Four months after mom died, I began my volunteer work in prison. During our mindfulness sessions, we sit in a circle, volunteers and inmates together. We begin with meditation and then check in. The check-in is group meditation: each person shares from the heart while the group listens, in a spacious, deep way.
My first few check-ins were raw: the relationship between meditation and grief. I didn’t hold back; I let myself be vulnerable. After everyone shares, there’s time for general discussion. One inmate (I’ll call him “R”) looked right at me and told a story from his previous incarceration.
He went to a parole hearing, not expecting much but received wonderful news: he would be released in a week. He'd be released! R was beyond happy; he was giddy. When he returned to his cell, there stood “white shirts.” (Blue shirts are guards; white shirts are administration.) R immediately thought, “Oh no, something happened and they reversed the decision. I won’t be released.” But that wasn’t the news. The two men in white shirts said, “We’re sorry son, but your mom has died.” This took his breath away. His mom was his best friend. She was the first person he wanted to tell about release. On the very same day, two extremes occurred: he received freedom and his mother lost her life. Through tears, he said—still looking right at me—that for the next week he bounced repeatedly between joy and grief. And this juxtaposition helped him heal. He hoped that I could find the beauty and growth within grief. This was his genuine wish for me.
The whole group silently bore witness to this exchange. Both me and R in tears. Vulnerable, brave, raw, and real. A group wish for growth and healing within pain. A wish for insight within grief.
Only now, a year later, do I fully understand R’s words. I understand how sadness and gratitude exist in the same space of my heart. To love fully means to grieve fully. Once the heaviness lifts, there’s spaciousness, gratitude, and even joy. When I'm tugged by heaviness, I allow for tears—for sadness—yet I also allow for ease and gratitude. I smile as I think of mom (and Patrick and Mary and Grandma). I’m deeply grateful they were in my life; that I knew and loved them for even a short time.
I’m equally grateful for the compassion, wisdom, and vulnerability I witness in prison. In an institution that actively de-humanizes people, I observe humanity and caring in unique and beautiful ways. Greg Boyle writes, “Compassion is not a relationship between healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals.” My prison sangha is just that. And this would make my mom smile.