Buddhism, grief, and loss

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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Defending against loss

The Buddha taught that we spend most of our life like children in a burning house, so entranced by our games that we don’t notice the flames, the crumbling walls, the collapsing foundation, the smoke all around us. The games are our false refuges, our unconscious attempts to trick and control life, to sidestep its inevitable pain.

Yet, this life is not only burning and falling apart; sorrow and joy are woven inextricably together. When we distract ourselves from the reality of loss, we also distract ourselves from the beauty, creativity, and mystery of this ever-changing world.

One of my clients, Justin, distracted himself from the loss of his wife, Donna, by armoring himself with anger. He’d met her in college, and married her right after graduation. Donna went on to law school and to teaching law; Justin taught history and coached basketball at a small urban college. With their teaching, passion for tennis, and shared dedication to advocating for disadvantaged youth, their life together was full and satisfying.

On the day that Justin received the unexpected news of his promotion to full professor, Donna was away at a conference, and caught an early flight back to celebrate with him. On her way home from the airport, a large truck overturned and crushed her car, killing her instantly.

Almost a year after her death, Justin asked me for phone counseling. “I need to get back to mindfulness,” he wrote. “Anger is threatening to take away the rest of my life.”

During our first call, Justin told me that his initial response to Donna’s death was rage at an unjust God. “It doesn’t matter that I always tried to do my best, be a good person, a good Christian. God turned his back on me,” he told me. Yet his initial anger at God had morphed into a more general rage at injustice and a desire to confront those in power. He’d always been involved with social causes, but now he became a lightning rod for conflict, aggressively leading the fight for diversity on campus, and publicly attacking the school administration for its lack of commitment to the surrounding community.

His department chairman had previously been a staunch ally; now their communication was badly strained. “It’s not your activism,” his chairman told him. “It’s your antagonism, your attitude.” Justin’s older sister, his lifelong confidant, had also confronted him. “Your basic life stance is suspicion and hostility,” she’d said. When I asked him whether that rang true, he replied, “When I lost Donna, I lost my faith. I used to think that some basic sanity could prevail in this world. But now, well, it’s hard not to feel hostile.”

The pain of loss often inspires activism. Mothers have lobbied tirelessly for laws preventing drunk driving; others struggle for legislation to reduce gun violence; gay rights activists devote themselves to halting hate crimes. Such dedication to change can be a vital and empowering part of healing. But Justin’s unprocessed anger had aborted the process of mourning. His anger might have given him some feeling of meaning or purpose, but instead he remained a victim, at war with God and life, unable to truly heal.

Loss exposes our essential powerlessness, and often we will do whatever’s possible to subdue the primal fear that comes with feeling out of control. Much of our daily activity is a vigilant effort to stay on top of things—to feel prepared and avoid trouble. When this fails, our next line of defense is to whip ourselves into shape: Maybe if we can change, we think, we can protect ourselves from more suffering. Sadly, going to war with ourselves only compounds our pain.

A few months after my first phone consultation with Justin, his seventy-five-year-old mother had a stroke. His voice filled with agitation as he told me about the wall he’d hit when he tried to communicate with her insurance company. They couldn’t seem to understand that her recovery depended on more comprehensive rehab. “There’s nothing I can do to reach this goddamned, heartless bureaucracy … nothing!”

Justin was once again living in the shadow of loss, and gripped in reactivity. We both agreed that this was an opportunity to bring mindfulness to his immediate experience. He began by quickly identifying what he called “pure, righteous anger” before pausing, and allowing it to be there. Then, after a several rounds of investigation, he came upon something else. “My chest. It’s like there’s a gripping there, like a big claw that’s just frozen in place. And I’m afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked gently. After a long pause, Justin spoke in a low voice. “She’ll probably come through this fine, but a part of me is afraid I’m going to lose her too.”

We stayed on the phone as Justin breathed with his fear, feeling its frozen grip on his chest. Then he asked if he could call me back later in the week. “This is a deep pain,” he said. “I need to spend time with it.”

