Death and Grieving the Loss of Loved Ones

I often get very thoughtful questions from meditators that represent experiences that may be shared by other meditators. Knowing that you are having experiences in common with other meditators, along with my answers to these questions, might be beneficial to many of you. I therefore like to share these exchanges with our community from time to time. I hope you get something from the following exchange.

This particular question came from one of our Initiators.

Dear Thom,

Several people around our community have lost loved ones recently. Today I found myself telling the group at the knowledge meeting:

“Everyone in this room is going to die; and the rest of us are going to watch as one by one we leave, and we will experience the feelings of loss that those leavings bring. The longer we stay, the more loss we’ll have to experience. And one of us is going to be the last one standing, will have borne the loss of every other one leaving, and we’re going to call that one the lucky one.”

Could you give me your thoughts on how to address this with our meditators?

My response:

Let us incite some contrast; what of the experiences of loss had by our ancestors in times of world war or during the great ice ages? Is today’s American urban youth-to-middle-age death-rate really so extreme that it beggars belief? Do we fail to see ignorance as the most common cause of early death?

We have become a fainthearted generation of shallow thinkers who first dread the obvious, then rail at its being so self-evident, and then fulminate against its being incontrovertible. This simply is the world that we have to change.

Yes, it is true that the death rate is 100%, and thank God for that, for its being impossible to stop. Imagine the difficulties we all would have if our fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, great grandfathers, great grandmothers and great great great great grandparents, and so on, all continued to live today, dining and sleeping in their families’ homes.

Imagine if Genghis Khan were still alive, and Attila and Alexander and Adolf; if Jesus of Nazareth were still alive, along with Siddhartha Gautama Sakya. Imagine if, amongst these stellar opposites, all the billions of forgotten souls had kept their old stressed bodies, too!

No one would inherit anything, no space would be available for anyone not already here. And the dead-wood factor on this Earth would consist of tens of billions of humans whose bodies’ relevance had expired. But how many would volunteer to “die” if “death” continued to be avoidable simply by choosing? Earth shudders at the very concept of our having choice, but laughs as she continues to recycle every last body.

“Death” –as commonly it is conceived– is utterly unreal. “Death” is birth; it is evolution itself. The common conception of the word, “death”, has reality only for those who do not understand the experience being had by the one who supposedly “died”. Since the “dead” one did not experience “death” [see below], then for whom else is “death” real? For whom, over what experience, do we grieve? This rhetorical question is answered in this selected snapshot from a response that I wrote last week to someone examining the “horror” of the “death” of a loved one.

From a letter I wrote in August 2009:

‘… of course, it is human to grieve, notwithstanding that in the final analysis we are grieving for our own failure to grasp what happened, somewhat wallowing in our pain as [hopefully] we try to adapt to new ways of locating our loved one, the one who no longer is locatable in the old body with which we had become so familiar. That was the body that held the soul for which yet so many unfulfilled plans existed; the plans still remaining as unrealised as they were while that body breathed.”

The degree of pain while grieving is in proportion to one’s attempt to control or to negate the irrevocable change that has occurred. Grief reactions range from absolute dismissal of the “dead” [existential numbness] to, at the extreme opposite pole, attempting to get the “dead” to continue to relate to one on one’s own terms by badgering their newly-liberated consciousness with our non-acceptance, by petitioning them [or someone in power] to restore the former experience, or by wanting to establish with the “dead” shared resentment-of-loss; to reverse the irreversible change.

Meanwhile, the subject of our pain, our loved one, did not experience – is not experiencing- “death”; he experienced “birth” into a whole new state of consciousness that is so fascinating [and so subtly familiar] that the body left behind becomes entirely forgettable. Reports of so-called “near” death experiences (–actually they are experiences of body-death, not “near”–) verify and validate that “dying” involves a consciousness transition into a new and fascinating state. However, when grieving, we do not actually care about that – rather pathetically, we care only about what we are experiencing, not actually what the “dead” one is experiencing.

Here is what we must face:

Do we really believe that “death” means “cessation of experience”, or “extinction of consciousness”? If so, a whole new lecture on consciousness must begin here [watch this space]. If not, then we need not ask “who dies?”, but rather, “what dies?”

“Death” has reality only as a word to describe the experience of loss of control of whomever didn’t “die”. In grieving “death” we should be trying to learn new ways of understanding the experience of our loved one.

Unfortunately, the word “death” is used to explain what happened to cause the emotional pain of the one left behind. Perhaps the one left behind “gave up” on gaining any coherent understanding of “death” at all. The griever’s pain is attributed to the disappearance of and the loss of shared experience with the loved one.

The word “death” cannot describe a shared experience with the “dead”. Likewise, grieving is not an experience that is shared by the “dead”. One’s remaining bitter or sad [about losing a previous method of relating to a loved one] is not an experience shared by the one who “died”.

The fact is, the griever is sad or bitter about their own loss of their loved one’s location; at the loss of shared experience through familiar means. Since grief is not a shared experience, it does not strengthen one’s relationship with the “dead” person’s consciousness. At best, the process of grieving allows for pain-expression; it provides for the venting of one’s loss of control of a shared-experience era of a relationship.

An entirely separate spectre may raise its head for the more illuminated: inexplicably, when a loved one “dies”, one may feel non-attached equanimity, while the ‘mistaken intellect’, demanding conformity with social expectation, insists upon one grieving. Then one may feel guilt for not grieving!

Ultimately, knowledge [experience + understanding] eliminates undue bondage to any of these incomplete interpretations.

Love and Jai Guru Deva, Thom