Grief and the fullness of living

I’ve been thinking about an article a friend sent me from Elephant Journal about the importance of sadness in everyday life. The idea that one could, and indeed should, feel sadness and happiness at the same time particularly resonated for me. Waylon Lewis cites the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa via Shambala Publications:

According to the Shambhala principles you should feel [sadness and joy, simultaneously] with everything you do.

Whether you have a good time or a bad time, you should feel sad and delighted at once. That is how to be a real decent human being, and it is also connected with the Buddhist principle of longing, or devotion.

I got to witness — and experience — this phenomenon this weekend. I attended a Día de los Muertos ceremony to honor a friend who died this summer.

Any loss of someone you love surfaces very personal questions about mortality and impermanence. The death of a cherished friend, a peer, though, I think carries with it unique challenges. More than your family of origin, this is a person you have chosen to welcome and integrate into your life, both your everyday life and the rituals you develop for yourself and your community and created family as you go through life. I think it can challenge your sense of control and agency more (or at least differently) to lose a friend than it does a parent or grandparent. Those losses are more in line with the “natural” order of things. To lose a friend is to come face to face with the illusion that everything goes on as you know it. It doesn’t.

Did you tell that person what they meant to you? Did you even know yourself?

The circumstances of this friend’s death added layers of mystery and confusion to what would have already been a difficult loss for a lot of people. He had been ill, but he had also recently taken up some extreme behaviors that seemed to invite death sooner. His dearest friends rallied around him, confused in a crisis that seemed to come out of nowhere for so many people who felt close to him. What was going on with him? For how long? Why didn’t we know? What can we do now?

It was a tragedy, truly, to lose him, and this way. He was the cornerstone of a large social group and created family. To lose him must have felt like shattering the known world. Nothing would be the “the same.” And then, I imagine for those closer to him than me, there might also have been a heightened sense of shared fate, a feeling of responsibility, the notion that someone might have been able to do something more or different to help him.

At the ceremony this weekend, to me it felt like enough time had passed to ease the immediacy of those life-as-we-know-it-threatening questions. The sadness was deep still. But, there was also, I think, joy. The stories of his funny quirks seemed less forced, less about masking the pain of his loss, and more infused with the fullness of the longing that Chogyam Trungpa describes. Sadness and delight together. I imagine the energies — contracting sadness, expanding delight — creating a spiral of tension that propels us through living.

Día de los Muertos provided an opportunity to invite connection with that fullness. It felt like love. It felt like vulnerability. It felt like an honest acknowledgement of the love we need to get from our group, and the love we need to show ourselves.

What practices can we incorporate to help us remember this more often?

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