A Buddhist Grief Observed - Selections
Amid the world-shattering pain of loss, what helps?
Chapter 1: Pain
The pervasiveness of grief-pain is a national secret. We never learned this fact of life in high school health class. We catch mention of others’ losses, but our psychosocial immune system spares us the graphic details. The secret is not kept by the government but by all of us from one another. We conspire in diversionary conversation about shopping, weather, sports—and most especially the misdeeds of other people.
It is considered socially proper to hide the full measure of our pain, sometimes even from ourselves. “Really, now,” inner voices declaim, “can’t we talk about something more pleasant over dinner? Can’t we have something more uplifting in our Dharma talk?” When we fail to don the mask, we invite being regarded as gloomy and self-involved.
There are so many types of loss, and we feel them in so many different ways. Sometimes grief is a state of utter shock. It can be like a blow to the head, or like an explosion, or like drowning.
In October 2012 Valerie came home from work, dropped her bag at the door, and wept. “I don’t think I can do this any more. There is something really wrong with me.”
She asked me to take her to the emergency room the next day . . . so I took her right then. The doctor on duty examined her and ordered a scan. After two hours he came back, the bad news in his expression. She had cancer throughout her bones, liver, and peritoneum. Metastatic breast cancer—quite advanced. Her condition was bad, with no prospect of cure. Without treatment she would live only weeks. With treatment, she would be more comfortable and, perhaps, live a bit longer.
Valerie was distraught. At a loss, the doctor turned on his heel and left us alone. After a while, I went out and asked that someone give us some guidance. They arranged an appointment at an oncology clinic. Home after midnight, numb . . . unconscious for two hours. At 3:30 a.m. we awoke together, minds racing. Scribbling frantic lists of what we needed to do to close her clinical practice, tell her clients, and tell our family and her family and my family (in what order?), tell my employer and our friends. Long lists. We planned our withdrawal from almost everything in every part of our lives. First: I had to tell the kids, Gabe and Becca.
Most of the weekend we cried together. But Valerie had to spend hours each day alone on the phone, contacting each of her thirty clients privately, breaking the news. She closed immediately and permanently her clinical practice as a psychologist. Many clients were in shock and distressed for Valerie. Others were terrified for themselves: Where would they turn, given their desperate need for ongoing therapy? She called her colleagues and made referrals.
In the last year of her life Valerie dedicated herself to me, Gabe, and Becca. We managed her medications and got her to appointments; she focused her healing powers on us, preparing each of us for what lay ahead and binding us more closely together as a family. Money she had saved for retirement went for a series of family trips that functioned as retreats: just the four of us, each panicked in our own way, struggling to support one another.
Over that last year, Valerie was the most grounded person in any room, compassionate and forbearing. When friends visited, she would ask them about their lives and sometimes delicately offer a bit of tactful advice. Often the conversation turned so that she was helping them prepare for her death—and by extension, helping them to prepare for their own unforeseen deaths.
And she was good-humored. Her immune system was depleted by chemo and it seemed an impressive instance of mind over body that none of us got any colds or infections that would stop us from being near her. Overhearing us comment on this, Valerie chimed in: “And I haven’t been sick at all either . . . except for the terminally ill part!”