Coming to you live from The Women's Conference 2009 where an unprecedented 25,000 are gathering for two days of inspiration and transformation.
Day 2: Afternoon Reflections
In the afternoon, the conference turned serious as it focused on the most universal of human feelings—grief.
If you watched the main session on streaming video, you had a chance to hear two extremely moving and powerful speeches about grief, healing and resilience. Katie Couric spoke eloquently about losing her loving husband, Jay, and then four years later, her sister. Both died from cancer. After her standing ovation, Couric quipped, “Now, if just a third of you would watch the CBS Evening News…where are you guys when I need you?”
After Couric departed from the stage, Maria Shriver walked out slowly, stood at the podium, and delivered the most personal speech of her life. She got through it okay, but many of the rest of us—thousands of women in the arena—quietly wept as Maria described her ongoing and deeply painful walk through grief from the death of her beloved mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, eight weeks ago, followed by the death of her larger-than-life uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy.
When Shriver finished, she introduced the rest of the “grief panel” to the audience. Susan St. James, actress and entrepreneur, lost her son in a plane accident. He was 14 years old. Elizabeth Edwards, senior fellow, Center for American Progress, lost her son in a car accident. He was 16. And Lisa Niemi, widow of actor Patrick Swayze, recently lost her husband and best friend of 34 years to pancreatic cancer, less than two months ago.
The conversation flowed as each woman offered simple, but profound descriptions of their journey through grief. Susan St. James said she wondered if she would always think of herself as “the mother of a dead child.” Lisa Niemi described her sadness as being on a cellular level. Elizabeth Edwards noted that it was important for people to talk about her son and to keep his memory alive. “He didn’t just disappear from the Earth.”
In the audience was another woman who knows a lot about grief. Valerie Sobel’s son Andre died of a brain tumor when he was 19. Valerie cared for her son for 470 days and witnessed helplessly as Andre slowly and painfully lost his battle with cancer. She said, “Caretaking a child that you know is going to die is a completely different experience. The grief is beyond anything you can imagine. “
Within a year, Valerie also lost her mother and her husband. To honor Andre, and to help other families experiencing the debilitating personal effects of a child with a catastrophic illness, Sobel established the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation (www.andreriveroflife.org). According to the website information, “Seventy-eight percent of families whose child is diagnosed with a critical illness will experience divorce or separation. The ordeal of a child’s grave illness tests these families far beyond their endurance, and they become bankrupt financially, emotionally and physically.”
Anne Swire, CEO of the Sobel Foundation said they had just received a substantial grant from Genetech to assist families who have children with cancer. “We often receive urgent requests from social workers at our affiliated children’s hospitals to help families in financial crisis due to the illness of the child,” she said. “Genetech’s generous donation will allow us to meet the needs of many more families.”
There was something sobering and cathartic about this afternoon’s session. Yes, it is hard to talk about grief. As Maria Shriver noted in her comments, “In the United States, we are grief illiterate.” Many of us get tongue-tied when we try to offer comfort to someone who has lost a loved one. But through conversation, compassion, and caring, we can help each other through the very darkest of passages that ultimately, each of us will experience.
Day Two: AM Reflections
Another exceptional morning at the Women’s Conference! Not surprisingly, the energy throughout the convention center is electrifying, but apparently, the energy is pretty darn kinetic through the streaming video on the website! Text messages from friends in Portland, Denver, Houston, and Knoxville who are watching the conference online indicate they are feeling the energy, too!
It’s nearly impossible to capture the power of the conference in an itty-bitty blog. This is definitely one of those “the sum is greater than the parts” kind-of-event. Instead, here are some of the more memorable quotes of the morning.
Host and Executive Producer, Discovery ID, Paula Zahn: “The Shriver Report has clearly detailed that we’re exhausted and overwhelmed, but we don’t have to keep that secret anymore!”
Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger: “When I have really tough decisions to make, I ask the Almighty…my wife, Maria!” And, “Maria is not only a beautiful woman, she’s smart and determined—she is the female terminator.”
Sheila C. Bair, Chairman of the FDIC: “The key to success is to be yourself and focus on the job at hand.”
