Our Only Task

November 27, 2009

When Jenny died, I did not only lose my daughter, I lost my whole family.  Well, not really, but that’s how it felt.

I had been a single mom for so long, and then I had met Jeff.  He was the single dad of one of my daughter’s best friends.  We fell in love.  Jenny and I moved in.  Our daughters became sisters.  They were starring in their own romantic comedy!  Jeff traveled with his job half the time.  We missed him, but the girls and I had delicious girl-time together.

For four years, I experienced the chaos and joy of raising a family with the man I loved.  Then Jenny was killed in a car accident.  My stepdaughter moved back to her mother’s.  Jeff’s work continued to take him away fifty percent of the time.  Our home, which had been continuously filled with kids and their friends, turned into a void overnight.

After having lovingly guided her through puberty, I turned around to discover my stepdaughter had disappeared from my life.  I feared that in her own adolescent anguish she was blaming me for my daughter’s death.  I had reason to suspect that certain other people were feeding that cruel notion.   I couldn’t fathom that anyone could possibly speak ill of a mother who had lost a child.  I was caught in a fire of self-righteousness, trapped in a net of regret, lost in my story of being terribly misunderstood.

I reported all this to my therapist.  “Your only task is to grieve your daughter,” he said.  “Love her.  Focus all your attention on her.  These people who are denouncing you are not worthy your precious attention.”

These were the magic words that freed me from the spell I had fallen under.  I shifted my focus back to Jenny, and I loved her with all my heart and all my soul and all my might.  I grieved her.  I thanked her for gift of her life entwined with my life.  I dedicated myself to helping her embark on the mysterious journey away from this world, away from me.  The purity of this task was a tremendous relief.

Everyone I encounter in my grief work seems to suffer from a version of this story, something that complicates the loss and distracts them from simply loving and mourning the deceased: the family of your loved one who do not acknowledge your central place in his life; the doctor who refuses to take responsibility for missing the cancer in the blood test; the money, the property, the secret affair.  It’s easy to lose track of the sacred assignment you are meant to do.

It’s never too late to do it.  Start now.

Your only task is to grieve.  Put down the burden of what other people think – or what you think they think – and lift your eyes to the one you loved.  Those other concerns will be waiting for you (or they will have fallen away) when you have done your real work.  Send your loved ones on their way with your blessings.  Bless them with your mindfulness.  Mindfully remember them.  And in remembering them, honor them.  They deserve it.

Or even if they don’t, you do.

Believing Everything

November 13, 2009

A woman called the other day and lost no time in asking me if I believed in God.  Grieving people get right to the point.  Loss strips us of trivial concerns and exposes what really matters.

This is a person who has spent her entire adult life advocating for the poor, fighting for water rights in the high desert of rural New Mexico, a dedicated activist, an unsentimental realist.  She grew up Catholic, and frankly considered religion to be “silly.”

But the love of her life died of a brain aneurism a few weeks ago and suddenly she is thinking about the world of Spirit.  She desperately wants her beloved to still exist somewhere.  She wants to know that she will see him again someday.

I had to answer honestly.  I do and I do not believe in God.  I have trouble affirming the existence of a personified deity who manipulates the strings of our lives, doling out punishments and rewards, blessing certain people with happy relationships while others languish in loneliness, taking the lives of beloved teenagers in car crashes and quickening unwanted pregnancies in others.

But I believe in the Sacred.  I believe because I am a pragmatist and I have experienced the Sacred permeating my own life, the beauty of the natural world, and every one of my relationships, for as long as I can remember.  I know holiness as a fact in every cell of my body, in the deep quiet I have experienced in meditation, in the rush of ecstasy that comes when I chant the names of God, in the Light that has inexplicably poured into my shattered heart.  I believe in the Mystery.

That is what I told the woman on the phone.

“What do you think happens to our loved ones when they die?”  This is what she really wanted to know.

I could only share with her what came to me when Jenny died (and has remained with me since).  I took turns believing everything I had ever heard or imagined about life after death.

1)    That our loved ones cease to exist.  I rejected this.  I had been too drenched in spirit to buy into cynicism in the wake of tragedy.

2)    That their spirit merges with the infinite source, like a drop of water returning to the boundless sea from which it came.  This felt right to me: a liberation from the prison of the individual self, a dissolving into all that is, which I intuit to be Pure Love.

3)     That something of the essence of the being remains, and we have access to it, that the spirit of our loved one is available to guide us.  I began to experience the paradox that my child had become my ancestor.  As many wondrous and successful things began to unfold in my life after my daughter’s death, I couldn’t help but see her hand in them, and I still do.

4)     That the spirit lingers for a while in an in-between realm, and then reincarnates, to continue the journey of the soul toward full awakening.  I could easily imagine Jenny reborn as a yet another colorful, juicy character with a new bag of tricks with which to charm the world.

We are conditioned to believe one thing in favor of another.  Especially in Western culture, with our Aristotelian legacy that insists on the Law of the Excluded Middle, we feel that we do not have a right to hold two seemingly contradictory propositions at the same time: she has merged with all that is; she is my guardian angel.

