How to Cope With Loss and Grief:
A Buddhist perspective on providing emotional and spiritual care for others who have lost a loved one, or for coping with your own loss and grief
Prepared by Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group, Hayagriva Buddhist Centre, 64 Banksia Terrace, Kensington WA 6151, phone (08) 9367 4817, contact us.
- Anytime…Anywhere…Anyhow…Buddhist Methods for Coping With Separation, Loss and Grief
- Responding to the Suffering of Others
- The Healing of Grief
- The Storm
- Meditations on Loving Kindness and Compassion for the Very Sick and Dying
- Healing a Relationship by Completing Unfinished Business
Bereavement can be a time of despair and disintegration, as well as a time for a surprising renewal of faith, as C S Lewis discovered and wrote about in A Grief Observed. For much of his life, Lewis had been an inspiring author and sought-after lecturer on the Christian faith. After his wife died of cancer, he chronicled his anger and sadness over the ensuing months, and experienced a despair and aloneness so profound that everything he had previously believed now seemed to be empty, hollow words. He felt abandoned by God and lost his faith. Yet as Lewis continued to question and search and slowly heal his painful grief, he gradually rebuilt, from the ashes of his suffering and despair, a potent and living faith.
We must never give up on the bereaved. With kindness and patience, we continue to offer our love and support over the many months it will take for her to complete the most painful part of her mourning. The articles below are selected to try to help you in your efforts to be helpful and kind to those in need, or, to enable you to cope with your own suffering and loss.
We mustn’t wait for the bereaved person to cal us and ask for help. As a rule, she will find it very hard to admit, even when we contact her, that she is intensely alone and afraid. She is afraid to admit that she feels like hell; afraid she is going crazy. She is afraid we wouldn’t want to be with her in her pain. And she is afraid to take those first steps back into life.
Thus it is left to us to be dynamic, caring and honest so that she feels free to let down her guard and allow herself to receive love and support.
Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group: Hayagriva Buddhist Centre 2011
Buddhist Methods for Coping With Separation, Loss and Grief
1. I am not alone
From Christine Longaker: At a certain point in my own grieving process, months after the death of my husband, I felt as though I were at the bottom of a deep and dark well. Even though I was an atheist at the time, and didn’t know if anyone was listening, I began to pray for help. After a few days of praying, in the midst of my despair, an image suddenly appeared in my mind, a photograph that was taken during the Vietnam War. The image was of a young mother, holding her dead child in her arms and looking up to the sky in anguish. This vivid image broke my shell of isolation, as I understood that we all grieve. So I was not alone. This experience must be as hard for everyone else as it is for me, I realized. I resolved to find a way to go through and finish my grief, so I could help others do the same.
**(For example, you might think as follows:) I feel this is a terrible loss, yet when I investigate, there are others who have experienced just the same loss, and there are others who are suffering the same loss as I am somewhere in the world right now. I see now that this is what happens in this life, anytime, anywhere and anyhow.
2. There are others who may be worse off than me
From Len Warren: When our son died 17 months after plummeting to the earth in a paragliding accident, we were devastated. It seemed so unfair for our son to die before us. He was fit and happy with the world at his feet. Now it was finished. I felt as if there were a black hole in the middle of my heart. Then one day we met a friend who said that her son, who swam in the same club as our son, had recently committed suicide. Soon after we met a neighbour who was grieving the loss of her 15 year old grandson, top of his class, who had jumped from a radio tower to his death. Another friend confided that her 21-year-old brother had died, lost between Perth and Rottnest in a boating accident, but her father had forbidden the family to ever talk about it or mention his name again. Recently, at Murdoch Hospice, a 24-year-old woman in the ward where I volunteer, died of a rare cancer. Her parents had already lost one son, killed in Iraq, and a second son, also lost in Iraq. Our loss was now put in perspective; it was tragic but not unusual and not as bad as others. You can’t help but feel love and compassion towards those worse off. This lightens your own darkness. You start to feel as if you can cope.
**(For example, you might think as follows:) My grief is breaking my heart, yet, when I ask around, I find that there are others who are suffering much worse losses than me. My heart goes out to them.
3. I will survive; grief can be finished
From Christine Longaker: Halfway through the second year after my husband’s death, I uncovered the secret thoughts I was generating each time I felt deep sadness and pain: “I can’t live without you. I hate being alone. I want you back.” There was so much grasping in my mind, so many wishes that could never be satisfied. It was clear I needed to replace my grasping with a new way of thinking: “I am letting you go and wishing you well. I am going to survive and be strong. I am going to make a new life for myself.” After a few months of taking this approach, my process of mourning finished.
**(For example, you might think as follows:) My mourning seems to go on and on and to come back over time in a repeating cycle. Each time it’s just as intense as before. When I discuss this with others, I find that the intensity may take weeks, months or years to decrease. But for most people the pain and sorrow lessen, and they feel free to reinvest in their lives. The important message for me is: I will survive – grief can be finished.
4. Suffering is like a disease we have all contracted
There is a pervasive belief in the Western world, generated and maintained by advertising, that it is normal to be happy and healthy, smiling with a beautiful/handsome face and body, surrounded by all the comforts of modern life. As a result, we also come to believe that to be sick, disabled, weak, in pain, anxious, discontented, unhappy or depressed is abnormal. So if I am, for example, suffering with a debilitating disease, or paralysed by grief, it follows that I will see myself as an oddity, not normal, and possibly feel that there is something really wrong with me. However, this does not accord with reality. The very first teaching that the Buddha gave was that our lives are in the nature of suffering. It is being genuinely happy and healthy that is unusual. Once we look around, and observe deeply, we see that every living thing suffers sooner or later. Furthermore the Buddha taught that there is a subtle level of discontentment or unease that is with us all the time in this life.