A few days later, he told me, “Something cracked open, Tara. Being worried about my mom is all mixed up with Donna dying. It’s like Donna just died yesterday, and I’m all broken up. Something in me is dying all over again . . .” Justin had to wait a few moments before continuing. “I wasn’t done grieving. I never let myself feel how part of me died with her.” He could barely get out the words before he began weeping deeply.

Whenever we find ourselves lacking control of a situation, there’s an opening to just be with what is. Now that Justin had once again found himself in a situation he couldn’t control, he was willing this time to be with the loss he’d never fully grieved. Instead of rushing into a new cause, he spent the next couple of months focused on caring for his mom. He also spent hours alone shooting hoops, or hitting tennis balls against a wall. Sometimes he’d walk into his empty house and feel like he had just lost Donna all over again. It was that raw.

Justin had finally opened to the presence that could release his hill of tears. Six months later, during our last consultation, he told me that he was back in action. “I’m in the thick of diversity work again, and probably more effective. Makes sense . . . According to my sister, I’m no longer at war with the world.”

By opening to his own grief instead of armoring himself with anger, Justin was finally able to start the healing process. His grief had never gone away; it had just been hidden. Once he was willing to open to it and feel it, his own sorrow could show him the way home to peace. As Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue tells us:

All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.

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This precious human birth

When one of Sunada’s best friends from college lost her brother recently, it served as a wake up call for her. It was a reminder that life is short, and there really is no time to lose.

My friend Cecily recently lost her brother to illness. He had just turned 50 the week before he died. She is devastated.

Cecily is one of my best friends from college. We’ve known each other for 32 years. It’s that rare kind of friendship where even if months pass without connecting, we still pick right up where we left off. We’ve never lived anywhere near each other since graduation, but we’ve stayed in touch through all our ups and downs. It’s a friendship I treasure.

When she came to visit after her loss, there was something very poignant about it. It turned into something of a wake up call for me.

I’ve written here many times about my busy-holic tendencies. It turns out I’m in one of my legitimately busiest periods in years. I recently took on a new part-time job, on top of working to build my coaching practice, and teach meditation and dharma. This week, I start attending a training program one day a week. My husband wants to start some home renovations to prepare our townhouse for sale. And I’m keeping up with my singing engagements and voice lessons. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again. Everything I’m doing is very important to me. I have a hard time seeing what to cut.

But sometimes I take things too seriously. I get so driven and sucked into my vision of where I want to go that I forget to live my life right now. And Cecily’s visit reminded me of that.

At my sangha group this week, it was timely that we discussed the traditional Buddhist teaching on the Four Reminders. Here’s one presentation of them, in verse form:

This human birth is precious,
our opportunity to awaken.
The body is impermanent,
and time of death is uncertain.
The cause and effect of karma
shapes the course of our lives.
Life has inevitable difficulties,
no one can control it all.

This life we must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop.
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.

Therefore I recall
My inspiration and aspiration
And resolve to make use
Of every day and night to realize it.

– Compiled by Viveka Chen, based on verses by Tsongkhapa (14th century Tibetan master)

What this teaching says to me is this. Of all the millions of different circumstances that I might have been born into, I was given this fortunate human birth. I have everything I need, and the freedom to choose how to live. How foolish it is to spend my life like a hungry ghost — constantly grasping after some elusive future.

See also:

Right Now is a good time to appreciate what precious gifts I’ve been given. And make the best use of them, both for my own benefit and for everyone else’s. When else could I do that? Besides, I don’t know how long my good fortune will last. Things could change tomorrow. I don’t know. And the opportunity might not come again.

For now, I’m not in a position to change my overloaded schedule. But I can change my mindset. For one, I realize how precious Cecily’s friendship is to me. Even though we’ve been friends for 32 years, there have been big chunks of time when we weren’t connecting. Now that we’re both in our 50s, I’m seeing more clearly how the time ahead of us is finite.

Seeing her and reflecting on the Four Reminders have given me my wake up call. There really is no time to lose.

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The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed, by Kathleen Willis Morton

Blue Poppy and the Mustard SeedThere can be few things more painful than the death of a child. Can Buddhist practice help us cope even with this level of suffering? Siddhisambhava reviews a new book chronicling loss and letting go.

