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2013 July 16
by Rachel Turiel

My friend Sara Sunshine Wakefield died last week. Even after I get the first e-mail, “Cause of death is not known, but it sounds like it was health related,” the place in my brain that stores “believable factoids,” spits this news back out. Must be a mistake. If you took a random sample of ten 35-year old Americans, Sara would win, hands down, the most likely to live to ninety. She was young and strong and fit and resilient in a way that allowed her to continually reinvent herself, each incarnation more inspiring than the last.

I actually click out of e-mail to check the weather report for my upcoming backpacking trip, trying to shake this impossible news from my mind like a dog after a swim.


Sara and I were apprentices together in the late 90’s at Hummingbird Herbals. We chopped pungent finger-thick roots in the herb shop kitchen and plucked sunny arnica flowers together in the forest. She had a black dog named Bear who went everywhere with her, and more smiles per hour than the average extremely happy person.


Sara Sunshine, 1977 – 2013.

I remember her winter wedding: her midwestern Mama toting trays of hardy homemade casseroles from the kitchen; Sara’s baby daughter in frilly white; the way Sara herself MC-ed the toasts, manning the mic—tipsy on the enormity of her own wedding—adding to people’s hilarious stories about her, supplying forgotten details, and having the best time of anyone.

Because I am the poster child for “moves slow,” I was usually two steps behind Sara’s latest reinvention of herself. While I was still excited for the natural foods store she and a friend opened in Mancos (because there wasn’t any store that sold organic food, Sara just up and started her own), she had sold her share and begun grad school. While I was still enamored over her urban homestead in Mancos (she was the first person I knew to have chickens), she was divorcing and selling her house. While I celebrated her as a free-spirit wild child, she was running the Durango Manna Soup Kitchen, as Executive Director thankyouverymuch. Her frequent “moving on” was not of laziness or dissatisfaction, rather, it seemed her calling to pour her heart into creating amazing things, before moving on to bless something new.


After getting the news, I leave the next day on a backpacking trip with some friends, because as I told some Mama-friends recently, “Girls backpacking trips are the new thing! Leave those babies with the Daddys!”

The mountains are so breathtaking it’s almost painful. My heart is scarcely sufficient to truly take it in. I want to sweep the whole landscape into my hands and stash it in my pocket. Even the biting flies, the lightning shaking the sky, and damp boots are the small hardships that make the sun’s sudden appearance akin to a biblical miracle. The mountain weather changes faster than you can have an opinion about it. The monsoons have begun and the ground  is swollen with water. Rain-fed creeks fling themselves dramatically over waterfalls. The plants exhale greenness.


I think of Sara as I walk, as I fall asleep under my tarp, first thing in the morning. I can still hear her voice perfectly. In my memory she is grabbing my shoulder, nodding and laughing, taking life’s hard knocks and burying them in a compost pile called, “that was yesterday.”


Oh, just a little hail not melting at 11,500.

Here in the mountains there is no ambivalence, no sentimentality. There’s nothing to evaluate, nowhere that my small human opinion matters. Rain falls, seeds crack open, roots stretch, flowers burst, pollinators visit, new seeds form, drop and wait for winter. Animals kill and eat and die. Every living thing has its niche, living on the spectrum: face value. The patches of yellow arnica—some in full glowing bloom, others already turned to wispy seeds—are both unapologetically themselves.


I can’t make sense of Sara’s death, it just feels all wrong. I keep thinking there must be some mean and grumpy recluse in say, Chickasha, Oklahoma, we should be able to substitute for her; a quick and easy exchange, no questions asked. I dedicated this backpacking trip to Sara, but wasn’t really sure what that meant. To me, afterlife is how the molecules that were Sara merge with the Universe, or how we share Sara’s stories with her daughter, which feels like a bum deal compared to having your actual mother. After walking a few days, I know that I dedicate this trip to those of us who remain, that we may remember to follow our hearts, to cultivate inner and outer peace, and to be grateful for our lives on this planet today.

In gratitude for the teacher she was.



Cause of death appears to be non-viral meningitis and pneumonia.







