Q&A with Barron Steffen, author of The Final Gift of the Beloved: Her Disappearance 13 Days

1. What is The Final Gift of the Beloved: Her Disappearance—13 Days about and why did you write it?

The book is the true story of the thirteen days following my wife’s fatal automobile accident. It’s a moment by moment chronicle beginning with the officer’s words, “She is deceased.”

I didn’t want to write the book, but friends asked me to try. The more I wrote, the more my love and gratitude for Seana became the fuel to try and understand how even a tragedy can lead to a greater understanding of myself, my purpose for being alive, and how to use that experience to benefit humanity. 

Please know that this story is not intended to promote any spiritual path. Your approach will look different from mine. But rather to share how the power of a spiritual path can provide solace and guidance in unthinkable moments, and if one gives oneself to its teachings fully, astonishing gifts of insight into the great mysteries of life are possible.

2. You write that hidden within the death of a loved one may also be her final gift to us. What do you mean by that? How can we find a gift in the death of a loved one?

I would not ask anyone to see the death of a loved one as a gift unless they felt moved to do so. If I have learned anything from this experience, it is that grief is immensely personal and multi-layered. Rather, my intention is to simply share my own experience as a possibility for anyone who is open to perceiving new ways of relating to death.

This is why I say that hidden within the death of a loved one may be her final gift to us, because that was my direct experience. My wife Seana’s sudden disappearance could have been many things, but those thirteen days were unlike anything I could have possibly imagined or anticipated—the agony AND the beauty—alternating from intense pain to ecstatic love as if a child was playing with a light switch. To be completely honest, it was the love and gratitude that had the upper hand.

How does a human being learn to trust life perfectly, merging all of its glaring contradictions, and then bring that back into the world? In Seana, I had found a kindred spirit willing to focus on and explore the burning questions. Such that in due course it became instinctive for us to include within that growing edge of trust not just the wonderful events of our lives, which was easy and deceptive, but also those other situations that arrived unsought. If it came out of the blue, then we agreed it was to be closely examined for hidden gifts and for the opportunity of unusual growth, no matter how incongruous or abhorrent it might appear upon first contact.

Though Seana and I were never on the same spiritual path, we supported each other in rising to meet the old, conditioned ways of responding that, at least in my case, would have been unimaginable on my own. Coming into harmony with battalions of hardwired, negative mental and emotional patterns was like doing frequent tours of duty during a war—you had to be constantly willing and vigilant. And you had to have a wingman, a best buddy, a pure and loyal friend.

And so it was that, seated in the car after the officer spoke, something deep inside of me was silently waiting as patient as a seed. Perhaps long ago it foresaw this very moment of utter despair and had been lying in wait as motionless and undetected as water in a high sierra lake. For when the officer said those final words and the unthinkable became actual, like a key that is forged long before the gate or the lock even exists, something clicked perfectly into place.

3. What advice would you have for someone who is grieving a tragic death of a loved one and can not find a gift?

If someone is already grieving, I would say nothing. Nor would I ever offer unsolicited advice because I know that moment to be devastating, incomprehensible, and meant just for them. 

What I learned from my beloved’s sudden disappearance runs contrary to all our prior conditioning as a society around death. Nevertheless, my own experience was undeniable—the devastating period of time immediately following death also carries the potential to be a sacred event. I have no doubt that Seana’s final gift of love to me was her disappearance, and the gifts just keep coming.

That is why I have shared the book— to share that there is another possibility—but only if it is what you want. I am well aware that this is not a perspective for everyone, nor do I wish to disrespect the extraordinary variations and expressions of human grief. Yet there is so much suffering in the world, and some of my biggest breakthroughs in life began just like this—by becoming aware of something else to be possible. 

Much like ever-widening circles, one of the things I keep learning through my practice of yoga is that to become aware of something as possible is the first requirement for the direct experience of it. As long as we are unaware of something, it cannot exist for us. As I said earlier, the book is not intended to promote any spiritual path. Yet without Siddha Yoga, I am quite sure that I would never have even met Seana, let alone survived the trials along the way. And I certainly would not have been able to meet this calamity and come to know it as something else entirely. 

When I heard the officer’s words, at first there was absolute emptiness and stillness. His words took a very long time to land inside me, and in one sense they are still landing three years later. But immediately following, very soon only one thing arose inside me—a singular, overwhelming desire to send Seana as many blessings as possible, as soon as possible. 

