When he was three months old, my firstborn child was diagnosed with a choroid plexus carcinoma, a rare, aggressive brain tumor that grows on the structure inside the brain that makes cerebral spinal fluid. Two weeks after the initial resection of the tumor, and two more subsequent surgeries to drain fluid from his brain, he endured his first chemotherapy treatment. Three days following the administration of the chemo, a CT scan revealed that his brain was completely destroyed. The scan showed no healthy tissue. Doctors called it “total neurological devastation.” If somehow, after 70 weeks of chemotherapy, more surgery and radiation treatment, he were to defy all odds and survive the tumor, the neurological devastation would ensure that my son would have very little, if any, independent functioning. The likelihood of survival was minimal. We didn’t want him to endure any more suffering caused by chemotherapy or excessive surgeries. We chose to discontinue treatment of the tumor and bring him home to love him, take care of him and make him as comfortable as possible. Exactly six months after the diagnosis, my beautiful baby boy died at home with his father and me, our arms enfolding him. During those months and after, we endured grief upon grief. We experienced intense pain, sadness, and fear, but there were also beautiful moments spent with him, peaceful and sacred times. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been granted those months with him, to have experienced the joy and wonder of his arrival in this world and to have had the deep honor of being there with him as he left. The pain and sadness are still with me. Along with all the rest of who I am, I will always be a bereaved mother. I have learned, though, that one can travel from the dark depths of grief into a place of warmth and light, where it is possible not only to survive the pain, but to thrive.
During times of great grief, we look for anything that can bring any small comfort. Among other things, I am also a student of yoga, which was been a source of peace to me in some very dark times. One of my favorite yoga practices is that of chant—the repetition of a mantra—words repeated over and over, to calm the mind and lift the spirit. One of my most beloved chants is a verse from the Upanishads, sacred texts written thousands of years ago in the Sanskrit language. Some revered teachers have said that if all other verses from all sacred texts were lost, they could all be re-born and re-written from this one verse, known as the purnamidah. These are the words:
This is whole and complete, that is whole and complete. This and that are whole and complete. From wholeness comes wholeness. When a portion of wholeness is removed, that which remains is continues to be whole.
Peace, Peace, Peace.
The message of the purnamidah is that wholeness, fullness and completeness enfold us all. All beings, souls, things, objects, planets, trees, stars, rocks, animals, all energy and all matter are part of the wholeness. Nothing can be separated from that wholeness or completeness. In this belief, there is no death, no separation. The notion of separateness is false. All is One. A little bit of what is whole and complete cannot be broken or taken away from that essential wholeness.
I chanted the purnamidah, which I learned in a yoga workshop years before, to my pregnant belly. I sung it as a lullaby to my son after his birth, during his illness, and also after he died. I knew the translation of the chant, but had never really given it much deep thought. One night, about a month after his funeral, deep in grief, I was soaking in the tub, which I often did. Hot tears mixing with hot water, the big, deep cradle of the Victorian tub was one place I felt a small bit of relief. As I soaked that night, I began to sing the purnamidah. As I cried and sang, I could feel the words, the sound vibrations, ancient and comforting, begin to take on a new significance, a depth of meaning and substance I had not fully experienced until that moment. In an instant, a pause, a space between sound and breath, I had a direct experience with the immense truth of those words. I understood it on several levels at once. It was as if multiple layers of knowing fell one on top of the other into my brain and into my spirit. Suddenly, the literal interpretation of the words, as they applied to me, led me to comprehend the immense truth of the words on many different levels. I understood it literally, spiritually, existentially. When my child was inside my body, he was part of the whole that was me, and when, through his birth, he was removed from me, he was, on his own, a whole and complete being. I also remained whole and complete. I was whole and he was whole, yet we were still connected on a physical level through DNA and physical molecules. The food I ate, the air I breathed had become part of him. We were also connected on a soul level to each other, mother to child, person to person, soul to soul. Those connections could never be broken, he would always be a part of me.
After his death, that is still true. I no longer experience his physical form co-existing here with the physical form that is me, but the connection between us remains. Even in death, he cannot be removed from me. When I understood truly that he was not separate from me, even in death, I also suddenly understood the concept on a Universal level. I understood that as this was true of my child and me, and it was also true of us all. We are all connected. We are all made of the same matter, from the same source. We are connected to each other and to that source from which we can never be removed. Whether it is understood as a physical matter, that we are all made of the same ancient stardust, or on a more spiritual level, we are all pieces of the same. No matter where we go or what we do, we are always connected to that wholeness, and cannot be removed from it and through that we are also connected to each other, and to all of creation. The threads of connection are ever-present, in our daily lives, with those we love, on our shared planet with its interconnected eco-systems, in our place in the Universe, on physical, spiritual and energetic levels. We are part of the same whole.
Each person's journey through grief and loss is highly individual, yet all grieving people are connected by the shared experience of the pain, the aloneness, the chaos, the knowledge of what it is to be shaken to your core. Regardless of a person's spiritual or religious beliefs, grief is always a crisis of the spirit. My spiritual self was deeply shaken by the death of my child. I am still re-building that part of me. I was fortunate in that moment in my bathtub to have had the experience of knowing that I was held, even in my deep pain, in wholeness, connected to my child, and also to something bigger than myself or my grief. Mother Teresa once said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Peace can easily be forgotten in the midst of grief. In that moment, I remembered (and re-membered) that peace. My moment of remembering that we belong to each other, that we are all part of the same wholeness, was a gift. My grief is still present, but I try to remember the gift of that moment. Even when I don’t feel connected to anything at all, I can remember the truth of that experience and know that simply because I cannot feel it in the now, does not mean that my connection to that wholeness does not exist. I don't always have to feel it to know it is true. That is what is meant by faith.
In the midst of grief and pain, it can feel next to impossible for any of us to believe that we are connected to anything at all, much less to something whole and perfect. Many days, weeks, months, or even years, may pass without our feeling part of something whole. If you are grieving and bereaved, sometimes, holding on to even the thinnest thread of hope is all that you can do. If it is the hope that you can get through the day, or even through the next moment, hope is never a small thing. The act can feel very difficult, but reaching out to those from whom you gain support, with whom you feel connected, will help you to feel less alone, will help you grow the hope you need to sustain yourself and bolster you on your journey through grief.
If you are a person who knows or loves someone who is grieving, reach out to that person. Be there to listen, to offer support. You don't have to know the right thing to say or do. There is no right thing. Each instance of caring, each phone call, every card, every visit, each moment of sitting with, being with, talking, not talking, holding hands, being there, mentioning the name of the one who has died—offers a tangible thread of connection. Each act represents a thread of hope for wholeness. When someone is alone, confused, angry, desolate, desperate, broken, bereft—one thread of hope can be a lifeline.
All of us are part of the ultimate connection of wholeness, even when we don’t feel it, or when we have forgotten that truth. There are so many grieving people and families in need of a reminder that we are all infinitely connected. That connection can be strengthened by family, community, friends, support groups. If you are grieving, finding a friend or family member who can be there for you, or attending a support group where others are experiencing similar things, can be incredibly helpful. Individual therapy with a grief specialist can also be very useful in finding your way back to wholeness. If you are grieving, reach out for help and support. If you love someone who is grieving, reach out to that person. Now is when they need you the most.
Every person's grief is different, every person's path is different. Finding, reconnecting, and remembering your way to wholeness takes time and there is no one way. It is important to know that you are not alone and that there is help. Taking the first step to finding your own path is an accomplishment. Perhaps simply reading this article is your first step to reconnecting to wholeness. Remember to be gentle with yourself during the process and take the time you need to find your way. You are not alone. We are all connected.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.