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A Framework for Grieving

I’m a framework guy, as many of you know. For those not familiar with the term, we use it in the world of software development to describe pre-existing code you can leverage in a project of you own in hopes of making your job easier. A good framework can be like graph paper when you’re drawing a map: you could draw a map on a blank sheet of paper, but your lines would probably drift and points may not line up as they should. Using a sheet of graph paper helps enforce straight lines and proper proportions. Similarly, a good software framework should help enforce, or make readily apparent, a proper way of doing things.

In the past few months I have faced tremendous challenges. Challenges I pray none of you reading this will ever face (in fact, I hope this is the most useless blog post you will ever read). My wife passed away in August at the age of 43, having fought metastatic breast cancer for over a year. Please scroll through our CaringBridge journal if you’d like to replay that. What I’d like to dissect now is the framework which has evolved in my mind while dealing with the grief of losing my wife and the mother of my three young children.

Our Worldly Business

Franya, my wife, has left the body which her spirit inhabited for the past 43 years. She has returned to spirit, and thus, in a sense, is no longer Franya. Or more precisely, she is still Franya but now so much more. As I tweeted from her hospice room after talking her through this transition: she has passed, but her journey continues. She is no longer here in the bodily form we knew. We are still here, of course: spirits still in bodies. These two points set up the basic framework that has helped me organize my thoughts and feelings during this process: she has begun a new journey, we are still here.

Let me break it down. Those of us left behind in this world have a humongous loss to come to terms with. A person who was here is no longer. How the f**k do we deal with that truth? I want her back—I want my kids to grow up with their mom—but that will not happen. Death, this most natural of things, feels entirely unnatural, and we, as humans in this world, are left that burden. Some of us deal with this alone, some of us deal with it together, but we all must deal. This is the business of us still in the world, spirits in bodies dealing with the imperfections of this existence: eating when we are hungry, sleeping when we are tired, grieving during times of loss.

The point here is that us dealing with this loss here in our world has very little to do with who Franya is right now, having transitioned out of her body. It has to do with us doing the work to heal the gaping wound left in our lives by Franya’s departure.

Gifts for Franya

On the other hand, there are things we can do here in this world that will reach and affect Franya. According to Swami Sivananda (the guru in my lineage as a yoga teacher) in his 1964 book Bliss Divine:

When the departed souls are sinking peacefully and when they are ready to have a glorious awakening in heaven, they are aroused into vivid remembrance of the mundane life by weeping and wailing of their friends and relatives. The thoughts of the mourning people produce similar vibrations in their minds and bring about acute pain and discomfort. And the uncontrolled grief of their relatives drags them down from their astral planes. This may seriously retard them on their way to the heaven-world. This produces serious injury to them.

While I have questions about this passage (What is uncontrolled grief? How can weeping be a bad thing?), it does indicate that the thoughts and feelings we experience in the “mundane” world create ripples that reach up to the “astral planes.” If that is the case, then there is very clearly something we can do for Franya now—wherever, whatever, or whenever she is: we can celebrate. Sing, dance, feast, love… embrace the blessings of this existence. Raise her higher.

This is the graph paper on which I strive to come to terms with this loss. It is with these beacons that I navigate the ever-changing waters of grief. On the one hand, we have work to do in this world to cope with a tremendous loss, work that takes patience and an open mind. On the other hand there are still gifts we can give to Franya. By rejoicing in life and celebrating hers we can assist her in her journey onward to whatever is next.

In Practice

These two aspects of grieving were distilled for me on the day of Franya’s funeral. That morning we came together with family and friends to perform the ritual of burial. A ritual that, for me, is a very worldly practice: we returned Franya’s remains to the earth. We also sang, spoke, listened, stood in silence, and each said goodbye in our different ways. For those who want to say goodbye privately, there is now a sacred place where they can go to do so. I think Franya was watching that morning, but she was watching us doing our worldly work of mourning.

After that morning of ritual we all returned to our home where we had a plentiful feast prepared for everyone to eat and drink their fill. We had musicians, dancing, played Franya’s music, shared in conversation, children played, there was an open mic (to the chagrin of our neighbors), and in the evening walked to the park and howled at the full moon. In short, we partied our asses off in celebration of a beautiful woman we had all come to love. I like to think our celebration that night lightened her soul and freed her some from this world, so that her journey may continue.

Franya died so young and unexpectedly that many of us still feel strong attachments to her—attachments that keep her close. By finding joy and embracing the gifts of this existence and gently loosening these attachments, we demonstrate to Franya and ourselves that we are going to be okay. These were some of my words to her on that afternoon as I ran my fingers through her hair. There is so much love here. We are going to be okay.