Death as a Teacher

 

I have only been to two funerals in my whole life. At 35, I feel lucky to say that.

Both were my grandmothers, the first my mother’s mom when I was 15, and the second my beloved grandma on my father’s side, Grandma Brett, when I was a week shy of 18.

I didn’t see a body at my first grandmother’s funeral since my grandfather quickly had my grandmother cremated, but my other grandmother’s body was at the second one. I remember touching Grandma Brett’s arm in the casket and noting how lifeless it felt. Almost like her skin was so far away. There was no blood beneath it, no warmth. She wasn’t there, not in the way she was last time I had seen her four years before.

Grandma Brett left a lasting impression on everyone she met so it was so surprise that her funeral was like a bit of a show. I remember leaving the funeral home after the private viewing of her body that was only for family and getting back with a line out the door and down the street. Grandma Brett was a popular lady, worked tirelessly with the church and was a mother and grandmother to all in her small neighborhood in Portsmouth, Virginia, living in the same two bedroom, one bathroom house for 50 years where she raised her 6 children. To say she was amazing didn’t cover it, and humble as she was, she wouldn’t have wanted to be called that anyway. She just lived her life to the best of her ability and was kind to everyone and firm when she needed to be.

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Lately a big theme of life that’s been coming up for me is death. The latest story being the Ohio State Fair ride that snapped and broke off, leaving two people to fly through the air, one to their death, and seven injured. After reading that last night, I wake up this morning to a story of a mother who fell asleep with her nursing two month old only to wake with him dead in her arms. Perhaps more close to home was the death of a fellow yoga teacher in a public bath, practicing breath work and drowning and never waking up. While I didn’t know him personally, I know his girlfriend and I think everyone in our local yoga community has at least heard of him. He was one of those people like Grandma Brett- they make such an impact in their living life that they leave that impression even after death, even to those who never met them.

I didn’t know him or his family, or the woman who lost her baby, or the people who lost their son to a fair ride, but I feel their loss. I feel the palpable sadness that a tragic death brings. I feel it sinking in my chest yet rising into my throat and out through my eyes. I don’t know death the way the families and close friends of these people do, yet I can still sense the physical sensations that it must bring up for them.

A few months ago, I saw my neighbor taking laundry baskets of clothes and suitcases out to his car. Jokingly I asked, “what are you doing man, are you moving?!” Usually a jovial character, he informed me, somewhat colorfully, that he was in fact leaving.

After a couple of weeks he came back saying he was trying to work it out. He still wasn’t acting like the usual upbeat guy I was used to chatting with outside. He was about 10 years younger than me, with two kids; a boy who was almost 2 at the time and a 5 year old girl he had adopted when he married his wife. By all accounts an upstanding guy who seemed to be having some deep inner struggles. Having been there, I offered for him and his wife to come by any time either of them needed.

That never happened.

While hanging out on the back patio of my townhome one day taking care of my daycare kids, he walked by and told me he was still having those same struggles. We had been doing this for several weeks, me listening to him getting off his chest what he needed to and him unloading it. I couldn’t give him my complete attention because of the kids, a fact I will never forget. He could see I was busy and told me he would see me later. I took that statement for granted; I never saw him again.

Three days later, paramedics and police pulled quickly and quietly into the parking lot. Since I have three windows with open viewing of the parking lot, the walkway leading to the courtyard from the parking lot, and the courtyard itself, it was like a front row seat. It was the afternoon so I was giving my kids snacks. I could see neighbors in the yard out front and wondered what was going on. My next-door neighbor came by and said, “Erica, I know you have kids so I want you to shut your windows because a young man just hung himself and they’re going to bring the body out.” My heart sank. I immediately thought of him and hoped upon hope it wasn’t him.

It was. About an hour after all my kids had gone home they wheeled his body out zipped up in a black bag, right past my living room window. It was startling. It was cold, and it was real.

One day he was alive and having a conversation with me, and the next he was gone. Just like that.

It took me a few days to take my daycare kids outside to play despite the fact that it was beautiful spring weather. Every time I stepped outside I felt the emptiness of him not being there. I looked to the steps that led back to his house where he used to sit with his wife and watch his kids play. I knew I would never get to share stories and laughs with him ever again. Even though we weren’t close, I felt that loss and that pain. How could I not?

