Ask the Teachers: How Can the Dharma Help Us Work Through Grief?

Breeshia Wade, Tenku Ruff, Damchö Diana Finnegan share how the dharma can help us work through grief.

By Tenku Ruff

Popularized by Thai protesters in 2014, the three-finger salute has become a prominent symbol against the coup in Myanmar. Photo by Pyae Sone Htun.

Question: Besides accepting the impermanence of all beings — easier said than done — what other ways can the dharma help us to work through grief?

Breeshia Wade: The dharma provides tools through the eightfold path and the paramitas to help guide us into translating internal acceptance into concrete actions. During clinical pastoral education, chaplains utilize the action-reflection-action model. The dharma evokes a reflection-action-reflection model: we practice (sit and reflect), then take action based on our practice using the guidelines of the eightfold path and the paramitas. The eightfold path is simply the expression of awakening through body (action), speech, and mind. The paramitas go a step further by representing what it means to embody and recognize the perfection of that expression, inviting us to be compassionately and fully in connection with ourselves, and all living beings, with the goal of eliminating suffering.

The suffering created by systemic injustice is a direct result of people in positions of privilege using the power of their social location to avoid the reality of grief and impermanence.

Part of that is accepting the impermanence of all beings (and all things, including situations). In doing so, we are invited into an intimate relationship with grief—not just grief as past, concrete loss, but grief as fear of loss, a particular type of loss tied to the present and the future. Many people avoid engaging their grief as it relates to impermanence because it touches on their relationship to power, control, boundaries, self-image, and more.

When we accept our relationship to impermanence and the grief that comes with it, we are invited back into a relationship with ourselves, thus back into a relationship with all beings. When we are disconnected from our own humanity, we miss and deny the humanity of others. I don’t mean this in a theoretical sense—the flourishing of systemic oppression within the United States is a direct result of our cultural aversion to acknowledging grief and impermanence. Our very social identities and the privileges that come with them have been shaped in relation to the grief and loss of others who were denied the right to their own humanity so that others’ experience of grief might be less. In other words, the suffering created by systemic injustice is a direct result of people in positions of privilege using the power of their social location to avoid the reality of grief and impermanence, thus pushing the burden of their fear of loss onto marginalized people who then suffer extraordinarily, all while carrying their own grief. When we each embrace impermanence and lean into the fear of loss that comes with it, we create an opportunity to not only be transformed by the process ourselves, but also to use both the dharma and the practice to transform the world around us.

Tenku Ruff: Grief is not a thing, or even a feeling, it is a process—a continuum of emotions that unfolds at its own pace. We don’t get to know in advance how much time it will take, and no one can tell us. Just like everything else in our Buddhist practice, we have no choice but to be present with what is, in each moment. Sometimes grief feels like an open, gaping wound, sometimes like an immense purple bruise, and sometimes like just any other day. We can even laugh.

The dharma teaches us how to be present to grief—the same way we are present to our breath as we sit, noticing our thoughts and feelings arising, letting them go, and returning. When we feel ripping sorrow, we stay with it, feeling it deeply, breathing, letting it go. And just as we stay present to the sorrow, we can also stay present to the lack of sorrow. This happens too. Grief can include anger, joy, guilt, depression, tears, loneliness, comfort, or nothing at all. The dharma teaches us that everything that arises falls away.

Rituals help. Rituals give us a structure, a map, and a supportive community. In Zen Buddhism, we offer incense and chant a person’s name for forty-nine days after they die, then again at their death anniversaries. When we put a person’s name on the list, the bereaved explains to the community who the deceased was to them and what happened. Hearing the story, we all share the grief together. Then, when the community member says, “I’m missing my mom today,” we all know who her mom is.

Accept the cycle.

Many years ago, I lost a dear friend. I didn’t know what to make of it, or what to do, but I plugged into the rituals. I went to the viewing at the funeral home, and then to the wake. I sat with others in the living room, sharing stories, laughing and crying, eating and drinking, until late in the evening.

When I finally got home, I turned my face upwards to a sky full of stars, and grief literally knocked me off my feet and onto the soft Florida sand. Grief rose up out of my belly, took over my entire body, and the deep wail that emerged from my throat seemed to encompass the entire universe.

And then it was over. I paused, feeling that something must be wrong. Nothing. So I stood up, dried my face, and walked inside. Everything has its limits, including sorrow. Trying to evoke a sorrow that is not present in the moment can be like poking the bruise, taking us out of what is, in the moment.

Accept the cycle. This is the dharma of how to be present to grief, in its beauty, pain, and complexity. This is the way to heal, and the way to live.

Damchö Diana Finnegan: How we grieve depends on how we relate to our own vulnerability, but it also depends a great deal on what we have lost. In some cases, by reflecting on impermanence, we may be able to voluntarily let go. We can (sometimes secretly) see a loss as an opportunity to grow.

But there are other losses that we must first let shatter us, or sink us, before we can reemerge and move toward a point of acceptance. In many cases, these losses require a process of deep grieving because embedded in who we are is what we have lost: a parent, a sibling, or partner with whom we have grown over time, an animal who has given and received love over many years. Or, as has happened in many dharma communities, what is lost may be trust, leaving us feeling as if we have lost the very ground of our being or of our spiritual practice. We can experience any of these losses as catastrophic.

Grieving should not be rushed. Indeed, it cannot be. But Buddhist practices can help make the time of mourning somewhat less painful and considerably more fruitful.

Mourning together can soften the sense of being left utterly and brutally alone.

Our sitting practice can serve as a space to hold our own vulnerability and to hold our own emotional experiences as we grieve. Without urging ourselves toward accepting our loss, sitting and observing without judging can be a powerful way to care for ourselves as we grieve. In this way, we begin to sit in a place of acceptance, even before we are ready to accept our loss.

Mourning together can soften the sense of being left utterly and brutally alone. But in some cases, the loss might feel too personal to be shared. Or, in the case of a loss of trust in a teacher, the taboo around abuse in many dharma communities may leave no choice but to grieve alone. When we find ourselves alone in our mourning, the practice of tonglen can help us to connect empathically with others. Through tonglen, we know ourselves to be surrounded by others who, like us, are suffering alone from a loss that feels catastrophic. We can recognize ourselves within the community of mourners.

The teachings on interdependence have been immensely helpful in easing me through catastrophic loss. There is no self without other, but rather than feeling that the other has carried off irreplaceable parts of our self, we can reflect that the other remains present within us. All that we lived together, all that we learned from them, all that was strengthened or softened in us—this is also still alive in us. That cannot be lost.

When the force of our grief slows, we can come to a point where we simply treasure the parts of our self that came to be through that other. We can live taking care of what was born in us—or born as us—through the time we shared with those who have gone, and thus carry them along within us as a deeply valued part of ourselves.

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff

Tenku Ruff, Osho, is a Soto Zen priest who trained in Japan. She is a professional chaplain living in New York and holds a Master of Divinity from Maitripa College.