37 Responses leave one →
  1. July 16, 2013

    Wow Rachel, I am so sorry to hear this. Just plain sad and unfair. You have such lovely memories of her and such a nice tribute you have written. God Bless you and Sara. ♥

  2. Sabrina permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Beautifully written.

  3. Auntie Jan permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Oh Rachel, how sad. For you, her daughter, family and friends. She sounds like such a lovely person and I wish I had known her. Really, though, what you wrote made me feel as though I did. It’s a beautiful tribute. xoxo

  4. July 16, 2013

    Heartbreaking news, but a lovely tribute.

  5. Judy permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Rachel – So sorry to hear of the loss of this dear friend. So hard to make sense of something like this. May her spirit – so well evoked here – continue living in many hearts.

  6. Susan S permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Not fair. Sometimes I think death is more about the survivors than the loved one whose molecules, as you say, are already moving on to participate in another form of life. You are the seeds that Sara’s daughter, when she’s ready, will plant in her Mom garden and grow flowers that she would never have known, had you not been there to help her recognize them. She will have whole harvests of remembrance. It’s cold comfort, I know. Remembrance is no substitute for presence. It’s almost unbearable, no? But you’ll preserve memories like sweet fruit, assurance of plenty and comfort later on. Wonderful, gifted, unique Sara will not be forgotten.

    I’m so sorry to hear about this, Rachel. I’ll be keeping you and Sara’s family in my thoughts.

  7. July 16, 2013

    However, wherever, her molecules have merged with the Universe, they are sparkling peace down on you now, friend. Again, I’m so, so sorry for this terrible, terrible thing.

  8. July 16, 2013

    Oh Rachel, I’m so very sorry. I am grateful to the teacher she was to you–and in your memories of her–to me. And I’m also grateful that she had you as a friend. In that she was very lucky. I’m thinking of you and sending lots of love.


  9. July 16, 2013

    No words. Blessings — to you, your friend, her family …


  10. July 16, 2013


    And my most sincere, heartfelt condolences. xo

  11. Ellen permalink
    July 16, 2013

    I’m so sorry — my deepest sympathies to you and Sara’s family and other friends. It takes a long time to wrap one’s mind around such a sudden and inexplicable thing.

  12. July 16, 2013

    Ohhh, Rachel… I am so sorry for your loss. What a beautiful spirit she was! May she keep living through you and everybody she touches with her amazing light!

  13. Amy Carney permalink
    July 16, 2013

    That is a bum deal my worst fear Is that I won’t be here to watch my children grow or to see them have their own children, I love the way you write and I’m so sorry for your loss thank you for sharing and your pictures are beautiful I’m sure Sara would be proud to have you pay tribute to her in such a heavenly way

  14. Jamie Gustine permalink
    July 16, 2013

    Once again your writing leads to a feeling, an impression, a knowing. And, even though I do not know your friend I FEEL the loss and am reminded of what we all lose when a loved one is gone. As always, thank you Rachel

  15. Jaime Becktel permalink
    July 17, 2013

    I only met Sara twice (once at Michael and Minna’s wedding and once at a party at Farmer Dave’s. She was introduced to me as Sunshine and I recall thinking, “That suits her.” I can see so clearly how special she was, and I am so grateful and honored to know her sweet and incredible daughter, Ellie/Beth/Lizzie, who seems to have inherited her mama’s playful ability to reinvent herself! I wish I could have know Sara on a personal level, but at least I get to know her through story and tales of her uniqueness. She was beautiful.

  16. July 17, 2013

    What a beautiful and heartbreaking tribute. So sorry for your loss, but grateful for the existence of friendships like what you describe.

  17. Susan permalink
    July 17, 2013

    Your beautiful memories of Sara made me think of a gorgeous hummingbird, zooming from one source of nectar to another at the speed of light – so lively, so weightless, so intensely focused. I find comfort in the belief that some people simply need to transition from one form of energy to another; the goodness and love they shared on our plane of existence simply expands beyond our comprehension. I choose Rumi (and other poets and sages) to name the unnameable:
    “Out beyond the edges of wrongdoing and rightdoing
    there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
    When the soul lies down in that grass,
    the world is too full to talk about.
    Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”
    She wants you to dance in the rain on a high mountain pass, gloriously happy and free. Which really means: more girls backpacking trips to plan and celebrate!

