Note: This column comes to us via my friend Elsa Weber, author of, A Beautiful Mourning, which I have reviewed on this blog and recommended without qualifications. Elsa writes on her website that “I encountered a form of coaching that allowed me to rest in my ‘not knowing.’ This wise model is called the Seasons of Change and was developed by Carol McClelland Ph.D. after losing a loved one of her own.” Recently, Elsa sent me, on my request, the following chapters from an unpublished addition to A Beautiful Mourning that she had planned to call, “Gifts to Guide Us Home.” On reading them I knew instantly that I had to share these gifts with you. ~ Dave Piece, CoFounder, Friends Along the Road
The Pull of Biology
In Part One of A Beautiful Mourning, I wrote that grieving is not a time of reason but a time of intense emotions. I speculated that a neuroscientist would “most likely explain it in terms of a shift from higher-level cognitive functions in the cerebral cortex to the primitive emotions of the limbic system.”
Since writing that statement, I’ve had the good fortune to read exactly what the neuroscientists do have to say and—in the spirit of “informed worship”—I would like to share some of these findings now. The first thing that I have learned is what an erroneous notion that I—along with most of the modern world—have about emotions being “primitive.” Pioneering researcher, Paul Ekman, has shown us that far from being “a primitive annoyance” and “a vestige of our ancient animal brain” that needs to be controlled; emotions are varied, complex—and above all useful.
Our ability to understand and recognize different emotions is something that unites all humans in our great evolutionary tree. Contemplating the role of emotions themselves is a fascinating pursuit. Although it may seem ridiculously obvious but the fact that we feel emotions are one of their most unique characteristics. We feel, as opposed to think about our emotions.
Instead of having one thought amongst many, our strong feelings get our attention in a novel—and ultimately very helpful way. For example, when we feel anger it actually has a highly recognizable physiological profile: Our heart beats faster, our muscles tense, our nostrils flare to take in more oxygen, and we focus our thoughts and consolidate our internal resources to respond to a threat (be this real or imagined). Feelings are, in fact, a remarkably advanced part of the nature’s design. And not only do feelings help us gain valuable information about our world, they also inform others. This fact, that we show our emotions, through facial expressions has been the hallmark of Ekman’s groundbreaking research.
George Bonanno was influenced by Ekman’s work and viewed the role of sadness in a similar way—he looked for its value. It turns out that sadness has many specific and useful properties. First of all, it alerts others to the fact that we may be in need of help and understanding. In his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, he says that during bereavement we can “temporarily forget about our immediate needs and responsibilities to those around us.” Fortunately, sadness has a “built-in safety mechanism.”
During sadness our “face literally sags” and “our eyebrows pinch together and raise upward forming a triangle; the eyelids narrow, the jaw slackens, and the lower lip is drawn out and down to form a kind of pout.” So whether we are aware of it or not, nature has created a compelling message to others that we are in need of their help. And think about it, isn’t the practice of bringing over a “covered dish” of prepared food one of the most traditional responses to a death in the family? Why is this? Because the bereaved person is usually too preoccupied with their grief to prepare their own food or even remember to eat.
After studying the role of sadness in depth for many years, Bonanno has come to understand the role of sadness this way: It gives us a forced “time-out.” During bereavement we are trying to adjust to the loss in our life. It turns out that sadness is one of nature’s essential tools to help us do this. He describes it as being almost the opposite of anger, “Whereas anger prepares us to fight, sadness dampens our biological systems.” Sadness slows us down so that we are able to “put aside normal, everyday concerns and turn our attention inward.” Many people report the feeling of loss as one of “living in slow motion.”
Riding the Wave
Viewed from the objective eyes of a scientist, bereavement is essentially a “stress reaction.” A stress reaction is anything that is perceived as a threat to our well-being. And certainly losing anyone—who is the most and dear to our heart—does challenge our sense of wellbeing. Bonanno’s team of researchers at Columbia University found that “like any stress reaction” grief is not “uniform or static.”
Like my perception of being hit with a tsunami wave, Bonanno confirmed that, in fact, grief does come in a wave-like pattern. The dry and clinical description of this theory is the “dual process model” where we oscillate between “loss orientation” and a “restoration orientation.” In loss orientation we focus on our loss and in restoration orientation we focus on “the tasks and demands of life without the deceased” and on what needs to be done to return to normal functioning again.
