Grief and Buddhism: comfort in impermanence
My dad died when I was in college. It was shortly after that I took my first class in Eastern Philosophy. Something about Buddhist philosophy resonated with me in a way that few other religious or spiritual concepts ever had. It would be easy to write it off as new concepts being introduced to an impressionable college student who was going through a lot, which is all true. But in looking back I am struck by the ways Buddhism provided an insight and comfort in my grief that was completely different than anything else. It is something that still brings me solace many years later, though I am certainly not a Buddhist. It brought me around to mindfulness, which I talked about in a post on grief and mindfulness, and continue to practice regularly.
Though it is tempting to channel my college days and write an essay on Buddhism I will resist the urge and stick to a couple basics. Impermanence in Buddhism is an inescapable truth of existence. In a world and culture where we strive for permanence, Buddhism teaches us that impermanence is fundamental to everything. From life to health to joy to sorrow to material objects to our very identity, nothing is permanent no matter how much we want it to be. Everything is always changing; existence is always in flux.
Confused yet? Wondering what this has to do with grief? Buddhism goes on to explain that our attachment to things and failure to accept impermanence is at the root of our suffering. Imagine I asked you to write a short paragraph about yourself, what would you say? I am a husband, a wife, a father, a daughter, a sister, a friend. You may outline your view of the world – I am an optimist, a Catholic, a Quaker, an agnostic, a rationalist. I am a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a therapist. These are at the very core of how we define ourselves.
Think about how we operate in our day to day life. When life is good we want to believe it will always be good. We, understandably, focus on the future – how can I continue to make money, how can I continue to be happy, get a better job, maintain my hopes and dreams. We assume we will remain a wife, a mother, a teacher, an optimist because that is who we are.
Grief and Impermanence
But as Mike Tyson (not a Buddhist, to my knowledge) once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. The punch looks different for everyone – a cancer diagnosis, an overdose, a car accident, a shooting, a heart attack, a stroke, a miscarriage, and on and on and on. Suddenly things that seemed immutable are . . . not. Things that seemed constant and enduring are revealed as ephemeral. Who am I if not a husband, a mother, a caregiver, a sister? When my faith is shaken, who I am, when I have always been a believer? When my passion for business is gone, who am I, when I have always been a businessperson?
As someone who had gone through a significant loss, this idea of impermanence resonated with me immediately. As I read more and thought more I decided I had two choices. I could try to restore the old life and self that I believed was the real “me” and how things should be. Or I could accept that I was fundamentally changed. My family was fundamentally changed, and we would keep changing. We would forever be changing. All I could do was accept the ebbs and flows that would come, rather than trying to restore myself as a person I no longer was. I know, I know, this all sounds very abstract and theoretical, but it was a very real shift in my thinking that brought me comfort for the first time.
Grief settles in and it takes over — we have all been there. The illusion of permanence may be revealed but grief can suddenly feel like a new permanence. It is hard to imagine rational concepts soothing the pain of grief. People said so many infuriating, rational things to try to make me feel better that only succeeded in making me feel worse or angry (see our post on what not to say to a griever). But this concept was different for me. It was a reminder that nothing lasts forever, at least not in the same form. Though the pain was impossible and felt endless, it would change. Even if I wanted it to last forever, it would change. Let’s get one thing straight — it didn’t change the hurt I felt in the moment, but it did change my perspective. I met people who were further out from their losses and we talked about our feelings. I thought about how their grief still existed but it was different than my grief. I thought more about the little ways my grief felt different today than it had the month before or the year before. We were all in flux.
Along came mindfulness and meditation. Once I started thinking about impermanence, mindfulness made sense. I could fixate on the past and try to restore something that was gone, but that would be useless. The expression is sadly true: you can’t go home. I could become lost in the idea that my grief was permanent, but rationally I could see this was not true. I might grieve in some form forever, but it would be always changing. It would not always feel the way it felt at that moment. I could pretend I was the same person now that I was before, but I knew I was not. I was fundamentally changed and I would continue to change. Forcing myself to want and believe the things I wanted and believed before was not the answer. I needed to focus on the present. One day at a time. One moment at a time. Building an awareness of my life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – all in flux and ever-changing.
We all find comfort in surprising places. I share this because it gave me some hope when I felt hopeless and some perspective when I had none. For someone else it may sound like abstract, theoretical, hooey. And that is okay. Because a Buddhist would remind us that we should not become attached to our own path; it will look different for all of us.
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