Paperback: 288pp

Published: Eye (December 2024)

ISBN: 9781785633911

Night Into Light

Diane Esguerra


A mother’s journey of grief and transformation

Can a parent ever survive the death of a daughter or son? Drowning in grief and with her life in pieces, psychotherapist Diane Esguerra asks herself this question as she sets off for Peru to scatter the ashes of Sacha, her only child, at the sacred Inca citadel Machu Picchu, a place he loved.

Every step of the journey triggers memories of the young man’s troubled life of abuse and addiction. As Diane makes connections with other bereaved people in the unlikeliest of settings, she also has mystical encounters that affirm her Buddhist faith and put her on a path to acceptance and healing. The fragments of her life gradually reassemble – in a more meaningful pattern than before.

By turns funny, engaging and moving, this richly coloured account of one mother’s physical and spiritual journey shows it’s possible not only to survive every parent’s worst nightmare, but to experience growth and transformation along the way.



Have you ever had to face your worst fear? If the answer is ‘yes’, I assume you survived the experience or you wouldn’t be reading this. Was it traumatic? Did it change you? In 2005 I faced my worst fear – or rather my worst fear ambushed me; I had no choice in the matter. My son Sacha, my only child, died. And yes, it was traumatic and it also changed me.

‘Trauma’ has become an overused label to describe the fall-out from a plethora of unwanted events in our lives – from losing a smartphone to being in a serious car crash. I can assure you that the trauma I experienced followed the Cambridge Dictionary definition: ‘severe and lasting emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience’.

At the time I had to face my worst fear I was (and still am) a psychotherapist, but any coping tools I may have acquired up to that point in my training – and, for that matter, in my life – were useless in the face of the ferocious onslaught of this genuinely traumatic event.

What I have come to understand, however, is that worst fears, when realised, can also open up entirely new vistas – if you feel brave enough to look around you. Sure, some of those landscapes are bleak, suffused with pain and despair, but others can prove transformational, illuminating parts of yourself that you never knew existed.

I decided to go on a healing journey. At first this took the shape of a physical journey to another land, but my journey didn’t end there. It segued into a quest to discover how to survive and thrive in my new reality. This journey has given me a deeper understanding of what it means to be truly human. I’m still on it and probably will be for the remainder of my life.



I never thought it would happen to me. It happened to other mothers – yes, and fathers too. I’d seen them on the evening news, puffy-eyed, bewildered, blinking away tears. The camera zooms in to the photograph of the son as they like to remember him, in his school blazer (eyes still shining then) grinning toothlessly at the school photographer. Or the daughter as a teenager, astride a mountain bike in the Pyrenees, tanned and ponytailed.

I never thought it would happen to me. But in 2005 it did. I discovered my child Sacha, a man now, a man who had never practised yoga, slumped over in child-pose on a beer-stained rug; his alabaster back cold to my touch; a half-empty syringe at his side; daytime television drowned out by the weeping of his dogs and the howling of police sirens.

My future ambushed.

These mothers on the television – clutching handkerchiefs or their husbands’ hands – I used to think they put themselves through this ordeal in order to draw the public’s attention to a pressing social issue, start a campaign, establish a foundation to honour his or her memory. But then I understood they do it to avoid waking up in the morning with the feeling that the very heart of their lives has been surgically extracted without anaesthetic. Although they yearn to escape to the realm into which the beloved has made an untimely entry – without their permission – they’re too considerate to inflict this same agony on their living loved ones. So what do they do instead? They search for meaning; for a purpose to rein themselves back from the lurking abyss.

In the weeks that followed Sacha’s death I duly busied myself applying to a charitable trust for funding to set up a project to help teenagers who had been abused in childhood and who would, more than likely, go on to self-harm, harm others or abuse substances. But my burnt-out heart wasn’t really in it. I needed a break from that all-too-familiar world, and it was a relief when the funding didn’t come through.

The void continued to terrorise me. As a Buddhist I believed in the preciousness of life and the concept of ‘turning poison into medicine’: that suffering – however deep – could ultimately prove beneficial. But what value could possibly be created from this?

My daily mantra had become ‘Why me?… Why me?’

‘I’m not a junkie, Mum,’ Sacha used to say. ‘I’m someone with a habit.’

And I’d convinced myself I could help him break that habit. Defeat wasn’t an option I’d allowed myself to consider; too much was at stake.

My son wasn’t the archetypal junkie you see in the movies with hollowed-out, shifty eyes, greasy hair, and thieving, nicotine-stained fingers. Yes, he smoked roll-ups, but that was as far as it went. More than he loved heroin, Sacha loved ancient Hispanic history and climbing mountains.

