Category Archives: Book Excerpts

Taking Warrior Mother on the Road

 “How’s your new book doing?” people ask, and I don’t know quite what to say. The official reviews have been wonderful, most of them thoughtful and articulate, better than I could have hoped for. I have felt blessed by such intelligent and crafted responses as different reviewers have picked up on and emphasized, different themes from the book, rather like turning a prism to refract the light into the various colors contained therein.Sheila Performing Book

Friends and acquaintances who have spoken to me or sent me an email after reading the book have had very good things to say. Of course there may be people who read it and didn’t like it, but they’ve failed to contact me. No one so far has demanded their money back. One woman friend I ran into in the grocery store detained me for quite a while with wonderful comments and complements, followed by a pledge to bring several friends to my next book reading. And she did just that.

Amazon rankings have been all over the place, but today the book is number 51 of the top 100 books in the category of parent and adult child relationships. I had a big disappointment when one of the top reviewing companies that had spoken highly of the quality of the book, and had promised to review it, declined to do so at the last minute.  I learned they were concerned it “wouldn’t have wide enough appeal.” (I think that’s code for “it won’t sell enough books to make it worth our while.”) But in the two and a half months the book has been out, this has not been my experience.

There’s the man I gave a promotional post card to, who read the synopsis on the back quickly as we stood together on the street corner. “I’m gonna buy one of these and give it to my daughter-in-law,” he said. When I asked why he said, “She’s been having a rough time. Our nine year old grandson was killed last year in a boating accident.”  Several people have told me they were buying the book for a friend or family member going through grief, or stuck in an old grief, having trouble moving on.

Wing & Prayer Book Performance
Wing & Prayer Book Performance


I’ve become very cognoscente of the universal themes contained in Warrior Mother through a system I’ve developed for book readings. In place of a traditional reading, I connect with people in the community where I will be presenting who do InterPlay, (the system of movement, song, and storytelling that I use) and have them join me in “Performing the Book.”  We select themes that emerge from the snippets I read, and link them to an InterPlay form. The improvisational artists then add their own stories and experiences to mine.

At Performing the Book events we’ve explored relating to adult children (or being one), accompanying a friend or loved one through medical diagnosis, treatments, and death, and rituals that heal grief and loss of whatever variety. Feedback from these presentations has given me a realization that Warrior Mother is about finding ways to authentically communicate about, and honor, the human condition. And that condition is that everyone dies. Once we face that reality, we can enthusiastically choose life for whatever moments that we, and our loved ones, are allowed.

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Is The Story True?

In a recent column, Maureen Dowd raised the question, “Why can’t filmmakers tell the story as it actually was?” Lamenting the creative license taken in Oscar nominated films, she objected to the fabricated car chase in Argo, done for dramatic effect, and the historical inaccuracy of the voting process for the 13th amendment in Lincoln, done reportedly for simplicity sake.

Creative non-fiction writers have been dealing unceasingly with the issue of truth, since their motto is “True Stories, Well Told.”  In finishing my mother’s memoir due out this summer, I recognize I’ve learned a great deal how complex truth actually is. In my family, as most likely in yours, people who were present for the same events have quite different perspectives on them. My book, Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals that Heal tells events from my perspective. My daughter’s then 12 year-old son, her husband, or my son’s stepfather would each have their own views of the events we all shared. As a social worker, I know it’s not productive to ask who’s right? Everyone is right from their own perspective. In literature this is called point of view.

In my retelling of events I discovered that I sometimes misremembered details. An email exchange with my son-in-law resulted in some fact checking on some items I got wrong or didn’t give the emphasis they deserved. And any telling of a long complicated story involves selecting what to include and what to leave out. This selectivity becomes by its very nature, not telling the whole truth. When given the assignment at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival to write a scene from the perspective of someone who is likely to see it differently than me, I discovered that there was a previous scene to the one in question that I hadn’t included. From my perspective it wasn’t important. But telling the story from this other person’s perspective, meant the previous scene had to be included. Later, I decided to leave it in because it added a rich layer to the story.

“Truthiness,” Stephan Colbert’s made up word is defined as something that feels true, intuitively, without regard to the evidence. In spite of it’s being all in fun, I think he’s on to something. In a radio show recently I heard Maya Angelou say that truth is not the same as facts, and that in some instances, facts obscure the truth.  Since the meaning of a communication is in how it is received, I like the notion that feelings are facts too, just a different kind.  

Then there are the secrets withheld, to protect the innocent, the guilty, or to maintain peace in the family. I wrote a paragraph that involved my son but when I shared it with him he said that wasn’t what he said. His denial did not convince me because in my training as a therapist I was taught to write my client notes so carefully that when called upon to read them out loud in a courtroom under oath, I would feel confident of their accuracy. But whether he said it or he didn’t, I took it out and replaced it with another truth we both could agree on.

