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Grieving and Google Docs with Valarie Kaur (re-release)

This week, we’re re-releasing one of our earliest episodes, and still one of my favorite conversations. Author and activist Valarie Kaur shares personal stories from her work as an activist, which led her to write her book, “See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love.” Valarie’s message really resonated with me because she approaches strangers as if a part of them is a part of you that you don’t know yet. Her openness to conversations with strangers is deeply needed right now. We all need to promote love and understanding. She also shares the beautiful, tangible actions she uses for herself and her family to embrace mortality.


You can find Valarie’s book and more about her work at https://valariekaur.com/


Transcript:

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

This week, we are re-releasing  one of our earliest episodes, which is my conversation with Valerie Kaur about her work as an activist and her book, See No Stranger, A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. Valerie's message really resonated with me because she approaches strangers as if a part of them is in a part of you. 

And that openness to conversations with strangers is what we need right now. We need to Promote love and understanding. To be part of a movement larger than ourselves means we can focus on our responsibility, our little patch of sky. The sky metaphor is so beautiful and it's one she uses to talk about death. 

When we go to the stars, we come from the stars and that's where we return. One of my favorite parts of the conversation, Valerie actually shares her nightly meditation.  She reviews her day, and that helps her find little moments of gratitude from even the hardest days. 

Hi, I'm Sarah Cavanaugh and this is Peaceful Exit. Every episode we explore death, dying and grief through stories by authors familiar with the topic. Writers are our translators. They take what is inexpressible, impossible to explain, and they translated it into words on a page. 

Today I'm talking with writer and activist Valarie Kaur. She's also a documentary filmmaker, lawyer, an educator and a faith leader. She's the daughter of Punjabi farmers and grew up in an intergenerational home on the California farmlands. Valerie's the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which is a learning hub with all kinds of resources that teaches love as a tool for social justice. Her book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, came out in 2020. Valerie seemed like the perfect subject for this podcast, because the story in this book about the very first person who was killed following September 11th was one of her faith community and she dropped everything. She was in college and she dropped everything to show up for this family, and then traveled the country to talk about transformative experiences with grief and death. And I'm so looking forward to unpacking some of these stories with her. 

We started with a quote from Valerie's book.  

Many of us are taught to avoid grief and to fear suffering and death. Our dead are wheeled out of sight. Their bodies incinerated behind crematorium walls or buried beneath sterile marble tile. But grieving openly is an ancient practice. In our blood lie memories of ancestors who participated in grief rituals in all corners of the world. Drums and fire, music and moaning, incense and incantations, bodies burned in moonlight, ashes poured into silver waters. We know how to grieve, we just have to remember it. The wisdom across faith traditions is that grieving is done in community. 

Valarie Kaur: 

As you read, I found myself in the backseat of the car when my mother was driving us to the crematorium after my grandmother died, and I knew that she was going to go in to wash my grandmother's body and I was feeling afraid. I was even feeling a moment of revulsion, like I had been trained in this culture to look away, to not want to draw in such close proximity with the dead, with dying, with corpses. And my mother took a breath and said this is what her mother had done for her mother, and on, and on and on. And that courage was also inside of me. And that when the time came, I would be able to feel that, recover that wisdom in my body, and then tend to her body as a tender act of love of the most beautiful expression of gratitude for the life that we had shared together. 

My mother's downstairs right now with the children, so she's still here, she's with me. But she was able to teach me how to practice that way of orienting to death. But I still, I still wondered if I would have the courage. And then a few years later, a mother figure in my life, her name was Joyce, really a healer who had taken good care of me, she found out about my family's traditions and she said she was dying of multiple myeloma. And she said, "Would you do me the honor of tending to my dying and my body after I die?" And my mother and I said yes. And so we were with Joyce. I was holding her hand, helping her breathe and push through the pain. And I didn't understand until that moment that the labor of dying mirrors the labor of birthing, like you have to breathe, my love, and then push and then breathe until there's a moment of transition. 

And she was so graceful, witty, even. And then soft at the very end, she transitioned. And the moment we heard her breath stop, my mother and I cried out. But then I was in the room and I got to see how my mother did it. She got out the bowl of water, she dipped the cloth inside the bowl and she very slowly began to run the beautiful washcloth along Joyce's body. And as we did so, we thanked this body for loving us. And I could feel the warmth in her forehead begin to fade by the time we were done. We dressed her in silks, we covered her in barrels of flowers and we accompanied her body to the mortuary, singing the prayers. And the hospital staff looked at us bewildered. They had never seen such tenderness. 

