Unbearable Loss: Shannon Varley Part 5

This is Part 5 of Shannon Varley’s story. Click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

I visited Shannon a few times after they moved into the finished house. I got to see her give pedicures to her sheep (meaning: cut their toenails and get covered in sheep dung), watch a sheep shearing done by a traveling woman shearer, watch Shannon put in her family garden (a larger market garden would be planted the following year), and generally hang out with the pigs and sheep and chickens and listen to Shannon’s plans for the farm.

But on December 12, 2014, exactly 11 months after the grand unveiling of the remarkable renovation, the house burned down in a raging fire.

 photo courtesy Shannon Varley

photo courtesy Shannon Varley

As in: burned…to…the…ground. As in: everything lost. Their clothes, the kids’ toys, the furniture, Shannon’s grandmother’s china stored so cozy in the cabinet, the Christmas decorations the kids were making. Everything. Including their dog and cat.

Shannon Varley's Grandmother's china

This is the part of Shannon’s story that is almost too painful for me to tell.

Here’s what happened. Shannon needed feed for the animals, so she and the kids made a trip to Frederick. BJ was at work. While they were gone, the dog knocked over a lamp inside the house, which started a fire. BJ arrived at the scene first, alerted by a coworker who had been driving by. By the time BJ reached Shannon on her cell phone and she made it back,  fire trucks blocked the road and her access, so she had to circle all the way back around the mountain to reach the house.

When she arrived the house was engulfed in flames and all she could do was stand and watch. As she watched her house and dream burn to the ground, she says she began to laugh maniacally. “After all we’ve been through, this happens? How fucking hard does it have to be to have a farm?”

Grief and gratitude

After the maniacal laughter, the shock and incredulity, the tears came. Shannon says she cried a lot (I mean, who wouldn’t?) and had many, many sleepless nights. But here’s the inspiring thing about this truly remarkable woman. She says that 10% of her crying came from loss and grief, but 90% of it came from gratitude.

Shannon Varley's burned farmhouse being razed.

It continues to move me that she can access gratitude in the face of such unbearable loss. Here’s the Facebook post that she sent out just five days after the fire:

“The enormity of compassion, kindness, love, and grace that has poured into our lives leaves us speechless. Tenderness has come from the most unexpected places. We are humbled. We have had to go down into our grief the last few days, which is the only way to go so that we can come up and out of it. It was just a house, yes, but many of you know it was so much more. It was our heart, our hands, the effort and time of so many people that love us and wanted to see our farm dream become a reality. After years of chasing it. This has become a cold, hard lesson in the art of letting go. It has also given us an unexpected gift. It has shown us over and over again, the beauty, grace, & selflessness of the human spirit: of so many of you. Words will never do this event or the range of emotions it has invoked justice. We have needed to know that you are there rallying around us: the calls, texts, e-mails, messages, hugs, thoughts–we have needed them all. I am sorry we have not been able to respond. We will as soon as we can. I want to say “thank you” from the deepest places of my and BJ’s heart. We are ok. Life carries on. There are far greater griefs in the world. We wrap our arms around each other and give thanks.”

And we hold you in our hearts, Shannon.

Spending time with Shannon while she worked has been the start of my education about farming, and she has been tremendously generous with her time and knowledge. Just being on her farm with her has helped soothe some tough patches in my own life. She’s an inspiration to me and a dear friend, and I can’t read her words about the fire without crying all over again.

The final installment of Shannon’s story will bring you up to date with how she and her family have been able to pull themselves together and carry on. You can read it here.

Shannon Varley's straw hat

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  1. Pingback: Grounded Women - Moving on After Grief: Shannon Varley Part 6

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