The Truth About Justin
It has been six years now since my best friend and beloved husband, Justin Ripley passed away. It has taken me this length of time to finally come to terms with it; to reconcile with my loss; to forgive and let go; and to embrace truth and reality. It has not been an easy journey but it has been filled with lessons on the impermanent nature of all things. I don’t think any lesson could have been more real than to lose someone so suddenly and in the most unexpected way, and to have it happen at the worst possible time ever. Justin’s death is, for me, proof that life can end at any time and it will happen when you least expect it.
Losing Justin was the worst experience I have ever had, even more so than losing my parents to death. It was the kind you thought you’d only see in the movies, like a nightmare you wish you could wake up from. All the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ could not bring him back. In the end, nothing else could soothe the pain except the Dharma I heard and learnt from my Guru, His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche. Ultimately only the Dharma makes sense and only when we see our pain and suffering from the perspective of what the Buddha taught can the healing begin.
In the Dharma, it is taught that the truth is like medicine, and I had to swallow this bitter pill. This pill is that all the pain and suffering I have been experiencing as a result of losing Justin comes from my own attachments and projections, and they have caused me so much misery. Refusing to accept the facts has not only hurt me but also others around me. But once I did, I was eventually able to heal.
If there is one thing that I have done right in my life, it is to have brought Justin to the Dharma, to be in Malaysia where a living Buddha lives and teaches, and to see Justin walk a path that eventually led him to take refuge under Rinpoche. In truth, I merely encouraged Justin and he was the one who decided to embrace the Dharma for himself and I rejoice greatly for that. Justin may have had a short life but by all accounts, it was a meaningful one.
Rinpoche accepted Justin into Kechara and had very kindly given him a full time job in the Ladrang (what we call a lama’s house), a monthly stipend (allowance), Dharma teachings, spiritual practices and refuge, treating Justin like his own family.
In the final year of his life in 2011, Justin was the happiest I have ever seen him and he shone the brightest when he was close to Rinpoche and doing Dharma work. He loved doing his work in Rinpoche’s ladrang, and treasured working directly with Rinpoche. Justin’s devotion and relationship (samaya) with Rinpoche grew stronger over time and they became very close, like a spiritual father and his son. And so I imagine Justin’s death also left an indelible mark on Rinpoche.
For months after Justin’s death I kept thinking and trying to recall if there had been signs that Justin and I had ignored or brushed off, thinking it was nothing. Not a single day has passed when I have not wished that Justin and I had paid more attention to little signs that may have hinted of his impending heart failure. But there were in fact no signs at all; no one knew he had a weak heart, not even Justin himself or me (and how I wish I had known). Justin had gone for a number of medical check-ups but nothing was detected and it was only later that the doctors said that his kind of heart condition could not have been detected through normal medical checks. He would have needed to get a MRI scan but nothing had indicated that Justin needed to do this. And so, we discovered all of this only after the autopsy when the doctor found his heart to be abnormally large.
When we heard this, Justin’s mother told us that Justin’s beloved father, Peter, had also had a heart attack and he passed away about three years before Justin. Mind you, both father and son were very physically active and were very strong men. Justin used to surf and play rugby, and his father was still surfing at the age of 60! Unfortunately, they both had a certain hereditary heart condition that characteristically goes undetected until it has reached a critical stage.
The doctor told us that for many years, Justin’s heart would have been working extra hard to get blood circulating all over his body and that could have been why he always felt lethargic. In fact, he was surprised that Justin had survived this long because many with this same condition die prematurely and some at an even younger age.
I believe Justin lived for as long as he did because of Rinpoche and the Dharma work that he did. When I look back and reflect, Rinpoche had often in the past asked Justin to exercise, even telling him to stop smoking. There was also a time Rinpoche encouraged Justin to go on a diet to lose some weight for health reasons. To motivate Justin to be healthier, Rinpoche encouraged me to go with Justin for walks so that he would get some exercise.
Rinpoche even went to the extent of buying mattresses so that Justin could sleep or take naps whenever he wanted. If you knew Justin, you would know he was quite a workaholic and loved working late into the night. We used to joke that both of us were nocturnal. At times, Rinpoche had to force Justin to go to sleep or go home. This is how much Rinpoche cared for Justin and in fact, for all of Rinpoche’s students.
Immediately after Justin passed away, Rinpoche personally conducted a bereavement puja and organised for Kechara House to hold a memorial service for Justin to give closure to his family, Kechara members, friends and everyone who loved him. Rinpoche had his students take care of Justin’s family, and to explain the situation to them and make sure they were guided through everything and had everything they needed. They were surprised when they saw the number of people who turned up for Justin’s memorial; they had had no idea just how many people loved Justin and had been touched and inspired by him. It was always Justin’s manner to be humble about how much he had done to help others.
