Loving the Living with the Love of the Dead - Steven Hickman, Psy.D.

Photo courtesy of Brad Stewart

Photo courtesy of Brad Stewart

I have a wide open day ahead of me here in the San Francisco Bay Area and am eagerly anticipating a welcome return to the coastline of Point Reyes National Seashore and a meandering and rejuvenating drive up the coast through my childhood coastal stomping grounds. One stop along the way might be a brief visit to the seaside grave of my father-in-law, whom I have never met, but who rests in my heart because of what he meant to my beloved wife and the warmth and admiration that flows from her every time she speaks of him. I am the welcome and grateful recipient of his fatherhood in this way.

And so the thought floated up out of my waking moments: “What if we could be with the living breathing people in our lives, the way we are with the dead?” That may sound a little strange, but bear with me for a moment.

How are we when we stand there awkwardly looking down at whatever tangible marker might have been placed as a proxy to the vibrant existence of a family member or friend? We feel a certain presence of the deceased, but largely our attention is broad enough to include a kind of warm attentiveness to our own selves as we recall the person who once walked and talked and breathed with us.

We are quiet, respectful, patient, receptive and tender in our attention. We may feel the reverberations of grief and loss that the person’s passing brought to us, but it is a kind of nostalgia (the roots of that word referring to “the pain of remembering”) that bears the mellow sweetness of the time that cliché has told us heals all wounds. And we are finally free of the constricting web of a change agenda for the other. The “if only” and the conditional melt away with the reality of the absolute and the imperative of this very moment as it is, without holding or pushing away, even if we would like to do so.

We may also ride the harsher waves of hurts, resentments, wounds that never really healed, anger at abandonment, fear of life without this person who simply desired what we all desire: to have peace, satisfaction and joy in life, no matter how he or she went about seeking that. But we are finally and ultimately aware that absolutely nothing can be done but to meet this suffering within ourselves with some degree of kindness and gentleness, and perhaps the wisps of forgiveness. Forgiveness of this person who was ultimately and inevitably human, flawed and subject to failure, mistakes, desire and delusion, and vulnerable to the reality of mortality.

And perhaps some opportunity for forgiveness of ourselves is also present in the space of dwelling in the presence of the dead and buried. Forgiveness of ourselves as we realize that we are the only ones that have been truly and completely bequeathed to our daily and lifelong care. If we are to experience healing, change, improvement, relief and release, it will come from deep within us when we shift our relationship to the outer world and tend warmly and compassionately to what is within us.

How would it be if we had tea with a friend and sat with them as we sit with the dead: delicately attuned to our own experience, reflective but fully present, riding the gentle undulations of the heart as the encounter unfolds word by word, expression by expression, emotion by emotion. Is there, in the end, a more respectful and self-compassionate way of connecting with those we love than by connecting warmly with our own tender beating heart and treating it in the same warm way we treat a heart in its eventual repose?

Previously published on stuckinmeditation.com. Published here with permission of the author.

Steven Hickman, Psy.D., is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Clinical Professor in the UC San Diego Departments of Psychiatry and Family & Preventive Medicine. He is also the Founder and Executive Director of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. He has been teaching mindfulness, in the form of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and more recently, Mindful Self-Compassion for 12 years.

We're excited to have Steven in Edmonton this August to co-lead Mindful Self-Compassion: 5-Day Residential Intensive!