The Weight of an Elephant

The Weight of an Elephant

May 27th, 2012  |  Published in Books

By Mali Phonpadith

An excerpt from the book A Million Fireflies

Mina turned off the television and sat on the other couch with Cheryl. I turned toward the glass doors overlooking my back yard and remembered my two dogs. I went through the motion of feeding the labs, crying when I saw them running around in the backyard, not knowing if they could sense what was happening. To this day, I am convinced they knew. That night, for the first time in years, Shiloh jumped onto the bed to lie next to me. I didn’t ask her to get down.

My sister lit a candle that night. I prayed for a peaceful recovery the next day and cannot remember how long it took me to fall asleep. I woke up at 5:45 a.m. with a vision of Chris walking shirtless in his swimming trunks alongside the riverbank. He was walking away from me.

We found Chris’s body at 1:27 p.m. on July 28, 2003; almost exactly one full day from the time he disappeared. I was grateful the rescue team was able to bring him to the surface so we could move forward with some sense of closure. I felt the physical pain of this closure. The lights in my world remained off for a very long time.

She arrived that day – the elephant that came to sit upon my chest. The weight showed up the very second I heard the screaming lady running toward me from the river. It felt like a jolt to my body, as though someone threw a brick that struck my chest and pierced the skin. It lodged between my lungs and stuck there, without any way of extracting it from my body.

Once I got used to the caved in feeling, it didn’t feel like a brick at all. I had visions of an elephant in my dream, coming to sit on me while I was lying down to rest. The analogy of an elephant was more appropriate. That lazy, slow-moving elephant wanted nothing more to do than to eat at my emotions and sleep upon my heart. I felt no pulse; I had difficulty breathing. Her weight grew heavier after that day, and over the many days and months that followed. There were times in the first three months when I truly felt as though I needed to gasp for air in order to feel anything flow through my lungs. It would take two years before my elephant lost some weight.

The months that followed, the steps that I took, the elephant that showed up to sit upon my chest — these things gave me many words with which to fill up my journals. Outside of my family and friends showing up to support me, I needed to find other ways to grieve and to heal. I felt so smothered by care and love that I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to pretend to be all right with my family. I didn’t want to have to shed (or hide) tears. I just wanted to “be” and I was frustrated every day because I didn’t know what “being” meant in this circumstance.

Initially, I dealt with the elephant by simply living with her weight; I didn’t have the energy to try and lift her. I was angry but I was more numb than anything, so numb that I couldn’t feel anything but the heaviness. Because she was all I felt, and all I knew, I began to take comfort in her presence, and she became a part of me. I was lonely, and my elephant of grief was, in many ways, my only companion. I didn’t believe anyone else in the world could understand the depth of my shock and pain.

Because I felt so isolated, I overcompensated for a while by socializing and networking “for business opportunities” every night. I wanted to hear the sounds of people, to fill my life back up with movement and laughter as much and as often as possible, because it kept me from having too much time alone in my empty home. There were two places I found refuge from my pain. I felt safest to express my pain when I was all alone in the shower and when reaching for my journals to write out the emotions, trying to express how I was feeling in each moment. I didn’t talk much about my feelings. I wrote them. Then, I hid them in my dresser drawer so no one else had to feel what I felt. The writing all came to me in the form of poetry and prose, never full stories.

I started to listen to myself and began to hear more clearly with each word I wrote. I dreamt of Chris almost every night for three months, documenting his visits each morning as soon as I opened my eyes. I wrote between my coffee breaks and the moment I got home each night. Before long, I began to see myself in a different light as well.

Brighter Evening Skies
Nothing has changed
Every day grows longer
The weeks fly away
I place my head gently upon my pillows each night
I rise to the sun shining through my window blinds
My heart continues to grow stronger
My strength remains stable
I take refuge behind the shower curtains
Rinsing my body
Scraping away the pain.
I never imagined how strong my heart could be.
If I can survive these unbearable days,
I am surely capable of embracing brighter evening skies to come.

When I wrote, I wrote in poetry about the questions in my mind: Where did my loved ones go after death? Could they hear me, see me, feel me? I wrote about being angry at the Universe and about my questions concerning faith and the meaning of life. I wrote love poems to my loved ones. I just wrote whatever my mind and heart were in conflict over. It was my way of releasing the poison from my spirit, releasing the tears, and letting go of the anger and resentment. I wrote to free myself of negative and unhealthy thoughts. I wrote because writing was the only thing that gave me any solace and peace from the darkness of doubt, uncertainty and anger that things didn’t go the way I planned.


Mali Phonpadith is the CEO and Chief Messaging Strategist of Mali Creative, a messaging firm that helps businesses develop powerful messaging to communicate their vision with passion, clarity and impact. Mali earned her Bachelor’s Degrees in International Business, Marketing and Spanish from the University of Maryland, College Park. Mali also developed a personal development program to help clients align their gifts, talents, hobbies and interest with their life’s purpose. She facilitates this work through her retreats and workshops nationally. She is also a speaker, singer, songwriter, poet, and author. The International Society of Poets nominated her as “Best Poet of the Year” in 2007. In 2011, she authored two books, her memoir, A Million Fireflies and a collaborative publication with three other entrepreneurs, Seen and Sustained: Best Practices in Communication that Increases Visibility of Small and Diverse Businesses. For more information, visit