Big blue skies and so much sunlight – it felt good to be alive and waving to my son as he disappeared into school. I turned to one of the grandparents to share my smile. She could not smile or make eye contact. I asked, “are you okay”. “Did you not know that Tom died at Christmas”, she pleaded?
I felt like I’d been punched in the chest, the big strong man that I spoke to last week was gone – just gone. I opened my arms and she held me and sobbed against my chest.
The next night a friend told me it had been a strange Christmas. He said, “you know the first one without my Dad”. My heart missed a beat. “I know”, I hear myself say.
Both these occasions reminded me of the grief I carry, my own journey with this grief, and my gratitude for my mindfulness and compassion practice. I wanted to share my own experience of grief. Maybe you will find these words helpful or maybe just knowing you are not alone will be comforting or it might help you to start talking/working with your own grief.
It is not like I had learned from others how to grieve. Nobody really talks about death and grief in my family or community. Hey, I’m a man from the East of Scotland, we are not taught or allowed to be emotional, never mind cry. So, until my dad’s death, I had been busy looking after him. Really busy not being with my pain.
But when the emotional vacuum, then emotional chaos, the physical pain, the numbing and everything in-between hit me, I felt ill-equipped for grief. Oh, the anxiety was all consuming. It left me feeling out of control about how to deal with it, and then get on with my life. And of course, this was part of the problem. There is no universal way of doing grief or a time scale for grief. It was so easy to grasp behaviour to avoid experiencing the thinking, emotions and sensations of my grief: overworking, drug and alcohol abuse, directing anger at others and/or caring for others rather than attending to my own suffering.
Thankfully, I was able to refer to the Mindfulness Association’s document ‘Mindfulness in Difficult Times’ from the Level 1 – Being Present Course. This advised me to limit or stop my practice. Good advice because I found that my grief was too raw, and my heart too tender to meditate. I also found a couple of books that really helped and a couple of practices that enabled me to open myself slowly to my grief.
First I found a gem, Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate And Spiritual Guide To Coping With Loss, by Sameet Kumar (2005). He told me – it’s okay to grieve and its okay to find it difficult. Grief will come in and out of awareness – sometimes without warning. But allowing it to be present is just so important and so much easier”, grief only serves to highlight the depth of our capacity to love and be loved. Just as love depends on the courage to share yourself with another person, grieving mindfully depends on your courage to accept your own feelings”. He also pointed out that allowing yourself to mourn, and to meet grief with kindness and compassion can be life affirming, and transformative.
Similarly, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1976) Death: The Final Stage of Growth, reminded me ” Death is as much a part of human existence, of human growth and development, as being born. It sets a limit on our time in this life, urges us on to do something productive with that time as long as it is ours to use”. The allowing and letting go that grief demands can open space to explore what is important and what is auto-pilot.
To allow grief, I started to talk openly. I told my wife, my family and my friends about the pain. When people anyone asked how I was, I would tell them. It was like telling me. Nobody ran away. Nobody tried to shame me by saying, “get over it and get on”. Many people, sometimes strangers where only too happy to talk about their experience. And it was warming and connecting to hear how others had coped and not coped. After all, it is the human experience – this suffering and this dying. And all we can work with is how to meet it – our attitude.
After six months the pain in my body still kept me awake. A friend suggested I see a Core Processing Psychotherapist in Edinburgh. Here I found a beautiful celebration of the roots of Buddhism and western psychotherapy. It manifests itself as a compassionate inquiry and exploration of the felt sense of what was present. Having this regular space held without judgement, allowed me to speak and hear myself speak about my relationship with my dad. It was the beginning of making sense of my grief. It helped to open my heart and mind in new ways.
So I took note of this wisdom I’d heard and felt. Then I started to gently practice compassion that I had learned on the Level 2 – Responding with compassion course : The soften, sooth and allow practice with my hand on my heart. Not for any length of time, just a wee bit at a time, but it became my mantra. And my grief came in waves and I let it out. I cried a lot.
My mum handed it to me Sogyal Rinpoche’s, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It is powerful reminder of our impermanence and unending potential. On the second anniversary of my dad’s death I went into the Knoydart mountains for a 5-day solo walking retreat. Kristine recommended taking Love Letters to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh (2013). It ignited my awe, invited me to live and breathe all the interdependent connections, all the allowing and letting go that are Mother Earth. By the end of the trip I could imagine my dad in every cloud, every drop of rain, every flower and every moment. I found that really comforting.
“If you are very fond of a beautiful cloud and if your cloud is no longer there, you should not be sad. Your beloved cloud might have become the rain, calling on you, ‘darling, darling, don’t you see me in my new form?’ And then you will not be stuck with grief and despair. Your beloved one continues always […] And our nature is the nature of no birth and no death…the nature of a cloud also. A cloud can never die. A cloud can become snow, or hail…or rain. But it is impossible for a cloud to pass from being into non-being. And that is true with your beloved one. He has not died. He is continued in many new forms. And you can look deeply and recognize him in you and around you.”
Thich Nhat Hanh (2013)
And in the midst of all of this life continues. There is no cure for grief, and nor should there be. I’ve learned so much from it. The grief is different now, and so am I. When emotions and sensations arise, I allow myself to tend to them as an act of kindness. My intention and motivation for my practice has changed significantly. Life has new purpose and meaning. So I am grateful for my mindfulness and compassion teachers and my practice for giving me the courage to talk and listen to the grief of others, but also to listen and accept my own grief. I hope this sharing is helpful to you.
Thank you for sharing this Bill. I recently heard a talk by Franciscan Friar, Richard Rohr. He says death isn’t the opposite of life, it’s the opposite of birth. Life continues. Thich Nhat Hahn’s words echo that. Beautiful.
Beautiful, beautiful wise, courageous words Bill. Thank-you so much for sharing this.
Thanks for the kinds words. Im delighted that the words were helpful. Love n peace Bill x