Bonanno is not surprised about his research findings. In fact, he observes that this “same kind of back-and-forth fluctuation is apparent in just about every other mind and body function we know.” He cites numerous examples; we breathe in and we breathe out, our body temperature rises and falls, our muscles tighten and our muscles relax, we become alert and we rest, and even in sleep itself we cycle through periods of lighter and deeper sleep.
In fact, the more we reflect on our own wave-like natures the more obvious it becomes that grief would work this way too. Emilie Conrad Daoud, founder of the Continuum bodywork devoted her life to understanding the fluidity of our nature, “The message of God can be felt in the movement of water.” She states, “The ocean, our blood, the liquids inside our planet, amniotic and spinal fluid—are all the same.” Poetically (and, perhaps, prophetically) Conrad goes on to describe the fluid in our cells as our “liquid presence” and “our spiritual birthright.”
Bonanno discovered the deep wisdom in nature’s design. He said that “relentless grief would be overwhelming” and that “grief is tolerable” only because it comes in this wave-like oscillation where we are allowed—and designed—to move back and forth emotionally. He concluded that we can’t “reflect on the reality of a loss” and engage with the world around us at the same time so the fact that we do it in cycles makes perfect sense.
The Unique Storm
Roy Remer, a hospice worker with the Zen Center in San Francisco, describes what he has witnessed many times and his anecdotal accounts reconcile with the new science of bereavement; “Following the death of a loved one, we often feel isolated from those around us, trapped in the unique storm of our emotions.” He elaborates, “Cut off from the familiar by our loss, we experience intense suffering. We may feel as if we can’t go on living. Like a sick infant, we are inconsolable and helpless.” Remer goes on, “Simply making it through the day becomes an enormous effort, eating and sleeping seem impossibly challenging, and the simplest of tasks overwhelm us. We’re incapable of imagining that the pain will ever end. In grief we are thrashed upon the rocks, broken and dismembered.”
The severity of the pain we feel is poignantly captured in C.S. Lewis’s memoir, A Grief Observed. Describing his wife’s battle with cancer and her constant and unremitting pain he wrote, “Physical pain can be absolutely continuous…like the steady barrage on a trench in World War One, hours of it with no let-up for a moment.” He continued with the war-metaphor by saying, “but grief is like a bomber circling round and dropping its bombs each time the circle brings it overhead.” We know that grief hurts but why does it hurt so bad? I believe that we can get a glimpse at the physiology of it by looking at the work of the researchers from The Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, Rick Hansen Ph.D. and Richard Mendius M.D. In their book, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, they attempt to illuminate both the process and science of enlightenment.
They begin with a quote from the Buddha himself to illustrate the condition of the fully realized being: “Indeed, the sage who’s fully quenched rests at ease in every way; No sense desire adheres to him, whose fires have cooled, deprived of fuel. All attachments have been severed. The heart’s been led away from pain; Tranquil, he rests with utmost ease. The mind has found its way to peace.”
Science helps us make sense of this passage “whose fires have cooled” by explaining the nature of the Sympathetic Nervous System and our “stress-related hormones” that fire us up to help us pursue our opportunities (originally this meant the chance to eat) and avoid threats (or the potential of being eaten!). Dr Hansen describes this system in our body as having our “foot on the gas.”
Unfortunately, as we all know from living a life in the twenty-first century, this getting fired up to live with passion and achieve our goals can also leave us feeling “driven, rattled, stressed, irritated, anxious, or blue.” This is definitely not the state the Buddha was describing. Fortunately, nature has also equipped us with a Parasympathetic Nervous System that could be described as our ability to calm ourselves or put our “foot on the brake.” When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged “calming, soothing, healing ripples spread through your body, brain, and mind.”
However, in addition to having these two complimentary branches of the Central Nervous System we have a highly complex brain. Our brain has evolved over time to send neuro-modulating hormones such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin to energize, motivate, and reward us to achieve our goals. Psychiatrist and author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey, put it this way “Learning and memory evolved in concert with the motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food, so far as our brains are concerned, if we’re not moving, there’s no real need to learn anything.