But in shattering our hearts, grief also expands our entire being, including our minds, and makes room for everything: unbearable sorrow and profound exaltation; unshakable doubt and crippling faith; a letting go of the physical particularity of the person we loved and an embracing of a new metaphysical relationship that is dynamic and – yes — very much alive.

Dia de Los Muertos

November 2, 2009

I am in Denver, Colorado, with my husband who has a job here for a couple of days. I’m tucked into a luxurious hotel room, grading freshman philosophy midterms, and recovering from my life.

In the past few weeks, I’ve celebrated the birthday of a daughter who is no longer alive, borne witness to the terminal prognosis of a dear friend, sat with her though her swift dying, bathed her body for a vigil, planned her memorial service with her family, and then officiated the ceremony on her 58th birthday this past Friday, October 30, which also happened to be the 8th anniversary of my daughter’s death. I drove up to the mountains with my family earlier that day and decorated the descanso, the celtic cross, at the place where Jenny died, a custom we observe every year. It always gives me comfort to make something of beauty on that day.

A couple of years after Jenny died, I was visiting the little village of Teotitlan del Valle in the mountains outside Oaxaca with my mother and sister. My parents have spent many years working on collaborative weaving projects with the Zapotec Indian families who live there, and these families have become family to them. It was early November when we arrived at the home of Florentino and Eloisa for a midday meal they had prepared to honor us. The large altar that fills the entire end of the main room of every Zapotec home was still covered with dried marigold blossoms from Dia de Los Muertos, Day of the Dead, a holiday of major significance in Mexican culture in general and among the Zapotec in particular.

On what is called All Saints Day in the Catholic liturgical calendar, Latinos all over the Americas gather with family and friends to pray for and remember loved ones who have died. They build individual altars honoring the deceased, decorating them with skulls made from spun sugar, marigolds, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed. They also visit the graves with these offerings. There is drinking, making of music, dancing in the streets. It is a ritual characterized by humor and irreverence, a thumbing of the nose at Death. As with many holidays in the Judeo-Christian tradition, Dia de Los Muertos has its roots in indigenous traditions that date back thousands of years.

When my mother reminded her friends on that November day about the recent death of her granddaughter, the father of the household turned to me, his eyes shining. “Your daughter died at a very auspicious time,” he told me. “During these days of the dead, the gates of heaven are wide open. And it is the children who lead the way.” The surge of relief that filled my heart in that moment has never left me. And I don’t even believe in heaven or hell!

Yesterday, as I held up the push bar my husband was installing on the ballroom door so that he could properly position his cordless drill, the hotel maintenance man wandered over to watch. He was small and dark, with a powerful Indian profile. When he asked if we were almost finished, I made a little joke in Spanish. This piqued his interest. Latinos always seem surprised and pleased to discover a huera (white girl) who speaks Spanish. As we began to chat, I asked if he was from Oaxaca, and he said he was. He is a Mixe Indian. We had a brief but fascinating conversation about the small pueblo where he grew up in the mountains, without electricity, communications, or even a road.

When I asked if he was observing Dia de Los Muertos today, his eyes grew sad. “Ay, you should have seen the way we celebrated in mi pueblo,” he sighed. And I could only imagine: the village church bells would ring at 3 p.m, echoed by the clanging of individual hand bells in the courtyards of every casa in the village, calling the dead back home for this one day of the year, when the veils between the worlds are thin enough to make contact with the ones we once loved. Offerings of frothy cacao, sweet breads, mescal. A path of flower petals to guide their way. Laughter, longing, connection.

My Mixe friend explained that he is alone here in the U.S, except for his 25-year-old son, who lives with him. They do not have access to the things they need to celebrate this holy ritual: community; cemetery; the foods of the dead. He shrugged. Li modo. Just then his cell phone rang. It was his son. “Mi’jo,” he said. And he switched into the ancient and lyrical Mixe language. I stood in wonder for a moment, and then I pushed the elevator button. He bowed to me as the door slid closed. I wondered what brought him here to the north, what forces were strong enough to separate him from his traditional culture, what stresses he endured to get here to this city, and whether it was all worth it.

In my community of Taos, people celebrate Dia de Los Muertos every year with incredible energy and creativity. Diverse households – Spanish, Indian, and Anglo – set up altars with pictures of all their loved ones who have died, offerings of flowers, treats, prayers written on slips of paper, some symbol of an idiosyncrasy that represents the deceased. Jenny’s altar would include cheese tortellini with pesto, homemade chocolate chip cookies, a book of Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, bright blue baggy pants, a statue of Hanuman, Hindu monkey deity, God’s best friend.

Wherever you are, you might consider implementing this custom and prepare an altar of your own this time of year. Make it beautiful, quirky, representing whatever was unique and peculiar about the ones you loved who have died. You do not have to be Christian or even religious to embrace the beauty and healing power of this holiday. It is another worthy container into which you can pour your free-floating love.