Have you ever had the experience of feeling that everyone around you is falling apart, and you are the only one who has it together—only to find out that you’ve been stumbling around in the dark?
The recent death of a close friend took me on a journey of some surprising revelations about myself, and about how easily one can slip into a cloak of denial and self-righteousness. Like a fish unaware of the water she is swimming in, I was blind to the waters of grief and distress that were engulfing me.
My friend David Carter died a sudden death at the age of sixty-one doing what he loved to do, playing tennis. He was one of the conveners of a circle that Michael and I have been part of for almost three decades.
Through our many years together the group has shared the full gamut of rites of passage: death, divorce, birth— the whole catastrophe, as Zorba would say. David’s was an especially hard death for me, not because I was feeling so much grief, but because I wasn’t feeling it.
I was going through my day with what I believed was equanimity, moving blithely above the fray,so to speak. I took note of other members of the group who, I thought, were wandering around in the confusion of high emotion. Proud of myself for the way I was handling the shocking news, I felt that my Buddhist practice was finally paying off; I was truly making progress on my spiritual path.
In truth, this was not the case. Living some distance from one another, I and several others in the group relied on the phone and emails to work out details of how to come together for a memorial service for our dear friend. As the days progressed my aloofness began to give way to aggravation with my friends. I felt misunderstood, or got offended just by their tone of voice. It got so bad that I began to want to withdraw from the group entirely. After all we’d been through in the past, I wondered, why were so many of them falling apart? I saw everyone else as the problem, the source of the difficulties—but not myself.
The evening before the service I became so estranged from several people that at one point I could not even imagine myself attending the event. I felt alienated and outside my circle. Still, although I had no idea how I could possibly get through it, I soon realized there was no question that I would indeed have to find a way.
Upon arriving at the service, I found myself in the arms of my dear circle mates who were emanating nothing but love and connection. How did it happen that I had been so blind to my own grief, and further that I would project it all onto my friends, causing no small amount of mischief and hurt?
As Stephen Levine says, “Grief has a quality of healing in it that is very deep because we are forced to a depth of emotion that is usually below the threshold of our awareness.” My lesson in all this is a deeper understanding of the need to come together in mutual grief.
None of us can ride above the waters of sorrow and pain alone. And the closer we can be to one another when our hearts are breaking, the better. Phones and emails are good, but they cannot replace the soothing and nurturing truth that we are physical beings with need for physical touch. Coming together is the most powerful way to go through such “depth of emotion.”
Throughout the memorial I was surrounded by the loving presence of my friends. It was deeply healing to cry and laugh as, tog ether, we remembered our dear friend.