One of my relatives passed away recently and this piece has been adapted from a piece written for his memorial gathering.
Most of us spend our life unconsciously denying the reality of death. But it’s not possible to do so when a loved one dies.
The death of the loved one brings home the reality of death, puts us face-to-face with our own fear of and denial of death, and gives us an opportunity to come to greater peace.
In a book, titled WHO DIES, spiritual teacher Stephen Levine, who spent decades supporting people who were dying or grieving the death of a loved one, says the following:
I've been with many people whose grief has been beyond bearing and in some ways it has been the best thing that ever happened to them. For they come to plumb the depths of their being. When we experience grief, we are not just experiencing the loss of our son or daughter, our husband or wife, our parent or loved one. We are dropped into the very pit of despair and longing. We are touching the reservoir of loss itself. We experience the long-held fear and doubt and grief that has always been there. It is not an experience most would choose, though the confrontation with this area of deep holding seems to be an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey toward freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages. (Who Dies, Pp. 85-86)
Some years ago a woman told me of her daughter’s death while the family was vacationing on the Oregon coast. Her six-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son had been floating on a log just offshore, bobbing in the water, yelling and playing as the waves rolled over them and they tried to hold on. A wave would come and they would ride the log, squealing and laughing. A lot of joyful chaos. A wave came along and rolled the log over, but as the children scrambled to hold on, an unusually large second wave hit, and the six-year-old girl was dragged out to sea before anyone could get to her. They couldn’t find the body anywhere.
A few days later, the coroner called her down to the morgue to identify the body of a child that had that morning been retrieved from the ocean. As the woman came into the coroner’s office, he said he wanted her to know that what she was about to see was the partially eaten remains of a child. A shark has gotten to the body after it had drowned. As they pulled back the sheet, she went through the most profound pain she had ever experienced. She also went through the most profound experience of love. Looking at the partially eaten remains of her daughter, there was simply no way she could hold the experience. She was blown out of her mind. She went beyond herself. And she touched something that was essential in her being. That moment confronted her with all the places she was separate from other beings. And, most painfully, from herself. There was no place to hide. There was nothing she could do that would make it go away. She just had to be there, in the presence of the moment. Indeed, I do not think she could have met an enlightened being that would have transmitted more to her than that moment did.
The potency of that grief was so intense that she had to let go, to surrender. All the places she hid were illuminated in a blinding flash. A year later, she told me it was the most profound experience of her life and that, “It opened me. It turned my life around. My priority became to touch and understand and open to the hearts of others.” (Who Dies, Pp. 86-87.)
In the ancient Epic story from India, The Ramayana, the extraordinarily wise and loving Prince Rama, upon learning of his father’s death, said the following words to console his younger brother, Prince Bharata:
All savings end in spending,
All risings end in falling;
All unions end in separation,
All living ends in dying.
As a fruit ripens on the tree
Has no other fear nor another
danger, but that of falling.
So, my brother Bharata, to a human being once born, there is no other fear, no other danger but that of death. All other fears and dangers are attendant upon that one. People greet each other at the turn of the season not realizing that season by season by season their own lifespans are now being curtailed. Every morning they see the sun rise and rejoice in its beauty; every evening they see the sun set and are happy sharing the view, not thinking that another day, yet another day has been reduced in the lifespan. But remember, oh Bharata, remember we are all going the same direction.
Two pieces of wood floating in the river, touched by the action of waves and winds from two different places, float together for a little while, so, human beings, touched by the winds and waves of their own karma, action, come together for a while, float together and then go their own separate ways.
Oh Bharata, as a man walking on the pavement sees another going in a chariot pulled by fast steeds and the man on the pavement waves to the man in the chariot saying, “You go along, I too am coming on foot.” So my brother, our father has gone on a chariot pulled by fast steeds, we too are going the same way.” (Transl. by Usharbudh Arya, from Meditation and the Art of Dying, Pp. 64-65).
We are all going the same direction. We are all in the same boat. Experiencing the death of our loved one and feeling our grief gives us an opportunity to open our hearts. Then we may find the love that comes from within but which has been blocked. So when we gather to acknowledge the death of a loved one, let us also acknowledge that death is the lot of us all, and let this knowledge open our hearts so we can love while we still have the ability and time to do so.