grief

22Jan

One Loss, All Loss

The topic at each dharma talk I have attended in the last ten days has been grief. How could it be otherwise? It is staring all of us in the face. We are, every one of us, coping in our own way: numb or raw, crying or cried out, wanting only to sleep or insomniac, seeking the company of others or retreating into solitude.

Because losing someone we love rips open our world, turns everything upside down. And in this case, losing a teacher, it can have even greater ramifications. Because it begs the questions: Where do we go from here? What holds us together? How do we go on?

In a talk on Tuesday, priest Cynthia Kear spoke of Healing Into Life and Death by Stephen Levine, in which he referred to “one loss, all loss.” He meant that when we experience one death, it brings up every loss we have ever encountered – other deaths of those dear to us, failed relationships, betrayals, lost hopes and dreams. It is as if the death is a black hole that expands into a pit of despair over everything that has ever brought us feelings of sadness and loss.

I certainly have been experiencing this phenomenon over the past weeks. Six years ago, I lost my father to lymphoma. Many things make this time all too familiar. He was 64 years old, born the same year as Tony. My mother was born the same year as Darlene. When my dad passed away, my parents had just celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary – Tony and Darlene had been together 40 years. My father underwent treatment at the same hospital in San Franciso where Darlene was a patient. And he was gracious, brave and spiritual throughout his illness, making sure that all of us in the family would be taken care of in his absence.

Cynthia spoke of the death of her sister, and how it felt so crazy to have to do things like go to work and pay bills and take care of daily chores, when none of that felt important. I remember walking from the hospital down to a nearby coffee shop to get a latte for my mom. I was passing people on the street, and I thought, “Do you live here? Are you going to a job, or shopping? Or are you grabbing something to eat before you go back to the hospital, where your sister is dying, or your mother is having a liver transplant, or your daughter is battling cancer?” It felt so odd to see all these people walking around as if it was a normal day, when it was not normal. There was nothing normal about it.

Cynthia said gone are the days when we could wear a black arm band to let everyone know we are grieving, to let them know to treat us tenderly. She’s right – we have no way to indicate to the world, “I am suffering. I am in pain. Please, do not expect too much from me.”

I have been thinking about my father every day. Some of it is good – there are good memories, nostalgia and sweetness. But there is also much hurt, and loss, and a tightness in my chest, even though six years have passed. He died on a night with a full moon. Tonight there is a full moon. That always triggers a response, a deep longing in my heart.

And each thought of him circles back to Darlene. My first meeting with her, the words we shared, the journey we took together over the past four years. I want to write it all down, put it into a record. Don’t lose it, don’t lose it – there is an urgency to the feeling. In the same way that I struggled to hold onto my father, wanted to retain every memory of him.

“One loss, all loss” sounds like too much; it sounds painful. And, in truth, it does hurt. But, as the Leonard Cohen song says, having a crack is good – that’s how the light gets in. It is only broken hearts that can open to the compassion of the world.

14Jan

Darlene Cohen,Oct. 31, 1942 – Jan. 12, 2011

Darlene Cohen, Su Rei Ken Po, Great Spirit Manifesting Dharma, passed away at 1:15 a.m. on Wednesday morning.

I received word via email just as I was about to leave the house for work. The extended sangha planned to sit vigil with her body for the next day and a half.

I was heartbroken, because it was deadline day at the newspaper, and I knew I could not leave to go and be with her.

But after I arrived at the office, I received a second email, saying the vigil went through the night and until noon on Thursday, and people were particularly needed and wanted during the wee hours of the morning. So when I finally wrapped up the paper at 3 a.m., I drove to Guerneville.

I arrived at 4 a.m., to see the zendo softly lit up with candles. There were four of my sangha members there, sitting. Darlene’s body was laid out on a covered table. She was dressed in her priest’s robes, wearing her lavender rakusu that we recently sewed for her. Her body was covered with flower petals people had bestowed as offerings.

I came into the hushed room, bowed before her, and offered a few petals of my own. I touched her sleeve. It was as if her spirit was still in the room, as if any moment she would open her eyes and smile at me. It was only then I felt the rush of grief.

Moving towards the back wall, I selected a zabuton and zafu, and began to sit. A few more people came, and a few people left. My sangha members approached, and gave me hugs. It was beautifully silent, and the candles cast flickering light on the altar. A gentle rain began to fall.

After sitting for two hours with Darlene, I felt it was time to go. I had been up for nearly 24 hours straight, and still had an hour to drive home. The coffee shop at the base of the hill had just opened up , so a latte helped with that last stretch.

