“Buddhists don’t cry!” These are the words that Diane Wilde’s husband said to her during what would be his final hospital visit. Diane, a lay-ordained Buddhist minister, shared this with me as we discussed our shared experiences with grief. Her husband gently teased her and guided her toward her Buddhist practice as they each prepared for his death. He knew that his death would break her heart, and he knew that she had the tools she needed to grieve.
When Diane spoke to me, she described grief in this way: ”I would say it is the experience of the heart being so full that it breaks; it’s so full of love, and it’s all full of grief, and it just can’t contain any more. And then it does come back together again. But that breaking, I think, puts us in touch with all sentient beings.”
Diane’s experience with grief ultimately helped her to have even more compassion toward others. Allowing her to help them when they experienced loss. But first, she had to accept and share her relationship with grief. As part of her journey, Diane realized that her life was changed; she was changed and she lived a new normal.
Some of my community members have called me out for saying “this is how it is.” First, because I say it too often. And second, because it sounds too easy. As if I am discounting all of the difficulty that comes with loss. If you fall into the first camp, I want you to know that I will keep saying “this is how it is.” I mean no disrespect. Repeating “this is how it is” is a way of accepting the reality of your current situation. It has proven to be a handy phrase, a mantra even, to help bring all of us away from clinging and aversion.
Accepting that someone you love has died, that you have cancer, or that you have lost your job is not the same as giving up hope. Accepting that you are grieving does not mean that you will be sad for the rest of your days. It also does not mean that you will not suffer.
You are changing your relationship with your suffering; placing yourself in a mindset where you are open to sitting with your feelings—sadness, regret, anger, joy, confusion—whatever surfaces for you.
In this life, as an unenlightened person on the path, I do not mean to imply that living with loss is easy. It is not easy. When I say “this is how it is,” I am not making light of things. Like you, I am working on my relationship with impermanence, to recognize where I encounter clinging and aversion. And I know that in the early stages of grieving my family members, it was all I could do to acknowledge the loss. And it was not just a quick recitation of “this is how it is.” It was many hours and days of reminding myself of the reality of my situation. And each contemplation of truth helped to carry me forward until I could know it intellectually and emotionally. This was not me skipping over grief; I tried to grieve as fully as possible.
“Buddhists don’t cry!” Yes, we do. And we experience a multitude of emotions when we experience loss. The many generous individuals who speak with me about death, grief, and impermanence all have a similar message: be with your emotions and your experiences. Do not try to deny your grief. More than one of my wise teachers has pointed out that we are always grieving something. We might not recognize this truth because we might believe that grief is reserved for significant losses in our lives. When your favorite restaurant closes, you are disappointed. You are sorry that you cannot have an order of your favorite dish. This is a form of grief. We experience grief regularly, with varying degrees of intensity.
In a recent discussion, Ratnadevi, a mindfulness teacher, member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and fellow BDG contributor, shared this poem with me:
. . . you nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters, and surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Though they are really our winter . . .(Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus)*
To me, this phrase: “How we squander our hours of pain.How we gaze beyond them into the bitter durationto see if they have an end” speaks of the importance of being with our grief. A recognition that there will be pain, and that pain is part of the human experience. It is not something to skip over or rush. Yes, sometimes you want the pain to stop. You want it to be over with. Yet it is the most beneficial to your well-being not to be over it, but for you to be with it.
When you try to cut yourself off from difficult emotions, when you try to distract yourself with other experiences, any relief that you gain is temporary. Allow yourself to grieve as fully as possible.
Those nights of anguish, the hours of pain, these are our teachers. Our living Dhamma.
* Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus Quotes (Goodreads)
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