The Path of a Warrior Mother

In looking at images for the cover of my book, Warrior Mother, I discovered early on that pictures of a skinny woman, dressed in battle gear, brandishing a sword were totally irrelevant. I found in Native American folklore, references to the path of the spiritual warrior, which was more what I had in mind. A spiritual warrior lives everyday, closely aware of his or her own death. And since death is guaranteed to happen to each one of us, no exceptions, spiritual warriors face that possibility every day.

Warrior Mother is the story of my journey as a mother, through the diagnosis, illness, and deaths of two of my three adult children. Looking back, as soon as my 20s something son Ken was diagnosed with AIDS, he was staring death in the face, and so was I. I become a warrior mother because I didn’t want him spending his then waning energy having to take care of me. As a model for him, I felt I needed to be brave and positive. As Dr. Bernie Siegel, who worked with those exceptional patients that defied the odds, said, “In the absence of certainty, there’s nothing the matter with hope.”

In my readings I discovered the notion that what makes something sacred is sacrifice, not a popular concept in today’s world.  But when my 40-year old daughter called me, five years after her brother’s death, to say she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, I did whatever I could to help her. It wasn’t want I’d planned for that time in my life, but when the mother of my three grandchildren said, “I want my mom,” that became my sacred assignment.

From all that we learned as a family from these experiences, lessons I hadn’t read about in other places, it seemed I needed to write about them. And since no family will escape having members become ill and die, it is my fondest hope that these stories might be helpful to others facing their own life and death situations. As Peggy Andreas writes, “This relationship with her Death calls the Sacred Warrior to be who she truly is, to live her life fully and completely, to use the power-from-within.”

Finding That Energy Again

We hadn’t known one another for very long at the time. Perhaps that’s why we took an entire sunny spring afternoon to be together. We walked in a park built around a small man made lake. In those days the park rented small sailboats, paddle boats, and canoes, but not that day. It was too early in the Nebraska spring for such activity. But the weeping willows, some of the first trees to bud, were out. They stood as sentinels on the edge of the lake, their serpentine branches swinging softly in the breeze, occasionally dripping their edges into the lake itself.

On our walk, there was a great deal of silence between us and as I remember it, a deep sense of relaxation. As the light played with the yellow willow leaves, we’d stop and sit on a bench for a spell, then walk on, drawn by a clustering of ducks at one end of the lake. We held hands as we walked, which I guess is why I say we hadn’t known each other very long. That’s a behavior people do in the early months of a relationship. But it was here that the discovery was made.

I’m not sure who noticed it first, but we both definitely agreed, there was a soft energy coming from our hands. We could feel it in our own hands and in the hands of one another. Later I would see pictures of the energy around plants that shows up as light through Kirlian photography, a process that was invented in Russia around that time. As what always happens with scientific methods, controversy has sprung up around it, but for me, seeing the images confirmed what we were noticing that day. For years afterwards, on certain occasions we’d say to one another, “your hands have that energy again.”

Does this energy, and the quality of the light, correspond to the health of the living entities as the Kirlian’s believed? Could it be a measure of the health of a relationship? Is this the life force energy some call “God”? The Stillpoint around which all else in life revolves?

I can’t answer any of these questions for sure. But I know that I miss holding hands, taking time to stroll together with no destination in mind, and I miss especially, the confirmation and comfort of the energetic connection between us.  Kirlian photography


I was a pilgrim once, like religious devotees who have traveled over the centuries to sacred sites in search of healing. Rather than to the Holy Land, or to Lourdes,   I journeyed to Brazil to meet the man known as, John of God. Learning about him from friends and from the internet, this now 60s something peasant, has been  known to the world since age nine, when he became a medium for the Old Testament’s King Solomon. He maintains that he is not the healer, but that God does the healing through him.

My journey was on behalf of my daughter, whose breast cancer had become resistant to chemotherapy, and who was unable to travel herself because she was preparing for a bone marrow transplant. As luck would have it I met a physician in my hometown who was studying with John of God at the time. He was attempting to bring western medicine and indigenous healing together for the benefit of both, and became helpful to me in making my arrangements. 

Thunderbolts and torrential rains greeted me, as did a butterfly and some pesky bugs. I met a spirit painter, who to the accompaniment of Viennese Waltzes, squeezed paint onto his canvas, and with his bare hands, spread and shaped it into images of flowers. He explained that the waltzes were the favorite music of his spirit guide who actually did the painting through him.

Other highlights to my experiences in Brazil were relaxing in crystal baths, sipping soup midmornings with the community at the casa, attending an Umbanda ceremony in a simple house, indistinguishable from its neighbors, sitting in meditation in what is known as “the current,” and in the presence of John of God.

