Judy Collins’s crystal-clear soprano and songwriting gifts have made her a folk-singing legend, with more than 40 albums and several Grammy honors to her credit. Her riveting blue eyes were celebrated by Stephen Stills in the Crosby, Still, & Nash classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” But she has faced more illness, pain, and loss than many people realize. Her latest book, The 7 T’s, distills the lessons she learned about recovering from grief and loss since her son Clark's suicide at age 33 in 1992. Videotaped in her sunlit New York City apartment, she spoke with Beliefnet about her journey to spiritual healing and her desire to help others.
The Seven T's really came to me while I was talking about and touring with my book on suicide, which came out three or four years ago. I felt that I wanted to give people a pragmatic, practical way to do the things that I had learned to do to survive my own loss of my son’s death 15 years ago to suicide. And so, in each case I enlarge upon a particular concept.
1. Truth: Tell it, regardless of how terrible the facts may be and how hard it is to talk about. Don’t hide the truth about how you lost the person you loved. I think that generally applies to all kinds of tragedy.
2. Trust: Allow it. Don’t let the painful circumstances surrounding the death of your loved one prevent you from talking with friends about your loss. It’s very important to find people to trust to whom we can talk about what’s going on in our lives.
3. Therapy: Which I completely believe in--not only traditional therapy of the talking kind, but also body therapy, massage, art therapy, music therapy, physical therapy, which can be therapy without even having that tag on it. Because loss can be a physical shock as well as a mental and emotional shock.
4. Treasure: Hold on. Don’t stop treasuring your loved one. Particularly again in the case of suicide, where so many people eliminate the person from the planet and they’re never mentioned again.
5. Thrive: Keep looking at life with your eyes wide open. Don’t give in to the temptation to use alcohol or other addictive substances to blunt or blur your sadness. Tremendous loss is also the opportunity for a gift in your life. It could be learning compassion for other people. It could be learning compassion for yourself.
6. Treat: Nurture yourself. Give yourself the gift of kind understanding, and taking care of ourselves when we’re in a fragile circumstance and when we have miles to go, because these things don’t end in a week. They stay with us.
7. Transcend: The word always reminds me of spring because the earth transcends from its apparently dead circumstance. The spring comes and the sun comes and the flowers start to bloom, and the world really transcends death.
You've had serious illnesses like bulimia and depression, things like hepatitis, alcoholism, even polio. How did you find the strength to overcome these problems?
I was probably given the strength, because I had lots of things that I had to do. I had polio when I was 11. I had to do physical recovery, physical manipulation of my leg. And I had to be in the hospital. I had to find ways to get through that. I used that time to read. Because it was a two-month period where I didn’t see my folks and I was in the hospital in isolation. So you find things to do with your mind and your body, and to believe that you can live through this while those around you are not so lucky.
Alcoholism was with me always. I grew up in an alcoholic family. And you learn survival skills in an alcoholic family like staying out of sight when things were rough. I think we always think we can control things as children of alcoholics, but it turns out we can’t. So we have to learn about that too. And that’s part of recovery. It’s part of surviving these situations.
The bulimia was a terribly difficult one to deal with. I didn’t realize that all around me there were teenagers and young athletes doing the same thing. You know, I thought I had discovered it. I remember hearing Princess Diana talk openly about her bulimia. I know she did a lot of wonderful things, but I think that was something that she did for people who suffer from eating disorders that was really important. I think she did a great service by speaking out publicly about it.
So every time I had had one of these big, massive things to deal with, I just had to take one step at a time. It’s also something that probably comes in my genetic pool, because I come from a real deep background of optimists and missionaries and writers and thinkers--people who dwelt a lot on the spiritual issues of life and who had an optimistic attitude about life.
My faith is restored. When my son died, I sort of lost my faith in just about everything. But slowly but surely, through things like meditation...I do meditate on a pretty regular basis and I do a lot of spiritual reading. I think that the daily practice of quiet and contemplation and prayer and reading and writing helps me a lot. Writing in my journal and writing about the books that I’m reading, in the books that I’m reading sometimes, and engrossing myself in a period of reflection, hopefully on a daily basis, is something that is part of that practice.
I don’t go to a particular religious ceremony very often. I do the celebrations at Christmas and Easter, but I like something about my particular practice, which is called Self-Realization Fellowship. And we pray to a number of deities. And then we say, "All saints and all gurus from all religions." We’re asking for help wherever we can get it. And I love that inclusive part. It’s a kind of a combination of Buddhism and Christianity and everything else that helps.
Howdo meditation and exercise help you with depression?
Exercise would change my endorphin levels and would steady me. If I don’t exercise for a couple of days, I still can be on the verge of deep depression. I have to use that on a regular basis, just like I would take a medication. I don’t take medications, but that serves as my body-mind-spirit answer, my holistic approach.
