During a recent discussion with my Zen cohort, someone mentioned that inside of grief is great love. I had never thought about grief in this way before. I had always thought of it in strictly negative terms and not as originating from positive emotion.
I’ve worked a lot with grief. There are ways in which I grieve the childhood that I wasn’t allowed to have. There are ways in which I grieve the relationship with my father that I once had (or thought I had) but no longer do. It’s this loss that I’ve been thinking about a lot of late.
The reason I’ve been thinking a lot about my father is because this week I’m receiving the Five Grace Precepts from my teachers. There’s a part during the ceremony where you are supposed to honor your parents by bowing to them. If your parents are in attendance, you bow in front of them. If your parents are not present, you turn and bow in their direction. The idea behind this is not to demonstrate some kind of subservience to your parents, but to honor their contribution to your life. After all, regardless of how you choose to judge this contribution, your parents enabled you to have life in the first place. My mother will be in attendance, so I will be able to bow to her. However, my father, who is still living, will not be in attendance. I have struggled with whether or not to bow in his direction.
My father has been estranged from our family for some time now. This estrangement, in a way, is a good thing. My father is not a healthy person. He was abusive to both my mother and my siblings throughout my childhood. In my early twenties he went to prison after a felony conviction. The last time I saw him was during his arraignment hearing (it’s a strange thing to see your father in shackles and an orange jumper). He’s since been released and I’ve thought about contacting him several times. I miss having a dad. I’ve missed having a dad since I was 13 when I realized my father was mentally unwell and unable to carry on normal, healthy relationships. From what little information I have about how my father is doing today, there’s little to indicate that anything has really changed about his disposition or ability to have healthy interactions with people. So I choose to remain disconnected from him.
Nevertheless, he’s still my father. For better or worse, I would not be the person that I am today without his contribution to my life. It’s true that I’ve endured a lot of heartache and have hard to work very diligently to heal the damage that he directly contributed to during my childhood. I do not absolve him of responsibility for these actions. But I do forgive him. My father is a deeply damaged individual. He did the things to me, my siblings and mother that he did because of pain and suffering that was inflicted upon him by his own caretakers. For whatever reason, he didn’t have the wherewithal to stop the cycle of abuse with himself, so he perpetuated this abuse upon his own children and wife. This is sad, unfortunate and certainly inexcusable. But it is human. What I wish for my father is to find some relief for his suffering, in whatever way that is possible. For him, it may only come with death.
So I have decided that I will bow to my father during this week’s ceremony. I will honor his contribution to my life.
In my heart, I think I knew from the beginning that I would choose to bow to my father. What, then, was the source of aversion and consternation I felt around this decision? I think it was that bowing to my absent father would acknowledge his absence and acknowledge how deeply I feel and grieve this absence. When I was younger, I thought that my sense of loss and grief would simply go away with time. But it hasn’t. In some ways it grows more acute. As I approach the time of starting my own family, I am saddened that my children will not get to know their grandfather. They won’t get to work in the print shop that I worked at as a child, they won’t get to work on projects with him. With each home improvement project, I have the urge to call my father up and ask for advice. Sometimes I just want to tell him about my latest accomplishment and I can’t. And it hurts.
So when I heard that inside of grief is great love, I immediately thought of my father. I am able to have grief for my father because I have a great love for him. And that’s okay. I have struggled with this notion over time. Love was not a word that was used in our family while I was growing up. I’m not sure that my father in capable of actually loving anybody. I think I internalized this ambivalence. But what I’ve come to realize is that it’s natural for children to love their parents. It’s what children do. It’s okay that I love my father even though he’s not part of my life and probably never will be again. It’s okay to love a parent who is deeply flawed and has done terrible things. Honoring that love doesn’t diminish any of the struggles that I endured as a child. In fact, I think it honors them.
And so I no longer look at my grief as this terrible burden. Rather, it’s the counter part to love. The ante we pay to experience love.