What all this did for my daughter, is unclear. For me, I know it brought a connection to the Perfection of the Universe, called God, or Source, Love or Light, which is one way to describe healing.


Sacred Sleeplessness

“How’d you sleep?” was a common morning greeting in our family. My father’s regular reply – “It was good, what there was of it.”  Now, in recent years, sleep cycle researchers have taught us a lot about the importance of those hours we spend in bed.  Sleep is a required activity, necessary for survival and for healthy functioning in the other two thirds of our lives.

Most of the time we take for granted the ability to go to sleep easily and to sleep uninterruptedly through the night. But once an illness or injury interferes with our getting comfortable enough to go to sleep, we long for that simpler time. When faced with a crisis in my own life or that of a loved one, my worry button gets ignited, leaving me lying in bed for hours awaiting a visit from the sandman.

So what to do to deal with that time when sleep won’t come? My husband goes downstairs to his computer to finish a project or to the television to distract him, and hopefully one or both of these activities leaves him feeling sleepy enough to go back to bed. His mother would visit a special recliner in the middle of the night and fall asleep there more easily than in her own bed.  One of my sisters, after many surgeries and health challenges, gave up entirely on sleeping in a bed. She starts and finishes the night in her favorite recliner.

For me, I try to stay the course and see if I can make good use of the quiet down time. I read somewhere that prayer is talking to God or your Higher Power and meditation is listening to the answers.  As to the talking part, I try to switch my focus from worrying to what I want to have happen in the world. And, since I know the answer to some prayers is “no,” I include a request for strength to accept whatever happens.

For the mediation part, I use a method that focuses on my breath, which I know to be relaxing, whether or not it brings sleep. I learned this method from Ian Jackson, a yoga teacher and trainer for the U. S. Olympic Bicycling Team. It begins by creating an active exhale, (which is wired to the relaxation response), followed by a passive inhale, (which is wired to the arousal response). After falling asleep, I sometimes awake with what seems an answer to my concerns.

During the years when my daughter Corinne was dealing with breast cancer and the effects of her treatments working or not working, she came up with a unique strategy for dealing with sleeplessness. Concerned that her illness was making her too self-centered, she asked friends who were praying for her to send their pictures, and let her know their prayers for themselves. Then she constructed a prayer wall by her bed so that her middle of the night prayers could be for them.

Celebrating Redemption

At a graduation celebration for nine women in Pittsburgh who have just completed the InterPlay Life Practice Program, twenty-five of their friends and family gathered to cheer them on. Many of the guests had never seen InterPlay, so members of our Wing & A Prayer troupe provided a short demonstration.

My husband Rich asked the audience to give him a word to use as the theme for his story. The setting was a chapel in a Christian church, so that may have influence the word choice, but someone called out, “redemption.”

Rich began his story, allowing as how, as a Jewish man, he wasn’t sure what his faith tradition has to say about redemption. He did say that many of his brethren were like him, downloading coupons from the internet, printing them off, and then forgetting them at home when they needed to redeem them at the store.

His story was playful and entertaining, but it left the impression that he didn’t know anything about redemption. As the mistress of ceremony, I had not planned on telling a story of my own, but I was compelled to share a memory that came to me strongly in that moment. I did not understand how the story was related to redemption, but I decided that it must be, so I shared it.

It’s the summer of 1998 in Texas, and as usual, it’s hotter than hell. Rich and a buddy have decided to begin raising money and training to ride in the first Texas AIDS Bike Ride – a 7 day, 587 miles tour through Texas. I tried to be supportive, bringing snacks and water to their training rest stops, but the whole idea seemed pretty nutty to me.  The first night of the ride, their campsite, somewhere outside Houston flooded, and they had to be evacuated from their tents to a school gymnasium.

Standing at the finish line in Dallas, looking out to the bridge on the edge of the skyline I saw nearly a thousand bicyclists riding into town like they were following Lance Armstrong in the tour de france.  I spotted Rich in the crowd, wearing a big smile and our son Ken’s picture on his back.  As riders lifted their bikes over their heads in triumph, Rich and I hugged, danced, and poured water on one another.  “Wherever Ken is now, he’s so proud of you,” I told him.

After I tell an improvisational story I’m never sure whether the story made any sense to the audience. I’d written about this scene in my upcoming book, Dancing on Behalf of Life and Death, but I wasn’t sure why it had came to me in this situation. Later, a  Jewish graduate shared a section of an article by a rabbi on her faith tradition’s view of redemption, which helped me connect the dots –

“Here the notion of celebration is central, of public proclamation and acclamation, of the realization that things continually move ahead towards a larger aim. This movement may be toward some sense of redemption – the notion of improvement of ourselves and our species – or it may be an appreciation of our place in this creation – not here as a small, created thing, but as one whose task it is to speak out about this process, to share the sense of the sacred in the world with the rest of the world.”