How Jewish Rituals Helped Me Mourn My Miscarriage

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I had a miscarriage this summer — and it broke me in more ways than I could have imagined. At my nine-week appointment, I discovered, to my complete surprise, that I was experiencing a “missed abortion” – a pregnancy loss in which I’d had no miscarriage symptoms whatsoever. Not only did I have to make medical decisions while in shock, but I also struggled intensely to make sense of what I was feeling emotionally and spiritually.

With help, I recognized that I was deep in the throes of grief. Jewish tradition provides an incredible structure for mourners to grieve the death of a loved one. Yet nothing is prescribed for my miscarriage grief. When grieving, it can be harder to make any decision, large or small. I craved a prescription for what to do; that might have left me with fewer heart-wrenching decisions.

Nonetheless, I found healing and comfort in adapting Jewish rituals and traditions.

In honor of October being Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, here are some of the lessons I learned:

  1. Jewish tradition teaches that we are not obligated to mourn a miscarriage or even the death of a baby who lives less than 30 days. In fact, we are taught that up through 40 days after conception (this would be just under 8 weeks pregnant in today’s terms, since counting begins at the woman’s last period, not at conception), the embryo is considered to be merely water (Yevamot 69b). This does not describe the emotional reality of many pregnant women or couples. Even in those early weeks, the connection to the embryo can be incredibly deep. And yet I recognize that mourning a miscarriage is not the same as mourning the death of a child or an adult. I didn’t lose a baby that I’d held. I didn’t even lose a fetus. I lost an embryo (the transition from embryo to fetus happens in the 11th week), but that embryo was supposed to make me a mother. That embryo was supposed to grow into a fetus. I would have delivered a baby, named and held my child. That embryo had a due date. I had a timeframe sketched out already for when I would start looking at daycare options.
  2. The specific grief of a miscarriage is different but still very real. In order to cope with my grief, I needed to mourn. The ancient rabbis likely believed that having a prescribed set of mourning rituals for a miscarriage may have been a burden, since families could experience multiple miscarriages.
    Today, too, families may experience one or more miscarriages. While miscarriage rates may or may not have changed since rabbinic times, many things have changed: birth control has led to less pregnancies; at-home pregnancy tests help women find out that they are pregnant much earlier than even several decades ago; because of ultrasound technology, pregnancies feel much more “real” when a future parent sees an embryo or a flickering heartbeat at a fairly early stage. All of this leads to pregnant people (and their partners, if applicable) who are more likely to experience grief when losing a pregnancy. The Perinatal Grief Scale was developed in 1988 to help clinicians diagnose and care for their patients’ grief. What if certain rituals of mourning were opportunities to grieve, instead of a potentially weighty obligation placed on the family? Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino, faculty at Harvard Business School, conducted experiments to measure the impact of mourning rituals. They determined that rituals are incredibly effective in reducing grief because they allow mourners to regain a sense of control, at a time when it feels like they have lost any semblance of control of their world. For me, rituals like burial and mikveh also helped me find a sense of validity in my grief. I needed concrete physical acts that also stemmed from Jewish tradition to help me recognize that my loss was real and mattered, both in my own eyes, and perhaps more importantly, in the eyes of Jewish tradition.
  3. Rituals may be traditionally absent, but Jewish rituals, modified from other contexts, are emerging. Not everyone marks time and life cycle through Jewish liturgy and ritual, but I do. Each person will find what is meaningful for them in coping with a miscarriage. In the first few days, I felt compelled to have a way to externalize my pain. 

When an immediate relative dies, the mourner tears their clothes or wears a kriyah ribbon. I chose to let my nail polish chip away naturally over the coming weeks instead of taking it off my fingernails once it started to chip. I looked unkempt and that felt appropriate. People should know that something was awry. I whispered kaddish once while tears streamed down my face – it felt both rebellious and cathartic. I realized that I needed a burial of sorts, echoing how we address a loved one who has died. 

With the help of Sinai Memorial Chapel, I arranged to bury my embryo, unmarked, near newly planted trees in a cemetery. I chose not to be present for it, but it was comforting to know that it was returned to the earth. I also visited the site a few weeks later with a friend and buried a piece of paper on which I’d written my due date, and some other dates that would no longer be shared with this baby – I had envisioned a baby costume for this Purim, and had imagined that this Passover would be my first as a parent. None of this was halachically prescribed or encouraged but these acts helped me say goodbye.

 

Some new Jewish rituals for mourning a miscarriage suggest planting a sapling. But for me, this didn’t seem fitting. A sapling would grow into a larger plant, but my baby-that-should-have-been was never going to grow. While I yearned to one day be able to grow a different pregnancy, that wasn’t what I wanted out of this ritual. I needed a ritual that was solely about loss before I could begin to think about new life again.
  4. The cultural norm is to keep the pregnancy quiet through the first semester — but that’s not always helpful. Miscarriages are common, but it feels incredibly lonely.* The Jewish community has a superstitious relationship to the evil eye: if you tell others about your blessing (of pregnancy), the evil eye might overhear and change your luck. Soon after the first trimester, you start to show, and the secret is out, so the concern about the evil eye lessens a bit then. When I miscarried, only a small group of people knew about my pregnancy. How could my tight-knit Jewish community support me through this trauma when only a handful of people knew that I was pregnant? We have been trained to not publicly reveal pregnancies until we are past the first trimester, and yet that first trimester is when 75-80% of miscarriages occur. And they happen more than we realize. 20-30% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, and the statistics only increase as women continue to have children into their late 30s, 40s, and beyond.   One the one hand, the more people you tell about your pregnancy, the more people you feel like you need to ‘un-tell’ should you, God forbid, miscarry. On the other hand, those people are the ones who can hold you – feed you, check in on you, and let you fall apart with them. 

