Jill Thomas is a professional photographer and a mother. She is also featured in our new video series, Hope Works, as one of six presenters who share interesting insights about hope and faith and how it works in their lives. We asked her to share her story of finding deeper truth after the loss of her little girl.
What was the process that helped you to discover the good in experiencing both happiness and sadness?
It was allowing a space for both to exist and realizing that when you can feel both and neither, you can experience something more. After losing my daughter, all I could feel was sadness and pain. At times it was so exhausting that I went from suffering to feeling nothing at all. I didn’t know how to allow myself to be happy. There was guilt in feeling happy. This rollercoaster of extreme emotions was exhausting physically and spiritually.
Within a year and a half after my daughter’s death, it became too much. I was desperate. I was introduced to the practice of mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness allowed me to see deeper into the scripture Mosiah 4:30, which teaches us to watch our thoughts, words, and deeds. I realized that I didn’t have to police my thoughts as I was doing, I just needed to watch them and become extremely aware of every part of them. As I watched them, just becoming aware, I realized how intense the hurt and emotion had become. I also realized how when those thoughts popped up, I so easily chased after them. As I continued to watch my thoughts, I knew I didn’t have to chase them. I could think them, but I didn’t have to react to them that way.
So during meditation, I would practice watching the thoughts come and watch them go. I became an empty vessel that thoughts could enter and then easily leave. This practice changed my life. One might think that an “empty vessel” feeling no emotion or holding on to any thoughts is just that—empty. However, an empty vessel that does not lead with emotion is now open and available to the Light of Christ to enter in. That is what happened. My thoughts and emotions were replaced with the Light of Christ. It brought peace, love, compassion, understanding, and knowledge. It was like nothing I had experienced.
I realized we come to this earth to experience happiness and sadness, but our purpose is not to learn how to live with them; instead, it is to overcome them and become vessels, in which light can dwell and emotions and thoughts aren’t in control. It is then that we just experience true connection with God.
Following the loss of your daughter, Penny, many people reached out to your family in compassion. You have done a lot to pay it forward in your local and online communities. What role has service played in bringing you closer to God and to your daughter?
After the loss of Penny, our priorities in life changed. The world did not look the same. It was hard to do anything that was “ordinary” because it felt like we were just trying to live without her. I didn’t want to live without her. I wanted to live with her. I was so confused about how to do that. After so many people reached out to my family and helped us get through the darkest days of our lives, the only way I knew how to live with her was to give purpose and meaning to her life. So we began paying it forward, helping other families as people had helped ours.
If you want to ever begin to move forward pass a trial or struggle in your life, I urge you to begin by looking outside yourself. There is nothing you can buy or learn that will bring greater understanding to what has happened than service will. Our family motto has become “To lose yourself, is to find yourself.” Losing yourself is, once again, being an empty vessel for the Light of Christ to enter. If you don’t know where to start, just start serving. After my daughter’s death, it became apparent that this is the greatest message we could teach our children.
What advice would you give to those who are experiencing new challenges and emotions that are testing their faith? What could they do to “see green” and find peace?
In two words: awareness and ego.
Awareness is the first step to “seeing green.” You must become aware of your every thought and emotion. Many people enduring a trial of faith are not aware of the emotions behind it. They may be feeling anger, betrayal, grief, and hurt. These emotions are real, intense, and meant to be experienced, as much as joy, happiness, love, and peace are meant to be experienced. There is no shame in feeling any of those things. While these emotions are natural and healthy to feel, we are here to learn to overcome them. You can’t do that until you are aware of them.
The second step is getting rid of your ego. When you start to become aware these emotions and thoughts you are experiencing, you want hold on to them tightly because you believe they are justified. Sometimes they even become part of who you are. However, your emotions are not you. Your thoughts are not you. They are just your sense of self. Pure connection and love cannot be experienced until you lose yourself.