There is sorrow, but also a deep joy in my body right now, a profound gratitude. Darlene is no longer suffering in the body. She was able to pass on her lineage, and her sangha is pulling together in a wonderful way. We will get through this. And I feel privileged to have had her in my life, even for this brief time.

Farewell, Su Rei Ken Po. And thank you.

12Jan

And Also Laughter…

Emotions are odd things. They flit about like butterflies. Even something that seems as heavy as grief cannot be held down long – before you realize it, a buoyancy appears out of nowhere, a lightness, and you find yourself laughing.

Haven’t you experienced this? When my father was ill with lymphoma, I remember well the times in the hospital, when I was so worried, so scared, and felt helpless. But my father was a man with a wonderfully glowing spirit, someone who paid attention to people, who listened and cared. I watched him interact with the nurses and phlebotomists and aides, as each came into his hospital room. He knew all of their names. He asked them about their families, their dreams and goals. His particular talent in life was in the area of financial planning. So during his weeks in the hospital, he helped one nurse figure out how to go back to school. He helped an aide find financing for a new home. He gave of himself, and because of that, his room was a place of hope and smiles instead of despair.

Our teacher Darlene is a sprightly, impish woman, with a spark of mischief in her eyes much of the time. Beata Chapman said when she visited her in the hospital, Darlene set about trying to “hook her up” with one of her nurses. She whispered with glee, “I think she has lesbian tendencies.” And then pushed the call button to bring the nurse into the room. Instead of lying in bed, thinking about death, she was playing matchmaker.

When a person is sick, they don’t cease to be themselves. They are still who they were before: funny, mischievous, intelligent, generous. Or cranky and obstinate. Being sick may occasionally exacerbate those qualities. But the basic person remains the same underneath. I think it is the people on the outside who change, the people who are grappling with grief, fearful of loss. We are sometimes so afraid that we treat the ones we love as if they are already gone. We act as if we must begin our mourning now, to prove that our love is true.

But no. There is both sadness and joy in grief. It is perfectly acceptable to sit next to the one you love and laugh long and hard, even if they are dying. There is room for everything. Allow each emotion to come as it will. Laugh when you can. There will be time enough for tears.

11Jan

Metta for the World

A friend tonight thanked me for my recent blog posts, saying they were helping her to deal with the shootings over the weekend in Arizona. I, too, have been reading the headlines, and struggling to find sense in the random violence. Part of me has pushed it away, kept it apart, because there is already enough personal tragedy nearer at hand. Can I hold more pain? Do I need to embrace this, too?

Priest Beata Chapman, speaking on grief, encouraged us to “build the inclusion muscle.” She asked us to add to our experiences of the subtleties and nuances of grief as they arise, because they won’t always be what we expect. And I believe she would also tell us, in addition to mourning the losses and hurts in our own lives, to take in the deaths of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman and nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, to absorb the assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Right now I feel I must simply say a Metta Sutta, a Loving Kindness Meditation, for the many people in my life who are in need of that extra support. And, perhaps as importantly, I am in need of giving it.

Metta for Darlene Cohen, my teacher. Her hospice nurse has told us her time of passing is only a few days away. She has completed her goal of giving dharma transmission to two of her students, and is spending her final days with her husand Tony Patchell. She told us on Saturday she is touched beyond words to see how her community of students is forming a dharma grid, even before her death.

Metta for Larry Kuzdenyi, the weather man for the Calistoga Tribune. An avid golfer and amateur rain watcher, Larry calls in the rainfall total for the newspaper every week. In the fall he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and underwent intensive radiation and chemotherapy. He is now recuperating. Tomorrow, he has a CAT scan to see if the treatment was successful. My thoughts are with him tonight.

Metta for Doris Muramatsu, a member of the band Girlyman. In her late 30s, two months ago Doris was diagnosed with CML, a rare form of leukemia. It is treatable, with a good prognosis. She is blogging about her journey of healing at Caring Bridge. The band will return to touring at the end of the month, with a modified schedule – including a gig in Sebastopol.

Metta for Mike Parsons. I just interviewed Mike a few weeks ago for an article I wrote on internet safety. He is a retired police officer, who worked on a special task force on internet crimes. In a note apologizing for not getting back to me with a photo, he explained that he’d been distracted last week, because he’d just been diagnosed with lymphoma. He was optimistic, saying the prognosis was good with treatment, but he still has four months of chemo followed by radiation ahead.

