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The Path of Grief


When Covid swept around the world early last year, Kate and I saw it as the long-awaited trigger event that would mark the start of the great unraveling of the current world system, and the beginning in earnest of our transition to a fundamentally new era. We felt well placed with our work in collective healing to offer support during this transitional period. Indeed, like many others, we felt we had been preparing for such a moment for a long time. Little did we know how personally we would be touched by the force of the crisis. 


As I’ve mentioned previously, I contracted Covid myself in October last year, and developed long-haul symptoms that lasted a good six months. It was a challenging and at times scary descent into chronic illness, something I had never experienced before. As we delved more deeply into the research to help me with my recovery, Kate realized that she too had been dealing with a number of debilitating long-haul symptoms. The illness catalyzed an intensive process of learning for us about health and healing and thankfully we are both doing much better. But during this time Kate’s father was diagnosed with a serious form of lymphoma cancer. And, just as I was coming out of Covid, we discovered that our beloved dog Jackson had also developed cancer. For several months, we tried absolutely everything we could think of to give Jackson a chance to recover, but, so sadly, his health deteriorated and in late June we had to say goodbye. 


Jackson’s passing was an unexpected and exquisitely painful loss that brought us up close to the mystery of death in the most personal way possible. In this long post I’d like to share some reflections on what I’ve been learning on this path of grief. With all the loss so many of us are facing in our crisis-stricken world today, I hope it may be helpful for your own journey of grief too.



 


Kate and I had twelve beautiful years with Jackson. He was for us just the perfect dog, we loved everything about him. He and I had a particularly special bond. He followed me wherever I went and slept by my side every night. He was my personal Daemon. We were so proud of his ability to meet every dog challenge with gusto, and his brave, gentle, loving soul brought joy wherever he went. 





In January he developed a cough that would not go away. When we took him to the vet, x-rays showed one side of his lungs already fully occluded, but they didn’t know what it was. It took a long time and several tests later to find out it was cancer. 


For the next few months we dropped everything to support his healing process. Our living room became a kind of new age hospital, packed with conventional and holistic medical tools as we did everything we could to create an optimal environment for his healing. We truly felt that it was not his time to go, and that there was a viable path to recovery. In the end, sadly, it became evident that the cancer had already advanced too far for us to be able to save him.


One day it finally became obvious that we needed to release him from his suffering. 

His actual passing was unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful. After months of labored breathing, we were so very relieved to feel him finally returned to peace. We held a poignant ceremony for him back at our home in Mendocino, before burying his body in our backyard. 


Losing Jackson so soon was unthinkable to us. Not only does his breed usually live quite a bit longer, he had such a larger-than-life presence that it just seemed somehow he would be with us forever. The situation was complicated by the fact that the source of the cancer seemed to us likely to be a rabies vaccination he received in December. We learned that, although uncommon, rabies vaccinations have been known to cause precisely the kind of sarcoma cancer that Jackson developed.  As dog parents who did our best to provide the optimal conditions for Jackson’s health and wellbeing, this was very difficult to accept. His loss propelled us onto a path of intense grief, as we processed our feelings and tried to make sense of it all. 


About a week after Jackson passed, I posted the news on Facebook. I had hesitated about sharing such an intimate event on that platform, imagining that the responses I would get back could never do justice to the profundity of the loss. But I received a deluge of deeply felt messages and was surprised how much they affected me. 


A couple of days later I made another FB post: 

As I was sitting with my grief last night, all of your messages of love and sympathy came back into my awareness. I could feel the collective field holding me and Kate with such tenderness. That field of support enabled me to open to feelings of sadness and pain at losing Jackson that I had been unable to access on my own. Feeling these intense feelings with the support of all of you allowed them to move through me, cleansing me and helping me to come back into greater alignment with reality. 


Coming closer to reality also brought me back in touch with the mystery that is the source of reality. And being in touch with the mystery, I found myself connected to the dimension of reality that does not die, the eternal realm. From here Jackson came into my awareness through my heart. I felt our connection again, as clear and real as ever. Our heart connection was like a bridge between our world and the eternal realm. An insight arose — all through his life, my love for him was dogged (pun intended) with a subtle anxiety based on the awareness that one day he would die, and that this would bring heartbreak. But now there is no need for that fear. I can love him now with the unafraid fullness of my heart for eternity. 


