“Awakening is not a process of building ourselves up but a process of letting go. It’s a process of relaxing in the middle—the paradoxical, ambiguous middle, full of potential, full of new ways of thinking and seeing—with absolutely no money-back guarantee of what will happen next.” -- Pema Chodron
Today is my dead mother's birthday. The paradox is strange, and fitting that she was born on a day that celebrates death: Dia de los Muertos.
She died this past April, with my grandmother following suit in June.
There is a vast library of resources concerning death and grieving. I have only dipped my toes into the books, therapeutic groups, and friends who've had brushes with death, particularly that of a parent. It's a different experience, every time someone passes to the other side. Your relationship with their death is colored by the relationship you had with them in life.
And truly, you still continue to have a relationship with the deceased. It's an odd feeling, loving someone the same, even though they're no longer alive on this earth.
My mother's death was actually a doorway to a lot of deep healing for me. She was mentally ill, and it was a massive challenge being raised by her and healing from my childhood. It still is. Regardless of her shortcomings as a parent, I still loved her very much and did my best to forgive her for the mistakes she made, and her inability to be the parent I wished she could have been. I spent many years in talk therapy working on those traumas.
With her passing, it seemed as if some of the old patterns I had held with my fear and pain began to loosen and relax. My self-doubts and flimsy boundaries around my self-care started to evaporate. My constant need to caretake everyone around me in order to feel lovable shrank. My shame around being such a unique person, as well as having definitive human needs gently began to dissolve.
As these things occurred, I began to feel as if I was waking up from a long hibernation of self-deprivation. An unprecedented amount of righteous anger and resentment flared up. I was seething, explosively upset on my own behalf for having made myself so small for so long in the face of my fears.
I was angry at everyone. Literally every single person I laid eyes upon: my wife, my children, my dog, my neighbors, people in the coffee shop down the street, every single person driving on the street with me, friends, extended family, you name it.
I found solace in a friend who understood this kind of raging grief, and it was a balm to spend time with her and rage together, while simultaneously trying to find ways to numb the unpleasant feelings.
It was hard to find other people, especially those close to me, whom I felt could really understand this mysterious grieving process. It was and continues to be, as Pema puts it, a beautiful ambiguous middle-ground, a groundless transient ocean of roiling emotion. Some days the waters are still, others they are churning.
Before this, I've never fully comprehended the archetypal Death experience: that of complete annihilation of one thing in order to clear the way for another that is new, tender, green, and full of growth.
We all know the groundlessness of grief in one form or another, whether it's the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, the death of a job, the death of a belief, or a habit, or the death of some project. Everything comes to its natural end. And in the moment, it's hard to celebrate. What do we do next? And how do we do it? How can we dance when everything we have known before has been completely dismantled?
In truth, when we encounter death, it is the perfect time to celebrate. We are invited to examine and release the parts of us which are no longer relevant. We are invited to change our approach. We are invited to surrender and stop struggling against the inevitable ambiguity of life.
Death reaches out her hand and gives us the gift of the present moment, reminding us of our precious finite existence. She reminds us that all we have is now. That we are living on borrowed time, and we ought to make the most of each moment.