Life is a losing game
I'd just finished writing about the death drenched spookiness at the end of October when an old, dear and much older friend called. Since I admire her stamina and will to keep on keeping on with a relentless schedule of helping other people and going to great cultural events, I was taken aback when she started by telling me the past two weeks she'd been downed by deep depression. My friend has been losing friends regularly for the last two or three years, yet seemingly unperturbed she goes on mentoring her college students, succoring the sick and rooting for the Yankees. Evidently the friend who passed three weeks ago was such a life support and joy supplier, her passing left a crater too deep to step across.
If you get into your '80s, your life is going to lose familiar faces the way trees in October lose their leaves. Shelf life happens. All faces have different places in our heart and the ones who burrow in the front and center and live there for decades become so woven into the fabric of our lives that their loss unravels it. We don't know how to put it back together again. As my friend said, most of the others who've died, even longer terms ones from childhood, didn't upend her everyday like this. She was thinking maybe she needed a grief counselor.
I jumped in to save her the trouble and cost. The Buddha is the best grief counselor in the business and his Dharma teachings are free to all. They start of course with that mustard seed test nobody could pass. You know, when a distraught young woman came to him because her child had died and she needed comforting, the Buddha told her to go to every house in every village around and bring him back one mustard seed from any family in which there had never been a death. So we need to remember losing someone dear and maybe even near does not make us special. We are actually very ordinary: death happens every day. Nobody goes unscathed. Nobody gets out alive. Life is a losing game.
Grief at the loss of a friend or family member is an ordinary human reaction. It's not necessarily a pathological medical condition that requires outside help. After all, isn't it testament to the person who passed that they affected you enough to make you cry when they went away? And testament to you for appreciating how they made your life better? It's acknowledgment of a debt and its payback. Hooray, you can feel! There should be joy in that.
There is another take on the normality of grief. The late master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche bluntly said: The one who passed has left the sufferings of this life and has a chance for a better shot at it. You should feel joy for their leaving. But you don't and you are torn apart with grief because something you want has been taken away, like a toy from a child. You are crying for yourself, for what you can't have. Verdi's tumultuously angry Requiem written after a close friend's death may be the supreme damn you death hissy fit of all times.
So I told my friend to remember the joyous moments she shared and the new friends she's made from that old one. That friend may no longer be physically present but she will still be around communicating in hundreds of ways. Death is not total loss. Unless of course you want it to be.
And finally, according to Dilgo Khyentse and other great masters extending all the way back to the Buddha, the departed is merely shifting life forms. Right now, I said, your friend's energy is morphing through the Bardo. She needs your help; she needs your love and energy to direct her to the most beneficial and joyous rebirth. You can thank her for everything by praying for her, visualizing her, sending her all your love and hopes.
"You know I don't believe in any of that religious bunk," my friend said.
"I know," I said, "but what's the downside of visualizing Mary and sending her all your thanks and love and good wishes for a few days. It's going to make you feel a lot less sad that maybe you can still do something good for her, make her a great gift. It's going to make you happy."
"Okay," she said, "that I understand. I'll give it a try."
~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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