grief

I get to vs. I have to

I listen to a lot of podcasts. The list changes over time according to my current interests. Last week I added Secular Buddhism to the mix to support my summer of inner exploration of philosophy and spirituality. Buddhism has been a part of my thinking about life since my early 20's when I first started my journey, my search for "The Way". Buddhist concepts have helped me through every struggle of the last 2 decades. Buddhist concepts keep me grounded in gratitude and focused on the positive aspects of existence. I am not a Buddhist per se, but I'm also not not one. It's complicated. But to get back to my point. 

In the latest episode, Noah discusses how we frame our life dictates our emotions about situations and challenges. For instance, you can think, I have to cook dinner for my family or you can think, I get to cook dinner for my family. It's the difference between duty, obligation, chore vs. opportunity or gift of the moment.

While I was driving to a meeting yesterday, I applied this framework to my experiences with grief and loss. In this contemplation, I realized my own experience of loss allows me to see others with new eyes. My grief cracked open my heart and that allows me to be more vulnerable and present for others.  I got to experience heartbreak and loss so I could be more loving and compassionate to others. This is an awesome gift. I get to use this pain as a bridge of understanding to connect with others. I get to use this pain as a starting point for inner growth and gaining depth in my own experiences. I get to be a different person than I was before.

These thoughts were circling in my head, along with a heady sense of joy and recognition, while I walked into the lobby of the Medical Examiner's Office for a public health meeting. This building looks as if the whole city decided to look away from the grief and heartache that happens here and never looked back. As if by ignoring this place, the terrible things that are witnessed and recorded here would cease to exist. I have been in the lobby dozens of times and I can't tell you anything about it except I want to be out of there as quickly as possible.  And its dark and ugly, just a blur of dark and ugly. I never linger.

I signed in with the security desk and walked towards the door to get buzzed into the main building. As I was walking across the narrow lobby I happened to turn my head to the left and see an open door to a room I never noticed before. The room beyond the door was artificially bright in an institutional way. As I realized that there were people in the room, I met eyes with a woman. Her eyes were bloodshot and glazed. Her hair was pulled back into a bun but bits were hanging out here and there like she had just received an electrical shock. She sat slumped on a hard plastic chair between a few other people whose faces I could not see. It was just me and her in all the world for those seconds. In that instant of our eyes meeting, my heart sank. My soul winced because I could see the depth of her despair. I knew.

I had my own trip to the Medical Examiner's Office (Monroe County not Philadelphia). I know how people are polite, if official. I know what it is like to get the phone call. There is no preparation for it. In a second they are gone and there are questions to answer and things to do. I could see it all in the woman's eyes. 

In that second or two, I tried to convey my heart to her. I willed my eyes to show compassion and my face to offer some expression that could comfort her. But I know there was nothing I could do for her other than to see her. To witness her grief. To honor it as sacred. To have enough love in my heart not to look away. 

Once the large door shut behind me I lost my breath. My heart pounded and I could taste blood and tears. My eyes filled and my throat closed up. Deep breaths. Slow deep breaths. I slowly made my way through the bright bare hallways to the bathroom. In that tiny gray stall, listening to my colleagues' chit chat, I took a few minutes to try to understand what had just happened. 

Had my thoughts allowed me to have that experience with the woman? Would I have even noticed her any other day? How many times have I walked past a similar scene with no regard? Why did I see her this time? Is there something larger at play here? Is this some kind of nudge from the universe? 

In the end, it doesn't matter why or how the experience came to be. It only matters that my heart and mind were open to it. None of us asked to be here. None of us willed ourselves alive. We are here because of circumstances and conditions that lead to our birth and everything after it. We have to do the best we can in each moment. How we frame this rollercoaster ride dictates everything. We can look at life as a series of things that happen to us, a series of drudgery, chores, and problems or we can look at it as opportunities and gifts. The choice is ours. Every minute we get a new chance to change our frame.