STORIES FOR OUR BELOVEDS
Telling stories is our most fundamental form of communication. Since the time before the written word, the story has been the common language of humanity–how we share knowledge, how we record our legacies and history, and a vital way that we witness ourselves.
The realities of loss and grieving are integral to acknowledging the importance of our lives, and the healing needed in order to carry on. The following stories authenticate the truth of impermanence and how it affects us, and the amazing strength we find within ourselves to be present for others. This inspiration can help us to continue serving, and these stories exemplify the openness and wisdom that result from being present.
Facing Grief–A Message from the Director by Julie Rogers 11-25-18
Since my husband died almost a year ago, I find myself grieving between the cracks. Due to incredible sadness, worldly responsibilities, setting my husband’s affairs, unfinished business and end of life residuals in order, working with family needs, trying to support myself alone, lack of sleep, lack of time, and other issues, I am still somewhere out in the ocean. The things I’ve found helpful are Buddhist practice, writing, being with friends, and close contact with my family.
I’ve learned that community is sometimes only a concept, and even in the Buddhist Sangha people tend to be very busy. Or perhaps it’s that we back off from death. This I learned in hospice training and heard from my mother after my dad died – her friends suddenly didn’t invite her over. Said they would, but didn’t. Months went by. Maybe people don’t know what to say. We’re preoccupied, we forget. But suddenly, there you are without your life companion (or best friend or work partner or parent or child), very much alone. This is compounded by the isolation that results from people keeping their distance. Good intentions aside, if one doesn’t follow through on lending a hand and being a friend, seclusion can result.
It could be that folks tell themselves that the one grieving needs time: time to weep, to take stock, to (by yourself) disperse the belongings of one so close to you, to rearrange the house, to rest. But I’ve discovered it’s not quite the way we imagine it. You have too much time, and often it’s spent coping, lost in a fog, trying to take care of things you’ve never done and never wanted to. You can’t think clearly, you don’t sleep well, you’re lonely – it’s a true story that most of us don’t want to hear, and just about everyone endures at some point.
When we look past ourselves and out across life at someone else, please notice - this is the time when we can benefit others in a most profound way. We can make ourselves available to listen, we can offer our assistance, go have a bite to eat, get out of the house with someone willing to feel, and willing to be with us. It can be difficult to “reach out” when life is rough–it’s often easier to reach “in” and offer a hand. Sometimes, simply being able to listen is the best medicine. So much is to be gained from this openness.
I’m asking our community to put someone else first. We are so busy, so distracted, yes tired, even self-absorbed, because that’s what this life’s existence can come to. To make time for those who are under the weather or just plain infirm, who are bereaved, who are unable to get around, who need help at home, this is valuable practice–the practical application of training in compassion is just being a friend. We can make ourselves available to be human, to embody the idea of community, to exchange self for others. It’s so important. We can make a real difference in each other’s lives simply by our presence.
Grieving Laurel–for Laurel Hansen by Leslie Crabtree
I met Laurel in 1975. I was 23 and she was 20. We both worked at a little Mexican restaurant in Ashland, Oregon where I cooked and she waited tables. We wore tiny halter tops and skirts made of Indian bedspreads as we glided across the floor in our Birkenstocks. Two hippy chicks! I moved away but we visited every summer until I was finally able to move back for good. In the intervening years, we both got married, had kids, got divorced and remarried. We had also both become Buddhists. We had become very different women but seemed to have grown in the very same direction.
She died on Saturday, just one month after her 59th birthday.
Laurel and I began cooking together for Buddhist retreats. Generally we would be cooking for over 100 people for 10 days, lunch and dinner. We had to accommodate every dietary possibility and the challenge was fun, hard work. Our favorite Buddhist Lama asked us to travel to Brazil where she had moved and cook her Mexican food, which she loved and could not find down there. We spent a month following her all over Brazil, sight-seeing and cooking. It was high adventure and a total blast. Laurel was one of the most steadfast and reliable people I ever knew, never too busy to say "No" and always helping people in her community. In our small town, she was one of the people that EVERYBODY knew.
She had been feeling "off" since the end of the summer, bad digestion, back aches, nothing very specific but nobody she consulted seemed to be able to figure out what was wrong. She began to suffer serious pain in October that still baffled her doctor.
Finally in mid-December she was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which had already spread to her liver.
