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How does a young person heal from the death of two close family members? Where do you find a connection within the world that truly soothes you? How can you cope with the violent death of someone you love?
In the ninth episode of the How I Got Through It series, Joe Sanok speaks with Gen Morley about getting through the death of a mom at 18 and the overdose of a brother.
In this Podcast:
- Death of a mother at 18
- Finding connections in nature
- Losing a brother at 26
- Getting through the grief
- Gen’s advice to her younger self
Death of a mother at 18
Gen’s mom was diagnosed with cancer, and it was a matter of weeks after the diagnosis that she passed on.
The moment she passed, I went into autopilot, and actually, now I think it’s so beautiful, like some piece of my soul just took over. (Gen Morley)
Finding connections in nature
After her mother passed away, Gen put on her shoes, went out the backdoor, and ran through the forest. She ran until collapse, and while lying on the ground, she saw a flock of sparrows circle her a few times before flying away.
To Gen, this was a sign that her mother was now free.
I would say it sort of saved me. All of a sudden, my connection to nature to this point had been [very] rich and [present] in my life … and to have something that I could make meaning with almost instantly [saved me], and to feel that I could have this [connection] to [everything] around me. (Gen Morley)
Gen spent the next six to eight years in the woods. She spent a lot of time alone in the woods to heal and to feel close to her mother.
Losing a brother at 26
At some point about six or seven years after my mom passed away he started to clearly be delusional and I said to him, “What you’re saying doesn’t sound like it’s real and I know you’re really afraid, how can I help you?” (Gen Morley)
Gen, with hindsight as a therapist, realized that her brother suffered from severe bipolar disorder.
He suffered from delusions and may have used drugs to cope with them, but it, unfortunately, made them worse, and it became a terrible spiral.
It was very different from the loss of my mom. Her death was surrounded by people, and it was unfair and unfortunate, but it wasn’t violent, and his death felt violent. (Gen Morley)
After her brother passed, Gen tried to find a way to process his death. One night when she was feeling the pain, she heard a voice in her mind say to her, “It didn’t hurt”, and it felt to her like her brother reassuring her.
Even though the death was still violent and lonely, that moment helped her to cope with the event and integrate it into her life.
Getting through the grief
- Gen meditated every night before bed for a year
- She practiced yoga and went to many silent retreats
- Gen sought a connection to a life source that was vast and healing
Gen’s advice to her younger self
Learn what is in your heart, have integrity in the world, and learn how to suffer so that you can suffer less. Sit with the big things to heal them and yourself.
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Meet Joe Sanok
Joe Sanok helps counselors to create thriving practices that are the envy of other counselors. He has helped counselors to grow their businesses by 50-500% and is proud of all the private practice owners that are growing their income, influence, and impact on the world. Click here to explore consulting with Joe.
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Before we start this show today, just want to give a trigger warning so you know what you’re getting into. We’re going to be talking about cancer, overdoses, grief, and death today. Just wanted to make sure that you knew that before we jumped into today’s episode.
This is the Practice of the Practice podcast with Joe Sanok, session number 744.
Well I’m Joe Sanok, your host, and welcome to the Practice of the Practice podcast. We are doing this summer series all about how I got through it. We kicked this off in late June of 2022 and have had so many intense and difficult and life-giving conversations just about how people got through or are getting through really tough situations. It’s just, for me, exposing just how tough being a human is, but also how sometimes the stuff we go through, not sometimes, all the time, the stuff we go through makes us who we are helps us learn new lessons or just see what it’s like to be human on a different level than maybe other people get to see. So I’m so excited today to have my friend and colleague Gen Morley. Excuse me, I’m getting over a little cough here. I went to Jazz Fest at the time of this recording like a week ago and my voice is still recovering. But Gen Morley’s been a part of our communities. She’s come to Killin’It Camp. Gen, I am just so excited to have you here on the show to just learn a little bit more about your life outside of just being a practitioner.
Well, thanks for having me, Joe. I’m excited too. I’m really, I have a lot of values around sharing our humanity and grace of that, so thanks for having me.
Well, why don’t we start with who’s Gen, tell us a little bit about what your professional and personal world looks like?
