Stages of Grief • 18 January 2009

I had wondered if I would feel the right way when I first lost someone close. Would the appropriate emotions arrive, or would I find some way of taking advantage of, or maybe running away from, the event?

For the first days after it happened, what I felt quietly was both my loss and his loss—of life at a young productive age, just two years into a deep rich vein of happiness. I began to dispense my debt of gratitude to this person who thought the world owed him nothing. I spoke in peace to his colleagues, to find out how much he meant to them… and to fill them in on the parts they never really understood. Where was he that sabbatical I worked in his office and spirited away the mail? No, not like the others on writing retreat in Provence or a Idyllwild… but in noble silence with Thic Nhat Hahn. I never thought I’d be the one to share his not-very-academic secret, but it was impossible to hide in response to inquiries about the joy and non-agenda-seeking of our one peaceful professor.

Breaking the news there was a Buddhist among us, I explained the thing about this Zen business is that you confront your own death up front. We scientists leave consciousness of mortality for the retirement years and instead ride ragged our unconscious fear of death in order to make ourselves write. (Probably best that way—makes for more science, less hand-wringing.) But if you’re Zen you stare down emptiness and loss and suffering until you move past the denial the fear and the sadness into a place of radical acceptance and peace. Academics buy in to stage models from Maslow, to Kubler-Ross, so this explanation worked. And it also served to explain my own equanimity.

So that was the first days. Acceptance. Strange to fast-forward straight to Stage 5 of the Kulber-Ross model of grieving, yes? There was both wisdom and bullshit in it, as there is in any flight toward peace and equanimity that denies the depth of the psyche or the reality of life in the world.

A couple of the skipped-over "stages" came right back in when I was able to manage them. Kind of a depression-anger-depression two-step. Anger was the most interesting and cathartic. I’d been practicing the primary series for a few days (3S is so joyful and strong—it would have been easy to do but also a pushing away emotions that I wanted to honor), attending to the weird moist heaviness in the sinuses and chest, when round about Mary C something shifted.

If an emotion is a somatic event, going radically into the body daily is a way to circulate those events and move them on out. But I never realized—not in years of Vipassana practice—how concrete and specific a strong emotion could be until that morning on the mat. Like a little clockwork click backwards down the supposed Kubler-Ross ladder, I twisted the chest free and felt the slow heaviness replaced with a hit of excitement and power. I moved through the next few asanas, made eye contact with the teacher, and initiated the march of tormentor-sages and grim reapers that is the beginning of 3S. I didn’t even realize the energy was angry until the ideation showed up. Suddenly I was rolling up my manduka and marching back to flog my friend Betty (not her real name). She was practicing owl-driste that day—a common bad habit that usually doesn’t phase me but that day felt so damn invasive and unsupportive and even vampirish. While I flogged her (in my mind) I also gave a clipped little lecture on WHAT YOGA IS and how if she didn’t muster some integrity and contain her energy she would degrade the practices of everyone else in the community.

Oh my god, hilarious. WHAT YOGA IS, right there. Betty and her nutty owl-driste practice kissed me on my way out and instead of taking her into the office to let her have it, I received her best intentions. I needed them, together with the support of everyone else in the room. Community is a strong discipline. Better to eat my sour words than let them become something lasting and terrible among us all.

But is it important to be so forgiving of inanimate stressors? At the Whole Foods 10 minutes later I parked next to a Harley-Davidson and wanted to maim or even kill it. Kill it with my Honda before it killed its rider. Would have been a mercy to its owner for me to beat that machine, punish it for the death it brings us too early and with too much violence.

The anger made me sleepless for two nights, but it must have passed because I came home from the funeral yesterday and slept for 14 hours.

The funeral was a blessing, even though I couldn't stand the smug condescending of the Zen friends toward the devout Catholic parents. I’ll spare a retelling of that, because it’s inappropriately hilarious and cannot be told without leveling the kind of perfect insults that my mentor taught me to let pass. I’ll only say that the Buddhist statements of faith stood out starkly against the Catholic gestalt in a way that made the family squirm and made me wish for an even more minimalist death-ritual. Why does a funeral have to be a time we all theorize about the meta-realm? Isn’t it in poor taste to choose death, of all times, to get philosophical? Isn’t death—so spare, non-negotiable and emotionally deep—so meaningful that we don’t really have to adorn it?

I don’t know. Maybe there is no such thing as simple ritual; and maybe we have to adorn our mechanisms of acceptance so they feel familiar and beautiful. It’s true that I needed something collective and solemn now; and it's true that the two poems sent from friends seemed more meaningful this week than ever (but only because they were good… though I also confess there were days this week when every previously-vapid pop song seemed to be about him). It's good to live in a poetry-filled world, where weeks are afforded for mourning and day-long rituals used to summon the best we can make of acceptance and closure. They don’t get that in Gaza or Baghdad. Rolling mortuary lawns and tearful hymns and unselfconscious group hugs are for the non-traumatized life. Recognizing my debt to this teacher I feel I must acknowledge the many peace-resources here and make the most of them, choose to be marked but not scarred by this, and pursue that choice into the body if that’s where it leads.