Flowers, Impermanence and the Grief Cycle

The death of a loved one is a painful event. The loss of a loved one  means the world as we knew it has changed and those changes require that we in turn adjust to a new “normal.” As time passes and more people we know pass away and we are reminded of our own inevitable end.  Yet thanks to impermanence everything is possible.  Life itself is possible.

Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing one another. It is said that  butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side.  Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.  — Thich Nath Hanh

Japanese cultural tradition and classical Japanese philosophy understands the basic reality as constant change, or (to use a Buddhist expression) impermanence. The world of flux that presents itself to our senses is the only reality: there is no conception of some stable “Platonic” realm above or behind it.  In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, awareness of the fundamental condition of existence is no cause for nihilistic despair, but rather a call to vital activity in the present moment and to gratitude for another moment’s being granted to us. — Japanese Aesthetics

In Buddhism, a lotus flower is symbolized as an awakening of the spiritual self and to Japanese Buddhists the lotus flower symbolizes Buddha’s life.   Blooming in mid summer the lotus symbolizes perfection, truth and immortality. A lotus flower emerges from mud, slowly grows toward the surface of water and finally when it reaches the  surface, it blooms.

My mother loved flowers and Ikebana the Japanese art of flower arranging, just as I do.  The beginning of  ikebana can be traced to the 6th century introduction of Buddhism to the Japanese with offering of flowers placed on the altar in honor of Buddha.  Ikebana is more than simply putting flowers in a container. It is a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature. Buds may represent youth and innocence, full blooms maturity and virility, and sticks or withered flowers may convey age and wisdom.

In Japanese culture, the concept of death with dignity focuses on enhancing the relationship with significant others (especially with family members) and is expected to continue even after death, unlike the autonomous decision-making in Western cultures. Deaths in such relationships are self-worthy, majestic and wished for. As I grieve my loss I paint flowers, admire the vintage Japanese doll collection my mother left me, soak in bubblebaths, meditate and honor her memory.

Awareness and understanding of nature’s laws allow for pro-active involvement in day-to-day interactions with others. This knowledge provides a basis for dispelling negativity and fear for life is fleeting and time is precious.

If you or someone you know has lost a loved one, the following tips which have helped me, may help you or another cope with the loss:

  1. Let yourself feel the pain and all the other emotions, too. Don’t tell yourself how to feel or let others tell you how you should feel.
  2. Forgive yourself for all the things you did or didn’t say or do. Compassion and forgiveness for yourself and others is required for healing.
  3. Talk about your loss, your memories, and your experience of the life and death of your loved one with others who have loved and lost.
  4. Take  good care of yourself. Eat well and exercise daily.  Allow yourself small physical pleasures that help you renew yourself, like hot baths, naps, and favorite foods.
  5. When you feel ready, do something creative to honor the memory of your loved one.  Some options include: Writing a letter to the person who died to say everything you wish you could say to them; Making a commemorative scrapbook; Painting pictures; Planting flowers or trees; Or involving yourself in a cause or activity that your loved one loved.

Related posts:
Alan Watts – Death
A time to mourn
Love is a Rose
A Bleak February

Further reading:
Asia in My Dreams: Romanticizing the East
Romanticizing the West:  Asian Craze for European Gourmet Desserts

36 thoughts on “Flowers, Impermanence and the Grief Cycle

  1. Pingback: Starting Over: Working Through Pain and Developing Inner Strength | this time - this space

  2. Pingback: From Grief to Gratitude | this time – this space

  3. It’s a bit late in the day, but I wanted to extend my sincere condolences on the loss of your mom.

    I’m also very sorry for your ongoing health issues. Your positive attitude in the face of such challenges is very inspiring. Hope you’re feeling better, will keep you in my prayers.

  4. Pingback: the 4 noble truths of Buddhism « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

  5. On my last trip to Japan, I attended a pre-funeral memorial service for my wife’s uncle who was, like her and her father, a Christian. It was extremely moving (and I speak as a non-Japanese speaking Jewish atheist!) to experience Japanese formality, dignity and stoicism accompanied by beautiful hymns such as Abide With Me.

    P.S. Thanks for solving my WordPress problem just like that!

