A year and a half after my mom passed, I attended a 7-day meditation retreat at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, CA with Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh (or “Thay”, as many affectionately call him, which is Vietnamese for “teacher”.) My first exposure to Thay’s teachings was in an Eastern Philosophy class in college. I always found his writings to be healing and accessible, so when I heard about his retreat, I signed up immediately. I had no idea how much that week would help my grieving process or the impact it would have on my life.
A pivotal point in the retreat happened a few days in, when Thay shared these words during a dharma talk:
“Once we understand the art of suffering, we will suffer less.”
I had so many questions. What is the “art” of suffering? We all want to suffer less…but how is this possible? If we understand the art of grieving, will we grieve less?
As Thay continued his teachings on “The Art of Suffering”, I realized I had intuitively begun to practice this “art” when my mother passed. As I wrote in my earlier blog post, Be Crumbled, Be Changed, I surrendered to my grief, not over-philosophizing or compartmentalizing my mom’s passing, as I had my father’s. I let myself feel the pain and did not push it away. I dove into meditation which allowed me to connect with my mom on a spiritual level. Meditation also allowed me the stillness necessary to begin to accept the reality of my new, changed life. But I had only begun down the path of understanding my grief, and was ready to uncover more.
Based on my experience over the past few years, this is my attempt to share “the art of grieving” in a few digestible steps. These steps can also help with other emotions that cause suffering such as fear, anger, worry or jealousy. Please realize that this is not a quick fix, rather, these steps can help illuminate a deeper understanding of our emotions so that we may emerge on a path of peace. (For more info, videos and articles, you can search “Thich Nhat Hanh” Art of Suffering.)
The Art of Grieving:
1. Say Hello
“Hello, Grief. I see you. I know your name. I am here for you.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
This step has been extremely transformative for me. It is also extremely difficult. When we are feeling a strong emotion, whether it is grief, anger, jealousy, fear, or worry, we often fall into our habit of becoming swept away by the emotion, so much that it engulfs our reality and sends us into a downward spiral of helplessness and self-pity. Or, on the contrary, we push the emotion far, far away and pretend that we are just fine, in control, strong and resilient, and not affected at all (this was my old habit and much of how I handled grief and anger prior to my mom passing). We are either too helpless and weak to handle it or too strong to cry – both habits are equally destructive.
By saying “hello” to our grief, by calling it by name, we can begin to see it as a part of our experience in that moment. We can hold our grief like a little child that needs nurturing. We can begin to separate ourselves from our emotions and look at them from the point of view of an observer. In my experience, the simple act of saying hello to my grief has shifted me out of depression and almost instantly placed my feet onto a path toward peace – where I could take steps toward caring for my grief.
It may seem silly at first, but next time you are feeling immense grief, try pausing and saying aloud, “Hello, Grief. I see you there. I will take good care of you.”
2. Take Care of your Grief
“I see clearly the object of my grief. I hold space in my heart for it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
Once we say hello to our grief, we must make it our priority to take care of our grief in that moment. Stuffing grief down for another day or pretending it is not there only causes more harm in the future. So, as Thay says, hold space in your heart for the object of your grief.
Taking care of your grief requires a few things. First, we need to make sure we have enough time and space to nurture our emotions as they arise. Second, we must find a healthy support system and perhaps even creative ways to work through the pain. For me, I allowed for a lot of time to be tearful and vulnerable with my sister, girlfriend and close friends. I wrote letters to my mom, had monthly therapy sessions, practiced daily meditation, took solo retreats, spent time in nature, and read several books on loss and grief.
We all have our own path to carve, so find what works for you. Just be sure to take good care of your grief when it arises, not pushing it away for another day.
3. Look Deeply
“I see where you’ve come from, the path that brought us together.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
It is easy to fixate on the moment we think our grief began, the moment of a death or break up, or the moment a loved one found out they were ill, the moment we got the phone call bearing bad news. Those moments are tragic and remembered for the rest of our life. But our grief can only be understood more fully by looking at the whole path that brought us to those moments.
