Where the Ones We Lose Go

Established in 1853, in the heart of Lisbon, the Jardim de Estrela (star park) is home to a number of sprawling ficuses, some at least as old as the park itself. The long, gnarled branches of the one I’m sitting under stretch not only up but way out, creating a ceiling of leaves just a few feet above my head.

While I’m in Portugal, other than loitering in public parks and drinking too many Americanos, I do have other plans—but I’m here, now, to be with the trees. To continue nurturing a fruitful byproduct born of my fascination with all things that grow.

“We can think of an ecosystem of wolves, caribou, trees, and fungi creating biodiversity,” Suzanne Simard wrote in Finding the Mother Tree, “just as an orchestra of woodwind, brass, percussion, and string musicians assemble into a symphony.”

The unexpected bonus of constantly trying to refine my understanding of this system, this impeccable harmony, is a welcome sense of solidity in the face of loss—of death, dying, grief, and grieving.

Let me explain.

When we die, the matter that makes up our once indispensable physical bodies is returned to the earth, while the habits, instincts, and desires that once directed our lives all instantly vanish; all except one: our mostly unconscious yet irrepressible impulse to reconnect with everything else, to eliminate all separation in the universe.

This is what plants and trees are doing, as well, with one relatively important exception: this is all they’re doing. The natural world, as a whole, is singularly motivated to grow, to connect, to express itself as life itself.

Whether it’s the 15-million-some-odd root tips fanning out beneath a single stock of corn, or the cosmic web of mycorrhizal fungi that envelopes, entwines, even infects each root tip, creating a symbiotic and absolutely fundamental relationship with the soil, this is what’s happening, everywhere, every second, right below our feet.

We are, in our own way, doing the same thing. We just don’t know we are. A nonnegotiable condition of our unique form of consciousness is that we must also live in a state of perpetual forgetting.

Only during brief, infrequent lapses into remembrance does it become possible for us to embrace the unimaginable, to accept the inexcusable. Only when we have found our way home again can we set aside, momentarily, the pain of loss and fear of death.

The Portuguese word saudade—a word I actually heard for the first time many years ago—doesn’t have a direct English translation. Essentially, it’s a type of sadness… but not exactly. It’s more of a romantic, almost wistful sense of sorrow; a yearning so deep and poignant that it almost starts to feel good. It’s heartache plus nostalgia; it’s foreboding with anticipation. Just as easily as a memory can trigger it, so can a dream or a wish. Saudade, as best I can explain it, is a mix of fierce longing, total acceptance, and blind hope that cannot be assuaged by time or distance or alternative facts.

We cannot, as plants and trees do, turn carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight into oxygen, glucose, and carbohydrates. Instead, we turn our emotions and beliefs into behaviors. We can feel, rationalize, and integrate. Faced even with the callous indifference of mortality, we can retain our capacity for growth and assimilation. We can tap into our supernatural ability to observe ourselves as life experiencing life.

“Suffering is about perception and interpretation,” Frank Ostaseski wrote in The Five Invitations. “It is our mental and emotional relationship to what is first perceived as an unpleasant or undesirable experience. Our stories and beliefs about what is happening or did happen shape our interpretation off it.”

Much easier to bear—to witness, to comprehend, to swallow—than the loss of those we love, is the breaking down of our illusions. It’s much harder to accommodate the sudden absence of a familiar presence, a voice or body as well-known to us as our own, than it is to reconcile the collapse of a reality that has only ever existed in our mind.

Our faith is shaken by scandal; our trust is shattered by betrayal; our sense of safety gets quashed by an unforeseen disaster. Standing flatfooted in the center of our life, from out of nowhere, reality hits us square in the face and we lose our equilibrium.

When it comes to death, though, someone else’s or our own, we get so lost in our grief and pain and fear that we forget it’s only the living who suffer. Bewildered, we forget these feelings exist only as long as there is a you to experience them.

Before you were born, what was there? There was wholeness, total peace, the opposite of striving. This is where the ones we lose go. It’s where we’re all going back to eventually. In the end, it wiIl all be okay: every birth comes with a round-trip guarantee.

But, if we’re going to get technical about it, this is simply a helpful metaphor. No one ever actually uses their return ticket. Why? Because it’s impossible to go back to a place you never left.

In a series of books called Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch describes God not as a Him or Her or It—but as a process: a single eternal event stretching out across the universe that includes all matter, all beings, even those who have experienced what we call death. They are as much a part of this process, this happening, as you or me; for nothing and no one has ever not been a part of it.

Attempting to understand my current contribution to this process, I think about what plants and trees do and, in turn, I find comfort in my knowledge of the natural world. I remember that which I never doubt but only regularly forget not to, which is: You cannot long for the return of something that never left you. You cannot miss or mourn for something that is you.

Just as when you take your eyes away from the mirror, you do not grieve the loss of your own face; you are no less whole than you were only a moment ago, it’s only your perception—your vantage point within the process—that has changed.

This concept, my beliefs, they are not a substitute for grief. As prominent a fixture as our loved ones once were in our day-to-day life, so will their absence likely become. The long, complex experience of losing someone gets worked into our bones, imprinted on our cells. What I believe—about the universe, about the process of God, about plants and trees and people—I consider more of a supplement to the grieving process.

As far as the full curriculum, I’d rather not keep taking it, again and again. Especially considering there’s only one question on the final exam, and I already know the answer.

“You may come home whenever you wish,” Walsch reminds us, and himself, throughout his books. “We can be together again whenever you want. The ecstasy of your union with Me is yours to know again.

“At the drop of a hat. At the feel of the wind on your face. At the sound of a cricket under diamond skies on a summer night.

“At the first sight of a rainbow and the first cry of a newborn babe. At the last ray of a spectacular sunset and the last breath in a spectacular life.

“I am with you always, even unto the end of time. Your union with Me is complete—it always was, always is, and always will be.”

In loving memory of my old friend, Steven Cox, his wife, Destiny, and their children, Kaleah, Kaiden, and Jackson.

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