Neurophysiologist, Rodolfo Llinas, illustrated this point with a story in his book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self. The story goes that a sea squirt is born with a simple spinal cord and a three-hundred-neuron brain. The creature swims around in the shallow water until it finds a nice patch of coral to attach itself to. Once safely attached, the creature spends the rest of its days resembling a plant which has no more need for a brain—so the sea squirt simply eats its own brain. Llinas’s interpretation of this natural phenomenon: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”
Ratey elaborates, “It’s about growth versus decay, activity versus inactivity. The body was designed to be pushed, and in pushing our bodies we push our brains too.” He goes on to say that we seem to have lost the understanding that “challenges are what allow us to strive and learn and grow.” Ratey believes that stress is “not a matter of good or bad—it’s a matter of necessity.”
Fascinating research on the brains of depressed patients corroborates the link between movement and the brain. MRI scans of chronically depressed people show structural damage in the cerebral cortex or thinking portion of the brain. In depression, certain areas of the brain simply shut down at the cellular level. Emory University neurologist, Helen Mayberg, describes it this way, “These people are stuck. They have an inability to put thought to action because they are not in gear.”
Psychiatrist Alexander Niculescu describes depression as an “emotional hibernation.” He wrote, “When the emotional landscape turns wintry, our neurobiology tells us to stay inside…. It’s as if our entire being has said, there’s nothing out there for me, so I may as well quit.” It’s clear that when we stop moving, we stop learning, and we stop growing.
Scientists are now redefining depression as a problem of connectivity. They realize that it’s not just a matter of feeling hopeless but it also affects memory, attention, energy, and motivation. The emotions of depression can also interfere with the ability to sleep, eat, have sex, and generally care for ourselves at the most primitive level. And Dr. Hansen writes about the part of the limbic system that lights up when “lovers get jilted…physical pain and social pain is based on overlapping neural systems.” He says, quite literally, “rejection hurts.”
How much more painful then, is it when our emotional landscape does, indeed, turn wintry? When we lose a loved one, we are given a forced “time-out” by nature through our sadness and grief which in many ways mirrors the emotional state of depression; including a lack of energy and motivation, an inability to focus or concentrate, and a diminished will to live.
The Wisdom Traditions
Hospice worker, Roy Remer has found that friends and family whom we usually count on for solace may be overwhelmed themselves and unable to offer any comfort. He says, “we find ourselves cast off into uncharted waters with no shore in sight and no one we can look to for rescue.” Fortunately, studies of the ancient wisdom traditions help us to understand that these painful waters may not be as uncharted as they first appear to be.
In the extremely helpful book, Mourning and Mitzvah, Rabbi Anne Brener, shares the time-honored gifts from the Jewish faith. She explains that Jewish law prohibits extending the usual polite greeting to the mourner; “We do not say ‘Shalom Alekhim’ (Peace be with you) or ‘Good day’ or ‘Good bye’ because ‘Shalom’ and ‘good’ do not appropriately describe the days or feelings of a mourner.”
Rather than extend the usual polite greetings, Judaism suggests that someone attempting to provide comfort simply sit beside the mourner and share in his or her grief. Rabbi Brener explains that “perhaps the greatest teaching on how to comfort comes in the name of God that is invoked in the blessing on behalf of mourners.” The Mourner’s Blessing goes like this: “May HaMakom (God) comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
There are many names for God in the Jewish tradition; such as, HaRachaman which means the Compassionate one and El Emunah which means the Faithful One. However, in the Mourner’s prayer the name for God that is used is HaMakom and it is very different from all other names for the Divine. This name is not descriptive of a quality. Instead HaMakom means “The Place.”
Rabbi Brener beautifully writes, “HaMakom embrace without defining the nature of the embrace.” She goes on to explain that within this holy embrace there is neither a description of the face of Holiness or a prescription for the behavior of the one in need of this embrace. “This non-intrusive embrace is exactly the kind of safe attention that mourners need in order to find their voice of healing. It countenances the array of feelings that mourners may experience without prescribing what mourners are to feel.”
So the Jewish tradition creates a safe place for healing and calls this safe place “God.” Rabbi Brener also refers to as it “Holy Places of Comfort” and encourages us all to provide these safe sanctuaries to mourners. Here mourners will receive the healing and comfort that they need directly from God. She says “We acknowledge the mysterious nature of healing” and “assert that healing comes from some place of soul which is beyond our understanding or control.”
