Karuna is a compassionate practice that sometimes calls you to drop everything and just show up. This is what my sister and I did last week, when we received the news that our 85 year old father’s wife had died. As a widow, I felt compelled to help him, although our relationship has been strained and nearly non-existent for a long time. There are many reasons for this, some of them older than I am. And while both of us might have differing positions on why there has been so little contact, a death changes everything.
This was the repeating statement in my head, moments after my own husband died. “Your life has radically changed,” said the voice. As I watched myself descend into a psychic chasm, as I watched myself sob on the floor, a calm, internal voice added, “now what?” With that same thought, my sister and I flew west at dawn, arriving at Dad’s apartment by 2 pm, Arizona time. He was waiting for us, suspended in shock, surrounded by the disarray of a recent move, his living room bare except for a couple of folding chairs, a card table, plastic bags filled with canned goods and a surprising number of small food processors lined up near the door.
“Hey, Dad,” we said. “We’ve come to help.” We started by asking him what happened. This is the primary thing to ask a person in grief; telling the story is necessary for many reasons. First, telling the story gets it out of the griever’s head, where the event of the death itself is replaying like some broken down, scratchy record on too loud a volume. Telling the story also helps the griever absorb the facts, which is particularly hard in an unexpected death. Even in an inevitable death, when you love someone, you hold out hope for a cure, a miracle or at least a little more time. When it finally happens, there is always a part of you that can’t quite grasp it, doesn't "understand." The mind goes into a self-protective denial. Telling the story of how it happened, those last moments, what you did, how you felt, who you called, what they said (if you can even remember) serves to ultimately convince your mind that Death has arrived and changed your life. There is an adage that you have to tell the story 72 times in order to heal, or as I discovered, until you can believe it happened. Telling the story until you get its reality leads you to that next question. Now what?
Initially, this is answered in small, practical things. In Dad’s case, we thought it prudent to organize the apartment he had just moved into. If he could feel like he was living in his home, instead of in chaos, he might begin to see a Now in his life, and then perhaps a tomorrow and a day after that. I started in the kitchen, and my sister started in the back room. We marveled at the amount of food everywhere; half opened bags of pasta, chips, crackers, lollipops were strewn about, neatly clamped with clothes pins. There were multiple bags, boxes and shelves of canned goods, mostly soups, gravies and sauces. A freezer stood in the corner, filled with meat, and though it needed some purging, there was enough food in his refrigerator to last a couple of weeks. As we put things away, tossed things, made a larger pile of items to discard, including the line of apparently broken food choppers, we also listened to him, encouraged him to mourn. We made some necessary phone calls, to Social Security, to the mortuary for an appointment the next day. We took a break and drove him to the bank. We sat with him quietly, on the folding chairs, nibbling chips and strawberries found in the depths of the fridge. We agreed that he and his wife loved each other over their nearly 26 year long marriage. He said, “She made me feel like my life was worthwhile.”
Two days later, after stocking his fridge with fresher things, taking him places he needed to go, arranging for cremation, cleaning up his office and finding him a source for free living room furniture, we sat on his “new” couch. In a short time, we had helped turn his chaotic living situation into something homey. Our fears that he would be paralyzed with grief, give up and die himself in short order were put aside when he hung his own paintings like a personal art gallery, during an hour when we left him alone. He thanked us over and over for coming to see him and said we had helped him a lot. When we hugged him goodbye, promising to call every day, he smiled through his tears. He said something I haven’t heard from his lips in more than 30 years. He said, “I love you.”
Death changes everything, but it can also reawaken the truth. Death can peel away the unimportant, petty squabbles, even some larger hurts and injustices seem ridiculous to cling to. Death strips us down to essentials, and love is the most essential thing of all. Since I’ve returned from Arizona, I’ve called him nearly every night, just to listen to whatever he wants to say. That’s all you can really do when someone is hurt by death – listen compassionately and say, “I love you.”