When asked about suffering, a majority of U.S. adults have a hard time explaining the concept. According to a study by Pew Research, about 44 percent of us think that sometimes bad things “just happen.” (Hence the popularity of our beloved motto sh*t happens?) Another 41 percent blame systemic issues or believe that people reap what they sow. And 19 percent believe suffering provides an opportunity for people to “come out stronger.”
That strength can come from surprising places within us or can stem from external inspirations. A case in point: Barbara Becker, author of Heartwood: The Art of Living With the End in Mind, suggests that we look to the inner workings of trees for help dealing with loss.
Sarah Bowen: What exactly is a tree’s heartwood?
Barbara Becker: Imagine taking a walk through an old-growth forest. Inside every tree is a central pillar, prized by woodworkers, that gives the tree its strength and stability. That core is called heartwood. What’s surprising is that heartwood is no longer alive―it no longer transports water and nutrients. Yet the living growth rings of the tree depend upon the heartwood as they expand and thrive.
It turns out that we people are a lot like the trees. Those we’ve loved and lost form our heartwood, an enduring source of support. Nothing can separate us from those we love … not even death.
Many people suggest that we need to talk about death and dying more. Some suggest that hiding grief—and going it alone—is unhealthy. Would you agree?
I’m thrilled about the rise of the death positive movement, which seeks to destigmatize death and dying by promoting honest conversations. In our death-shy world, it’s truly a radical act to be so open. Death Cafes are now being hosted in 81 countries. People gather to eat cake, sip tea, and talk about mortality. And a new era of green funeral directors is helping us return to age-old practices like skipping embalming and burying our loved ones in natural forest groves. I’m a big believer in welcoming life’s difficult conversations every bit as much—if not more than—the agreeable ones.
You suggest we should “live with the end in mind.” How do we do that? Read more apocalyptic fiction? [chuckle]
For many of us, a journey begins when we lose someone we love deeply, throwing us into despair or an existential crisis. Instead of numbing ourselves and turning away from the most challenging parts, what if we agreed to accept death as a powerful teacher?
I took this idea on big time when my earliest childhood friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I trained with two Zen monks to become a hospice volunteer. I became an eager student of the many ways people find meaning in the face of death. I revisited two painful miscarriages and accompanied my own parents at the end of their lives.
The good news is that there are many small steps we can take. For example, we can treat everyday endings and goodbyes—to work, school, or the grocery store around the corner—with consequence. We can say “I love you” more and tell our loved ones exactly what they bring to our lives. When we’re suffering from the flu or hobbling around with a broken toe, we can try to use that as an opportunity to explore just how fragile and tenuous our bodies can be. These are all lessons in impermanence and meaning, and they really do add up.
Do you have a favorite sacred text, song, or ritual for dealing with loss?
Every night in Zen temples across the globe, monks chant an evening gatha, or meditative verse. I memorized it and recite it frequently to myself, too.
Let me respectfully remind you
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost.
On this night, the days of our life are decreased by one.
Each of us must strive to awaken.
Do not squander your life.
As an animal chaplain, I have to ask: Do you have any thoughts about the loss of pets or free-living animals?
I grew up with parents who taught my brothers and me how to pay undistracted attention in nature. That was in suburban New Jersey―no jaw-dropping wilderness required! We would stop what we were doing and watch in awe whenever the fox and her pups cut across the yard. We marveled when a pair of cardinals built a nest, laid eggs, and hatched young ones who fledged outside our kitchen window. We knew those birds so well that we noticed when the older pairs would die every few years, and new couples would arrive.
There’s no better way to introduce the cycle of life and death to young people than by heightening their appreciation for the animal kingdom. My husband got me a pair of binoculars at the pandemic’s start, and I took up urban bird watching. It restored my sense of presence and brought me incredible joy during a time of so much loss.
How about eco-grief over habitats?
When the most recent wildfire was blazing in California, an exhausted official remarked to a reporter, “Mother Nature throws a lot at us.” I reflected that I might have phrased it differently, “Look at what we have thrown at Mother Nature!”
The destruction of habitats and our very real eco-grief must serve as a wake-up call to take responsibility for, frankly, the sickness of our materialism and over-consumption. We must muster genuine compassion and kindness for ourselves and all beings as we do it. The intention has to be love, not fear and despair.
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