Loss, Grief, and Celebration

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Dear Still Water Friends,


Loss, Grief, and Celebration
Thursday, July 15, 2010


Dear Still Water friends,

I lost a good friend this past week. I felt close to her, understood by her, fully accepted. She often reminded me to slow down and take a breath, to be present to her, to stroke her.

My friend was a cat named Annie. Her official residence was two houses down from ours, with Mike and Kristy. However, the three of them seemed to have an understanding: Annie was free to live her life the way she wanted, and for the past eight years she chose to spend most of her days on our porch and in our yard. Often she was there from seven in the morning until seven in the evening, relaxing on the porch swing, or sleeping on the rock wall next to the sidewalk.

She wasn’t much to look at –- a multi-colored mutt of a cat — and she had a rather grating voice, but she was the most pro-social being I’ve ever met. She liked people and wanted to interact with them. She perked up when someone walked down the street and had scores of friends who would stop on their way to or from the subway to spend a few moments stroking and talking with her. She softened people by the force of her engaging openness.

My treasured moments with Annie were when I came back to the house after being away. As soon as she saw me, she would get up and walk forward to greet me. Often we sat on the steps together. She didn’t want to be held, but if I stopped stroking her before she was ready, she gently pushed into me, letting me know what she wanted. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we had no need for words.

I feel a little sad, now, that I sometimes took Annie’s presence for granted. When I was feeling busy or pushing myself to finish a project, I would give her only a few strokes and walk in. Now her life has ended and I miss her.

This Thursday after our meditation we will read three Buddhist writings on loss, grief, and celebration and then share together our own experiences with the loss of beloved companions, be they human, four footed, or feathered.

The long excerpt below from Ajanh Brahm reminds us that our response to loss is shaped by our culture and that we have the option of focusing more on what we were blessed with and less on what we have lost.

Sylvia Boorstein explains that mindfulness meditation helps us graceful accept the minor frustrations of life, which prepares us for the major losses that come to every life.

Thich Nhat Hanh clarifies that fear and grief often arise because of a lack of understanding of the impermanent and inter-dependent nature of all things.

You are invited to be with us. The three readings are below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher



Grief, Loss, and Celebrating a Life
by Ajahn Brahm, from Who Ordered This Truck Load of Dung?

Grief is what we add on to loss. It is a learned response, specific to some cultures only. It is not universal and it is not unavoidable.

I found this out through my own experience of being immersed for over eight years in a pure, Asian-Buddhist culture. In those early years in a Buddhist forest monastery in a remote corner of Thailand, Western culture and ideas were totally unknown. My monastery served as the local cremation ground for many surrounding villages. There was a cremation almost weekly. In the hundreds of funerals I witnessed there in the late 1970s, never once did I see anyone cry. I would speak with the bereaved family in the following days and still there were no signs of grief. One had to conclude that there was no grief. I came to know that in northeast Thailand in those days, a region steeped in Buddhist teachings for many centuries, death was accepted by all in a way that defied Western theories of grief and loss.

Those years taught me that there is an alternative to grief. Not that grief is wrong, only that there is another possibility. Loss of a loved one can be viewed in a second way, a way that avoids the long days of aching grief.

My own father died when I was only sixteen. He was, for me, a great man. He was the one who helped me find the meaning of love with his words, “Whatever you do in your life, Son, the door of my heart will always be open to you.” Even though my love for him was huge, I never cried at his funeral service. Nor have I cried for him since. I have never felt like crying over his premature death. It took me many years to understand my emotions surrounding his death.

I found that understanding through the following story, which I share with you here.

As a young man I enjoyed music, all types of music from rock to classical, jazz to folk. London was a fabulous city in which to grow up in the 1960s and early 1970s, especially when you loved music. I remember being at the very first nervous performance of the band Led Zeppelin, at a small club in Soho. On another occasion, only a handful of us watched the then-unknown Rod Stewart front a rock group in the upstairs room of a small pub in North London. I have so many precious memories of the music scene in London at that time.