Sure. So I very intentionally live in Colorado. I grew up in Vermont and would be looking, I was into climbing and backpacking and all these things, but the Vermont version was like the baby version. I would look in my backpacker magazine and be like Colorado’s where all the big mountains are. So I live in Colorado and I have a little boy who’s almost four and I’m married and I run a group practice, which is just growing and being part of the world in such a cool way and I love it. Just a reality check, there’s also days that are super stressful so it’s not like I don’t just live in a fufu thing, but I’m a hundred percent worth it. I am a little hyper focused on telling the truth and figuring out how do we say the most accurate version of what’s happening for us, what we understand, what we don’t know, that telling the most, speaking most clearly and most accurately is so amazing in terms of how we end up experiencing our own life and how we end up relating to other people. So if you meet anybody you’ll know that, anybody who knows me will know that I’m very clear, I’m fairly direct. I think I’m sweet and open-hearted but also I really like to be truthful.
Well you and I were talking before we started taping, taping, you tell me a child of the eighties, before we started recording about maybe starting with the story of your mom and then going chronologically from there. Tell us about your mom.
Sure. Oh, just saying those words, I can just feel my heart be like, oh. So let’s see, I grew up in the family where I grew up in the, I was at eighties growing up child and my dad worked all the time and my mom ended up working too, but she was stereotypically the person there showing up when someone was going to show up. Or if I was going to have a meltdown, she was the one who was going to sit through it. I went off to college, I was the first college student in our family, like for generations, ever, I think that just went from high school to college. It was this really big deal.
My second semester I was cruising along. I was like, this is so awesome, buying CDs of Annie DeFranco, with my babysitting money. I get a call from my dad and he said, your mom’s really sick and we went to the emergency room because she thought, she’d been all winter like, I just don’t feel good. So this was probably, let’s think March, the end of February, beginning of March, yes, was probably the beginning of March. Apparently he said she has cancer and it’s not the good kind. I remember verbatim. She has cancer and it’s not the good kind, but they had waited, I think two or three weeks to tell me because I was at college and everybody in the family felt like that was really important to not mess up my studies.
I said, okay, I’m going to come home. I had to get a carpool ride with a friend, because I was in New Hampshire and she was in Vermont so it was a whole thing and I orchestrated a ride home. The first thing I noticed, my mom was always a very juicy, full figured woman. We had friends when we were little who had a skinny mom and they always said, we like hugging your mom better because she’s soft but she wasn’t soft anymore. I remember that really struck me. I was like, oh gosh, there’s so much less of her and it’s only been like three weeks since she got diagnosed. So for the first time ever, my mom, I think one time in my whole life made my lunch. She was a very loving mom in many ways, but not the mom who cared about things like cooking.
She and my dad went to Costco and bought all of this stuff to take to my dorm with me. It was like the box of grieving or something. It was such a mixed, weird thing of like, here’s all this stuff from Costco that we would’ve never normally given you and we’re going to give it to you. It’s like, because mom has cancer. So then I went home back to my dorm and it was sort of like, yes, she’s sick. I started imagining all the things I wanted to do with her before she passed. I’m like, I want to get her to a summit of a mountain, I want to take her to a musical in Montreal, I want to do all these things I know she’s never done and then about two weeks later, the call came that was, “Come home. Now we don’t think, we don’t know how long this is going to last.”
That was a, no, that was, I came home on Friday. I think she stopped eating Saturday. On Sunday I was going to drive home back to the dorm, with my sister to get my stuff and jus withdraw from school and halfway to New Hampshire, we got a cell phone call that said, come back right now. We don’t know if she’ll make it till tomorrow. We drove home and of course, you can imagine that car ride with my sister and I were a year apart. so she was still in high school and it was, there was nothing to say, there was just nothing to say. We got home Sunday night and she passed away Monday morning, no, sorry, Wednesday morning. She actually, she was alive for two more days, but she was unconscious for those two days.
I can’t imagine going from dreaming of all the stuff you want to do with your mom to that happening so fast.
Yes, I had no idea then the way that consciousness and existence can rip, like it gets this hole in it that is now, I think in retrospect, I think of it as it’s linked to all these other layers of consciousness or God or something, but it becomes this very permeating and omnipotent altered consciousness.
I mean you’re 18 at the time, you said?
Yes, I had turned, I was 18 and a half.
Wow. What happened after that? I can’t even imagine processing that at that age?