This experience does not take the pain of the loss away. I can’t escape the grieving process or bypass my pain. I miss Jackson’s physical presence so deeply.  But it helped show me how grief can be a doorway into the mystery, into the other realms…..


Don’t ever think that your messages of care for those who have lost loved ones is just a formality. Your love weaves with others to create a cocoon around the grieving person that is crucial for their capacity to be with their experience, and to heal. Thank you for being there for me.” 


I don’t like Facebook for various reasons and hardly ever use it. But in this instance I was grateful for the way it enabled me to feel held and witnessed by my community. 


In most pre-modern cultures, it has always been understood that grief is a communal experience. As grief counselor Francis Weller says, the process of grief requires two elements, containment and release, and we cannot provide both of these for ourselves. When we lose someone we love, we are confronted with the most piercing and fearsome sorrow imaginable. If we feel held by our community in those moments, the pain can be distributed across the field and becomes bearable. Each person carries a little bit of the pain for us, and this helps. We can then allow ourselves to feel the awful reality of the loss all the way, and let the sorrow move through us. Otherwise our unshed tears accumulate inside and weigh us down, possibly for the rest of our lives. 



 


The grief comes in many layers and stages. It’s too big to feel all at once. You let out as much as you can handle at any given time. There is the acute early stage, in which the tears flow freely. We are broken down and become soft like little children. The emotional pain at this time can be lacerating, but there is also a sweetness that can come, an exquisite tenderness. We are brought into a deeper intimacy with life. I felt my heart broken open in new ways, and I became more available to friends and family. My defenses had been breached, and the walls of my separate self fell down. 


At a certain point, the grief became less acute and settled into depression. I would wake up with just a dull, heavy ache and the awareness of that awful hole where Jackson used to be. This can often be the hardest part, and it was for me. While the pain may be more intense in the early phase, at least our tears wash our hearts clean and leave us feeling alive. Depression just feels deadening, as though we might be pulled down into its thick tar and never come out. One day, the constancy of this downward pull scared me a little and I went into the forest to ask for guidance. 


The message that came back was to be patient. “Your depression is an expression of the depth of your love for Jackson. It is the afterglow of great love, of a life deeply loved.” 


Seeing it in this way, as a natural expression of love, helped me not to fear my depression, but to accept it and be tender with it. At the same time, I knew it was not healthy for me to wallow in the depression. I took conscious steps to eat healthy food, do gentle exercise, walk in the sunshine, get out of the house. Working with depression involves walking a fine line between allowing it but not collapsing under it. Feeling the heaviness, curling in when we need to, but still choosing to do healthy things for ourselves where possible. 



 


For anyone on a path of spiritual development, the process of dealing with the loss of a loved one represents a tremendously powerful time of transformation. It will surface all the young and unhealed parts of one’s soul, the remnants of previous losses that we were not able to metabolize, that closed us off from trust in life. Our motivation to acknowledge and heal these parts now arises from a much deeper place of sincerity and determination. Because now it’s real. Now it’s not just some spiritual exercise you do. Now you know that your ability to remain connected to the reality of a love that is precious to you depends on how well you navigate this passage. 


I became conspicuously aware that my feelings of grief and reactive distress were obstacles to my ability to feel my connection with Jackson. I knew I had to feel and process everything that had been activated in me in order to be available again to the mystery, through which all is connected. I was thus determined to be more deeply honest with myself than ever about what was in the way. 


The night before Jackson passed, when it finally became obvious that this was really the end — that in the morning we were actually going to drive to the vet to do the procedure that would end his life — something had welled up in me from a deep and primitive place that was simply furious at God. I couldn’t see the justice or logic in what was happening. I had prayed so deeply and sincerely for Jackson to be healed, and a part of me had truly expected those prayers to be answered. I just couldn’t believe that God would see fit to take Jackson away from me. So I let Him have it. I raged at God, shook my fist at Him, called Him every filthy name under the sun. My inner beast came out, and it was ugly. 


It was a little shocking to recognize this part of me. As a boy I had been a particularly strong-willed child. My parents hadn’t really known what to do with this part of me, the little temper-tantrum throwing tyrant I could be when things didn’t go my way. I had learned to bury this part deep inside beneath an easy going exterior. And for all my years of spiritual development, all my work to align my personal will with the greater will, deep within this willful part had not been touched. It still felt that, when it really came down to it, I could and should get what I wanted. 


