My 4 year old son overheard my recent phone conversation with a friend. Her family’s dog died. I was tearful, not only for her loss but for the stirred memory of putting my own dog down a few years ago. My son asked me about my conversation. I decided to tell him the truth. He appeared sad for about a minute, then continued to play.
The next day, I read a children’s book to him called Peaceful Piggy Meditation. One of the pictures in the book shows a dead goldfish, with accompanying text that highlights acceptance of things we cannot change. He asked me why the fish looked that way. I took a deep breath and told him the truth. “The fish died”.
He asked me if I was going to die. I replied, “Someday, yes”. He asked me if he was going to die. “Someday yes”. He exclaimed, “Mommy, I don’t want to die!” and became tearful.
Like many children who struggle to transition out of simple things like stopping an activity, my son is no different. My spouse and I frequently and purposefully say, “All things come to an end, honey“. From an early age, we want our children to know the profound buddhist belief that all things are impermanent, whether it be flowers, toys, food, a play date, clothes, Christmas, vacations or people. All things are impermanent.
With some of my clients, this theme comes up. Many people struggle and suffer through loss. Loss of a job, a home, a family member or a friendship. Others struggle with the loss of a spouse, whether by divorce or death. Loss of fertility, loss of a family unit, loss of children into adulthood or loss of identity are other themes that may show up in a client’s and couple’s struggles.
Buddhist teachings reveal great wisdom around the concepts of suffering. In the book, Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away, author Ajahn Chah writes:
Unhappy experiences such as loss or separation from the beloved, association with the unpleasant, sorrow, illness and death are obvious forms of suffering. It is also spoken of as the pervasive and inherent unsatisfactoriness of all we can experience; more specifically, it refers to experience based on the delusion of believing things to be real, permanent, belonging to, constituting, or somehow relating to a self. According to Buddhist teaching, the real problem lies not in natural and unavoidable occurrences, in the loss that follows gain or the parting that follows meeting, but in the mental activity built upon them. Such adds more suffering, and that is avoidable. Through reflection and direct realization in meditation, one can see how holding on to any object or experience causes tension, frustration, and despair since nothing can last forever.”
A by-product of the acceptance of impermanence is usually an increase in gratitude. Impermanence reminds us to value what we have right here, right now. This is the other side of what I and my spouse attempt to model and teach our children.
When we respond to our child with the statement, “All things come to an end, honey”… we say it with empathy, compassion and love. We understand his sense of suffering and loss because we too have felt these in our lives. We hope to help him integrate acceptance of loss as part of his early development.
Have you ever considered what messages you may have received as a child about loss and suffering? How did your family of origin respond to these experiences? How did they express gratitude and appreciation? How often? How does that influence you today?
Acceptance of this concept does not mean you will not feel pain. Pain, too, is inevitable in this glorious ride of life. The predictor of your suffering lies in how you greet your pain, manage it, respond to it, hold on to it. What stories do you attach to your pain?
Each and every time I utter that phrase to my son, I know that I also benefit from the reminder. I want to hold on tight to many things and make them permanent yet, mentally, I know these teachings to be true. I am not even permanent, at least not in this form. My daily practice lies in opening my heart to these truths.