community explain why. Someone might say, Well, why do I need community? I have family, I have my church, I have, whatever, why do I need this community?Unknown:
Well say if your community and your family or if your church and your family include other people who are grieving, then maybe you don't. But the truth is that most of the time, the people who are around us and like I said at the beginning, I had a great support network. I always think it's a funny ironic thing that me of all people started a support network because I had what I needed, eventually. But what I didn't have in that really great my parents, I mean, my family came every day, I had to help with the kids, I had help with food, I had help with everything I needed, but I didn't have any widowed people. And because I didn't have any widowed people, the the wonderful support network I had, did not know how to provide me with the understanding they couldn't because they couldn't understand they've never lived it. So what you need in your life is at least one I like to tell people community can be one person, if you're someone who's like on I don't know, I can't imagine having that many people in my life. You can be one person, but it needs to be one person who understood who has lived the experience you're living. Because then you have a The more people you have, right? The broader your scope, the more information, the more chance to find somebody whose grief experience. I'll say whose grief coping techniques are similar to yours. Because a lot of times, it's nice to find somebody who you know, also really loves whatever it is that you're doing that helps you breathe, you know, whether it's walking or meditation or you know, any of the things that you might do when you find someone else who does that, too. It's nice. So there's that. But more than that, more than just finding a coping technique is being able to provide like we talked about earlier, that scope of experience, so that it normalizes what you're doing and a church community and a family community can't normalize it for you if they've not lived it themselves.Brian Smith:
Yeah, I think that's really is you're saying that because I was thinking about my experience. We have a great community are our neighbors. We live in a very unusual neighborhood, we've been here for over 20 years, our neighbors stepped up and provided stuff for us and my family, I was telling you, before we started with about two hours away, they can stay, let's stay with me for a week and everything. But there's something about that community of people that have gone through or going through what you've gone through that it's just really special over and above me, it's not to take away from anything anybody else did. That's all really great. And I think especially for when I'm going to call out of order deaths, when the loss of a spouse the loss of a child, you know, it's I try not to compare grief. And I mistakenly did I was interviewing, I was doing an interview with someone wants they were interviewing me. I said, No, there's nothing worse than the loss loss of a child. And she goes, I got I have to hold you up there. I've lost a child, and I just lost my husband. And the loss of my husband, for me is actually worse than loss of my child. And I'm like, Yeah, that's a good point. But these, you know, if our grandmother passes away, it's something we can probably cope with, with family and friends and whatever. But it's when someone is something like a spouse or child that's out of order. That's not expected. Those are the ones that really, I think, knock us off our course.Unknown:
Well, and I'll say like, I think that the way that it what do we call it grief comparison, right? Like the idea of comparing what's worse, and that happens, like you said, even among people who were they sick, or was a sudden death, or you know what's worse, and I always say, it's your worst day, like, each one of us lives our worst experience when we have a grief experience. And so to speak to someone who's had a child loss followed by a spousal loss, which I assume must have been the, the more near one in terms of time. And, you know, it's like, each one of those is the worst, like, worst hair worst here, worst here. And so being able to just say, this is really painful, and I am struggling. But it is first is first and foremost, for me important, but right to come back to that community idea. The other thing that community does for you is that when you begin to get into that, sometimes it starts at six months. But let's say let's let's give everyone some some grace and say that started at a year, when you get to a year, and people start saying so you're doing better now. You're feeling a little bit better. Yeah, things are getting good. Yeah. Okay. When you get to five years, right? And people are like, Oh, I mean, you hardly say the names anymore. Because five years, clearly, you've completely forgotten the person, right. And so your community is a critical element, to making sure that you understand that, first of all, we're never getting over it. And secondly, that it's normal and expected for our death experiences to impact us for our lifetime. That does not mean it's going to be the same as it was is not going to be as as sharp of a pain, or as daily of a pain. But it is going to be a part of your life for the rest of your life. And the world wants us to say there's a point where we're healed and we get a stamp on our little heads that say, I'm ready to go into the world now. I'm healed. And I'm going to say that we are healing for our whole lives. And that when we have a community that can confirm that for us, it helps us to stop the self judgment that comes at years, five 610, where you think i What did I imagine at year one, like when I was in when I was looking at that woman who had been grieving for 10 years, and I'm thinking I don't want to be that in 10 years. I don't know what I wanted to be though. And sometimes you arrive in 10 years and go, Oh, wait a minute, like I thought I would have built a whole different kind of life, or I thought I would have been fill in the blank. And when you have a community, that's a place you get to go back to and be like, okay, oh, what's happened here, but I'm not where I thought I was, or thought where I was going to be. And if we do that with our communities who love us, you know, remember that my family? Like you, I have an incredible family. And I'm so so fortunate. And I still remember them looking at me like, is it? Is she better yet? Because of course they did. They wanted me to be better. They wanted