What happens when we look deeply at all of the events and moments that brought us to our grief? We begin to see the fullness of our relationship with that person, the ups and downs, the joy and laughter, the tears and sorrow. Often, there is a serendipitous relationship between joy and grief that exists, so this can be a time to look deeply at the love and the joy that travels along side our pain. We begin to understand that the tragic moment where we shifted into deep grief can not be separated from all of the other moments. We begin to craft the whole picture of our experience and see the interconnectedness and complexity of life.
Looking deeply can also help us think twice before pointing fingers or blaming ourselves or others, as we begin to understand our grief in a new way. This step can come up repeatedly for the same grief, and each time, we have the opportunity to learn something new. Some helpful questions to ask are: What really happened? What is coming to the surface of my grief ‘right now’ that I have refused to look at before? What part did my actions play in the path to grief? What elements were, or are, outside of my control?
4. Announce Healing Intention
“I’m ready to find healing, joy, and peace again. With concentration, I will focus on this healing and liberate my grief.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
By declaring aloud our desire for healing and transformation, we share this intention with our family and friends, and with the universe. We are ready to focus our energies on healing and liberation from our grief. When my mother passed, I set my intention to focus on my grieving. In the words of my amazing therapist, “You only have one job right now. That is to grieve.” I did not take that job lightly.
Be warned that this intention does not come without challenges. It can be a hard and scary road. As we develop a deeper understanding of the complexities of our grief, we may open ourselves to past instances of grieving – which can bring about additional pain and suffering. When you really decide to fully heal, be ready for the whole can of worms! In my situation, the loss of my mother brought about residual grief from the loss of my father, and other traumas. This can seem overwhelming, but when we stay committed and have the right supports in place, we will come out on the other side feeling much more grounded, with more love in our hearts, much more free.
5. Let Go
“I contemplate the nature of impermanence, that nothing remains unchanged over time. I release my grasp ever so slightly.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
This step may sound familiar as there are very few buddhist teachings that do not incorporate “letting go” in some form or another. But “letting go” can often be a confusing concept for people.
Why would I want to let go of my Mother? my Father? my Child? my Spouse? my Friend? Why would I ever want to forget them? or lose the love we had?
“Letting go” in this context does not mean letting go of memories, forgetting about your loved one, or moving on with your life as if nothing happened or as that person did not exist. Letting go, in this context, means no longer fighting against the reality of what is. It means choosing the path of least resistance. It means accepting, in full, the present set of circumstances in which you live.
In order to understand the art of grieving, we must learn how to fully to let go of the stories we have created of how life would be. We are so good at writing our own stories, aren’t we? Of course I thought my dad would be there to see me graduate college, to walk me down the isle. Of course I thought my mom would be there to welcome my sister’s first child into the world, to travel with me on a mother-daughter trip some day, to laugh with me into her old age…
None of that is my reality.
The sooner we let go of our ideas of how life was supposed to unfold or how it was supposed to be, and surrender to full acceptance of what our life actually IS, right now, in this moment, the sooner we will be able to turn our grief into peace. We can practice letting go of our story, our wants and desires, a little bit at a time. We can begin to hear the birds sing again and draw ourselves out of our darkness to feel the sunshine on our faces, or the rain drops on our skin.
For me, the practice of gratitude helps remind me that life still has so much to offer. To enjoy simply being alive is the true gift of letting go, of healing.
If you are ready to take another step toward healing, this meditation, along with the quotes used above, has been helpful for me:
“I contemplate the nature of impermanence,
that nothing remains unchanged over time.
I release my grasp ever so slightly.
I contemplate the nature of non-having.
I am grateful for all I do have.
I contemplate the nature of inter-being
that all is in me, and I am in all.
I see what it feels like and looks like to let go.
In this moment
I let go of my suffering, and my happiness,
and feel peace.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh, Deer Park, 2013
Thanks for reading… If this post was helpful to you, let me know in the comment section.