Yet now I was being shown that, in matters of life and death, it’s really not in my hands. I had thought, through a subtle spiritual pride, that the power of my prayers would bring me the outcome I wanted. That surely, given all the work I’m doing to bring healing to the world, the divine would respond to this special personal request. But no. I was confronted with the stark awareness that the timing of when we or our loved ones leave is truly in the hands of larger forces. It may just be someone’s time to go, and all the prayers in the world are not going to change that fact. 


I thought it had been my job to teach Jackson how to behave. But in the end, it was Jackson who took me to obedience school. 


Bringing this willful part to consciousness was deeply transformative for me. It represented a kind of root structure of my separate self, with branches that reached into many different parts of my psyche. 


It wasn’t — isn’t — an easy thing to process. I was desperate to connect with Jackson, but the pain was so acute. I was still so mad. I hadn’t wanted him to go. I hadn’t let him go, he was prized out of my grip. There were layers of shame on top of the anger, and layers of hurt beneath it. I wanted to feel everything all the way through, but I couldn’t. I had to titrate the feelings, bit by bit. Sometimes I would say to myself, “even if it’s just one trillionth of one percent of the pain, feel that.” 


Gradually, though, the feelings worked their way through and insights started to come. I saw that this was the same part of me that stubbornly avoided leaning into key places of vulnerability in my relationship with Kate. It was the same part of me that tried in various ways to manage the unfolding of my work in order to fit my own notion of success, rather than trusting in life’s direction.The same part that willfully persisted in unhealthy habits even when I knew it was not in my higher interests to do so. 


I finally recognized that this stubborn part of me was, deep down, afraid of death. It seemed to believe it had some kind of control over when I would die. I knew of course that I was going to die one day. But this part felt sure that death would happen many decades from now, thank you very much; some distant future when I was old and decrepit. While a natural death in old age might be a universal desire, what I saw with penetrating clarity is that the timing of my death is really, truly, not in my hands. Recognizing this brought me closer to the presence of death itself. To my surprise, I felt its sweetness. I sensed death not as the enemy of life, but its intimate and loving ally. Something deep within me relaxed and unwound. I felt myself surrender to the forces of life and death at a much deeper level. No longer resisting death, I felt myself to be a more natural part of life. Whatever happens from here, I know I will be natural in a new way. This was one of the profound gifts of Jackson’s passing. 



 


In addition to working through our feelings about our loss, the other crucial dimension of the grieving process is the task of transitioning to a new kind of relationship with the one who has died. In our modern culture, a significant barrier to making this transition is the belief that death is simply the end of the relationship. We think that all we have left are memories of the times we shared when our loved one was alive. We have no context in our culture for the possibility that death involves a transformation of the relationship, not its end. 


This is not simply a question of personal belief. From the mainstream perspective of scientific materialism, consciousness cannot survive outside of the body. It is no wonder, then, that our culture has next to nothing meaningful to say about the mystery of death. Almost every pre-modern culture, in contrast, had some understanding of the after-life, along with the processes and rituals that facilitate the transition to a new kind of relationship with our loved ones on the other side. 


Most of us have subconsciously internalized the reductive materialist paradigm in the form of a strong inner skeptic which reflexively rejects any aspect of our experience that does not fit the materialist framework. This part of our mental structure creates a kind of psychic boundary that constrains our ability to remain open to subtler dimensions of experience. 

This is another reason the support of conscious community can be crucial to successfully navigate the grieving process. We need others to reflect back to us the possibility of keeping alive our connection with our loved ones across the veil. In most pre-modern cultures this happened as a matter of course.


Our inner skeptic is a psychological artifact of the battle between (reductive) science and (dogmatic) religion for the allegiance of the modern mind, a battle that (reductive) science comprehensively won. (The leading-edge of the dialogue between science and religion on the nature of consciousness, which bears on the question of its possible survival after death, is considerably more nuanced today, but the mainstream culture, and our subconscious minds, have not caught up with these developments.)  As such, our skeptical side carries the weight of collective consensus reality. It is not so easy for us to simply choose to set it aside on our own. Since our inner skeptic developed in a cultural context, we often will need the support of an alternative cultural context (in the form of a conscious group, community, or, at the least, a few like-minded friends) to give ourselves permission to go beyond the boundaries of experience defined by materialism. 


