Everyday Icon: The Believer

Clementine Daily sits down with Janis Heaphy Durham to talk about how she found life after the death of her husband.
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Clementine Daily sits down with Janis Heaphy Durham to talk about how she found life after the death of her husband.
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Image of Janis Heaphy Durham and Correspondent Tracy Smith from CBS News

Janis Heaphy Durham was a successful publisher, running the Pulitzer Prize winning Sacramento Bee when her husband, Max, was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would cause his untimely death in 2004. After his passing Durham, like most, relied strongly on her spiritual connection and faith to aid her in the grieving process. But when mysterious phenomena began occurring (lights flickering, doors closing, then a powdery handprint on her mirror on the anniversary of Max's death), she began to consider another explanation: perhaps the incidents were not just a coincidence, but a sign. Durham has documented her journey in the book, The Hand on the Mirror. We sat down with author to hear first hand about her experience, how she overcame the "rational" explanations for what occurred and what we can all learn from believing in the unexplainable.

Your husband, Max, passed away in 2004. We can only imagine this tragedy was a life altering, earth shattering experience. Will you tell us about your marriage prior to his illness and a few of the tools you used to manage your grief after his death?

My marriage to Max was vibrant, meaningful and wonderful. He was a brilliant, talented, successful political consultant, and I could talk to him for hours upon hours. He was kind and generous with me and my son, Tanner, and taught Tanner a great deal about the world. They loved each other deeply. Max was also hilarious, and he was always making us laugh. I never thought I would love again to that degree, but Max told me before he died that I would find someone else and be even happier. I found Jim Durham, and it is my belief that Max opened my heart to a whole new level to create the space for my deep, wonderful marriage to Jim, who is like Max in many ways, yet different in many ways, too. I coped with my grief after Max’s death by clinging to the most important and pressing things in my life – raising my son, who was 14 when Max died, and focusing on my career at a very challenging time for the many people who worked at the Sacramento Bee. My friends were critical to my healing, staying supportive as I tried to go on with my life. But grief is not easy. The things that happened made me feel closer to Max and comforted me greatly even as they baffled me. As my understanding and my horizons expanded, my heart began to heal. And I was able to process the events in a more analytical way, which prompted my research.

You come from a fact-based profession in journalism, what was your view on spirituality and death prior to Max's passing?

I was and continue to be a Christian, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was accomplished in the theology of Christianity from a broad range of academic and philosophical views. He stressed honesty and character as vital virtues, along with openness to lifelong learning. But I had become perhaps a bit complacent in my faith before Max died, and his death rocked my foundations. As I experienced a broader and deeper view of the power and connectedness of our human existence across physical boundaries, my spirit and faith have been renewed. I know the power of love is where God resides.

In your book, The Hand on The Mirror, you share a very personal account of your communication with Max after he was deceased. Can you share a brief overview of your experiences in that first year?

Dozens of things have happened since Max died in 2004 -- some amazing, some more subtle. The book is titled The Hand on the Mirrorbecause of the handprints and other images that appeared out of nowhere on the bathroom mirror in the guest suite where Max died. This happened on the first three anniversaries of his passing, and I took photos of them. The events began at the moment Max died, as wind chimes tinkled on the deck at home, where he passed, even though it was a perfectly still day. In that first year, the bathroom wall made a loud clanging noise, and I saw the wall undulating, with no apparent cause that plumbers, pest control experts or I could find. Receipts with uncanny timely connections to Max fell out of books, such as the Father’s Day card from his mother that fell out of a book I picked randomly from literally thousands in Max’s library. It fell out on the Father’s Day just after Max died, as I was feeling melancholy and alone. Max’s mother had written in the card that she had never seen him happier, and she said she knew it was because of our presence in his life. Clocks repeatedly stopped at 12:44 p.m., the exact time of Max’s death. Lights flickered in our house. I would hear knocks on the door and no one was there. Those are just a few of the events in the first year.

We know it took a while for you to trust your instincts and quiet the "rational" part of your mind; how did you allow yourself to acknowledge and accept what was happening around you?

At first, I didn’t. I just sort of blocked it out. I must have imagined these things. I’m just in grief and not seeing clearly. They were just coincidences. There must be some other explanation that I just couldn’t pin down. I compartmentalized them. I would figure them out later. It was just too much to try to analyze while I was grieving and holding on by my fingernails to take on life’s challenges. But the handprint on the mirror triggered something in me, and I grew more uncomfortable with ignoring these things. They were something, for sure. But what? My journey to find out unfolded gradually, over many years.

How has this changed your outlook and relationships in your life?

I see the world very differently now. I believe my experiences with Max before, during and after his death healed and brought peace to a lifelong difficult relationship with my mother. I have more wonder and excitement at life’s possibilities. I’m not afraid of death and separation as much as I once was. I feel and accept the power of love. I treasure the people in my life more. I pay more attention. I feel watched over, more trusting of the universe. I’m more open, more accepting. And I know that the people in my life are connected to me in ways that transcend our physical time in this life.

How can we all benefit from believing in the unexplainable?

First of all, it just makes sense that there are things we can’t explain. Man’s existence is a constant search to explain our world and ourselves, so resisting that is to resist something inherently human. We can benefit from the excitement of knowing how much possibility lies ahead, that there are great connections and love to discover. And we can benefit from a sense of peace that all is right with the universe, even if we don’t fully understand it yet.

p.s. To hear more about The Hand on the Mirror and Janis Heaphy Durham, like the book on Facebook or Follow Grand Central Publishing on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram #HandontheMirror

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