I understand now that unstoppable intention to send her blessings was the form that my love for her took in that moment. It was also the first hint of a different possibility and outcome. Like a shaft of light cutting through blackness, it shifted my focus off of my grief just enough and onto my love for her, giving me a purpose that was greater than my own anguish. That shift protected me. I knew an immense power had been unleashed inside of me, a tsunami of upheaval, and that it was only a matter of time before its arrival. The only question was where should I be to receive it? 

Unbeknownst to me, this intuition was a gigantic gift, a strong hand extended to me as I hung on the outer edge of the gaping crevasse, because it momentarily paused everything that was threatening to be swept away. Fanning out before me were all of the ill-fated options, senseless reactions like minefields in a darkened maze, each one awaiting its moment to be triggered. Though only vaguely cognizant of it at the time, it was that brief pause which allowed me to choose a different approach—to act, rather than react.

The possibilities spread outward from where I was sitting in concentric circles of alternate future realities. Instead of following my gut and plummeting downward into darkness and despair, it was as if I had been placed between two movements of a concerto and, resting in that grace-filled interval, I was pointed in a different and wondrous direction.

At the precise moment when so many strands of calamitous repercussions were present, this pause was to make all the difference now and in the course of my life after Seana, and following its path would end up offering me supreme protection, and much, much more, as well.

4.  How about in general, what advice would you have for someone who is dealing with the painful emotions of grief?

The day after receiving the shocking news about my wife, I spoke with one of the monks of Siddha Yoga. Swamiji was someone I had known since the mid-1990s, and as is often the case when sharing a spiritual path over many years, he had grown into both a mentor and dear friend. In that conversation, he said a number of things that were absolutely pivotal for me to hear in that moment. And since not everyone can have access to a wise monk in the days following a tragic death, I included that conversation in my book.

Swamiji reminded me about the concept of the thirteen days. The idea of thirteen days comes from the East where one mourns the deceased for that period of time, and then on the thirteenth day there is a celebration of life. This gave me a tangible period of time to focus on, and it helped me channel the torrent of love and loss chaotically pouring through me.

Those first twelve days became a vehicle both for deeply feeling my grief and just as importantly expressing my gratitude and love for her. I would sit in front of my altar, light a candle, and talk to her. I was thanking her, and it was unbelievably emotional and purifying. I had what I believe were many experiences of her presence, of her listening and even interacting, and these perceptions helped me to keep moving forward and find my place within the new reality.  

On the thirteenth day, I celebrated her in my own way on the beach where we met and were married. Swamiji had told me how important it was for her to see that I was going to be alright without her, so I related to this as a moment of releasing her from anything that would hold her spirit to the physical world. I promised her that her work dedicated to serving humanity and the planet would continue in some form. And then I told her how much I loved her, that she should soar into the light, and that this was where we would meet again—within that light.

Swamiji also mentioned the work of Dr. Michael Newton, and from that reference I found the book, Destiny of Souls. This book provided immense solace as well as insight into our ‘lives between lives,’ and a beautiful glimpse of a greater purpose for being born. 

Most significantly, when I heard the Swami speak of the greater arc of the soul, it was as if my small frame of perspective shattered into a thousand pieces. In its place, the sketch of a much larger outline came into view. Until that moment, I had been so bound by small, extremely limited ideas of myself, of Seana, and of this world. I had imagined that my grief and love were expressing a totality of feeling when instead I was tightly controlled within carefully constructed borders. 

When he said, “see the greater arc,” it was as if the roof of a house had been ripped away and light spread into every corner of it at once. I suddenly recognized what had been niggling at me the whole conversation. His natural grasp of a much larger picture was pointing me directly toward the greater arc of a human soul existing beyond just this one physical life. Seana was much greater than this one incarnation, and far more than my wife. She surely had lived many, many lives.

5. Do you believe in the afterlife? If so, what are your beliefs and how has this book and your experience with death affected your belief in the afterlife?

Until that moment, I had always thought that I believed in life after death. Karma, reincarnation, dharma—these were very familiar concepts to me from my spiritual path. But when Seana suddenly disappeared, it forced me to see them in ways that had been inconceivable and inaccessible before then. 

