My father died almost a month ago, and in the midst of that heartbreak I remain grateful for the practice of mindfulness.
I remember my teachers explaining how training the mind, day by day, under normal circumstances develops skills that serve when normalcy implodes. At the time, I didn’t understand the wisdom of those teachings because I hadn’t lived through the intensity of such distress. I understand better, now, having relied on all that I’d learned to see me through these past weeks.
As my father moved into his last days of life, we spent the time in hospital. We watched his transition, and held him–mentally and physically–as he receded from this world and moved toward whatever comes next. Staying mindful meant feeling the paradox of time speeding steadily toward his death, and the slow slippage of his life. It was excruciating and exquisitely present to hold a lifetime of his love in our hands, and share the bridge of knowing that stretches through a glance between eyes.
I was mindful of the presence of life with death, and the need, in the end to protect his right to die when there was no more real life left. I witnessed the compassion of the incredibly skillful and caring medical providers. And I observed my horror and the heartless intransigence of egoistic clinicians who broke the sacred trust of their profession and did harm by practicing mindless medicine.
Mindfulness was my guide in pleading on his behalf for a dignified death, and mindfulness was all that remained when he was permitted to breathe his last. And, mindfulness is here now, in the constant change of mourning and the enduring love.
I realize that the practice of mindfulness is no panacea for pain; if anything, the grief feels more intense and the loss more searing. There is no escape in staying present, but there is comfort in remaining with what is because there is nothing else. Mourning is, just as death is, and for those who carry on, life is.
Grief is a state of being, and we rise through it like an airline rising through the dense clouds of a storm. At first, the mind is socked in, almost blind, and disoriented. Later, there are breaks in the clouds–not quite clear patches, but gaps with discernible features. Then eventually, there are openings.
Mindfulness in grief means noticing and feeling simultaneously. There’s no need to banish the grief and stress, but likewise no need to hold on to it. No amount of pain changes the absence of a loved-one who dies; and no amount of time diminishes that love. Yet time allows loss to become more familiar and manageable.
I can also see, now, that the world is full of loss and people die each and every day. My loss is unique for me, but the experience is universal, and perhaps some small measure of my pain can transform into compassion for others’.
Mindfulness in grief does not mean passivity: it is a mental tool that permits us to dedicate some small benefit of presence beyond the narrowness of our own suffering. This is part of our own healing, but not done solely for our own healing. It is the orientation of compassion, and kindness, and empathy that illumines the space of mind. It is the quality of openness that seems so clear when we finally rise out of the clouds, and it endures even when the light fades.
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