On Finding Peace After Great Loss

20 Apr

For Robert

I attended a beautiful and moving memorial service yesterday for a woman who died suddenly and too young. I did not know her but went through school with her brother; her sister and mine are close and my sister couldn’t make it, so I stood for the family. Her father was our beloved family vet, and the death of his daughter makes the second child he has lost.
The service, as these things do, got me thinking about the nature of life and death, love and loss, and how we try to make sense of it all and sometimes don’t succeed. Someone read a passage from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ account of her research on what happens after death. According to her, there are five stages, all leading to loved ones who have gone before. I found myself greatly moved by the poignancy of this idea, mostly because I don’t entirely believe in an afterlife, although I wish that I could. I wonder if these are stories to us by our egos, terrified by the thought of annihilation.
My former classmate spoke about his sister and his great love for her, which in itself was heartbreaking and beautiful. But he then had the courage to speak of what he called his rebelliousness, alluding I think to his own doubts. Having lost two siblings seems almost unbearable; but he also has watched his father lose two children. He carries more than his own pain. He implied that he also carries profound questions, if not anger, about the unfairness of it. Why, in fact, does life have to be so hard?
I have asked myself this on many occasions. When I feel myself being sucked into this question, which cannot be answered, I try to recall some wise words I once read. When Bad Things Happen to Good People was written by the Rabbi Harold Kushner, upon learning that his three-year-old son had an incurable, terminal disease and would die young. I find it difficult to relate the eloquence and profundity of the book in just a few words, but the gist, what I held on to, was that the question we should ask ourselves is not, “Why?” but “Why not?”
By way of illustration, a parable: once a woman lamenting the death of her only son approached Buddha. She begged him to bring her son back to life. Buddha told her to bring him a poppy seed from the household of a family that had not known tragedy. She went from door to door, only to return to the Buddha empty handed but filled with understanding.
Our lot in life, which Thomas Hobbes described as “nasty, brutish and short,” includes suffering. It is inescapable. There are innumerable ways to suffer–death, disease, disablement, divorce, to name but a few—and the only control we have over these events is our reaction to them. We grieve, we get angry, we torture ourselves with regret. In the end, though, whoever God is—whether out there or simply a manifestation of ourselves—he wants us to have peace, I believe. But, like the Buddha, he will not or cannot give it to us. We have to try to find it ourselves.
I rely on stories like Kushner’s, or Buddha’s, to help myself find that peace, which can be so elusive. Everyone suffers; why should I, or any of us, be exempt? Since I have internalized this simple, yet difficult, concept, I have found it easier to get back to peace whenever it is disrupted by tragedy. Life is short but does not have to be nasty and brutish, especially if we help each other. This narrative is my humble attempt to offer help by sharing the knowledge of what helped me. If you are reading this and you are suffering, I wish you peace.


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