Thoughts on Death and Grieving
As I sit at my keyboard this morning and look outside my window, I see another heavy, gray, cold and windy Fall day in Minnesota, one of a long string of days like this. The leaves are dropping from the trees quickly. Somehow at this moment, the weather outside seems to match my mood. The weather is a harbinger of things to come....winter, darkness, cold and things dying. This is the natural cycle of things.
This year, 2020, has been a challenging time for many people in so many ways. For me, it has brought me to moments of contemplation about death and grieving. So many things have died for me this year. As I type, I know that more than 200,000 people in this country alone have died from COVID-19, a tragedy of such proportion that I can hardly process it in my mind. The pre-pandemic assumptions about a return to "normal" life have slowly died as well with an increasing sense of a new normality emerging. Closer to home, earlier in the year, the killing of a man by law enforcement in my home city of Minneapolis has opened up my eyes to my huge naivete on matters of racism and struggles for racial equity, a death of assumptions, bias, innocence and myopia about the world. My neighborhood, the center of civil uprising this past Spring, has brought a death to familiar landmarks and gathering places including our local post office, drug store, beloved restaurants, grocery stores, even the school where I have volunteer tutored adult ESL and GED students. Most recently, this week, my learning about the soon departure of two neighbor households, one a wonderful, long-term next door neighbor, the other a household across the street who led the effort to connect us neighbors this Spring, has brought a death to a sense of community stability and cohesiveness on our block. These community relationships ending feel close and personal.
Yes, 2020 has delivered more at so many gut levels. I continue to read about the disruption to families and individuals because of job losses and new or deepening economic hardships. I continue to see the death of so many institutions, like the USPS, public health systems, climate change response, and assumptions about our so-called shared "American ideals" like the "rule of law," social safety net, integrity, compassion, civic responsibility, justice and fairness. The convulsions and upheavals in this country have rippled around the world delivering a death of so many misguided mythologies about the USA's role in the world and a source of stability and security. Meanwhile the wildfires burn and coastal communities flood.
The recent days of 2020 have left me pondering a lot about deaths. I have generally assumed that I had a mature, rational relationship with mortality; yet, lately I have been drawn into pondering my own death. What will it really be like to face my own mortality? To say a final goodbye and letting go of everything, all relationships, my identity, my body, my breath, my mind, sensations and thoughts, and slip into that forever non-consciousness? All of this, very heavy stuff. But it's not depression I feel. I have been depressed at times in my life, and I am very familiar with how it manifests in my psyche. This is different. This is grieving. It is a deep sense of grieving about letting go of so many things and so many assumptions, beliefs, and ideas. So much comfort and security and stepping into a world of chaos and unknowing.
What to do about it all, if there is anything? I have been asking folks around me a simple question, "What gives you hope?" I don't really have a clear answer to that yet.
To help me, I turn to nature for insights. Small insights have come to me. As I look to our front yard urban farm garden space, I see so many plants dying. But these changes are opening up spaces for new things to come as they have always done. This past week, for example, I planted 70 cloves of garlic into the dirt to start their winter slumber and spring sprouting. I have harvested the last of the tomatoes, allowing the remaining unripened fruit to die off and feed the soil. Same with the falling leaves and compost, using them to feed the earth as well. In my broader life, I have realized that the death of my classroom tutoring because of COVID and the burning of the school building has opened up new opportunities for service and learning at a local food shelf and through remote tutoring online. I am reading new things. Along with Mike, I am watching and learning a lot about tending chickens. I have developed a new daily practice of mindful meditation, alongside my established yoga, running, biking and cooking practices. Mike and I now connect with family and friends geographically dispersed across the continent with weekly online yoga sessions. My confrontations with death have also opened a new awareness of the enduring love I feel for my spouse, Mike, our companion animals, family and friends. A deeper sense of what really matters, if you will. Personally, I am beginning to acknowledge that my own ultimate death will open up space for new people in the world in the future.
Author and life coach, Carolyn Baker, has written much about death and grieving. In her book, Navigating the Coming Chaos, A Handbook for Inner Transition, (which I keep next to my desk) she describes a complex set of strategies we have developed to avoid thinking about death and grieving. We fill our lives with distractions and stuff. For other cultures in the world, death is always a presence in people's lives. These cultures have created elaborate systems of ritual and processing of grief. Baker asserts that we in western "modern" civilization need to come to terms with death and grief in order to transition to a collaborative paradigm as we witness the social and economic collapse of modern civilization and adapt to climate change.
Perhaps what I am experiencing lately is just part of the process for me. It is a very difficult process into uncharted territory every day. As I watch the season of growing transition to the season of death and slumber here in Minnesota, I am trying to fully embrace and explore my grief, enjoy the simple pleasures each day brings and do something life affirming each day, and set my focus forward and wait for what new things come next. Truly, it seems as the yogis and Buddhists believe that everything is in constant change. Death and rebirth, the natural cycle of things.