Let’s face it, we are all thinking a little more about who is dying, where and why and what it means for us. My beautiful grandmother died this week seven years ago which feels like a very long time and then no time at all. Next month will be the 13 year anniversary of another death, a loss that still makes me choke up and feel like there is big hole left in this world. Close friends of mine have lost their parents in the last year and some are anticipating more big losses. We look at all of the maps and we run the numbers and we wonder who is coming to get us and what do we need to do.
Today I am mourning the death of a love relationship that was dear to me. I recently did a strange ritual where I had to imagine my own death and I did once give students the option to write their own obituaries. So, what do we do to prepare for and live with the mourning that is inevitable in our lives? In yoga we lie down on the floor in a pose called corpse pose and we become very quiet. A little practice in letting go. In Buddhism I hear a lot of talk of going through life and letting certain selves die, and mourning them properly. And then there’s sex which brings us closer to a certain death, at least here in France as Wikipedia so poetically puts it: La petite mort (French pronunciation: [la pətit mɔʁ], the little death) is an expression which means “the brief loss or weakening of consciousness” and in modern usage refers specifically to “the sensation of post orgasm as likened to death.”
One day, in my undergraduate years, I was standing outside looking at the sun and smoking when a very tall and thin man came up to talk to me. We stood on a balcony in the art building with the Pacific crashing just meters away and he told me he was from Pennsylvania. He turned to me and looked at me with his sad beautiful eyes and said that he found the problem of California to be that no one acknowledged death. I told him that I was from Oregon and I agreed. We stood there, leaning against the concrete balustrade, feeling deep and superior. He asked me, why does everything here have to be beautiful, why doesn’t anyone accept growing old, why doesn’t anything die here? And I fell in love. At least for a while. Death and love. I was 20. It was so enticing.
When I cleaned out my house to come to France I found so many letters from this long ago love. I put them in a tidy box, found him on Instagram and offered to send them to him. I will always remember that first conversation, the first time I saw him sleeping, naked and vulnerable and almost childlike, and driving in his small truck through a blinding snowstorm. I learned so much about Buddhism from him and about devotion and inspiration.
I still talk to my grandmother but I have to imagine her responses. I am lucky to know the two brothers of the boy we lost. I will never see him be any older than 14 but I get to watch them grow into men, amazing men. Sometimes in savasana the allure of the peaceful infinitely soft and warm darkness scares me just a little. One year after heartbreak I am tempted to do some accounting, some stock taking but then I think, no, that is not the mystery of the death of a love.
When we lose a person in our lives, what are we losing? Ourselves as seen by them? I loved how my grandmother perceived me. Or are we losing a future? I thought we would end our days together, I thought he would be a fun and dangerous big brother to my son. The little losses of day to day fade, other people bring us coffee in bed or make us laugh or fill our time. We lose stories, we lose memories that we made together, we lose a certain vision of the world.
And yet, and yet. Tennyson and Auden have to be right, don’t they? I got to know these people, I was so privileged to experience so much love, I get to keep some of the stories, even if no one else remembers. I do not like mourning, I am angry about still being beset by grief. But I got to love. And be loved.