  6. Pingback: Dealing with Death « TED Cleaver

  7. Shortly before my mother took her life, she told my brothers and me that she would want us to remember her with our hearts. We do, although 9 years ago I was an emotional wreck. Just like you, I found useful advice in Buddhism. The simple proposition that it is much more fair, realistic, constructive, compassionate, and loving to look someone in the eye while they are on their deathbed and say: “Thank you. Thank you for everything you have given me. I don’t know where you are going, but I love you, I know you will be fine, and I wish you a pleasant journey.”

    Sorry, there is too much on my mind for a comment, so I’ll make a post on my blog. If you agree, I’d like to link this post.

    Your blog is very inspiring, from the design to the content. What I particularly like about this post is your 1st piece of practical advice. Looking for books on grief, I found one by a psychologist, specialized in grief, who has lost his son in a car accident. He realized that the theory informed treatment he had been offering his patients for years was not helpful. What was helpful was proactively confronting the emotional pain by keeping the memory of his son fresh. This is more crass than your advice, and of course the situation is different.. but the idea is the same. End of the day, the intensity of our “negative” emotions is proportionate to the intensity of our positive emotions.

    The way you write, you come across as very well-balanced. I am sorry to hear about your loss, the circumstances thereof, and the moment in time. At the same time, it is encouraging to see people who have so much insight in life and death.

    • Hi Ted,
      Thank you so much for your comment and your compliment on my writing. Yes, of course, you can link to my post in one of your own. I will look forward to reading it.

  8. This is a beautiful post. I also love to see how other cultures deal with the passing of a loved one.

    When my last grandparent died, she had Alzheimer’s. I could not have the normal conversation one could have with someone who may be near death. I was fortunate in that I knew Reiki.

    So, when I sent her some Reiki, I prayed to her highest self that it was okay for her to pass on. A few days later, she did pass on.

    Most of my sadness and grief were present before she passed on, and it hit me harder than I expected.

    These days, if there is emotional turmoil, I do some of the things you suggested – let it be although that isn’t always easy for me because I want the emotions to move through me quickly. I also listen to some spiritual healing meditations that deal with emotions and the soul as that seems to be the most calming over time.

    In any case, I want to share this poem with you. I wrote it after my 2nd grandfather passed away:

    Celebration of Life

    With the last breath
    The soul passes on
    Free to return home
    To the eternal bliss
    Lessons abound from this lifetime on
    Passed from generation to generation
    From the old to the young and
    The young to the old
    Some say this great soul
    Lives in memory
    Some say this soul
    Lives in our hearts
    Some know not where
    The soul goes
    And some say the soul
    Lives in and around
    In the all that is
    What say you on this sweet
    Breezy day?
    Tears glistening as crystals on
    Faces young and old
    What say you amidst
    The warmth of the sun?
    Laughter ringing out amidst
    Memories of old
    What say you on
    This day of connection and love?
    Don’t let it pass, don’t let it go,
    Savor the moment
    The memory of today
    For today is the day of gathering
    A snapshot in time in celebration of life.

    • What a beautiful poem. Thank you so much for sharing it with me and my readers too. The emotional turmoil I experienced had dissipated by the time I chose to publish this article.

  9. This is a great post. It was very moving, insightful, and entrancing. Grief is a dificult thing to deal with. It takes time to adjust and accept the loss of a love one.

  10. Dear Rand,
    I have not seen this previously and it moved me to tears. I accept your “Talking Stone” so graciously offered. It reminds me of the BC jade stone I carry with me everywhere and hold in my palm when I feel small and afraid. Then I remember the day I found it on the beach while walking with my dad when I was young and he was still with me in this world.

  11. On the small patch of grass within my ‘Peace Garden’ lies a garden ‘Inspiration Stone’ that I made with my youngest daughter. Besides using the different pieces of glass objects supplied in the kit, we cemented in shells, coral, then left our finger prints. We also placed broken pieces of my father’s grave marker from 1973. When my mother passed away in 2002 we had a new marker made for the two of them. The granite shards are both ‘smooth’ (happiness) and ‘rough’ (concerned… or the loss)

    I offer you this stone in my hand as a token of my warmth and appreciation for this beautiful expression of your loss. The ‘Talking Stone’ is also an expression of my concern for your loss.

    I still have dreams of my dad, though he has been gone for nearly 40 years now.

    This closing scene from Departures brings tears to my eyes every time:

    Thank you,

    Rand

  12. Hi TT, what a beautiful and touching post, as always.

    “….awareness of the fundamental condition of existence is no cause for nihilistic despair, but rather a call to vital activity in the present moment and to gratitude for another moment’s being granted to us.” – This line resonated deeply with me. After all, it’s all we have, and hopefully our resonances will live on peacefully in the medium around us.

