Grief as a spiritual practice


My sister, Fiona, passed away last month, unexpectedly. Yes, she was being treated for cancer, and had been for several years. But each time the cancer had reappeared in some new part of the body, the surgeons and doctors, with the aid of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, had managed to knock it back.

The last time the cancer appeared was in her brain. This distressed her. She didn’t relish losing her hair again, and this time she wasn’t going to be allowed to drive.  But she didn’t think she was at imminent risk of dying.

She’d finished having whole-brain radiotherapy, and had just started on at-home chemotherapy. It wasn’t the cancer that killed her. All the drugs she’d been taking — especially the steroids, it seems — had put too much strain on her system. She died of a heart-attack.

Everyone, herself and her doctors included, had expected her to be around for a year or two. She was only 58. She was aware she might not make it to 60.

She passed away at home, in the presence of her partner, which was a blessing.

I’d like to talk about a few practices that I think are helpful in the face of death. Certainly I find them so.

Reflecting on death and impermanence

Buddhism reminds us to reflect on impermanence, and on death in particular. Among other things, the Buddhist scriptures encourage to reflect on the fact that we’re going to get sick and die. They remind us that we’ll be separated from everything that’s dear to us. And we’re encouraged to reflect that this is true for others as well. This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s meant to enhance our lives by reminding us of what’s important.

One way to apply this is if you find yourself in a situation where things aren’t going the way you want them to, you can ask, “When I’m on my deathbed, will this matter?” So the person driving too slowly in front of you. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. Your spouse leaving hair in the sink or socks on the floor: it doesn’t really matter. What does matter are things like allowing yourself to be happy, experiencing love, and doing something personally meaningful with your life. You want to get to your deathbed and be able to say, “That was a life well lived.”

But this practice also reminds us of death’s inevitability, so it’s less of a shock when it comes. Yes, we all know that life ends in death, but we’re also kind of in denial about it. So we need to keep reminding ourselves of how things really are.

Self-Compassion

When someone close to us dies, we experience grief. It’s painful. And we can either respond to this gried in ways that cause further distress or that help us to be more at peace.

When we believe (even unconsciously) that there’s something weak and wrong about being in emotional pain, we make things worse, because not only are we suffering but we’re judging ourselves for suffering, and this just heaps on more pain.

If we try to push the pain away, we suffer more. The pain will usually assert itself more strongly, because it’s trying to remind us that an important connection has been severed.

If we become distressed at being in pain, for example because we assume it’s going to get worse and worse, or tell ourselves it’s unbearable, then we’ll suffer more, because we’re adding fear on top of our grief.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

What we need to do is this:

  • Notice the stories you tell yourself that make things worse (“This is awful, I can’t bear it”) and drop them. Realize you don’t have to tell yourself these things.
  • You don’t just drop the story and go into a state of blankness. Instead you can become aware of the sensory reality of the body. Become mindful of your physical experience, which has a calming, grounding effect. Without the extra suffering imposed by your thoughts, you’ll instantly feel less stressed. Now you just have the raw physical reality of your grief.
  • Next, turn toward the grief and accept it. Accept that it’s a normal sensation to have. That it’s just a sensation like any other. That it’s just one part of you trying to communicate that something you love has been lost.
  • Accepting the grief, you have an opportunity to wish it well. Your grief isn’t an enemy. It’s a part of you that is suffering. And the most appropriate response to suffering is to offer support and warmth. So you can place a hand tenderly on the place where the grief manifests most strongly. You can regard it kindly and warmly, like you would a scared child or an injured animal. You can talk to it supportively and empathetically: “I know you’re hurting, but it’s okay. I’m with you. I’ll support you as best I can. I care about you and I want you to be at peace.”

And that’s self-compassion. It’s something I’ve written about on this site, and also more fully in This Difficult Thing of Being Human.

Feelings Are Impermanent

When we get hit by an unpleasant feeling, sometimes we assume we’re going to be stuck with it. But that never happens. Feelings always pass. It’s hard to believe that when we’re going through grief, but it can be very helpful when we remind ourselves of previous strong suffering we’ve experienced. Where are those feelings now? Obviously, they’ve passed.

All feelings do.

Having Compassion For Others

Once we’ve met our own pain with empathy and compassion, we naturally recognize the pain other people are feeling, and we feel compassion for them too.

If we haven’t cultivated self-empathy and self-compassion, our attempts to be comforting to others often fall flat, or might even make things worse. Things like “She’s in a better place.” “There’s a reason for everything.” “Don’t worry, your grief will soon pass.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

All of these clumsy, yet understandable responses are ways of trying to “fix” grief. They rest on the assumption that there’s something wrong with the person who’s grieving, that the person who’s offering the advice has the answer to their problem, and that the answer is the correct set of magic words that can make the other person realize that they don’t have to grieve.

Real compassion doesn’t try to fix grief. It accepts that it’s normal. The aim is not to make grief go away, but to support the grieving person while they’re in pain. That support doesn’t have to be in the from of words. It can consist of simply being present. It can be helpful just to let the grieving person know you’re sorry, that you know nothing you can say will help, but you’re willing to help in any way you can. Sharing positive recollections can be helpful too.

Having compassion for others takes our focus off of ourselves.

Appreciating the Positive

Connecting with other people joyfully is helpful too. Funerals are great places to meet with long-lost relatives. This can bring happiness, and it’s okay to experience joy along with the grief.

Celebrating the deceased person’s life helps too. The montage of photos above is just part of what was on the brochure for my sister’s funeral. The images brought back a lot of happy memories, including the time she turned up unannounced at my flat in Glasgow, having just won a modelling competition (see the bottom left photo), and when I first saw her, in the arms of my mother as she left the hospital, when I was two years old.

We were also reminded of her lovely qualities: what a good friend she was, the way she loved books, how hard she worked as she went through university, her amazing ability to turn a house into a warm and welcoming space, and her wicked sense of humor (see the top right photo).

Sometimes, when they’re grieving, people feel bad about experiencing joy or humor, as if that’s a betrayal. The real betrayal is denying life’s complexities.

Light and dark can coexist.

Accepting That the Future Doesn’t Exist

This last thing has helped me in all sorts of ways with disappointment and loss of all sorts, including grief.

It might sound weird, but when you find yourself mourning the future — all the opportunities you’ll no longer have to spend time with that person — you can remind yourself that the future isn’t a real thing. It’s just an idea we have of what’s to come. When we lose someone, the future we lost never actually existed. And you can’t lose something that never existed.

Now this isn’t something to try to “fix” people with. You don’t go around telling them not to grieve because the future’s an illusion. This is a perspective for yourself to work with and reflect on. It’s not a way for you to “fix” your own pain either. This isn’t some magic form of words that makes your grief go away. Your grief will pass when it’s ready. It might never completely leave, and might keep putting in appearances for years to come. But it can reduce the amount of extra grief.

And if this isn’t helpful, stick with what does.

Above all, I’m glad that I talked to her not long before she passed. She was a very private person when it came to her health, and she didn’t like to talk about it, so we mostly communicated by email, usually briefly. But exactly two weeks before her death I called and talked to her on the phone. We had a warm exchange, and it’s good to have that as a memory of our last contact communication. I’m glad there was no tension; nothing to resolve. So remember: life is short. Death can happen anytime. Make peace now, if you can. Tomorrow might be too late.



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