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How do you comfort a grieving non-Buddhist family after the death of a family member?
Impermanence — constant change that includes death — touches every one of us. Impermanence is the very fabric of our lives, from conception to our last breath. And from the Buddhist point of view, the momentary change of a continuity of consciousness precedes this life and continues into the next.
Some change we welcome: the birth of a child, her delightful daily discoveries as she grows and learns, her maturation into adulthood. But some changes we resist and reject: losing a job, for example, or losing a loved one.
While we may know intellectually that all things are impermanent and that every living being dies, most of us are shocked and anguished when the inevitable comes to pass. Our refusal to accept the death of a person or a cherished ideal is tantamount to rejecting reality itself. And when we cannot or will not accept reality, pain ensues.
The more familiar we are with the idea that death is normal, natural, and inescapable the better we are able to accept it when it comes—to us as well as to others. Still, as a friend wrote at the sudden death of her adult son, “I don’t care how many death meditations you have done, or what you think you know and understand about impermanence, you are going to be utterly shattered, never mind shocked.” Grief erupts for most people in response to the shock.
My teacher, Venerable Thubten Chodron, describes grief as the process of adjusting to a change we didn’t expect or want. According to psychologists, bereavement (the loss of a loved one) and grief (the reaction to that loss) have physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions in addition to the emotional issues we usually think of. All of these aspects come into play as we adjust to change.
The loss may be especially hard when it’s sudden or unexpected. The nature of the relationship affects the pain of losing as well. A parent’s sudden loss of a child is different from an adult losing her grandparent after a long illness. Both may be painful, but one falls within the range of “accepted” or “normal” loss, while the former shocks our sense of what’s right in the world and dashes hopes for the future. Healing begins with acceptance that the change has occurred.
Everyone grieves in their own way and there’s no “right way” to do it. Some people express their pain, while others are silent. Some people seem to suffer very little with grief, while for others, mourning is deep and long-lasting. Every one of the many different expressions of grief is simply the reflection of someone’s process of adapting to a big and unexpected change.
Sometimes it’s almost as hard to watch someone we care about suffer with grief as it is to experience the loss ourselves. We stand helplessly by. What to say? What to do? This is your question.
How to help?
The more comfortable you are with your own relationship with grief, the more you can stay present and attuned to your friends’ feelings. It is a rare and precious comrade who can be a loving witness to pain without trying to fix it.
Don’t try to make your friends feel better; you can’t. But you can love them, respectfully honor their feelings, and be attentive to their needs. Don’t be shy if they want to talk about their departed loved one. Join in the conversation and the memories. Laugh with them as well as cry with them. Affirm that there was much love there, and that the family is fortunate to have had the now-missing person in their lives. Rejoice with them in all that was good, so that appreciation eventually eclipses the feeling of loss.
On the other hand, if your friends are expressing regret—things unsaid, harsh words spoken, etc.—gently help them to forgive themselves and their loved one. If they are tormenting themselves by repeatedly reliving scenes in their mind, suggest that their loved one experienced this situation only once and now it’s done. They are only hurting themselves by recalling it again and again.
Look for ways to help without asking. They’re too overwhelmed to feed themselves properly? Drop by with food you know they like (but don’t insist that they eat it.) Do the adults look like they need time alone? Offer to take the kids out for something fun. Be willing to sit in silence and listen well. Love them, and in time, they will adjust to the change. That doesn’t mean their sadness will go away—it may or it may not, and that is okay.
If your friends have a spiritual bent, help them turn to their faith for support. If they are inclined towards prayer or meditation, join them in that. Some people find spiritual solace in nature; a long quiet walk with a caring friend may be soothing. If the family can take all the love they had for their departed dear one and share it with others in need, they may find renewed meaning in their lives. Love doesn’t come in fixed amounts, but can be given limitlessly.
In time, your friends may learn that spreading kindness to others brings kindness in return. The warmth of new friendships can also ease the pain of losing someone. There are countless stories of people who suffered enormous loss finding support, friendship, and meaning upon extending themselves to others when the time was right to do so.
My teacher wrote a beautiful meditation for survivors of suicide. I have adapted it for several memorial services, as its main points of love, forgiveness, letting go, and spreading our love to others are universally helpful for healing grieving hearts.
Buddhist or non-Buddhist, we all know grief. When we recognize that we are not alone, that this kind of suffering comes to everyone, we have an opportunity to sense our interconnectedness. There is nothing so tender as a broken heart. Both the breaking and the healing can help our love to grow.
Perhaps these ideas can help your grieving friends. Thanks for being a good friend to them.