I have lost so much in this life, and although many of these losses have been quite painful, I have been rocked by the recent loss of my best friend and companion – Thomas, my cat of 15 years.
I could easily tell many stories about Thomas which exemplify what a consistently loving, supportive, and generous little being he was during his short lifetime. But instead, I will share the Buddhist practice principles I used to help me to work with this loss, as well as the many benefits I have received from the grieving process itself.
The following five tips have supported my grieving and healing process.
1. Remember that suffering is inherent to our human experience.
“The stream of tears you have shed is more than the water of the four great oceans.” — Buddha
When we feel the pain of grief after a loss, we tend to feel that something is “wrong” and that we should not be feeling these difficult emotions. Some of us believe that we “should” be able to handle all experiences without being overwhelmed. These beliefs are not realistic and are actually a setup for disaster.
In reality, experiencing suffering after a loss is as normal as breathing. The truth of suffering is the cornerstone of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha’s First Noble Truth taught us that suffering, stress, loss, grief, and despair are natural byproducts of the human condition. He also pointed out that grief is an inevitable part of life because each of us will eventually experience the loss of loved ones.
Remind yourself that you are a human being subject to what the Taoists referred to as the “10,000 Joys and the 10,000 Sorrows.” Sometimes life will be wonderful and you will be at ease, and other times life will challenge you to the utmost. When you accept the the inevitability of suffering, loss, and grief, you’ll be better able to endure these experiences when they arise.
2. Remember that grief swells, crests, and dissipates like a wave.
When a wave of grief slams into you and threatens to split your heart wide open, it can be so intense that you may fear that it will never subside. It may even feel like the wave could destroy you.
Remember that these waves are temporary, and you will experience calming reprieves in between the onslaughts. Eventually, with practice and over time, these waves will reduce their intensity, duration, and frequency.
3. Self-care is critical.
When beset with difficult emotions, we often do the opposite of what would actually be most helpful! In other words, many of us tend to turn to ultimately ineffective false refuges or unhealthy behaviors to self-soothe.
For example, when you feel the stress of loss, you may reach for unhealthy comfort foods; stop going to your regular yoga classes; or numb out in front of the television or computer for hours each day. This is simply your unconscious mind’s unskillful attempt to bring in some comfort or solace. What is ironic about this behavior is that over-engaging in such escapist behaviors actually makes you feel worse in the long run.
If you catch yourself craving for or even lost in negative addictive behaviors, seek out some positive inner and outer resources to support you during your grief period. This is the time to ramp up your self-care regimen. Eat healthy foods, go to your meditation group, spend more time out in nature, surround yourself with supportive friends or loved ones, exercise regularly, reduce your responsibilities, and create an environment that supports good sleep.
4. Neither resist nor get lost in grief.
During an intense and painful period of grief, the natural inclination of the mind will be is often to fear, deny, or push away your internal pain. Alternatively, your mind may get lost in and carried away by the despair that often accompanies grief.
Your practice will be to balance on that middle ground wherein you open your heart to the emotional pain of grief when it arises. Let the wave wash over you without getting lost in or identified with the sorrow. Easier said than done, of course, but encourage yourself to find that middle ground when you realize you are resisting pain or caught in the belief that things will never get better.
Allow wisdom to decide when and for how long you can open to the grief wave without becoming overwhelmed by it. When you feel that you are getting lost in the grieving emotions, give yourself a caring break from it all. Perhaps pick up an interesting book, call a good friend, or take a walk in nature. Then attend to the next wave of grief with an open and caring heart when it arises.
If you do find yourself fully overwhelmed and lost, it may help to seek out a grief support group or a mental health professional to help you navigate this roller coaster ride.
Do your best not to repress your grief by numbing out or replacing your loss with something new and exciting. Repressed, unresolved sorrow can harden the heart and lay the groundwork for greater, sustained pain in the future.
5. Be kind and patient with yourself.
The deeper your connection to your loss, the greater the likelihood you will experience more intense grieving emotions. Everyone grieves differently, and one person’s grieving process will most likely not look like someone else’s. Try not to compare yourself to others or to your own previous experiences of grief. We are each different, we change, circumstances change, and losses affect us differently at different times.
As much we would like it to be so, we are not in control of the grieving process; it follows its own course and lasts as long as it lasts. We cannot just wake up one morning and decide we are going to stop grieving now and therefore “will” the grieving process away. Control and suppression never works and often backfires.
Do your best not to judge yourself or your grieving process. You may hear your mind generating thoughts like: “I should be over this by now!” Or, “I should be stronger than this!” Or, “Here I go again, crying in public!”
If your mind is being judgmental, unkind, restless, or impatient with your healing process, then counteract these unkind thoughts with some self-soothing, supportive statements like: “This is difficult, but I am doing the best I can”, or “I choose to be patient and kind with myself during the grieving process,” or “Given everything, I am doing as well as I can.” Use whatever kind thoughts that intuitively arise to bring more balance and ease to your mind and heart.
It may help to remind yourself of what the poet Rumi said: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
As painful and difficult as grief can be, I have found that during these raw, vulnerable moments, my awareness is heightened and my heart is wide open. It intuitively feels as though the grieving process itself is actually opening and preparing my heart and mind for profound healing and transformation.
During this period, remember also turn your heightened awareness and open heart towards the beauty of this world and the gifts you already have, as much as you can. Allow love, and gratitude to permeate every cell of your being. Along with the painful waves, also feel the aliveness coursing through this moment! This energy will expand your heart and mind even further so that you will be more alive, present, and open to each moment’s unfolding.
What have you done to support your own grieving process? Comment below.