By Toni Packer
A letter exchange between two friends, one who is grieving the loss of her mother and sister, and the other who tries to help her understand her sorrow
It is nice to be writing to you again after what seems like many years and no time at all. This has been a year of great change for me and certain questions have arisen that I am struggling with. I would like your perspective.
Many years ago, in a talk, you made a statement I have never forgotten. You spoke of your receiving news that your father had died. You said your first reaction was to feel yourself choking, perhaps with a grief or shock, and then you experienced the realisation that the father you remembered was of the past and not the present. As soon as there was just this presence there was nothing to grieve. I may have changed the words, but that is the gist of what you offered us that day. Now, years later, when it is much more meaningful to me in terms of my own experience, I’d like to ask you about this.
At the beginning of this year my closest friend, my sister, took her life. Despite knowing that she, indeed, was beyond all her suffering, for me the pain was terrible. And it was for my mother, too. In April my mother, unable to find peace with this event, suffered a heart attack and stroke, and after two weeks she died. I spent every day with her during that time, and after she died I began the long and tedious work of settling her estate. Being busy was a help, and in July I went to Colorado, rented a cabin near Longs Peak and began to really feel and experience my own grief.
It was during this time that I thought a great deal about what you had said and wondered for whom such an instant course of recovery would be possible. I give you credit for having seen through illusion in the deepest way, and I accept that perhaps you can transcend the sorrow that humanity experience regarding loss. But my conclusion has been that grief is a tricky and dangerous thing, and that one must be extraordinarily careful not to repress it in the hope of staying in the present and transcending the whole process. I do believe that there is no suffering in the present, in the instant of now, but I also believe that grieving is a process that loss entails, and we skip it at our peril.
Yet it appears to me that you might not really be saying to skip the grieving process, as it seemed you did regarding your father. It would appear that in the whole process of exploring and feeling fully one’s humanness, one could simply sit with the terrible pain and question it in the deepest sense, going through it to a place where it is no longer the pain of loss but an understanding of loss. I have not done this. But I have watched how the pain works.
When something comes along to remind me of my sister or mother, my heart constricts with pain, and I recognise that ‘past’ events trigger the pain. And every book or article or ‘expert’ on death and dying that I have read encourages the grieving process, the flow of tears that remembering brings. The tears themselves are a form of healing I find. Do you follow my confusion here? Part of me would love to leapfrog the grieving process, to be so in and aware of the present that no suffering would be experienced. And part of me warns that time and again, I will be reminded of the loss and must feel the pain, but that I can let it go, allow it to flow through me, not hold onto it. Perhaps it is the holding on that is dangerous.
I need to know if you think all of us can handle sudden death or any death as you did your father’s, or if you think we need to be with grief. The answers seem obvious in that we need to do what comes up for us individually. I remember I wanted to ask you whether if Kyle died, after so long and close a relationship, if you think you would respond as you did to your father’s death. Perhaps the closeness would evoke a different response, and of course one can’t know till that time.
Reduced to simple terms, I am asking if you would not agree that for most of us grieving is a necessary stage, but one that can be seen through with deep silence and inner questioning.
I was saddened to hear about the traumatic losses of both your dear sister and mother in such a short period of time. And yet there was the joy of hearing from you again after so many years.
Just the day before, Kyle and I were attending a gathering in memory of a dear friend who had died from lung cancer. A small circle of relatives and friends were standing together amidst the moist fragrance of brightly coloured chrysanthemums and the soft sound of dripping water in a spacious greenhouse. We heard from the son and the husband about our friend’s last months, weeks and hours, spent in much equanimity and beauty. She died holding both sons’ hands with a faint smile on her face. Apparently she had never been in real pain—at least she did not mention it or give evidence of it, she just had increasing difficulty with breathing. Maybe the beauty and equanimity was that of letting go. When her husband was asked whether he felt she was holding on, he replied: “No, she wasn’t, but we were.”
Let us look carefully at what you write in your letter. Can we put aside all the ideas and conclusions we have gathered in the past about death, grieving, and healing and start wondering and looking afresh right now?
One’s mother, sister, wife, father, brother, husband or dearest friend has died. They are no longer here. They are gone. That is so. Is it dangerous to see clearly that everything coming up in the mindbody about the deceased is a remembrance, and that the intense pain, the constriction of the heart, the pressure in the chest, the flooding of the eyes—the grief and sense of loss taking place this very instant—that is it all connected with vivid reminders of what was, and what, theoretically, still could be? This insight may or may not disperse pain and grief from this moment. It’s clear that memory images can arise at any moment, triggered by almost anything reminiscent of the lost one, and that with these reminders may come the intense pain of grief. But again, can there be anything tricky and dangerous in clearly seeing that this is actually happening? Being fully aware of whatever is taking place this instant needs nothing else. Open awareness has its own unfathomable wisdom and right action.
