Can There be Grief Without Suffering?
I have a tendency of thinking about things in a very logical way, somewhat detached, rolling it around in my mind examining it from every angle. Recently, however, grief has shown up in such a present and personal way that it has challenged my seeming ability to keep a distance and compartmentalize feelings, and has caused me to feel into it in ways I haven’t yet experienced.
In the last couple of months, multiple clients have found their way to me who are struggling with huge losses in their lives. In therapy, we have a saying that the clients we need, find us. As I was in the midst of considering why grieving clients have been surfacing, my godmother passed away after a lifelong battle with type 1 diabetes, and then shortly after, my boyfriend’s father passed. I began realizing while looking it square in the face, that I was unsure of my relationship to grief, in myself, and also in how I sit with clients, family, and friends experiencing it.
I am good at working with clients in life transition. Clients considering a career change. Clients struggling with anxiety. Clients with poor boundaries and unhealthy coping skills. Clients grappling with low self-esteem and attachment issues. My background as a clinician and deep personal experience and study of mindfulness and Buddhist Psychology has prepared me to sit with and help clients develop a compassionate inner witness to their personal struggles. Strengthening this inner witness leads to a stronger connection to one’s intuition. As a person strengthens their ability to tune into their own internal voice we are able to implement tools to help them increase their resiliency and adaptability. They can then move forward armed with knowledge and skills most of us did not learn from our parents or society.
But, tools for grief? There really aren’t many.
I mean sure, there are books about grief. There are psychology models. There are Kübler-Ross’ commonly referenced “stages of grief” (the linear explanation of the stages is total BS by the way, and thankfully she has also since said the same). But tools? When it comes time to grieving a huge loss many of us realize we are all in the same boat. Overwhelming sadness is overwhelming sadness. Loss is loss. Darkness is darkness. Grief is grief. We can’t logicize our way out of or through it. We can only sit in it, with it, feel it, experience it.
Logically, we know every beginning has an ending, and yet we celebrate birth and hide from death, we revere creation and yet fear destruction. Our aversion to change and our attachment to things on this physical plane is what causes our suffering, not the passing of the loved one themselves (I know…stay with me). The truth is, everything is changing. All of the time. It is always moving. As Tara Brach says, “impermanence is the nature of nature.”
Some of the most important inner and spiritual work in our lives comes through the self-awareness of our grasping and wanting things, feelings, experiences, and thoughts to stay as they are. This increase in self-awareness also acquaints us more with our strategies of avoiding those other things, feelings, experiences, and thoughts we don’t want. When we strengthen our ability to see our strategies and be aware of the grasping we can then start to break or interrupt those patterns. Through this interruption, we can begin to open to the changing flow of everything around us, including life, and not continue trying to control it. As Tara Brach says, “the more we wall off the flow of impermanence, the more controlling we are, the more we get rigid and static.” It doesn’t matter if we are trying to push away and change what we don’t want, or are trying to grasp and hold onto what we do want, this goes against the nature of change, leading to a decrease in our ability to be with the normal flow of life and circumstances.
I feel that it is important at this point to emphasize that I am not here to tell you that you should not grieve or feel sadness, or that letting go of grasping will free you from your sadness. Sadness and grief are entirely normal. They are part of our human repertoire of emotions for a reason. If we allow them to come up, move through us, and witness them with compassion, they have the ability to open us up to the human experience in a profound way. What I am saying is that it is our reaction to pain that causes our suffering. Or rather, suffering is our reaction to pain. They are not actually the same.
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not. Suffering arises from grasping. Release grasping and be free of suffering.” -Sixteenth principle of Buddhist psychology
Some fear that by letting go of their suffering they are doing a disservice to the lost loved one. That to truly honor them they have to cling to that suffering, worship it, let it consume them and take them into the underworld. It is important for us to understand that “letting go” is not “getting rid of,” that is aversion. It’s more like “let it be.” We are allowing the grief to have a place in our lives without allowing ourselves to cling to it desperately. Allowing ourselves to be sucked into the abyss by the pain we are clinging to so desperately does not honor the passed loved one. It creates the death of two people instead of one.
In our Western world of mostly lost tradition and ritual, of disconnection to spirit, we have forgotten the value rituals have, the role they play for the human psyche. Our psyche needs a stage for huge life transitions to be witnessed upon. It is through the container that ritual provides that our psyche is able to honor, make sense of, and ultimately move through huge life changes. Loss and death is such a huge life change. We need a container to hold the grief, a ritual to experience it through.
In the Jewish tradition, you sit Shiva for seven days when a loved one passes. Both extended family and friends come to sit with the family of the deceased. You honor not only the lost loved one in this way but also the grief and sadness of the family. Allowing the sadness to be there, to be witnessed and held by others. After the seven days, the grief is still there of course but there is a subtle understanding that it is ok to step forward again into life. It has been my experience that here in the west, we have a funeral or a service, maybe eat some food, and then we go home afterward, go straight back to work or life and attempt to put on a face. I wonder, where is the container in this? True, funerals and services are a ritual in some capacity, they allow friends and family to show up and share in the grief, but the expectation we put on ourselves to then suck it up and go back to work is a hard pill to swallow.
Grieving is a major life experience. One that every single person on this planet (outside of perhaps, sociopaths) will experience. So where is the reverence for it? Why do we try so hard to push it away and even hide it? To cling to the good and turn our eyes away from the bad?
“In the Lakota/Sioux tradition, a person who is grieving is considered most wakan, most holy. There’s a sense that when someone is struck by the sudden lightning of loss, he or she stands on the threshold of the spirit world. The prayers of those who grieve are considered especially strong, and it is proper to ask them for their help.” -Tara Brach
Looking at death and loss in this way does not make the pain stop. Instead, for me, it gave me a way to allow that sadness to come up, wash over me, buckle my knees, claw at my heart, suck out my breath, and yet all the while, there was a soft voice, a knowing, that even this pain is temporary. I can allow the depth of it and then allow myself to stand back up after the wave crashes. I don’t have to push it away for fear of it consuming me and I don’t have to pretend it isn’t there. I also don’t have to pretend that I am not also experiencing joy and happiness at the same time I am feeling the sadness. It is a continual practice of allowing whatever is to just be. I don’t have to like it, but I can allow it to be true.
Regardless of how hard we fight it, spring comes after winter. The seasons continue to rotate and to cycle. Grief does not make the natural order of change in the world stop. I have found deep self-compassion in this practice of allowing, and that is part of what I hope you find too in your own journey. That perhaps some of these words help strengthen that compassionate inner witness and allow a softening into the sorrow. A release of expectation or thinking that it should be different than exactly what it is right now. A knowing that spring will indeed come after the winter.
“It seems that although we thought ourselves permanent, we are not. Although we thought ourselves settled, we are not. Although we thought we would last forever, we will not.” Buddha