Death and Grieving: Breathing Through the Feeling of Loss

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” ~Dr. Seuss

The color brown has special significance to me; it’s the color of the robes that my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh and the monastics wear. It’s the color of my children’s eyes. It’s the color of the soil I like to dig in and plant things. It’s the color of my dog, Jake’s, paws and eyes and eyebrows

My husband came home today with a chocolaty brown gift bag. I could practically smell chocolate just looking at it. I find the color brown to be so comforting, so…grounding—and sometimes so delicious.

He brought the bag home from the veterinarian’s office; and when I realized what it was, the contraction I felt in my chest was met with equal measures of ease and calm. This can only be credited to my practice.

I know that inside this bag there is a little box. And if I open the lid, I will see the entire cosmos—earth, water, air, fire, space, and consciousness.

I will see clouds and flowers; rain and mountains; mud and a lotus. I will see tears of joy and of sorrow, because I will be looking at the remains of a beloved friend, Jake.

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

These words have helped me stay with myself during a time when my four-legged friend was suffering, and when we knew it was an act of mercy to expedite his continuation.

Breathing in, my breath grows deep. Breathing out, my breath goes slowly.

I’m learning about freedom, about joy, about embracing my feelings like a mother embraces a crying baby. So at the veterinarian’s office, I came back to my breathing and held our friend, Jake, and breathed with him as the conditions for his manifestation in his old and sick body ceased; as the veterinarian injected the grapefruit-pink liquid that would liberate him.

Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I care for my body.

We said goodbye to Jake, to his beautiful brown eyes and eyebrows, his black, white and brown legs, his black body. He was a beautiful Border collie mix.

Sitting in the car in front of the veterinarian’s office crying, a haunting and irresistible sound came out of my purse, which was tucked away on the floor of the car. It was my iPhone playing the song, Ong Namo, sung by Snatam Kaur.

Oddly, I hadn’t listened to this song on my iPhone for months.

The song went like this:

“Oh my Beloved. Kindness of the Heart. Breath of Life. I bow to you.

Divine Teacher. Beloved Friend. I bow to you again and again.

Lotus sitting on the water, beyond and time and space,

This is your way, this is your Grace.

I bow to the subtle divine wisdom. I bow to the divine teacher within.”

I know about conventional reality, and I am learning about the ultimate reality. And, I know that this mind can’t explain or understand everything.

My husband and I looked at each other in mutual acknowledgement and disbelief as the song/chant/prayer played for 10 minutes. It was cathartic, a gift from the cosmos, and my gratitude for this manifestation—this message—is immense.

I came home and did what I have learned to do with the support of my Sangha. I sat on my cushion and stayed with my feelings. I cried hard and loud, and the waves of sadness, regret, of missing a dear friend, washed over me.

I’m not a loud person, so I was surprised by my sound of my wails. I felt the waves and the water. I was the waves and the water. When I was ready, I got up and went outside to walk the way I have learned to—I touched the earth and the cosmos as my body and mind merged through my breath and through my footsteps.

I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now. 

My breath breathed me and my steps walked me and I was free, even in my sadness.

I looked up and saw the fluffy white clouds and smiled to them, aware that the clouds are a continuation of many manifestations.

This was the first time I’ve experienced grief/loss/death with the practice as my foundation. I didn’t run, I didn’t consume. I didn’t try to numb myself or get too dramatic. I’ve been known to do all of these things with slight or severe discomfort.

I continue to breathe and sit and walk in mindfulness, and over the past two weeks, I watch the rise and fall of the waves of sadness. As they wash over me, or through me, my suffering is transformed. I feel free and experience interbeing.

When our oldest son comes home from college next month, our whole family will take the brown bag out into the woods, to Jake’s favorite spot. We’ll take out that box, open it, and spread the entire cosmos on the gorgeous forest floor, which will then be blanketed in gold, crimson, and maroon.

I’ll wear my favorite color, brown, and play Ong Namo on my iPhone. I’ll breathe and be connected to all that was, all that is, and all that will be. And I’ll give a deep bow of respect and love for my family, my Sangha, and this incredible practice that shows me how to be in touch with life—and death—in a way I had never imagined.

