He died four days ago of a heart attack at the age of forty-six. And in the rush to find out what happened, console my loved ones, and travel back home for the funeral there has been little time to process that fact. But as I sit in my father’s living room and look out the window, the realization grows like a tree in the murky darkness of my mind. Eventually, it becomes the only thing that I can think about. My brother-in-law is dead.
What am I supposed to do about that? How do I console my sister when she started this week as a wife, only to end it as a widow? As I mull over these questions, I’m reminded of a story I read a while back. A Zen monk learned of his mother’s death, and responded by bursting into tears. When he saw the confused looks on his students’ faces, he asked them, “What does it mean to lose a mother?” No one was able to tell him, so the monk gestured at his tear-stained face and said, “This is what it means to lose a mother”. When I first read this story, it confused the hell out of me. Where was the calm detachment that Zen is supposed to teach? I assumed the monk just had a momentary lapse in judgement, and that the story was teaching me what not to do in the face of grief. But I know better now. By working with my teacher, I’ve learned that Zen practice isn’t about turning your emotions off. It’s about learning to be fully human, and feeling your emotions in an open and honest way. When we’re hungry we eat. When we’re tired we sleep. And just like the monk in the story, when we feel like crying; we cry.
My sister is crying right now because my brother-in-law is dead. And I hate that. I hate the fact that he’s gone. I hate the fact that she’s in pain. And I really hate the fact that there is nothing I can do to make this situation better. But if I’ve learned anything from the countless hours I’ve spent sitting and staring at walls, it’s that sometimes “better” is too much to hope for. Sometimes the only thing we can do is to simply sit and bear witness to our pain; whether it’s in our legs or in our hearts. My brother-in-law is dead, but my sister is still alive, and she’s hurting right now. I can’t make this situation better. In fact, I’m not even going to try. But I am going to sit with her, and bear witness to her pain. I’m going to tell her that I love her, and I’m going to let her know I care. Because no matter how much I hate it, that’s all I that I can do.