Metta for Pat, Ramona and Noah, who are dealing with their own personal pain and confusion. May you all stay safe, until everything can be worked out.

Metta for Gabrielle Giffords, and for the families of Judge John Roll, Gabe Zimmerman and Christina Taylor Green, and for all the citizens of Arizona who are reeling from this loss. May our political hate-mongering come to an end, before any more lives are sacrificed.

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.

* * *
Even as a mother at the risk of her life
Watches over and protects her only child,
So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things.
Suffusing love over the entire world,
Above, below, and all around, without limit,
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world.

10Jan

Going Into the Body

The danger, as is so often the case, lies in our heads.

In a dharma talk earlier this week, priest Beata Chapman spoke to us about experiencing grief as a body experience. Far too often, we disconnect, go into our heads, spin off into emotions that float unattached, when what we really need is to center ourselves in our physicality. A very Zen directive, exactly what our sitting practice guides us towards each day.

Beata said when we learn to witness our own suffering, by being present with it, it develops our capacity to witness the suffering of others. She said staying with the body sensations gives us the empathy for all the implications of existing in the form world – aging, pain, hurt, death. She admitted that what she was asking us to do was a paradox – expansively reach out right when our inclination is to close up and shut down. She refers to it as “opening the heart in hell.”

But paradox is exactly what Zen is all about. It is a practice of things which cannot be done, and yet, each day we vow to do them.

Beata said we speak of “taking refuge,” but for her, that does not mean “taking shelter.” Instead, it means going into the body, into the present moment. The “namu kie butsu” phrase we recite when doing our sewing practice of the rakusu, said with each stitch, translates as “I take refuge in Buddha.” But another translation is “I release myself into the now.”

Darlene is facing her death with grace and equanimity because she is staying in her body and in the now. I could see it in her face when I looked upon her yesterday morning, as it shone in her eyes. That is the latest teaching from her. I, too, must remember I have a body. I, too, must settle into the now, into this moment. As the grief comes, when it comes, I must allow it to sink down into this body of mine so I can experience it fully, and then release it, going on to the next moment, until it arises again.

9Jan

Creatively Facing Death

I would like to write over the next few days about the topic I have been pushing away – the reality that has been consuming our extended sangha for the last several months.

Our teacher Darlene Cohen is dying. There is no way any longer to sugar-coat it, or hold onto false hopes. We will be losing her very soon. Grief is such a tricky emotion. It comes at each of us differently. And with each one of us, differently on each day. Because I have not been one of the people who has been able to see Darlene over the past two months, I have responded by absenting myself, both physically and emotionally. I have found excuses to miss my regular sangha, some real, some created – extra burdens have arisen at my job; more demands have come up in my personal life. I have avoided writing in this blog, because here it seemed I might have to address the impending loss.

Over all, I have felt mostly a numbness, a lack of emotion. This has been aided by my distance, and perhaps that was my real impetus. On Tuesday, I went to my regular sangha, and sat. Beata Chapman was the visiting doshi for the night. Just before her dharma talk, she asked if there were any announcements. Susan Spencer, our wonderful resident ceramicist/jizo teacher animatedly said, “Darlene is going to have a cardboard coffin, and on Thursday, I will be holding a workshop at my studio for people to get together and decorate it.”

I felt as if I had been socked in the stomach. All my careful avoidance tactics were stripped away in that one sentence. Decorate her coffin?

Intellectually, I understood this could be a healing act, a time of community gathering and mourning. But I was emotionally unprepared for the finality of visualizing a coffin, and everything that comes with that: death, funeral, cremation. I realized I was holding much more inside than I had thought.

Today, we held regular services at Russian River Zendo. We were told that Tony might be present, but Darlene would not see anyone. Cynthia Kear served as doshi, and I was the doan. Shortly after we arrived, Cynthia told me Darlene had said she would like to see all of us after the second sitting for about 10 minutes. By the time the second sitting ended, there were more than 30 people in the zendo. We all quietly went upstairs, unsure what we would find.

I had last seen Darlene at Frederika and Pete’s wedding on Nov. 28. I almost cried when I walked into the living room – she looked so tiny and frail. But her face lit up and she said, “Michelle!” And then greeted each of us by name. She was propped up on the sofa, and had us all gather around her, sitting on the floor. Although it was clear it took some effort, she spoke to us for a few minutes, as a teacher speaking to her sangha. And she sparkled with wit and love, even in her weakened state.