This brings us to the possibility of actually entering into the mystery and making contact with our loved ones across the veil. Again, this is where the rubber really hits the road in terms of our spiritual practice, because now the extent to which we trust our subtle perceptions can profoundly affect our ability to feel connected to the loved one we miss so dearly. It has to be real, because nothing less will satisfy — the heart will know. 


To enter this topic, I want to share a powerful dream I had several years ago that illustrates something fascinating about perception in general. 


I am sitting at a cafe with a friend. We are outside on a patio, somewhere high in the mountains like the Swiss Alps. At the edge of the patio, there is a large canyon. I see something move in the canyon out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head, I find myself looking with astonishment at an extraterrestrial spacecraft.


I turn back to my friend and say to him, in disbelief, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” He looks in the direction of the canyon and then turns back to me and says “Yes, I see it too.” 


When he says “Yes”, an incredibly powerful energy surges through me and suddenly the dream becomes completely lucid. It is no longer a vague dream. I am wide awake, my eyes are open, everything is crystal clear. With my heart in my mouth, I turn toward the canyon. I now see an entire flotilla of spacecraft, flying slowly through the canyon, clear as day.


My friend’s affirmation of the reality of the spacecraft gave me permission to trust my perception. I then allowed myself to really look, focalizing my perception in a new way, enabling me to see the whole flotilla. 


If a phenomena lies outside of our culturally-prescribed framework of reality, we typically don’t let ourselves perceive it. But if we receive some form of intersubjective verification of its reality — if others see it too — we allow ourselves to pay attention in a different way, and suddenly it comes into focus. 


My experience of connecting with subtle realm phenomena is very much like this process. 

When I am attuning to subtle dimensions, my first impressions are usually quite faint and insubstantial. My inner skeptic tends to reflexively dismiss these vague phenomena as ‘mere imagination.’  That label — ‘mere imagination’ — will usually cause me to withdraw my attention from the phenomena, and nothing further develops. 


But if I can catch the inner skeptic in time, and decide consciously to keep my attention on the subtle phenomena nonetheless, it can be like that moment when the dream became lucid. Suddenly, what was previously dream-like and insubstantial becomes alive and real in new ways. It starts to move on its own and show itself to me. I start to pay attention at a new level of granularity. It’s as if the decision to trust in the reality of that realm grants me entrance into the realm. Rather than ‘seeing is believing’, when it comes to the subtle worlds it is more like ‘believing is seeing.’ 


From our side of the veil subtle phenomena can appear as a wisp or a dream. But when we, through grace, love, or innocence, allow ourselves to open our hearts to the reality of the subtle realms, they open their reality to us. This is not a process we consciously will. It’s not a practice or technique we master with our minds. It’s more like we find ourselves ready one day and the movement happens. We energetically decide to go past the skeptical layer of the psyche, and then there we are. 


It’s not exactly a technique, but it can happen more easily when we are in deep meditation, especially in a group setting. When everyone in a group is attuning to the subtle dimensions together, it opens a portal between the realms that makes contact easier. Spending prolonged time in nature, away from electronic devices, can also help us make contact by sensitizing us to subtle energies. This is especially so at places of strong natural power, like a pool in a forest or a great mountain, which can be gateways to other dimensions. There are certain times of the year when the veil is thinner than usual, such as the equinoxes or solstices or Halloween. And, as in my dream, a simple conversation with a friend who affirms these realities can spark a process within us that unlocks the doors of perception.


This doesn’t mean, however, that all of our subjective perceptions are necessarily real or constitute reliable knowledge. Perhaps in rebellion against the stifling dominance of materialist science and its denial of inner realities, both postmodernism and new age spirituality have tended to idealize subjective truth to the point where ‘anything goes.’ This extreme relativism is a non-trivial factor behind the current breakdown of our collective capacity to come to consensus about anything, even the most basic facts. 