I remember the moment she passed we’re all, we were all new. It was coming so different. People had come to the house to sort of pay respects and the moment she passed, I went into an autopilot and actually now I think it’s so beautiful. It was like some piece of my soul just took over. I went to the door, I put on my shoes and I remember tying them and thinking, tie them really good because we’re going to run really fast. I opened the doors to the back of the house and just ran into the woods behind the house. I ran as hard as I could. I was just like running and running and running, talk about fight or flight, like as a therapist. So I’m running and then I laid, I just fell into the ground in the middle of the woods and when I laid down, all of these sparrows came up around me in a circle and literally it was like a little typhoon of sparrows spinning around me and then they flew off.
My experience of what of that was, oh, she’s free now, she’s flying away. It was the most, I would say it sort of saved me. All of a sudden something like my connection to nature to this point had been like a really rich thing in my life, always and to have just something that I could make meaning with almost instantly and to feel some way that I could have this connected to the thing that was all around me was really huge to me. It really set me on this trajectory of looking back. I didn’t realize it then, but I probably spent the next, oh, like six or eight years in the woods. I went into be a wilderness therapist. I spent, I didn’t realize then, but I spent a lot of time alone in the woods and it was healing me and it was a way of being with her.
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Now you told me before we started recording that some things happened with your brother after that. Tell me about that.
Yes, so here’s an interesting thing. So I’m the middle child of three and I have a younger sister and older brother and this experience, I remember almost immediately, this whole thing about telling the truth. Part of the reason I brought that up was because people would say, how are you doing? I noticed that my automatic response was I’m tired and almost instantly, I was like, I am not tired. I am a lot of things, but I am not tired. So this experience actually, I felt like, all of this confusion and stuff, just so many layers of it just fell away and I felt more alive. I was raw, but I felt very much plugged into life and choosing life. My sister and my brother had a very different experience. They both went down places that were much more painful and disruptive to themselves and other people.
So my brother had always used drugs and he actually ended up getting pretty, we didn’t know this right or we didn’t, I don’t know, we weren’t consciously aware that he had a pretty big drug problem. There would be times where he would, looking back now, I know he had bipolar disorder and there’s a form of bipolar disorder that looks a little bit like schizophrenia. So it was a very intense version of bipolar disorder. Over time he got what I would say further and further away, so he was very, a very, very loving person. I don’t think I ever saw him be mean or violent, but as I know now, as an adult, a lot of times those people have internalized all of that anger that everybody has.
At some point, I think it was about six or seven years after my mom passed away, he started to clearly be delusional. I said to him what you’re saying doesn’t sound like it’s real and I know you’re really afraid. How can I help you? Then in between I think part of, I think my imagination is that part of the addiction was also trying to ease the delusions, but then the addiction makes the delusions worse.. Eventually, I think, eight years after he ended up over, he moved out to Arizona and he overdosed, I mean really horrendous. A friend of his found him in his apartment and it was several days before he was found and he passed by himself, just such, such a depth of pain. It was very different than the loss of my mom.
Her death was surrounded by people and it was unfair and it was unfortunate, but it wasn’t violent. His death felt violent and to me the violence that he, it was intravenous drug use. So to me, that’s violent in and of itself. The details of how he passed, I won’t go into it because they’re really awful, but are also violent. So it was such a different thing to hold my mom’s passing, which felt somehow it wasn’t so dark, it was sad and it was gutting and it demolished my previous reality. I was in poised and or forced to create a new self, but this was something ugly and violent. I had never had such a proximity to before let alone held in my soul. So that felt really different.
How did you reconcile that or process that?
One thing that was really different is when I was 18 and my mom died, I was 18, my big thing was like, I have to go to school for 12 hours a week, but otherwise I could do anything I wanted. So I just walked in the woods all the time. When my brother died, I had a 40 hour a week job at the hospital and I was teaching English and I had all these things going on. I was never alone. I had a boyfriend at the time that I was living with and so I actually remember wanting, do you remember, I earlier in this, I was talking about the altered consciousness? So to me, and to many people I’ve spoken to, when we go into acute trauma or grief, particularly grief like this, it can feel like we’re a body walking around, but we’re like half not here and we’re like floating. It’s a very numb/achy feeling. I got to lean into that and just be in it when my mom passed and when my brother passed, I remember vividly sitting in the hospital and stirring out the window between writing notes, thinking, well, if I could get into a mental institution, I’d have a lot of time to just rest. It’s okay that everyone would think I was crazy.