In Rabbi Brener’s own experience of working with people in mourning, she has found that those in grief are often severely burdened by feeling a need to attend to the inept people who come to help them. These “would be comforters” often have good intentions but actually do more harm than good by trying to provide a magic fix by finding “just the right phrase that will transform their mourning.”
The deep wisdom of Judaism acknowledges that you can’t make it better. You can’t take away the pain of loss and you can’t bring back the person who has died. Coming to terms with this powerlessness, paradoxically allows us to show up for the bereaved in the most truly helpful way possible—to share in his or her grief. And this sharing of one’s grief is considered a “mitzvah” which literally translates as “a commandment” but is most commonly understood as “a good deed.”
A good deed is the kind of thing a “mensch” or good person would do. But to do it correctly—without being intrusive—is challenging without guidance. That is why a book like Mourning and Mitzvah is so helpful. It delineates our roles. Jonathon Omer-Man describes it this way: “True comforters are present in a precise and limited way. They are walk-on players in a minor role.” When Rabbi Brener describes the ritual of Shiva she says directly, “During that time, attend to their physical needs, but don’t talk too much.”
She explains that ritualized ways of interacting with one in mourning is designed to carry the mourner “through this time of numbness or unreality without too much intrusion. The comforter is supposed to walk past the mourner and wait for a cue from the mourner that says it is alright to speak.” She goes on to wisely instruct, “Mourners may not find their voices until long after the death has occurred. Be there when they are ready to talk.”
Grief and Praise
Stephen Jenkinson, also known as The Griefwalker, is a Harvard trained theologian, spiritual counselor, ceremonialist, and storyteller. He is also the founder of a school called Orphan Wisdom. Jenkinson calls it “a redemptive project that comes from where we come from. It is rooted in knowing history, being claimed by ancestry, working for a time we may not see.” He is also “revolutionizing the way we think about grief and dying in North America” by challenging the prevailing paradigm that grief is an affliction, a misery, or an affliction that we need “coping and management and five stages and twelve steps to get over.”
Provocatively Jenkinson asks, “What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of loving life anyway?” He goes on to say that in a time like ours—an information-drunk culture that confuses wisdom with information—grieving is a subversive act. Jenkinson teaches that grief as a skill “is the skill of being able to praise or love.” He calls them “honored guests” that should be welcomed at your table. They clink their glasses together “toasting the living.”
Martin Prechtel, who comes from the Mayan people in Guatemala, echoes the sentiment that grief is a skill or way of looking at the world that links grief with praise. In his travels and work as a shaman, he noticed that people who couldn’t “weep properly for the dead” were not fully alive. He clarifies what he means by weeping properly, it doesn’t mean right or wrong but really knowing how to do it “where you look bad when you’re done…when your hair is missing and your clothes are ripped and you’re down on your hands and knees in the street.”
Prechtel noticed that people who couldn’t grieve couldn’t praise. Through self-inquiry he observed that when he—or other Mayan or indigenous people—pray it always contains great grief. As soon as he begins to utter a pray his voice is choked with emotion and his eyes well with tears. Emphatically Prechtel states that this is not “an act” or performance—it’s not theatrics! “Your mortality is in your face every time you praise realistically.” People often asked him what this means and he explains, “It’s because if you are praising something—your grief has to be present for the stakes to be high enough for the praise to be legitimate.”
According to ancient wisdom, true praise has to contain the notion that you are mortal, and that the praised is mortal and the “beauty is that at this moment we are all together at this place to be together.” Ancient wisdom is holistic wisdom. It acknowledges the fleeting quality of life right in the midst of life. There’s a grief contained in praise that “makes the magic of praise very real because the stakes are extremely high.”
Prechtel explains that grief is, in truth, a “praise of life!” He says that you have to wail from deep within because otherwise it means you don’t “love the thing you lost” and then, what use is it? “You’ve gotta love the thing you lost. And you’ve gotta love the thing you’ve got!” He elaborates, “That’s why the thing you’ve got—when you’re grieving for the thing—is called praise. And when you’re praising for the thing you’ve lost—it’s called grief.”
Stephen Jenkinson echoes this same idea when he defines grief, “It’s how you love all those things in life that end.” And in this world—all things come to an end. He encourages us to realize that our “cultural, spiritual and ancestral treasure will be in seeds we know the story of that will feed those we love.”