The other night I attended a yoga class that was taught by a man I greatly admire who was close friends with the previously mentioned yoga teacher who drowned. He said that as yogis we are supposed to look death in the face every day, and be ok with it. He said every day we need to let something die. I have to admit, I am afraid of death. Not just my own, but those around me. When I think of the possibility of one of my children dying I feel that sinking in my chest and heaviness in my throat again. It’s absolutely unbearable. Even old habits, ideas, and toxic patterns are hard for me to let go of and let die. Why do we cling so hard to these ways of being that no longer serve us? Why are we so afraid of the change we so desperately need? That’s been my biggest struggle right now, and as I struggle with this, death seems to constantly be lurking around me as if to remind me of what’s important, and what’s not.

I still haven’t figured out how to be okay with death, to stare it in the face and allow it to happen as a natural process of life. But boy, has death been presented to me too many times this year already for me to not pay attention. It literally walked right by me.

I talk a lot in the yoga classes I teach about not attaching to things. A feeling, a sensation, a thought, anything, because once you attach to that, you get used to it being a certain way and in the next instant it can change or be gone. If you leave a yoga class feeling refreshed, inspired, vibrant, restored or whatever, don’t attach to it. By all means enjoy it while you have it, but don’t get stuck in it. All attachment does is lead to disappointment when the emotions or feelings are gone, and that leads to suffering. This extends even to people because they won’t always be around, painful as that thought is.

Logically I know this, and it’s easier said than done. How can we love unconditionally and yet unattached? It’s one of the things I work on in therapy- control along with letting go, not sweating the small stuff. Yet how many of us get so pissed off about our spouse leaving their laundry all over the floor or our kids leaving their damn lights on all night and their toys all over? So wrapped in these minute little dramas of life that could possibly in the next instant not even matter at all. People leave evidence of their existence all around us without meaning to. What would we do without it?

Death seems so final, so impacting, so unknown. Those of us left in this existence don’t know what the person gone is experiencing in theirs. Are they still here? Have they really passed on? How do we heal after such great loss? How do they heal from the loss of their own life?

 

Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrender.

Everything that happens, happens, for better or for worse. Sometimes we can’t see the light in the dark surrounding a situation until we’ve made space for that light to exist. This can take work, but sometimes the work is simple surrender and counter intuitive as this sounds, surrender can be a ton of work.  Deborah Adele in the Yamas and the Niyamas says, “Surrender asks us to be strong enough to engage each moment with integrity while being soft enough to flow with the current of life.” How beautifully simple is that? And yet so mind-fuckingly difficult is that to put into practice?

Surrender to the flow, let go and let be what will be. Do your best without trying to control so much. Believe me, I know. In my own shadow work, I’ve been working to create space to allow the negative shit to come up and learn how to deal with it, not stuff it down, to not look at it with shame or guilt. To dredge up all the shit, scary as that is, and look it right in the face and say, “thank you, I love you, thank you for teaching me”, and then let it go. Nothing needs to be held on to. The anger, the pain, the resentment, none of that is important because this life ends. And when it ends for us or for those we hold so dear is anyone’s guess. We’re on borrowed time, ticking on a clock.

 

So…

Love as hard and as deeply as you possibly can. Let those you hold so close know how much you love them. Don’t take them or another moment with them for granted, and stop taking everything so seriously. Let the house be dirty, leave the toys all over the floor, dishes in the sink. Allow the evidence of your loved one’s presence be, without allowing it to irritate you so much, because in any instant they could be gone and won’t need you to clean up after them anymore. How heartbreaking is that?

Save yourself from the pain and the suffering of taking on the guilt, shame, resentment, and whatever else that doesn’t belong to you, and doesn’t serve you. Let all the pain from the past go. Forgive. Forgive others, forgive yourself. Love everyone as difficult as that may be. Love yourself, warts and bumps and bruises and all. All that shit that makes us so beautifully human. View everyone as the teacher, view yourself as your ultimate teacher. As Eckhart Tolle said, there is no moment but the present. So live it, stay in it. Breathe it in while there’s still time.

***UPDATE: So excited, it’s published here: http://www.rebellesociety.com/2017/08/08/ericabrett-death/

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