**(For example, you might think as follows:) Now that I understand the all-pervasive nature of unhappiness and discontentment, I can cope better when I am not well, or my loved ones are unhappy or my friends are in grief. In fact, I feel more able to help them because I know that suffering is like a disease we have all contracted. (And according to Buddhism, there is a way to free yourself of this suffering.)
5. Why do bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people?
From Ven. Thubten Chodron: When a kind person dies young or under terrible circumstances, or a good person suffers agonizing disease or injury, you may feel disillusioned to the point of despair, and wonder about the meaning of this life. Buddhist teachers say that this is because we are only looking at the short period of this one life. The “Law of Cause and Effect” and the workings of “karma” mean that many of the results we experience in this life are the results of actions done in previous lives, and many of the actions we do in this life will ripen only in future lives. Kind people who die young are experiencing the result of negative actions done in past lives. However, their present kindness has planted seeds or imprints on their mindstreams for them to experience happiness in the future. In the same way, the wealth of dishonest people is the result of their generosity in preceding lives. Their current dishonesty leaves the karmic seed for them to be cheated and to experience poverty in future lives.
6. Death is certain; but its time is most uncertain
From Ven. Dondrub: Thinking about impermanence and death may seem a depressing subject, but its purpose is to make us appreciate each moment of our life. The worldly view is that thinking about death will make you miserable. But thinking about death from the Buddhist point of view is extremely beneficial. To be aware, to experience, to feel that all things are impermanent is very liberating. Impermanence is a truth. To deny that all things are impermanent is a source of suffering. We know intellectually that we will die, but we don’t experience this deeply, emotionally.
**(For example, you might think as follows:) I cannot say absolutely that I will reach home tonight before I die. But it is definite that I will die. To live every moment with this awareness of death is very liberating. It may seem unfair when people die young, but the reality is that people die at any age, even in the womb. Right now, somewhere in the world, people who were born on the same day as me are dying. So there is no point in falling into despair when a close friend dies before I do, or my child dies before I do or I am diagnosed with a terminal disease. This does not mean I don’t feel overwhelming sadness and grief. I do, and that’s normal. But I know deep down that the time of death is most uncertain, and it may occur “anytime…anywhere…anyhow”, and this knowledge saves me from falling into a paralysing kind of grief.
7. White light visualization
This practice can be done by anyone, including non-believers. Sit quietly, take three breaths and on the outbreaths, imagine that you are releasing all the day’s busyness and worries, your anxieties about future commitments, your thoughts about past events. Let them all go, dissolving into the air. When you are calm, imagine that all the goodness in the universe manifests as a brilliant white light about two metres in front of you. The light is very bright but somehow has a peaceful and healing feeling. Its rays radiate in all directions. Imagine a ray of this white light enters your body at the crown of your head, filling you with healing light and purifying your body, speech and mind of all negativity. The light moves down through your body, pushing ahead of it your negativities and pain and suffering which leaves from the lower parts of your body as thick, black smoke that dissolves and completely disappears. Imagine now that you are completely purified, clean and whole and at peace. Remain in this state for a few minutes. Think, “Just as I have purified my body, speech and mind, so may all living beings be purified and find natural great peace.”
If and when you are able to do this visualization, then you can imagine that the rays of white light enter the crown of the person you wish to help, visualizing them as clearly as possible, either as they are now, or as they were before they died. Repeat the method and end by really believing that you have freed them of all suffering.
Finally, imagine the white light moving toward your friend in need, and dissolving into them so that they are one with the qualities of goodness and happiness.
8. The Tonglen practice
To meet adversity, and in particular illness and dying, the method of tonglen or taking and giving, is especially powerful. In his book, How to Practise: The Way to a Meaningful Life, Rider, 2003, His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains one variation of tonglen, in everyday language:
“It is important to diminish undisciplined states of mind, but it is even more important to meet adversity with a positive attitude. Keep this in mind: By greeting trouble with optimism and hope, you are undermining worse troubles down the line. Beyond that, imagine that you are easing the burden of everyone suffering problems of that kind. This practice – imagining that by accepting your pain you are using up the negative karma of everyone destined to feel such pain – is very helpful. Sometimes when I am sick, I practise taking others’ suffering to myself and giving them my potential for happiness; this provides a good deal of mental relief.
Every day in the early morning, and especially when I have the time, I do this practice in a general way with regard to all living beings. But in particular I single out Chinese leaders and those officials who must make decisions on the spot to torture or kill particular Tibetans. I visualize them, and draw their ignorance, prejudice, hatred, and pride into myself. I feel that, because of my own training even if in reality I could absorb some portion of their negative attitudes, it could not influence my behaviour and turn me into a negative person. Therefore, ingesting their negativities is not that much of a problem for me, but it lessens their problems. I do this with such strong feeling that if later in the day in my office I hear of their atrocities, although one part of my mind is a little irritated and angry, the main part is still under the influence of the morning practice; the intensity of the hatred is reduced to the point where it is groundless.
Whether this meditation really helps those officials or not, it gives me peace of mind. Then I can be more effective; the benefit is immense.”