Don’t Surrender Your Loneliness
Knowing the story and honoring the art of storytelling is a central part of cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien’s work. Like Mayan shaman, Martin Prechtel, and our Harvard trained shaman, Stephen Jenkinson, Arrien studies the wisdom traditions. In her book, Living in Gratitude, she calls the wisdom that has “been passed on from generation to generation since the birth of humankind” perennial wisdom. This is the multicultural wisdom that is “the shared values and the inherent positive beliefs of humanity.”
In her book on gratitude she explores why gratitude is so essential. She says, “After all, giving thanks and expressing appreciation for the blessings and gifts of life is a natural human response.” She also explores the value and virtue of storytelling. In one of her more popular talks she describes “The Four Questions.”
These are questions that you would be asked by a shaman, or medicine person, if you went complaining of being “disheartened or dis-spirited.”
These questions are; “When did you stop singing? When did you stop dancing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? and When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?” Arrien explains that the indigenous people understood that to stop singing meant losing “our authentic voice” and failing to “bring my voice forward.” When we stop dancing, we’ve lost our connection with our body. When we stop being enchanted by stories—particularly our own life story—is when we lose our connection to our “fire and heart.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when we stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence is when we begin to “mistrust the Mystery, or the unfamiliar, or the unknown.” This resting in the Mystery is what the Sufis have understood very deeply for centuries. Rumi said, “Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly. Let it cut more deep. Let it ferment you and season you as few human or even divine ingredients can.”
In his poem, “The Guest House” Sufi poet, Jelaluddin Rumi equates being human to being a guest house and encourages us to welcome all our experiences in even if they are a “crowd of sorrows” who “violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.” He calls these experiences “gifts to guide us home.” So how could a crowd of sorrows that leaves us feeling “helpless and inconsolable” like a “sick infant” be a gift? And how can they “guide us home?”
Let’s explore this from the more integrated perspective of multiple faith traditions. We’ll begin with an encouragement from Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science, “Amidst the din and uproar of our lives, the accumulated fear, doubt, and confusion of the ages, there has always been and always will be a still, small, voice within that seeks to proclaim itself through us. Life has given us all we could ever desire. It is up to us to decide and discover for ourselves what the nature of life is, and accept it.”
Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, poignantly writes that “inspiration and wretchedness compliment each other.” She warns that with only inspiration we would become impossibly arrogant and preoccupied with our own joy. Whereas, “feeling wretched humbles us” and “softens us up.” And Thomas Moore, the author of Care of the Soul, writes about his experience of working with depressed patients in his private practice. Often the client would drag themselves in practically wanting to hide their head in shame for being so down. They would make comments about hating for anyone to see them like this. Privately, Moore would notice how tender and vulnerable and easy to love these clients were in this condition. He would wish he could convey the beauty and tenderness of their shared humanity.
In contrast, how self-absorbed and intimidating we can all become when things are going along swimmingly. I’m thinking of the many Christmas newsletters I’ve received from families where little Jenny just won a violin scholarship, and Timmy is at Young Astronauts Camp, and there are promotions and vacations and they are all on top of the world. While it is wonderful to celebrate another’s success it also leaves us all a bit cold. It’s a bit imbalanced. It’s putting on the “happy face.”
Paradoxically, Stephen Jenkinson, reminds us that, “Not success. Not growth. Not happiness. The cradle of your Love of Life—is death.” He goes on to say that we “must know grief well in order to appreciate our own lives.” And poet Jennifer Wellwood gets right in our face with her poem about death by saying “My friends, let’s grow up. Let’s stop pretending we don’t know the deal here.” She tells us straight out that “impermance is life’s only promise to us” and that she keeps it “with ruthless impeccability.”
Can you feel the truth of that poem? “Impermanence is life’s only promise to us.” Modern spiritual master, Gangagi, further elaborates on this process: “You can never discover how big the heart is until you are willing to let everything in….. Everything. All the pain of the world, all the pain of the past, all the pain to come, the necessary pain that is part of life, the unnecessary pain that is part of avoiding pain. All of it. All of it.”