At the end of most concerts I would shout “More! More!” along with many others. Usually, the band or orchestra would play on for a while. Eventually, though, they had to stop, pack up their gear and go home. And so did I. It seems to my memory that every evening when I walked home from the club, pub, or concert hall, it was always raining. There is a special word to describe the dreary type of rain often met with in London: drizzle. It always seemed to be drizzling, cold, and gloomy as I left the concert halls. But even though I knew in my heart that I probably would never get to hear that band again, that they had left my life forever, never once did I feel sad or cry. As I walked out into the cold, damp of the London night, the stirring music still echoed in my mind, “What magnificent music! What a powerful performance! How lucky I was to have been there at the time!” I never felt grief at the end of a great concert.

And that is exactly how I felt after my own father’s death. It was as if a great concert had finally come to an end. It was such a wonderful performance. I was, as it were, shouting loudly, “More! More!” when it came close to the finale. My dear old dad did struggle hard to keep living a little longer for us. But the moment eventually came when he had to “pack up his gear and go home.” When I walked out of the crematorium at Mortlake at the end of the service into the cold London drizzle–I remember the drizzle clearly–knowing in my heart that I would probably not get to be with him again, that he had left my life forever, I didn’t feel sad; nor did I cry. What I felt in my heart was, “What a magnificent father! What a powerful inspiration was his life. How lucky I was to have been there at the time. How fortunate I was to have been his son.” As I held my mother’s hand on the long walk into the future, I felt the very same exhilaration as I had often felt at the end of one of the great concerts in my life. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.

Grief is seeing only what has been taken away from you. The celebration of a life is recognizing all that we were blessed with, and feeling so very grateful.

Thank you, Dad.

To Accept Life As It Is
by Sylvia Boorstein, from Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is. It teaches the heart to be more accommodating, not by beating it into submission, but by making it clear that accommodation is a gratifying choice. Accommodation of the heart is not always easy. Knowing that it is a possibility is a great inspiration. Having an accommodating heart is the ultimate freedom.

Practicing accommodation on the small, moment-to-moment disappointments of life – not forgetting our preferences, but remaining spacious and relaxed when preferences are not met – prepares us to deal with the larger challenges of life. The movement of the heart in surrender, in graceful accommodation, is bigger and more difficult when faced with the great griefs of life than with the minor inconveniences. Mindfulness meditation is a way of practicing that movement, using the plain business of our everyday lives as grist for the mill.

Long Live Impermanence
by Thich Nhat Hanh, from a Beliefnet interview with Lisa Schneider

For someone who is dealing with a painful loss or a personal fear of death but knows nothing about Buddhism or meditative technique, what do you recommend as way to begin to let go of fear and grief?

I think there’s a way of training ourselves in order not to become the victim of fear and grief — that is to look deeply into ourselves and to see that we are made of non-self elements. And when we look around ourselves, we can recognize ourselves in the non-self elements, like a father looking at his children can see himself in his children, can see his continuation in his children. So he is not attached to the idea that his body is the only thing that is him. He’s more than his body. He is inside of his body but he is also at the same [time] outside of his body in many elements. And if we have the habit of looking like that, we will not be the victim of our attachment to one form of manifestation, and we will be free. And that freedom makes happiness and peace possible.

Other than meditation, is there any specific practice that can help you come to this understanding?

Yes. The Buddha advised us to bear in mind that everything is impermanent, that nothing has an absolute entity that remains the same. And when we keep that insight in mind, we can see more deeply into the nature of reality, and we will not be locked in the notion that we are only this body, this life span is the only life span we have. In fact, because nothing can be by itself alone, no one can be by himself or herself alone, everyone has to inter-be with every one else. That is why, when you look outside, around you, you can see yourself. And when you look into yourself, you can see the world outside. So that is a training.