Sir Richard Branson, Founder and President of Virgin Group: “We have to get into the mindset of providing more flexible work arrangements for people.”
Robin Roberts, Co-anchor, ABC News’ Good Morning America: “My mama always said, ‘Make your mess your message!’”
Katie Couric, Anchor & Managing Editor, The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric "I love the smell of estrogen in the afternoon."
Cheryl Saban, Author and Founder of the Women’s Self Worth Foundation: “None of us can afford to be muzzled—use the internal compass you were born with.”
Courtney from Oakland, CA: “This conference is teaching me that the only obstacle to success is in here” (she points to her head).
Nick Vujicic, President and Founder, Life Without Limbs: “The greatest disability is fear,” and “If you put your happiness in temporary things, your happiness will be temporary.”
Gayle Haggard, Author, “Why I Stayed”: “Never write a person off. Whenever possible, choose forgiveness.”
Elizabeth Smart: “We’re never truly left alone.”
Here at the conference, thousands of women are learning that we’re never truly alone because we have each other.
Stay tuned! More to come.
Day 1: Transformation with Dr. Martha Beck
With tears streaming down their faces, the two women walked arm-in-arm out of this afternoon’s keynote address by Dr. Martha Beck. They didn’t even know each other’s names, but intuitively they knew they had just shared a profound experience.
Beck, a monthly columnist for O and the author of several international bestsellers, began her session by talking about transformation. Square 1 of transformation is the stage where our identity has been taken from us, but we have yet to figure out whom we are and where we’re going. She compared it to the incredible metamorphosis that a caterpillar goes through in order to become a butterfly. In her description, Beck said that once a caterpillar goes into its cocoon, it literally liquifies—completely changing itself all the way to the molecular level before it can recreate itself into a butterfly.
In a very real sense, when we begin a cycle of transformation, we have to experience the disintegration of our old self before real change can take place. The meltdown can take many forms, but often it has to be cataclysmic—break up of a marriage, loss of a job, or a deep physical crisis like a diagnosis of cancer or a very sick child. For many of us personal shock sends us into the cocoon.
At this “Day of Transformation” Beck’s words resonated universally through the audience. She said, “Here in square one, we have a tendency to want to become bigger caterpillars.” In other words, we try to hold onto the status quo as long as possible. Maybe if we just work 80 hours a week instead of 75, we won’t get fired. Maybe if we subsume our needs, we can keep a failing marriage from coming apart at the seams. But of course, we are just fooling ourselves. When it is time to begin the transformation process, there is no capitulation or compromise that can divert the process. However, transformation can be delayed if we are unwilling to accept ourselves the way we are. The key to beginning the process is to “totally” accept ourselves and the reality of our situation. We must surrender to the truth—the old way doesn’t work anymore, we can’t go back, and the future is unclear and unknown.
We have all experienced these dreaded feelings. Limbo is scary. Not knowing is exhausting. Loss of identity can lead to depression. Why would anyone choose to go through the process of transformation? According to Beck, we have no choice. This is a cyclical process and we all go through it at different times and for different reasons. But like the caterpillar, when we get through the four stages of (1) crash and burn, (2) expansive imagining, (3) this is harder than I thought, and (4) the promise land—we are forever changed and expanded.
Back to the women walking out of the auditorium…why were they crying? Recognition and Acceptance. At the end of the standing ovation, one woman turned around and with arms raised over her head she powerfully announced, “I am liquid!!” It was a rallying cry—a recognition that it’s not only okay to be lost—it’s absolutely mandatory if we are going to transform into empowered women. The other woman burst into tears as she felt a huge sigh of relief and acceptance. All the pain, fear, loss of identity and meaning she had been going through for more than a year was actually normal, which meant that she was normal. Hallelujah!
The two women hugged each other, introduced themselves and furiously began discussing their parallel journeys of transformation. Rita and Marlene exchanged cards and walked out of the session clearly stunned and enlightened by the experience.
Astrid Sheil, Ph.D. is the Associate Chair of the Communication Studies Dept. at Cal State University San Bernardino. Originally from Washington, DC, she graduated from Georgetown University.