A friend’s unimaginable loss led Ty Phillips to reflect on his Buddhist training—and to appreciate his own blessings.
There it was, the message I hoped I would never get. It blinked on my phone, and in a mixture of fear and sadness, I replied. Someone was reaching out to me for comfort, someone in a moment of deepest despair, someone who had lost a child.
It’s easy for those of us who have been fortunate never to experience certain tragedies to offer an endless list of hollow platitudes. I feel for you, it will get easier, don’t hold on to your suffering, don’t blame yourself, and the list goes on. The truth is, there is never a right thing to say aside from maybe, “I am here for you.”
Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said that often, the best thing we can do someone is offer them our entire presence; to be fully engaged and in the moment with that person. I don’t know that I succeeded with my friend. I offered a few poor attempts at comforting words and sat there in silence—while my little girl slept safe and sound in her bedroom.
I thought about what the Buddha would say and my mind was immediately drawn to the story of the woman who lost a child and came to the Buddha in her suffering. He told her that he could heal her, but that she needed to go to all the people in all the villages and collect a mustard seed from everyone she met who had never experienced suffering, the moral being that suffering is universal, something no one can escape from. It is part of conditioned life, and when the woman collected no seeds, she learned she was not alone in her suffering. She understood that the Buddhist path leads to the end of suffering. Shortly after, she is said to have become an arhat, or semi-awakened being.
Somehow I didn’t think this story was going to help. Even as a dharma teacher, I am not fully aware of all the complexities that this parable relays and being as flawed as I am, I am not sure how or if I could handle the loss of one of my children. I stared at my phone again.
For the next few hours I thought about her suffering. The unbearable anguish. I tried to do a few hours of tonglen for her; the Tibetan practice of taking and giving (we accept their hurt and suffering as our own and offer our health and well being in exchange). It is a practice similar to prayer and is designed to further our understanding of compassion and loving kindness. While I found myself crying for her, I don’t know that it did her any good.
I woke up the next morning and immediately my thoughts went to her. I heard the pitter patter of my little girl’s feet on the floor as she climbed out of bed and rejoiced and mourned at the same time. Every laugh, every dirty diaper, every moment where she is driving me crazy is such a blessing, one that this young woman will not have with the child she lost.
In the end, I offered her my presence. An ear that would listen to her mourn, to her anger, to her tears, and a voice if she wanted to hear what I had to say. I wonder though. I wonder if maybe, just maybe, in her loss and her reaching out to me, if the lesson wasn’t one for me. One of appreciation for what I have in this moment. Even in the moments that I feel overwhelmed and annoyed. The moments where, like most, others are teaching me.