The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed is the tragic story of Kathleen Willis Morton and her husband, Chris having a longed for baby boy who dies seven weeks later. The story is extraordinarily difficult to read sometimes because it’s so painful. It’s also a very tender book, so you don’t want to rush it.

It’s hard to write about grief well. In writing The Blue Poppy, Morton joins a canon of grief and bereavement literature that has some real heavyweights in it — and she can hold her head up. In the 1960’s Simone de Beauvoir wrote about her mother’s death (A Very Easy Death) and CS Lewis penned a Christian classic, A Grief Observed, following the death of his wife. Another spiritual classic, Grace and Grit, written by Ken Wilber in 1991, courses his five year journey with his wife, who was diagnosed with breast cancer within weeks of their marriage. More recently Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking won critical acclaim and became a one woman show on Broadway and in London’s West End. Her husband dropped dead at the dinner table. “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant.”

Title: The Blue Poppy and the Mustard Seed
Author: Kathleen Willis Morton
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 0-86171-565-9
Available from: Amazon.com and Wisdom.

Just occasionally Morton overdoes the description. And occasionally she tells, rather than shows –- which must be very tempting with a book like this. But mostly she’s PDG (pretty damn good). If you want to know, or remember, how raw grief is, or can be, or if you need to have your current terrifying/chaotic/deadening/etc experience of grief articulated, read this.

It’s such a new life and tiny body dying. It’s so poignant. We grieve in relation to how we’ve loved. And they say the death of a child is the worst. “I had books on my shelf that were heavier than he was in the end.” When Liam dies they quit their jobs and book a trip around the world. “I wanted to walk away forever going nowhere, and lie down and die at the same time.” The travel stuff is interesting, but the basic material is the same. Like Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

Anyway, she pulls through, of course. It takes her nine years to feel kind of OK at his death anniversary, and to wake up one morning feeling happy. Morton began practicing Tibetan Buddhism when she was 17 and had Liam when she was 27. She had ten years of practice under her belt by the time of his death, then. Practice helps, it definitely helps. “In the darkness I had the stars to look up to.” But it’s not a magic wand: “wave this and avoid suffering.”

I would have liked more about the “end” of her process. It’s too short and “wrapped-up” a bit too soon for me. Maybe she hasn’t had enough distance from the end yet? I dunno. There’s a sense of a publicist wanting to write on the back-cover that this is an “uplifting memoir about enduring world-shattering pain and coming out whole.” That is part of the story, of course, and I’m glad Morton feels like that.

But sentences like “I had to die in my mind to wake up to my life. In letting go, samsara is nirvana” don’t do her justice somehow. I wish she’d done a little more work there, but maybe that way of expression is not her forte. It doesn’t feel like her voice. The very last sentence of the book is more her voice, and is much more interesting. “Sometimes powerful reasons to hold on are not yet known to us.” Given the age old ping pong in Buddhism between attachment and renunciation, and the manifold ways we rationalize, opine and actually behave, I wish she had explored this apparent contradiction more. In a sense, she’s writing about that all the time, not knowing how to go on living without Liam, yet somehow keeping going, fumbling. It’s a paradox and a koan this bereavement business. What do we hold on to and what do we let go of? There’s the whole of the Dharma in that question. And what exactly is it we are doing when we do hold on and/or let go? I look forward to seeing other Buddhist writers keep Kathleen Willis Morton company in this genre. She’s made a fabulous contribution, from the experience of a practicing Buddhist as well as a mother – and there’s still plenty left to say.

Kathleen Willis Morton can be found online at www.TheBluePoppyAndTheMustardSeed.com. She encourages readers to visit and share their experiences on the online forum.

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Waking up in the midst of loss


When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster, or look forward through it as an opening toward something new. Sunada tells her own story of how she woke up in the midst of a personal crisis.

This week, I closed a major chapter of my life. I watched as my beloved Bösendorfer grand piano, which I had just sold, was wrapped up and carted off to its new home. This piano had once represented my dreams. It was no ordinary grand piano. It was a top of the line, artist’s instrument. Beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. But now there is an empty space in my living room where it once stood.