Pancreatic cancer doesn't respond to chemotherapy and there was no surgical or radiation option. Her children and grandchildren came for a surreal Christmas as she tried to make everything as sweet and normal as possible but that very effort exhausted her and she really began to weaken after they left.
She wasn't the type to just surrender and she tried to keep herself as strong as possible but she suffered more and more from nausea and increasing pain. Over her final two months everything seemed to happen so fast that her family and friends couldn't keep up. She got a blood clot and then just when that and her pain seemed to be under control she suffered a stroke. Her favorite teacher had flown from Brazil to spend two days with her and Laurel was unable to speak. She communicated volumes with her eyes, however, but it seemed particularly cruel to have that essential quality taken from her.
A week later she entered hospice at home. She seemed to sleep more and more and it became clear that she was sinking. I had one last visit where I told her how much I adored her and what a wonderful friend she had always been and got a last big smile. After that she stopped holding our hands and meeting our eyes. No more smiles with those great big dimples.
Saturday her breathing was labored and she never opened her eyes. That afternoon, her husband, children and grandchildren nearby, a group of four of her closest Buddhist girlfriends began singing prayers and special Buddhist mantra. We sang into the evening as her breathing eased and became shallower with longer pauses in between. We finished singing and just sat as she breathed a few more times and then simply ceased.
It was gentle and felt profoundly spiritual. I felt fortunate to be part of something so amazing. Years before, Laurel and I attended a home birth for one of our dear girlfriends. That resonated as watching someone die is remarkably like watching someone be born. Both are all about breathing but one is very happy and one very sad.
Her exit was so graceful that I felt lifted and at peace on Saturday night. Sunday, however, I woke up to a world without my dear friend. I woke up to a world where we will never cook together, drink wine and talk about our kids, sit together in a beautiful Buddhist temple listening to our teachers, laugh about how many trips and adventures we had shared.
I feel devastated.
When we are young we think life is all about having fun. As we grow older we learn that life becomes more and more about loss. The longer we live, the more dear ones we lose. I don't think it ever gets easier, we just learn more about grieving.
Remembering My Mother’s Death–for Lilian Ruth Scott, July 2015 by Duncan Scott
My mother’s death arrived more quickly than I was anticipating. I wanted to speak with a lama to get some advice before her passing. Fortuitously, Lama Sonam from Pema Osel Ling responded very quickly to an email I sent to the POL office. He gave me his personal number and asked me to call. Almost the moment Lama Sonam called, the hospice nurse informed my sister that my mother was declining and I received a text message that I needed to get home (I had gone out to work in the morning.) Lama Sonam ordered me to start practicing Vajrasattva and to clearly visualize Vajrasattva above my mother's head. I did this even though I was in the presence of non-Buddhists. I am sorry that I took a break to eat. I think I still didn't realize that my mother's death was imminent.
I was very fortunate to be able to talk to Lama Sonam, Gyatrul Rinpoche, and Khenpo Thrinley in the hours before my mother's passing. Gyatrul Rinpoche's main instruction was to be calm, recite the mani mantra, and not to touch the body after my mother's passing. Fortunately Rinpoche’s attendant left this information as a voicemail that I was able to play for my family to hear, and they respected the advice. I couldn't ask them to recite the mani but they did refrain from touching the body. I did have to fend off the boyfriend of my sister from shaking my mothers' hand about 1/2 hour after she passed. I think I scolded him before he touched her hand. I did do some Vajrasattva practice through the night.
I spoke to Gyatrul Rinpoche right at the moment of my mother's passing. I also called Lama Sonam and Khenpo Thrinley a couple of minutes after. I made offerings to all these lamas on my mother's behalf. I remembered that Sakya Trizin had offered my mother empowerment substances from the recent wang in Berkeley and I invoked him as my mother was passing. Because I had sponsored Medicine Buddha ceremonies for my mother through FPMT, FPMT sent my mother's name with an offering to the Dalai Lama. Other offerings were made.
I put dutsi on my mother's tongue right after her last breath and put dutsi solution on her head. (I think I read later in the transitions book that the dutsi on the crown should be applied before the moment of death.) I also put dutsi solution on her tongue. Lama Sonam told me later that I should use dry dutsi. So maybe I messed everything up, maybe not.
In the morning my mother had a peaceful look on her face. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth closed naturally. Her eyes seemed to be directed toward her crown under the lids. I think Gyatrul Rinpoche had drawn her attention to something. There was a pleasant odor in the room.
