Last night marked the fourth and final installment of a series I put together at our local mindfulness center entitled: Mindful Community Conversations. Once a month since September we’ve focused on a different topic, each featuring a different speaker. My vision was to help create and hold space within our mindfulness practice, in order to shed light on certain topics that are often very challenging and difficult to talk about and address. The topics I chose were: Chronic Pain & Illness, Depression & Addiction, Dealing with Difficult Emotions, and Grief & Loss. Our format started with 10 minutes of silent sitting meditation, followed by a 20-30 minute talk from the speaker and ended with an open sharing circle. As the facilitator for each evening, I prompted our sharing time by inviting folks to offer their name and a little bit about what motivated them to attend the particular evening’s topic. I found that the openness, intention, and strong mindfulness practice of each of the speakers allowed for a very powerful opportunity for community sharing and healing to take place. I continue to be moved and inspired by the coming together of sacredly held circles of people.
Our topic last night was on Grief and Loss. Our speaker was my sangha friend Greg, who’s one of our five ordained members of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing here in town. He’s also a hospice chaplain, so his depth of practice and experience with death and dying is vast. I greatly enjoyed his talk and the sharing that followed, from those who attended. I know that all of the words spoken last night will continue to slowly filter in and through me, and benefit my outlook and perspective in a myriad of unforeseen ways.
This morning, in the darkness of the hour of 5:00am so common and crucial to much of my writing, I wrote this:
To love is to know one day
you’ll grieve the loss of those you’ve extended yourself to,
and it won’t be pretty.
It’ll be devastating.
It’ll be devastating in ways impossible to comprehend until it happens.
And holes will manifest in the open field of your heart.
Holes that will remain as part of your landscape,
like the scars of a deforested hillside ravaged by wildfire.
you’ll be able to find yourself in the emerging
from those dark places,
amid everything that has been lost,
and you will take back up
the tending of your field.
Sparked by a story Greg shared about how years ago he heard a Dharma teacher talk about their practice of saying good-bye to their favorite coffee cup each day after using it, as a contemplation of impermanence, knowing one day it will crack and break, I spoke about my own practice, of what was later coined last night by someone else as: pre-grieving. I shared about how my volunteer work as a hospice volunteer, coupled with my mindfulness practice, has ushered me into what I would consider to be an advanced practice of what can be called pre-grieving.
Pre-grieving is the practice of using the skills of mindfulness, concentration, and insight in order to contemplate the loss of those you love and care for. And to do so in a deeply intentional and profound way so as to heighten one’s ability to be present, connected, and grateful for the time we are afforded with those individuals. Experiencing the death of a loved one is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
It’s worth mentioning that I don’t practice pre-grieving in order to belay future mourning. I don’t practice it because I think it will lessen the blow of loss when the time comes. I practice because it helps me to start breaking apart the unrealistically held notions and ideas that feed my deeply embedded false worldview that life is permanent, I am firmly in control, and those closest to me will always be around.
I practice pre-grieving most often with those in my nuclear and immediate family: my husband, my stepson, my two cats, my mom, and my dad. I practice to look upon them with the eyes of impermanence, investigating my feelings around their mortality. In having experienced friends dying unexpectedly, at ages deemed young and untimely, and in reading local and world news, I am aware that death is not reserved for those of elderly ages. Death can happen at any time.
When I stop to investigate my deeply held beliefs, I see clearly that there’s a big part of me that likes to think that my husband and I will die together, hand-in-hand, of old age. I strongly recoil at the thought that he might die well before I do, as is common with heterosexual couples – that I might very well be left to whittle away my remaining time without him. For this reason, and others, I practice pre-grieving. I practice by entertaining the notion that he may die suddenly of a heart attack in his 50’s, like our son’s much beloved 6th grade teacher. Or that he may die in a car accident in his 40’s, after being hit by a drunk driver. Or, that given his profession as a roofer, and the fact that he works through our Montana winters, he may slip and fall off a roof tomorrow, at age 37.
My sense is, that to the common observer, this practice of pre-grieving that I’m talking about sounds potentially masochistic and/or wildly unnecessary. And I would admit freely that this practice isn’t for everyone. I would also like to reiterate the fact that I do firmly believe this to be an advanced practice, for which strong skill-sets are needed. And it’s extremely important to add that when I practice pre-grieving, I do so in small but consistent increments of time. I don’t linger for hours, or even minutes, in the realm of thinking about my loved ones dying. I practice to connect with their inevitable death and dying process in very short snippets of time, over and over again. Just as in the practice of sitting meditation, the length of time it is done for is far less important than the consistency in which it is done.
To grieve is to love. To love is to grieve. Both are inevitable in the inherent fabric of being human.
When we love someone in the way Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) teaches: “in such a way that the person you love feels free,” we are also practicing, at the same time, to love in such a way that we ourselves feel free. Free of our detrimental notions of how things should be.