Knowing Grief

Photo: ‘Knowing Grief’ by myeongae lim – Pixabay

“In the Lakota/Sioux tradition, a person who is grieving is considered most waken, most holy. There’s a sense that when someone is struck by the sudden lightning of loss, he or she stands on the threshold of the spirit world. The prayers of those who grieve are considered especially strong, and it is proper to ask them for their help.

You might recall what it’s like to be with someone who has grieved deeply. The person has no layer of protection, nothing left to defend. The mystery is looking out through that person’s eyes. For the time being, he or she has accepted the reality of loss and has stopped clinging to the past or grasping at the future. In the groundless openness of sorrow, there is a wholeness of presence and a deep natural wisdom.”―Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart

“The Lord says, ‘These words which I have given you, thou shalt place them upon thy heart.’ Why does the text say, ‘upon thy heart,’ and not ‘in thy heart?’ The answer: you place them upon your heart so that when your heart breaks, they fall in.”–a commentary on a line in the Bible, from the Jewish tradition.

After Jon’s death I felt myself standing “on the threshold of the spirit world”. And even though I can’t see much with clarity, neither in the ordinary nor the spirit worlds, I still want to know where he may have gone. Trying to reconnect with him, I can no longer put off the lifelong question hanging over all of us: how does this life intersects with what lies outside its borders—both before and after? Never mind the paradox: of trying to deal with irrevocable absence by summoning forth a presence from the shadows?

As for being more awake and present—so that a “mystery is looking out from my eyes”–I hope one day to earn that kind of grief, but I do not have it now. In any case, that must always be for others to notice, not for me to assume.

There is another kind of grief, which shuts us down. Instead of standing on the threshold of the spirit world, we find ourselves in denial, buried under guilt, and reliving endless “what ifs”.

I still don’t really know what I’m grieving. Am I grieving that Jon is no longer in my life? Am I grieving for all his lost struggles to find fulfillment and happiness? Am I grieving for my own lost future as his father? Or is none of this really grieving at all? Am I just trying to deal with guilt as a sad and damaged man, who, if given the chance, would gladly trade in his new awareness of the truth of impermanence for a few more years asleep under the covers?

This morning, when the usual memories of Jon came into my mind–rather like all those vague anxieties about undone tasks and challenges which I tell myself I don’t have the energy to undertake, but more forceful—instead of being swept up in all the painful associations, I responded with a new quality of attention. I’ve been learning in on-line classes, based on the book ”Caring”, that the process by which situations (including mental patterns such as remorse) take control of my mind, don’t have to immediately or inevitably produce those familiar emotional reactions. This is a process, which starts in the body (pain in the belly or heaviness in the heart), and can be slowed down and observed.

Because I am becoming aware of this process—I felt a pain in my gut, then a shadow passing into my heart; and I breathed relaxation into those body centers. Then, before the entire path of negative emotion had a chance to take over, I felt something less familiar. Instead of all those feelings of loss and remorse, which are far too powerful to resist once they have taken over the ship, I felt a simpler, less aggressive sadness: sadness that Jon was so unhappy, that his life was so caught up and driven by activities that didn’t truly nourish his spirit.

It’s not as if negative emotions can be shut out and banned from ever again arising. It’s that the default process in which feelings immediately rush into body and mind—like floodwaters swamping a neighborhood (when fewer inches per hour could have given the land time to absorb it)—now unfolds more slowly. In place of the situation moving across the chain links of body pain, mental associations, and emotional reaction—to reopen an existing wound–there is now space for calm understanding to be present.

This seems to be a process similar to the advice we are receiving about how to deal with the Covid-19 virus. With the virus sweeping through our world, we are counseled to treat ourselves as possible stepping-stones: for us to be infected and then to infect others. But by slowing down this propagation, our society’s resources are less likely to be overwhelmed by the simultaneous onslaught of too many sick people all at once. Similarly, if we can slow down and become aware of the emotional pitfalls that overwhelm us, we can protect our potential to be balanced and caring human beings.

Because of my lack of caring memories of Jon, I can’t consider myself to be like an old mother whose heart aches with the losses that our world has inflicted on her. Reading Tara Brach’s quote, I recognize that there are human beings whose great losses have deepened into wisdom and compassion. I have been drawing upon their wisdom and compassion for our human condition. And I too have paused on empty street corners, sleepless and late at night, and–hearing a song coming through an open window–have remembered that I still have more to do in this lifetime.

I don’t know Tara–beyond her quote and the fact that she is a spiritual teacher and therapist who was herself disabled as a young girl–but I can recognize that she is in touch with people who have grieved deeply.

I wonder if we can only truly appreciate masters on a spiritual path or deeply heart-centered human beings, when we have begun to aspire to be that sort of person ourselves. I may say that I admire Mother Teresa, but as I drive by all those cardboard signs with words like “hungry” and homeless” printed on them, I am numb to their suffering.

My grief is like that too. My memories of Jon’s sadness, of his broken dreams, are like those torn pieces of cardboard with their faded messages: “Please help me”; “Please see my pain”; “I don’t want to live anymore”.

May I place these words upon my heart, so that when my heart finally learns how to break, they will fall in.

About Michael Gray

I first started studying TSK in the mid 1980's and have since attended a number of retreats and workshops at the Nyingma Institute, in both TSK and Buddhist themes. I participated in the life-changing Human Development Training Program in 1991, and upon returning to Albuquerque co-founded an organization, Friends in Time (with a friend who has Lou Gehrig's Disease), which continues to serve people with similiar disabilities. I contributed an essay to "A New Way of Being"--the last one in the book--in which I describe how learning to honor who I have been has broadened and deepened my openness to present experience. I live in New Mexico with my wife and two sons.
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