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.


  • Posted 19 January 2009 at 1:47 am | #


    Death of a loved really brings it all home, like a baby left on your doorstep, then taken from you after it becomes yours. The scarring is perhaps like all scars, red, red, red and one day, years may pass, a mark. The callus of life, or perhaps more a deepening of our life.

    It is a shame that ‘religions’ cannot let them go through loving ritual. What is there to pontificate about love and loss? No one has come back. We all feel loss like nothing else… everything is altered… the prism is shifted once more… our heart is raw… will it heal… yes, but now infused with him… the final gift of death.

  • Posted 19 January 2009 at 8:30 am | #

    Oh, Owl. Everything you’ve said here about it feels so real to me it made me wince. I’m sorry you lost your beautiful friend.

  • Posted 19 January 2009 at 2:09 pm | #

    Hi (0v0)
    as a Catholic raised Zen practitioners, i find your observations on the juxtapositions at the time of death interesting. i didn’t go to my dad’s funeral, but i suspect that i would have behaved rather catholicky, since i would have been the single buddhist in the group.
    when i lost a job, i found comfort in Kulber-Ross steps and without identifying her, i mentioned to a colleague that i found a series of steps that helped me cope. when i started describing them, he, a 63 year old who’d recently lost his 95 year old mom, as well as his own job too, started laughing loudly, mentioning I was reading Kulber Ross’ steps for dealing with grief at death, not for a job loss. whatever. there’s just different types of griefs. actually, my sutra teacher said at that time, “congratulations on being liberated”, which i suppose would be the buddhist way. well, i’m happy to be taking on the yoke again. i need to be useful.
    i understand your feelings of wanting to run over a motorcycle, symbol of what killed your teacher.

  • Posted 19 January 2009 at 2:22 pm | #

    Owl, looking at the above post, i need to say, that it sounds flippant in response to your solemn writing about your experiences in dealing with your teacher’s passing. but what happens is that at funeral-times, something happens to my psyche that i come up with funny things to say. it’s my basic instint to not want to see people suffering, so at those times i come up with funny stories to tell. it’s funny to apply KR’s steps to job loss because it’s an irrational concept. the loss of life can’t be compared to temporary economic setback.

  • Posted 19 January 2009 at 8:38 pm | #

    I understand. Sometimes in these matters less is more.

  • susananda
    Posted 20 January 2009 at 7:53 am | #

    I told funny stories when my father died. I was nine, I heard them say they wanted to send me to a psychologist : (
    I’d seen it coming and done much grieving beforehand.

    Owl, thank you for documenting every shift so beautifully. I also like how it was obvious you had to do primary for a while, and then the effect of the angry sages. I feel like maybe those guys are affecting me in my daily life..

  • Posted 20 January 2009 at 9:14 am | #

    You know I love this post, it’s perfect, and probably the best thing of yours I’ve read. Appropriate, honest and insightful on the most sensitive of topics you do honour to your friend. x

  • Posted 20 January 2009 at 1:49 pm | #

    Susan, that sounds so rough. Sorry. And yes, I think the sages do a little something to me. Strengthen my resolve and my boundaries a bit. In my case, it’s been good.

    Gr and Gr, thanks. I felt like this was all too intimate so bumped it down with something else. I’m glad it resonated.

  • Posted 20 January 2009 at 4:04 pm | #

    You are surrounded by us, and us by you.

  • meniscusmerague
    Posted 21 January 2009 at 11:45 am | #

    That’s true Gregor. Well put.

  • Posted 27 January 2009 at 4:28 am | #

    This is late… and I had to wait to be in the right spot to read it… but I agree so much with Grimmly and Gregor. Wonderfully written. Thank you. I hope you’re finding a little more peace with it now.

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