Grief and Love: A Buddhist Understanding of Loss

Everybody loves the feeling of falling in love. Even more, we cherish the constant love of companions, be they the family we were born with or the families we form along the way. As the song goes, “Love makes the world go round.”  

When we love someone, we invest a lot of ourselves into the relationship. We set up mostly unwritten rules about that person’s role in our lives, and we begin to have expectations that this person will always be there. Of course, as we all know, these expectations are bound to shatter when the relationship changes or ends due to the person moving, the people involved changing and growing apart, or someone dies.

It is natural to feel grief at the loss of important people in our lives. We grieve because there is an empty hole that used to be filled by the person’s presence. The unique gifts and essence of this person cannot be replaced, and new memories cannot be made. We become attached to people that we love and when they are gone, we suffer.

Although sadness and grief are natural responses to the loss of someone we love, it can be difficult to process in a culture that is uncomfortable with emotions associated with loss and particularly uncomfortable with those emotions that arise around death and dying. We don’t often acknowledge the reality of death. In fact, it is common to hear people say how surprised they are when someone dies.

Fortunately for me, the Buddhist teachings have given me more preparation for death and change of all kinds than most people get in the normal course of life. The teachings help you understand and face the truths of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and impersonal nature of our world. In other words, everything is always changing, because of constant change things are not satisfactory, and it is not personal to me. Everyone experiences “things change, shit happens, and it’s not about you.”

In addition, Buddhism teaches the Five Recollections that are to be remembered daily. They are as follows:

            I am of the nature to age. Aging is unavoidable.

            I am of the nature to get ill. Illness is unavoidable.

            I am of the nature to die. Death is unavoidable.

            All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.

            There is no way to escape being separated from them.

            My actions are my only true belongings.

            I cannot avoid the consequences of my actions.

            My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Now I can understand if your first reaction to these is “wow.. what a big downer!” But, when these truths are reflected on every day, we remember the true nature of our physical being.  When we awaken from our denial of aging, illness, and death (which will happen to everybody), we can choose to live life more fully and with more urgency than we might otherwise.  Truly, every moment is precious, and we learn to appreciate our moments more deeply. Every moment of loving is important, and we learn to express our love more regularly and sincerely.

It doesn’t mean that we won’t feel loss or we won’t grieve. The cost of loving is grieving. But we grieve with the knowledge that our loss is common to all of humanity. It doesn’t mean something went wrong. The emotions can be acknowledged and felt without being overwhelmed by them. For a meditation on being with difficult emotions, try this RAIN technique.

In my book group, we are reading the book called Magnanimous Heart: Compassion and Love, Loss and Grief, Joy and Liberation by Narayan Helen Liebenson. She writes “To meditate is to train ourselves to turn our attention within, to find a peace that is independent of conditions.” No one is exempt from loss, but the loss is held within a greater understanding of our nature and the nature of all things. They change. We can’t hold on. To cling is to suffer. To let go, is to know freedom.

Finally, Liebenson writes something very profound. “The dissolving of what we depended on leaves a space, and this space is where we discover our inner wholeness.” In the hole that your loved one leaves “ungraspable spaciousness and love have always been present.” In fact, when someone I know dies, I often sense that the person is even closer. While you can’t make new memories together or call him up on the phone, his love is there as strong as before, if not stronger. Because truly all that is left is the love that you shared. Nothing more.

Written in honor of my dear friend, Alan Loshbaugh, who passed from this earth on Friday, May 21. He lives on forever in the hearts of those who knew him.