As many of you know, our good friend Shannon Christy passed away while paddling Great Falls of the Potomac in July. She was talented, beautiful and only 23 years old. There have been sweet and heartfelt memorials and tributes remembering how full of life and love she was and how her light touched so many of us in the paddling community. I am so grateful to have known her and to have paddled with her. She showered me with many gifts in life including, joy, kindness, support and enthusiasm. Her passing was a very difficult blow to many of us in the paddling community and there has been much grieving and sadness.
My intent with this post isn’t to gush about how amazing Shannon was (which I could go on and on about), but to share the gifts that Shannon has shared with me around her death. Even writing the word ‘death’ makes me uneasy. It is such a strong word in our culture and, even though none of us get out of here alive, it is an event that we as a society spend billions of dollars and lots of time trying to avoid, ignore and deny.
There are as many ways of dealing with death as there are people on the planet. In my limited experience of losing cherished ones I have come to witness that people of deep faith are able to handle this very difficult situation with a lot of grace. I believe that this is because those of strong faith believe in and are surrounded by a community that believes in death as part of the natural cycle of life, as something to prepare for by living well, and as a transition into a new phase for the soul – even a homecoming of sorts. Shannon came from a family of deep faith and having the opportunity to witness their strength, grace and equanimity in the face of a tragic and untimely death has been very inspiring. And by inspiring I mean inspiring me to delve deeper into my own faith and to live the best life that I can so that I can also be strong, graceful and loving in the face of challenges.
I’ll never forget when her parents stood up at the candlelight vigil and said: “We feel that Shannon was on a 23 year mission trip. We are at peace with this because we know where she is.” Her mother also said: “Shannon is the only person I know that loved everyone she met as much as Jesus loved others.” Now it can get sticky talking about faith – especially when faith is associated with religion. Shannon’s Dad even said something to the effect of: “Some of you are probably rolling your eyes right now because we’re talking about Jesus.” For those of you who are rolling your eyes or about to stop reading… In my opinion faith does not have to equal religion. I have a strong faith in Spirit – a creative energy that expresses itself uniquely through each of us. To me this Source Energy exists in everything, including the rivers that we paddle. I was raised Catholic, started meditating in high school in a Catholic meditation group (yes Christians meditate too), then turned to the study of Buddhism, Yoga (not a religion) and Native American spirituality. My faith is the combination of many traditions, and even though our faiths appear very different, Shannon’s parents and I were able to connect sweetly around Shannon’s passing.
In fact, at the candlelight vigil I shared the story (through sobs and with my voice cracking a lot) of when I got the call from Patricia Beakes from Active Nature up in Washington D.C. She was calling because, ‘there had been an accident on the river involving Shannon Christy and the Park Service was requesting next of kin contact information.’ She hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone directly involved as they were still on the river. My heart sank and I asked if she had more information on the ‘accident.’ She replied that the Park Service wasn’t giving out any information. After I called Andrew, Adrienne and Snowy for their help in getting family contact info, I took a moment to sit in my car (parked), close my eyes and say a prayer that went like this: “May Shannon have all that she needs for her highest and best.” I turned to my breath and sat in silence. After a few minutes I set the intention to tune into Shannon’s energy. The message that came through at that moment was that Shannon was OK. It was such a strong, peaceful feeling that I thought that when I got home I would get another call saying that everything was fine and that there had been a successful rescue. When I did get confirmation that Shannon had crossed over I knew the meaning of the message that had come to me earlier: Shannon had left her body, and she was at peace. Feeling that sense of deep peace amidst the grief and sadness was a gift, and when it’s my time to go I would like others to feel that same peace about me.
I was worried that I had sounded too ‘new age’ for Shannon’s family, but after the vigil her parents came up to me and gave me big hugs and thanked me for sharing. Shannon’s Mom expressed to me that Shannon appreciated how I approached kayaking and kayak instruction from the angle that there is much more to kayaking than skills and adrenaline. That kayaking and rivers teach us a lot about ourselves, about being in the moment and about living a good life. She encouraged me to continue to incorporate this theme into my business. Her support, kindness and generosity toward me during this very difficult time for her was truly remarkable.
I am sure that the Christy family has experienced many lows since Shannon’s passing because grieving a loved one, no matter how much faith you have, hurts. Those who have passed may be at peace, but we are left here to suffer their loss from our lives. Yet I’ve heard many people of faith, including Shannon’s Dad, say that God (Spirit or whatever name you use) doesn’t put anything in front of us that we can’t handle. The question is how do we choose to handle challenging situations? For me the Christy family is a beautiful reminder and example of how to honor our loved ones by reaching out to community and grieving in a healthy way that spreads light and love. As Shannon’s father said at the vigil: “In memory of Shannon just make your life right.”
Living in the moment, following our passions, living a life of gratitude, taking responsibility for our choices, being kind to ourselves and others, recognizing the beauty in ourselves and others, and being true to ourselves all make up what I feel contributes to ‘making your life right.’ These are also all tenets of faith and spirituality. And when I look back at how Shannon lived her life, I recognize these tenets woven through her life like fine thread skillfully woven into a beautiful, colorful blanket that brings us joy and keeps us warm when we need comfort. Shannon and her family are reminding me to continue to ask the question: “What am I weaving in my life and is it creating joy for myself and others?” This tragedy reminds us that every day, every moment counts. And, even though we are so sad to lose such a wonderful friend and human being, we must continue on our own journeys with as much joy, love, passion, kindness and faith as we can muster.