Buddhism, grief, and loss

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Buddha statue looking sad.

Recently a meditation student who’s only just begun practicing wrote to say that she’d experienced a bereavement. She wondered if I had any suggestions to help her through the grieving process.

I have to say first of all that I’m not a grief counselor. I’m just a meditator who has ended up sharing what he’s learned about working with pain. And I also would like to add that I’m hesitant to give advice in such situations because I know how feeble words can be in the face of powerful emotions. I long ago gave up on the notion I once held that there is some magical form of words that will make everything better.

Despite that, though, I know that sometimes when we share our perspectives with others (or when they do this with us) it can be helpful. So here’s an edited version of what I wrote to her.

Grief can of course be very painful. I think the main thing I’d emphasize is that the pain of loss is very natural, and to be accepted. It’s common to think that there’s something wrong when we feel pain, but when our life has been deeply entangled with that of another being, the two of us are part of one emotional system — a kind of shared love that flows between us. In that kind of a relationship we’re not, on an emotional level, two entirely separate beings. And so when we lose the other, it feels like a part of us has been ripped out. It feels that way because that’s exactly what’s happened.

So take a breath, and say, “It’s OK to feel this.” It really is.

Even those who are enlightened feel grief.

Just as one would put out a burning refuge with water, so does the enlightened one — discerning, skillful, and wise — blow away any arisen grief, his own lamentation, longing, and sorrow, like the wind, a bit of cotton fluff.
The Sutta Nipata

When we think there’s something wrong about feeling grief, then we add a second layer of suffering, which is often far more painful than the first. This second layer of pain comes from telling ourselves how terrible the experience is that we’re having, how it shouldn’t have happened, etc. Accept that it’s OK to feel the initial pain of grief, and you’re less likely to add that second layer.

Grief is an expression of love. Grief is how love feels when the object of our love has been taken away. And that’s worth bearing in mind. Try being aware of the grief and seeing it as valuable, because it’s love. Without love, there would be no grief. But without grief, there would be no love. So we have to see grief as being part of the package, so to speak.

You can treat the pain as an object of mindfulness. What we call “emotional” pain is actually located in the body. When the mind detects that something is “wrong,” it sends signals into the body, activating pain receptors. The more you can be aware of where those painful feelings are located in the body, the less your mind will have an opportunity to add that second layer of suffering.

You can recognize that a part of you is suffering, and send it loving messages. While you’re paying mindful attention to the part of you that’s suffering (noticing where in the body your pain is located) you can say things like “It’s OK. I know it hurts, but I’m here for you.” You can find your own form of words if you want.

Lastly, it’s worth reminding yourself that all living beings are of the nature to die. It’s a natural part of life. We don’t do this to numb the pain or to make it go away, but to help put things in perspective. Today, thousands of people are mourning the loss of pets, parents, even children. You’re not alone…

The enlightened feel grief, but it passes for them more quickly than it does for us, because they recognize that everything is impermanent, and they don’t add that second layer of suffering.

So your grief is natural, but I hope it soon becomes easier and easier to bear.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • This is a helpful article. I came here as part of research for a character I’m writing, but found guidance in dealing with my own, decade-long, grieving.

    Reply
  • This advice has helped me beyond belief, thank you so much.

    Reply
  • Thank you, i stumbled on this googling grief and Buddhist thought, this is very helpful as i struggle with grief.

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  • Thank you for this clear and thoughtful explanation Bodhipaksa. I was trying to understand loss/grief as a manifestation of ‘aversion’ arising from unpleasant vedana, and wondering how one would work skilfully with such feeling tone to avoid spiralling into craving … grasping … and ultimately more suffering. I imagine it takes an advanced practice in mindfulness to intervene in this process escalation, or is that a misunderstanding, and rather we cannot help by nature to move from unpleasant feeling tone to thoughts, memories and emotional reactivity (ie. grief) and that with mindfulness training we just become better at not getting lost in it all and having more moments of witnessing the process instead and therefore more moments of freedom?

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    • Hi, Danyah.

      Thanks for writing.

      Yes, at first the main task is to keep noticing that we’re spiraling, and to keep letting go of the thoughts and emotional reactions that are propelling those “second arrows.”