Remember what the Bible says about there being a time for everything? From Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
In my own season of mourning, I had the good fortune to discover Carol McClelland’s model for viewing change that is an intuitively obvious model which is instantly recognizable to anyone. In this natural way of looking at the world, death, dying, and illness, is all viewed as “Winter” and I wrote about this model in Part One, “A Beautiful Mourning.” I talk about my daily walks where I observed nature’s processes; “I notice the starkness of a severely pruned rosebush. It has been reduced to a bare stump with only a few gnarled branches, and I recognize the rosebush as my kindred spirit.”
McClelland writes, “In this model, change is not seen as an error or mistake that knocks you off the ladder of success, but rather as an opportunity—an invitation—to deepen your connection to yourself, to other people, to nature, to life itself.” She goes on to say, “…it’s high time we learn to revere all phases of the cycle of life. Given our slant in this culture, I have no doubt that you celebrate births and the good parts of life easily. Now it’s time to lift the filters we’ve put in place to avoid seeing death and decay.”
In the Hindu tradition they have a goddess that specifically represents this state of being that we’ve been describing as being “like a sick infant, helpless and inconsolable” “trashed upon the rocks” “broken and dismembered” or “reduced to a bare stump.” She is called “A – khi—land—esh—vari.” In Sanskrit “Ishvari” means “Goddess” and “Akilanda” means “never not broken.” In other words “The Always Broken Goddess.”
Akhilandeshvari is depicted as riding on a crocodile. Hindu theologians believe that the crocodile represents the reptilian brain which is where we feel fear. And crocodiles are known, not only for their incredibly powerful jaws, but for the way that they pluck their prey from the banks of the river and pull them into the water where they spin them into disorientation.
And what does the Always Broken Goddess teach us? Akilandeshvari refuses to reject her fear, nor does she let it control her. Instead she rides on it. And what is the purpose of this all? This disorientation? This broken-ness? In fact, the never-not-broken aspect? The thing about going through these disorienting transitions is that one of the things you lose is your expected future. When you lose a child, or a spouse, or your home, or your job, or your health, your future dissolves in front of you. And of course, it’s terrifying!
In pieces, in a pile on the floor, with no idea how to go forward, your expectations of the future are meaningless. Your stories about the past do not apply. You are disoriented. And when your identity has been shattered, you have to ask the BIG question—Who am I? This is the question all the philosophers, and theologians, and seekers of truth eventually get to. And this is the gift that the crowd of sorrows gives us. If I am not the mother of my child—then who am I? If I am not a wife, or a husband, or my job, or my home—then who am I?
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche addresses both the question of impermanence and identity: “Taking impermanence truly to heart is to be slowly freed from the idea of grasping…. Slowly it dawns on us that all the heartache we have been through from grasping at the ungraspable was, in the deepest sense, unnecessary. At the beginning this too may be painful to accept, because it seems so unfamiliar. But as we reflect, and go on reflecting our hearts and minds go through a gradual transformation.” Rinpoche goes on to warn that it is not “enough to just contemplate impermanence.” He says that just as medical studies require both theory and practice, so does life. We have to work at it! “With each successive change, we realize a little bit more, and our view of living becomes deeper and more spacious.” It takes work and practice and patience and time to deepen. And it is this deepening that expands our capacity to embrace all of life: Sufi mystic, Inayat Khan wrote: “If there were no pain, one would not have the experience of joy. It is pain which helps one to experience joy. Everything is distinguished by its opposite and the one who feels pain deeply is more capable of expressing joy…. Without pain the great musicians, athletes, discoverers, and thinkers would not have reached the stage they have arrived at in the world. If they had always experienced joy, they would not have touched the depths of life.”
Unfortunately we can not reach the depths of life, by shortcuts, or gimmicks, or spiritual bypass. Knowing that our loved one is in “heaven” or “free from pain” or “at peace” or “in Spirit” does not lessen our pain. And I know this first-hand because I had profound experiences of communication and connection with my Beloved immediately after his passing but that did not lessen my heartache.
When All is Well and Not Well
The day after Bob died I needed to meet with the funeral director to sign papers authorizing his cremation. He arrived at the appointed time and I invited him to sit down at the kitchen table so we might review the paperwork together. I offered him a cup of coffee which he politely declined and instead we dived right into the sticky business of death.