I think, my point of that is I didn’t know how to make this space that I needed and I also was very aware of culturally, it would’ve been a huge endeavor to carve that space out of how we do. I got two weeks off of work and then it was like, okay, let’s go back to work. So how I ended up getting through it, it took much longer. I didn’t have with my mom the piece where I felt disturbed, so I felt acutely disturbed by all of this and really couldn’t figure out how to integrate it into my dogma or theology or even how I understood human existence probably for years. I ended up marrying that boyfriend and divorcing that boyfriend and right after I divorced him, I lived alone for a couple years and I realized one of the things that was so hard for me is that it felt like my brother had been abandoned because of his mental health and not for no good reason. He was very hard to be around, but that was really hard for me.
In that time, when I was alone in the couple years after I was divorced, I had a very clear vision. I was laying in bed, one of the things that from the very beginning from when my mom passed, I had this gut thing to always turn toward the pain, always turn toward the thing you’re afraid of. It will hold you if you don’t go and face it. So I was laying in the bed at the end of my workday and it was one of those days where it just rose up the ugliness and the violence into being disturbed and just being like, God, it’s so much to hold. I was just laying there. I was crying, but mostly just feeling this like, oh my God, I don’t know how to, I don’t know what to do with this.
got, I don’t know if it was a voice or a thought or something, all of a sudden it was very clear to me, as true as true could be. The line in my head, it was like him telling me it didn’t hurt at some point. He was sort of very technical about like I got high and then I passed out and I didn’t feel anything else after that. It didn’t hurt. Something about that since that moment, I have been able to allow this, to accept this. It’s still dark and it’s still violent, but something about that allowed me to say, okay, I can now integrate this into my life.
So as you were integrating that in your mom’s death, what either mindsets or habits or things that you did helped in the months or years or decades after that?
I call it the mercy. I’m not even Christian, but I think that’s a Christian usually associated word, but what were the things that like brought mercy? So I was Buddhist in high school. I grew up, we call it Easter Christmas Christian, it’s like we were Christian because mom felt guilty is what we would joke about. So in high school, well, she grew up that kind of the guilty Christian. I know not all Christians are guilty, but that was the kind, that was the flavor that she had to share. In high school I got into, first Daoism and then Buddhism and then right after, when I came back to school in the fall, after my mom died, I had spent the whole summer, I went away to North Carolina to teach ceramics. So I was doing like pottery wheel, all the time, which was of course was really wonderful.
I hiked all over the Blue Ridge and the Smokey Mountains, mostly by myself and then when I came back to school, I got my first, I had a boyfriend that fall and he was Buddhist, like really, really a lot Buddhist. His brother was a monk. It was so like merciful. It was so profound. So we met at some party and we both weren’t doing, we were weren’t drunk because I was like, I don’t really like being drunk. He’s like, yes, I don’t drink and there it went. But I ended up meditating every day for a year after that. I would never go to bed. I mean this was college, so sometimes it was 2:00 AM and I had a shrine in my room and I would put out offerings.
So there’s offerings, really beautiful, like a really traditional Buddhist meditation with offerings. You offer like the purest water for drinking and the coolest water for bathing. It’s something that smells beautiful and something that tastes beautiful, so you delight in all of the senses and then you offer that up. So it’s like in the practice, you’re offering it to the deities, but it’s also this idea that we want to always offer that out into humanity. So I did that every night for a year. I ended up getting into Buddhism, it’s a more conservative, I think, than some of the Buddhisms that we know in America. This is an American version of Buddhism, but it’s more conservative.
So I went, ended up going to retreats where I went to a retreat in California, where it was, I think it was mostly silent. I think we were allowed to eat, talk at meals, but otherwise it was completely silent for 10 days in California. I could feel myself connected to something so endless and vast, and that had all of the light and solutions and ways forward that you could ever need. Not that you could always get right to them, but I could tell that they were there and it made me feel safe and I felt loved and I felt accepted and I felt like I could be with anything in myself. Eventually, I have a quote in my kitchen that says when you have the faith that you can get through anything, you have the only, it’s like, what is it, it’s the only, it’s sort of like the word mercy that life has to offer. I started to have that sense for the first time in my life. It was really clear to me and I think it’s the difference between how I responded and my siblings responded, but I can ever be for sure on that.
