A Few Words on Death and Grief

The older I get the more I find myself confronted with the incidences of death—family, friends, and acquaintances passing from this world appears unrelenting.

With Covid, collectively we’ve had a heightened awareness of death over the last year and some months, and many of us have lost loved ones to Covid. 

I have found myself over the last few years talking with friends and students about death, primarily because they had lost someone close and were unsure how to deal with it. Finding themselves either attempting to be non-attached or compounding their grief by dwelling on regrets and self-blame that they hadn’t done enough to prevent their loved one’s death or that they weren’t there for them in a meaningful way. It’s hard to discover one’s middle way when it comes to grieving-  to feel the pure emotion fully without either resisting the feelings or getting stuck in mental patterns that cause more suffering.

In contrast, when I was younger the incidences of birth dominated, all my friends and even myself experiencing the birth of children. Birth and death, a never-ending cycle, like a crowded airport, many arriving and many departing. The very notion of an airport relies on this cycle of comings and goings of people. 

In the world we live in, there must be the fluctuation of existence and non-existence, being and non-being, form and formless, the Real and the Void. In this light I understand the cycle of birth and death, I understand that everything in this world has a “creation date” and an “expiration date”  as both are a necessary process for the interchange of life and death itself. No life, no death; no death, no life. 

Philosophically I can grasp the purpose of birth and death, but emotionally it is quite a different matter. The passing on of someone close is very difficult to process, and even though we might try to philosophically understand it, the pain of the grief shuns away philosophical ideas and reasonings. 

In Taoism, there are several anecdotal tales about dealing with the death of a loved one, such as in the Zhuang Zi, wherein Zhuang Zhou’s wife dies. His disciple went to his house to console him, but only to find Zhuang singing and playing a drum. In essence, Zhuang was celebrating her life, as well as recognizing that she came into the world from nothingness (the Tao) and had now returned to emptiness (the Tao), and that this transformation process should be rejoiced. So he found no reason to express sadness over her death. 

However, in most cases when a loved one passes from this physical form into the next phase of their spiritual journey, we must feel all the grief and sorrow that is natural to feel. 

Of course, the truth is that certain people that we were close to actually never leave, they are in our hearts and with us in spirit forever. 

When we allow ourselves to fully grieve and understand how natural it is, even though it can feel horrible, we find that we have tolerated what we may have perceived to be intolerable, and the experience might leave us with more wisdom and strength, and a deepened commitment to our spiritual path, as well as a greater celebration and appreciation of life— our own, that of our loved one who passed on, and others who remain in our lives in physical form. 

I think this is really the meaning of Zhuang Zi’s experience. I suspect he did initially grieve the loss of his wife, but it turned into more of a recognition of her wonderful influence upon him and her place in the Tao. 

Master Liang and I had discussed this issue and he held the view that in such situations of death of a loved one that emotion first rules the response, and as he put it, it is only human to do so, and how can one call themselves a “True Person” if they did not feel grief. 

Later, he said, we can be philosophical about death to help us understand and deal with the process of death, especially our own, and this is where the philosophy of death is most crucial, not so much for others, but of our own death.

It is because of this focus on finding a good way to deal with the idea of one’s own death that Taoism accentuates the idea of both physical and spiritual immortality. 

On one hand, Taoism is full of methods for prolonging life and maintaining health.

On the other hand, the idea of immortality is central to most traditions of Taoism, but for the most part, the immortality referred to is “spiritual immortality.” Meaning, having absolute clarity of spirit so that at the time of death one may choose where they wish to proceed to. 

Death, in this case, is not death, it is simply a transformation of life, much like Zhuang Zi’s other story about how a caterpillar metaphorphasizes into a butterfly, a metaphor for how a mortal through internal and spiritual cultivation can transform into an immortal. 

So in the end, Taoism does understand and accept the need for a period of grief when a loved one passes on, and sees that as only natural and an expression of our love and care and connection with that person. But it also teaches that we should cultivate ourselves so that we do not fear our own death, that we can actually cultivate our spirit (神, shen) so that we experience death is nothing more than a transformation, like the caterpillar turning into the butterfly. This is in keeping with the Tao. 

Sanctuary of Tao