A meditation on death and grieving
I had another encounter with death yesterday. Its presence was already palpable, what with hundreds of thousands dead and dying from the pandemic. Meanwhile, a friend’s husband is ailing and perhaps readying himself to leave; and a couple of my family members appear to be doing much the same.
Then, on my way into the city, I came across a dog lying in the middle of the street. The driver who hit him had apparently kept going, so I stopped. Big chocolate poodle mix. Terrible head injury; thankfully, he didn’t suffer. The body still warm and soft as I pulled him off the pavement. Bright red blood all over my flipflops, sticky under my toes. I rinsed them off with a bottle of soda water I had in the truck. A few years ago this scene would have devastated me emotionally, but now I just felt an overwhelming tenderness and connection, even though it was sad, as though the dog’s spirit had infused the air surrounding us, even moving as me to collect him and get his body to “safety.” I felt as though he even shared my eyes for those 10 minutes or so, and prompted an impulse that I should snap a photo for social media to try to identify his owner, which I did. While running my errands afterward I thought a lot about death, or more specifically grief. I thought about my own embarrassingly theatrical grief some years ago when my younger brother died of cancer. We had never been close, and although I felt a certain camaraderie with, and affection for, him due to our shared childhood trauma, we had absolutely nothing in common, and very rarely saw each other in person. But you wouldn’t know this from the way I had wailed into the abyss.
I puzzled over this, wondering how the death of someone I barely knew or even spoke to could hit with such devastating force. My brother was a good man, as far as I knew, but there was virtually no connection to him for me to miss. All I really had of him were some childhood memories and a handful of narratives, the stories I had sustained about him and recited to anyone who asked: He sickly from birth, so sick due to a heart defect that he was not expected to survive his first week, let alone into middle age. For work, he had driven bodies around for a morgue. He had married an embalmer he met on the job. She was Japanese. Etc.
Beyond that I couldn’t tell you much except to note that his life from my perspective — key words — had been one of literal and metaphorical heartbreak. He struggled mightily in a society that did not observe much value in his quirky, shy personality, and he had never seemed to be able to “triumph” in the end. But what is triumph? He apparently enjoyed a good marriage (more than I could claim), and he seemed perfectly happy to fix computers and motorcycles and collect vintage Matchbox cars. He was humble. A tinkerer. Just happy to be here.
After much contemplation I realized that the story I was grieving was actually my own. Such is the nature of projection—I was not confronting his passing so much as working out my own perceived failures, my own thwarted ambitions, my own struggles against “injustice,” and some strange idea that it would be unfair of Life to kill me off before an imaginary final conquest, as it had done with him.
The dead are fine on the other side; they don’t need our grief. And while I in no way intend to diminish the magnitude of anyone’s loss, it may be helpful to recognize the ways in which we compound our own suffering when a loved one inevitably leaves, whether via death or some other relationship disruption.
For much of what we really grieve is the end of the stories that bound us to them, and the futures those stories implied. We grieve the loss of the perceived meaning they afforded us, of the reflections of ourselves that we saw in them. We rail against the reopening of the holes in our self-image we had assigned them to fill. We grieve because what we’ve really lost is the piece of our own identity that they represented, and our suffering is proportional to the size of that piece. I grieved hard at the injustice inherent to my brother‘s story, which probably bore little resemblance to the way he actually experienced his own life. And when a few years later I fell seriously ill myself, I occasionally thought I felt my brother’s presence nearby. This too made little sense, given the insubstantial nature of our actual relationship in life. Even at the time it felt like a kind of weird, romantic affectation I was somehow using to entertain myself.
Now, I think I understand. It’s no wonder the human mind gravitates to ideas of the departed as communicating with us from beyond, or visiting us in some paranormal way. Their leaving is a terrible ego shock, a free fall into an intense awareness that we are but figures in a dream, born of nothingness, subject to recall at any time. In the aftermath of that shock, we create and sustain those phenomena as a means of reassuring ourselves that we somehow still exist, and will continue on. The alternative awareness — that death comes for us too, and more quickly than we can happily abide — is, in those moments, too stark to endure.
We should look at death, and look at it unflinchingly, and make our peace with it - because it is not what it seems, and we amplify our hurt by resisting it.
But we should look at death, and look at it unflinchingly, and make our peace with it -- because it is not what it seems, and we amplify our hurt by resisting it. The dog in my arms had an owner, judging by his collar, and no doubt they would grieve for him. But I didn’t know his story, so I could not share their grief in such depth. Instead, by virtue of my accidental presence, I was provided the rare opportunity to honor the moment of his passing by seeing it with clear eyes, as a simple witness.
He was shaggy enough that I could not see his wounds entirely, but a long, clean incisor was visible, which told me he was young, maybe 2 or 3 years old. His spark of life had been a brief one and without that animating prana, the physical form that had contained it had already begun to wilt like a cut flower in the hot sun.
For a minute I marveled at this handsome vessel, soon to be dissolved and recycled, which is Source’s ongoing preoccupation and ultimate joy. And though as the day progressed I would tear up occasionally at the thought of our brief and strange encounter, those tears reflected not so much sadness as gratitude, and awe.