For Christmas, the week before his death, he’d given me a large, glossy, illustrated book called Lost Treasures of the World. I read how the Conquistador Francisco Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa in Peru and promised him his freedom if his people were able to fill a ‘ransom room’ full of gold. For months the Incas laboured day and night to bring gold and treasure from all over their empire. But once the ransom room was full, Pizarro killed Atahualpa anyway.

How I empathised with those Incas who, like me, had done everything, everything in their power, to save the person in danger. How cheated they must have felt after his death.

How cheated I felt.

It was, he said, the best Christmas he’d had for years. We had tears in our eyes as Sacha played the blues again on his harmonica. Finally on a decent drugs programme, I thought he’d turned a corner at last. Then, after some crazy partying on New Year’s Eve, one last fling resulted in what the coroner recorded as ‘accidental death from a heroin overdose’.

And I lost my treasure.

Peru stayed with me, though. Sacha’s ashes sat in a wooden urn – not on the mantelpiece but, out of respect for his shyness, tucked away in a corner of the living room under the voluminous palm tree he’d bought me many Mother’s Days ago. The ashes wanted to be scattered – but where? I already knew. I’d known all along.

For the last few years of his life, all Sacha had wanted was to go back to South America. Brought up in England but half Colombian, he’d travelled the continent extensively and had hiked the Inca Trail before it became a popular gap-year thing. He often recalled the moment when, dead on his feet with hunger and exhaustion, he reached the end of the trail and felt his spirit soar as he watched the sun rise over the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.

‘One of the coolest moments of my life, Mum. When I’m better I want to see that sunrise again, and I want to take you with me.’

I had the feeling he still did.

But the perilous, futile trail of recovery we’d been limping along together for years had left me depleted and confused. I’d morphed into an auto-pilot-crisis-management zombie with no time to process where and why it had all gone wrong, or head-space to write about it. Some form of reflective, healing journey might be the answer.

But was Peru, with its Conquistadors, Shining Path Maoist guerrillas and heartbreaking poverty a sensible choice? It had never been on my tourist radar. The country was, however, home to that most sacred – and visited – site in Latin America, the site that Sacha most loved. So it would, quite simply, have to be.

Already, it was almost a year since he’d died, but was I brave enough yet to make the journey to Machu Picchu to scatter my son’s ashes? I’d spent the last few years fending off my terror of death; now I was afraid of life. The tectonic plates of my world had imploded. I was in fragments. There was a permanent knot in my stomach – the severed umbilical cord.

All I knew was that I had to go soon. And that I had to go alone.


‘A inspiring and uplifting book about finding infinite value in the most intense and painful experience of profound loss’

Sandie Shaw

‘This beautifully written memoir charts Diane’s personal anguish as her son Sacha – once a powerful and vibrant young man – is lost to the full-on white-knuckle ride of heroin addiction. In essence it is a book about finding value in profound loss’

Marina Cantacuzino, author of Forgiveness

‘A heart-wrenching and uplifting story of one woman’s tragedy, transformation and, ultimately, triumph, made all the more powerful because every word is true – and because Diane Esguerra is a very fine writer’

Edward Canfor-Dumas

‘Takes you on a geographical and spiritual journey to a place of healing and ultimately to a place of peace in mind and heart. For anyone going through the grief journey of losing a loved one to addiction, I highly recommend this mother’s story. Ultimately, you will feel uplifted and strengthened by sharing this journey with her’

Elizabeth Burton-Phillips, author of Mum, Can You Lend Me Twenty Quid?


‘Diane Esguerra’s eloquent writing and self-deprecating humour make this a surprisingly rewarding and uplifting read. The journey is a courageous one; so too is her willingness to share raw emotion with her reader and her determination to create both meaning and value out of some truly heart-breaking life experiences’

Therapy Today



Diane Esguerra

Diane Esguerra studied English at University College, London, followed by a stint at drama school, and later trained as a psychotherapist at the University of Sussex.

For a number of years she worked as a performance artist in Britain, Europe and the United States. She has written for both theatre and television and is the recipient of a Geneva-Europe Television Award and a Time Out Theatre Award.

Her books include Junkie Buddha (Eye Books, 2015), The Oshun Diaries (Eye Books, 2019) and Buddhism and Loss (Mud Pie Books, 2023).

The founder and director of Greenlight Counselling Consultancy, she lives in Dorset with her husband David and dog Chico.