Grief follows its’ own mind. It sneaks into the house through locked doors, has its way with the furniture, breaks the fine china, and departs on a whim. But it doesn’t retreat far: Just as we’ve finished sweeping the debris, grief returns to overwhelm whatever wall of incense and icons and soft beeswax candles we’re hiding behind and makes us doubt the holy answers. It lingers to wrack our bodies more painfully than an Inquisitor. And even after our breath has relaxed in celebration of its extended absence, we wake once again to feel grief’s great weight next to us in the bed.
Grief demands accommodation. If it grabs us as we’re selecting pickles on Isle 12, well then, that’s when we yield. To not yield is to encourage grief’s metastasis into something even less predictable and more destructive – illness; misdirected rage; withdrawal; thick walls of cynicism. Grief, like birth, comes when ready, exerts its will, and then maybe – if we let go and allow – leaves behind something beautiful.
A nearby Buddhist community recently lost a dear member and asked me to lead them in letting go. Their friend died of cancer. The community watched her decline and assisted as they could. They provided meals, helped her in and out of the meditation hall, and formed a care committee. In Buddhist tradition, the 49th day after someone’s death is commemorated by a ceremony, but since this practice was handed down from a culture distant in time and place, the community wasn’t sure what the ceremony should look like or why it should be held.
After talking with the community I began to see that they were fully honoring conventional wisdom about grief. Their friend had died and they were giving themselves over to the grieving process: Her chair sat undisturbed in the Zendo, still adorned by her shawl and pillow; her photograph graced the altar; a medicine bundle hung in her honor from the neck of Kwan Yin. All were beautifully appropriate symbols grieving her loss. And yet. Isn’t there something deeper and more liberating than conventional wisdom about grief?
Buddhist practice points us again and again to the deep truth that there is no such thing as a separate self. The Buddha taught that we are intimately interconnected with all things. Conventional wisdom is based on the understanding that I am me and you are you and that when you die, I grieve because something precious is irretrievably lost. In the conventional sense, this is true. But in the deep liberation taught by the Buddha, this isn’t the whole story. When one cell dies the body recycles that energy to create a new cell. Nothing is lost because nothing is separate. From the point of view of the cell, something is lost. From the point of view of the body, nothing is lost.
I could see that their 49th Day Ceremony needed to help the community move from the appropriate and necessary grieving they had so faithfully honored, to the deeper truth that nothing is lost and nothing is gained. As long as they remained focused on their friend in all her particulars – her shawl and chair and photograph – they would be unable to see her in the universal – in every flower and cloud and sound of the bell. So we chanted familiar sutras, sat silently, voiced our intention to transform grief into insight, and finally, removed her symbols from the meditation hall. We placed a stone in the garden outside to remind us of her life, but also to symbolize our letting go.
Grief demands, and we respond. By allowing this, we rightly honor our humanity and the wild physical nature of our grief. But we can’t get stuck there. We must harvest our life’s experiences to pierce grief’s power. We must know that grief draws its fuel from the mistaken belief that we are separate and that loss is the final word. We must live the paradox that we are both separate selves subject to grief’s grip and are, at the same time, a deeply interconnected whole free from the fires of birth and death. A person who rests in unity’s truth while also accommodating grief’s great weight is free. They are of immense benefit. They are a Bodhisattva.