    Thanks for this beautiful post, and I wish you feel better soon :)

    • Hi sprigblossoms,
      Though I still have nerve pain it’s subsiding and almost all of my other symptoms have disappeared – hooray! I’m looking forward to feeling energetic again soon.

  13. Hi Timethief,

    Ah, the death of a loved one is indeed a painful event indeed. It is inevitable, but knowing this does not make the loss any easier to bear. A part of us dies when our loved one passes on. The healing process may be difficult depending on who this loved one was in our life. The closer this person was, the harder and more painful it is.

    I have always been fascinated by Japanese culture. Although being an INFJ, I guess I am still a boy or a guy at heart and I gravitate more to the martial culture of Japan. But still, I find it interesting to see the aspects of zen and woven into Japanese thinking.

    There is no greater reminder of impermanence that comes with war and the death it brings. The change, the pain and suffering that the common people have to endure, these are the realities of war wherever it may happen. I always admired the way Samurais chose death over dishonour. Although, I personally find it hard to agree with such an action, their courage is commendable. The death poems that they prepare are also unique to them.

    I love the tips you have shared in dealing with pain and loss. As an INFJ, I too have giving advice along these lines as well. We need to embrace our pain and to let the healing process take its course.

    One thing I wish to add is to reframe your suffering.

    Viktor Frankl, the holoucaust survivor and psychotherapist, once shared this story. An old man who had just lost his wife came to see him. Frankl did not offer the usual advice, since there was nothing that he could say which was not already said to soothe the man. Instead, Frankl asked the man how his wife would have felt if she had lived and he had died. The man replied that she would have been devastated. So Frankl said that by living, the man had spared his wife that pain. By giving meaning to his suffering, Frankl helped the man to endure the pain he felt.

    Perception is everything when it comes to pain and loss. Choose perceptions that empower instead of crippling you.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

    • Dear Irving,

      Thank you so much for your comment. For many years I automatically prevented myself from experiencing any perceived harm or suffering or even thinking about it. I had fibromyalgia for years before I learned that to heal one has to feel. I accepted the fact I was not going to become magically cured of my ailments and I was my own healer. I chose to be with the pain and I made an attitude adjustment that helped me transcend it. Unsurprisingly, I have found the grieving process is much the same. Again we have to be willing to feel to heal.

      “Perception is everything when it comes to pain and loss. Choose perceptions that empower instead of crippling you.”
      So true and good advice.

      Solitary now —
      Standing amidst the blossoms
      Is a cypress tree. — Basho

      Outside my window
      A windblown cherry tree shivers
      Like tears blossoms fall.

  14. Greetings TiTi,

    I followed your link from Zeenat’s:

    ‘3 Powerful Steps that WILL Fill Your Life with Miracles’ post.

    First, I wish to offer my condolences on the loss of your Mother. I remember the comment you left regards to her passing with Zeenat. I felt your loss at the time…

    Thank you for offering your observations on the Japanese culture’s celebration of death…truly an expression of love and respect, with so much care and feeling. The 2008 Academy Award winner for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ – ‘Departures’ is a must see for anyone who cares to obtain a further knowledge of their actual practices for the preparing and honoring of their decease.

    Since reading Z’s latest post I have been seeing ‘signs’ of threes. There is the saying: ‘Death comes in threes’.

    As you know…if one lives long enough…one may see a vast assortment of ‘threes’…I sure have. I have also greived a vast assortment of ways reflective of the many ways death comes.

    If I may, please allow me to offer these ‘Three Graces’ as examples of the embodiment of grace and beauty in regards to birth and death:

    *This first poem is in memory of Paige my now deceased sister’s first child that died before being allowed into this world:

    For the Unborn Child: VII

    You will enter the world where death by fear and explosion
    Is waited: longed for by many; by all dreamed.
    You will enter the world where various poverty
    Makes thin the imagination and the bone.
    You will enter the world where birth is walled about,
    Where years are walled journeys, death a walled-in act.
    You will enter the world which eats itself
    Naming faith, reason, naming love, truth, fact.
    You in your dark lake moving darkly now
    Will leave a house that time makes, times to come
    Enter the present, where all the deaths and all
    The old betrayals have come home again.
    World where again Judas, the little child,
    May grow and choose. You will enter the world.

