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On Losing a Teacher: Remembering Christy Svanemyr

I was camping in Acadia National Park when I got the news. As we pulled onto the highway, I regained cell service for the first time in two days and my phone buzzed with incoming emails.

I had promised myself a week away from email, but scrolled through them quickly just to make sure there was nothing urgent from a client. One caught my eye: sent from the co-instructor of my coaching program at New Ventures West with the name of our other instructor in the subject line. “Oh no, I hope she hasn’t left!” I thought as I tapped the screen.

The reality was far, far worse. I was sure I was reading it wrong, my eyes beginning to glaze over as I took in the news.

Christy Svanemyr was dead. I screamed for Fredrick to pull over and jumped out of the car as a wave of panic and disbelief took over my body.

On Thursday, September 5, 35-year-old Christy was sunbathing with her 11-month-old daughter Isa and Ponyo the family dog in Holly Park in the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. They were lying on the grass under a small tree in an open field encircled by a paved road. A Parks & Recreation worker in a pickup truck left the road to cut across the field and ran over Christy, killing her almost immediately. Isa and Ponyo were unharmed. Despite onlookers’ attempts to stop the truck, the driver sped away and was apprehended later at his home; he insisted he had no idea he’d hit anything. Charges have yet to be filed.

The brutal way in which Christy died is a tragedy by all definitions. Leaving a baby behind is beyond words. The senselessness of it all is mind-boggling. It’s easy to feel rage towards the Parks worker, easy to blame, to want retribution.

But Christy wouldn’t have wanted it that way. She would have urged for compassion.

In the last month, my mind has been flooded with all the things Christy taught me in the short time I knew her. She’s with me when I meditate. I dream she’s talking to me at night. She was close to my age in calendar years, but she had the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes.

An ordained Zen monk, Christy embodied what it means to lead a life in service to others. She led by example, a shining light to the thousands of lives she touched as a coach and coaching instructor in a decade of work at New Ventures West. She was boisterous, she was funny, she was patient and kind. She could see right through people and enable them to see their own greatness, providing guidance in how to overcome the old narratives getting in the way. Christy was the coach — the person — I someday hope to become.

New Ventures West believes that in order to be a great coach, one must first have the experience of being coached. The entire first quarter of the yearlong program is devoted to our own personal development, identifying the ways we want to improve our lives, overcome self-imposed obstacles, and better integrate our head, heart and body. Each student gets coached by our fantastic instructors throughout the year.

One week before she passed, Christy and I had our first coaching session. It was an hourlong phone call to check in on my progress with my assigned practices and homework before our second quarterly session.

Not long into the call, Christy asked me to take a moment to pause. I’d been giving her my update, but she must have noticed something in my voice. Tension. Stress. I may have been losing my breath. My rapid-fire speech and long-windedness is nothing new, and it’s easy to attribute it to being a native New Yorker. But Christy saw it differently. For the remainder of our call, she guided me through a body awareness exercise. She asked me about my posture (I was sitting on the couch) and helped me to change it. She asked me about my mood. She asked me about what I was feeling in my heart. I’d been completely unaware that all of these things were present in me at that moment, but Christy was able to bring them to light. She gave me a new practice of conducting a 30-second body scan twice a day with the purpose of finding where I was holding tension and actively letting it go. Her goal was to help me “soften” (her word). She wanted me to let go of the inner critic, shed the exoskeleton I’d spent a lifetime building — it just doesn’t serve me anymore.

Christy wasn’t critical. She wasn’t harsh. She invited me to do these things for myself rather than tell me what to fix. She made me feel it was about my growth, not about her expertise. Even over the phone, she saw into the depths of my soul and held up a mirror to reflect it back to me.

Christy’s gift was to help people find their true nature.

I am deeply grateful that I had a chance to learn from her. I feel robbed that it didn’t last longer. My heart aches for her beloved husband Vegar whose life is in a tailspin and their daughter Isa who will now grow up not being able to bathe in her mother’s presence. They have a beautiful community surrounding them with love and support, but nothing could ever make up for the loss of Christy. Nothing ever will.

A fundraising campaign has been set up to help take care of the family, and the response from friends and strangers worldwide has been astounding. Mothers are donating their breast milk for Isa. People are writing letters about their relationship with Christy and sending them to Vegar so that Isa will one day be able to learn just how special her mother truly was, and is. There is a memorial service coinciding with Isa’s first birthday. And when our cohort reconvenes for our second session in two weeks, we will undoubtedly spend most of our time reminiscing, grieving, and dancing like no one is watching — just as Christy loved to do.

I don’t think the sting of losing her will ever go away. She was the best teacher I could have hoped for on this journey and her spirit will continue to light my path. But fuck, life can hurt so much and make so little sense.

I’ll honor Christy’s life by living it well, without fear, without hate, and in service to helping people find their true selves, just as she did for me, and for all who knew her.

May Christy transition quickly, to continue to grace the world with her beauty, and passion, and truth.

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Out beyond ideas 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.”
― Rumi

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  • Amy

    Oh, Whitney….this story breaks my heart every time I think about it. My aunt was a student of Christy’s and was similarly shaken to her core by the senselessness of it. It really illuminates how broad an impact Christy had—-that two people I know (one in my family, and one in my virtual life) had connections with her. I am profoundly sorry that you are deprived of developing a relationship with her.