Back From the Edge: Buddhism & Grief. ~ Ann Nichols

Via Ann Nichols
on Aug 1, 2013
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photo: lifesheimagined.tumblr

Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”

~ The Buddha

After my mother died last October, I was waiting for her to come back and help me grieve. She had helped me, all my life, with burdens that seemed too great to bear. I was unsure about how she might reappear. I had read stories about the dead returning in dreams, in tangible signs, and, I’d seen a woman on television who channeled the dead. None of these things happened.

I got lost, while I was waiting for her.

First there was a series of busy-ness that filled my brain and wore me out so I could sleep. For a month I planned her memorial service. I chose food and music and readings with great fervor. When the service was over, I took on a Thanksgiving dinner at a local community center. I begged for donations, I planned, I shopped, I cooked, and again I believed that all was well with my soul. I told myself, even, that I was “doing what she would have done,” making others comfortable, taking care of them, showing hospitality and inclusion and an open heart.

Still, she didn’t come.

Then there was a series of other distractions. My husband developed a terrifying and mysterious problem with his vision. My father had a recurrence of cancer, surgery and serious complications. My son changed schools, leaving a community of children and parents familiar to me for more than a decade. I was busy some more. As I drove to hospitals, sat in hospitals, met with new teachers and tried to manage some kind of Christmas, business lost its power as a calming illusion.

I felt the bottom fall from my life. Nothing good or wholesome or comforting was real. Only pain.

It was legitimate, deep, pain that frightened me with its bold and insistent refusal to back off. There were fixes that looked wonderful, no matter how wrong they would have seemed to me before my mother’s death. They were the solutions of the dissolute, the glamorously fucked up, the Marilyn Monroes and Janis Joplins who became detached from real love, untethered and “free” in the sense of having “nothing left to lose.”

Those fixes, illusions far more dangerous than throwing myself into a series of projects, seemed to shine in the darkness. Things with chemicals. Dangerous liasons. Sharp objects. Excess and carelessness. I grasped at them, I cut myself on their sharp edges and I grasped again, certain that even the cuts and scars were better than the real pain of loss, the pain of separation, the silence of my best ally and fiercest champion.

If doing “good” things didn’t bring her back, why not go all psycho badass and show her I didn’t care what happened to her cherished little girl?

And somewhere in all of that, my husband reminded me that Buddhism had always helped me in the past. He also said that it was more than collecting statues and telling people I was a Buddhist. I was furious with him. I entertained the hot coal of self-righteousness, telling myself that he had no idea what he was talking about. He was being mean. He was just trying to come between me and the disco glitter of my spectacular swan dive into hell.

I had my doubts.

But then I hit a kind of bottom where nothing felt like anything, food had no flavor, and even the dangerous stuff didn’t jolt me back to what felt like life. I stopped sleeping, and stumbled through my days doing only the things that absolutely needed to be done. Death started to look really interesting as an option.

Finally, I figured there was nothing to lose, and I started to meditate again. I was fidgety and frightened. I knew that if the pain came upon me, I should acknowledge it, sit with it, and let it go. I didn’t think I could do it. I knew that my mind, left to its own devices would yearn for the past, panic about the future, and play games.

I was pretty sure that illusions were far prettier than the harsh reality of my situation. Illusions were catnip, lobster rolls, and hot buttered croissants as opposed to the kale soup and burlap of suffering. But I sat.

And when I couldn’t sit, I walked. And somewhere in there, early on, I felt a slap of pain as bracing as a wave of cold, salty ocean water. And I sat with it, and cried my own salt tears, and recognized my mother again. And moved on.

And then there were changes.

A chance visit from my brother and his sons felt real and good, an infusion of something life-giving through my veins. Not illusion: real. The comfort of an afternoon nap with my dogs, lying under a comforter while one of them scrubbed my face with her tongue, tickled me and made me laugh out loud. Not illusion: real.

And I slept again.

And I considered each illusion dispassionately, thanked each for their service, and sent them away.

And sat some more.

And felt not that I had consigned myself to burlap and kale, but that I was wholly present in my painful, beautiful, messy, complicated life. A life in which I see the particular blue of my husband’s eyes and the warmth of real and deep friendships. A life in which my mother is gone, but not gone, but in which no illusions will keep me from the terrible, wonderful pain of feeling all that she was to me.

