I feel like this is a tricky one, because we all know it’s true deep down. But rationalising it like this doesn’t help the pain of losing a loved one. I said in a previous post how I’ve always been terrified of those closest to me dying. Today’s teaching definitely feels a bit cold.
Also, taking time to grieve is, in many cultures, a really important process not only for those left on Earth, but for the deceased’s passage into an afterlife. For example, I conducted extensive research into Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday (okay I lied, I just watched Disney’s Coco). But the main premise in that film was the idea that the souls of those who have died reside in an afterlife, but only for as long as there is someone on Earth remembering them. Once they’re forgotten, the soul disappears.
So I’m not sure people believing in this tradition would be too keen to just accept the loss and move on from it asap.
But this teaching is a lot clearer and warmer when situated in the Dalai Lama’s longer answer to Cutler’s question on dealing with loss. He first says that he can take comfort in his belief that the loved one will be reborn, but he acknowledges that not everyone believes in life after death.
He says that feelings of grief and anxiety in response to loss are completely natural, and that when he lost his tutor, his mother and one of his brothers, he couldn’t help but feel extremely sad.
His advice regarding the idea that worrying won’t help the deceased is given only in the context of someone being overwhelmed by sorrow and loss for months on end, where the suffering is starting to stop you from being able to live your life.
This is when he says it might be helpful to reflect on the idea that the loved one would surely not want you to be in this much pain, and it will not benefit them in any way to hold onto this suffering. But what about holding onto their memory? Isn’t this something we should of course do, but something we cannot do without also feeling the pain of their absence?
The Dalai Lama draws on his own grief to formulate a very pragmatic, but also compassionate, answer to this question:
“When they passed away, of course, I felt very, very sad. Then I constantly kept thinking that it’s no use to worry too much, and if I really loved these people, then I must fulfil their wishes with a calm mind. So I try my best to do that. So I think if you’ve lost someone who is very dear to you, that’s the proper way to approach it. You see, the best way to keep a memory of that person, the best remembrance, is to see if you can carry on the wishes of that person.”
I feel like grief is such a difficult thing to just prescribe one way of dealing with it, but if it’s eating you up, this does seem like a good way of easing your pain a little. However, I think it’s important not to mistake the Dalai Lama as saying we should just rationalise our grief and push it down within us.
Cutler recalls a particular psychiatry patient (if it wasn’t already clear, I love alliteration…) who had suffered the loss of his father. Everyone remarked how stoically he seemed to handle it, but a year on he spiralled into severe depression. According to Cutler, this was because he hadn’t properly confronted his feelings of grief and loss, instead trying to rationalise them and ‘be strong’ for his family. Soon after fully facing and experiencing the grief that he’d bottled up, his depression lifted quite quickly.
This clearly ties in with yesterday’s post on confronting your problems, and being open about them. So while the Dalai Lama’s lesson about grief is really useful in easing the pain of loss, Cutler’s anecdote shows that it’s still crucial to be honest with yourself about your feelings, and not try and suppress them.
“Dad always told me, “Don't you cry when you're down”. But mum, there's a tear every time that I blink”
Again, there were plenty of songs to choose from for this teaching, but I went with ‘Supermarket Flowers’ by Ed Sheeran. It’s an incredibly moving piece of music, and I find it difficult to listen to without tearing up (admittedly it doesn’t take much), but the chorus is also uplifting in a bittersweet kind of way.
“Oh, I'm in pieces, it's tearing me up, but I know a heart that's broke is a heart that's been loved”
I think this sums up the perfect balance between the Dalai Lama’s rational approach and Cutler’s emphasis on the need for outwardly releasing our grief. Sheeran expresses his pain in a way that it’s clear he’s not holding anything back, but he still manages to find solace in the knowledge that him and his mother shared a lot of loving memories, and that these will always live on no matter what.
“Spread your wings as you go, when God takes you back, He’ll say, "Hallelujah, you're home””
At the beginning of the chapter that covers grief in The Art of Happiness, there’s a very poignant Buddhist tale about a woman whose child is dying of an illness, and she goes to the Buddha asking for an antidote. He replies that he can make one, but he needs her to get a handful of mustard seeds. She lights up, thinking this will be easy, but the Buddha adds the caveat that the seeds must be obtained from a household where no spouse, parent, child or servant has died.
Of course, she can find no such household, and for me this links back to one of the earlier teachings included in this project, that of the common ground between all human beings. We all have to face suffering, but death in particular is something that everyone has to face. This is a scary prospect, and I am still trying to overcome my own fear of it. But at the same time, it’s also comforting to know that we’re all in this together.