This article was
published on the Don't Sweat website
Finding Life after Death
When my dear friend Robert died in a car crash, I was totally unprepared, as everyone always is at an unexpected tragedy. It happened so suddenly. The timing couldn’t have been worse either, as the accident occurred two nights before my wedding. I was tense already, but Robert would have been able to help make me laugh and keep things lighthearted. He was a warm, supportive, and loving friend—and we had always known we would be friends for decades to come. But it wasn’t to be.
For a while, my world fell apart. It was the first time I couldn’t “fix” a situation or even pretend that it was fixable. This time I couldn’t run away. There was nowhere to go, nor was there anywhere to hide. I had been considered strong, even wise for my years, but I proved everyone wrong. My grief was too overwhelming for me to even pretend to put up any pretences.
The first time I “came up for air” was when I was able to spend a day sharing my grief with Stephen Levine in San Francisco. You may know Stephen for his landmark book, Who Dies? I thought of him as a remarkably loving being, and someone who was more comfortable with the subject of death than anyone I had every known. Had we not met that day, I do not know what would have happened to me. What he shared with me changed my outlook forever.
When our familiar world falls apart, especially through the pain of death—of losing someone we love—we are shaken at our very core. We realize, perhaps for the first time, that there is no easy or quick way out. We must go through the process, which will be a little different for each of us—the common thread being pain.
In the midst of that inner struggle, however, something begins to happen. There are the moments that are most resisted—and there is extreme pain. Simultaneously, however, there are voluntary or involuntary bursts of letting go. Perhaps the pain is too much for the moment—the mind takes a break, shuts down, or wakes up, I’m not really sure. But in those moments, there is a release from the pain; an acknowledgment that although we don’t understand it, and it hurts like hell, the universe somehow knows what it’s doing.
One of my favorite sayings comes from Seng-Ts’an. He said, “Our way is not difficult, save the picking and choosing.” Entire books and weeklong courses could be developed around these words. The wisdom is simple, but extremely powerful and profound, particularly when dealing with loss. Although it’s so much easier said than done, when we take a step back and a full breath, we can see loss from what I believe is the deepest perspective. We can see the seasons come and go. We can know that although God did not plan or cause the death of our loved one—or the pain we are going through—He is, nevertheless, there to comfort us.
God may speak to us directly, in line with our own faith and belief, as we quiet down and listen. Or He may show up cleverly disguised as a friend, neighbor, family member, minister, rabbi, spiritual teacher, emergency worker, or someone else whom you may never suspect. But however it happens and regardless of how God presents himself, you will experience his presence as hope, compassion, strength, and kindness.
One night, after speaking to an audience in Chicago, I went out for a quiet dinner, all alone. In the booth next to me was a man who told me an extraordinary story. He had experienced the unimaginable pain of the death of his only child. Already being a single dad, he had few places to turn for comfort.
One day, in the midst of his deepest grief, he met an angel, disguised as a waitress. His connection to her was spiritual, not physical. She had been through a similar experience herself and was able to give him a gentle push in a healing direction. He connected with a new church and a whole new group of friends. He said that he could trace his entire healing process back to that waitress, whom he had never seen again. There was no doubt in his mind that God had visited him that day.
When dealing with lesser things, it’s easier to see that if we did not want these things to be different, then we would be free. Certainly if we didn’t wish to control our world, the events and people in our lives, then we would be at peace. How much of our pain and suffering stems from our intense need for things to be different?
Our way through life should not be difficult—but it is. The fact is that our lives are filled mostly with picking and choosing. “I want this, but not that.” And because things are not anything other than the way they really are, we suffer. Nowhere is this more apparent and painful than when we are trying to find life after death. We so desperately want things to be the way they were. But they are not. So the longing itself becomes an additional source of suffering.
