Thoughts on continuation and forgiveness

by Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, Albert Lea Tribune, Oct 31, 2008

Albert Lea, Minn. (USA) -- My last surviving grandparent died recently at 86. One of my most difficult moments in the days surrounding Grandma Mary’s death was telling my 5-year-old daughter the news.

Ava had never lost a relative before, and as she will tell you herself, she has a “tender heart.” I sat next to her in our backyard when I told her, and she cried and cried. I explained that Grandma Mary was happier now because she wasn’t suffering anymore, and Ava asked, “Is she in heaven?”

For most parents, the best and easiest answer here is simple. Of course she’s in heaven. But I often struggle with the concept of the afterlife. I also try to model my parenting after one of my literary heroes, Atticus Finch, who believed that being truthful to children is very, very important, even when you aren’t entirely sure what the right answer is.

So I said, “That’s a nice way to think of her, in heaven. But she’s still with us here too, when we remember good times with her and when we think of how much we love her.”

While less than definitive, this answer seemed to work for both of us at the time.

A few days later, I was overwhelmed by the joy present at Grandma’s wake. Don’t get me wrong. This was no party. But it was in many ways a joyful event, and it seemed entirely appropriate to celebrate her life rather than simply be sad about our loss.

While witnessing the joy generated by stories and memories shared that night, I was struck by the possibility that this joy and these people were my grandma’s continuation. By continuation I mean that she lives today in the lives of everyone she affected in her life — both positively and negatively. She lives through her children and grandchildren, including her three youngest great grandchildren — each born within two weeks of her passing — and many others as well.

What a wonderful and inspiring way to honor someone, to embrace her continuation by mindfully living a life that would make her proud. I aspire to do this, and one day when my daughters are old enough to better understand this idea, I imagine I’ll explore it in more depth with them in other conversations about the ideas of heaven, reincarnation, and being.

This idea of continuation, a living on after the dissolution of one’s body, is one I learned from the writing of Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, and author. Brother Thay, as his students fondly refer to him, reminds us of the interconnectedness of all things. Clouds do not die, he writes, but live on as continuation in the rain. When one drinks a cup of tea or coffee, one is also drinking clouds.

That might be a little “out there” for some of us, but the core lesson is one we can understand: All living things are connected; nothing simply ceases to exist but rather continues on in new forms, physically and spiritually, and with this connectedness comes responsibility. Young people who’ve seen Disney’s “The Lion King” know what I’m talking about because they’ve already been exposed to a type of continuation through “the circle of life.”

Thich Nhat Hanh extends this idea of continuation to include forgiveness too. When we find ourselves hurt by someone, we have the option of forgiving him or not. Seen in terms of continuation, we might ask ourselves this: What legacy do we want to leave, one of bitterness, hatred, and vengeance, or one that promotes loving kindness and compassion?

Just as our children are our continuation, just as they replicate the words and behavior — both good and bad — that we model for them, those whom we choose to forgive or not forgive may replicate the compassion, understanding, and generosity that we choose to give them. Likewise, they may replicate the bitterness, hatred, and vengeance we choose to give them instead.

While it’s easy to write about forgiveness, it’s often much harder to practice forgiveness, even in the small worlds of our homes and workplaces.