When I did tell people who didn’t know that I had been pregnant, I had to tell them three secrets at once: (a) I decided to try to become a parent (b) I had been elated that I got pregnant (c) I am now crushed because I had a miscarriage and now I need you to be gentle with me. Sharing pregnancy news – whether about a new pregnancy or a pregnancy loss – is an incredibly vulnerable act. Don’t be too afraid of letting people know before you cross the first-trimester finish line, if those people would not only celebrate with you but also support you through your fears or even a loss. Let’s change the stigma around revealing a pregnancy while it is still uncertain. The uncertainty doesn’t go away entirely until you hold a baby in your arms.
  5. A miscarriage is related to, but not identical to, infertility. Trying to get pregnant again may feel intensely different than before. 
For weeks, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d done something to cause this, even though I was reassured again and again that running too much or taking a redeye or that sip of coffee would not cause me to miscarry. 
People told me that it was a good sign that I was able to get pregnant. While there might be medical truth to that, as much as I wanted reassurance that I would eventually, God willing, be able to carry a pregnancy to term, I need to mourn this particular loss – this particular baby-to-be that I carried and would never become a baby that I could hold in my arms. I went to the mikveh before I tried again, so that I could acknowledge that my body, which was supposed to create life, had in fact held a sort of death. I needed to immerse and wash that away in order to be ready for new life again.
  6. A miscarriage is not (always) the same as being sick. 
My mental and spiritual health were compromised, but thankfully, in my particular situation, I was never worried about my physical well-being. This may not be true for other women, but I did not want to benschgomel (a call-and-response moment during an aliyah to the Torah, often said when you survive a potentially life-threatening experience) both because of this gratitude for my health throughout and because I was not sure that I wanted to acknowledge my miscarriage quite so publicly. 

I associate gomel with surviving in the face of fear, but I had not been afraid. Instead, I had been devastatingly sad.
  7. When in shock and grief, decisions are exponentially harder. Prescribed rituals or other things to do or not to do can help you move through that. 
When an immediate family member dies, Jewish tradition prescribes very specific and concrete changes in order to grieve the life lost. 

I have been working on compiling resources for rabbinic colleagues to help their communities mourn miscarriages, perinatal losses, and neonatal deaths, but there isn’t a definitive set of do’s and don’ts. In the midst of what can be a deeply chaotic and heart-wrenching experience, rabbis can help by developing a concrete set of ways to mourn. Had I been steered toward taking several days to fully grieve in a way that parallels shiva, I believe that I would have healed more easily.

Grieving my pregnancy loss was incredibly challenging. And yet, a foundation in traditional Jewish mourning rituals eventually helped me find ways to adapt them that felt honest and appropriate for miscarriage. As I moved through each day, I also found myself experiencing deep, profound gratitude for the people in my life who showed up for me over and over again.

May we find ways to cushion the pain of pregnancy losses with community, ritual, and tradition.

Complete Article HERE!

Music and spirituality at the end of life

By Noah Potvin

Music and spirituality are two mediums frequently – almost ubiquitously – partnered in cultures around the world with the intention of enhancing engagement with the divine. Spiritual practices are infused with music to intensify the transpersonal components of worship, meditation, and ritual. Correspondingly, musical encounters are infused with spiritually-based beliefs and practices to provide individuals connections with themselves and others in uniquely powerful ways.

For many, this easy, reciprocal flow from music to spirituality may come as no surprise: both are malleable mediums responsive to the people engaging with them and the settings in which they are engaged. For instance, Amazing Grace performed at a funeral in a church with a large congregation might be led with a louder volume, increased pressure, and heightened resonance to match the congregation’s energy as they worship through song. In contrast, Amazing Grace performed bedside in a hospital room with a patient and caregivers might embody quieter, more prayerful qualities intending to comfortingly hold the patient in their depleted physical state and engender intimate musical sharing.

As music and spirituality intertwine, their boundaries become increasingly fluid to the point that distinguishing between one and the other becomes trivial. To be spiritual is to be musical, and to be musical is to be spiritual.

A similar malleability is also present in individuals’ health journeys. Objective characteristics of health – such as symptom acuity/chronicity; treatment dosage and frequency; and curative versus palliative outcomes – are subjectively experienced in response to the individual’s values, morals, and disease trajectory. For instance, one person’s 6 out of 10 pain is their daily baseline and thus easily managed, while another’s 6 out of 10 pain is breakthrough and requires treatment. Similarly, one person may prioritize the improved quality of life offered by palliative care while another may prioritize the potential increased longevity offered by curative treatments.

These dynamic, emergent qualities of music, spirituality, and health are a result of each being culturally situated phenomena. That is, the manner in which music, spirituality, and health are conceptualized and engaged with is directly informed by the distinct cultures in which they manifest. This leads to a fraught but important question: If music, spirituality, and health are each unto themselves complex phenomena derived from cultural factors, how do all three interact when they intersect in a singular encounter?

Board-certified music therapists frequently navigate this encounter in hospice. Hospice is a philosophy of care that prioritizes quality of life with six months or less to live, putting critical health issues at the forefront with limited time to facilitate resolution and closure. At such a juncture, spirituality can be a critical resource for patients and families who are simultaneously managing in the moment and preparing for the future. The type of resource spirituality can become (e.g., comfort in ritual, strength from scripture or peace through prayer/meditation/worship) is determined by the specific faith traditions of the patient – not just an identified denomination but the explicit experiences patients engaged in as part of their spiritual practice.

Music therapists assess those faith traditions for each patient and, coupled with a similar assessment of patients’ music traditions, craft music experiences that help patients become aware of and engage with their spiritually-based resources. These culturally informed clinical music processes interweave music, spirituality, and health in a way that affords patients agency in dictating the circumstances of their death. Yet, contemporary discussions in the music therapy literature have tended to frame spirituality from such a broad and generic stance that it becomes difficult for music therapists to locate spiritually-based resources in patients.

To address this limitation, my co-author (Cathleen Flynn) and I recently authored a paper that explored a specific culturally informed music, spiritual, and health intersection: music therapy for Christian patients and caregivers during imminent death. Using this intersection as a foundation, we developed a theoretical model positioning music therapy as a psychospiritual ministry providing patients and caregivers access to a faith-based resource – the Holy Spirit – that assists with transcendence as end-of-life transitions neared.

Transcendence, a difficult concept to lock down, is a movement beyond the typical, readily accessible experiences that define our day-to-day to experience the self and other in new ways that push beyond our known thresholds. For Christian patients who are imminently dying, that transcendence is vertical, an upward trajectory that moves them closer to an integration with the divine as they move beyond the corporeal. For Christian caregivers, that transcendence is horizontal, an outward trajectory that moves them closer to mortal support structures that assist in their transition to bereavement. The Holy Spirit, an intermediary between the mortal and divine, is the faith-based avenue through which these different but concomitant transcendences occur. From this vantage point, the music therapist assumes a ministerial role, constructing dynamic music experiences that facilitate interactions with the Holy Spirit promoting patient and caregiver transcendence.

Such explicit framing is ethically fraught. First, we do not argue that adopting a Christian lens is the “only” way or the “correct” way for music therapy to be practiced in hospice; rather, we introduce this theoretical model as a broad template for conducting spiritual assessments of patients from diverse traditions and beliefs. Second, this is a person-centered model wherein any implementation of Christian theology into music therapy processes is cued by the patient rather than introduced by the music therapist; this is an essential aspect as it avoids the perception that music therapists might leverage privilege to proselytize to patients. Third, there are numerous avenues for ethical and effective clinical support of Christian patients and families at the end of life, and this model is not meant to be a linear prescription; rather, it is an exploratory avenue that opens a multitude of additional doorways for providing psychospiritual care.

As the baby boomer generation continues to advance in age, it will be increasingly important that healthcare systems are well positioned to provide comprehensive end-of-life care addressing mind, body, and spirit as equal partners in whole-person health. Music and spirituality continue to be important day-to-day aspects for many people, and exploring diverse permutations of music, spirituality, and health intersections can be an important contribution to this pursuit of the good death.

Complete Article HERE!

Emptiness and Filling Out Forms:

A Practical Approach to Death

Dying with compassion means having a plan in place for those left behind. A practitioner recounts how she navigated the process with her dharma friends.

By Rena Graham

As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I am constantly reminded that we never know when death might approach, but for years, I’d avoided dealing with one of the most practical aspects of death—the paperwork. I was not alone: Roughly half of all adults in North America do not have a living will. Then recently, I suffered a near-fatal illness that left me viscerally aware of how unprepared for death I was, and I made a pledge with two of my friends to get ready to leave our bodies behind for both ourselves and the people who survive us.

Bridging the end of December 2017 and the beginning of January 2018, I spent a month in a Vancouver, British Columbia hospital with a bacterial lung infection that had also invaded my pleural cavity—the first time I’d come down with a severe illness. After ten days in an intensive-care unit, I was moved to a recovery ward where I suffered a relapse. I spent my 62nd birthday, Christmas, and New Years with strangers in the hospital.

One night in the ICU, while I was partly delirious and falling in and out of sleep, I had a vision of a deceased friend reaching out to me. From what felt like disengaged consciousness, I looked down at my body on the hospital bed and realized I wasn’t ready to die. I hadn’t studied my lama’s [teacher’s] bardo teachings to navigate the intermediate state between death and rebirth, and did not want to take that journey without a road map. It didn’t matter whether this was a drug-fueled hallucination or an actual near-death experience. The important thing is that I rejected death, not out of fear, but through a recognition of the dreamlike nature of reality. After this experience, I felt that my attachment to this life and the things in it had diminished. I no longer wanted to ignore what came next. I wanted to be prepared. 

When I told my friends Liv and Rosie about this vision, we agreed to study the bardo teachings together once I’d had a couple of months of recuperation. By March, however, our plans shifted. Rosie had heard about a man (I’ll call him Ben) who had died on Lasqueti Island, an off-the-grid enclave in Canada’s Southern Gulf Islands that a local cookbook once described as “somewhere between Dogpatch and Shangri-La.” He had left his closest friends without any instructions. They had no idea if he had a family or where they might be.

“And he left an old dog behind!” Rosie said, “Can you imagine?”

“Not the bodhisattva way to die,” I replied, referring to the Buddhist ideal of compassion. I  also imagined what mess I might have left, had I not made it. 

Promising they would never leave others in such a quandary, Ben’s closest friends created a document called the Good to Go Kit, which detailed information required for end-of-life paperwork. (It is now sold at the Lasqueti Saturday market to raise funds for their medical center.)

“I’ve been wanting to make a will for 20 years,” said Liv, who would soon turn 70, “but research throws me into information overload, which adds to the emotional overwhelm I feel just thinking about it.”

“What if we did this together instead of studying the bardo?” suggested Rosie, who was in her early 50s.