After almost two decades of meditation and a personal lifetime commitment to truth, I have both good and bad news to report. The bad news is that there is no hiding from the painful thoughts that are the inevitable by-product of the death of a loved one. The comforting news is that it’s possible to relate to our pain in a more compassionate manner.
As painful thoughts and feelings arise, we are tempted to go in one of two directions. Sometimes we indulge ourselves in painful memories or anticipate future pain. We become immersed and absorbed in the pain, and our thoughts frighten us. Or instead of thinking about our loss, or even talking about it to others, we repress or deny its existence. As thoughts come up, we push them away. We pretend they don’t exist. We keep busy and distract ourselves. It’s too painful to face—so we don’t.
A third option is not a compromise. It’s neither an indulgence, nor is it any form of denial. It’s simply a compassionate acknowledgment of the truth. As thoughts arise, we don’t push them away—or hate them. Nor do we run. We simply see them as they are: “There’s pain, and there’s loss. And now I’m missing my child, my partner, my lover, my friend.” The thoughts are not judged or altered, nor is the pain minimized in any way.
But while this is going on we relate with compassion to whatever is arising. We send love and kindness to ourselves and to our thoughts. As we do, an openness and a spaciousness begin to emerge. In the absence of mental energy running toward the future—or the past—our pain begins to soften and dissolve. Healing begins. We become stronger.
We just keep giving our pain space, over and over again, for however long it takes. Days, months, years—or an entire lifetime. It doesn’t matter. We keep allowing whatever is—to be there. Just as we would hold a child close to our heart to keep her feeling safe and comforted, so would we do the same for ourselves. Offer no resistance. Don’t push it away. Instead be kind and compassionate to your pain, as you would be for that child, or for your best friend.
In 1989, the above-mentioned and admired Stephen Levine contributed to a book that I had co-edited with my dear friend Benjamin Shield called Healers on Healing. He wrote about a woman he had worked with who was suffering from an excruciatingly painful bone metastasis—cancer. Up to that point, she had lived a life of anger and self-pity. She had never even met her grandchildren, and even in the hospital she greeted every person with rage. She hated the world—and it hated back.
One night, after weeks in the hospital, the pain became unbearable. A lifetime of withholding and resistance became too much, and she could withhold no more. For the first time in her life, she opened and surrendered to her pain. Instead of sending it hate and hardening her heart, she softened—finally. For the first time in her life, she treated her pain with something other than anger and fear. She treated it with loving-kindness. As this happened, she suddenly felt a lifelong buildup of compassion for others. She said she knew, for the first time, the suffering of others. She even described her pain not as “my pain,” but as “the pain.”
In the next six weeks before her death, she experienced a complete turnaround and emotional healing. Her anger completely dissolved and turned to love. She continued to soften around her pain. She begged her children for forgiveness, which she received. Within days, the grandchildren she had never met were comforting her by her side, stroking her hands. Unbelievably, she became one of the most loved people in the hospital. Nurses and doctors would go out of their way to visit her.
Hers was the most remarkable healing I have ever heard about. It taught me several important things. First, that healing goes far beyond the physical. This woman died as healed as anyone could ever hopes for. Secondly, it reinforced the incredible power of softening to one’s pain. Whether our pain is physical or emotional—as when we lose someone we love—the key to healing is a softening to our pain.
Recently I read an extraordinary book, How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Harold Bloomfield, M.D., Melba Colgrove, Ph.D., and Peter McWilliams. If you are experiencing any type of loss, I recommend this book above all others. If there was a single message that stood out for me as I read and reread the book, it was that we will survive, and that this is not in doubt. Healing from a loss is a natural process of life—just as healing from a broken bone is too. Knowing this in the midst of pain is of great comfort.
If it’s at all possible, don’t be alone. Seek out the comfort and help you need and deserve. This is not the time to be brave or strong. Instead it’s the time to reach out to others and to be open to receive their kindness. It’s your turn. Finding life after death is among the greatest challenges we face. But it is possible, and it will happen for you. I send you my love.