Perhaps it was a gift of grace and my commitment of so many years as a student of yoga, but I found that I had a choice. The power of that choice has revealed every shard as love, every heart-wrenching moment of missing her beautiful, never-to-be-seen-again form as love. Remembering her divine virtues creates fresh tears in garlands of gratitude. I feel an upwelling of love and a heart breaking open for the perfection and beauty of our shared existence, and a subtle desire to somehow benefit others from what I am learning.

I think it is a gift of acceptance—this surrender to what is and must be—that I can continue onward and rebuild an entire life without her. It is an awesome undertaking. Even now, it appears to be an impossible task. To imagine my life without her by my side guiding our choices and reveling in our shared delight at the grandness of this one wild and precious life, this is new. But I get appearance now. It is the stage on which we play. 

6. Do you believe it is possible to communicate with loved ones who have died? If so, what are some examples or research that informs your belief?

First, it helps that Seana frequently comes to me in dreams, allowing me to hug her beautiful subtle body, to sob, talk, or laugh—whatever I need to keep moving forward.

For those who are grieving a great loss, something that has been of great assistance to me has been to find ways to just continue on with the love. I know it sounds strange, but I have found it absolutely essential for my well-being that I continue to relate to Seana as being available. I feel her often present around me, within me, and sometimes as me. 

Even though I had to grieve and accept that the form and expressions of our love had changed completely, I discovered that the relationship is not over unless I allow it to be. That said, as Swamiji emphasized, with this approach to life after a loved one’s death you’re not trying to pull them back into a particular form or into a particular way of being. You want them to experience that expansion of the light. 

It also helps that I had a very powerful experience of her soon after her death. On the third night after her passing and recounted in Chapter 10, Awake and Livid, Seana talked to me through my head. Those three hours with her were unlike anything I could have possibly imagined, and it was a turning point—a blast furnace where impurities liquify and everything standing in the way of understanding the greater arc of her soul collapsed. 

And I think that must be at least one of any number of unearthly purposes for that brutal, titanic event—taking the long view of a much greater arc. That arc will never defer. It ushered her on ahead to a forgotten world that is, quite possibly, even more real than the one she was departing. And like an arrow flying out straight and clearing this one single life’s narrow trajectory, it traced a path parallel to the incorruptible and divine obligation we all have upon leaving the physical body to keep flowing onward. 

Even though I had to pass through so many chambers of grief to come to grips with her disappearance, this chapter of my life’s journey has taught me a pivotal lesson—nothing is as it seems. What we know of life and death is only where we have chosen to rest with our questioning.

There was one other time that Seana spoke to me in my head after her death, and I continue to refer and relate to it like a lantern in a dark forest. Just as on that third night I had found myself trying to focus on my spiritual practices but at every turn something interfered with them, one sunny July morning long before I had even contemplated writing a book about the thirteen days, the same thing happened. Eventually when I understood that it might be her, I sat down with my journal and asked inside if she wanted to tell me something. 

Here is a part of what I heard her say in my head that seems to most directly respond to your question:

“You are giving birth to something awesome, and I am sorry I could not be there to witness it by your side. I am with you so much now, and I know you feel me. I don’t miss you because I am with you anytime I want or choose, and it’s so much more available now.”

7. You are also the founder of The Yoga of Mindset. Tell us about that please…What is it and what do you offer through that company?

Unfortunately, from the time we are very young and into old age we are never taught how to use our thoughts, and so our thoughts keep using us. As an elementary school teacher for 18 years, I saw this impact both children and adults. How strange that during our most formative years we are never once given direct, sustained instruction on how thoughts create our perceptions and experience every moment of every day. Yet, our experience in each moment depends on it. 

To understand that we are not a thought is one of the central insights and gifts of yoga. Consider how much suffering in the world around us is caused solely by what people are thinking! For happiness and peace of mind to grow, we must understand that our thoughts are powerful and creative, and that we do not have to believe a thought if we don’t wish to. The Yoga of Mindset exists in order to offer others the knowledge and practices to be able to live harmoniously among their thoughts.

Though yoga may best be known in the West for twisting bodies, for centuries the heart of yoga has been the scientific study of the human mind. Mindset, neuroplasticity, hardwired neuronal paths, these are the sounds of brain science catching up to millennia of settled knowledge and naming things anew. 

