Learning From (and Teaching) Everest about Grief and Fear

Ever since Everest decided to become a vegetarian a couple a months ago, his already high sensitivity has gone into overdrive. Once he made the connection about where our animal food comes from, his mind connected the dots and realized that almost everything in this world comes from something in the natural world, and that in order for some life to survive other life has to die.

For example, he walked out onto our wood deck a couple of weeks ago and said, “Mommy, this deck makes me sad.” It took me a moment to make the connection, but then I realized he felt sad because the wood comes from trees. I asked him if that was why he was sad and he said yes. The next day my husband pulled a weed to feed our “pet” caterpillar and Everest felt sad again. We talked about the cycle of life, but the intellectual understanding does nothing to relieve his sadness. (He asked if we could replant the weeds in another part of the garden.) My acceptance of his attunement to the grief of life increased a notch when my Carrie reminded me that the Buddhists don’t place hierarchy on one life form over another; a rock is as alive as we are. My son seems to have become a Buddhist overnight.

All day long he tells me that things make him sad, and as soon as night comes, he taps into the archetypal fears that descend onto his six year old mind. I’ve written a few times about his fear of the dark and how it’s helped me understand that there is an existential fear inherent to life. Fear is not only caused by our unhealthy or dysfunctional thoughts, nor is it necessarily connected to something happening in our daily lives; sometimes it’s just a healthy and normal part of standing on the precipice of a life transition, even when that transition is life itself. As human beings, we’re programmed to be scared of the unknown, uncertainties, and of that which we can’t see and touch. Some people are more attuned to this fear than others (see Highly Sensitive Person post), but I think it’s safe to say that on a basic level we all carry these fears. Everest is grappling with these fears nightly and I’m doing my best to comfort him and guide him through.

This daily and nightly immersion into core pain and fear makes me think about my work with transitions (of course). I’m been thinking about how challenging it is for people to accept their grief and fear because of a culture that tells them that when they’re doing something joyful, like getting married, having a baby, moving into their first home, or starting a positive new job, they “shouldn’t” feel sad or scared. The “shoulds” are killers, and work quickly to squash the core feelings of sadness and fear down into the dark recesses of the psyche where they mutate into anxiety. It requires immense amount of re-education and re-conditioning for people to remove the false beliefs and unrealistic expectations and allow the core feelings to re-emerge to the light of day where they can be named, felt, and ultimately worked through, making space for joy and excitement to enter.

I wonder how differently we would be able to process the core feelings of transition if we lived in a culture that taught us to expect grief and fear to arise at some point during the transition. I wonder how differently we would manage transitions if our parents or mentors had responded with compassionate guidance to our core grief and fear.

I’m doing my best with Everest. To help him manage his sadness, I’ve been teaching him the on-the-spot practice of Tonglen. Every time he feels sad I say, “Let’s breathe in the sadness and breathe out relief and peace.” It warms my heart to see him learning how to consciously use his breath to soften around the pain instead of defend against it. It takes about ten seconds and I can see the sadness moving through him. One of my greatest goals as his mother is to help him learn how to manage strong feelings so that he doesn’t create walls to protect against them. We’re reading a lot of spiritual books right now and talking about compassion and empathy, but I think it’s the simple meditation practice that seems to be serving him the most.

At the core of what I teach people about managing their anxiety is learning to access the voice of truth and compassion that lives inside everyone. Some people call this God, others calls it Higher Guidance or their inner Wise Man or Woman. However you conceive it, the process of unearthing the false beliefs and replacing them with the truth is a self-healing process of re-parenting ourselves, of giving ourselves the reassurance that we desperately needed as kids and didn’t receive.

I hope that when Everest walks through his life transitions he’ll hear an internalized voice of reassurance that will allow him to cross the rivers and traverse the canyons without resistance. I hope that he’ll grieve his losses and utilize the tools that will help him manage the inevitable fears. But for now, I will continue to breathe through his pain during the day and hold him close each night, whispering into his ear as he falls asleep just as I’ve done since the night he was born, “I got you.”