My Sister’s Simple & Profound Death Meditation
Last Friday was the one year anniversary of my mom’s death. If you have lost nearests & dearests you know the profundity of bereavement; looking back over this past year, I see many arc(s) of grieving. And I continue to process psychological and emotional nuances of the complex relationship I had with my mother — I am still releasing the pain (and also remembering to remember the joy). My practice is central to my capacity to be with all the feelings and thoughts that arise (and pass away).
Caring for my disabled older sister, Finot, I have been witness to her process. Finot is 50 years old but has the language skills and intellectual capacity of a child. Her way of understanding our mom’s death has been different than mine. Finot’s process is maybe less complex (or complicated), but it’s equally profound.
In the days and weeks after our mom died, she engaged my husband and me in a daily ritual (sometimes multiple times a day). It went something like this:
Finot: Mommy died.
Me: Yes. Mommy died.
Finot: Tsige [our aunt who passed away over 10 years ago] died.
Me: Yes, Tsige died.
Finot: Abate [our uncle who died over 20 years ago] too.
Finot: Michael Jackson died.
Me: Yup, Michael Jackson died.
Finot: Elvis died.
Me: Yes, Elvis is dead.
This process would go on to include the list of everyone who Finot could remember had died — luckily it’s not an outrageously long list but it could go on for quite a while. Sometimes one of us would correct her, that, no, Stevie Wonder was not dead, yet.
We did this multiple times a day. For weeks. But, wait, there’s more.
After we completed the list of everyone who was already dead, we would start on the process of naming everyone we know would die. Which. Is. Every–damn–one.
Finot: Daddy’s going to die.
Me: Yes. Daddy will die.
Finot: Suki [our dog] too.
Me: Yes, Suki too.
Finot: Freddy [my husband] is going to die.
Me: Yup, even Freddy.
Finot: Obama’s going to die.
This process is longer. And quite sobering. I was talking to a dharma teacher friend who said, That’s a death contemplation. It’s exactly what it is.
In the classical teachings of what we translate as mindfulness, there are four foundations for cultivating awareness. Even though we called it mind–fulness, thoughts and emotions come later… the first foundation is the body. Included in contemplation of the body are mindfulness of breathing, the body in its various activities, and the anatomical parts & four elements (air, water, earth, fire) of the body. The final contemplation in mindfulness of the body is of the deceased, decaying body — the ultimate insight of this practice being the inevitability of death.
It’s said the Buddha described his teachings as being “against the stream,” implying that his message and practices ran counter to those of the surrounding culture. That was 2,600 years ago. These days, an intentional and regular meditation on death could be said to be “against the tsunami.” The culture around us abhors death, glorifies youth, and attempts to (unsuccessfully) defy aging.
But Finot’s meditation is right. None of us are getting out of this alive. Even Obama. But many of our anxieties and fears are founded on this denial. Our delusional attempts to avoid the inevitable truth of impermanence will not save us —accumulating more stuff that won’t last is not the answer, neither is hating our aging bodies.
Edward Conze, the noted historian of Buddhism said this:
If we can believe Buddhaghosa (the author of the ancient classic Visuddhimagga), two only among the forty meditational practices are always and under all circumstances beneficial—the development of friendliness, and the recollection of death.
Finot’s death meditations became lighter as the months passed, even playful. These days, our death meditations are mostly about gratitude.
Finot: Mommy died.
Me: Yes. Mommy died.
Finot: She’s gone.
Finot: She’s dead. Kaput. Finito. No more. So long. Bye. [waves to the sky]
Finot: I miss my mother so much. Mommy is the nicest person in the whole world.
Gratitude might be the friendliest of meditations.
May we all be grateful this season. May we be grateful for our bodies, in all the ways they sustain us. Maybe we be grateful for the bodies of our ancestors.
May we especially be grateful for the indigenous people of whatever land we call home. For thousands of years, indigenous people everywhere have stewarded the land as our collective body. If we are those peoples, may we honor our lineages.
May we be grateful for the land, the sea, the air, the water, the fire for the plants and minerals. May we be grateful for all the creatures large and small, seen and unseen who make up this beautiful planet.
May all beings everywhere, without exception, be free.