Nothing has spurred me more on my practice than the sudden death of loved ones.
Every time I hear an ambulance, or a police siren, or learn about an accident on the highway. I stop and I remind myself: It could have been otherwise, it could have been me.
When riding the subway, I see a young couple standing at the platform and kissing. And for just a moment, I consider how pleasant being in someone’s embrace would be — we anticipate it, we are told to cherish it, we strive for it. But then their life goes on from that platform. It goes through the train doors and onto the streets. There are bills to pay, jobs to work, cancers to fight. And in the end, even if all that is hoped for comes true — after elderly diapers to change and hallucinations to dwell upon — there are tears to shed when; like all things; it passes from this world.
People are dying everyday. We cannot delay here: not in our joy, not in our shock, not in our grief. We have to move on: no planning or worry can protect us. Today may be your last day here: are you ready to go?
But it harms us to think of death in a fearful way. There is nothing to gain from fearing death. The Buddha explains in the aptly named Discourse on Fear and Terror, that fear arises from an undisciplined mind, like how a flame arises from wood. The logs are craving, aversion, sloth & torpor, impatience & remorse, and undue doubts. If you remove the logs, fear cannot form. What you can do to remove these logs is develop the seven factors of awakening in order: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity.
I also think it harms us to think we can help those who have gone. We try to bear the unbearable burden. In Buddhist circles, it can become tempting to think “Well, if they’re going to be reborn, maybe we will meet again in another life.” or “If they’re going to be reborn, I’ll develop the so-called powers (siddhis) to contact them in the next life.” — such views should be dropped immediately.
Think of it like a long cross-country race in the wilderness. It’s rainy and muddy and the course has many hills and places with uneven ground. But you are a runner, and you have to run this race. The first batch of runners to finish get awards, the rest have to keep training for the next race. So the gun goes off, and everyone’s running. People trip in the mud — teammates and rivals alike — and are literally out of the running. There’s no time to lose, so you must simply keep going ahead and apply what qualities you have into the race: endurance, discipline, breathing, cadence, running form, hydration, and nutrition — in order to win the race. If you were to stop for every runner who tripped, you would just slog along and be distracted from the finish line. You may, yourself, trip.
In the same way, you have life. You are born, and life is already happening. People you grow attached to, or are neutral to, or hate, disappear from your life through moving away or death, and you can never see them again. You don’t have much time, you cannot look back to rescue the people who’ve died because there simply isn’t the time. You have to go forward through the days of your life and apply what qualities you have into it: mindfulness, investigation, energy, rapture, calm, concentration, and equanimity — in order to attain freedom. If you keep looking back, trying to save or mourn those who have gone, you will destroy yourself.
“You cannot worry about what others are doing. You cannot clean away their suffering like a vacuum. You will destroy yourself.”
Now you may be thinking “Wait, what about good sportsmanship awards? Those exist!” and of course if you’re a runner and you see someone trip in real life, race or not, for goodness sake help them. But as the Buddha said in the Sedaka Sutta, you have to look out for your own mind first and make sure that you’re doing the right things — so that you aren’t a burden onto others. You cannot worry about what others are doing. You cannot clean away their suffering like a vacuum. You will destroy yourself.
But what you can do is take stock of the great times that happened when you were with that person. Think of their good qualities. Think of the good times. And honor them not at a gravesite, but in every day of your life yet before you — one by one as they occur.