When we feel our feelings with mindfulness—that is, without suppressing, avoiding, running, escaping, rushing, or negating—we cultivate compassion for ourselves and for all beings.

Having a regular meditation practice helps us to be with what is going on in each moment and breathe with it, all the way through.

When we apply this skill to all aspects of life, including feeling our feelings—pleasant and unpleasant—we notice the door to our freedom is opening.

Photo by Scout Seventeen

About Susan Poulos

Susan Poulos practices Mindfulness and shares her transformative experiences with others. She finds great joy in seeking, discovering, and cultivating the meeting places where all spiritual paths come together to build peace, joy, and happiness.

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  • marie

    Hi Susan,

    Thank you for sharing this.

    I lost a dear friend as well, just last week, and was faced with the same situation where letting him go was the best thing for him.

    Although I follow no formal practice of any kind, I have learned certain techniques from looking, reading, etc. And I used these to help me go through the process. I too, had to sit with my emotions all the while looking into the universe, where it would instantly calm me followed by a huge wave of emotion. That sequence repeated many times…

    I took it as an omen the next morning that all was well, because the sun was brightly shining in front of clouds, creating a beautiful picture.

    Thank you very much for sharing, this came at the right time. 🙂

  • Genevieve Ross

    Buddy was his name. He and my husband had a love-hate relationship from the moment I brought the puppy fuzz ball home. For the next 14 years Buddy and my husband vied for my attention. When the day came that we had to visit the vet, my husband took the day of work and together we said goodbye to Buddy.

    His ashes, in a small urn, next to a picture of him and my husband playing in the yard, graced our fireplace mantel for two years, until I laid him to rest with his best friend, my husband. When I visit them both, through the tears I can smile.

  • lv2terp

    BEAUTIFUL post!!! Thank you for sharing this story, your practice, written so beautifully!!! It was a pleasure to read this!!! 🙂

  • I have tears. About 2 months ago I had to put down my little buddy, my baby boy, my cat Pilot (Moonpie as I called him) and it was litterally the hardest thing I ever had to do. It was crushing and exhausting and even now I am still missing him so much. I can’t fully fathom he’s gone and I’ll never hold him again or cuddle him. I’ve never truly dealt with grief on this level and it aches and continues to ache. We have a grave for him in the backyard with flowers and bushes planted around it. I miss him so much, beautiful post.

  • Donna

    You have put into words the feelings and thoughts I have about my experience with grief and mourning the death of my daughter…I have such a hard time expressing myself, so to read what’s on my heart and soul is a gift. Thank you.

  • Chris

    Thanks for sharing. I’m dealing with loss and grief at the moment and I fluctuate between flowing with it, letting it go, surrendering and kicking and screaming against what has already passed. I wish my practice would help but I’m so not in the now regarding this reality. After reading your post though I will try again and double my efforts. The other way isn’t accomplishing anything and quite painful. And reading this right when a wave of sorrow came over me. Nice timing 🙂

  • Thank you for sharing – that was beautiful and touching and oh, so insightful.

  • Carter

    I cry so very, very hard when I lose a pet. I often think that no one out there can understand the pain of my loss. Then I read this. And it comforts me to know you and others understand. Yes, I cried when family members died (including my mother), but my pets are such special dear friends to me that their loss cuts a big hole in my heart. I grieve, but then I realize I have a lot of love to share with other pets (and people!). And life goes on. Such is the cycle. Without Death, would we love with half the passion?

  • Lauraleegra

    Wow Susan. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful love story. I read this a work, and am having a hard time keeping the tears in. Pets are so special, like angels here to help us. All they do is offer love to us. I remember when I had to bring our 3 setters to be put down, at the same time, all for different reasons. So hard.

  • ritchelleso
    The grief of losing my mom from diabetes was more than I can take it felt like the pain and sadness will never let up. At the same time the need to be strong for my younger siblings. I never stop missing my mom, but the pain eases after time and allows us to go on with our life. The healing process is different for everyone and there is no timetable.