Later, in Cynthia’s dharma talk, she said that Darlene had shared with her about looking into Tibetan death practices, working on ways to face her own end. Darlene had said to her, “It’s amazing how creative I’m having to be around all this!”

It is time for me, as well, to creatively face this death. So I will write over the coming days about grief, loss, sangha, support, and other imponderables.

6Dec

Hurtful Words

When we lost our parrot, Barney, I wrote about our grief here in this blog. And I also wrote about it in my column in the weekly newspaper where I work, the Calistoga Tribune.

I have a loyal readership with my column, and am used to positive feedback. My picture runs with the column, and people in town know who I am, and often, as I walk through the grocery store aisles, or wait in the post office, locals approach me and open dialogues about things I have written, sharing their own stories. People also write letters to the editor, on occasion, or send in e-mails through our website.

After Barney’s death, I received many heart-felt condolences, including several beautiful sympathy cards. But one morning, I opened the general in-box on my computer and found this note: “Tell Michelle that the column about her dead bird was pathetic. Nobody in town wants to hear about her personal misery.”

I felt as though I had been punched in the stomach. My grief was still new and raw at that point, and the insensitivity of the statement was a shock. Even worse was the generalizing “nobody in town” line – as if the writer was speaking not just for herself, but for many.

All at once, the numerous positive words disappeared. I could only see and feel this one woman’s rancor and animosity. I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.

Luckily, as the days passed, I continued to receive wonderful support from animal lovers, people who wanted to hear stories of Barney, people who wanted to tell me about their own sweet animals, people who understood that I was going through a loss as real as if this were a child – Barney had been, after all, in the family for over 20 years.

But it made me wonder – why was I so easily unsettled by this woman’s unkindness? Why was I so quickly thrown off-center by that one hostile voice, in the midst of so much support? Is there a human tendency to gravitate towards that which is most painful, instead of that which is most comforting? To expect the worst, instead of the best?

And I also wonder – what inspired her to lash out at me, a stranger, in that way? She had to have known that her words would be wounding. Is she just so angry and uncaring that she doesn’t mind the damage she causes along the way?

The e-mail was signed. I did write back to her, when I had calmed myself, and simply said, “Tell me, was it just this column that bothered you, or have there been others?” My hope was to open a dialogue, to introduce myself to her as a human being, to give her a chance to say what was really going on.

She never replied.

10Nov

Losing a Friend

Our house is quieter today than it has been in a long time. There is no chirping, sweet voice in the background, calling out, “Hello?” whenever the phone rings. There is no scolding “No!” when the dogs misbehave. There are no happy little tunes, fragments of songs, accompanied by impromptu dance solos.

We lost our parrot, Barney, today. He was twenty-two years old, young in parrot years. Just Sunday, he was his cheerful, wonderful, mischievous self. And now, suddenly, he is gone.

Sunday afternoon, we noticed an odd little sac underneath his beak, that looked like it was filled with fluid. There are no avian vets available on nights and weekends. He seemed OK, so we waited until the next day. At our regular vet’s on Monday, they checked him out and put him on antibiotics. Yes, there was some bacterial infection there. They didn’t know what had caused it. An injury, perhaps? They sent us home with medicine, and we hoped for the best.

On Tuesday morning, Sabrina left early for work, at 4 a.m. When I was getting ready to leave at 9 a.m., I checked on him. He was clearly very weak. Our regular vet was not available. We arranged to meet another vet in Santa Rosa, and the two of us met up there at 11:30 a.m. By that point, Barney was dehydrated, frail, barely moving, unable to hold onto the perch. The vet guessed maybe a cat scratch was the culprit, since the bacteria from a cat’s claw can be lethal to birds. They put him in an incubator, rehydrated him, started tube feeding and antibiotics, and told us it would be a couple of days before we would know anything.

At 4:30 p.m., we got the phone call that he was gone. Just like that. The worst part for both of us, I think, is that we weren’t there with him. You have to understand. Barney is like a small human, a little person. He mimics the way we walk, apes our language, says, “Ahhhh,” when we kiss each other. He loves to cuddle. He has a huge, Barney personality that has framed our whole household.

And now, we have an empty cage sitting in the corner of the living room. Every time I walk by it, I turn to look at him, to say something to him, out of habit, only to remember once again that he is not there.

He would have wanted to be held. He would have wanted to lie against Sabrina’s chest, feeling the beat of her heart. He would have wanted to coo softly to us one last time.

Ah, the hurt of loss! The price of love.
Michelle Wing © Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved