I gather flowers for the dead. I have been at this shady harvest for more than 30 years, training with the best: Martha deBarros from the Zen Hospice Project of San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC); Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of Zen Hospice and founder of the Metta Institute; and Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center’s Being With Dying program. We practice light and grave accord with the dead. Holding solemn ground at the threshold of the Great Matter, we are also intimate and joyful.
Last spring on a brilliant Sunday afternoon 84-year-old Daigan Lueck, Zen priest, poet, and painter, died peacefully at home in the heart of Green Gulch Farm. Daigan and his wife, Arlene, are deep Zen practitioners and friends of our family. When I heard that he had died, I entered the tangle of our Muir Beach garden to harvest the astringent herbs needed to bathe Daigan’s body: pungent white and black California native sage, English peppermint and shadowy yerba buena, rosemary, camphor rose geranium, and yerba santa, gathered from the stony paths of Mount Tamalpais where Daigan loved to walk.
Arlene and an intimate group of friends bathed Daigan’s body with the fragrant herbs. Rubbing alcohol closed the pores of his skin. With mindful care, Daigan was dressed in his monk’s robes and arranged in state in the room where he had died. A simple shrine was set up at the doorway as practitioners arrived to sit in meditation with Daigan for the next 24 hours.
In the SFZC tradition we mark four essential ceremonies for attending the dead: the ceremony of bathing and sitting with the body, the cremation ceremony, the funeral or memorial service ceremony, and finally the ceremony of interring or scattering the ashes of the deceased. For each occasion scented flowers participate in the ritual.
I give full attention to the plants that I harvest for the dead. Like apothecaries throughout history, I am guided by the evocative alchemy of aroma. Ancient families of scent are exuded by the plant world. Musk, resin, mint, floral, ethereal, acrid, and foul scents are expressed, according to some scientists, in exact geometrically shaped molecules that fit precisely into distinct neural niches in the nasal epithelium, triggering primal response in the brain.
My neural network was firing long and strong as I harvested the plants for Daigan’s body. Memory and scent intertwined in grave accord. From the edge of the garden, Prospero’s Rose poured dark burgundy fragrance into the waiting chalice of my collecting vessel. “Be cheerful, sir,” Prospero’s Rose whispered, evoking Daigan’s favorite passage from The Tempest, “Our revels now are ended.”
I mixed the floral tones of rose, jasmine, and daphne with the acrid herbs of antiquity. Daigan was a pungent poet, never sentimental. Rue and tansy came to his deathbed to pierce the veil of sorrow with their scent, and stinging nettle was laid down with wormwood to stanch the raw wound of mortal existence.
At his cremation ceremony a few days later, close to 50 Zen students gathered for Daigan in the inner crematory chamber. We chanted the Dai Hi Shin Dharani [Mantra of the Great Compassionate One] and covered his cardboard coffin with drifts of richly scented rose petals collected over the last year of his life. Underneath the floral glory I tucked one of Daigan’s early poems beneath rank pennyroyal and purple nightshade, essential medicine from the underworld to accompany this poet priest on his fiery journey:
Ready at last to stop
shaking a fist at the sky
and the passing traffic
drop your heavy bag
empty your laden pockets
stop, breathe, sit
and let yourself cook
until you’ve smoked out
all the bitter taste
and are ready to
be chewed on by
the ten thousand
of this present moment.
—David Daigan Lueck
Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. She is a lay dharma teacher and the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” ―James Baldwin
…and in the days that would follow her sudden death and burial, I came to realize that anger was simply easier than grief. Being pissed off – blatantly or subtly – became my frequent companion…a sarcastic friend growing more familiar and more constant. Depending on my many moods, I could be increasingly more annoyed, displeased, aggravated, irritable, indignant, hostile, bitter. Rage became less uncommon. Obsessed with whose to blame, I was on a mission.
Grief was my slow burn. Drinking more, gambling more, high more…even fucking more. More avoidance became my elixir for less pain. More distractions. Make no mistakes. I’m sure you don’t understand. I have every right to feel like this.
You don’t understand and I’ve convinced myself you can’t understand. I’m misunderstood.
Pretending fairly well at work, most days anyways…I am worse alone. Little things became big issues with no effort. Traffic, spilled milk, Fox News, just running late…no matter…stupid people piss me off. I don’t need the aggravation. Easily distracted, I crave new and different ways to keep my internal departments in tight order and declare to all I have no interest in dealing with any of that shit… I told you I don’t care!
I’m not going back…there’s no returning. Dead is dead. All that’s left is her ghost that haunts me.
But all the while, I would surely know my anger was my poison. Toxicity leaking gradually into my thinking, my loving, my body, my soul. Pushing others away while making room for “just let me be” and my growing desires to control anything or anyone that’s really uncontrollable. I don’t want to hear it.
OK…You happy now? I Googled it.
Pissed is best than helpless, hopeless and disinterest.
Bad sleep, bad energy, preoccupied…not much interest anymore.
Sometimes reckless… I said “fuck it.” It don’t matter. Hypercritical, more judgmental but don’t ask me to decide. Self-loathing. Aches and pains…back hurts…stiff neck…I’m sore, God damn it!
I don’t remember when I missed the part that I was dying too.
Leave me alone. Let me be. Get away. I got this. No!
Beyond what I used to think was love… what I felt was love – I was dying too.
Gradually, not suddenly, I found the careless truth in that old sad song: “You always hurt the one you love.”
Now I know how love hurts. Anger is the mask I wear. I disguise the grief and loss and fear I keep because you died on me.
My secret is that I’m so scared.
*I dedicate this post to all who grieve the loss of love and are left with fear.
