On April 11, my mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly. I will never forget that phone call from my father for as long as I live. My mother was 80 years old, in good health and died 10 years sooner than most in her family of origin.
After the initial shock, I dropped into a container of grief a few hours later. Since then, I have experienced intense feelings of numbness, denial, acceptance, anger, deep sorrow, as well as moments of gratitude on her behalf for a fast and hopefully painless death.
In the many weeks after her death, I have and continue to wander the spiral of grief. This spiral is well known to all humans who have experienced loss. In our culture, we are not allowed to grieve freely or completely. We pathologize grief as depression. Many in the medical system want us to to numb ourselves to this experience by medicating our grief. Our culture also teaches us to be impatient with it. We are expected to resume our 'business as usual' lives as quickly as possible. But our lives are never the same after a loved one dies. Their loss changes us forever. We are broken open and deepened. We need time, space and support to restructure ourselves without them. We need to do this not only to honor our relationship with them, but to arrive at a level of closure. It is healthy to traverse the grief spiral as completely as possible. If we don't, congested grief can eventually manifest as illness and dis-ease. Sudden death is much harder to adjust to than death which occurs after a chronic illness. The suddenness of the person's absence and the significant void that is left is sometimes hard to bear, yet bearing the unbearable deepens us in compassion and reinforces the importance of living from meaning for whatever time we have left on earth.
I find that the most important gift one can give the griever is validation. Telling them to 'get over it' is not healthy. Expecting them to move ahead without expressing their grief is also unhealthy. Much of what people say to the griever has to do with their own limitations and discomfort in being with their emotions and feeling function.
In a tribe in South America, when a person is grieving, people in the tribe want to be near them. They say the griever is closer to God because they have been broken open from the pain of loss. They honor and revere the gifts of grieving. They know they are in the presence of soul alchemy. They hold sacred space for the one in pain.
Our culture is severely lacking in its ability to hold space during intense life processes, especially grief and loss. It not only 'takes a village' to raise a child but also to help us move through life experiences gracefully. Our culture as it stands, does neither. We need to be mindful of these gaping limitations and begin cultivating presence for each other as we go through our spiral of life experiences. The danger of not doing this threatens our very sense of belonging and the feeling that we matter.
To feel like we matter is essential to our very existence. We have gotten so caught up in what we are conditioned to value that it is easy to normalize the superficial values of society and lose sight of what is real, authentic and non-material. Upon death, no one has ever taken anything material with them. So why do we value material over meaning, doing over being, fixing over healing and progress over process? These are important questions we need to ask as we go through life and its many crossroads. These become more poignant and palpable as we approach midlife, when we begin to shift our sense of worth from extrinsic to intrinsic, and our zeal for cultivating what is authentic supersedes society's superficial values.
Over the years I have asked hundreds of people who are near death or bear a life-threatening illness "What really matters?" They have all had the same response. What matters to them is how deeply they have loved, how much meaning they have lived from, how much wisdom they have gained and how they have made a positive difference in the world. I believe loving fully and deeply is an important legacy that we should all consider leaving. Learning how to love oneself is a prerequisite for loving others authentically. It is the only way any of us can help alleviate some of the suffering in our corner of the world. The authentic love we share continues to help and heal others long after we are gone.
These are kernels of wisdom I was reminded of through traversing the spiral of grief after the devastating loss of my mother. My grief will continue to take me through uncharted territories to deepen and hone my authenticity and sense of worth and value. I promise myself to keep my mother's legacy alive by living and sharing what really matters. This holds far greater value for me than anything material society may normalize.
This may be one way she can continue to bring peace on Earth.