The last time I saw my son, Alex, was when he and his girlfriend, Sarah, came to an art show reception that was very important to me. Alex, who had struggled with drug addiction and depression for many years, seemed to be entering a positive period. He was the picture of health, smiling and giving me a warm hug and saying “I love you” before he walked out of the gallery. Little did I know it would be the last time I would see this beautiful, intelligent, loving young man alive.
The next afternoon, Sarah texted me: “I don’t want to worry you, but I haven’t heard from Alex since around 6:30 last night.” My gut told me that something was very wrong. Eventually, I persuaded the weekend staff of the property management company to go by Alex’s apartment to see if his car was there. They called back to tell me that yes, his car was in the parking lot. They had knocked on the door, but he didn’t answer. It was then that I knew Alex was dead.
After I called the police, it was an agonizing wait of several more hours until the coroner called to tell me that the police broke down the door and found Alex. There was no obvious cause, but he had likely died the evening before.
From that day forward, I lived as if Thich Nhat Hanh (called Thay by his followers) was holding my hand, helping me to remember to be present with my breath. My mindfulness practice was no longer a mere intellectual and casual interest; it was a life-saving parachute as I fell into the abyss of despair.
The worst day was going to the funeral home with Alex’s father. I used the practice of Pebble Meditation to calm my racing heart before going inside to view my dear son’s body. In this meditation, I held four pebbles in my hand. I focused on one at a time to represent the freshness of a flower, the solidity of a mountain, the reality of a clear lake, and the spaciousness of open space. Doing this, my heart rate went from the mid 120s down to the 70s. It was enough to allow me to proceed with the most difficult duty of my life.
People say things like, “I could never survive the loss of my child” or ask me, “How did you get through it?” These are things that once ran through my own mind. The answer is difficult for me to articulate. Both specific moments of practice and insight as well as the gestalt of the teachings have been my parachute.
Understanding interbeing has helped me tremendously. I was inspired by the knowledge that my son didn’t just disappear; as Thay points out, science proves that nothing is lost. Like the flame at the tip of a match, though it is no longer visible when we blow it out, the elements of that flame are still there. And so is Alex.
The Lesson of the Second Arrow helped me to recognize that the primary pain I felt from Alex’s death need not be amplified. Adding a story of guilt and anger, which the Buddha refers to as a second arrow we fire upon ourselves, only deepens a wound I already have. I learned to call my suffering by its true name — grief — and to take care of it with love, understanding, and compassion. I learned that joy and grief are two sides of the same coin; it is okay to be happy while also grieving for my son.
I appreciated Thay’s honesty when he wrote about grieving the death of his mother for a whole year. Thay also described a dream of being with his mother when she was young and healthy. When he awoke and walked in the moonlight, he felt his mother’s presence and realized she was very much alive in him and around him. This story allowed me to see the same truth about Alex.
Teresa L. Waller founded the Flowing River Community of Mindful Living in Madison, Indiana. Her dharma name is Healing Presence of the Heart, which she received a year after her son, Alex, died. Teresa’s dharma name perfectly captures the healing she experienced through the presence of community.
Teresa Waller’s story is excerpted from the book, Tears Become Rain: Stories of Healing and Transformation Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh, (Parallax Press, Oct. 10, 2023), edited by Jeanine Cogan and Mary Hillebrand. Jeanine Cogan, Ph.D., is a mindfulness meditation teacher and executive consultant. Mary Hillebrand is a former magazine editor and writer, and is now a teacher who enjoys sharing mindfulness with teenagers and adults in therapeutic settings. Learn more at www.tearsbecomerain.org.