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November 18, 2018

How to Cope when Holiday Memories Attack.

Frantic rain patters against my living room window making my nature-loving lab/hound mix seemingly agoraphobic.

No Sunday walk today.

I light a frankincense candle and settle into my orange leather chair to produce a quote meme for the day—a practice started when my fiancé was in the neuro intensive care unit and continued after he died from complications of a massive stroke earlier this year.

But today I have no ideas. No pictures. No quotes.

I pick up the Elephant Journal Book Club selection: Living Beautifully by Pema Chödrön for inspiration. The topic is tonglen, a practice that has caused me to cast off almost every Buddhist “how to” book to a dusty pile atop my bookshelf. How could anyone who is grieving follow a practice that requires breathing in more pain and breathing out comfort to those who are also hurting?

It’s almost masochistic—and kind of weird.

But this rainy Sunday I am yearning for my fiancé. He was always there for me, next to me in bed or a text away. He was a place of unconditional love, something lost years prior when my father died.

And with my fiancé gone now too, I am lost. Trying to numb myself, I look at my Facebook feed and see it—a picture posted by my fiancé a year ago with four of our five kids at a local apple picking farm. The Facebook Flashback strikes again.

I wrote about the pain inflicted by Facebook Flashbacks three years ago while struggling through my divorce. Pictures of my “happily” married days kept popping up in my feed and I chastised myself for posting so many pictures, and not turning off the flashback feature altogether.

Yet here I am again, three years later, feeling attacked by a Facebook feature.

Could the Pema Chödrön reading on tonglen meditation help with this? Might it provide some comfort? Is comfort even the point? If I learned anything from my discarded Buddhist tomes, it’s that suffering is a part of life—and the relentless pursuit of comfort and numbing is misguided.

I close my eyes and begin to breathe in the pain caused by that picture. The yearning I have for that moment. For the life I had with him. For that particular day when he insisted we take a hayride to pick apples—and the guilt, as I had been bratty about it. He had been right; despite hordes of people and lines out the door, we had an unforgettable time.

So memorable he posted it on Facebook—where his social media ghost is torturing me.

It is eerie what happens after a person on social media dies. We still get notifications about friend anniversaries and birthdays, and flashbacks about their old posts. And if someone has their password, the dead can seemingly even “post.”

To all of us experiencing the loss of a friend, family member, or even a pet this holiday season—who are setting one less place setting, figuring out how to address death in a holiday card, and leaving the Christmas tree in the family room because the dog is not around to knock it down, this is my message to you:

Breathe in the pain. And breathe out comfort to all in the same position.

May we find peace in shared grief to withstand the periodic depression loss brings. Because it will come again, and we must accept it—and withstand it.

And maybe even honor it. I am strengthened by my tonglen practice and decide to visit my fiance’s grave site. My hoodied teenage son shifts back and forth in his black sneakers as I speak to the rain splattered mausoleum door as if its inhabitant can hear me:

“Sundays are when I miss you the most.”

As we leave the site, I let my son practice driving in the nearly empty cemetery—and an everyday use for tonglen arises. Breathe in the fear, breathe out calm to all parents teaching our kids to drive. May we get through this gauntlet of difficulty with grace, patience, and both our car and parent/child relationship intact. And instead of being bratty and annoyed with the experience, may we treasure it, as life flutters by too fast.

How might the practice of tonglen help all who are, and will be, facing flashbacks this holiday season? May we find comfort in our shared grief, and somehow, find a peace that passes all understanding.


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