At the Damanhur Spiritual Community in Italy, they have a principle that subtle perceptions are considered real only when three or more people experience it. This approach points to a potential middle path between scientific objectivity and postmodern/new age subjectivity as a means to developing reliable holistic knowledge. We might imagine forms of disciplined intersubjective inquiry in which individual perceptions of subtle realities are calibrated by resonance both with the perceptions of mature fellow ‘researchers’ and with broader natural patterns of Earth and Cosmos. 


Although this approach might sound novel to us, something like it is almost certainly the most common way human knowledge has developed throughout history. It was widely practiced among shamanic cultures, for instance, in the form of elder councils and community rituals, in which messages received from spirit or ancestors were discussed together until a common meaning was discerned and agreed upon. Today we see it re-emerging in various forms of cooperative inquiry and participatory research. As in many things in today’s world, the way forward joins a circle with the wisdom of our ancient past. 



 


About a month after Jackson died, I had a session with an animal communicator who picks up messages from pets on the other side. She told me that Jackson was in a very good place but missed the warmth and security of the family. She said he had received a kind of welcoming parade when he arrived on the other side, because he had accomplished something significant for a dog, which was to elevate his human (i.e., me) to a higher level. There were many other heartwarming details. 


Following the session, I felt my connection with Jackson come alive. I noticed something very interesting about this experience. When I heard the messages from the animal communicator, I gave myself permission to feel my love for Jackson again in its fullness. Feeling the love all the way, suddenly I felt connected to Jackson again. I felt him on the other end of my love. It was as though he ‘appeared’ when I allowed myself to feel the love all the way. The energy was palpable. My whole being came alive with happiness.


I realized that, even though I loved Jackson just as much as before, I had been placing a limit on how much of the love I was allowing myself to feel. The love would only extend so far before it would run into a wall of sadness or a sense of futility. Why feel the love if he isn’t here? But when I had the session, I entered into a shared reality with the animal communicator where Jackson’s existence on the other side became more real. That gave me permission to feel the love all the way, which enabled me to make contact with Jackson. The love itself, felt fully, was the bridge.


Perhaps because we are such visual creatures, when we think about making contact with beings on subtle planes, we tend to focus on the images that appear in our inner vision. But, especially when we are talking about contact with loved ones who have passed from this realm, it is the love itself that is primary. Love is real. It is an ontological presence. Love is more foundational than either the images that appear in our inner eye or the impermanent objects of this world. Conclusion: if you want to make contact beyond the veil in a way that feels real, focus on the love itself. 


In relation to the images that can arise, there is a helpful distinction to be aware of. We might not see anything at first when we attempt to attune to these realms. When that happens we might, through over-eagerness, or lack of faith, ‘make up’ an image with our minds. We might try to convince ourselves that these made up images represent real contact, but these experiences tend to lack weight. They don’t move us. 


At other times, images may arise spontaneously and unbidden. We might be tempted to label these images too as ‘mere imagination’ and move on. But if we pay attention, we will usually experience these spontaneous images as having a greater weight of reality than the ones we manufacture. If we stay with them, they will often become alive and lucid, as if possessing their own autonomous nature. Their effect on us will be obvious and meaningful. 


This is another sign that real contact has been made. We become energized. We are lit up from within. If we just make up an image with our minds, the affect is usually flat, regardless of what we try to tell ourselves. But if we make genuine contact, it’s like plugging into an electric socket. We can sense new colors and frequencies of light coming into our energy field. Our hearts open, we feel expansive. 



 


Around this time a conversation with my niece also helped open a very meaningful door of perception for me. My niece is naturally quite intuitive. As I was telling her about my grieving process for Jackson, she looked away, as if tuning in to another dimension, and said “I get the impression that Jackson is sitting in Grandpa’s lap right now.” “Grandpa” is my Dad, who died in 1995. Again, her recognition of the reality of these realms gave me permission to trust my own subtle perceptions at a deeper level. I immediately felt my Dad’s presence and his connection with Jackson. They were actually quite alike in their personalities, so it wasn’t hard to imagine them hanging out together. Indeed, my niece and I suddenly recognized the startling possibility that Jackson may have been a kind of soul fragment of my Dad. My Dad died when I was only 25. It seemed conceivable that the universe, out of compassion, may have sent Jackson as a kind of emissary of my Dad’s soul to make up for his early departure. 