that so much for me that it was hard for me to look at them looking at me. But when I was with my widowed community, I could get the support that I needed so that when I went back to my, my big and beautiful support network, I didn't need them to come from that for me. It was okay. It was alright that they could look at me like that because I had the support that I needed. I don't know what I would have done without that support, because I would have taken their very kind and well intended wishes for me to be better to heart and think okay, why aren't I better? They think I should eat better clearly. I'm not better. I don't even know if it's safe to tell them I'm not better. But with widowed community, it was like I'm not better and they're like me either. And I was like, Oh, good. Okay. So it makes a big difference going forward. And so that to me is a critical element of this community is that you You have once you've had access to it, and once you find your people, they get to walk with you through the rest of this. And that's and that's a long term thing and a beautiful thing, when we have a community that will allow us to process as we need, through each of the steps, you know, that we have to go through. I mean, I know you've already experienced this, it's like when your child is supposed to be doing blank, because all other kids of that age are doing blank. And even if that child died 20 years ago, you're still looking at those other kids thinking my kids not getting that, and I'm not getting that. And so where do you go with that? You go to your community? Who are they're also saying, yeah, that is hard. And just that validation gives us a little bit of strength for managing a secondary loss that we couldn't predict until we were standing in it. 20 years later. Yeah,Brian Smith:
absolutely. 100% I want to ask you about which we touched on a lot, but I want to give you a chance to talk more detail about soaring spirits and what it is because I know you it's I the last time I heard was like 4 million people have been through it. What's the number now?Unknown:
Um, you know, we're, we're over 4 million. But to be honest, I don't know how much over 4 million it's been a crazy couple of years with pandemic. But what we do is we provide in person and virtual programming for widowed people, both weekly so we serve newly widowed people each and every week. We do our events are called Camp widow. And right now we have two types of weekend long and one day camp. And so our weekend long ones are held in Tampa. In fact, we have comm one coming up in March, just a couple of weeks away March 18, to the 20th. So we have camp in Tampa, we have a camp in San Diego. We have one in Brisbane, Australia, which is beautiful. And we have one in Toronto, Canada. And then we'll have a pop up, which is a one day camp in Denver, Colorado in September. So the point of is it's I tell people, it's a blend between a conference retreat and a high school reunion. Because speaking to that community element we have of our campers at every camp. And this has been consistent since the second camp, we have 40% Return campers. And people always say to me, what are what are they? Why are they coming back, because you don't come one time and get healed. Because we're not looking for a healed stamp. We're instead looking for an ongoing community that will continue to provide us with support with hope with resources for where we are now in our widowed experience, what I needed when I was one year widowed is not the same as what I needed when I was five years, or three years, or 10 years. And so we create a program that allows us to provide resources for people no matter how long they've been widowed, and also provides a space for coming back and making meaning. So a lot of times people will come back they they come as volunteers because they want to be there for newlywed or people who are coming in, to reassure them that making it through this as possible and to act as that in person. I call them the personification of hope. Because when you can see someone standing there and you're like, and on our name tags we were how long we've been widowed. And so as a newly widowed person, I can look at my name tag and say more than 10 years, Look, she's still standing up, she seems to be interacting with people like okay, maybe that maybe that could be possible for me too. So that's the purpose of our in person programs. We have an ongoing collection of resources. We also I should say, have resources for people who are supporting someone who's widowed. So if you're thinking to yourself, I don't know how to help my friend, the soaring spirits website will ask the question, are you here trying to help someone who's widowed, so you have the opportunity to click Yes, and get some real insight and some opportunities to provide support to the person in your life who's widowed. So we do our best to support the networks of our widowed people as well, because we recognize that the better supported they are, the more likely it is that they're going to make their way through the healing process. With with kindness and with grace, I mean, we all kind of make our way through a process of grief. And I feel like you know, the the sort of landmarks that we get along the way and the support, it's almost like when you're doing a run and you know, you go to the water stop, it's like, the more water stops you have along the way, the better, the more likely are going to be to hydrate at the end. So for me, that's just what we kind of tried to provide is a variety of ways to support people through the process so that as they continue to heal and build a life for themselves, because that's the thing. We all have to rebuild lives after grief, everybody and being able to find the love for yourself, the respect for yourself the desire to create something meaningful for you. There's a key element to being able to heal through grief because we first have to be able to value ourselves that builds something valuable for ourselves.Brian Smith:
I'm going to say I watched you touched on this earlier I watched a little video clip of something at one of your camps and I could see people going I don't want to go This can't because it's going to be sad. You know, people are gonna it's just been nothing but sad people. So what would you say about that?Unknown:
They also sometimes think we're going to sing Kumbaya and hold hands. What I would say is that there are sad moments for sure, but more that my favorite thing, and it has happened. So we've had, I've lost count now, but I think, I think we must be getting close to 30 camps. So since we started, I think we've probably done about 30. That doesn't include Australia. So anyways, but one without fail. Somebody says, I had no idea I was gonna laugh this much. My cheeks hurt from laughing, because what we discover is that when we're understood, and when we don't have to wear the mask that says I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay. We have the ability to interact with people in a very free and free EEEN way. And that leads to laughter and joy and does. And in a way, that doesn't imply I'm over it, because I'm laughing out loud. And that's the beauty of it is that you get the relief of being able to be in the company of other people who are doing this really hard work to and who understand it. And that understanding provides this platform for allowing more emotion than just the predominant pain that we feel when we're grieving. And when we're having to hold it in and put on our mask, take that mask off, and you have room for a lot of other things. And that's I think, what people experience when they come to camp.Brian Smith:
Yeah, you just said something, I think is that just prompted the thought for me. You know, I think when we were in grief, initially, we think, Okay, this is it. I just have this one emotion. I'm sad, I'm gonna be sad all the time. And that first time we catch ourselves laughing, or the first time we've got a day, we haven't cried, you know, we might even feel guilty. Like, Well, wait, what happened, you know, did I let go that I forget about them and my over. And being around people that give you permission to just let go is so freeing and so so very important. I want to give you a chance to talk a little bit more about the book and what people can expect from it, we have touched on it, but anything else you'd like to say about it.Unknown:
I want to remind people that even though the book has the foundation of my experience as a widowed person, that I wrote it for everyone who's grieving. And for anyone who has experienced a traumatic, you know, we walk through all kinds of traumas, right, so anybody who's experienced a trauma equals everyone. And also to note that the key piece of this book is to help you acknowledge that you have been changed by something, or the death of someone, and then grieve that make space for grieving that, that version of you. And that it leads you through the steps of finding a way to rediscover yourself, and to learn to love and respect the self that has been born through this experience. That is the most important part for me. I want people to close this book and think I'm awesome. Like, and for grieving people. And for people who have suffered a trauma. It's a it's a hard, it's like hard to own the awesomeness that is born from what we've lived through. And yet here we are making our way through every day. You know, I always say my, my self that I wished was so much better was the one carrying my backpack every day, like I'd be like, here, carry this, it's very heavy, and she would put it on and like go tromping along behind me, alright, she wants me to carry your books again. without ever thinking that person or recognizing the value of that person or realizing that that person, the person you are that's lived through this trauma has done the hardest thing you've ever done. And that person deserves respect, deserves the love and deserves to have a life that reflects every bit of the experience we've lived. And I My hope for every person who reads the book is that they close the book and think yeah, I am awesome.Brian Smith:
Yeah, absolutely. Well, Michelle, I want to give you a chance to talk about what I want to get the name of the book out there again. So everybody gets that get the spelling of your name. And I think you have a couple of websites which website should people go to toUnknown:
find? Yeah, I'll say if you're looking for your soaring spirits resources, so anybody who's widowed themselves, or is looking for support for a widow person, soaring spirits International is the name of our organization, and the website is soaring spirits dot o RG, you'll find everything including camp widow, which I talked about there, as well as our resilience scale that we built. There's a lot of information on the soaring spirits website. It's great for everybody, because everybody knows somebody who's in need and if you don't know somebody today, you will know somebody tomorrow or next week or three months from now. So it's I just feel like it's a great place for people to peek around and be like, Okay, well if ever I need to be able to support someone in this and I know where to go. And then the book is called different after you rediscovering yourself and healing after grief and trauma. And you can find that on my website. My name is Michelle With one L my mom like to the French spelling, so it's m ich je le Neff, which has two F's, as in Frank, and then Hernandez with a z.com. And the book is right there on the front page. So you'll be led to a place that you can purchase the book if you'd like to. And I'm actually also doing a book tour. So the book tour informations there, too. So if you happen to be one of the cities where I'm going to be, I'd love to see people out there, it's really cool to be able to be in a place where 16 years later, so, you know, let's full circle this integration talk, which is 16 years later, I started that book 16 years ago, and I thought that I was done. And I was not going to write that book, because clearly, that was supposed to be a community instead. But because I was allowing myself to be who I needed to be in that time, it prompted the evolution that would eventually fulfill that goal in a completely different way. And so this book really is a fulfillment of a 16 year dream, and also a collection of beautiful transformations of all of the grieving people I've met. So I'm delighted to be able to share it with the world. Awesome. Well, it'sBrian Smith:
been really, really great meeting you getting to have this conversation with you. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for the organization that you've built and the people that you've touched. And hopefully this gets it out to a few more people and things continue.Unknown:
Awesome, Brian, it's such a pleasure. And I really just love the synchronicity of what we do and the way we're honoring people we love so much. So thank you very much for having me.Brian Smith:
All right, have a great rest of your day. You too. Don't forget to like, hit that big red subscribe button and click the notify Bell. Thanks for being here.