Tonglen is quite an advanced practice, but some people respond to it and find it useful without much training. Instead of the Chinese officials that the Dalai Lama visualized in the example given above, you can visualize your friend who is ill or has died, or the family members left behind, and imagine taking their pain and suffering into yourself, where it is visualized as destroying your own selfish self-centredness, thus revealing your infinite kindness and love, which you give to those you wish to help.
To explore tonglen further, Christine Longaker has given a wonderful meditation on Loving Kindness and Compassion for the very sick the dying, and those who have died. See the extracts in the document Meditations on Loving Kindness and Compassion for the Very Sick and Dying taken from Christine’s book entitled Facing Death and Finding Hope.
9. Don’t Let Grief Become Self-Cherishing
When the person we love or care about dies, the emphasis suddenly shifts from compassion and caring for another to facing your own sense of separation, loss, sadness and grief. It is easy to turn inwards and be consumed by your own grief. This can become what Buddhists call “self-cherishing” and it can be helpful to counteract this emotion by trying to turn outwards a little and try to help others, including, through sincere prayer, the person who has died.
**(For example, you might think as follows:) I will try to take away any suffering that my loved one endured during the death process or indeed any suffering that they may be experiencing now in their next life, and give them in return my unconditional love. I will do this using the tonglen practice. This is not to deny my need to grieve nor the very real sense of suffering that I am experiencing from this loss, it’s just that I truly want my loved one to be happy now.
Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group: Hayagriva Buddhist Centre 2011
Responding to the Suffering of Others
Selected extracts from Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying by Christine Longaker, Chapter 5, Broadway, 2001, page 54
One of the hardest parts of caregiving work – or life, for that matter – is being asked to help someone whose particular form of suffering we have not experienced ourselves, perhaps one that triggers our deepest fears – for example, the sudden death of a child. How can we respond to a young father’s pain when we don’t even want to imagine what he is going through? What can we possibly offer him?
Needs of Those in Emotional or Physical Pain and Grief
My experience is that each of us has the same needs when we are suffering. We all need to have our suffering and emotional pain validated. We need to feel safe speaking about and expressing our pain, and to trust that others will understand our feelings. We need to feel that whatever our experience and circumstances, we are respected and unconditionally accepted.
We all need basic human qualities – the reliable presence and love of another person, someone willing to be in regular contact with us for the duration of our journey through suffering. We need others to simply listen and bear witness to our pain, offering support, encouragement, and honesty, tempered with compassion.
What helps us endure suffering are frequent expressions of affection, love and hugs; sometimes we need laughter to lighten our pain. We need time to withdraw and heal our wounds, balanced with encouragement to take steps back into life’s enjoyable activities. We need friends who can sometimes offer new ideas or perspectives, without any expectations attached.
And we all need to be reminded that our suffering and painful circumstances do not constitute a new “tragic” identity. We need others to view us always as a whole person, facing another of life’s transitions. If others can respond to our needs with courage and love, this gives us hope that we can bear our suffering with dignity.
When a friend is in tremendous emotional or physical pain, sometimes we’re afraid to go and be with him or her, or afraid to communicate honestly when we visit. We think we should know how to relieve his pain or have just the right things to say. Yet what a person suffering needs most is our presence. The Greek word for comforter is paraclete, meaning ‘one who comes to walk alongside.’ What we bring to support a friend is our loving presence, with perspective.
More than anything we do or say, what helps a person who is suffering is how we are. “How we are” is a reflection of the unified perspective we have on the whole of life, which includes experiences of joy and adversity. Our presence is also an expression of our confidence, the profound love and unqualified respect for others we have come to embody through our spiritual practice. “How we are” is connected to our awareness of our own suffering and the extent to which we have worked through our grief. And finally, our loving presence depends on our ability to acknowledge and then release our fears and expectations, remaining receptive and compassionate towards the other person.
Reflect on Your Own Experience
You can obtain valuable insights for responding to another person’s suffering from your own experience. Take some time to reflect upon a period in your life when you went through a deep experience of suffering, loss or grief. Remember what it was you really needed during that time. Recall what helped you to face and heal your pain, and what resources – internal or external – you called on for help. Or if you never received what you most needed, reflect on what you wished for to help you get through your painful distress.
Finally you might ask yourself: What benefit did this suffering bring to my life? Can I appreciate now that my suffering played a purposeful role in my development? Was I able to give a meaning to my difficulty by the way I chose to respond?
Reflecting on your own experiences of deep suffering will enable you to realize that you have all the necessary skills for supporting others, the confidence that suffering is not hopeless, and an appreciation that suffering presents us with an opportunity to change or find meaning in the midst of our adversity.
What To Do When You Visit Someone Who is Suffering and/or Grieving
Before meeting a friend who is experiencing physical or emotional pain, sit quietly for a few minutes. Become aware of any thoughts or fears that might impede your receptivity, and connect again with your inherent openness and love by reflecting on your friend’s suffering.
As you settle quietly in meditation and watch your thoughts, you might find that you have fear about the other person’s anguish or concern about your ability to make him feel better. Perhaps you’re already trying to plan what you will say, to feel some control in the uncertain situation ahead. Acknowledge these thoughts and fears, and then allow them to dissolve. You might imagine setting your fears, plans and thoughts in a box next to you and leaving them behind, before going into your friend’s room.
