I am not channeling Elizabeth Kubler Ross, but I’m going to delve into one of life’s more taboo topics – death. It surrounds us. And lately for me, grieving for ones lost has been heartfelt, sad, contemplative, and curious. In this moment, writing about it also is somewhat cathartic.
Loss is something we all share. And, literally speaking (and something of a cliché), death is the only thing guaranteed in life. Although this isn’t a topic I generally dwell on, in my life loss always seems to come in “clumps” (meaning that spurts of loss have generally come in twos or threes). If it were anything but clumped and more of a constant (say in a war, or a tsunami), how could we process all that grief? But people do, and they survive, and continue to live their lives…coping, processing, healing, and loving.
Over the years, I’ve “lost” many loved ones, friends and mentors – to death (and sometimes other circumstances). The first funeral I went to was a crash course in mourning – it was my Dad’s. He was 41; I was 19. At that age, I wasn’t really able to grock the meaning of it all (especially in the Greek Orthodox tradition of wailing women in black and suffocating incense), but that loss has continued to be the most profound of my life, having deeply shaped who I am today.
And I often wonder what my Dad would have been like had he survived his long illness. It’s kind fun to make up stories and have an image in my head of “older Dad.” I at least hope he would have made it to Alaska to go salmon fishing! But as many will say of those who suffer long illnesses, it was also a blessing that he left when he did…too much suffering, time to go.
So between then and now (a good stretch), I’ve experience much loss-based sadness– sudden deaths, suicides, terminal illnesses, accidents, etc. It can come at any time, most unexpectedly, or sometimes with great preparation. But the result is still the same. Those who die are no longer, at least in this realm. We grieve. And I tend to wonder…
…what happens next?
Formal religions have various belief systems — partially to quell our fear of the unknown. And also rituals to help us process and honor “letting go” and celebrating a life that was. Yet the mystery of what happens to us after death is one of the most interesting, and can be one of the most polarizing as well. But to date, I don’t think there’s any hard evidence to what really happens after we die.
There’s my dear uncle who believes that we go wherever we think we will…and maybe that’s where it’s at. Who knows? It frightens me sometimes to think about what might – or might not be – on the other side or in another “realm.” But I live with it , and hope that if I live a good life, and learn from my mistakes, forgive others (and myself), that somehow my karma will be clean enough. And if my uncle’s theory is true, my personal preference would be to go universe-hopping after I die…
I do have faith – but my spirituality and awe of the world are generally based in this realm – honoring the humanity in all of us, the Divine within, and the beauty and fierceness of nature. Seeing goodness in myself and others and deeply knowing how interconnected we are to the natural world has framed my concept of faith. I guess currently my faith is earth-based more than anything else.
So how do we cope with all of this uncertainty? Several years ago a dear friend of mine who had terminal cancer visited our gardening program at San Quentin Prison. She shared with the men how living with such an illness forced her to live in the present. To this day, that class was one of our most profound. The men were deeply moved, and for the first time ever in our class, tears flowed freely. They were in awe of her strength and presence, and also grieved for her predicament.
More recently, as her cancer spread, she talked about “going over the rainbow bridge.” Although her illness was often painful, she carried on with grace and finally acceptance. After going increasingly “internal,” she passed away at home — surrounded by loved ones, amazing caregivers, flowers, and candles (thanks also to hospice for their wonderful care!) When I went to say “goodbye,” her body was blanketed with rose petals and decked out to the nines. Her spirit had departed; only the shell of her was left in the physical realm. Very surreal, indeed.
So is she out there, somewhere, watching over those she left behind? Who knows? But when I saw a glorious rainbow from my deck last week, nestled between a giant redwood tree and Berkeley homes, I imagined her at the other end. And I wept long and hard.
And so I arrive at the term “good grief.” Although difficult and painful, grief is really just an expression of love. It is a necessary process for us to move out of the shock and on with our own lives, in the absence of the ones we’ve lost…knowing all the more, that each moment is so precious.