Ten years ago today, around 60 people sat in a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona. They had not eaten or drank much over the previous two days. They hadn’t slept much in the previous 4 days. They had been working hard, wanting to be the best versions of themselves they could be, successful in their professional and personal lives. They were ready to push past the boundaries they’d created. They were motivated by the words and guidance of James Arthur Ray, the self-help guru who’d written best-selling books, been all over TV, even on Oprah!
But instead of receiving the inspiration they were so eager for, three of the participants died of heat stroke in that sweatlodge. It was too hot in the tent, which bore little resemblance to the sweatlodges of Native American tradition, and Ray was a dangerous leader who bullied people to stay in the tent and ignored calls for help when people were in distress.
My sister, Kirby Brown, was one of the people who died that day. I didn’t find out until the following day. Thus began a numbing that would last for at least two years. There are parts of me that are still numb even now, I think–like the tips of fingers that lose feeling after an accident severs the nerves. Irreparable damage. Other parts of me feel an ache, or even sharp pangs of pain, when poked or twisted the wrong way. Loss is a life-long injury of the heart. Sometimes we don’t heal so much as adapt.
There are times–when I am busy I think I forget this–that I must allow myself to sink down into it. The pain, the injustice, the anger. The running commentary that says “What the f—?!” when I think of how unfair it is that she is gone. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I shake all over my body–cold emptiness overtaking me.
Most of the time, I try to stay in the space that looks ahead with a more hopeful outlook. That her death, maybe, will teach other people to be more cautious when seeking self-improvement. That I, along with all the other people who loved her, can continue as her voice, telling people about who she was and what we learned from her death. That her life was an inspiration, reminding me, all of us, always to seek beauty, adventure, love, and peace.
The story of her death is very dark. Death usually is. But the story of her life is full of light. She loved deeply, lived fully, and inspired many people. Kirby surfed in the ocean, rode horses through the hills, hiked in the woods, biked in the mountains. She celebrated with her friends, danced, listened to music. She never stopped learning. She worked hard. She supported her family and friends. She made family wherever she was, no matter how far away. I remember thinking after she died, that eventhough she was only 38-years-old, at least she had really lived.
I try to channel Kirby, her fearlessness and sense of wonder, in my own life. Whenever I am afraid to take a chance or make a step towards something I know I must do, I imagine her encouragement. Whenever I feel stuck, I remember that I don’t have to be.
It is easy to simply feel a sense of loss when someone important to us dies. It’s also cliché to talk about how important it is to “keep their memory alive,” or something like this. However, I understand something more about what that means now. Her loss is so great, truly. But there is so much that she left us. So much. Everything she was to us, we are all allowed to keep that with us forever.
With that, I want to give everyone a chance to talk about Kirby–stories, memories, feelings. Anything. Feel free to share here or on any of our social media. Let’s feel our loss together. And let’s celebrate her!