Reflect on your friend’s situation, and let his suffering touch your heart, awakening your compassion and love. No matter how painful the circumstances or how disturbing the physical appearance that you will encounter, remember that your friend has, at the core of his being, the innermost essence of wisdom and compassion. Your role, then, is not to rescue him or give him your solutions, but to help him recall and turn toward his own inner resources.
After becoming aware of yourself and compassionately opening your heart to your friend, you’ll feel more at ease authentically communicating with him or her. You don’t have to have all the answers or be perfect; you can simply be yourself.
You might begin: “I’m at a loss here because I don’t know what to do. And I can’t even imagine how difficult this is for you. Still, I’ve come because I want you to know that I care about you, and that you are not alone. No matter what happens, or what you’re feeling, I love you. Please tell me what is happening for you now.”
Then listen as your friend expresses who he is and how he is feeling. And you must listen with your whole being, not just your ears. Listen with your body, your heart, your eyes, your energy, your total presence. Listen in silence, without interrupting. Fill any spaces of silence between you with love, with silent permission for the other person to go on and go deeper. Once in a while, perhaps, ask a question to draw your friend out even further:
“What else are you going through; what else is happening in your life right now? What are you thinking about as you go through this difficulty? What’s the hardest part of this for you? What is your biggest fear?”
If he can’t talk directly about the immediate suffering he is going through (for example, if he is dying and doesn’t want to speak about it yet) then you might say: “Tell me about your life. What happened to you? What did you do that you feel good about? What was the happiest part of your life? What have you accomplished? What challenges or difficulties have you had to face?”
Or: “How have you coped with your illness up till now? Has being ill brought any new insights about your life?”
Give space for his answers and acknowledge his pain. Don’t immediately jump in with your stories or brilliant ideas. Silently acknowledge your rising thoughts and feelings, and continue to be there for him. Focus on what he is communicating on every level – through his body, his expression, his tone of voice, his energy and his words. Listen to what is said, and also to what is not said, but implied. Validate the feelings he has expressed, and through your intuition and questions, slowly draw out more of his thoughts or needs.
You might reflect back to your friend: “This must be very hard. You are going through a great difficulty right now, do you realize that? As I listen to you, I feel your distress, your sorrow, your frustration or fear. This must be really, really hard. Whatever you are feeling is perfectly understandable, given the circumstances you are facing.”
After encouraging your friend to describe his deepest fears, angers, regrets, or sadness, you can acknowledge his pain and let him know that it may take a while for it to diminish. By fully listening to and accepting your friend’s pain, you can help him accept himself and his present condition, thus alleviating a great deal of the emotional suffering that can result from guilt or harsh self-judgement.
Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group: Hayagriva Buddhist Centre 2011
The Healing of Grief
Selected extracts from Chapter 11, Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying, by Christine Longaker, Broadway Books, New York 2001, p. 161
Chapter 11: Healing Bereavement
- The normal process of mourning
- Grief’s side effects
- Barriers to finishing grief
- Fear of facing the pain alone
- Unresolved feelings of guilt
- Chronic frustration and anger
- Increased grasping and attachment
- Self-judgment about sadness and grief
- Retreating into a shell of isolation
- Finishing grief: the tour tasks of bereavement
- Accepting the reality of the death
- Healing and concluding the relationship
- Releasing our emotional pain and letting go
- Finding meaning in our new life
- Supporting a bereaved person
The normal process of mourning
During the year my husband was ill with leukemia, I assumed that his illness and dying would be the hardest period of my life. I was wrong. Nothing compared to the extreme pain and bewilderment of my bereavement AFTER Lyttle’s death, which was compounded by the struggle of going through it alone.
When we meet a friend or co-worker who has lost someone close, we may hesitate to bring up the subject for fear of triggering the other person’s grief. In so doing, we are actually discouraging his or her process of grieving and healing. The bereaved need to talk about their loss and have it acknowledged by those around them; otherwise they may feel desperately isolated in their grief.
At no time do we feel more “torn open” than when we experience what is known as a “high grief death”: a sudden or violent death, a suicide or the loss of a child. A “low grief” death is one which has been expected for a long time, such as that of an extremely elderly person; or a loss for which we have already grieved, such as our former relationship with a person suffering from organic brain disease; or the death of someone to whom we are not especially attached. The depth of pain we experience in grief is connected to our degree of attachment to the person and how much he or she was integral to our sense of well-being.
Any grief we feel is valid. However painful, we must give ourselves permission to mourn and to heal our emotional unfinished business. We will only be able to mourn and finish our grief when we feel safe to do so.
Mourning is experienced over time in a repeating cycle composed of three phases: shock and disbelief, full awareness of the loss, and recovery or rebalance.
Two weeks after my husband, Lyttle, died I felt vibrantly alive and aware, attuned to nature and connected with people; I felt grateful to be alive. This relatively painless disbelief cracked open unexpectedly four months after Lyttle’s death. My pain was deep and wrenching, and I felt as though my heart was being torn in two. I wept continuously. I felt as though my whole world was shattering and disintegrating. Then, like the end of a violent storm, the pain and despair seemed to abate. But within a few weeks, the heart-wrenching pain and despair were just as intense as they had been the previous month. This cycling continued for seven months. I eventually learned that the process of mourning does finish, but for a high grief death it may take years.
Grief’s side effects
Another normal but unsettling aspect of bereavement is eruption of intense physical and cognitive symptoms. Some of the temporary physical changes are: shortness of breath, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, disruption of normal sleep patterns, difficulty eating, manic energy, aching muscles. Possible cognitive and perceptual changes include: disorientation, short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating or a sense that the normal world is now “unreal”.