I loved playing piano — I started when I was 8 years old, and studied classical music through my adult years. And I had long dreamed of having a piano like this. When I bought it, I was working in high tech, working my way up the corporate ladder and making good money. I thought I had it all – successful career, happy marriage, and a serious sideline hobby playing Chopin and Beethoven in my spare time. When a business windfall brought me some unexpected cash, I jumped at the chance to buy my dream piano. Music had always been my passion, and a golden opportunity fell into my lap. And in a way, this piano stood for many strands of my life coming together – a nice home, financial security, living out my musical dreams.

As irony would have it, I barely ever got to play my dream piano. About the time I bought it, I was pounding on a computer keyboard by day and playing the piano by night, so those hands rarely got to rest. And with that, my whole perfect world came crashing down. Within a matter of weeks, both wrists grew so painfully swollen from severe tendonitis that I had to stop using my hands almost entirely. When the injury was at its worst, I couldn’t even hold up a book or a coffee mug. It was too much strain. Playing the piano was out of the question. Permanently, as it turned out. I was at least feeling grateful that I could keep working and still had an income. But then after the events of 9/11, my fledgling business consultancy pretty much dried up, too. So much for my perfect world.

There’s a saying that when one door in life closes, a new one opens. It’s taken 13 years to recover from my injury and unplanned career change. And even today I live with lasting physical repercussions in my wrists, not to mention less financial security. But my life veered in a completely different direction because of this turn of events. It was what woke me up — and to this day I’m really grateful that it happened. The way I’m living now — as an ordained Buddhist, meditation teacher, and life coach – bears little resemblance to what it was back then.

What’s deceiving about such a condensed story told in retrospect is that it all sounds so neat and tidy. It glosses over the bumps in the road, the false turns and dead ends, and the terror of feeling forced to step out into the unknown with no guarantees that anything will work out. Even as recently as a few months ago, I wondered if I should just throw in the towel and go back to my high tech career so I wouldn’t have to sit with all the uncertainty and money worries. The compulsion to retreat into the comfort and security of the old and familiar is unbelievably powerful!

What I’ve learned is that when life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster and a loss, or look forward through it as an opportunity and opening toward something new. Which view we take makes all the difference in the world. And the key ingredient in making the wiser choice is a willingness to sit mindfully with everything, no matter what. I remember telling my friends that I felt like I was a trapeze artist suspended in mid-air: I had just let go of the swing behind me and was stuck in that moment where I couldn’t even see the swing in front of me yet, let alone grab it. And I didn’t want to look down because I knew there was no safety net under me. At moments like that, the pull of our fears and aversions can be overwhelming. But something told me I had no real option but to keep looking ahead. I had to trust that the forward momentum of my trapeze leap would carry me to a safe landing.

When we sit mindfully in the midst of our own chaos and confusion, something different starts to happen. When we stop the reflexive reaction of our fear-based choices and instead allow the moment to unfold on its own, we shift in a new direction. We’re no longer ruled by our thoughts and habits from the past, but instead applying our open curiosity and creative energy toward building something new. One small step at a time, we start changing the trajectory of our lives.

As I said before, my life looks very different today. I’m now a mezzo soprano and singing with a jazz/pop a cappella group that’s just starting to perform publicly. I love singing – to me it’s a much more direct and joyful experience to have my own body be my musical instrument, rather than to manipulate a complex contraption of piano keys and hammers. I think singing jazz and pop music is much better suited to me than playing classical piano ever was. And I love teaching meditation and coaching people toward living happier lives. It’s so much more fulfilling to me than building software programs!

But you know what? I never would have gotten here if that rug hadn’t been pulled out from under me. The thought of leaving behind my “perfect world” wouldn’t have even occurred to me. And what a great lesson I learned from it.

I also see now that these opportunities for waking up don’t only come along in once-in-a-lifetime personal crises. They’re happening all the time. Every moment we live is an opportunity to stop, look, and start afresh. I was just so soundly asleep that I needed something big and dramatic to grab my attention!

My living room is now more spacious since I’ve rearranged the furniture, sans piano. The room actually feels more comfy, more inviting. My husband and I — and our friends too — seem to gravitate to it more than we used to. I’m not sure what new things will come into this space that’s opened up, but I’ll be mindfully watching for what it might be.

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