Saturday, November 24, 2012

A treatise on grief

It seems it's time to write a treatise on grief. Only I don't understand much about it. What I can write is descriptive: how it ambushes. How I suddenly feel like complete shit. Why would anyone want to know about this? Why should anyone feel like this? The Buddhists say all suffering comes from attachment. Some New-Agers say it comes from our thoughts. I don't see it. I could maybe think or meditate my way out of this: think how death is really just a change of state. How Dad is still and always will be with me. I'm intellectually and practically used to the fact that he is no more, in an everyday, fleshly way. But all that makes no difference to these feelings.

Here I am and my main job is to love my mother. Why is that so important, at the end stage (or pre-end stages: she may live for years yet) of her life? I never had children of my own, so this is my lifetime experience of mothering: being mother to my mother. And I think she is maybe being loved more, in a day to day, affectionate way, than she has ever been in her life. I am giving her the love she needs in order to die properly: to be born into death, whatever death may prove to be. Somehow this also gives me the love that I need, to live the rest of my life more fully. Or that's a story about what I'm doing that rings somehow true to me. My mother is getting ready to be born. She is growing up into death. (Or growing down into death, a la James Hillman.)

Nursing Dad until he died: loving him as best I could, being with him as he held me at a distance, as he went deeply into his own experience of his body and mind crumbling away, undertook his fiercely private final journey to we know not where. Intellectually, spiritually, I can make some kind of sense of this. Emotionally I am still devastated. Is there a way I could have done this better? Better for me, better for him? Is there work I can still do, still have to do, on understanding death? On knowing death, before my own time comes?

Oh, the secrets that emerge with death, the new understandings only hinted at before, about a life. Dad's long long life, 90 years of earnest reflection, conscientious duty, rebellious risk-taking, uncompromising honesty intertwined with a devotion to privacy and discretion, with a scientist's fearless quest to know, with his deeply (deceptively) self-sacrificing politeness. Gradual and long-drawn-out loss of the mental and physical abilities that defined his personality; and through the intimate indignities of illness the revelation of what was left: stubbornness, denial, the strongest will in the world to remain in control of his own body, his own life; the impossibility and the reality of becoming helpless, dependent. The older secrets, too, the defects of his most sterling qualities showing their underbellies; and in the process revealing the hardest truths about my own life, my growing up, my adult struggles with relationship. I adored my Dad, and I kept falling in love with his opposite, his Dorian Grey, his Mr. Hyde.

So I sit here weeping into my laptop, trying to find words. I'm thinking grief is just a given: an axiom. A rock-bottom truth, an empirical fact, unexplainable, inescapable, existential. Religious comfort of whatever kind can be a way around-- well, who am I to say it's not a way through, except it doesn't do that for me? My Dad, an avowed atheist (thought he wrote in his journal about God when he was young) surprised himself and us by experiencing God near the end. I have nothing against God. Maybe I haven't undertaken sufficient study of Buddhist knowledge of death and the dying process to say it's not relevant. But I think I'm talking about the timeless bedrock experience of grief: it just is. Losing someone is like losing a tooth or a limb, we are wrenched and ripped, it's a trauma, unacceptable, inescapable.

How do we heal trauma? It's a process, of course. In a larger perspective, it's one of the big challenges of our generation, of our time. If I think of healing the earth, it's obvious the first necessity for healing is to stop inflicting the trauma. True for people of course too. And after that, some kind of witnessing, of attentive and loving observation. Listening, remembering. Forgetting, too, so that life can take over with its mundane and miraculous power of going on. Yes, life goes on. Maybe that's the main thing.

But maybe also (here I am, thinking my way out of it, out of the rawness of grief) there's a very focused need for insight, for learning what there is to be learned. I think of the reconciliation process in South Africa. A need for acknowledgement, for sharing, for confession; sometimes for amputation. Ultimately, for love. For allowing love to flow again, more fully, more consciously, more committedly. Letting love take us somewhere new. I guess maybe that is where God comes in, if we allow it. Pain comes from love, not from attachment. If we can accept the pain, then the love is what we have. Love which we can never wish to have been without. Love in all its thorniness. Its thorny and divine humanness. What we're part of.