Yesterday, I sat with a dying woman during an eight-hour AIDS hospice shift.
Because the house is full, her bed is in the living room surrounded by open windows and pictures of faces bursting with life. Pictures of people I have known and loved.
The memory of laughter hangs bravely on the walls.
Shadows dance around us as light tries to move through trees. Trees that are coated with Spring’s newly born green leaves. Leaves that will turn brown and decay in seven months.
The windows used to look out on a lively Washington D.C. sidewalk, but today, there are only a few neighbors in masks walking their dogs or heading to buying “essentials” at the local Safeway.
When I arrived to work, I pulled up a stool and sat at this woman’s bedside. I watched her labored breath move in and out—noticing when her features grimaced, wondering if it was pain or an autonomic reflex.
Sometimes her eyes would open, and we would stare through each other, into a mystery we both knew nothing about.
The air seemed sad, because last week she told me she didn’t want to die. I couldn’t feel the feelings inside her, so I sat still, simply a witness. I took a Kleenex and wiped the single tear at the corner of her eye. She let me clean her mouth and put gloss on her lips. She drank a tiny bit of orange Gatorade, asked for her brother in Canada, and said she wasn’t in pain. But she was barely able to communicate through words.
She is my teacher. Her life matters. I will remember her.
In this time of great collective unknowns and grief, I am reminded of the fragility of life. Nothing is promised.
Like a shadow or a leaf, we come and go.
Grief is sad. It feels heavy. It carries weight.
There is a longing for something that no longer is—a gnawing ache.
Grief is real and it can’t be avoided, controlled, overcome, or numbed.
If we don’t allow grief to speak, we also won’t be able to hear the subtle sounds of aliveness, ecstasy, and pure joy. Because life has all of it.
Grief touches the vulnerable places in our tender souls.
To remind us of who, and how, and what we love. And to break us out of narrow individualism.
As a Buddhist Chaplain, End of Life Counselor, and AIDS hospice caregiver, I have sat at the bedside of countless people who were here and are now gone. Some I knew well, some were strangers.
I bore witness to uncomfortable feelings, grief, loss, regret, fear, heartbreak.
I have an intimate relationship with my own grief. I am no expert and I am always “in process.” I try to turn something difficult into a fun adventure, full of curiosity, wonder, and hope.
In this time of collective sorrow, I would love to share some of my favorite ways to hang out with grief.
10 ways to hang out with grief:
I was once asked, “Why did you leave your full scholarship, Masters of Divinity program to live at an AIDS hospice center for homeless men and women?”
I answered in a collage.
There is “tactile healing” in a pair of scissors, magazines, old pictures, and glue. Like a puzzle, we can integrate unconscious pieces of ourselves. If I am grappling with a deep question or need to process a strong feeling, I grab my supplies, and look for symbols and pictures that rattle my soul.
The questions begin to answer themselves from the inside out.
When I sense the undercurrent of sadness, I find a safe space in my apartment—usually a fetal position on the floor. I play sad music, feel the lump in my throat, and cry. Out loud. Snot dripping. When there are no more tears, I wash my face, and stand up feeling 10 pounds lighter.
One of my strategies for processing uncomfortable feelings is through writing a “Dear Angela” letter. I open my laptop, click on new page titled, “Dear Angela,” and start asking, “What is going on with you?”
I become my own free therapist as I dig deeper, allowing my thoughts to flow uncensored.
I love to laugh. This is why I play with kids often. They can’t contain their joy or insanity.
I enjoy laughing with people, but also alone. I talk to myself and my plants. Some of the conversations we have are hilarious! I always feel connected after a heart-to-heart, with me and me.
I teach yoga, martial arts, and self-defense. Yoga encourages slow thoughtful movement. Martial arts involves punching, kicking, and choking things. Both involve breathing consciously.
I express my emotions through movement. My grandma recently bought a mini trampoline for my birthday. Some days a good bounce to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” changes everything.
Put me in the woods, a park with Bermuda grass, or in front of an ocean, and my soul settles.
When I’m in nature, I remember,“my grief” is not mine, it’s “ours.” My feelings will ebb and flow. Change is inevitable. Remembering this, I relax my bare feet into the dirt beneath me.
Grief is not only a gnawing ache or a feeling of loss. Grief is also tender, raw, vulnerable, and real.
If I can reflect on the simple moments, people, and experiences I am grateful for when I’m feeling sad, my heart breaks open, and I feel alive.
There are so many inspiring authors who explore uncomfortable emotions through human, accessible writing.
My favorites are: Pema Chödrön (anything by her!), Brené Brown’s Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice, and Frank Ostesseski’s The Five Invitations.
9. Doing Nothing.
I have a tree outside my window. Sometimes I will sit on my couch and watch the tree, or stare at clouds, or rain drops, or the moon. Just sitting and waiting allows space for something to shift.
Rituals have the power to connect us to something greater than ourselves. I like to light candles, or baptize myself in the shower or a rain storm.
Anything can be a ritual if you put meaning and intention into the action.
I love going to graveyards and asking the people who have come before to show me the way. Or I thank them for living.
In this time of collective grief and loss, may we all find our own creative outlets to break down and break open.
“To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feelings of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.” ~ Pema Chödrön