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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