    ~ Muriel Rukeyser 1948, 1951

    *This poem is my loving prayer for a long ‘miraculous life’ for one that I love:

    from ‘Courage’

    “Later,
    when you face old age and its natural conclusion
    your courage will still be shown in the little ways,
    each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
    those you love will live in a fever of love,
    and you’ll bargain with the calendar
    and at the last moment
    when death opens the back door
    you’ll put on your carpet slippers
    and stride out.”

    ~ Anne Sexton

    *This poem is for all who have made their ‘departure':

    J. 449

    I died for Beauty–but was scarce
    Adjusted in the Tomb
    When One who died for Truth, was lain
    In an adjoining Room–

    He questioned softly “Why I failed?”
    “For Beauty,” I replied–
    “And I–for Truth–Themself are One–
    We Brethren are,” He said–

    And so, as Kinsmen, met at Night–
    We talked between the Rooms–
    Until the Moss had reached our lips–
    And covered up–our names–

    ~ Emily Dickinson 1862, 1890

    In the Sierra’s there is the ‘Mariposa Grove’. In it there is the grouping of giant sequoias named: ‘The Three Graces and the Bachelor’.

    With the ‘bachelor’ being Charles Bukowski I leave this:

    ‘only one thing comes without a
    disguise and you only see it once,
    or maybe never. like getting hit by a freight train’.

    Thank you for being here in this time and place.

    Rand

    • Dear Rand,
      It’s good to meet you. Thank you so much for this lovely comment which I treasure. Your ‘Three Graces’ are beautiful and I’m so pleased you chose to share them here.

  15. It’s a great post, timethief. The background for this blog right now, is appropriate (though I know it will change soon).

    I think the hardest part of loving is redirecting it in a different way when the person is no longer alive. I am not so sure that I could replant /replace 1 love for a person with something new. Over a person’s lifespan, who we love for a long time, becomes like a garden of people that we love and that we create which grows and expands in different ways and in different colours to reflect how our love differs per person in our lives.

    I just think that those who pass away, is like a tree and its shape that is still friendly, standing in the garden, its roots allowing other new things to grow at its feet, the next generation, next circle of people that the person’s life touched.

    • Hi Jean,
      I love your garden and tree metaphors. My husband and I commemorate the lives of those who are no longer with us my planting a significant tree in their memory. I will be planting an ornamental Japanaese cherry tree in honor of my mother. She loved the cherry blossom trees on the coast that herald the arrival of spring and so do I.

  16. A strikingly beautiful post…there is something so liberating about coming to grips with our impermanence; it makes way for us to really live and enjoy life. I hope you feel better soon.

  17. ‘The death of a loved one is a painful event. The loss of a loved one means the world as we knew it has changed and those changes require that we in turn adjust to a new “normal.” ‘

    All my life I have been, shall we say, a rebel, I have always abhorred convention and ceremony, I do not own a suit or a shirt with a collar that I could put my tie on, in fact I cannot even remember why I have a tie!
    And yet in all my deaths, that is death that is close to me in some way, it is respect for convention and ceremony that has been a help to me to ‘adjust to a new ‘normal’

    2 weeks ago I lost, no I didn’t lose, I had to end, my dog’s life. For 11 years she was my protector, friend and constant companion, during her life we were only apart for 10 days. She was close to death, couldn’t even hold her head up properly, we think the result of a couple of strokes, For the last week I nursed her 24 hours a day, carrying her out when it appeared she needed a wee etc. For me it was the death of a loved one.
    Death, for me was always something spiritual, this was different, when Coco died I lost a being that loved me, I lost that love.

    And whether we are a Taoist sage or Buddhist monk it is right and proper to express the sorrow of that love lost. For me, the pain of the emptiness left in place of that lost love can be helped by a respect for convention and ceremony, of any belief system, a stiff upper lip as they say in the UK and getting on with life, a different life, that new “normal”.

    The shit feeling of emptiness (not the good emptiness of Buddhism) is just the body making the room needed that will be filled with the new love and happiness on the horizon!

    • Dear Steve,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I have also loved and lost two constant canine companions and empathize with your loss of Coco. http://thistimethisspace.com/2009/05/22/an-interruption/ For me the stiff upper lip does not work as taking that course caused me to suppress my feelings rather than fully experiencing them.

