Grief and Gratitude
The cusp of death can conjure joy as well as pain, gratitude as well as grief, connection as well as separation – if we are open to it.
At Samhain, celebrated on Oct. 31-Nov. 1, the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thin. We remember and commune with the spirits of those we love who have passed on. We honor our ancestors, without whom we would not be here.
For me, the veil has been thin for almost a year.
On December 17, 2018, my wife and I moved her mother, Elizabeth, from Los Angeles to an assisted living facility in Seattle. Elizabeth had had a sharp decline in her physical and cognitive ability, likely because of a stroke. She could still walk, talk (though less easily than before), feed herself, express her preferences. Now, ten months later, she is frail, emaciated, unable to stand, almost speechless. Her hospice caregivers wrap our family in support: the conscientious, skilled RN; the bath aide; the Tibetan Buddhist chaplain; the music thanatologist who sits by Elizabeth’s bed once a month and plays the harp, guided by the rhythm of her breathing. We are deeply grateful.
It is challenging for us to release the idea of who Elizabeth was and is no more. And for her to release her failing body. Shakur, the chaplain, tells us, “She’s in a high spiritual state. Your task is to meet her there.” Amidst observing wound care, ordering adaptive clothing, and making sure Elizabeth’s carefully minced food makes it to her mouth at mealtimes, we take heart from her beaming smile. Her spirit shines through.
Two weeks after Elizabeth moved to Seattle, we went to visit Martha’s older brother Stephen in Oakland with our son, daughter-in-law, and eight-month-old granddaughter, Alma, Stephen’s first grandniece. Stephen is the one who invited Martha to move from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Seattle 45 years ago to live with him. Without him, Martha and I never would have met. For two years, Stephen had pancreatic cancer, and by that time he was very ill. When he saw Alma, his whole being lit up. Despite his weakness, he insisted on holding her, touching her nose to his, making goofy faces. We all cried and took dozens of photos. A week later, less than an hour after his 71st birthday, he died.
One day before Summer Solstice, June 20, 2019, the 37th anniversary of my mother’s death, my beloved 18-year-old cornsnake, Keeper, let me know that she was ready to leave her body. She had refused to eat for months. A small sore near her tail had failed to heal despite multiple rounds of antibiotics I injected carefully next to her long spine. Her vet diagnosed kidney failure. Heartbroken, I wrestled with whether to euthanize her. Clear messages came to me and my teacher Valerie in dreams and otherworld journeys: it was time, and Keeper needed my help. When she had a seizure, I knew I couldn’t wait any longer. As I held her before her death, she sent me love and spiritual power that opened doors of connection for us even as our close physical bond ended.
Last week, a friend of ours called me to support her in helping her cat to die. The kitty was almost the same age as Keeper and suffered from the same condition. She had lived on our front porch for several years, after we adopted her from neighbors who were moving away. We couldn’t keep her inside because of family allergies. She fiercely defended her turf from all comers, including raccoons. As she grew older, the winter cold seeped into her bones, despite a heated, secure, cushioned home on the porch. She cried for us to let her in. Finally, a raccoon invaded her home, and we knew she had to move. Our friend stepped forward, took her in, and loved and cared for her during her last six years. The cat thrived in her new, more comfortable home. Last Wednesday, our friend and I tearfully said goodbye to our beloved kitty and held her as the vet injected her with sedative. The next day, we buried her in our yard, where she used to prowl and play, with songs, stones, cedar boughs, her beloved brush and favorite treats.
Earlier this week, I weeded around her grave and watered the midnight penstemon we planted above her. Basking in autumn sun, I felt life’s persistence and fragility. Our roots are deep, and they can be pulled up, slowly or abruptly, at any time.
Our roots brush against and intertwine with those of other beings, living and dead. The ones who nourish us in life do so after death, across realms, across time, in ways we can’t begin to understand.