Mindfully Yours: Grief is Not an Emotion
By Judith Toy
In two days, Philip and I would have been married 32 years, together 35. “I’m so sorry,” people say, and I don’t contradict them, but I am not sorry. I am glad we had our years together. I am glad Philip had a grace filled and dignified death that we both embraced. In the beginning, I did not know why this stock phrase, “I am sorry” bothered me. Now I’m finding out that grief is not an emotion; it is a practice of getting into bed with death—his, my own, our son’s, my grandmother’s, my father’s, our many friends’—that we turn into love itself. There is no other choice when we get intimate with dying. Grief is not an emotion; it’s a practice. I have put my arms around death and kissed its neck.
Philip Toy and I renewed our wedding vows four times in 31 years. On December 4, 2012, at the age of 69, he was diagnosed with end stage lung cancer, and on March 4, 2013, he died. This is an account of those few intense days prior to and including his passing. Writing these entries on CaringBridge.org saved my life, keeping family and friends posted. Every day since his diagnosis in the months since, I have gone directly to my computer out of sleep to blog. The blog continues to serve as medicine for my grief.
There are truths lurking beneath the surface of human consciousness to which our conventional wisdom offers up empty platitudes. I am not sorry; I am glad.
When Thich Nhat Hanh is asked “Where do we go when we die?” his answer, like a good Zen master, is another question: “If we do not yet fully know how to live, why are we so worried about what happens when we die?” The answer to his Zen question is that we are frightened of the pain and suffering that may precede a death, and of the unknown that follows it. Yet to run, not walk toward death, to see that dying—we are all dying to get out of here—is an adventure, a passage, not to any particular place, but simply a passage that is part and parcel of life’s great adventure, we need not be afraid. We are better off embracing death fully as Philip did in all his radiance.
Yesterday while Philip took the only sleep he had all day, I took to the hills—a hike with the doggies up to Little Bear Lake, stalking the bones of the forest. My mind swirled with questions, decisions, side effects, medication regimens, contraindications, symptoms, doctor’s opinions, visiting nurses, cries for help, appointments, Philip’s agony. Oh at any given moment, how to know what to do? As many questions as the gone leaves.
Just then I came to a corner of mossy bank beside the spritzing stream caught in sun; a few baby leaves of rhodo peeked through the dazzling moss, and the upper waterfall gushed with light. Oh, here. This! This is the answer to everything, the rhodo leaves and the light on the moss in Sunday afternoon sun by a rock-tossed creek.
Oh Lord, take our arms and hands and bodies. Help us to row our boat gently down this stream…
When I was young, I was taught that to be happy one must marry well, make plenty of money, and fit into society’s cramped little pocket of success. Not finding the right partner or not making a lot of money or not becoming a celebrity or a community leader misses the point. Not happiness, nor wealth, nor “success” bring us satisfaction. Only if we can tenderly hold death in the palm of our hands and see/feel its many wonders can we fully live. I can feel this happening to me. A new person is emerging. The Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches us this. To grok death, we must realize we are as close to death as the azalea petals that recklessly toss themselves to the ground in our yard. Or as the Yaqui Indians say, Death is stalking you, just over your left shoulder, and every time you turn around, death hides. But he is there.
To tenderly wrap my arms around death, I’m learning I must spend more time outdoors, where I become larger than myself, as Roger Hawkins said in a recent Dharma talk at Cloud Cottage. I felt the truth of this like an arrow to my heart. Why do I become larger than myself in nature? Because nature is my nature. We have cut ourselves off from the land and the waters, spend more time staring into little screens and pushing their buttons—or doing our jobs which often translate as jail—than we do in cultivating the lessons that nature exists to teach us. We stop to look at a flower and instantly we are in love. Why? First because we have stopped. Second, because we see the flower will soon expire. Exquisitely breathtaking beauty, impermanence and death are the teachers of nature. And we are part of the glory. Halleluja.
Every day when I walk through the woods or by the streams with my Cairn terriers Angel and Marshall, I see death and sing to death in its beautiful circular nature unfolding from life. I am sometimes sad when a tree I have come to know and admire must fall, just as with a person. Is the tree sad? I think not. Nor was Philip sad to fall. But I have come to understand through nature that the tree will soften, rot and decompose, finding its natural way back to the richest and darkest of soils where its many descendants can sprout. Then why, oh why have we fallen out of love with each precious moment of our own bloom and rot?
The man we’re all here for startled us this afternoon after hours of tentative breath, the deathly breath that stops so long and starts again, when he left the bed, stood upright and threw his arms around Laura, Halle and me. We cooed and rubbed faces and held each other, one last time, a family floored by the strength of his frail arms.
Not long after that, I spent some speechless time in bed with my love. More kisses, which he seemed to crave. I got up, walked across the room for a blanket. From his bed, it looked like he was reaching for me or for something, making animal sounds, no longer able to speak: then his message:
“Let me die!” he shouted loud and clear, in as plain English as any master of words, Zen or other. And so the teacher/poet got his point across –that we are hangers on — not knowing, intending instead to be such high-toned mourners granting the loved one with all of our spiritual cash permission to go. But no. Our spirit mail, quicker than the internet, must have bid him stay.
Partly because in our mobile universe, we’ve lost the sense of home and plantedness that the tree enjoys. Where do we belong? Do we know what it means to abide? Where have we come from? My own roots are in countries on this earth I have never visited. Where do I belong?
My daughter Halle’s sweet and tentative voice: Would you be open to taking him home?
Yes. And my body let go. Ease, safety, calm. The thought of our white room.
I deeply thank my daughters for knowing what I did not know, that Philip never stops needing our touches, for easing me into taking Philip home to die in his own sweet bed. The nurses said, “Yes, of course, this can be done, and we will make sure it is done in a way that makes it possible for you to care for him as you wish, as he wishes — smoothly, carefully, gently, painlessly. How can I ever thank Care Partners Solace Center enough?
Finding out through nature where I belong is one of the skills of brokenheartedness, like the lost skill of building a fire or making our own canoe from bark. There is nothing intellectual about going home. Do you know what I mean? We have got to break out. We have to get ourselves back to the garden.
I slept last night, the moon watching. Unfolded our wedding-ring quilt, crafted in Bat Cave, and dreamed beneath it. The dream that woke me was Philip was reaching back to open the window behind him in his bed. So I rushed to his room, to see if that was really happening, and he was resting comfortably. Wordlessly he let me know I would have to leave the room. So I kissed him one last time. Spoke the 23rd Psalm again. Chanted the Namu Dai Bosa (the last chant at every Sunday morning service that he always led). At the end, at the last Namu Dai Bosa, in my heart I felt a door close. A sharp pain. I left the room. Philip passed on.
Judith Toy is author of the non-fiction title Murder as a Call to Love. She is a mindfulness teacher who this year will lead retreats at Cloud Cottage in June, Southern Dharma Retreat Center in September and Tucson in November. She is co-founder of Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living. Her gratitude to friends and family during the last months of her husband’s passing know no bounds. Contact her at www.cloudcottage.org.