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Ask A Buddhist: What is the Buddhist response to grief?

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By Ven. Thubten Semkye

What is the Buddhist response to grief?

This is an important question and the Buddhist worldview has a perspective on it that I hope you will find it helpful.

Change is happening all the time—life changing, small, and mostly unnoticeable. Change is part of being human and living in an ever-changing universe. The very fabric that weaves our lives together is impermanent; everything around us arises and ceases every moment and we are inextricably connected to it all.

The last teaching the Buddha gave was his own death—that even the great spiritual sages of the world are subject to impermanence and death. If we resist or reject this universal truth, unhappiness and sorrow will follow because we will be in direct opposition to how things actually exist. Change in and of itself is not a bad thing. The struggle is our relationship to it. Do we use loss, change, and transitions as opportunities for growth or do we resist, struggle and deny?

My teacher, Venerable Thubten Chodron, defines grief as adjusting to a change we did not want or expect. Grief comes to the mind because we mistakenly grasp at things as permanent, not as how they actually exist, which is fleeting and transitory. Because of that misconception, we mistakenly believe that we can control the coming and going of things, events and especially people. But due to their impermanence, there is no way that we can control and determine how things will go.

We grieve many things—the loss of a loved one, a career or job, our health, our economic state, our dreams, our worldly possessions. Such losses are a major part of our lives, yet, when these things end, leave or break, the common response is disbelief. No matter how tenuous a relationship, old or sick a loved one, or fragile a possession, there is still shock when it ends.

Sometimes we cherish our loved ones so much that we can’t imagine going on without them. When they die the grief is so deep because we have projected a future that now will never come. In reality, however, a fabricated future is a mere fantasy. Underpinning the grief many times is a future that is only a dream.

Grieving is a process and these places of sadness, loss, disbelief and denial are normal. Giving ourselves the time and space to experience these strong emotions with compassion, gentleness, and acceptance is the only way to move into, through, and past this time of sorrow.

There is no time schedule for grief. It is different for everyone. Many times grief can last in someone’s mind for a long time, and we may even become impatient with ourselves wanting to move on in our lives. Or others may think YOU need to grieve longer as you work out your feelings around loss. Everyone close to the deceased will have their own ways to grieve. It is important to tend to our own process and at the same time be kind and patient with theirs.

When we finally know in our hearts the truth of the fleeting nature of life, then grief becomes a process to help us adjust to the change. It is also an opportunity to look at our own lives, prioritize the important things to hold, and to let go of the rest.

Some of the ways in which we can relate to our grief and work with its strong emotional content is to let go of any blame around our relationship to our loved one—all the “should haves” —and to learn to accept the situation and ourselves in the here and now.

Thinking in a new way can support our healing. We can rejoice at having had that person in our life. Of all the living beings in the world, we had the good fortune to be close to them and to be part of their world.

We can also pass on their love and goodness to others. Having been the beneficiary of their good hearts, now we can offer that gift to everyone we meet.

We can give their belongings to the needy or a religious organization with a sense of richness and dedicate the merit to their peace and joy and for all their deepest wishes to be realized. Kindly work on any feelings of regret and harmful feelings we may have about them or their death so we don’t die with regrets.

As time goes on memories can show up at any time — anniversaries of the death, birthdays, and holidays. These are precious opportunities to propel us to live our lives with love, compassion, and joy.

Loss is a reality of life. We can do our best to use it as a gift that teaches us to hold our lives lightly and openly. When we remember the impermanence of people and things, we live with greater purpose. And loss can help us have greater compassion towards everyone who, without exception, will experience loss as well.

Ven. Thubten Semkye

About Ven. Thubten Semkye

Ven. Thubten Semkye was Sravasti Abbey's first lay resident.
A founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, she accepted the position of chairperson to provide the four requisites for the monastic community. Realizing that was a difficult task to do from 350 miles away, she moved to the Abbey in spring 2004.
Although she didn’t originally see ordination in her future, after the 2006 Chenrezig retreat when she spent half of her meditation time reflecting on death and impermanence, Ven. Semkye realized that ordaining would be the wisest, most compassionate use of her life. She became the Abbey’s third nun in 2007. See her ordination photos. In 2010 she received bhikshuni ordination at Miao Fa Chan Temple in Taiwan.
Ven. Semkye draws on her extensive experience in landscaping and horticulture to manage the Abbey’s forests and gardens.

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