      Here’s an Eckhart Tolle quote that resonates for me:

      “Many expressions that are in common usage, and sometimes the structure of language itself, reveal the fact that people don’t know who they are. You say: “He lost his life” or “my life,” as if life were something that you can possess or lose. The truth is: you don’t have life, you are life. The One Life, the one consciousness that pervades the entire universe and takes temporary form to experience itself as a stone or blade of grass, as an animal, a person, a star or a galaxy. Death is a stripping away of all that is not you. The secret of life is to “die before you die” — and find that there is no death. Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.”

  18. Wonderful suggestions, TT, from every point of view-pragmatically, psychologically, spiritually. Only someone who has experienced deep grief themselves could share such life-affirming insights. I’m sorry to hear that you yourself haven’t been feeling well and hope that changes very soon.

    • Hi Marty,
      My mom died just before Christmas and we had many unresolved issues. There was no way to resolve them after she began to suffer with dementia, so it has taken me a long time to get to the creative stage in my grieving process. Hopefully, what I have shared will be helpful to others.

      P.S. I am getting better but the recovery is a very slow, and I must be cautious not to push myself as if I do my health will crash again.

  19. This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve read on the subject of death. We lost my brother-in-law seven months ago, my father-in-law a couple of months ago, and yesterday, my aunt (my mother’s sister) was taken off of life support. It’s difficult to lose these presences in our lives. A friend recently noted that we’re entering “The Age of Loss.” Your post puts a new, gently flowing perspective on dealing with that loss. I’m forwarding this to my mom and my husband. Thank you, timethief.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your losses. Your grief is new and raw and it takes time to adjust and accept what is. During that time we reflect on our own demise and that is a very difficult time.

      I have lost my father, who I was very close too (expected death), 3 close friends (unexpected deaths) and my mother who I had issues with (expected death) in just a few short years. I have two siblings with life threatening health illnesses and I’m finding that the circle of close family and fiends is growing smaller daily. I’m weak and frail both physcially and mentally and doing the best I can to take good care of me.

      The experience that’s done the most to shape my outlook on life and the person I am constantly becoming is meditation. We are all constantly changing perhaps imperceptibly but changing nevertheless; changing based on circumstances and our responses to them and thoughts about them. I’ve prepared for death twice now and both times I lived on after the fear of pain and suffering had dissipated. There are levels of consciousness beyond the physical one and death and rebirth are part of the continuous process of change. We are not only reborn at the time of death of our bodies, we are born and reborn at every moment. Whether we look at the body or the mind, our experience is characterized by continuous birth, death and rebirth.

      http://thistimethisspace.com/2011/08/15/constantly-becoming-me/

      At this time of loss my heart reaches out to you. May your family be drawn closer together. May you be able to celebrate the precious moments in your lives knowing that a conscious life is lived in the moment.

  20. Very moving, insightful, and entrancing. I’m amazing by how you interweave the elements of flower, beauty, grief and compassionate advice into a beautiful blossom offered to all of us.

    • Hello Sandra,
      At first I found it odd that my mother’s long-expected death affected me so profoundly. But when I had the courage to examine our relationship I recognized how much unfinished business (unresolved emotions) I had. Sadly, she began to suffer from dementia before we could resolve those issues so at first I was frutrated by my inability to reach her and still caught up in being unforgiving. During this troubled time I have been re-reading a book that has been very helpful to me. The book and my practice have helped me recognize that although people pass away our relationships with them don’t.

      Have you read Toni Bernhard’s book, How To Be Sick–A Buddhist’s Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers? It’s accurately described as an invitation to gently set aside the fear and the fight in order to truly live. It is based on principles of Buddhism, which she carefully applies to her own chronic and at times debilitating illness. She had to learn ways to make “being sick” the heart of her spiritual practice—and through truly learning how to be sick, she learned how, even with many physical and energetic limitations, to live a life of equanimity, compassion, and joy. Her book has helped me how to be kind to myself, to counter negative thoughts about my life and health, and to live fully in the present—neither regretting the past nor fearing the future.

      I have found much insight and wisdom in Zeenat’s blog http://positiveprovocations.com and your blog http://alwayswellwithin.com that have been blessings to me. For those life lessons and for your friendship across the miles I thank you both.

      Love and peace

    • Dear Miriam Louisa,
      Though it’s hard to accept these losses we suffer prepare us for our own demise. Life is a precious gift and the legacy we leave behind is the gift that keeps on giving – memories. May this anniversary of your mother’s life be a day of blessed memories for you.

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