Neuroscience and yoga both confirm that our brains are designed to hardwire our most habitual thoughts and feelings. Yet when we don’t understand the most basic way that life works, we use our thoughts to create a life we want as well as a life we don’t want. The most basic way that life works is that whatever thought we are thinking in each moment determines our experience in that moment. 

Watch and learn how any thought will create your experience for you as soon as you think it. Our brain doesn’t know the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined, so for as long as we believe a thought to be true, it has power over us. For example, have you ever been suddenly frightened because you saw something, but then realized it wasn’t really what you thought? This is an obvious example of how our thoughts are creative and powerful. 

Carefully observe your mind and see. Everything you perceive and feel in every single moment comes from whatever thought you are thinking—in that moment—even if it is not really happening. That’s how creative and powerful our thoughts are! They design all our experiences, both real and imagined. 

Consider that the average human being has about 60,000 thoughts each day. How many of them can you remember from last week or even yesterday? If we are so unaware of something, how can we possibly know how it is affecting us? Yet all we need to do is look at the world around us to see the devastating impact of unconscious thinking and feeling. To that end, I have written and recorded three months of free lessons at The Yoga of Mindset in what I consider to be an essential starter unit.

It is also crucial for us to learn more about our automatic negative reactions, the samskaras, since they control and manipulate nearly every feeling we have. Even more challenging, as long as they are in control, we will think they are who we are. Thus, more than any book, which is usually read once and put down no matter how inspiring, I recommend for others what has been indispensable for my own growth—daily lessons. 

For many years, along with my daily meditation and practices, I have read and listened to my lessons every day. They’re the first thing I listen to in my car or on a run. Even after so long, I have found that without these regular reminders, the mind’s tendencies to judge others and manipulate is just too fast. It’s so easy to get lulled into complacency and fall asleep again.

8. Did you experience any synchronicity or serendipity in your journey. If so, what happened?

I have discovered the most strange and wonderful thing—that hidden within the death of a loved one may also be her final gift to us. And this is what I wish for you—in your moment of greatest need, though the world feels shattered into a thousand shards—may you remember this possibility and fully receive what the beloved longs to give you in farewell.

In my experience, the most beneficial approach is to stay focused on the long view of one’s inner reality, or as the great ones describe it—that in us which is always present and never changes. 

The irony as well as the aha moment comes when we discover that for the specific purpose of inner growth, we ourselves designed our lives to be this way. But because it doesn’t always look like we want or expect, we turn away from the very situations that would have brought about our greatest breakthroughs, saying to ourselves, not this, not this. Sadly, those choices we make from the limited perspective of our minds can sometimes convince us to abandon the love of our life or the conditions through which we would have grown and learned the most. 

This approach to finding and sustaining one’s life purpose requires a radical shift in perspective, of course. In it, we learn to trust whatever shows up, especially out of the blue, making the effort to see it as our own gift to ourselves. This takes willpower and must be maintained over a long period of time to bear fruit, but there is no greater gift we can give to those we love or to this world than uprooting our old, conditioned negative patterns. 

For example, while attending to my daily duties I watch my thoughts for signs of any attempt to blame others for how I feel or what I’m thinking. If I find something, I simply delete that thought before it can do its damage. I know that finding faults in others or situations I don’t like is a tactic that my ego uses to justify its fears and negative opinions, and it especially loves to blame the outside world for not getting what it wants. But meditation has taught me that these are always of my own creation. 

This also entails occasionally doing battle with the very powerful inner mental and emotional impurities. In Sanskrit, they’re called samskaras—deeply hardwired negative conditioning patterned into our brains usually when we’re very young. In my experience, we need to have something already prepared—a very clear intention that is our preferred response—to replace them. Otherwise, we miss the opportunity. Habitual thoughts and feelings are just too automatic and fast.

It’s almost a revelation to learn that life can become a playful game. To accept complete responsibility for my own mental and emotional experience at all times everywhere is thrilling, challenging, and profoundly impactful. From this mindset there is no longer anyone to blame for anything, and with that astonishing commitment our life’s purpose thrives beyond our wildest dreams. 

For a resource library of the books, audio, and lessons that helped me through the extremely raw period following my wife’s sudden death, please visit BarronSteffen.com.