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Life After Death: What I’ve Learned From Tragedy

Brad and I. Brad Parker was the embodiment of beauty, strength, and grace. An avid surfer, rock climber, cyclist, and yoga teacher.  Sashwa Burrous photo.

I sat in my bathroom in northern California and stared in the mirror. My eyes were swollen from the breakdown I had the night before when I tried to rearrange the items in our bathroom for the first time. I hadn’t dared touch his shampoo and conditioner. For three months his toothbrush sat staring at me, mocking me, reminding me of the profound vacancy that now existed in this otherwise mundane space that was now mine to somehow try and fill. I stared at the redness encircling my eyelids—physical reminders of trauma and countless nights spent searching the dark, searching my dreams, aching for the sound of him, or for any sense that this distance was not so vast.

I scanned the reflection of my body and sensed a frailty in my spirit that reminded me of a wilted balloon—the kind you see floating the day after the party, barely staying afloat, ready to cave in on itself.

I knew it was time.

I grabbed his toothbrush and the shampoo and conditioner and took a deep breath as I walked out of the house and placed them in a donation box in the yard. I cursed the heavens. I cursed fate and death and pain and when I finally ran out of energy cursing, I sat down and I poured my heart into drawing out a map. A map that would eventually be an outline for what seemed like an impossible endeavor, but it was all I had left to hope for.

Rock bottom became the solid foundation for building an entirely new life.

The ridgeline of Matthes Crest. Jerry Do drill photo.

“Welcome to heaven,” Brad said smiling. His face lit up as he watched me take in the view at the top of Cathedral Peak. It was my first time in Yosemite. We had arrived in the dark the night before and now here we were, five pitches later, the sun refracting off of the white sparkling granite at the top of the grandest landscape I had ever witnessed. Up so high, I felt this sense of grandeur that enlivened me from my toes to my skull. We hooted and hollered from our rocky perch, and the exultation we both felt seemed to lift us up into an earthly heaven.

Safely back at the base of the climb, I gathered our climbing gear and packed up to descend the trail back to camp to make us dinner. Brad had decided he wanted to solo traverse the ridgeline of Matthes Crest—a final endurance test he would conquer before the sun set that night. There was nothing particularly romantic or poetic in the way we said goodbye. No grand farewell or epic embrace. I gave him the last of the water. He told me he was sorry that I had to carry such a heavy load by myself. I reassured him it was okay and flexed my muscles. We kissed and he gave me that big, stoked-as-hell, Brad Parker smile. 

He ran down the trail and turned and yelled, “I love you!” I repeated it back to him as he disappeared from view.

Lindsey and I taking it in. Sashwa Burrous photo.

“Sit down,” the ranger told me that night.

“No. We have to keep searching. I know where he went. You have to let me go,” I said.

He looked at me for a long time and then propped himself against the wall. His silence was suddenly penetrating.

“There is no search party”, he said in a somber tone.

I stared at him incredulously and watched as he drew in a sharp breath, preparing himself for the words he was about to utter. A nauseous wave of horror came creeping in like a slow tsunami and I was suddenly paralyzed. He continued to speak but the cadence of his voice was warped and fuzzy, as if he were speaking through a broken radio.

“He fell. He didn’t make it. I’m so sorry.”

I fell to my knees helplessly, hopelessly, weightlessly edging closer to the shoreline of a dark ocean that I knew was about to carry me away. In that moment a tear in the fabric of the blanket of reality opened and I entered into a parallel universe that pulled me outside of normalized rationality, beyond faith and reason, and into a new landscape of pain that dared me to find something to live for.

Sashwa Burrous photo.

It’s been 27 months—two revolutions around the sun since the day Brad died. Two chapters so vastly different from each other, it’s difficult to quantify their juxtaposed personalities and the depth and brevity of each.

Year one I learned this.

Grief is falling. When you lose someone you love, you realize they held a foundation for you that you didn't know they were holding. Sudden, virulent grief lays all other emotions to waste with the indifferent ruthlessness of a tornado obliterating the landscape. You must then sit in the aftermath.

Horrified.

Groundless.

Grasping at air.

In times of crisis, we are forced to ask ourselves life and death questions: Who am I? What happens when we die? What is the point of life if any of us, at any moment, can suddenly be ripped out of existence?

We also learn about penetrating and exposing our hypocrisies, and later on in the process, we realize it is not the dead who are watching and haunting us; we haunt ourselves. This is where have learned about myself most deeply, and have had to ask myself over and over again, “Have I ever really unmasked, stripping out of this suit of armor, this shirt and skin and flesh and veins, right down to my aching open heart?” This process of gut-wrenching introspection—of facing mortality—is the realest lesson available to us in this lifetime. It is not an easy path. It is heartbreakingly awful. But it’s real and raw and softens us to the core.

When the shock slowly started to loosen its hold, I was surprised to find that there was no anger in me anymore — for Brad, for myself, or for people who had wronged me. The anger had evaporated along with everything else abstract and remote, and I felt as if I had wiped the lenses of my eyes clean for the first time. I fell into an intensely absorbing present.

I learned that the world is replete with altruism and generosity on a scale like I had never known. Complete strangers in my community took it upon themselves to drop off food at my house. I received hundreds of messages, phone calls, and letters from family, friends, and strangers expressing their condolences and offering genuine help and comfort.

I had never experienced such grand humanity, and with some hindsight, I have been able to see that there are indeed unbelievably positive gifts that sometimes accompany traumatic loss. In the most unarmored time in my life, I could have easily been hurt by heartless people and mindless situations. The opposite has been true.

Jerry Dodrill photo.

The ripple effect of Brad’s death was potent. Despite our suffering in those weeks and months after his passing, our family and his closest friends believed in our collective power to pay forward his life.