Barriers to finishing grief
Fear of facing the pain alone
In the experience of mourning we lose some of our normal sense of “control”; thus the intensity of grief can dramatically heighten our fears and vulnerability. We may feel that opening ourselves to our pain may cause us to explode or go crazy. We may feel extreme anxiety and loss of control as we experience the ground of our “known world” dissolving beneath our feet. The new shape of our life has not yet manifested, so we find no reassurance in the future.
If our family and friends encourage us to stifle our tears, telling us to pull ourselves together and be strong, then we may withdraw from them and become isolated, not trusting that we can face the depth of our pain alone. Yet, more than anything, we need friends who can extend to us a life-raft of understanding, love and support.
Unresolved feelings of guilt
After the death of a loved one, we often feel guilty. It’s normal to feel this way. Our minds go back to the past and find lost opportunities for connecting, showing patience, or resolving misunderstandings. We may even search our memory for a “cause” of our loved one’s illness or death, often imagining ourselves culpable.
It’s important to redefine our guilty feelings as “regret”. While guilt traps us in the past, regret is a way of bringing us to the present, in order to take responsibility for our mistakes and begin to do something about them. It is up to us to heal and conclude the relationship.
Chronic frustration and anger
After a loved one’s death, there are many possible sources of frustration, from our assessment of lapses in the person’s medical care to our being left unprepared to cope with financial and practical matters. Especially in the case of a sudden death, we may project our anger and blame onto whoever we believe caused the death and our painful grief. Getting stuck in anger creates endless problems.
Increased grasping and attachment
Instead of letting go of our attachment as we grieve, we can make the mistake of grasping on to the deceased person even more strongly. Halfway through the second year after my husband’s death, I uncovered the secret thoughts I was generating each time I felt deep sadness and pain: “I can’t live without you. I hate being alone. I want you back.” There was so much grasping in my mind, so many wishes that could never be satisfied. It was clear I needed to replace my grasping with a new way of thinking: “I am letting you go and wishing you well. I am going to survive and be strong. I am going to make a new life for myself.” After a few months of taking this approach, my process of mourning finished.
Self-judgment about sadness and grief
Some people suppress their grief with the thought: “It’s a sign of weakness to cry, and I must be strong. I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” But our fear and suppression of grief prevents us from living fully. When we grieve, we are mourning the loss of the person and our relationship with him or her. Rather than judging ourselves we can translate our emotional experience into: “I am simply feeling sorrow.”
Retreating into a shell of isolation
When we are in pain, we often retreat into a shell of isolation – hiding from our feelings and also from the world. In this state, our loneliness is sealed, leading to feelings of utter hopelessness and despair. At a certain point in my own grieving process, I felt as though I were at the bottom of a deep and dark well. Even though I was an atheist at the time, and didn’t know if anyone was listening, I began to pray for help. After a few days of praying, in the midst of my despair, an image suddenly appeared in my mind, a photograph that was taken during the Vietnam War. The image was of a young mother, holding her dead child in her arms and looking up to the sky in anguish. This vivid image broke my shell of isolation, as I understood that we all grieve. So I was not alone. This experience must be as hard for everyone else as it is for me, I realized. I resolved to find a way to go through and finish my grief, so I could help others do the same.
Finishing grief: the tour tasks of bereavement
Accepting the reality of the death
Mourning will never finish if it has never commenced. We must first come to accept the fact that the death has happened. When we do not have a physical, tangible experience of the reality of death, for example by seeing the body, we may suppress our grief by denying the death for years. We need to be free to speak about the person who died, and not conceal the dynamic change taking place within the family. Speaking about our memories is a way of “purifying” the past and helping us to let it go.
Many survivors have found great solace in arranging a memorial or celebration of the person’s life a few months after the death or when the family next comes together for a holiday. It’s not easy to pack up and distribute the deceased person’s belongings, and it may take months or years before we feel strong enough to do it. Yet doing so is another sign that we have accepted the death and that we have begun the practice of letting go.
Healing and concluding the relationship
Getting stuck in any kind of emotional unfinished business prevents us from completing our mourning. We may sustain an unbalanced image of the deceased, seeing him either as our life-long nemesis or as a saint who could do no wrong. We should reflect on what we will miss about the deceased person and also on what we will NOT miss. The Method for Completing Unfinished Business (see Chapter 7 of Facing Death and Finding Hope) is exceptionally effective in helping us express and release our emotional pain, and bring closure to the relationship. In a high grief death, we may need to seek out the support of a trained grief counsellor.
Releasing our emotional pain and letting go
To feel safe to grieve, we need the support of others who can validate the many layers of our suffering and emotional pain and who can extend to us their love and unconditional acceptance. Following a death, each spouse – or the teenagers within the same family – often expect support from each other, and are disappointed and angry when they don’t receive it. We may need to look outside our family to find the right kind of support.
We need to find ways to release our sadness and tears. Men have told me that when tears don’t come easily, it helps them to find an activity to express their grief: planting a tree, dedicating one’s daily jog to the memory of their loved one, creating something with their hands, or going into nature for solace.