Usually the death happens and then you disappear. But no, we were accompanying her all the way to really the crematorium when we pushed the body into the flames and sang my grandfather's prayer, [inaudible 00:05:36], the hot winds cannot touch. You are shielded by love. And my mother looked at me after Joyce, after she was cremated, and she said, "You're ready now. Now when I go, I know you'll be ready." And tending to Joyce's death and watching my mother tend to my grandmother, I understand that the heart is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes, and the deeper my capacity to hold grief deepens my capacity to hold joy and pleasure, and vice versa. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

And vice versa. That's right. 

Valarie Kaur: 

So I think it is the most sacred and meaningful way to live is to be alive to all of it. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

Yeah. Well, welcome to Peaceful Exit. I've been so excited about talking to you today. And one of the things we address during Peaceful Exit is the lack of conversation around death in this culture. And what's very unique about your story is how openly you were talking to your mom about it. 

Valarie Kaur: 

I lost my grandparents all within a few years of each other. I think inevitably we started opening up around, "Oh mommy, I don't think I can be strong enough to live in this world without you." And she says, "You will be." And that was the entryway to talking about death for both my parents. Since then, I've created a document, I created a Google Doc, because what happens after so many family deaths is that then there are multiple children, and I saw this with all my grandparents, and the children start to argue or fight over, "No, they would've wanted it this way. No, they would've wanted their ashes over here. No, they would've wanted it in the mountain. No, in the sea." So I'm like, we should just, if there's documents, legal documents that capture one's desire for where their wealth or resources go after they die, then surely there should be an ethical will, a spiritual will. 

So I created a document that said when we go to the stars, because that's how we describe it in our family, it's like we come from the stars, we return to the stars. And in this document, I actually have it in my desk right now, we outline, it's like when I'm dying, what do you want to hear? What music? What do you want to see? Who do you want to make sure you talk to? And then at the moment of death, how do you want to feel? And what do you want your loved ones to do with the body? And then memorial, what should be served? I have specified the brand of chocolate I want served at my memorial, to the kind of flowers, to the poetry you want, to the songs you want, to the stories you would love. I mean, just really imagining into fully without holding back what you want that experience to be like. 

And every person in my family has received this document. Most have filled it out, not everybody, but most have filled it out. And mine, I mean, I printed mine out and put it in the top drawer of my desk, so that just in case if anything unexpected happened, my husband would just know exactly where to find it. And it was almost like a gift that we're giving everyone, right? Here's a blueprint. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

Absolutely, 100%. 100%. That's exactly what we talk about in Peaceful Exit, is we talk about the fact that if we don't articulate our wishes, we have zero chance of receiving them. And I think the beauty of creating a Google Doc for everyone is bringing community in. And we talk about doing this for ourselves, articulating it for ourselves, but then really sharing it, sharing it with our family and not being shy about it. One of the things you talk about in your book is a man you called Uncle, and how his death not only inspired your activism, but taught you the importance of collective grief and being present for others. 

Valarie Kaur: 

So I was a kid in college in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, racial violence exploded across the country against people of color. And the Sikh community, especially because our fathers, our sons, our brothers wear turbines to cover their long hair as part of our faith, we were at the forefront of so much of that violence. And the first person killed in a hate crime in the aftermath of 9/11 was a Sikh American father, Balbir Singh Sodhi. I didn't know him deeply. We call all of our elders uncles and aunties. So he was simply an Uncle G at the Gurdwara that I called home. But because his death was so violent, and unexpected and charged with terror, it broke me. It shattered me. And I was 20 years old, and I went into my bedroom and I locked the door. I didn't come out for days. I just didn't know what to do with that kind of paralysis. 

And then I saw that I had this old video camera and I thought, if other people could see Balbir Uncle as an uncle the way that I do, then maybe that would be the starting point for healing as America. Maybe that would stop the killing. And so I grabbed my camera and I've started driving across the country, going from home to home, city to city. Sometimes when the blood was still fresh on the ground, I would show up and sit with the families, and capture their stories and grieve with them. And I learned, Sarah, at a very young age how to be present to someone else's grief. And so much of it was just learning how to be still, just learning how to let it slow down, let time slow down, to let the silences hold the space so that they can then say the next thing and share the next thing. So much of grieving with someone is just becoming a container, an open, safe container for witness, for helping them process and give language to what is unsayable. 

We could just be swallowed up by that darkness unless there's somebody holding our hands saying, "I'm here with you. I got you." You don't need to know people in order to grieve with them. You grieve with them in order to know them. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

There's a tendency when we are onslaught with media, and everything is suffering and it's all bad news. How, as an activist do you keep your heart soft when you're witnessing such deep suffering on a very personal level? Because I have found that I do not want to become immune to human suffering. And I feel like that's what we're doing to our people is we're making people immune to suffering. We can hear 14 horrible stories in a day and it's not breaking our hearts. 

