Letter to the Grief Stricken

To the Grief-Stricken,

You’ve lost someone very close to you and you are grieving. No shock there, grief is an emotion that comes along with the human condition. It’s perfectly normal to experience denial, anger, and sadness when you’ve suffered a loss. You asked me what does Buddhism offer as ways to deal with grief and loss. To come to an acceptance of loss and a relieving of grief after the death of a loved one you first have to accept the reality that death inevitably follows birth. What can suck is death too soon sometimes follows birth.

There is a Buddhist parable, The Mustard Seed, that speaks to thinking one is alone in their suffering after loss. In a condensed version a young woman named Kisa, carrying the body of her deceased young child came before the Buddha. She was in a state of intense grieving, refusing to believe her child was dead, that such suffering could be dealt to her alone. She was confused, angry and sad all at the same time. The emotion of grief dominated her bodymind. Kisa demanded of the Buddha that he cure her son, bring him back to life. He tells her that to do as she asked he would need a mustard seed from a house in which there had been no death or suffering. At every door she was offered mustard seeds but when she asked if anyone had died there she heard, “Yes, my . . . died here.” Spending the day knocking on door after door she finally came to realize that death was a part of everyone’s life, that she was not alone in her pain and grief. Loss comes to everyone. Kisa gained an understanding that she was not alone in her suffering, that she suffered along with many others.

How does understanding that you aren’t the only one to suffer affect your own grieving process? For some, knowing there are others in similar situations helps ease their own pain. Pain shared is pain reduced. For some though, the same understanding can add to their own suffering as the pain of others becomes part of their own grieving process. The pain of another is my pain too. Which are you more likely to experience? That it happens to everyone can bring about an enlightened moment but isn’t all that is needed to come to terms with grief.

Grief is an emotional red balloon. Anger, pain, denial, sadness and fear is the breath that fills the balloon until it is near bursting. With the understanding that suffering is universal a little air is released. More air squeaks out when impermanence is realized. That everything arises and falls away can ease the pressure of grief. Coming to the realization that death follows birth for everyone you can get past anger and fear . . . and a little more air leaves the balloon.

Do you honestly think you are “grieving for them”? That is a delusion brought about by the ego. You are grieving for the loss you are experiencing. This person was supposed to stay around and be available when you needed them. Now how can they be there for you? Grief, like funerals and wakes are for the living. You grieve for you. Understanding the unique personal quality of your grieving allows more air to escape the balloon.

Grief over the loss of someone close isn’t shown the same way by all people. Some rant and rave, some cry silently or hysterically, some quietly mourn, and some seem to show no emotion at all. It isn’t in the how you grieve as much as it is in how long the grieving continues. Just like you can get comfortable with negative habits you can delude yourself into thinking you find comfort in grief. Grief encompasses the dispositions of anger, fear, denial, and sadness that lead to psychoemotional pain if you hold on to them. You practice non-attachment when you let grief run its course. That letting go drains the rest of the air from the balloon.

In contemporary psychology there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance that are the path from loss to reconcilliation. The first four mirror the negative dispositions of delusion, anger, avoidance and depression that hinder a mature practice. In Buddhist practice you learn to be mindful of the arising of these emotional phenomena and make the effort to take positive actions without their influence. Either grief will arise and be quickly recognized as not being useful in that situation and discarded, or it will fully arise as the result of a profound loss and need to be confronted. Eventually these hindrances don’t arise at all. You accept their existence but not their power. With that acceptance there can be an end to periods of grief.

In my experience dealing with the loss of a loved one my Buddhist practice could only recognize two of the five stages of grief. When my mother and father died I experienced sadness. That these two important people would no longer be among the living was a loss not only to me but to everyone. It wasn’t hard for me to accept they were dead because I’d seen the bodies put into the ground. To ease the pain of loss I could recall that what I had learned through their examples would always be a part of how I am. We might be separated in life and death but their legacy lived on in me. Being wise to the reality of impermanence I couldn’t deny their deaths. Death being a conclusion to life left me with nothing to be angry at. Death is an empty phenomena and not a being so there was no one to bargain with. Sadness is a natural consequence of loss and should be experienced for what it is. The bargain would have been based in selfishness – ‘I’ll miss them.’ – so acceptance was chosen as the most useful action.

We’re back around to the ‘ways to deal with grief and loss question.

No matter how great a loss is, if you fully accept it straight on, the loss will turn out to be a gain. The great affair of birth and death works in a similar way. If you neither attach to nor fear birth and death, but boldly accept their reality, then you will become a liberated person in the midst of an ocean of suffering. Chan Master Sheng Yen

Master Sheng is direct and pragmatic. He’s teaching us that we’ll encounter great loss but that won’t matter because we’ll apply our practice to the situation. Being aware that the cycle of arising and falling away is a reality of this life and so it shouldn’t ever be unexpected, though it may be a surprise. We can accept the bad with the good. The action that Master Sheng is calling for is to use experiences of loss along with all our moment-to-moment experiences as a cause for engaging our practices of calm, honesty and compassion. Knowing the transitory nature of all phenomena there is no attachment to loss, attachment that can transform grief into suffering. What can be gained . . . wisdom.

I don’t want you to think that getting past grief and loss is easy. Sometimes it is harder to do than others. The philosophy of Buddhism teaches that an awareness of impermanence and of co-dependent origination can ease the pain of grief. The psychology of Buddhism teaches that meditative practice brings about the development of a calmer more aware bodymind able to recognize and cope with the emotions that arise in grief. Want can be the most difficult aspect of dealing with grief is severing a spiritual connection with a loved one. To get over that hurdle be reminded that we are never completely separated from anyone. That person had a profound effect on how you are or you wouldn’t be grieving. In you are ideas and motivations, stories and advice that will keep you always connected.

I bow with compassion,

Wayne Ren-Cheng

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