We need to give ourselves permission to grieve. And we need to take time out for healing. We must also find ways to comfort and take care of ourselves. One useful technique is to imagine what our deceased loved one might wish for us now. A man in his mid-seventies spoke glowingly of how he had made peace with the death of his wife two years before. “At first I felt like I wanted to die too, and started neglecting myself, just staying at home and letting the four walls close in on me. I secretly wondered how long it would be before I became terminally ill so I could join her. Then I reflected on what had made my wife happy, and I asked myself: Is there anything I can do even now that would please her? I realized that my wife was most happy when I was happy. She would want me to still take care of myself, go out into the world and do things I enjoy, or even learn new things. Now, by enjoying my life, I feel every day I am telling my wife that I love her.”
Finding meaning in our new life
From Judy Tatelbaum: As we journey through these painful experiences of living, we must never forget that we have an amazing resilience and capacity to survive. Just as whole forests burn to the ground and eventually grow anew, just as spring follows winter, so it is nature’s way that through it all, whatever we suffer, we can keep on growing.
In letting go of someone we dearly love, each of us faces the same conscious commitment – to mourn and let go of the past so that we can give shape to our new life. We must resist the temptation to close our heart, to decide to never love or trust another person again. Poignantly aware that we will eventually lose everyone we love, we can decide instead to learn to appreciate the people in our lives even more. Awareness of impermanence can become a catalyst for helping us realize that in the light of death, many of our troubles are not so big after all. Then it becomes easier to forgive and let go, easier to tell another person how grateful we are for what he or she brings to our life. We can allow the truth of impermanence to remind us to be more patient, more attentive, and more willing to be present for others.
The process of recovering from our grief can help us to live more fully and to appreciate each day, and each person, as an irreplaceable gift.
In grieving, we must eventually let go of our attachment to the person who is gone, yet we can keep their love with us.
Supporting a bereaved person
What helps someone going through bereavement is our friendship and presence, simply being with them in their pain, even when there is nothing we can say or do to ease it.
1. Offer your continued support and friendship
2. Validate the person’s mourning, and give her permission to grieve. Reassure her that her intense feelings and sense of losing control are normal in bereavement.
3. Accept the person unconditionally, regardless of any thoughts or emotions she might express.
4. Inform the bereaved and her closest family about the normal process of mourning. Reassure them that grief can be finished.
5. Invite her to speak about her memories of the deceased person, even repeatedly.
6. Encourage her to complete any unfinished business.
7. Consider what practical support she might need and offer your help in specific ways: shopping or cooking, spending time with children, maintaining the apartment or garden, working through bills or paperwork associated with the death.
8. Assist her in identifying friends, professionals or other resources in the community she could turn to for support.
9. Encourage her to take care of herself, and to take the time she needs to nurture herself and allow this deep wound to heal.
10. Identify activities she had formerly enjoyed, and invite her to join you in doing some of them, especially outdoor activities which entail some physical movement or contact with the beauty of nature.
11. Share comforting hugs and affection. Relate stories from life and cultivate a sense of humour where appropriate, knowing that uncomfortable moments will be inevitable.
12. Let the survivor know all the ways she has contributed to your life. Allow her to lend emotional or practical support to you sometimes.
The “First-Year Crazies”
During the first year of bereavement, one’s rational thinking process often seems to be crystal clear and very convincing. Dramatic plans can be quickly formulated and acted upon: selling the house and moving to a different part of the country, entering into a commitment in a new relationship, or making some other sudden lifestyle or career change. As a result, the survivor can unwittingly stop the natural process of grief and effectively cut off dependable sources of love and support. What appears to be rational mental clarity spurring these impulsive decisions is called the “first-year crazies”. We can encourage the bereaved to put off any major, life-changing decisions until at least the first anniversary of the death has passed.
We must never lose sight of the big picture. We are all living in a world of suffering; loss, illness, death and grief are not unusual. They are very powerful transitions, however, opportunities for us to wake up from our self-centred materialistic approach to life.
Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group: Hayagriva Buddhist Centre 2011
The StormBy Lesley McSharry
Downpouring rain uprising pain tears which scan the years for sources to their flow joy and sadness buried deep carve a passage down my cheek each memory a tributary to the river I now know. At last the flood gates open through a minor storm the flow is cataclysmic Yet I am reborn devastation stares from the mirror's light still I smile and celebrate the night by far the better fate I almost drowned in pain.Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group: Hayagriva Buddhist Centre 2011
Meditations on Loving Kindness and Compassion for the Very Sick and DyingSelected extracts from Chapter 6 of Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying, by Christine Longaker, Broadway Books, New York 2001, p. 69
Loving Kindness Meditation
One of the hardest things about suffering is the feeling that we are trapped in our painful circumstances – lost, hopeless and alone. We fear our suffering will go on forever, and that there is no way out of it. And when we don’t know how to transform or heal our own suffering, we may find it difficult to be with and support others in distress. Before we can extend compassion toward others, we must first feel love. If we find our own heart is wounded or walled up, the Loving Kindness Meditation can help reconnect us to the source of love within. Once this love opens our heart and heals our pain, then we will be able to offer our genuine love and fearless compassion to others.
Sit quietly, and let all the scattered aspects of your mind and energies settle down. Acknowledge and embrace gently any suffering or struggle that you become aware of.
Now, remember a person from your life who once loved you very much. Imagine this person sitting in front of you at this very moment, extending his or her love to you once again. It’s alright if you can recall only one happy memory with the person – make that memory of love your entire experience and bathe in its healing warmth.
Feel the other person’s love coming towards you like rays warm rays of sunlight, permeating your entire being, and especially filling and warming your heart. If there is an old barrier around your heart, see it not as a massive or impenetrable wall, but as a fragile or thin layer of ice. Let the love flowing toward you melt the ice of your old hurt or fear, warming and nourishing your heart.