      But having done that it becomes not too hard to bring mindfulness to bear on the painful feeling/vedana underlying our emotional reactions. It helps to adopt the attitude that suffering is a normal part of life, and that it’s not a sign of failure or weakness. It helps to recognize that these painful feelings are no more than internally generated sensations, and that we can be mindful of them just as we would be aware of any other sensation. It helps to be curious about the size, shape, and texture of this sensation, and how it’s changing over time. It’s helpful to recognize that the sensation is a communication from a primitive part of the brain that’s asking for help, and to offer it support by talking lovingly and reassuringly to the pain, regarding it with loving eyes, and also touching it in a supportive way.

      It certainly takes practice to learn to do these things, but it’s not actually that advanced a practice. The key thing is simply knowing that it’s possible to respond to pain that way.

      There can be a period where this practice of self-compassion (which is what I described above) is a sneaky attempt to get rid of pain, so it’s helpful to regard the pain as being like a dear friend who’s arrived at your door in a state of distress. Your aim presumably wouldn’t be to get rid of your friend as quickly as possible, or to try to cheer them up in a facile way, but instead to invite them in, sit with them, and give them the time and space they need to tell you what’s going on. That’s the kind of attitude I recommend.

      I go into all of this in more depth in my book, “This Difficult Thing of Being Human,” which is about the practice of self-compassion.

      Lastly, may you abide compassionately with any inevitable pain in your life until it passes naturally.

      Reply
  • Thanks Bodhipaksa,

    A wonderful insight on the Buddhist perspective on grief. I contemplate within to find the grief, but it is not anywhere within me. Each time I do that and found nothing, it feels a little better, but the grief, is vicious cycle of emotions and thoughts, and the breath and the absence of thoughts free us from this entanglement, momentarily, but it comes back again, but each, somewhat diminished.

    I like when you say ‘Grief is an expression of love. Grief is how love feels when the object of our love has been taken away.’
    I normally listen to Usnisa Vijaya Dharani Sutra, which I recite and memorise, and it does heal the sadness and grief, it is a trip! And we tend to get into that self-absorption of pain and suffering and add another layer of sadness, and it gets worse if you don’t break away from the cycle of grief, if there’s one at all, for grief is no where to be found!!!!

    Thank you Bodhipaksa.

    Namo
    Bhagavate trailokya
    Prativiśiṣṭaya buddhāya
    Bhagavate tadyathā, om
    Viśodhaya
    Viśodhaya

    Asama-sama
    Samantāvabhāsa-spharaṇa
    Gati gahana
    Svabhāva viśuddhe
    Abhiṣiñcatu mām
    Sugata vara vacana
    Amṛta abhiṣekai mahā
    Mantra-padai
    Āhara āhara āyuh
    Saṃ-dhāraṇi

    Śodhaya, śodhaya
    Gagana viśuddhe
    Uṣṇīṣa vijaya viśuddhe
    Sahasra-raśmi sam-chodite

    Sarva Tathāgata
    Avalokani ṣaṭ-pāramitā-paripūranṇi
    Sarva Tathāgata
    Mati daśa-bhūmi prati-ṣṭhite
    Sarva Tathāgata
    Hṛdaya adhiṣṭhānādhiṣṭhita
    Mahā-mudre
    Vajra kāya sam-hatana viśuddhe

    Sarva āvaraṇa apāya-durgati
    Pari viśuddhe, prati-nivartaya
    Āyuh śuddhe
    Samaya adhiṣṭhite
    Maṇi maṇi mahā maṇi
    Tathatā bhūta-koṭi pariśuddhe
    Visphuṭa buddhi śuddhe
    Jaya jaya, vijaya vijaya
    Sphāra sphāra, sarva buddha
    Adhiṣṭhita śuddhe
    Vajri vajra gāḍhe vajram
    Bhavatu mama śarīram
    Sarva sattvānām ca kāya pari viśuddhe

    Sarva gati pariśuddhe
    Sarva Tathāgata siñca me samāśvāsayantu
    Sarva Tathāgata samāśvāsa adhiṣṭhite
    Budhya budhya, vibudhya vibudhya
    Bodhaya bodhaya, vibodhaya vibodhaya
    Samanta pariśuddhe
    Sarva Tathāgata hṛdaya adhiṣṭhānādhiṣṭhita
    Mahā-mudre svāhā

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