Finding gratitude in grief can be one path toward healing the hurt of sorrow or loss. Just as some spiritual writers suggest that saying “thank you” might be our perfect prayer to God… expressing thanks can begin to satisfy our deepest yearnings to honor and give meaning to a life no longer shared here and now.
Looking for, listening to and feeling open to thankful moments within the sadness of grief – over time – can empower our sense of loss, soothe our heartache and focus our disillusionment from resentment towards appreciation.
While death hurts, gratitude can be transformative… even in the shadows of the darkest hours of shock, rage and despair…thanks can glimmer hope.
We know grief is a very individual process. There is no one way or right way to grieve. We all feel and express grief in different ways.
Some prefer to grieve alone in private or within a close circle of family and friends. Others value public opportunities to grieve in groups with ceremony and rites of passage. Surely, many of us grieve in both ways from moment to moment, time to time, season to season. And yes, grief can last a lifetime in varying ways attached to just as many variable memories.
Grief is like walking an ocean beach. Grief comes in waves, moves in tides and is relentless.
Within the raw pain of death, separation and loss, our individual coping styles in the face of death – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual – all reflect our unique personal experiences; our beliefs about living and dying; the degree of trauma we associate with the death; and the complex thoughts, feelings and behaviors the impact of death has on ourselves and others.
Grief is always filtered through our resiliency – our deepest capacities to cope even in the darkest of hours.
No loss, no grief, no trauma is ever minimized. What is true for you is your experience.
The meaning we attach to death varies from death to death…person to person and any meaning can change.
Where we find strength matters. Many find profound strength within themselves they never knew existed. Many also find strength in family, friends, spiritual beliefs and faith inspiration.
Without a doubt, there are healthier ways to cope with grief than other destructive ways that can be damaging to ourselves and others. Repeated attempts to numb grief with excessive alcohol, recreational chemicals, prescription drugs, spending money wildly, abusing food or sex – these self-medicating kinds of behaviors are easily abusive or addicting. It is not uncommon for some persons to act out grief in less than optimal ways.
Sometimes I remind mourners that dying is about the person dying… the dying is really not about you. That doesn’t negate in anyway that the person dying is having a profound affect upon your daily living… moment after moment… but the process of dying really does belong to he/she who dies. We sometimes forget that in the chaos of our pain.
If this is so…what is about you… the griever?
Indeed, your grief gets to be all about you. Perhaps ironically, your grief is not about the dead… your grief is about you and your response to death as you are left living.
Suggestion: Please don’t let other people tell you how to grieve.
It’s not their pain… it’s your’s.
And, of course, as always… it’s OK to ask for help.
As a minister, I’m on the lookout for moments of contemplation into action within my personal and professional encounters throughout the day. Finding the Sacred (or Divine or God or The Holy or Buddha or the goddesses or Jesus or Allah) is not always easy. I teach myself to look more carefully; listen more intently; and touch more intentionally. I have much to learn.
Amidst the despair, fear and revenge of the tribal war between Israel and Palestine, this NPR story by Ari Shapiro, a Jewish journalist, offers glimpses and whispers of hope, compassion and forgiveness… the mission of my interfaith ministry.
The forgiveness moment is soft and subtle… but it’s there… a gentle reminder that just as there are many paths to God, there are also many paths to reconciliation. Can you help me find forgiveness?
Pets have been an essential part of our human experience since prehistoric times. History suggests people and dogs have shared special bonds for at least 11,000 years. Asian dogs, African cats, Peruvian guinea pigs, Chinese goldfish, European polecats, Cuban birds, Syrian Hamsters – all have evolved toward domestication for the delight and special companionship of young and old.
We love our pets. Our pets love us.
Pets enrich our lives. Indeed, pets our truly beloved members of the family and integral to the herd. Many have told me that pets help motivate them out of bed in the morning and provide a consistent and predictable reminder that life is better not lived alone. Pets can help improve mood, enhance health and well-being, lower blood pressure, speed healing, boost vitality and actually lengthen the long term survival rates of heart attack patients.
I have witnessed the magic of pet therapy with severely disturbed children, recovering addicts and nursing home patients. The special bond between pets and caretakers inspires, redeems and ensures. Pets provide unconditional love and extraordinary acceptance without judgement. Their companionship soothes and protects.
The death of a pet can be devastating and profoundly painful. The hole left in the fabric of our lives can ache in our minds and in our hearts. Grieving the loss of a pet hurts. Although the emotional suffering varies from person to person, there is no one way or right way to grieve. We all need to find our own ways to say good-bye and make peace with the loss.
Spirituality and spiritual beliefs can provide meaning and comfort during these hours of need. I will not debate here whether animals have souls. However, I will share that I believe the same Life Force that created me and sustains me, so too, creates and sustains all of Creation. We are all in this together.
Prayers and blessings for pets who have died are simply a logical extension of my spirituality and my interfaith ministry. If this is in sync with you and resonates with your beliefs, please consider the Rainbow Bridge today… and whenever you might need it.
The Rainbow Bridge is a poem that appeared on the Internet and in some veterinary officers years ago. Its popularity has grown and is respected. Its author is still unknown although it was most probably written by Paul Dahm, a grief counselor from Oregon. Using the Viking myth of the Bifrost Bridge, the poem provides a compassionate metaphor of hope and consolation for those grieving the loss of a pet.
I have used The Rainbow Bridge both as a prayer and a blessing for my own pets and others’ pets who have died… after all… all pets do go to heaven!
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent; his eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together. . .
*This post is dedicated to Plato, Precious, Francois and Marg – each of whom touched my soul and changed my life.