As this healing love comes into you, you feel your heart overflowing with love and gratitude. You feel peaceful, whole and replenished with love. Naturally, your love and gratitude now goes out to the person who evoked it, wholly and unconditionally.
Once this giving and receiving of love is flowing strongly, expand the direction of your love another degree. Imagine that your friend who is in pain or who is suffering and dying is in front of you. Extend the same love to them, fully and joyfully. See your love as white light/nectar and send it straight to their heart, filling them with peace and happiness. Feel that their whole body becomes peaceful, pure white light, and that they can rest in joy and peace, at least for a few moments.
If time is short, you can finish the meditation here and dedicate the positive merit you have generated to all sentient beings, wishing that they may quickly reach their full and complete potential.
Otherwise, continue and consider now that on either side of this central person are other people in your life whom you love and cherish, and extend the same love to them, fully and unconditionally. Then extend your love to encompass even those you don’t know very well: co-workers, shopkeepers, neighbours, even strangers you pass on the street. Expanding your love further, visualize that in front of you are those who irritate you, those you’ve been angry with, or those who seem to be your enemies. Extend the same love to them, fully and completely, loving and accepting them exactly as they are.
Finally, expand your love to embrace all beings. Consider now that the whole space in front of you is filled with beings throughout the universe, all forms of conscious life, including the tiniest insect, and even those who have died. Now your love is boundless and unbiased, and it shines powerfully onto each and every one, extending happiness to all existence.
As you conclude his practice, don’t shake off the inspiration, awareness, or limitless love it has aroused. Instead, as much as you can, continue practising the essence of this meditation throughout the day, extending unconditional love firstly to yourself but at the same time toward everyone you meet.
The Compassion Practices of Tonglen
The Loving Kindness Meditation helps to reawaken our inherent capacity to give and receive love, and the compassion practices take us one step further. They are designed to completely eliminate the source of our suffering: our belief in and identification with our selfish ego.
By reflecting on the immense suffering that all beings, everywhere, experience, our compassion becomes deeper and more limitless. We wish to free all beings from their suffering and even its causes; we desire, more than anything, to bring them happiness and peace.
Compassion is a far greater and nobler thing than pity. Pity has its roots in fear, and a sense of arrogance and condescension, sometimes even a smug feeling of, “I’m glad it’s not me.” Compassion is the deep and genuine wish that others be freed from their suffering and its causes. When you meditate deeply enough on compassion, there will arise in you a strong determination to alleviate the suffering of all beings, and an acute sense of responsibility toward that noble aim. One way of mentally directing this compassion and making it active is to pray to all the buddhas and enlightened beings, from the depths of your heart, that everything you do, all your thoughts, words, and deeds, should only benefit other beings and bring them happiness. In the words of one great prayer: “Bless me into usefulness.” Pray that you benefit all who come into contact with you, and help them transform their suffering and their lives.
Another powerful way of extending our compassion to others is the practice of tonglen. Tonglen means “giving and receiving”. In the tonglen visualization, we receive, with a strong compassionate motivation, the suffering and pain of others; and we give them, with a tender and confident heart, all of our love, joy, well-being and peace. Normally, we don’t want to give away our happiness, or take on another person’s suffering, but this not-wanting is the voice of our selfish ego. The voice of your ego may warn you that tonglen could “harm” you but this is not true. The compassion practices are designed to unravel the selfish patterning of the ego, and gradually reinforce your confidence in the radiant wisdom and compassion of your true nature, which is indestructible.
Before beginning any of the tonglen practices, spend some time in meditation, settling your mind and energies, and arousing your compassionate motivation for doing the practice.
The Main Tonglen Practice
The process of taking and giving that finds its complete expression in the main practice of tonglen. We take on, through compassion, all the various mental and physical sufferings of all beings: their fear, frustration, pain, anger, guilt, bitterness, doubt, and rage, and we give them, through love, all our happiness, and well-being, peace of mind, healing and fulfilment. In particular, the practice can be directed toward one person whom you wish to help, and then expanded to all sentient beings.
1. Before you begin with this practice, sit quietly and bring the mind home. Then, making use of any of the exercises or methods above, whichever one you find really inspires you and works for you, for example, the Loving Kindness meditation, meditate deeply on compassion. Summon and invoke the presence of all the buddhas, bodhisattvas and enlightened beings, so that, through their inspiration and blessing, compassion may be born in your heart.
2. Imagine in front of you, as vividly and poignantly as possible, someone you care for who is suffering. Try and imagine every aspect of the person’s pain and distress. Then, as you feel your heart opening in compassion towards the person, imagine that all of his or her sufferings manifest together and gather into a great mass of hot, black, grimy smoke.
3. Now, as you breathe in, visualize that this mass of black smoke dissolves, with your in-breath, into the very core of the self-grasping at your heart. There it destroys completely all traces of self-cherishing, thereby purifying all your negative karma. You may wish to imagine that your selfish ego, your obsessive self-cherishing, manifest at your heart in the form of a hard stone, and that the hot black smoke of the other’s suffering smashes the stone into a billion pieces that dissolve and completely disappear. Also, instead of doing the visualization on one in-breath, you may wish to take it gradually, and as you remove the suffering from your friend with each of several in-breaths, let it build up as a black cloud around you, and then on an out-breath, let if stream toward the stone of selfishness at your heart and destroy it. Choose whichever method works for you.