It was difficult to stay focused and my attention wavered as we plodded through a seeming mountain of papers. At some point, I asked to take a moment as I followed my inner prompting to light a candle for Bob to be present with us during our time together. I just happened to have a picture of Bob right on the kitchen table. In this picture he is gazing directly into the camera and his blue eyes really did seem to be the proverbial window to his soul. On the table was a vase of flowers, the picture, and the lit candle. It created an impromptu shrine. While I was nodding my head and signing in a perfunctory way, my mind was on remembering Bob. I seemed to be drifting between realities.
As I started noticing what I thought were peculiarities in the funeral director, my self-talk became increasingly negative. For example, he had slicked back hair, wore a coat with a Nehru collar, copious amounts of jewelry including rings on nearly every finger and an old-fashioned country singer style string-tie. I thought to myself, “This guy is a real odd duck.” And then it happened! In a voice just as clear as a bell, I heard Bob say, “But look at how conscientious he is.” So I looked again. This man who was sitting at my kitchen table busily shuffling papers was doing it with so much sincerity. I hadn’t notice that before. I tuned into how my body felt when I thought this kinder and more appreciative thought—it felt relaxed and good.
Bob was right. This man was sincere. More negative objections arose in my mind though. Who wants to be in the funeral business? Why did he choose this gruesome line of work? Bob’s voice spoke to me again, “He is a heroic man. He is doing work that nobody else wants to do. He needs to be respected.” I tried this perspective on. Again, it felt good.
My dialogue with Bob went back and forth with more petty complaints that are too trivial to recall until I exhausted all my objections. And what became glaringly obvious to me during this process of communicating with Bob was that whenever I thought one of my own thoughts—that is judgmental—I felt unwell. But when I allowed Bob’s loving way of looking at the world to flow through me I felt a glowing contentment.
After a few minutes, I became less and less interested in hanging on to my own habitual way of looking at the world and I consciously stepped aside to let Bob think through me. I was still there but only as a witness. In many ways, this mirrored my physical relationship with Bob too. I often simply basked in the warmth and kindness of his presence. Bob was the closest person to God that I knew and to be with him was to be in heaven.
By consciously giving Bob permission to speak through me, he spoke directly to the poor, beleaguered funeral director who toiled away in front of me. Bob showered the man with attention and it unleashed a floodgate of sorrow and frustration in the man. He spoke about how vilified he was in his job and how people equated him with death itself. He recalled numerous stories of being physically assaulted by otherwise meek and mild grandmothers upon hearing of their husband’s demise.
In fact, after thirty years on the job, he resigned himself to accept the abuse as part and parcel of the work. He said it was hard to accept for the first ten or twenty years but then he came to understand that “it wasn’t personal.” People just don’t like to accept death. Now he understood. Now he could take it. Because he did take it with dignity—never returning abuse for abuse—he was often profusely thanked later “after people had returned to their senses.”
For three hours, Bob allowed this man to unburden himself from his sorrows as he affirmed his dignity and worth. My body felt energized and refreshed afterwards. However, my mind still had the petulance to say, “What just happened here? I’m the one who lost my husband. That man should have been here for me!” Years later, it’s comical to recognize just how childish the ego can be. In the midst, of a miracle, it still complains.
What this experience showed me directly is that Bob’s spirit is very much alive and well! Not only that, he is available to me at any time that I invite him in. I remember him with love and tune into his wavelength just like tuning into a radio station. Also since Bob was a long-time singer of Barbershop Harmony, every Sunday during my local church service he chimes in during the closing peace song to harmonize “in peace and harmony.” And I can still see the big smile on his face as he does this. I see both the living people in the room and feel and see Bob’s presence just as clearly.
However, having a clear knowing that death is not really the end of life did not negate my own need to mourn. And this is an important point to remember. Dr. Henry Maudsley, an eighteenth century physician wrote “A sorrow not given vent makes other organs weep.” Our sorrows are still our sorrows and we have to face them. As poet Jennifer Wellwood so eloquently states “each condition I flee from pursues me” but “each condition I welcome transforms me.”
Welcome It All
Let’s look at how we might go about the process of welcoming mourning in. Rabbi Anne Brener shares some of the profound wisdom of the Jewish tradition in her book, Mourning and Mitzvah: “Upon hearing of the death of a loved one, Jews traditionally tore their garments ‘to expose the heart.’…Tearing a garment symbolizes the severing of a relationship. It permanently mutilates something valuable that can not be mended. By ‘exposing our heart’, we also expose our vulnerability before others. This emotional nakedness…is the raw material of our transformation.”