I read in the ‘Instructions for the Transitional State’ book about the cremation ceremony. I asked Gyatrul Rinpoche if I should perform one. He said that whatever could be done would help. It was very fortuitous that Lama Sonam agreed to perform the ceremony. I requested a "witnessed" cremation. Not all cremation services will allow you to do this. The funeral home that I contacted in Santa Cruz proved to be excellent (more blessings from the lamas). They contract with a crematorium a few hundred yards from Land of Medicine Buddha surrounded by an old cemetery. When you request a witnessed cremation, they perform only the one cremation that day and hand over the crematorium to you and your guests. The charge was only an extra $400. Myself, Lama Sonam, his consort Stacy, the funeral director, and the crematorium operator were in attendance. I think it was fortuitous that my non-Buddhist family declined to attend (more blessings from the Lama).
Of course the blessings of Lama Sonam were immense as he engaged in a traditional ceremony. We arranged substances around the body according to the text. (Lama Sonam sent me on an extensive shopping trip the preceding day for different kinds of grains, yogurt, honey, and other auspicious substances.) I affixed the mandala that was a terma of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to my mother's heart. (Lama Sonam said he was familiar with that terma.) Earlier in the morning I had painted it with a dutsi solution, as instructed. I happened to have copy of the mandala of the 100 Peaceful and Wrathful Deities in my car, which Lama Sonam molded around my mother's head. My mother's mouth had opened slightly, which allowed Lama Sonam to fill it with yoghurt. Lama Sonam was given control of the crematorium and pushed the button to start the fire at the appropriate moment in the puja. Afterwards I went to Land of Medicine Buddha to turn the large prayer wheels, to send blessings to my mother.
I have heard some people complain about the quality of hospice care. In our case hospice was supportive, and my sister, myself, and a longtime hired caregiver were very responsive to my mother's nursing needs. One complaint that comes to mind was an overenthusiasm for medication. My mother requested that we not give her morphine. It seemed to induce hallucinations that my mother found more distressing that any pain she was experiencing. So, while she was on morphine in the first weeks after the diagnosis, she declined any morphine in the last week. Hospice really wanted to continue morphine and to add Haldol to control the hallucinations. So we experimented with morphine longer than my mother would have liked. And the day my mothers' aggregates began to dissolve, the hospice nurse and the caregiver administered morphine and Haldol in larger doses. If I were able to dictate to Hospice (via a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care), I would tell them to lay off the Haldol and to administer morphine only as required to treat pain.
I read later that it is fine from a Buddhist perspective to control pain with morphine, but it is considered inappropriate to try to control the psychological process of dying. Apparently this process, as difficult as it might be to experience, is an important process to complete. It is likely that this psychological process is very powerful, and that unless someone was very heavily sedated, the drugs will have little effect.
There were a few difficult days but I am not debilitated by grief. Perhaps the illness of a few months and the steady decline helped to prepare me for the present reality. My primary concern was that I assist my mother as I was able at the time of death according to the instructions of my teachers. Some things could have been handled better, but due to the blessings of the buddhas and lamas (same thing, I know), some things were done well. For that I am happy.
I plan to come the TLC program on Sunday the 26th. I could talk about my experience with Hospice of Santa Cruz. It was overall a very positive experience.
I need to continue to pray. I need to remember that all beings are just as kind as my mother and equally in need of connecting to the Three Jewels.
A Year of Loss–October 2007–October 2008 by Leslie Crabtree
I remember talking to my friend Mimi just before my birthday in the autumn of 2007 about how we were in a bubble of blessings right then. Our families were all fine, husbands, kids and parents doing well, and although we knew it couldn’t last, we recognized that for the moment, All Was Well. For only a few more days as it turned out.
The evening after my birthday I got a stomachache that had me in the emergency room by midnight, October 1. My gall bladder had ejected stones that were blocking my liver and pancreas and was very infected. A week later I was home after two surgeries and a long recovery ahead. My friend Mimi was there at the hospital and organizing friends to cook and help when I got home.
On Halloween 2007 my mother was diagnosed with liver cancer. I was still recovering myself, but from Thanksgiving until her death in March I stayed in Los Angeles, helping my father care for my mother. Unafraid, cheerful even, my mother set an example of how to exit with grace. Still, the daily realities of hospice assisted home care were often overwhelming and when it was too much for me, my friend Mimi kept encouraging me and making sure I knew I was doing the right thing for my parents. Her wisdom and support made that difficult journey possible.