After that, my grandmother — my father’s mother — came very clearly into my field and I felt us make a palpable heart connection. My Dad had a brother who died when he was five. For some reason he also now came alive in my heart and inner sight. I had done practices before to connect with my ancestors. But now I felt like the contact was happening at a whole new level. Again, it was the strength of the love I felt and the surge of energy it gave me that convinced me that real contact had been made. 


At the start of the grieving process, I had indeed wondered whether connecting with Jackson might facilitate contact with other beings that he was in touch with on the other side. In my spiritual ambition, I had imagined these beings would surely be refined higher dimensional entities with vital information to impart about my important mission. Probably an ascended master or two. But in actuality, the door that opened was to my flesh and blood ancestors. This made sense to me and felt grounded. These are the beings on the other side most intimate to me; it gave me a sense of security to reconnect with them. Making meaningful contact with my immediate ancestors was another precious diamond that emerged from the rough terrain of my grieving process for Jackson. 



 


Still, despite my spiritual discoveries and moments of contact, Jackson is not here with me like he was, and I deeply miss him. Grief is an emotional injury that takes time to heal. I feel like I’m learning how to live with an amputated limb. Part of my mind doesn’t think it’s possible to adjust to this reality. Perhaps that’s why I keep trying to make contact. But when I allow myself to accept the reality of my injured condition, it feels better. Coming closer to reality always feels better. It reconnects me with the ground of being and its inherent qualities of rejuvenation. I start to feel little green tendrils of life growing around the stump of my emotional wound. 


Moving through our disenchanted modern world, it is difficult to remain connected to the reality of subtler dimensions. The consciousness fields of modern life are woven with thought-forms and trauma patterns that enclose us in a very limited domain of reality. In most pre-modern societies, the culture itself was constantly reflecting back the reality of the invisible realms through its daily and seasonal rituals. Remembrance of the ancestors was integrated into the rhythms of daily life in the form of shrines and offerings. Festivals and ceremonies were times when the shutters separating the realms opened wide, allowing fuller and deeper contact. 


In addition to the peak moments of making inner contact with Jackson, I came to realize that keeping the relationship alive also required me to incorporate a simple daily ritual to nurture our connection. We had set up a natural altar in the form of a large rock over Jackson’s burial site in our backyard. I started leaving small offerings of food there every morning as a gesture of remembrance. I extended these offerings as well to my human ancestors. Several years ago a friend had suggested I engage a practice of making daily offerings to my ancestors and I did that for a short while. But at the time I felt like I was doing the ritual from my mind and I couldn’t connect with it. Now, though, having made palpable contact with Jackson and my immediate ancestors, the ritual became infused with real meaning. Some days the practice seems fairly routine. But my experience is that it is akin to doing daily maintenance of the energetic channels that connect us with our departed loved ones, like sweeping leaves from a path to keep it clean and bright. Without such a practice, over time the path of connection becomes covered over with the debris of forgetfulness. 



 


How we deal with the loss of a loved one is not incidental to how we live our lives. Rather, our response to death lies at the very center of the meaning of life. As much as we may not want to think about it, we all know that no one lives forever, that one day we will have to say goodbye to everyone and everything that we love. How we orient ourselves to this fact determines in very significant ways how we approach our life and understand its meaning.

I’m writing this of course in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Death has forced its way into the forefront of the collective consciousness. Millions have died. In many cases their loved ones were unable to be physically present at the time of their dying, or even to say goodbye. I myself face the prospect of never seeing my mother in person again before she dies (she is 83 and lives in Australia). And we are all dealing with the loss of so many less tangible, but deeply significant realities, such as the loss of a hopeful future or a functioning democracy. 


The importance of the art of grieving, in so many ways lost to our culture, is rising in the hearts of millions of mourning individuals, and in the public awareness more generally. If our moment can be understood to represent (as some have suggested) a kind of collective rite of passage for the modern psyche, this is not surprising. Throughout history, initiation processes have always thrown the initiate into an intense confrontation with suffering and death. It may well be that our personal and collective struggles to come to terms with so much loss is serving a crucial role in the maturation of the collective psyche at this time. 


Gathering my thoughts together for his long piece has been very therapeutic for me in my own grieving process for Jackson. If you’ve read this far, thank you for being my witness. I hope it has served you too in your own relationship with the mystery of death and the art of grieving.

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