On passing …

November 5, 2010 § 6 Comments

I’ve been mulling over this topic for the last few days, since my husband’s grandmother passed away earlier this week. Before journaling any of my thoughts here in a public way, I wanted to be really very careful about what I write and how I write it, so I’ve been writing and editing heavily for the past few days now.

There are so many questions and issues that arise when one experiences a loss that hits close to home. I have to say up front that, growing up in what amounts to a family with secular beliefs, the ideas of church, religious weddings and funerals have always been a very foreign concept to me … let me clarify, not the idea of getting married or dying and honoring the dead itself, more the rituals which surround these events. I suppose that unless you’ve grown up with an understanding of the symbolism behind the rituals and words, wedding ceremonies and funeral rites from any faith is alien — which is basically where I am coming from.

Before I go on much more, I do feel the need to acknowledge the individual who has left our circle this week — known to many of us as in my family as Gramma B, and to many others as Aunt Mary, or simply, Mary. To one important person still with us today, as Mom.

She was indeed a very special person who cherished family and friends, and was very interested in daily happenings, both locally and around the world. She kept track of the news in the neighborhood (not necessarily in a nosy way, either), and around the world. On the day of her passing, I visited my mother in law to find many members of our huge family gathered in her kitchen, going through Gramma B’s stacks of notebooks in which she recorded anything that happened that she found of local importance. She was our historian. Thanks to her, we are reminded of the one-room school house that was moved by being drawn by horses, the ‘highway’ made of planks of wood that used to run by our town, and that my mother in law (her daughter) accidentally washed her hair with dog shampoo *snicker*.

Gramma was very spiritual, and valued a great deal what she saw as moral behavior, honesty, and hard work. She loved her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and made sure she gave what she could to anyone who would ask — or didn’t ask. There wasn’t much that would escape her notice. One of my favorite memories of her is of when I first realized that I was pregnant with my son, before we were ready to tell anyone our happy news, Gramma B came right out and asked me if I was expecting (she was also brutally honest!). I lied and said no, but I could tell she didn’t believe me for one second. To her credit, I believe she kept her suspicion to herself. I still have no idea how she knew, but she did. Hawk’s eye, she had.

The outpouring of care shown by neighbors, friends and families since Gramma B’s passing has been impressive. I suppose that is one of the purposes of some of these rituals — the viewing and the funeral — to show those who are feeling the loss that they are not going it alone, that they have emotional and material support to get through this period of grieving. It’s an instrument of survival.

That being said, there are parts of it that remain a mystery to me, but that isn’t really my purpose in writing right now.

Since Gramma’s passing, the question of my own Skeptical Buddhist perspective on death and what happens afterward has very much come to the forefront for me — as the questions of death and the hereafter do for anyone else at a time such as this. I’ve heard some individuals make interesting comments about Gramma’s passing — that it was tragic, terrible, that it’s unfortunate that we should have to suffer a loss like this. I certainly do understand these sentiments — losing someone is difficult. Gramma B had a very special place in all of our lives. Losing her is no small matter.

That being said, in all honesty, at the risk of sounding cruel — I was happy for her. I miss her, and I cried at her funeral today, but that was for me. I don’t find it particularly cruel that death should be a part of our lives, or a part of hers. It’s inevitable. As Stephen Bachelor wrote, when talking about Buddha’s teachings and on meditating on death

Since death alone is certain and the time of death uncertain, what should I do?

The only uncertain part of death is the when of it, not that it will happen. Why should we resist the idea that this will happen?

No conditions are permanent;
No conditions are reliable

That’s the Buddha. The idea that anything in life should be permanent — including the state of being alive — that is what causes us the most grief, is it not? The loss of what we hope and dream would last for ever. The fear of death coming to take us away from our status as ‘living.’ These are the things that cause us fear, anguish and stress. The avoidance of this inevitable fact leads us to pursue so many strange things — Botox injections, herbal remedies against signs of aging, plastic surgery, and more. When these things fail us, and we appear to be making that inevitable progress toward the inevitable end, we grow unhappy. Simply because we resist what is patently inevitable!

I say that I am happy for Gramma B, because all of us who knew her, know that she was not happy in the nursing home. She had hoped for the moment of meeting her Maker for a long time, and was very well prepared for it. She lived her life in such a way so as to make sure she would be ready for this day whenever it were to come. She had many, many years to prepare, and she did. Her memory had been failing her these last few years, and in the months preceding her moving in to the nursing home, she was clearly frustrated and sometimes embarrassed by some of the ways in which her memory was failing her.

I am sad for us, the living, but I am happy for Mary Barnes, the woman I met 13 years ago. Her death is not terrible or tragic, but a beautiful, inevitable, part of our lives — at least, from my point of view. Not one to put much stock into the idea of after life, I do still have a sense that she has been released from the restrictions of the vessel in which she was housed, which had been failing her for many years now. Part of me has to believe that she has found some relief in this. How could I see that as tragic? Or terrible?

I don’t believe she’s and angel or a ghost out there, but I do believe that I see her in the smile of her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

In that way, she lives on, and will continue to as the generations continue to move on along their course.



§ 6 Responses to On passing …

  • Ted says:

    I’m sorry for the loss, M. And completely understand that feeling of grief one has, while knowing that the event itself is one we expect.

    In our particular kind of practice, we’re lucky. Honestly, we are. We’re mercifully free from the ravages of worrying about what comes next, and can simply put into practice the cherished lessons learned and joys shared with our loved one when they were here. You’re doing that with this post, and with your tears, and with your laughter. That’s a wonderful quality for her to have shared with you, and thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Thank you, Ted. I do agree that since I’ve started to make more of a conscious effort to focus on the present, the ‘now,’ (as much as society allows us to), I’ve found it permeates my approach to everything, including child-rearing. I was surprised to find how it affected my thoughts and feelings about this particular event in my life, too. I’ve found it a very peaceful, reassuring way to look at the world, life, and all that they bring up. I have to thank people like you, Jan, Linda and everyone else, who have helped me see the world from this perspective!

  • Debbie Geary says:

    How beautiful Miyo! I agree with your words and did not feel as sad as I felt happy today to be with our family, as I have always felt also when seeing Aunt Mary at any family occasion be it wedding, funeral or reunion over my 47 years! As I knelt by her last night I just looked at her hands and thought of all the caring those hands provided over 90 years-they were beautiful! And yes the ritual of religious ceremonies is comforting to me I guess as you say because it is what our family taught us and practiced, but not to just blindly follow but to participate in a way of celebration.

    • Thanks Debbie 🙂 Coming from a very small family with relatives who live half a world away, it’s always impressed me how the Wrattens and Barnes pull together so well in times of joy, sadness, or just for support (Alea’s benefit, for example). So amazing! Roger and I were talking after the funeral about how he had found comfort, too, in the ritual call-and-response aspect of the ceremony — not having come from that background it’s something I have a hard time identifying with, but clearly, to those like you and Roger who have this as part of your upbringing, there is something to it!

  • Jan Ford says:

    Beautifully said, Miyo

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