Somehow, we all knew that prolonged misery would only increase our sadness—debilitating the possibility of reconciling such a tragic loss. So we decided to do this grieving thing differently and created a non-profit foundation in his likeness. We sourced the pain of losing Brad and distilled it into our highest honor, our collective work of art—The B-Rad Foundation

We started small, but with sincerity and conviction. And in just two years, our reach and impact has been astounding. Our foundation now operates in California, Utah, and Kauai. We’re on track to serve hundreds of kids in 2017 with rock climbing programs and stewardship projects, while teaching communities how to honor and respect our wild places. Our Kauai chapter has removed nearly 50,000 pounds of trash and debris from their beaches, the majority of which will be directly implemented into recycling programs.

Creating a non-profit rooted in love and honor was an opportunity for all of us to do what is desperately needed in our broken world which was to grieve, together, as a community, and find the places where that sorrow unites and alchemizes into something radiant and contagious. And from that shared experience of giving each other permission to feel and celebrate every drop of what it means to be alive, we could go on. We could continue and carry on with the depth and breadth of this work to do something greater than ourselves to honor Brad and his extraordinary life.

We were halfway through our B-Rad Foundation kids program here in Utah in partnership with the amazing folks at Momentum Climbing Gym. To be honest, it's a mix of complete and utter STOKE, and complete and utter heartbreak, that this all exists. But I'm grateful to my core that I get to be part of it all. And so are these kids.

Not even grief and all its powers of disruption and lucidity could freeze my own hopes and dreams forever.

The work of finding a new meaning and purpose in life has been a slow, deeply personal psycho-spiritual evolution. Building an entirely new life has only been possible because of the depth of friendship that I have been gifted. And I’ve been privileged to also learn that when things fall apart, people fall together.

Lindsey moved in with me six months after Brad died, which was an incredibly brave thing for her to do. She bore witness to the darkness, and then dreamt with me in the aftermath. She became my de facto adventure partner, my climbing buddy, my most trusted confidante, and provided me with healing in a way that no one else could by listening to me wail and weep and scream and feel every inch of my pain. From that foundation of rawness and trust, creativity crept back into my heart and buoyed my belief that perhaps there was a conversation within myself that I hadn’t been willing to participate in. I dug into all the ways I had allowed fear to create fences and barriers around my heart, and I resolved to show up more disciplined, resilient, and courageous.

Lindsey and I began detailing out the map I had drawn on my bathroom floor three months earlier. The map represented a passion project we could be proud to call our own. We distilled our combined wheelhouse of knowledge and education into building a business and a movement with heart, soul, purpose, and a mission.

WYLDER was born.

See that lady in the picture with me? That’s Lindsey Elliott. She's a babe and a total bad ass and you should be friends with her. Cory Brown photo. 

The word "corporation" derives from “corpus”, the Latin word for body, or a "body of people.” This definition, in essence, connotes collective power and the power of that collective to bring about change that a single person might otherwise be incapable of accomplishing alone. Neither Lindsey nor I come from wealth and we’ve had to bank on the capital of the richness of our community and friends to bring our idea to fruition. In so many ways, we are the antithesis of the soulless startup. Every aspect of building Wylder has defied convention and part of our mission is to weave a new language around what it means to balance work and life.

The impetus for Lindsey and I creating Wylder was born out of our shared love of wilderness, activism, and outdoor adventure. We both have a desire to educate our community about the power of conscious consumerism and we’re working to create a movement that spreads into every corner of the apparel and outdoor industries. Our own hunger for connection and community has emboldened us on this path of entrepreneurship, and we’re committed to telling our story with heart, guts, and grit.

Our hope is that Wylder will become a powerful community of citizen activists who give a damn about protecting our wild lands and sacred spaces and that in time, we as a business have proven that benefit corporations can directly impact social change.

Since starting our business, we’ve been asked hard questions like: Why are women marketed to in such oppressive ways? How is it possible for businesses to contribute to good in the world? And the hardest question of all:

Who do you think you are?

I don’t have all the answers quite yet, and I'm leaning into the questions themselves every day because I believe good questions are required to build something truly artful, generous, and substantive.

Starting a business has meant that I have to constantly show up. I have to be “seen” and oftentimes, with visibility comes vulnerability. The poet David Whyte said, “The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.” In many instances, entrepreneurship has felt like an abyss, but this dance with introspection and heading head first into unknown territory, is part of what makes it all seem like a kind of sacred process—riddled with risk and uncertainty, peaks and valleys of emotion, and an ever-evolving landscape of learning.

And what has this suffering taught me? I have learned just how rich I am. I have learned that compassion is the ultimate descriptor of wealth. Having an anti-poverty attitude and waging daily war on want, is the path I need to be on. This way of being in the world implies larger-scale thinking and a freer and more expansive way of relating to myself and the world. Brad has continued to be a compass and a guiding light on my path, and for all of my days I will feel privileged to have experienced the short little slice of heaven that we did.

I’m not sure what happens when we die, but I do know what happens when we stand up to live. I do know that trying and failing over and over again has emboldened me to dream bigger. And I believe dreams make humans into self-realized individuals.

I feel now, that I can look back on these 27 months and see that my character has stabilized. My relationships have a depth and texture that transcends what I imagined possible in my lifetime.

And I am in love with my life.

It feels like a kind of second love that comes after a person is older, scarred a bit, vulnerable as hell, attempting to turn bitterness and disillusionment into grace and resilience. This suffering has introduced me to myself and has reminded me over and over again that I am not the person I thought I was.

I can be better.

I can do better.

I am dying.

You are dying too.

May we be brave enough to live less afraid.

Thank you for sharing. Very moved. How can I help Wylder?

This is an amazing piece of writing, well done and thanks for putting yourself out there.

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