Yom Kippur is traditionally a time when the dead are remembered, and that inevitably leads us to think of our own mortality. When I was a child that part of the service terrified me, living as I did in constant fear of death. Those who had died were part of a never-ending procession that one day (I hoped not for a long time) would include me. I too would be snuffed out into eternal darkness. At that time the loss of people dear to me played a far smaller part than my fears for myself. My beloved grandmother, called Grandmop because she had a mop of white hair, had died when I was just three, and my uncle Ruby, whom I wasn’t aware of loving, when I was eight, but both their deaths were wrapped in a secrecy that created terror.
It wasn’t till I was older that grief became real to me, although I had cried at the deaths of pets and sobbed my heart out when one of our budgies died. Only when I lost people who had mattered to me did I begin to understand the sadness of losing the human connection. It made my fears for myself seem less important, though they didn’t completely go away. I realised that the deaths of people I loved had taught me something about the preciousness of life and the wisdom of accepting its end, though I might not have put it in quite those words then. At around that time I discovered the work of Stephen Levine, a Buddhist teacher who has worked extensively with death and dying, and began to see there was something to learn about letting go.
In Griefwalker, a film by Tim Wilson which I found deeply moving, Canadian shaman Stephen Jenkinson shows not only that healing comes when we have the courage to meet grief and our own death, but that we can’t live fully unless we do. Jenkinson, a European, has been deeply influenced by the teachings of the Algonquin tribe. Their life, at least in the place where he has visited them, has retained its closeness to the natural world and its sense of harmony with other lives. Seeing themselves as part of nature, in which all beings die and are succeeded by other beings, means they don’t take their own death so personally and can offer it as a gift to those who come next. The other day I came across an account of the tsunami in Thailand by a psychologist who helped people find their dead or missing loved ones. Grief-stricken as they were, the psychologist noticed that they were less inclined to blame anyone for their loss. Their response, ‘It’s nature,’ came from the Buddhist understanding that all things are impermanent and loss is inevitable: ultimately we’re not in control, and we’re not separate from everything else.
Recently I heard that a much-loved local Buddhist teacher, someone considerably younger than myself, has had a major operation for cancer. The prognosis is uncertain and he is facing the possibility of death with clear-sighted equanimity: not wanting to die yet but accepting whatever may come with an open heart. People sometimes see the Buddhist teachings as nihilistic – nothing is permanent, everything is suffering, there’s no self – but if you interpret them in that way you miss the joy and freedom that come from even tiny glimpses of what lies beyond. It isn’t that everything is suffering, but that suffering comes when we try to cling to what’s impermanent, whether it’s our own fixed sense of self or someone or something ‘out there’. Grief hurts, but suffering in this sense comes when we don’t accept the pain and try to push it away – or sometimes when we hang on to it because we can’t face the reality of loss. Ceasing to suffer, or suffering less, brings a sense of freedom, though it may not make the pain go away.
In the last year or so my heart has felt more open to love – for another person or many other people, and for the world around me. And, inescapably, love heightens the awareness of death. In the garden flowers die, I tread on snails and insects, I find the corpse of a bird. All these beings have had a life which has been precious in its own terms. I know that if I love someone, I may go through the pain of losing them or, if I die first, that they will go through the pain of losing me. There are people whose loss I would grieve deeply and – if it doesn’t sound too arrogant to say so – people who would grieve my loss. Grief is built into our life, and however fully I grieve for all the people I’ve lost I don’t know that it will ever go away. I do know that if and when I can embrace it and let it live through me, there is a relief and an opening again to the wider world.
‘May their dear souls rest in peace’ is something that’s often written on Jewish gravestones. May they indeed rest in peace. May I rest in peace as I continue to grieve for them, and as I continue to open to love and new life.