Writing a will, figuring out advanced healthcare directives, and noting our final wishes didn’t have the mystical lure of bardo teachings, but we set that aside for a year while we took on this more practical area of inquiry. 

To use our time wisely, we set several parameters in place. We decided to meet one weekend a month to allow time for research and reflection between meetings, and we chose to keep our group small for ease of scheduling and to allow us to delve deeper into each topic.

 “I’d like this to be structured,” said Liv, “so it doesn’t devolve into a social event.”  

Rosie and I agreed but we knew better than to believe there didn’t need to be some socializing. She offered her place for the first meeting and said she’d cook. 

“We’ll get our chit-chat out of the way over dinner,” she said. “Since we can all be a little intimidated by this process, we have to make it fun.”

Later in March at Rosie’s garden suite, we sat down to dinner and Liv passed out copies of “A Contemplation of Food and Nourishment,” which begins with the appropriate words: “All life forms eat and are eaten, give up their lives to nourish others.” The prayer was written by Lama Mark Webber, Liv and Rosie’s teacher in the Drikung Kagyu school. (I also study with Lama Mark, although my main teacher, Khenpo Sonam Tobgyal, is in the Nyingma lineage.)  Turning our meetings into sacred practice seemed the obvious container to keep us on topic.

After dinner, Rosie rang a bell, we said a refuge prayer and recited the traditional four immeasurables prayer to generate equanimity, love, compassion, and joy toward all sentient beings.  

We traded our prayers for notebooks and reviewed our Good to Go Kit. Rosie smiled at the expected question of pets—including the name of the person who would be caring for the pet, the veterinarian and whether money had been set aside for their expenses. The form also asked whether we had hidden items or buried treasure.

Liv laughed and said, “People still bury strongboxes in their backyards?”

My answer was more prosaic: “Storage lockers.”

Rosie, Liv, and I are all single and childless. We are all self-employed and independent and have chosen Canada as our adopted homeland, meaning we have no family here. So we considered what roles friends might play and focused on those who were closer geographically than sentimentally. 

Pulling them in to act on our behalf seemed like such a “big ask” as Rosie said, but it was time to get real about our needs. The three of us shared our feelings about involving friends outside the dharma versus those within. 

When I was in the ICU, my friend Diane visited on several occasions and later told me she remained calm until she reached her car, where she cried uncontrollably. In marked contrast, my dharma friend Emma calmly asked what I needed and didn’t make much of a fuss. My Buddhist friends tend to view death as a natural transition from one incarnation to the next, while other friends may see it in more dire terms: as a finality or even failure. For end-of-life situations, asking non-Buddhist friends for limited practical support seemed kinder for all involved. 

We started to familiarize ourselves with the responsibilities of someone granted power of attorney for legal and financial proxy and enduring power of attorney for healthcare. Months later, we agreed our network of “dharma sisters” would be the perfect fit. While we hope to maintain our ability to make decisions for ourselves, should we require long-term care, we felt the baton could be passed between a dozen or so trustworthy women. We have since spoken casually about this with a number of these women and have made plans to organize a get-together and discuss our plans in greater detail, offering reciprocal support for what the Buddhist author Sallie Tisdale calls “the immeasurable wonder and disaster of change.” 

We concluded our five hours together by dedicating the merit and reciting prayers of dedication and aspiration. Long-life prayers for our lamas were offered, a bell rung, and heads bowed. Without the need for further conversation, we made our way into the chilly spring evening, silently reflecting on our new endeavor.

The next meeting and those following included menus and discussions that varied widely. Our research grew monthly with documents from government agencies, legal and trust firms, and funeral homes. None of which felt specific to Buddhist practitioners, until Rosie told us about Life in Relation to Death: Second Edition by the late Tibetan teacher Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. This small book is out of print, but I purchased a Kindle copy. In the introduction, Chagdud Tulku, a respected Vajrayana teacher and skilled physician, reminds us that “[t]here are many methods, extraordinary and ordinary, to prepare for the transformation of death.” A book of Buddhist “pith instruction,” it includes in its second edition appendices that above all I found most valuable. These include suggested forms for “Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care,” “Advance Directive for Health Care (Living Will),” “Miscellaneous Statements for Witnesses, Notary and Physician,” and “Letter of Instructions.” It even includes a wonderful note for adding your ashes to tza-tsas, small sacred images stamped out of clay. We loved that idea, though we couldn’t imagine asking friends to go to that extent to honor our passing. 

We decided to use a community-based notary public to draw up our wills, but with further research, Liv realized she could also hire them to act as her executor, rather than use her bank. She found someone experienced and enjoyed the more personable experience. In contrast, Rosie and I’ve decided to pay friends now that we’ve found ways to simplify that process for them. 

Memorial Societies are common in North America and help consumers obtain reasonably priced funeral arrangements. Pre-paying services at a recommended funeral home allows us to leave funds with them for executor expenses, should our assets be frozen in probate. End-of-life insurance “add-ons” we like include travel protection—should we die away from home—and a final document service to close accounts and handle time-consuming administrative tasks. 

In her book Advice for Future Corpses (and Those Who Love Them): A Practical Perspective on Death and Dying, Sallie Tisdale says, “Your body is the last object for which you can be responsible, and this wish may be the most personal one you ever make.” Traditionally in Tibetan Buddhism, the edict is to leave the body undisturbed for three days after death so your consciousness has time to disengage. Tisdale states that American law generally allows you to leave a body in place for at least 24 hours and that while a hospital might want to give you less time, you might be able to negotiate for more. 

