I once read a story about a desperate young mother whose firstborn child had taken ill and died. Grief stricken, she carried the body of the child to Buddha and asked him to perform a miracle and bring the little one back to life. The Buddha told her that the only way he could do this was if she could bring him a grain of mustard seed from any home in the city that had never been touched by death. Elated, she immediately rushed from house to house, only to find out that her mission was impossible. Every home had experienced death and she came to realize that her loss was not unique.
What brought this little story to mind was a small wooden cross I saw nailed to a tree next to the freeway, inscribed with the name of a young lady who had obviously died tragically on that spot. I don’t know about elsewhere in the world, but there is a growing tendency in South Africa and Namibia to commemorate accident spots like this – sometimes a telephone pole or a traffic light is decorated with flowers, but mostly little crosses are erected next to the road. I’m not worried about a wreath laid at the spot where the person has died – wreaths get cleared away, but it’s the wooden or iron roadside crosses that remain indefinitely.
I often wonder why the grieving families do this. Does the age of the deceased have anything to do with it, or is it done even when an older person dies accidentally? And what do they hope to achieve by marking the spot like this? Whilst there is indescribable sadness involved in losing a family member this way, surely these morbid memorials merely serve to perpetuate the pain for the grieving families each time they drive past the site.
It really gets my back up when I see these crosses, as I actually feel that this practice almost borders on arrogance. Are they implying that their family member’s untimely death was worse than anyone else’s? It is just as painful and tragic to lose a loved one to illness, drowning, suicide, murder or accident, but the rest of us don’t go putting up crosses on hospital lawns, on driveways or in buildings where our loved ones have died suddenly or tragically.
They might argue that it is to warn other drivers about the dangers of that particular spot, but I think this is secondary in their minds. Many times the cross is on a dead straight section of road where there is no danger except perhaps of falling asleep. Succumbing to tiredness could happen anywhere on the road, so why mark the spot. They are putting their grief on show instead of handling it with quiet dignity and fortitude. The memory of their loved one should live on in their hearts. It surely doesn’t take a cross at the side of the road to commemorate the unfortunate accident victim. If crosses sprang up for every road death, we would have littering on an alarming scale.
For months I drove past a cross next to the highway, where fresh flowers were placed every week. My heart went out to the person or persons who performed this loving ritual, but my sadness was for their inability to move on from a tragic event. It also begged the question of whether they had buried or cremated their loved one. Were they putting flowers in the cemetery as well as at the roadside?
Obviously everyone copes with death differently and there is no right way of working through grief. I think, however, that what we need to do is ponder on life and death whilst we are alive and maybe even chat about our views and feelings at family gatherings. This may sound macabre and not the sort of thing people should really dwell on, but it would go a long way towards easing the pain of those left behind.
If you made it perfectly clear to family members that you didn’t want the family grieving for long or putting their lives on hold because you weren’t with them anymore, it could be very comforting and liberating for them. They would be fulfilling your wishes by not grieving and being miserable and by moving on with their lives. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves for having lost a wonderful family member, they could turn it around and be thankful for having had the good fortune to have shared a part of their lives with that special person. They could then celebrate that life and get on with their own, which incidentally, after a loss, should take on a new meaning for them as they realize that life can be short and needs to be lived to the fullest.
I guess that it’s our resistance to change that causes our heartache when someone close dies. The problem is that we foolishly believe in permanence. There’s no such thing. Even now, our bodies are changing and cells are dying every day. Our lives, like an ocean tide are in a constant state of ebb and flow and we have very little control over the changes that take place around us. When we try to clutch at things, to control them and hang on to them, we suffer, because we’re trying to work against nature. We so desperately want everything to continue as it is that we believe that things will never, or should never change. Unfortunately this belief has little to do with reality and leads to great pain.
I’m not a Buddhist, but I do believe that their policy of non-attachment makes a whole lot of sense. They believe that we should not be attached to anything – people, outcomes, events, etc. On the surface it sounds like a very shallow way of living, because after all we are very much attached to those people and things we love. However, when one thinks about it, it is these attachments that bring us the most pain in our lives. When we’re attached to material things, we mourn their loss; when we are attached to people, houses, jobs or relationships, we mourn their loss. When we attach ourselves to outcomes over which we have no control, we are thrown when they don’t come to pass, or when they are not what we envisaged.
Non-attachment doesn’t mean living without loving. It means having the emotional maturity to move on when faced with the transient nature of life. It certainly sounds like an ideal worth striving for and I for one wouldn’t want my family to be attached to tragic events, but rather to carry their love for me in their hearts after I’m gone, instead of on a little iron cross next to the roadside. I’d rather be remembered by something more positive, like a plaque on a bench at my favourite viewsite or in a lovely garden of remembrance.
Let me end by saying that I’m certainly not there yet and have a long way to go before I can claim that I’m not attached to anything.