She goes on to say, “during mourning, we have the opportunity to strip away parts of our self-image that are not authentically our own.” As we do this, Brener says that “we begin to reclaim our lives.” But she cautions that “the walk from the house of mourning may be the most difficult walk of your life. For many it may feel like learning to walk with new legs as you struggle to regain your equilibrium. The walk begins with careful measured steps of early mourning and must find footing amid the chaos and raw emotions of the middle stage of loss.”
I will never forget how surprised and humbled I was when I arrived for my first day of a counseling internship on a psychiatric ward and found out that losing a child was the number one, most common precipitating incident that brought someone in. And on all psychological stress tests, the death of a child is unanimously rated as the number one most difficult stress to cope with while the death of a spouse comes in a close second
Deborah Anthony writes about “the gap” between those who have lost children and those who have not. She writes, “The excruciating and isolating reality that bereaved parents feel is hermetically sealed” from others and “thus it is a trap” because the compassion and insight we need is not allowed in. In a touching piece of writing called “The Great Tenderness on the Edge of Everything,” author Jean Rhude, described her own experience of grief after losing her son as being pulled between two valleys. She says that one valley is the “valley of the shadow of loss and I am pulled there by invisible forces that feel like powerful magnets” where she longs to “rest and wallow and be in this profound sadness.” Whereas, the other valley pulls just as forcefully inviting her to “re-learn the language of happy.” Most days “the only place to rest is that narrow ridge, on the precipice, between the two valleys.”
In Part One of A Beautiful Mourning, I wrote, “I am saving my life by losing my life. I lose everything I had known about myself. I lose all my interests, appetites, and desires. What a freedom I discover in this! It’s as if everything I had known myself to be is wiped clean. I can start fresh, I can be reborn. And who do I want to be?”
The Crack in Everything
In Julia Cameron’s book, The Prosperous Heart, she writes “Although loss is always painful, it serves to put us in touch with our own spirit. Loss cracks our hard outer shell and exposes our vulnerability.” Or as Leonard Cohen soulfully sang “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Or maybe it’s how the light gets out? Inayat Khan believed that life “is a place for study, in which every sorrow, every heartbreak brings a precious lesson. It is a place in which to learn by one’s own suffering, by the study of the suffering of others; to learn from the people who have been kind to us as well as from the people who have been unkind.”
Beloved yoga teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar described his journey to wholeness through his book, Light on Life. He explains that anyone can embark on the “Inward Journey” because he says that “life itself seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight.” For Iyengar, yoga “allows you to find an inner peace that is not ruffled by the endless stresses and struggles of life….To a yogi, freedom implies not being battered by the dualities of life, its ups and downs, its pleasures and suffering.”
The catch is that you transcend these dualities by mastering them. He encourages his students to embrace their pain but not in a “grit your teeth and bear it” way—through a path of honoring. The great yogi says, “The pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain” and “pain is our guru.” He goes on, “Learn to find comfort even in discomfort. We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it.”
Iyengar teaches us that this “is the spiritual attitude toward life.” However he assures us it is not a martyred stance that invites in pain for no reason. He clarifies that there is “right pain” and “wrong pain.” For example if we get up a half-an-hour earlier to practice yoga in the morning and face our laziness and early-morning aches and pains this would be right pain. But if we get up at 4 a.m. in the morning and wake up our entire household we will foolishly cause harm to ourselves and others and our yoga practice will not be sustainable.
Instead, “we use right pain like a vaccine against the unavoidable pain and suffering that life always sends our way.” In a testimonial to the effectiveness of this approach, Iyengar says, “In my life I count among my greatest blessings my early ill health, poverty, lack of education, and the harshness or my guru.” He goes on to say, “Without these deprivations, I might never have held on so faithfully to yoga.” He joins all wisdom traditions when he sings the praises of pain: “Pain comes to guide you. When you have known pain, you will be compassionate. Shared joys cannot teach us this.” And he laments that “Most people want to take joy without suffering” but says that “I will take both.”
As author Herman Hesse reminded us, “You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation…and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”