My mother died when I was twelve. It was, and still is, the greatest trauma of my life. I was left to navigate puberty, being a teenager, getting married, becoming a mother, without her. And it was excruciatingly painful. I missed her terribly and I miss her still.
And yet, her passing has shaped my entire life. I went on to have my own daughter when I was nineteen, and when my daughter was old enough to understand death, I took her to my mother’s grave. And I had such a profound realization: the road that had led to losing my mother when I was so young was the same road that had brought my daughter to me and the same road that I’ve been walking my entire life. I realized that I wasn’t there, at my mother’s grave, to grieve, I was there to rejoice in how everything had led me to that moment. And that moment, standing there with my daughter, was a blessing and a gift. I could rejoice in all of it, the pain and the beauty.
We spend so much of our life trying to avoid pain and grief, trying to outsmart suffering, letting our ego guide us down the safest (and oftentimes unfulfilling) path. In this way, we convince ourselves that it is “wrong” to suffer or that it means we’ve made a wrong turn on our path. We become tied to the fantasy that our “perfect” life is one where only good experiences happen to us, and we manage to avoid all bad experiences. But the more we start to accept the entirety of our lives, the more we can see that the hard parts and the wonderful parts are often tied together, that each choice we make or moment we experience inevitably shapes the next.
Something that has always fascinated me is the thin line between love and grief. The buddhist teacher Lama Surya Das writes, “The deep pain we continue to experience reminds us of our love and keeps our hearts open. We discover, often to our amazement and relief, that love is greater than time and place and even greater than death.” That has certainly been my experience. That I can love my mother as deeply today as the day she died, and that the love I feel for her can be as much a positive energy in my body as it is a painful one.
We are in a moment of much collective grief. For our planet. For the division that exists in our country. For the past year and all that we’ve had to give up and miss out on. Grief, at its heart, is about expectation. We expect the people we love to live a long time, we expect that we will keep our homes, our jobs and our health. We expect that things won’t change (even as we intellectually understand that they will). And then we grieve the loss of what was and what could have been.
This is where grief serves as our most profound gift. Experiencing grief reminds us that our expectations are just dreams, not reality. Reality is only what is happening right now. Experiencing grief reminds us of the impermanence of everything in life, and pushes us to really live in the moment we’re in.
In “When Things Fall Apart,” Pema Chodron writes, “We are like children building a sand castle. We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of colored glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. We’re willing to attack if others threaten to hurt it. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sand castle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”