We then turned to the thorny topic of organ donation, with Rosie and Liv both deciding against. Knowing someone would soon be taking a scalpel to your cadaver would not enhance the peaceful mind they hope to die with, while my view was just the opposite. Besides gaining merit through donation, that same scalpel image provides great motivation to leave the body quickly.

While reading Tisdale’s chapter titled “Bodies,” I began entertaining thoughts of a green burial, but after months of discussion, I ended up where we all started: with expedient cremations. Rosie wanted her ashes buried and a fragrant rose bush planted on top. Liv and I were more comfortable in the water and decided our ashes would best be left there, but not scattered to ride on the wind. We selected biodegradable urns imprinted with tiny footprints. Made of sand and vegetable gel, they dissolve in water within three days, leaving gentle waves to lap our remnants out to sea. 

By getting past the practical and emotional aspects surrounding death, Liv has found herself in a space of awe. 

“There’s a wow factor to dying that I can now embrace,” she said. 

Rosie no longer worries about who will care for her in later years. Without that insecurity, she’s left with a yearning to be as present for the dying process as possible. And I have found that my understanding of life’s importance as we reach toward enlightenment has been heightened. 

Our small sangha still meets monthly and is now studying bardo teachings in our ongoing attempt to create compassionate dying from compassionate living. As we have continued with our arrangements, we’ve reflected on what we gained from our meetings. We feel blessed for the profound level of intimacy and trust we now share. We have a deeper regard for other friendships and feel enveloped by an enhanced sense of community. And we all feel more cared for.

As Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche wrote in Life in Relation to Death: “Putting worldly affairs in order can be an important spiritual process. Writing a will enables us to look at our attachments and transform them into generosity.”

Complete Article HERE!

What Death Should Teach Us About Life and Living

Death is not a counterpoint or contradiction to life, but a profound teacher about the meaning of human existence.

By

One of the great Jewish spiritual teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that facing death gives life meaning; that life and death are both part of a greater mystery; that by virtue of being created in no less than God’s image, we can imagine an afterlife for humanity — yet at the same time death itself is an antidote to human arrogance; and that in death we pay gratitude for the wonder and gift of our existence. 

Death as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Life

Our first question is to what end and upon what right do we think about the strange and totally inaccessible subject of death? The answer is because of the supreme certainty we have about the existence of man: that it cannot endure without a sense of meaning. But existence embraces both life and death, and in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.

The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understand­ing of living. Yet only few of us have come face to face with death as a problem or a challenge. There is a slowness, a delay, a neglect on our part to think about it. For the subject is not exciting, but rather strange and shocking.

What characterizes modern man’s attitude toward death is escapism, disregard of its harsh reality, even a tendency to ob­literate grief. He is entering, however, a new age of search for meaning of existence, and all cardinal issues will have to be faced.

Life as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Death

Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief. Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe.

Is death nothing but an obliteration, an absolute negation? The view of death is affected by our understanding of life. If life is sensed as a surprise, as a gift, defying explanation, then death ceases to be a radical, absolute negation of what life stands for. For both life and death are aspects of a greater mys­tery, the mystery of being, the mystery of creation. Over and above the preciousness of particular existence stands the mar­vel of its being related to the infinite mystery of being or creation.

Death, then, is not simply man’s coming to an end. It is also entering a beginning.

Our Greatness: The Question of an Afterlife and the “Image of God”

There is, furthermore, the mystery of my personal exis­tence. The problem of how and whether I am going to be after I die is profoundly related to the problem of who and how I was before I was born. The mystery of an afterlife is related to the mystery of preexistence. A soul does not grow out of nothing. Does it, then, perish and dissolve in nothing?

Human life is on its way from a great distance; it has gone through ages of experience, of growing, suffering, insight, ac­tion. We are what we are by what we come from. There is a vast continuum preceding individual existence, and it is a legitimate surmise to assume that there is a continuum follow­ing individual existence. Human living is always being under way, and death is not the final destination.

In the language of the Bible to die, to be buried, is said to be “gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). They “were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10). “When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your fathers” (I Chronicles 17:11).

Do souls become dust? Does spirit turn to ashes? How can souls, capable of creating immortal words, immortal works of thought and art, be completely dissolved, vanish forever?

Others may counter: The belief that man may have a share in eternal life is not only beyond proof; it is even presumptu­ous. Who could seriously maintain that members of the human species, a class of mammals, will attain eternity? What image of humanity is presupposed by the belief in immortality? Indeed, man’s hope for eternal life presupposes that there is something about man that is worthy of eternity, that has some affinity to what is divine, that is made in the likeness of the divine…

[T]he likeness of God means the likeness of Him who is unlike man. The likeness of God means the likeness of Him compared with whom all else is like nothing.

Indeed, the words “image and likeness of God” [in the biblical creation story] conceal more than they reveal. They signify something which we can neither comprehend nor verify. For what is our image? What is our likeness? Is there anything about man that may be com­pared with God? Our eyes do not see it; our minds cannot grasp it. Taken literally, these words are absurd, if not blas­phemous. And still they hold the most important truth about the meaning of man.

Obscure as the meaning of these terms is, they undoubtedly denote something unearthly, something that belongs to the sphere of God. Demut [likeness]and tzelem [image]are of a higher sort of being than the things created in the six days. This, it seems, is what the verse intends to convey: Man partakes of an unearthly di­vine sort of being.

Our Smallness: Death Teaches Humility

Death is the radical refutation of man’s power and a stark reminder of the necessity to relate to a meaning which lies beyond the dimension of human time. Humanity without death would be arrogance without end. Nobility has its root in hu­manity, and humanity derived much of its power from the thought of death.

Death refutes the deification and distorts the arrogance of man.