Valarie Kaur: 

Earlier in my life as an activist, I thought that serving others, loving others meant letting all of that pain into my heart, that loving others meant the constant practice of empathy, and empathy is to feel as another. And so in the wake of a mass shooting, or the climate disaster, or a massacre to really imagine into what it would be like for those people, to feel that in my body and to carry that pain inside of me until I broke down. To take in all of that pain, to let yourself feel in your body, all of it is to lose your own self in other people's suffering. And that doesn't serve them, nor does it serve you, and it doesn't serve the world. I was on the brink of breakdown after I'd become a new mother, and it was in the wake of the 2016 election and there was new violence across the country, and I just kept taking it in, kept taking it in until a voice in me said I'm not strong enough to live in this world. 

And I heard that voice three times. And I was very lucky, there's so many activists, especially people of color who just keep taking in all of the pain and who don't have someone holding them back saying, oh my love, your body is worth, your life is worth saving too. And I got a gift that very few get. I was able to move my family to the rainforest for a year to be able to heal and to begin writing this book, See No Stranger. But it was really a way to save my own life. And I could finally reckon with all of that unresolved trauma that I had just deposited in my body. I want to read you this passage that I finally became clear when I was in the rainforest. 

I write, "I had forgotten the stars burning so strong and long that their light reaches us long after they have died. Isn't that what our lives and our activism should look like? Not the supernova, a single outburst under pressure. We must be the long burning star, bright and steady, contained and sustained for our energy to reach the next generation long after we die. Oh, and to be part of constellations. Let us see ourselves as part of a larger picture, even if we are like the second star on Orion's Belt or the seventh of the Seven Sisters, for there is no greater gift than to be part of a movement larger than ourselves. That means that we only need to be responsible for our small patch of sky, our specific area of influence. We need only to shine our particular point of light, long and steady to become part of stories sewn into the heavens." 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

Beautiful. You also share this moving story in your book about your grandfather and how his death taught you how to live. 

Valarie Kaur: 

My grandfather died a perfect death. He was surrounded by all of his family and his children, and they dabbed the sacred nectar on his lips until my grandmother was the last person, then he took that cloth into his mouth, and he sighed and he died. It was a masterful death. And yet I was so angry for so long after he died, for him not teaching me the secret to his courage, until I realized that his last lesson to me was his death. And I said, well, if I'm going to die that way, then I better start practicing. So every night, and I've done this for 14 years now, every night I do this meditation, the moment my head hits the pillow I say, think of this day as an entire lifetime with a beginning, a middle and an end. What was the hardest part of this lifetime? And I think about it. Notice what that feels like in your body. I notice it. And then notice how you overcame it, because somehow you made it through to this moment to get to the bed. So I honor that courage in me. 

Then my second question, what was the most joyful part of this lifetime? And even on the darkest days, even the hardest lifetimes contain moments of joy. And I ask myself, oh, what does that feel like in my body? And I say, I notice it. And my third question, what are you most grateful for in this lifetime? Every day, every lifetime has something very specific that I feel grateful for it. I notice what gratitude feels like in my body. And then the daring thing, okay, are you ready to let go of this lifetime? Are you ready to kiss everyone you know, everything you've loved and let it go? Are you ready to know that your work was enough? Are you ready to die a kind of death? And I take a deep breath, and I sigh and I practice dying. And so far each morning I wake up to a new lifetime. And my children, we have this mantra now, when we wake up we say, I get to be alive. I get to be alive today. I get to be alive today with you. 

And that truly has changed my whole experience of being alive, Sarah, that the labor, all of my labors, the labors of raising my children, or building a movement for justice, or trying to transition this nation into a multiracial democracy, all of these labors every day, that they are not just means to an end, they are an end in itself that living each day showing up to these labors, this grief and this joy can be the most meaningful way of living this life. It can be enough. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

I really appreciate you sharing your story with me and this beautiful book, and I look forward to reading the next one. 

Valarie Kaur: 

Thank you, Sarah. Love you so much. 

Sarah Cavanaugh: 

Thank you for listening to Peaceful Exit. You can learn more about this podcast and my online course at my website, peacefulexit.net. If you enjoyed this episode, please let us know. You can rate and review this show on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. This episode was produced by Larj Media. You can find them at larjmedia.com. Special thanks to Ricardo Russell for the original music throughout this podcast. More of his music can be found on Band Camp. As always, thanks for listening. I'm Sarah Cavanaugh, and this is Peaceful Exit. 

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