I met Mimi in 1975. We were both 22 years old and I was cooking in a small Mexican restaurant in Ashland, Oregon. One evening I kept hearing someone laughing in the dining room. It was a great laugh, one that made me laugh as well. At the end of the evening a strikingly beautiful woman came to the kitchen to thank me for dinner and when she laughed, I realized she was the person I’d heard. On impulse I asked her over for dinner on the one night I didn’t have to cook at the restaurant and she accepted. From that night on we became best friends.
When we traveled together people almost always thought we were sisters because we were so in tune with each other. I introduced her to her future husband and was there at their little house when their son was born. When I got married and had children, she was an ideal friend, always offering sound advice and love and many laughs. And when I got divorced she helped keep me sane and invited me to live at their home as I put my life back together. When I remarried five years later, she helped me plan a wonderful simple wedding and secretly got all of our guests to fold more than one thousand origami paper cranes that she had strung and which hang in a colorful cascade in our home. She was my most intimate friend and counselor. We shared thoughts that were never shared with other friends, sisters, mothers, children or husbands. In thirty years of friendship, we never had a single fight or were mad at each other for any reason. She was the kind of friend that most people wish for and few are ever fortunate enough to find.
Still stunningly beautiful at age 56, Mimi had a smile and glow that sprung from an inner beauty, a deep understanding, and compassion. She listened with a concentration that let whomever she was speaking with know that they were the most important person in the world at that moment. What is most remarkable about her is that at age 26 she was stricken with a particularly virulent and fast-moving form of rheumatoid arthritis. First showing up just months after the birth of her son, she spent years trying one ineffective therapy after another. It wasn’t until the advent of Enbrel in the 90’s that any therapy truly helped. That smile that captivated everyone sprung from a person who didn’t live her disease but lived with her disease. If you met her, you would never know she had arthritis unless you saw her hands. If she was sitting down and you were introduced to her, you could spend an evening being charmed by her conversation, wit and beauty and never suspect she had spent 30 years in constant pain. She was fragile, yet so strong of spirit that my husband called her "The feather we all leaned on".
So on my birthday in September of 2008, we spent a wonderful evening out at a little restaurant, laughing and talking excitedly about her son’s planned wedding next summer and the presidential election, just weeks away. We reflected on the challenges of the previous year, my own brush with death and the death of my mother, but mainly we looked ahead with great hope. She was going in for a liver biopsy the next morning, just an out-patient procedure, because her liver enzymes were showing some troubling changes, possibly due to the arthritis drugs she was on. Nothing to worry about. However, during the procedure, the doctor nicked an artery, which they discovered while she was still in recovery. They kept her in the hospital for a couple of days, gave her two transfusions and sent her home. I went and saw her because I was driving down to Los Angeles to visit my father for a few days. The next day, as I drove the 700 miles to LA, Mimi began having trouble breathing and her husband took her back into the hospital. The following evening she slipped away. An autopsy found she had continued to bleed internally and died as a result of shock from blood loss.
So now, three months after her death, I am reeling. It was easier right after she died with so many details to attend to, but now things are supposed to be back to "normal", I keep expecting her to come back, or at least call. This is so unlike her.
People assume that the death of my mother is a greater cause for grief, but that felt appropriate because of her age, and sad but not tragic. We all had time to say goodbye to my mother. Not so with Mimi. The loss of Mimi feels like the ground has fallen away and I no longer can even find my path, let alone traverse it. I try to consult my "inner Mimi" but because I relied on her wisdom for so many years, I feel ill equipped to figure out my own life.
I simply had no idea how big a part of my life she was. And I’m saying that as a woman with a wonderful husband and two terrific grown children. The grief seems vast beyond measure, and at times descends on me like a leaden coat. Some days I spend looking out the window and that's about all I can manage.
So here I stand looking back over the past year, stunned by my encounters with death and loss and overwhelmed by the emptiness ahead. I know Mimi would want me to rise above grief and depression. I know that she fought so hard to live, and would want all of her friends and family to live life as fully and as passionately as she did. I just hope I can find my way without my friend at my side. At times it seems like it is all way too much to handle. I know life will eventually get better and I look forward to that day. Right now, it seems very far away.