All that she is to me.

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Asst. Ed: Linda Jockers/Ed: Bryonie Wise

Photo: lifesheimagined.tumblr


About Ann Nichols

Ann Nichols has been everything from a cellist to a lawyer, and is currently a Buddhist who gets paid to cook at a Protestant church. She lives in a 100-year old house in Michigan with her husband, her son and an improbable number of animals. You can hang out with her by joining the Facebook group “Metta-Morphosis.”


17 Responses to “Back From the Edge: Buddhism & Grief. ~ Ann Nichols”

  1. vanessa seijo says:

    reading this I just realized that life is full of deaths; the life-altering and mind-numbing, the little ones of friends moving away or moving on, when we must be happy for them but we mourn for us, the un-mooring ones of realizing that what you believe in has metamorphosed into something else. I will be thinking of this for quite a while.

  2. Valerie says:

    What a brilliantly written post Ann. Thank you for sharing your pain and transformation with such courage and grace. Your journey of pain, loss and discovery penetrates the heart and leaves the reader moved and inspired. thank you.

  3. Laura says:

    Beautiful piece. And I loved "the disco glitter of my swan dive into hell". What an amazingly apt description of self-destructive behavior.

  4. rebeccadowningpelley says:

    I just want to say that I loved this…simply that. Your writing is a most generous gift. The ending…perfect in the imperfect reality of such a journey. xo

  5. imagineannie says:

    You're a smart cookie. A beloved colleague just retired, and although the loss was not as shattering as mom's death…it's a loss And it kind of triggered echoes of bigger losses. I'm just glad I have a better coping mechanism than I've ever had before. Grateful beyond measure.

  6. imagineannie says:

    Thanks so much – the "moved" part is lovely, but I was also hoping to let folks know that there is hope for healing, even when it seems like you've just given up on all that. Your kind words make me think I did that right. 🙂

  7. imagineannie says:

    Thanks, Laura. I'm a little purple in my prose at times, but it's a pitfall of the metaphor addict. 🙂

  8. imagineannie says:

    Thanks, Becky. It's the gift I (think I ) have, and the one my mom always wanted me to use while I was busy trying to make myself do other stuff. She would be thanking you, too.

  9. uma simon says:

    Wonderfully written about loss and the emptiness and pain it leaves. But you found your way out. Good for you!

  10. kbh says:

    thank you for writing this. Sometimes I feel so all alone in my grief. But no, I am not alone, everyone must go through this. Thank you for having the courage to write this, to move through, to be here, all of it.

  11. imagineannie says:

    Thanks so much, Uma. It was such a long, hard road, but the funny thing is that once I stopped running around and doing crazy stuff, I felt my mother with me much more often. I think she approves.

  12. imagineannie says:

    kbh, everyone does, and I think everyone feels alone no matter how good their support network. But they aren't really. You aren't, either. I hope you know I'm right there with you on this path…………

  13. Lois says:

    Beautiful, heartfelt writing. Thank you.

  14. imagineannie says:

    Thanks so much, Lois!

  15. Kate says:

    My own particularity sharp pain of loss knives through me and I am thankful to feel and reel in the moment of the real. As time has past and my mothers absence has also moved into a perceived sense of presence, I am thankful for your essay which puts words to my own experience. Thank you. I gain Peace from your piece.

  16. Ann nichols says:

    Kate, I’m so glad. Peace is hard-won, but I’m finding rest between the waves of grief. And maybe for us, that’s really good right now.

  17. peggy says:

    I just went and are still going thru the pain of losing my brother a month ago. Yes the pain can be intense and the visions of him in his coffin always come back. My thoughts are all over the plac. e I watch tv where old stars are in who are now dead but their image lives on and i watch their body movements and think to myself they are dead just like we all will be . This makes me think about the pain death causes and I think the sharpness of that pain is the price we pay for loving another person and each stab of pain reminds me of the love shared and also the good time which always out number the bad.

    I truly believe the person who has passed leave you a road map to dealing with their death. My brother was a Buddhist as am I and he taught me that grieving is only for the living the dead have moved on and so should we.