When has that been difficult to enact those values or mindsets?
To take this space, like when I can feel myself getting too far away from that centered place or that source. I am in my forties running a big business with a little kid in a marriage with all of life. I’m really thankful that I built this and dug into this when I just had really nothing to do, but this because it is, I can see, I as a therapist, I often people say, should I meditate? I think, yes, but there’s so much to wade through before you get to it feeling good. Initially it generally feels crappy, I think, like if, especially if you’re in a really hard place in your life, it’s like sitting with the hard place before you really know how to sit with it. So I guess when it’s been difficult is when I feel, I tell myself I’m too busy or I think I’ll avoid it for a while when I know my heart is aching or broken, but I also know it’s the only thing that’s going to give me way forward. So ultimately it will be the thing that I come to, but I know in that practice, the practice is going right to and sitting right with the very thing that’s the hardest thing in your life.
When you think about your younger self and you can pick whatever age you want, if you could go back and give some advice to your younger self, what age would you pick and what would you say?
Oh gosh, I love that one. I feel like this is the advice I want to give all humans maybe, but I didn’t know how okay I was. I didn’t understand until probably not too long ago in my life, in my late thirties, at least, the extent to which every human is making this up. Learning to know what’s in your heart and have integrity in the world and learn how to be hurt, like those are, that’s it, there isn’t like another thing. This is it, this is it and I would say to myself, this is it and you’re doing it right. This is just what it’s. I would say, I’d probably do that right after my mom passed, because that was the place where I went from being a child who was completely diluted to being much more aware of, like, I need to know what’s happening in this life. I’m going to need more information right now and more meaning. So that’s the part I would love. I think I had a sense of that always, which has been really a form of self-preservation, but it would’ve been nice to know it sooner.
Yes. Well, Gen, thank you so much for your story, for what you’ve been through, how you’re getting through it, the lessons you’ve learned. I’m so happy you’re in our communities. You’re in my life that we’ve got to hang out so many times. Just thank you so much for being on the show.
Thanks for the opportunity Joe and thanks for allowing so many times, in my life, I’ve tried Google to find stories of people in something I was going through or something close to what I was going to know that humans get through this and I can get through it. I feel like this could certainly be one of those things. So I appreciate you putting this out in the world.
If people want to connect with you, what’s the best website to send them through?
Probably my counseling website, northbouldercounseling.com. I’m on there. If you do, contact, don’t go to my admin or whatever, but that’s only one step right next to me, my admin’s pretty close. So don’t write, get me.
Amazing. Well, thank you so much for being on the Practice of the Practice podcast.
Doing these shows, it’s just so, I don’t know, it’s really interesting because I feel like I’ve for so long had behind the scenes, like this big heart and wanting to have more heart be front and center. But I also didn’t want the heart side of what I think and feel in the world to feel like I was just using it to make money or to grow Practice of the Practice. But this series just feels so authentic and aligned with what I need right now and what I’m learning right now and man, just like show after show and interview after interview with people that have been through some just really heavy stuff. Thank you so much for joining me all of you and for joining this series, that’s a little different from maybe what we normally cover.
Also we couldn’t do a series like this or even the show at all if we didn’t have podcast sponsors. Our sponsors help fund all the backend, I mean Sam and her entire team. I mean, we now have five sound engineers and a team of 10 in South Africa that are supporting so much of what we do here and with other podcasts. We couldn’t do this without our show sponsors and today’s sponsor is Brighter Vision is another thing you can outsource to. They do websites for therapists. You can head on over to brightervision.com/joe. Right now, Brighter Vision is offering one of the biggest discounts ever during the 4th of July sale. Sign up for any website package by Friday, July 8th, to receive their exclusive tier discount of $5 per month off the start plan, $10 a month off the grow plan and $20 a month off the flourish plan during your first year with Brighter Vision. All you have to do is go to brightervision.com/joe to learn more and take advantage of this great deal. Again, that’s brightervision.com/joe.
Thank you so much for letting me into your ears and into your brain. Have an amazing day. I’ll talk to you soon. Bye.
Special thanks to the band Silence is Sexy for your intro music.
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