He is God; what he does is right, for all his ways are just; God of faithfulness and without wrong, just and right is he.

Just art thou, O Lord, in causing death and life; thou in whose hand all living beings and kept, far be it from thee to blot out our remembrance; let thy eyes be open to us in mercy; for thine, O Lord, is mercy and forgiveness.

We know, O Lord, that thy judgment is just; thou art right when thou speakest, and justified when thou givest sentence; one must not find fault with thy manner of judging. Thou art righte­ous, O Lord, and thy judgment is right.

True and righteous judge, blessed art thou, all whose judg­ments are righteous and true.

The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

— Daily Prayer Book, from the Burial Service

Death as Gratitude for Existence

If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace, gratitude.

We have been given so much. Why is the outcome of our lives, the sum of our achievements, so little?

Our embarrassment is like an abyss. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the mean­ing of dying: to give one’s whole self away.

Death is not seen as mere ruin and disaster. It is felt to be a loss of further possibilities to experience and to enhance the glory and goodness of God here and now. It is not a liquidation but a summation, the end of a prelude to a symphony of which we only have a vague inkling of hope. The prelude is infinitely rich in possibilities of either enhancing or frustrating God’s pa­tient, ongoing efforts to redeem the world.

Death is the end of what we can do in being partners to redemption. The life that follows must be earned while we are here. It does not come out of nothing; it is an ingathering, the harvest of eternal moments achieved while on earth.

Unless we cultivate sensitivity to the glory while here, unless we learn how to experience a foretaste of heaven while on earth, what can there be in store for us in life to come? The seed of life eternal is planted within us here and now. But a seed is wasted when placed on stone, into souls that die while the body is still alive.

The greatest problem is not how to continue but how to exalt our existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is pre­sumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our de­scending to the grave. Eternity is not perpetual future but per­petual presence. He has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow.

Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to return. “How can I repay unto the Lord all his bountiful deal­ings with m?” (Psalms 116:12). When life is an answer, death is a homecoming. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalms 116:14). For our greatest problem is but a resonance of God’s concern: How can I repay unto man all his bountiful dealings with me? “For the mercy of God endureth forever.”

This is the meaning of existence: to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity.

The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his des­tiny is to aid, to serve. We have to conquer in order to suc­cumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed. Man has to understand in order to believe, to know in order to accept. The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for this act of giving away is reciprocity on man’s part for God’s gift of life. For the pious man it is a privilege to die.

Complete Article HERE!

Why Victorians Loved Hair Relics

Victorians were mesmerized by the hair of the dead — which reveals something about about how they saw life.

A case of memorial jewelery made from human hair

By: Matthew Wills

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman‘s birth. To celebrate, the New York Public Library and the Grolier Club are hosting exhibits, both of which will include samples of Whitman’s actual hair. Yes, hair.

In the Victorian era, jewelry made with hair was all the rage. In 1854, the novelist Wilkie Collins wrote that bracelets made of human hair were “in England one of the commonest ornaments of woman’s wear.” Ten years later, Charles Dickens wrote that a man’s watch fob made of hair was the real mark of middle-class respectability.

Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic were particularly mesmerized by the hair of the dead. Victorian literature scholar Deborah Lutz explores “the materiality of death and its artifacts” of the era, finding antecedents in the Christian reliquary tradition, when body parts of saints were considered magical. Protestantism and secularization shifted this fascination toward the sought-after body parts of royals and the very famous (like Napoleon, whose penis is supposedly now in New Jersey). By the middle of the nineteenth century, this long Western tradition had become “increasingly secular, personal, and private.” And concentrated on hair.

Hair was a very tangible reminder, memento, souvenir, and keepsake of a life, and of a body.

Loved ones and relatives could give hair as tokens of love and friendship. Family members or lovers could twine their hair together. After a person’s death, their hair remained; as the Whitman exhibits show, well-preserved hair can last a long time. Hair was a tangible keepsake of a life, and of a body. Perhaps it imparted a sense that you might meet again.

Lutz writes that such relics “work as traces of a life and body completed and disappeared, in this sense something like last words, by they also serve as frames or fragments of the moment of loss.” These present reminders of those who have died speak of a “desire to see death as not permanent, in that material remains might be proof that the loved one still exists somewhere, somehow.” Relic worship also shows a willingness “to dwell in and with the moment of loss itself, to linger over this evidence of death’s presence woven into the texture of life at all turns.”

Romanticism, the Evangelical revival of the 1830s-40s, and Spiritualism’s rise in the 1850s-1860s, all contributed to this “after-death narrative” and the mid-century popularity of “hairwork.”

Lutz reminds us of the passage in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) when Heathcliff switches his rival Linton’s hair from the locket around the dead Catherine’s neck and replaces it with his own. “Rather than gathering a memento of Catherine for himself, Heathcliff sees to it that a material fragment of his body will go down into the grave with Catherine’s corpse, to intermingle with her flesh.” The notion of the “good death” merges here with the palpable eroticization of death. Of course, Heathcliff’s plans are foiled by Nelly Dean, who twines Linton’s lock around Heathcliff’s—opening “the possibility of a postmortem storm of jealousy.”

Fiction mirrored the times. After her husband’s death in 1861, Queen Victoria had at least eight pieces of jewelry made that incorporated Prince Albert’s hair. The Victorians “found in relic culture a means to respect the irreducible self.” Such a culture, Lutz says, “sees death, and the body itself, as the beginning of stories, not their end.”

Complete Article HERE!

Thich Nhat Hanh’s final mindfulness lesson:

How to die peacefully

Thich Nhat Hanh, 92, reads a book in January 2019 at the Tu Hieu temple. “For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream,” says his senior disciple Brother Phap Dung.

“Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you,” says a senior disciple of the celebrity Buddhist monk and author.

By Eliza Barclay

Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience. The Vietnamese monk, who has written more than 100 books, is second only to the Dalai Lama in fame and influence.

Nhat Hanh made his name doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War, which led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Prize.

He’s considered the father of “engaged Buddhism,” a movement linking mindfulness practice with social action. He’s also built a network of monasteries and retreat centers in six countries around the world, including the United States.

In 2014, Nhat Hanh, who is now 92 years old, had a stroke at Plum Village, the monastery and retreat center in southwest France he founded in 1982 that was also his home base. Though he was unable to speak after the stroke, he continued to lead the community, using his left arm and facial expressions to communicate.

In October 2018, Nhat Hanh stunned his disciples by informing them that he would like to return home to Vietnam to pass his final days at the Tu Hieu root temple in Hue, where he became a monk in 1942 at age 16.

As Time’s Liam Fitzpatrick wrote, Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam for his antiwar activism from 1966 until he was finally invited back in 2005. But his return to his homeland is less about political reconciliation than something much deeper. And it contains lessons for all of us about how to die peacefully and how to let go of the people we love.

When I heard that Nhat Hanh had returned to Vietnam, I wanted to learn more about the decision. So I called up Brother Phap Dung, a senior disciple and monk who is helping to run Plum Village in Nhat Hanh’s absence. (I spoke to Phap Dung in 2016 right after Donald Trump won the presidential election, about how we can use mindfulness in times of conflict.)

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Brother Phap Dung, a senior disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh, leading a meditation on a trip to Uganda in early 2019.

Eliza Barclay

Tell me about your teacher’s decision to go to Vietnam and how you interpret the meaning of it.

Phap Dung

He’s definitely coming back to his roots.

He has come back to the place where he grew up as a monk. The message is to remember we don’t come from nowhere. We have roots. We have ancestors. We are part of a lineage or stream.

It’s a beautiful message, to see ourselves as a stream, as a lineage, and it is the deepest teaching in Buddhism: non-self. We are empty of a separate self, and yet at the same time, we are full of our ancestors.

He has emphasized this Vietnamese tradition of ancestral worship as a practice in our community. Worship here means to remember. For him to return to Vietnam is to point out that we are a stream that runs way back to the time of the Buddha in India, beyond even Vietnam and China.

Eliza Barclay

So he is reconnecting to the stream that came before him. And that suggests the larger community he has built is connected to that stream too. The stream will continue flowing after him.

Phap Dung

It’s like the circle that he often draws with the calligraphy brush. He’s returned to Vietnam after 50 years of being in the West. When he first left to call for peace during the Vietnam War was the start of the circle; slowly, he traveled to other countries to do the teaching, making the rounds. And then slowly he returned to Asia, to Indonesia, Hong Kong, China. Eventually, Vietnam opened up to allow him to return three other times. This return now is kind of like a closing of the circle.

It’s also like the light of the candle being transferred, to the next candle, to many other candles, for us to continue to live and practice and to continue his work. For me, it feels like that, like the light is lit in each one of us.

Eliza Barclay

And as one of his senior monks, do you feel like you are passing the candle too?

Phap Dung

Before I met Thay in 1992, I was not aware, I was running busy and doing my architectural, ambitious things in the US. But he taught me to really enjoy living in the present moment, that it is something that we can train in.

Now as I practice, I am keeping the candlelight illuminated, and I can also share the practice with others. Now I’m teaching and caring for the monks, nuns, and lay friends who come to our community just as our teacher did.

Eliza Barclay

So he is 92 and his health is fragile, but he is not bedridden. What is he up to in Vietnam?

Phap Dung

The first thing he did when he got there was to go to the stupa [shrine], light a candle, and touch the earth. Paying respect like that — it’s like plugging in. You can get so much energy when you can remember your teacher.

He’s not sitting around waiting. He is doing his best to enjoy the rest of his life. He is eating regularly. He even can now drink tea and invite his students to enjoy a cup with him. And his actions are very deliberate.

Once, the attendants took him out to visit before the lunar new year to enjoy the flower market. On their way back, he directed the entourage to change course and to go to a few particular temples. At first, everyone was confused, until they found out that these temples had an affiliation to our community. He remembered the exact location of these temples and the direction to get there. The attendants realized that he wanted to visit the temple of a monk who had lived a long time in Plum Village, France; and another one where he studied as a young monk. It’s very clear that although he’s physically limited, and in a wheelchair, he is still living his life, doing what his body and health allows.

Anytime he’s healthy enough, he shows up for sangha gatherings and community gatherings. Even though he doesn’t have to do anything. For him, there is no such thing as retirement.

Eliza Barclay

But you are also in this process of letting him go, right?

Phap Dung

Of course, letting go is one of our main practices. It goes along with recognizing the impermanent nature of things, of the world, and of our loved ones.

This transition period is his last and deepest teaching to our community. He is showing us how to make the transition gracefully, even after the stroke and being limited physically. He still enjoys his day every chance he gets.

My practice is not to wait for the moment when he takes his last breath. Each day I practice to let him go, by letting him be with me, within me, and with each of my conscious breaths. He is alive in my breath, in my awareness.

Breathing in, I breathe with my teacher within me; breathing out, I see him smiling with me. When we make a step with gentleness, we let him walk with us, and we allow him to continue within our steps. Letting go is also the practice of letting in, letting your teacher be alive in you, and to see that he is more than just a physical body now in Vietnam.

