grief is a mother

October 24th, 2010

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw emptiness of all the five conditions. – Heart Sutra

We are on a death watch at my house. Which is to say, we are on a life watch. Redhead, the fantail I once boasted to be the world’s oldest living goldfish, has become the world’s newest dying goldfish. To watch her transit is a powerful and fitting thing at this hour. And although I kept her alive for so long by absurdly arrogant and heroic measures (see How to Keep a Goldfish Alive in 20 Easy Steps) now I am doing what is even more heroic: letting her disappear into her own insurmountable mystery.

Death surrounds at this time of year. It surrounds at all times, but in these dwindling of days we might see it. We might see it in the surrender of the sun and the swift triumph of night. Feel it in the grip of the wind, the cataclysm of leaves, mud, dirty windshields, paw prints, rain-dank rugs and snot: the whole soggy rot of life’s residue.

Yesterday we observed Obon at the Hazy Moon, a ceremony honoring our departed loved ones. The altar was crowded with photos of more people loved and remembered than have ever stood alive before it. Such is the way, and it is always the way, and it is always sad. Grief is our mother, and when we grieve, we taste her tears. We taste eternity, the brimming fullness from which everything rises and to which everything returns.

I can see the cycle of things that have lately come near:

A mother quaking in bottomless shock after her baby died at birth.
A friend moored in friendship’s final vigil.
A granddaughter answering the clear call of goodbye.

And right here too, come unexpected calls and emails, late word of swift departures and funerals on Thursday at 3. My daughter’s third-grade teacher was stunned six months into her happy retirement by her husband’s sudden crumbling fall into a mean disease. She walked into the school assembly last week, to see and be seen by the children she last cradled, the ones who will be the last to remember her. She whispered her widowed vacancy to me, “It’s the absence, the absence!”

I know that awful yawning space, that thunderclap after a jagged bolt rends the sky. It is the infinite ache of a mother’s heart, the heart we all have whether we are men or women, mothers or not. It is the absence that contains, curiously, our own presence, the tender fearlessness to watch and weep and let angels sleep.

Edited to add: Leave a comment on this post and I’ll include the name of your departed loved one in memorial services I do this week at my backyard altar.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva is you, the embodiment of infinite compassion.

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  1. What a lovely post. I look forward to my own rekindling of a love affair, if you will, with death, as I enter training as a hospice volunteer. I’ll be carrying your words with me. Thank you.

    Comment by TPK Bodhisattva — October 24, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  2. Sad.


    Thank you.

    Comment by James — October 24, 2010 @ 8:21 pm

  3. Came across your blog and how timely… it’s been three months since my husband’s sudden death. Thank you for your beautiful words and insights.

    Comment by Janet Clark — October 25, 2010 @ 2:55 am

  4. Thanks for your blog. I broought back a very clear memory: Christmas, 2008, I visited the chapel in the hospital where I work. It’s a good place for quiet contemplation. Every year, they hold a ceremony of Remembrance in the 1st week of Advent, very like the one you describe here. It’s focussed primarily on children. They decorate two christmas trees with names, photos, and stories. After my meditation, I walked up to read a few of these and I was overcome by sadness. Even now, thinking about this moment, my eyes water and my emotion stirs. These feelings connect us to everbody who has felt loss and that is everyone. We are all so brave and we spend much effort hiding our hurt hearts. There is much to practice with there, I think. Thanks.

    Comment by Paul Brennan — October 25, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  5. Karen, thank you for your post. And we wish you and your family and Redhead what you need on this journey.

    Comment by J, Connecticut — October 25, 2010 @ 1:13 pm

  6. Can you think of Alexa’s mom, who passed away last week?


    Comment by Denise — October 25, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

  7. Thank you very much for these words, Karen. I needed to hear them. I know what you mean about the cycle of things. It is a cycle. Please include my uncle Cesar’s name in your memorial service. He died suddenly and unexpectedly five years ago this month.

    Comment by Ines — October 25, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  8. Such beautiful words. Please include Jenni Ballantyne on your altar if she isn’t there already. I miss her.

    Comment by Meg Casey — October 25, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  9. Thank you for writing about this season of transition.. I’m grieving the absence of my mother DeLayne Wesson… she died in winter and in pain when I was 5 months pregnant, and it’s heartbreaking and it’s perfect this motherhood journey with my 16 month daughter.. Thank you for your compassion and wisdom Karen. xo

    Comment by brandice — October 26, 2010 @ 12:28 am

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  11. How startling the thoughts you have provoked for me. I feel this quite intensely. My mother died when I was 4. For some reason I struggle more with that as I grow older, and a distinct and difficult feeling that her absence really does contain my presence. I’m not sure I understand it at all.

    Comment by Christine — October 26, 2010 @ 11:16 pm

  12. The right words at the right time; somehow you always have them. Everywhere I look these days, I see both death and life, grief and joy. You evoke both, beautifully. thank you. k

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — October 27, 2010 @ 1:59 am

  13. tears.
    i love you, mae.

    Comment by wendy — October 27, 2010 @ 8:11 pm

  14. Thank you so much for capturing and expressing so much of what I feel at this time of year. To have understanding company in this space lightens the load. Please include the name of my dear father, Michael.

    Comment by Michele — October 30, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

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