The meditation fits into that, because it allows my whole body and my mind and [balances] my somewhat manic approach to life, although I think of it as just this engine that’s going all the time, rather than manic. It’s not so much in spurts as it’s this steady outpour of energy, which goes into most everything I do. And I find that the meditation really calms that down. It lets me focus. I’ve been meditating in that way for about 28, 30 years. So it’s become incorporated into my life. I think it provides an emotional stability that I really need.
I use the "Our Father" a lot. I use the Serenity Prayer: "God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
And I use the St. Francis prayer, which I’ve heard in many different configurations. I use the one that says, "Oh, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where this is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be loved as to love, to be understood as to understand, for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is dying that we are born to eternal life."
The pardoning part is very tough for a lot of people. The forgiveness part. I’ve come to think that forgiveness might be the essential ingredient in the whole Judeo-Christian ethos that we practice, [though] imperfectly.
You’ve mentioned you sometimes see your son or talk to him in your dreams and in your meditations.
Clark was 33. He was my only son, my only child. And when he died, for a few days afterwards he appeared vividly in my meditations and in my dreams.
What is his message for you?
Well, his message is loving presence. When I saw him at first a few days after his death, he appeared to me a lot in meditations. And he said "Be careful, watch yourself." And I think that was just really a warning to take care of myself, because you’re very, very vulnerable.
I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, except that I believe there’s a spiritual essence that doesn’t disappear. Our memories, and the moment that we’re in, are the most important things. And I have great memories and great present-tense dialogue with my son. One of the things I was told after his death—by a therapist—was that the dialogue doesn’t end. Nobody who’s gone is really ever gone. Not in my lifetime or in the lifetime of my memory.
You’ve said that loss is part of God’s great plan for us. What do you mean by that?
First of all, it’s part of everybody’s life. And my feeling about it is it’s not, of course, what happens to us; it’s how we handle it. And that’s where the lesson always is. What do you become after a loss? How do you change?
I don’t think that you survive well or transcend well unless you do change. I think change is part of the purpose of loss.
Terrible things happen in the world and there are things that you can’t get over, ever, by any means. I don’t think there’s any magic cure for grief and loss. And I think some people are irretrievably damaged by loss. It's just something which is part of the planetary truth. So in going through it, you change. Sometimes in ways you probably maybe wouldn’t even prefer.
One of your big concerns is telling the truth about your loss. But isn’t that just as painful as it is liberating?
Oh, of course. No pain, no gain is an easy thing to say, but it’s very true. And the first big secret that I had to talk about in my post-adolescent life was the alcoholism in the family, which I had inherited. And that brings us to family issues, because these are family issues, not specific to one person. It's like if somebody had cancer in the family. In the old days you wouldn't talk about it. Someone who was mentally ill, you just put them in the closet somewhere. Lock them up somewhere. This was the answer to many of these problems that now are being talked about. And family therapy is helpful in many cases.
Has music been a part of your therapy and given you comfort?
I started out with music, so it was always in my life. It was always a natural anesthetic, because I could get away from everything and everybody. You know, I’d be at the piano practicing. And total chaos could go on around me. But I could find solace, always, in music.
I always appreciate and approve of people getting a young person at an early age into some sort of musical training. Because yes, it’s great to have the arts, but it’s more important to have the mental and the emotional peace yourself that music brings. It does help to soothe and it’s also an outlet for all kinds of things; for anger, for rage, for sorrow. And creative things may come forth as well, which is wonderful.
I think we’re all looking for something to tell us a story so that we can calm down. And music does that, and of course painting and drawing does that. Sometimes that’s out of necessity. Things like cooking, making things--my mother made all of our clothes when I was growing up. Every single thing. I’m sure that calmed her down enormously in that chaotic household. Literature was a greatly calming influence on me. So all of the arts are healing and helpful. And it doesn’t matter which field you go into, that central connection with the arts, I think, is very important for mental, physical, and emotional health.
Do you have a favorite song that has helped you throughout your struggle? Well, I think "Amazing Grace" always does that for me. It is a song that has traveled to many parts of the world. And it’s probably always had the same message, which is a non-judgmental, non-religious message. It’s a spiritual message which anybody can relate to, because people understand that transformation happens. And that it comes as a surprise and is often inexplicable, which means grace has to have something to do with it.
They say that religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell, and spirituality is for those who have been there. I trust that there’s a power, and I trust in that power. But I also know that I’ve got to cooperate. I need to turn to the silence where I think the power lives, in silence, and see if I can’t bring myself into some sort of balance. God’s a very big word and accommodates a lot of different ideas for different people. it’s a term I use for the rock of belief and existence in a power greater than myself to help me adjust my attitude.