Giving Grief Meaning

On the night of July 29, 2009, “all semblance of order ceased” for Lily Dulan ’03, ’06 (Antioch Los Angeles, MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Clinical Psychology). Her precious two-month-old baby girl Kara, “was taken before the birds came to usher in the light.” Sudden infant death syndrome left Dulan in despair even as she still felt a jabbing pain from a Cesarean section. Exhausted from two months in the hospital before Kara’s birth, and feeling anxious after nearly five years of fertility treatments that included taking powerful hormone medications, Dulan was in a downward spiral.

Ten years later, her journey of spiritual healing and exploration of human development culminated in the writing of Giving Grief Meaning: A Method for Transforming Deep Suffering into Healing and Positive Change, which will be published December 1, 2020. The book, published by Mango Press, is in part, “a guide to finding new purpose in life by embodying the beauty and power of a name.”

The Name Work is a therapeutic modality that includes assigning positive attributes to each letter in the name of a loved one during challenging times. Dulan’s introspective process, often difficult but ultimately enlightening, helped her cope with her trauma, grief, loss, and pain and enabled her to honor her child. Working with letters in her daughter’s name, KARA evolved to represent kindness, alignment, regeneration, and action. The Name Work method emphasizes breathing and meditative exercises, daily affirmations, chanting, movement, writing, questioning, constructive inner dialogue, and positive conversations.

Dulan’s path to self-confidence and a productive sense of self and direction took root at Antioch. “I was lost at the time, and the professors saw potential in me,” she says. “They believed in me before I could even believe in myself.”

The poet Eloise Klein Healy, founder of the MFA in Creative Writing Program, pushed Dulan to creatively confront obstacles that had hindered her own growth. Dr. Sara Winter, who taught a spiritual psychology course in the MA in Clinical Psychology program, helped her move beyond her obsession with self and to establish a greater connection with family, friends, and the larger society.

Lily Dulan Family

Dulan identifies as queer and thinks human sexuality is fluid, and she thinks we as humans tend to put each other in little boxes. “The LGBTQ community too often is marginalized and erased from history,” Dulan says. “We need to heal our toxic shame, stand affirmatively, and let who we are shine through.” At Antioch, Dulan supported the LGBT Specialization in Clinical Psychology and participated in the Colors LGBTQ Youth Counseling Center, both founded by Dr. Douglas Sadownick. “This amazing teacher and these innovative programs tethered me to life,” she says. “What I learned and experienced helped me emerge from the grieving process a stronger and wiser therapist and mother.”

Fifty-year-old Dulan, a marriage and family therapist, has been sober for almost two decades. “I had deep feelings of unworthiness and was drinking a lot,” she says. “I wondered why I couldn’t fit in.” Fortunately, a psychology course in addiction at Antioch, an internship at a drug and rehabilitation center, and guidance from a therapist provided the impetus for change. Dulan had taken “a moral inventory” and didn’t like what she saw. Twelve years of therapy and interaction with Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher and psychologist, as well as a focus on her academic studies, changed the trajectory of her life.

“Before recovery, my messages to myself were hateful, and that can grind you down,” Dulan says. At Antioch she learned, “Think, Learn, Do,” and it encouraged her to get involved in community building. A profound interest in the welfare of impoverished children took her to Bhaktapur, Nepal, to volunteer at the Unatti Group Home for Girls. This nonprofit organization provides comprehensive programs for girls who live in vulnerable situations to help them become enlightened, empowered leaders.

Each October, Dulan hosts a fundraiser for The Kara Love Project, the nonprofit Dulan created in memory of her daughter, in her backyard. The event also supports nonprofits that help children, including the Unatti Group Home for Girls, Foster Nation, Camp Brave Trails for LGBTQ youth, Congo Peace School, and Venice Art summer camp. Ensuring education for under-appreciated children is a long-term concern for Dulan, who earned a Master’s in Teaching at Simmons College and subsequently taught ESL at a community college in Kansas City, Missouri, after a brief stint as a cosmetologist.

Giving Grief Meaning book cover

“I now see all these false starts and pitfalls as blessings, and I grew from all of them,” Dulan says. “But having an infant die at home shattered my world. It could have killed me if I didn’t have an increasingly sturdy foundation that I started to shape at Antioch.”

Dulan and her husband adopted two baby girls who are now ten and seven years old. “Kara came and went so I would adopt these children,” she says. “Her memory challenges me to do better. I might not have stayed sober if she had not died. I want my life to be a testimony to goodness and activism because of Kara’s death.”

Dulan finds sustenance and deliverance in nature. “There are robin redbreasts in my backyard that were a favorite of my grandmother who reminds me of Kara,” she says. “These birds are rare in this area where I live in a canyon. I think they represent the spirit and beauty of Kara that continues to inspire me to help others.”

Andrew D. Lachman

Andrew Lachman ’71 (Antioch College, MA) is a freelance journalist and former high school and community college teacher who earned graduate degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, and Antioch. He is a member of UC Santa Cruz’s pioneer class and a proud banana slug.