August 11, 2010

June was a strange month.

It was partially strange because my wife and I spent almost a full month apart (I spent a week in Vegas and she spent three weeks overseas with family right after I got back) for the first time since we spent summers in college at our respective homes. But it was also strange and difficult because our dog unexpectedly died while I was in Vegas.

She’d been sick for a while and had been really worn down from the medications she was on as part of her treatment, but we thought she was on the upswing. We were doing physical therapy with her, reducing her dosages, etc., but one day in June, that was it. She was gone. It crushed all of us to lose a member of the family like that.

Since this blog is where I (occasionally) write about zen/Buddhist-y stuff, I thought I’d take a few minutes to write about death from that perspective. This is the first major loss that I’ve dealt with since I started my practice a couple of years ago. And I really didn’t know what to expect.

Shortly after getting the news from my wife over the phone, I got back to my hotel room and didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I couldn’t go out and be in public. I really needed to be alone. I decided I was going to try and sit, feeling whatever came and letting it be. I lasted less than three minutes propped up on a couple of pillows on the floor. I just couldn’t take it.

For the rest of the day, I made a conscious decision to just stay in and be with my grief. There were moments that I felt momentarily OK, but for the most part, there were waves of sadness hitting throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. I didn’t fight them, try to think my way through them, or suppress them. Would I have had I not been practicing zen for the last few years? Maybe, maybe not.

Where the real difference came was in the days and weeks that followed. The Old Me would have spent a lot of time groaning, “Why? Why did this happen?” Instead, after the initial bout of that and the anger that came with it, I found myself feeling melancholy and contemplative. The waves of sadness would hit, but they’d be short-lived and manageable. It’s not that I was mourning less or that I was somehow feeling less pain, but that I was more equipped to deal with it moment-by-moment. It’s a hard phenomenon to explain, but it was there. I didn’t try to comfort myself with thoughts of “she’s in a better place now” or anything like that… if that comforts you, no problem, but I think I’m at the point where I don’t need those thoughts to help me through my grief.

From the point of view of attachment, I made it a point to not hold too tightly to the sadness but also not to grasp for relief from the pain. It really does make everything much more manageable and real to take it a moment at a time, without judgment. And there is a lot of judgment that happens with the death of a loved one. There’s the inevitable guilt that you should have done something differently or that you should have treated them better before it was too late. There’s the anger at the mistakes others made that contributed to the end result. There’s more guilt that comes with the feeling of relief. That last one’s kind of a doozy, actually. When our dog was going through her treatment, we had to take her outside 8-12 times a day. It was exhausting, but it was what we did for her because she needed it. So, sure, there was a relief at not having to constantly worry about her anymore — I was doing a lot of worrying — but the guilt hits for feeling that relief. It’s OK, though. It’s OK to feel relief because you know you’d gladly do it for weeks or months or years more to get to spend more time with them. It’s like a realization that hit me a few months ago: you can be happy and still feel worry and concern. You do have to give yourself a break and let yourself feel happiness/relief.

That last paragraph was a mess. But hopefully it makes some sort of sense.

There were a few things that really came in handy during June. I thought I’d share them here on the off-chance they might be useful to someone else going through the same thing:

  • Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. I’d never read anything of Pema Chodron’s before — I had this impression that because she practiced in a Tibetan lineage that her writings would be dealing with mysticism, reincarnation, etc. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. When Things Fall Apart is one of the most important books I’ve ever read and is absolutely essential for anyone looking for ways to work through difficult times and learn from them. As an example of something from this book that helped me out more than I would have imagined: tonglen. The basic idea: breathe in the pain of everyone that’s suffering the way you are and then breathe out compassion and healing for everyone. I know, I know… total touchy-feely stuff. But what’s key for me is that moment of breathing in. It’s so easy when you’re caught up in grief to feel like you’re the only one who’s ever felt this pain. That moment of breathing in helps act as a reminder that we’re all connected, we all suffer, and often we’re suffering for the same reasons. We’re not alone.
  • Gil Fronsdal’s dharma talk on grief (mp3). Absolutely wonderful. Gil discussed a quote he remembered from a teacher along the lines of, “The first person you meet after finishing your grieving is the recipient of a great compassion.” The idea being that grief, when you take the time to really feel it and examine it, can lead to increased compassion for others in your day-to-day life (not just when you see someone else suffering).
  • Roshi Joan Halifax’s dharma talk on grief and Buddhism. Roshi shows an amazing tenderness and debunks myths about the grieving process (there are no “stages” – we waver back and forth and move in between) while talking to a group of caregivers that deal every day with death.


  1. I find it poignant that you gave yourself the opportunity to “stay in and be with” your grief. In July, during some time offline, I found myself with a head cold. Ordinarily I’d run to the medicine cabinet, take some Wellness Formula and try to speed up the healing process. This July, I stayed in and stayed present with the cold. I took a few photos of the crumpled up mess of tissues. (Though, no, didn’t post to Flickr). I just wanted to stay present with feeling unwell, rather than whisking it away.

    That was a first. And it occurs to me staying in and staying with our grief, sadness, illness, broken hearts and the rest of it is deeply good. It tells our bodies and hearts, “it’s ok. Take your time. Feel into it.” And the clenching, the attachment, just for a moment, can come to a pause.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Gwen.

    I think our automatic reaction, whether it’s grief, a cold, or something else that’s “wrong” is to jump and try to “fix it.” But when we do, it’s often at the cost of learning from the experience, from the pain. There’s a lot there to feel and take something from. (I, for one, am just beginning to touch the surface.)

    Oh, and thanks for not sharing the photo of the tissues. :)

  3. So so so many ways of dealing, grappling with grief but in the end it has always felt undealable to me. I think because it is that one big thing we just can’t grasp. To be with it–that is the huge challenge. Thanks for this post. In dealing with my grief I’ve found an almost craving for hearing about or reading about other people’s experience and I guess that is the beauty—the breathing in and remembering that in my own seemingly solitary pain there is unlimited kindredness. Thanks for your great post.

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