Kechara members also helped us during the funeral with prayers and stayed with us right up to the cremation of Justin’s body. Rinpoche then requested for some of Justin’s hair and ashes so that they could be used in the making of Manjushri tsa tsas. On top of all that, Rinpoche also ordered a 3-foot Manjushri statue and had it filled with holy objects and relics, and then made arrangements for it to be placed in the school prayer hall of Shar Gaden Monastery so that whenever the monks do their prayers and rituals, merits will be transferred to Justin for his future rebirths. Rinpoche even had a special plaque made for Justin to be placed under the statue with his name on it, dedicating the statue to him.
Rinpoche had so much love and care for Justin even after he was gone. Rinpoche wanted to make sure that Justin would forever be collecting merits and be blessed by Manjushri so that in his next life, he will return with strong Dharma imprints and continue where he had left off in his Dharma walk. Only a kind Guru whose love for his student is unlimited, who cares for his student not just for this life but for his future lives, would think of such things and do so much to ensure he will be okay. No one else had done this much for Justin.
After the pujas were done, Rinpoche informed us that Justin had actually taken rebirth as a human, and that he would definitely be continuing to do Dharma strongly in his next life. We might even see him back in Kechara, who knows, but Rinpoche rightly said that what was most important was that he took a good rebirth as a human and continued where he left off in his Dharma practice.
This whole experience was a huge lesson in impermanence that I could not digest at that point of time. It was so unreal because I had just spoken to Justin a few hours before. He had called me up and we were joking and chatting about the timing to go to the airport to pick his mother and brother up. It was two days before Christmas and we were to spend Christmas with his family. We had it all planned a few months ahead; we were so excited about it and it was as if life went the extra yard to conspire against us. How was I going to explain all this to his mother and brother who were already on a plane on their way over here from New Zealand? Those were some of the many thoughts that crossed my crazy mind.
I did not want to accept it; how could Justin, only 36 years old then, be dead? I did not know how to accept the fact that my Justin was no longer there for me and I was afraid. I was looking for something, or someone, anything to explain away Justin’s death as it was hard to accept how he was gone in the blink of an eye.
So, out of my own pain, anger and attachment, I questioned everything and tried to find reasons for Justin’s death. I asked the doctors whether his heart attack was due to his work, and whether him working late nights contributed to the causes of his heart attack. Confused, sad, angry and with so much going through my mind, I felt cheated and lashed out, saying that Justin was overworked in Ladrang. In other words, I insinuated that Justin’s dharma work with Rinpoche was a cause for his death, which I realised to be wrong and untrue after understanding the autopsy results. But it was too late, I could not take back what I had said and I regret it till this day.
There were some people present who heard what I said and later took my remarks out of context, using it to justify their reasons for leaving Kechara, conveniently ignoring the frame of mind I was in when I said those words.
As Justin’s widow, I’d like to say that it is very low to exploit someone’s death to cover up your failures. I ask that you stop using my late husband’s name and death to turn people against a very kind monk. I cannot bring Justin back, no matter how hard I wish for it to have been me instead of him. But no one has the right to take my husband’s tragic death and my trauma to be vindictive and to attack his and my teacher. It will not help you heal your heart or wipe away your failures. Please stop. This is something Justin would have wanted as well.
I’d like to thank everyone who was there for doing all they could to try and save Justin – for taking Justin in their car to head out to meet the ambulance that was hopelessly stuck in peak hour traffic; for administering CPR to Justin in the car from the house all the way to where they met the ambulance, even though he had already stopped breathing at the very first traffic light; for accompanying Justin in the ambulance while paramedics tried to revive him; for not leaving his side at the hospital while the ER doctors tried to resuscitate him; for reciting prayers and mantras for him all the way; for calling me incessantly until I picked up the phone so that I could rush to the hospital; for consoling me when I realised that I did not make it in time to say goodbye. Justin was gone forever and there was nothing anyone could do to bring him back. His heart had decided to stop that fateful day, and I have had to pick up the pieces of my life, learn to accept this reality and deal with it.
It has taken me this long, six years to be exact, to be able to finally express all this in the open. It is time I moved on and started healing from all the pain. Yes of course I still do miss Justin, and I think many in Kechara still do, but I also rejoice knowing that he is now alive, a little person somewhere and eventually he will continue practising the Dharma. In a way, Justin has also inspired me to continue to do Dharma and with that, I dedicate my Dharma work as well as my decision to become a nun one day, to my beloved late husband Justin Anthony Ripley. I thank him for all the love and many life lessons he taught me, where even his death was a Dharma teaching. Justin, your quiet and kind spirit has touched so many people. And most of all, I thank Rinpoche for being there during Justin’s most crucial and final moments. I can never repay Rinpoche’s kindness and all that Rinpoche has done for Justin, and I am sure if Justin was here today, he would still be happily working closely with Rinpoche, doing what he does best, spreading Dharma through the internet.
So until we meet again Justin, may you be guided and protected by our Guru and your Dharma protector Dorje Shugden.
For more interesting information:
- In Memory of Justin Ripley, 1975-2011
- Justin’s Manjushri
- Manjushri for Justin
- Gratitude Series #16 – Tara Wedding
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