4. Imagine now that your self-cherishing has been destroyed, so that the heart of your enlightened mind, your bodhicitta, has been revealed. As you breathe out, then, imagine that you are sending out its brilliant, cooling light of peace, joy, happiness, and ultimate well-being to your friend in pain, and that its rays are purifying all their negative karma.
5. At the moment the light of your bodhicitta streams out to touch your friend in pain, it is essential to feel a firm conviction that all of his or her negative karma has been purified, and to feel a deep, lasting joy that he or she has been totally freed of suffering and pain. Then, as you go on breathing normally, in and out, continue steadily with this practice.
What more wonderful and consoling gift could you give to the dying than the knowledge that they are being prayed for, and that you are taking on their suffering and purifying their negative karma through your practice for them? Even if they don’t know you are practising for them, you are helping them and in turn they are helping you. They are actively helping you develop your compassion, and so purify and heal yourself.
The Holy Secret
You may be asking yourself this question: “If I take in the suffering and pain of others, won’t I risk harming myself?” If you feel at all hesitant, just imagine yourself doing it, saying in your mind, “As I breathe in I am taking on the suffering of my friend, and as I breathe out, I am giving him happiness and peace.” Again, if you feel unable to do the whole practice, you can also do tonglen in the form of a simple prayer, deeply aspiring to help others. You might pray, for example: “My I be able to take on the suffering of others; may I be able to give my well-being and happiness to them.”
The one thing you should know for certain is that the only thing that tonglen could harm is the one thing that has been harming you the most: your own ego, your self-grasping, self-cherishing mind, which is the root of suffering. As Shantideva says:
Whoever wishes to quickly afford protection To both himself and others Should practice the holy secret: The exchanging of self for others.
Wheel of Life Palliative Care Support Group – Hayagriva Buddhist Centre 2011
Read more on Loving Kindness: On Unconditional Love
Healing a Relationship by Completing Unfinished Business
Selected extracts from Chapter 7, Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide to the Emotional and Spiritual Care of the Dying, by Christine Longaker, Broadway Books, New York 2001, p. 90
Reasons We Have “Unfinished Business” With People
Here are some of the common reasons we have unfinished business with people:
• We’re afraid of being hurt again or of being rejected.
• The other person has already refused to forgive us.
• We feel that what we’ve done is unforgivable.
• We want to punish the other person with our anger.
• We don’t want to let go of our attachment to the person or the past.
• We’re afraid to have our part of the problem revealed.
• The other person has gone from our life or has already died.
These are natural fears or obstacles to speaking directly with the person about clearing up an old emotional problem, yet our unfinished business is our responsibility to resolve, and we can finish it whether or not the other person is present or willing to communicate and forgive us. The purpose of the method for completing unfinished business which follows is to release us from our own heavy baggage of anger, attachment or guilt, and free us from our painful memories. Therefore, it is not necessary for us to meet with the other person to finish our emotional burden and let go.
The Method for Completing Unfinished Business
First sit quietly and find in your heart the willingness to communicate your problem one last time and let go of it. Also establish your willingness to really feel heard and to listen to and hear the other person’s perspective on this problem.
Now visualize the person with whom you have unfinished business. Imagine this person is sitting in front of you sitting exactly the way you remember her; but now with one very important difference: consider that she is more open and receptive than ever before, and this person can really hear everything you have to say.
Reflect on what has been the main difficulty for you, without rekindling the emotions attached to it. Imagine that you are now telling this problem to the person in front of you, remembering that she is very receptive and genuinely able to hear you. Once again reflect, and see if you have any other unexpressed problems, and imagine telling them to the other person.
Next, take a pen and paper and write down what you have just considered saying. Write out the problem, as responsibly as possible, without attacking or defending. Remember that you are speaking to the other person’s open heart and that she is receptive and can truly hear you.
Now, allow the other person to express her side of the problem. Just begin writing and see what happens. Since you have been speaking to he “best side” and your feelings have been heard, her response probably won’t be what you expect. Next, write down any other problems – old angers, regrets, attachments or fears – you may have had with the person. Again, allow her to respond to you with her perspective.
Continue writing both parts of this dialogue and expressing all the layers of your difficulties with this person, until you feel you are no longer harbouring anything negative in your heart. If the other person had previously hurt you, see if you can now extend forgiveness to her. If you realize that you have hurt the other person, ask her forgiveness. You might reflect that the best part of the other person would understand your regret, and would not hesitate to extend her forgiveness to you. Allow yourself to receive the healing love of this forgiveness, and let go of any feelings of guilt or self-condemnation.
Finally, look into your heart once again and see see if there is any appreciation and love for the other person – any positive feelings you have been holding back. Communicate your love in writing and, thanking the other person, say good-bye. You can even envision the other person turning and leaving. As she leaves, ask yourself truthfully: Are you really letting go now and wishing her well?
You can dedicate your efforts and their merit with the strong wish that the other person and yourself may be healed of all emotional pain or past traumas, that your relationship, now and in the future, may be one of mutual benefit, and that all others you have contact with in your life may share in the healing power which comes from this resolution.
Later, try reading your dialogue aloud in front of a photo of the person or to a friend. This may yield an even deeper sense of completion, as though you had actually said it to the person. If you like, you can also write “I would like to hear from you.” Many people have told me that if the person is still living, they do hear from her within days or weeks of concluding their unfinished business, and she often communicates a sense of resolution on her side as well.