Embracing Death—Celebrating Life
By Helena Montelius of Look Within
I saw Grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out,
“It tastes sweet, does it not?”
“You’ve caught me,” Grief answered, ”and you’ve ruined
my business. How can I sell sorrow, when you know it is a blessing?”
On May 3 this year it will have been seven years since my 21-year-old son Jon died from an accidental overdose. Spring has never been quite the same. The cascades of flowers and new life now remind me of death and impermanence and the frailty of all life forms.
Like Heath Ledger and many other creative souls, Jon lived his life on the edge, exploring everything with vibrating intensity. Mind-altering plants and substances were part of his inner adventures and our travels together were part of his outer adventures. My son was not only my son; he was my ally, my soul brother, my teacher, and my adventure partner; to say I was heartbroken doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt after his death.
I was overcome by guilt that I had not understood the gravity of his drug use, convinced I was responsible for his death, and utterly crushed with despair and hopelessness. I simply did not want to go on living if my son were not going to be here. My heart shattered into a million little pieces of grief.
My saving grace was my meditation practice. I used one of my favorite forms of meditation, created by the Buddha: sitting in silence and witnessing the natural flow of the breath. My breath became a soothing, cool flow in the middle of the fire. Being with the breath became a way to embrace all the intense emotions by breathing into them, breathing with them, and breathing through them, providing a safe space for everything to be felt and expressed.
Focusing on one breath at a time brought me out of the painful stories in my mind and into the present moment. In the now, my panic faded and I became aware of a deep, beautiful, and completely organic unfolding within me. The breaking of my heart was also an opening; my heart was being stretched into limitless love. And in that stretching a well of compassion and tenderness bubbled up, holding the suffering Helena and all living beings in brilliant light.
I found a core, a refuge within, that was not affected by my son’s death or the emotional roller coaster I was on. In fact, there were a tremendous bliss and a peaceful vastness in that space. I had glimpsed it many times before in meditation but now I was so cracked open that all the surface layers of my personality were washed away and I could easily rest there most of the time. The love and spaciousness of my true nature became my new home.
From this new place I could look through and release my painful thoughts and the relentless judging of myself. Whenever I was lost, my breath became a way back to my new resting place and I could again embrace it all in compassion. It certainly was a practice and this time it was for real. It was not just a feel-good, destress kind of thing anymore; my life depended upon it! My skills as a meditation teacher were truly tested.
My meditation/grieving process, together with taking care of my very alive toddler, Leah, born 13 months before her brother died, was a full-time job for several years. I was blessed to be able to give so much attention to the journey of inner alchemy. I know this natural process happens within everyone who experiences loss but we don’t always give it enough time and space. We are meant to experience loss; it is a natural part of life, and we carry the keys to healing within ourselves.
Our painful losses happen so that we can be opened and brought out of dust-collecting routines into what is truly essential in life. Death and loss bring us the opportunity to examine our lives, to see with new eyes what we are doing with our time and energy and to start over.
Consciously embracing and preparing for our own upcoming deaths is a profound spiritual practice that can transform the rest of our lives, whether we have only a few weeks left to live or many years ahead of us. Of course most of us don’t know when we are going to die, just that we are, making each day possibly our last day here on Earth and the practice of contemplating death immensely valuable.
Through meditation, contemplation, prayerful silence, and looking within, loss can become a doorway to that which we can never lose, into becoming the love we have been seeking. At least we can learn to have more compassion for other people’s suffering through our own suffering. The Dalai Lama says our future depends on our being able to cultivate compassion and care for other beings’ suffering, so it is no small task.
Death, like spring, can bring the blessings of rebirth and resurrection.