Rushing to catch a plane, I lost my hat, a cherished hat, in an airport lounge. And now my hat is a file number in the Lost and Found system. And ever it shall remain. Maybe someone somewhere is wearing it. I hope so. I want them to enjoy it as much as I did.
Once again I was confronted by the silliness of how upset I was by losing some little possession. It’s not a crime to love a hat. But it’s doubly annoying to lose a trifling thing and be annoyed by losing it. It’s like Russian nesting dolls of annoyance. When does it stop? Why is it so hard to let go of the smallest things? We seem so attuned to gaining and getting. We are more down with addition and multiplication than subtraction, and division is worst of all.
And yet life offers up as much loss, separation, and breakage as gain and triumph. We avoid it with a vengeance. Perhaps because it is so hard. Hello is easier than goodbye. And the big goodbyes are hardest of all.
My sister’s son died suddenly recently. All death is untimely, some more than others, and it ripples widely; a lost son is a lost brother, nephew, cousin, partner, colleague, friend. At times of wrenching broken-heartedness, mindfulness can be powerfully helpful. It’s not an artificial device. It’s a very real anchor in a sea of turbulent emotions.
When my nephew died, I called Frank Ostaseski for a few words of solace. Frank attended to dying AIDS patients during the height of the crisis in San Francisco, and now as head of the Metta Institute he continues to work with the sick and dying, and those who care for them. Here’s a summation of what came out of our conversation:
Grieving is a fundamental process of life. We do not choose it. It rather chooses us. It’s not a one-time event. It’s a road we must travel on. It doesn’t follow clock time. It adheres to deeper rhythms. Regrets are common, thoughts of incompletion and unfinished business, struggles unresolved. These are illusory, clingy thoughts, but you can’t wrestle them to the ground and stamp them out. As they emerge, you can see them, and let them go. And do that each time they come back to visit.
Each of us has our light, what makes us loving and loveable. Each of us has our dark places, how we grapple with fear and pain—what can make us unbearable, at times even to ourselves. We have our griminess and our glory. But which are we, really? We are neither. We are not any of our parts. We are all of those parts. So, when you think of the loved one who has passed, embrace the whole person.
That’s a natural kind of mindfulness, where the very act of paying attention is the kindest thing to do, for others and for yourself.