  18. Michele permalink
    July 17, 2013

    I am so extremely sorry to hear of your friends passing Rachel. Hugs. Michele

  19. Emmanuelle permalink
    July 17, 2013

    Oh Rachel, this is such a sad and beautiful ode to your friend. And to everything she created, all of which is still there, vibrant.

    She reminds me incredibly of a dear friend of mine, who is in fact the same age and looks strikingly like Sara. I have been meaning to write to her for the past few weeks, and I will do so tonight…

    Sending you many hugs.

  20. July 17, 2013

    So Sorry. If you believe in crossing over and not that it is the end then you should know that you were walking with Sara in those mountains. We go where are dreams are. While reading and looking at your pictures that is what I saw. You and Sara looking out over the mountains together.

  21. Matt permalink
    July 17, 2013

    Rachel that was beautiful. You obviously knew Sara. I was Sara’s man (as she loved to refer to me.) I hardly had grown to realize her influence and spreading of love. Thank you for your eloquence and Please call me when you have a chance. 970-769-2531.

  22. July 17, 2013

    that sucks. i have some very similar thoughts about our friend we lost a few weeks ago. you cannot wrap your brain and heart around losing someone so young and healthy. i wish your heart some healing…. and many happy memories of your friend. which i know you will share with her daughter….
    it’s sort of awful, but after we lost nick i was reading wild (suggested by you) and there is this part in it where she talks about the universe not giving a crap about fair. it struck a chord with me, in that moment. it was like someone telling me shit’s not fair. what matters is how you go on. painful as it may be. slowly as it may be. but you go on. i cried so much when i read that book….. but it was absolutely what my soul needed in that moment. thanks for that.
    much love to you girl….

  23. July 17, 2013

    Rachel, thank you for this tribute and for all the ways you use words to weave us all together. This piece has helped me process our loss.

  24. zoe permalink
    July 17, 2013

    Oh Rachel… I’m so sorry! Truly beautiful and moving writing. Man, this time in July keeps bringing loss and pain. The first anniversay of Jim’s death was mere days ago, other friends have had sudden loss and other catastrophe…
    So wonderful that you had her light in your life! I have no doubt that you’ll carry that always. <3

  25. July 17, 2013

    this is a lovely tribute. i love that you remember her as a force, a teacher, someone that lived life deeply.

  26. July 17, 2013

    Im so so sorry x

  27. Andrea permalink
    July 17, 2013


    life and death. its a real son of a bitch. i am so glad you were able to share time with this gal in the physical world. she sounds awesome. may your grief be short and swift. and may you continue to hear her voice clearly, always.

    big cyber hug.

  28. kristi permalink
    July 17, 2013

    SO beautiful, rachel. thanks so much for that. i read her obituary and it just didn’t capture her at all. this captured her essence perfectly. of course i am not surprised. you are so fabulous.


  29. July 18, 2013

    Truly sorry Rachel, and peace to beautiful Sara.

  30. July 18, 2013

    love and hugs. i want to think there are people who are so awesome at self-transformation that even in death they can make it more than other people ever could. (like the guy in oklahoma). true that memory is no replacement for a little girl having her mama, and nothing will change that, least of all my meager offering of words. but i do think her molecules are already showing up in their new format, right here and now. i wish you well during your time of grieving.

  31. July 19, 2013

    So sorry to hear of your loss…. This is a beautiful tribute.

  32. Alanya permalink
    July 19, 2013

    Rachel, I am so very sorry. I’m glad you were able to honor your friend in this moving way.

  33. Sean Madden permalink
    July 30, 2013

    I too, could not process the news of Sara’s passing. Still can’t really. Her spirit is a guide to follow your heart pushing fears aside, to shine each day as the fire in her heart burned bright. To focus when the path becomes cloudy, to elevate in a world that knows small levity. Maybe this is the why she had to go… Thank you for your piece (peace) and sharing to allow me to touch in.

  34. August 16, 2013

    Sending good thoughts and love your way.

  35. Geoffrey Wood permalink
    September 9, 2015

    Oh my. That was wonderful. I lived with Sara many moons ago, and shared much with her. Had a dream last night that lead me to look her up today — we last chatted on Facebook several years ago. Couldn’t believe what I found, like you, thought it had to be some mistake, that she would long outlive me. But this essay and one other I found, no doubt it’s the same person. Thanks for sharing your loving memories.

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