By Jessica Graham
In this series, I have been exploring my relationship with my dad and the experience of caring for him in his final months. It’s been an amazing process of revisiting that time and sharing the stories with others. I’ve received moving emails and phone calls from people who are going though a similar time in their lives. Some want to connect with someone who gets it. Others want advice on hospice or handling grief. One question I get a lot is exactly how to use meditation to move through these challenging experiences. I’ve touched on this throughout this series, but I’d like to offer some specifics on how to use certain techniques when facing the death of a loved one.
There are many techniques that could be useful when someone you love is dying, but the first and most important one I would suggest is what Shinzen Young calls Focus In. This technique helps you to clarify and accept the experience of your thoughts and emotions as they arise. Oftentimes when we are emotionally overloaded, thoughts get tangled in a knot with emotions in the body. That can lead to total overwhelm, burn out, or freak out. Focus In teaches you to separate the mental talk, mental images, and emotional sensations from each other, like listening to each of the different instruments in a piece of music. By doing so, you are much more likely to have an experience of equanimity with whatever is going on. Michael Taft recently wrote an article about how to practice this technique, called Untangle and Be Free.
While my dad was dying I was almost constantly using this technique throughout the day. At that point in my practice, it had become pretty much automatic, and the intensity of the situation just kept pointing me back to it. Being able to clearly see my thoughts and emotions arise and pass, allowed me to show up and be there fully for my dad. When we are not tangled up in unconscious knots of the mind and body we can be here now. Even when sometimes “here” is a scary, sad and unknown place. This practice made it possible for me to hold my fathers hand, change his diaper, administer his medications, be intimate and cooperate with my family, and ultimately be totally present for the moment of his death.
Even if you are not currently faced with the death or illness of someone close to you, you will be at some point in your life. I’m so grateful that I had spent a few years with a very committed meditation practice before my dad’s death. The daily practice of a technique like Focus In prepares us for the big challenges in life. Each day that you sit down and meditate is an investment that will pay great dividends when you get that call. Or see your mom for the first time after she has deteriorated. Or find out that your tests came back positive. We think a lot about preparing for the future. In my opinion the best preparation is a daily meditation practice. It will prepare you, at least internally, for anything.
Another place where a practice of focusing in on thoughts and emotions can come in handy is grief. A lot of people think that grief is synonymous with suffering, but this is not the case. We can fully and completely grieve the loss of a loved one without suffering. In fact, I’d say the process of grief gets interrupted and even stuck inside the body, when one is suffering needlessly.
About two years after my dad died I noticed that when I missed him I would actually encourage a little bit of suffering. I would do this by replaying in my mind the sadness of missing him. I would think about missing him, instead of actually having the experience of missing him. I guess I thought it was my duty to feel bad about him being dead. As though my suffering proved that I really loved him. This suffering would only last for a minute or so, but it was incongruent with how I operated the majority of the time. It was very subtle, but eventually one day I noticed myself doing it. At that instant I employed the Focus In technique, mostly exploring the emotional sensations. What I found was that the grief, missing him, was actually a really lovely sensation. It was a light, feathery feeling in my chest. I remember saying out loud to myself “Grief quivers!”. That’s how it felt, like a gentle, pleasant quivering. Since then I no longer entertain those forays into suffering. I honor my dad’s memory by allowing my grief to quiver and move through me. I love him by being present with all the thoughts and emotions that arise about him, without wallowing or dramatizing them.
My father’s death was the most amazing experience of my life so far. This isn’t to say I’m glad he died. I often wish I could call him and tell him about my day, or get one of his amazing care packages in the mail, or give him a hug. But the experience of helping him die was life changing and beautiful. It deepened my spiritual practice in profound ways that I am still discovering. All of it would have been quite different without the ability to clarify and accept my thoughts and emotions. I encourage you to dedicate yourself to this work of exploring the Self. It is a worthy adventure.