Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Death and Living

I posted a quote on my facebook status:

"How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand... there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend, some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold." Frodo Baggins, "The Lord of the Rings"

A friend posted a reply:
"There is no going back, only moving forward. Not always easy, and healing nonetheless."

Another friend said, "One day you will notice that acceptance has replaced today's grief, and that you are fully engaged in this day, this life."

I love my friends, and I have to disagree with them. This post is my reply. It's far to long to go on facebook, and I wanted time to think before I answered.

Some background on the original quote, for those who haven't memorized large portions of the book or movies. Frodo, a hobbit (who is an avatar, essentially, for everyman), inherited a ring of great power and evil. He undertook the year-long journey to destroy it, nearly dying in the process, and at the end of the story is once again living in his old home. But not everything is the same: HE is not the same, and so everything around him is different. His wounds pain him, the memories of death and dying haunt him, the burden he bore changed him fundamentally, and while he knows that what he did was the right thing, he also paid a dear price for doing it. In time he realizes that he is permanently changed, damaged beyond repair by the events of the journey.

Joy and I decided over the summer to let our daughter watch the Lord of the Rings, and that I would watch it with her, to answer the inevitable "WTF just happened!?!" questions, and to pace it. So we watched the extended versions, all 13+ hours of it, in 3 chunks over 6 weekends. And I was struck once again at how sad a story it is. No one is unchanged, nothing will remain the same, some things better, others worse, everything different. And that quote just jumped out at me.

This is what I was trying to say: that no matter what, there are things from which there are no return. Acceptance is wonderful, healing is necessary, but neither healing nor acceptance change the raw facts, nor do they magically wash away the pain. Ask a man who has lost a limb, and they will tell you of acceptance and healing, and of the fact that there is never a moment when they are what they once were. It is the same with the loss of a child: it is fundamentally a different experience from other losses. I can speak authoritatively from my own experience, as in the last 4 years I have lost a step-son, both my parents, one of my sisters, and yes, my daughter. There is simply no comparison, and if you have not gone through it, you cannot comprehend the difference. I could not, when my beloved wife lost her oldest son Sean, at the end of 2007. I knew Sean well, loved him dearly, had been his step-father for nearly 20 years. I had held him when he cried, knew as much of him as any parent could of a teenager who had grown up. And still, it was a qualitative difference when Alysia died.

What I am saying is that the common notions of healing and acceptance don't cover the right ground: they are orthogonal to the pain, a separate part of the Venn diagram.

(If you are interested in a couple of different views of death and dying and grieving, I highly recommend Pema Chodron's book, "When Things Fall Apart" and also "A Year to Live", by Steven Levine. When my stepson Sean died, I found work in those books that I could take on to understand myself better. I have returned to them many times since.)

I have been having harder days, now that we have begun our Christmas preparations, always a special time for family, and one of Alysia's favorite times of the year, a time to be with family and connections. Alysia is very present in my life, as are my Mom and Dad. But just because the times are harder doesn't imply that I am not accepting of the reality of my life: sometimes accepting reality can be quite painful. When Ramesh Balsekar's son died, a disciple informed the father, who dropped to the ground weeping. The stunned acolyte stammered, "Master, haven't you told us that this is all illusion? Why do you weep?" The master turned gently to the man, and answered, "Yes, this is indeed all illusion. And this is the most painful part." Illusory or not, accepting or not, pain is there. I believe we must accept the pain as well as the joy, with the knowledge and understanding that it all ends eventually.

And moving forward? Towards what? We are in the day today, I am who I am today, my pain and my joys are real now. To believe that acceptance will come tomorrow is to NOT live today, with whatever is here. I have spent much of the last 40 years learning to be present, and I thank whatever deities there are that I did so: I think that otherwise, the pain would have unhinged me (further, OK?). Same for Joy: losing 2 children, less than 3 years apart, and she's still standing. Why? Preparation in the form of meditation, therapy, whatever you want to call it. We are sometimes miserable, often happy, excited by our children, loving both the living and the dead, just making it through. So don't worry when I get a little dark: it's just another part of me, needing expressing.

At the end of the summer, I went to a retreat at the Omega Institute, in Rhinebeck, NY. I had discovered that my grief had begun to harden, to stagnate. I really have no other words for the feeling of stiffness in my metaphorical heart, my 3rd chakra, so that'll have to do. Eventually I figured out that I wanted to do some type of retreat, but had no idea where or when. My wife asked me what type of retreat I thought would be good for me, and I answered, "Music and silence." The next day, an email link from Deva Premal and Miten (singers and writers of wonderful mantra music) led me to a weekend retreat of chanting and silence.

I sang, I danced, I chanted, I did everything but sleep for 3 days (well, OK, I did sleep a little.) It was one of the most intense, painful, hopeful, joyful, special times. At some point in that wonderful, magical time, I realized that I would always have the pain of losing my daughter in my heart. At the same time, I understood that this wouldn't block the way for me to have a wonderful life: I could go forward with both feelings simultaneously, embracing them both, however painful it was. This was both the beginning of my healing, and of my acceptance. But it also was the beginning of understanding that the pain would never really leave, even if there were days that I would pay little attention to it, for there is a piece of me that I willingly gave up, and now can never reclaim. So all joy is tempered by the knowledge of my loss. And all hardship is also tempered by the understanding that I can survive regardless.

Love to all, Yogi

1 comment:

  1. i know i can't understand the pain of outliving one of my children. but your words certainly paint the picture more clearly...