What is truly dangerous, as you yourself write, is to think that one has seen through all this while one is actually repressing pain and grief. Not wanting to feel the ache of loss, one may strain at various practices in the hope of ‘staying in the present’, struggling to transcend the grieving process. Repression is the escaping from what is, without any real understanding: in this case, not wanting to experience pain, denying feelings of loss, or trying to live up to heroic images of being the transcender of sorrow. Repression does not play a part in seeing into the whole ongoing process of grieving.
It can be seen directly and experienced clearly that any memory of a beloved friend or relative who died can instantly arouse mental and physical pain, grief, anguish and maybe guilt. The memories of intimate, joyful times, of shared concerns, of difficulties lived through together and things the two of us didn’t do together and could still have done together—the vividness with which all of this appears instantly on the internal memory screen, and then again the shattering realisation that all of this is gone forever, never to be had again—it can turn the entire mindbody into a flood of heartache, tears and depression.
Grief may not be aroused just by thoughts and imagery. If we have lived together closely and shared much energy together, having become dependent on giving and receiving energy, then the breaking up of this shared energy field leaves an aching wound, probably not unlike the loss of part of one’s own body.
Awareness may also reveal that the mindbody wants to repeat over and over again the same remembrances, to go along the same trains of thought, to feel the same feelings. It is as though we cannot or do not want to be done with all of that. We become addicted to our own mental grooves. There also may be the confusion of contradictory thought-commands such as, ‘I need to fully experience all of my grief in order to heal’ and ‘ I must transcend grief in order to be free’.
You write: “(It) appears to me that you might not really be saying to skip the grieving process,…(but) that in the whole process of exploring and feeling fully every aspect of our humanness, one could simply sit with the terrible pain and question it in the deepest sense, going through it to a place where it is no longer a pain of loss, but an understanding of loss.” Yes, that puts it well.
Can we directly see and experience how strongly our whole system is influenced by ideas like, ‘I ought to overcome the pain of grief’ or ‘I must encourage the grieving process like all the experts recommend’? Is it clear that a mind beset with ideas and choices cannot be open to experiencing something spontaneously right now? Can having ideas give way to letting unfold gently, without strain, what is actually happening now? We don’t know what to do about it all, but do we have to? Not knowing what will be next, can we attend carefully to what is taking place this instant?
I do not know whether we must grieve or not, and whether we can live healthily without it. I don’t encourage others or myself to do this or that, and I don’t discourage anything either. Either encouragement or discouragement would override the direct discovery of what is actually unfolding right now. And that is what I am passionately interested in—coming directly upon what is true right now, being completely open without knowing. Do you see what I mean?
I do not know if any of us can really ‘handle’ sudden or lingering death, or if we need to be able to do so. Death has its own unfathomable wake. We know nothing about it.
I also don’t know if I would respond to my husband’s death in the same way I did to my father’s passing. Most likely not, because ours is such a different relationship, the tremendous closeness of it, the long years we’ve spent living and sharing so intimately together. I don’t really know. I’ll see when it happens, if I’m alive to see it.
I’m not afraid to think of death, mine or Kyle’s, nor anyone else’s, but thinking about death isn’t dying. Thinking cannot know dying. Dying is the ending of trying to figure things out, the ending of thinking and knowing. There is no place to go, nothing to fear or seek, no one, nothing to hold on to, nothing to continue.
Dying right now is the utter transparency and ceasing of memory images and emotions in the present aliveness of what is. There may still be leftover sensations from memories throbbing throughout body, but these are not separate from the sound of wind howling in the eaves and trees, snowflakes dancing, birds singing, breath flowing, heart beating in this vast silent space of nothing at all—no thought about myself as past, present or future. There is no desire to be or not to be, to endure, to keep, or to transcend. There is no fear of ending. Just what is, without needing to know. Healing is the ending of separation.
Extracted with permission from The Light Of Discovery by Toni Packer, published by Charles E. Tuttle Company.
Toni Packer has led retreats since 1976 and is involved in exploring how thought constructs images of self and other, how authority is created, how conflict comes into being, and what happens when there is awareness and insight. She is author of The Work of This Moment, The Light of Discovery, and The Wonder of Presence. She no longer calls herself a teacher; her approach is at once simple, radical and ordinary.
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