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Death of an Adult Child

How does my thirty years of practicing mindfulness with our wonderful teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, help me with the greatest sadness and the most terrible grief of my life?

When strangers ask me how many adult children I have, I always say four. The follow-up question is often: Where do they all live now? I then say: our eldest son lives in Vancouver, our second son lives in Toronto, our third son transitioned nearly seven years ago, and our daughter lives in Mexico.

Too many people next ask that horrible and upsetting question any bereaved parent dreads: “How did your son die?” After years of struggling to answer this, I now respond with my own question: “Would you like to know how he lived?” Then I tell them…. “I would say this to my son if he were here right now...”

“Tim, I hope there’s none of this ‘I wish I’d done this or that’ sort of stuff going on with you. You were a bon vivant, you were our adventurous, spiritual, extremely intelligent, creative, very kind-hearted, delightful, imaginative, sensitive, handsome, and special, beautiful boy. You loved to travel and visited or lived in over sixty-five countries. You liked women, wine, sunshine, hanging out, talking intellectual and spiritual ‘sh**e,’ and you managed to do all of that. Not bad, man, not bad.... that identity “TRM” sure got around and did what he liked doing. How many of us can really say that?”

For the first seventeen years of his life, my son was joyous, outgoing, and very enthusiastic. Then, after taking only two doses of the anti-malarial drug Lariam, he suffered from depression and anxiety for the next twenty-two years. He began to use drugs to relieve this suffering. When he transitioned, he did leave us the most wonderful gift: a little unborn daughter, now six years old. She lives in London, United Kingdom, with her mother.

I miss him, his special presence, dreadfully. Rarely does an hour go by that he is not somewhere in my thoughts. How does my thirty years of practicing mindfulness with our wonderful teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, help me with the greatest sadness and the most terrible grief of my life?

I practice gratitude for all I do have, and I practice joy in the moment.

There is so much to be grateful for every day: my healthy body, my breath, my ability to see, to hear, to taste and to feel. As I walk in nature I am grateful to have eyes to see all the beauty around me, ears to hear the birds, strong legs to walk upon, my little dog companion beside me, and a home with food in the cupboard to return to. I have even more than this to be grateful for in my life: a wonderful loving husband of many, many years, my family, my grandchildren, my friends, a supportive Sangha, and several other wonderful communities. I know I am so blessed to be alive in this moment.

photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

My other practice is joy. I smile joyfully at flowers, in particular at dandelions. our dear teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, wrote a beautiful poem about giving his smile to a dandelion. Sister Chang Khong once told a story of walking on a sidewalk in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and feeling desperately sad. She saw a tiny flower growing up through a crack in the pavement, and she realized if a flower had the strength to survive such hardship, she too could go on with hope.

So I try to look for joy in my life. A child’s smile, the blue sky, a dog chasing after a stick, a dandelion growing where it shouldn’t in my garden, a cup of hot tea, and my Plum Village bell of mindfulness bring me back to the present moment—the bell even does this every thirty minutes, all day long. For as Thầy also taught us, “Our greatest enemy is forgetfulness, we forget to be mindful.”

These are my practices. My grief and sadness will always be with me, just as love for my children will always be with me, including love for my darling son who is no longer with us in this earthly realm. I hope that these simple practices may help those suffering loss and grief.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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