Eliza Barclay

What have you learned about dying from your teacher?

Phap Dung

There is dying in the sense of letting this body go, letting go of feelings, emotions, these things we call our identity, and practicing to let those go.

The trouble is, we don’t let ourselves die day by day. Instead, we carry ideas about each other and ourselves. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it’s detrimental to our growth. We brand ourselves and imprison ourselves to an idea.

Letting go is a practice not only when you reach 90. It’s one of the highest practices. This can move you toward equanimity, a state of freedom, a form of peace. Waking up each day as a rebirth, now that is a practice.

In the historical dimension, we practice to accept that we will get to a point where the body will be limited and we will be sick. There is birth, old age, sickness, and death. How will we deal with it?

Thich Nhat Hanh leading a walking meditation at the Plum Village practice center in France in 2014.

Eliza Barclay

What are some of the most important teachings from Buddhism about dying?

Phap Dung

We are aware that one day we are all going to deteriorate and die — our neurons, our arms, our flesh and bones. But if our practice and our awareness is strong enough, we can see beyond the dying body and pay attention also to the spiritual body. We continue through the spirit of our speech, our thinking, and our actions. These three aspects of body, speech, and mind continues.

In Buddhism, we call this the nature of no birth and no death. It is the other dimension of the ultimate. It’s not something idealized, or clean. The body has to do what it does, and the mind as well.

But in the ultimate dimension, there is continuation. We can cultivate this awareness of this nature of no birth and no death, this way of living in the ultimate dimension; then slowly our fear of death will lessen.

This awareness also helps us be more mindful in our daily life, to cherish every moment and everyone in our life.

One of the most powerful teachings that he shared with us before he got sick was about not building a stupa [shrine for his remains] for him and putting his ashes in an urn for us to pray to. He strongly commanded us not to do this. I will paraphrase his message:

“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside, and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”

Complete Article HERE!

Atheist awed by humanity amid religious rituals of death

Even for an unwavering nonbeliever like myself, a couple of days last week were very close to a religious experience as we watched my wife’s mother, Ruth Aylward Pommer, 87, pass from this life into what she so fervently believed would be glory in the next.

Farm in winter.

by Rick Snedeker

Observing the initially distressful but finally serene end of a purposeful life robustly lived was both moving and humbling, a replaying of nature’s endless symphony of life and death far beyond any human capacity to halt or reverse it. Reality in perpetually unstoppable motion.

I come from a small family, but Ruth’s extended clan is relatively vast, so it was a beautiful and compelling thing to see the legions of daughters and sons, grand-kids and great-grandkids and great-greats, other relatives and friends filter into the room to hold vigil, voice rosary prayers, tell stories, and say their final good-byes.

It was particularly magnificent to see Ruth’s children closely arrayed around her bed, eyes red with anguished concern, stroking her hair, dabbing her brow, whispering soft encouragements into her ears, carefully watching her for signs of pain or distress so they could immediately do what was required to ease it. This is love expressed in its deepest, most primal, most authentic form.

Although I have spent long hours reading and writing about the unsubstantiality of supernatural ideas, as Ruth slipped quietly away I still realized once again what I already knew — that spiritual yearning is as universally human as rage against injustice. And it is powerful. So powerful.

When the kindly young priest from Ruth’s small farming community delivered the words of last rites in respectful, gentle tones, and anointed her forehead and palms with holy oil, it felt ancient, almost primordial. It felt natural to embrace any ritual, any hope that would make this not a sad end but a beginning of something profoundly better.

For many people, few things in life are as terrifying as its end, and the attendant possibility of immortal nothingness, or, worse, endless suffering. This is why most Christians, including, as Ruth was, Catholics, focus their lives on not displeasing God and improving their chances of being heartily welcomed by St. Peter in Paradise one blessed day.

I get it, especially after this past week, after seeing fervent faith up close in ways I rarely do, at a time of great angst and sadness over the passing of a woman much loved and honored in her lifetime. Even I mourn the end of her life in a personal way. Aside from the courtesy, respect and kindness she always showed me, the big-city alien grafted onto a small farming town by way of a happenstance meeting with her daughter in a far-away land, she also gave me another treasured gift: acceptance. From the beginning, she went out of her way to make me feel part of the large family she headed.

So, there I was at the end of her life, a most secular fellow in the midst of a most religious tribe, and I must say, it was terribly moving.

The funeral service in a breathtakingly lovely community church was fittingly transcendent, with its respectfully hushed tones, the great-grandchildren singing “Amazing Grace” in the choir loft, the candles and incense, readings from Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season …”), the well-said sermon that honored and treasured Ruth’s long life. People came from far and wide to attend, some driving for days to reach the church.

And there was comfort food in church halls after the wake and funeral service and then the burial gathering the following day an hour away, where she was to be laid to rest with her husband. Food is part of the ritual of human passing, where pleasure and pain, good memories and sad immediacies, converge for sustenance of those who have been left behind.

As I went through this process, though from a further emotional remove certainly than Ruth’s immediate family, I still appreciated the essential value of such loving rituals and heavenly yearnings in helping survivors move on and face their next existential challenge. I tried to not focus on the reality that these painful passages also can bring out the worst in us.

So, although nonbelievers can often be antagonistic toward faith, I am reminded that it is pointlessly unkind and destructive to ever denigrate something so visceral and nurturing to people’s lives, whatever one’s philosophical differences.

I was thinking last week, as I waited patiently with others for the inevitable, that at such times theology and religious doctrine seem irrelevant, even as they precisely structure the final proceedings of a life lived out. What matters is love, remembrance and, as necessary, forgiveness.

Complete Article HERE!