Opening up to Grief

Last Monday, after my long prison day, I felt a new understanding of impermanence. We did meditations on body sensations—noticing how they shift, pulse, and vibrate; how the changing nature of our bodies is okay. It’s not wrong, it’s natural. On my drive home, I listened to a dharma talk that encouraged more investigation: watch the nature of sensations then open awareness to death—what if I no longer exist? In my expanded awareness, I was okay because I was present, alive in the moment. All of this was accessible, even freeing.

Hours later, I received a call from my dad. My cousin Jim had died. He’s only 53. He has four vibrant teenage kids and a loving wife. My meditation on impermanence meant nothing in that moment. I was shocked and sad. I had deep love and concern for the family. I recognized how “out of order” deaths break my heart into so many pieces. Death itself is difficult. I still grieve my mom. Yet the heartbreak of Jim dying, of my friend Patrick dying, and leaving behind curious, young, lively kids is bigger than my practice at this moment. I feel collective pain of all humans: hundreds of thousands of families impacted by the loss of children or young parents/spouses to illness, addiction, accidents, trauma, suicide, or prison.

This world is complicated and heartbreaking. The suffering is both ordinary and massive. And still, I see resilience, hope, and love. Jim’s kids cried and hugged and supported each other through the whole celebration-of-life service. We grieved, sobbed, sang, remembered, and laughed as community. I felt my own healing. Yet I realize people closer-in experience deep, long-lasting, unpredictable wounds.

As I rode in the car with my sister, I saw how our gathering of family and friends was one small piece of the world. Right now, all over the globe, in churches, temples, mosques, homes, apartments, and refugee camps, there’s grief and loss; there’s unexpected, out-of-order death; there’s hurt and trauma. It surrounds us. And though it’s heartbreaking, it’s also heart-opening. When we allow ourselves to feel the pain—to feel what we feel—we make space for others to do the same. When we put ourselves in the shoes of others, we’re not so certain about how things “should be.” When we let ourselves and others grieve in natural, unfolding, genuine ways, we open ourselves to wonder, joy, and even more love.

As many meditation teachers have said, “Given that death is certain, yet the time of death is uncertain, what is most important?” How do we want to spend this one complicated, precious, and beautiful life? If we open to love, we open to grief. If we expand our awareness, we see more suffering. And we also become more alive. It’s possible to live wholeheartedly in this complex world. What is most important? What matters most? I’m trying to let my answers guide my daily actions. I’m trying to stay open-hearted and loving in a heartbreaking world. I’m trying to actively practice hope, compassion, and peace. I'm trying to experience gratitude and awe in ordinary moments.

 Mindfulness and grief