We are not in the habit of welcoming or celebrating death and loss. It seems counter-intuitive or just plain wrong on so many levels. We aren’t ready to grieve and mourn regardless of how well we’ve been prepared. Planning and anticipation might set the stage for loss, but when it comes there is little which has been done that truly relieves the suffering. I remember when my paternal grandfather died at age 97. He had lived an active, happy and virtuous life to its fullest. But it was the only time I saw my father cry.
Western culture tends to divide things into either-or’s as opposed to both-and’s. This two-ends-of-a-spectrum, dualistic thinking leaves little space in the middle and narrows wiggle room for processing death, loss, and suffering leaving only simple opposing choices. Either you are happy or sad, angry or forgiving, beginning or ending, grieving or celebrating. The dualistic mind wants everything to be black or white. And, in reality, isn’t it interesting that black and white are so much alike? On the color wheel, black is the presence of all color and white is the absence of all color. But on the light spectrum white is the presence of all color and black is the absence. Maybe God is trying to tell us something. Eastern cultures and religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism practice non-dualism. And Christian mystics have long understood the value of oneness.
When it comes to grief and celebration, the two are never far apart at all. Many traditional funerals with somber open casket viewings and formal services are often set aside for Celebration of Life memorials. Stories of good times and bad are offered by family and friends who might gather over a banquet table with cocktails and luscious desserts. Laughter and tears share the same space. Such gatherings create an atmosphere conducive to healing. The dark specter of loss and finality gives way to the possibility of new beginnings.
There is a beautiful, hopeful and certainly non-dualistic verse attributed to Henry Van Dyke or Luther F. Beecher that was presented to me when I was volunteering at an AIDS hospice in 1992. It sums up for me what loss, grief, and death are all about.
Gone From My Sight
I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other. Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone.”Gone where? Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast, hull and spar as she was when she left my side. And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me — not in her. And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone, “there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”
New Perspectives on Grief and Loss
David Kessler, a co-author with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross of the classic book, On Grief and Grieving, has written a new book called Finding Meaning to be published in November 2019. Kessler identifies a Sixth Stage of grief which takes us beyond denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance to one in which loved ones are celebrated and honored. He also provides specific tools that will help those who are suffering loss.