Accept everything that arises: Accept your feelings, even the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences, even the ones you hate. Accept yourself even with your human flaws and failings. Learn to see all the phenomena in your mind as being perfectly natural and understandable … be gentle with yourself: Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.
— Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in “Mindfulness In Plain English”
I imagine that most people would agree that it is often difficult to find appropriate words of condolence when a friend is grieving. I personally do not want to say to a grieving friend that I hope that they feel better soon, because I think that it is healthy for a human psyche to go through a period of pain when it has lost someone or something that it cares about. I believe that people often say “feel better soon” because they are uncomfortable in the presence of another person’s pain, and that that phrase can sometimes feel like an unpleasant pressure put on a grieving person to have it all put back together sooner than would be otherwise natural for them.
Seventeen years ago, I was at fault in a car accident that injured four people and totaled three cars, including my beloved ’89 Mazda. I was feeling ferociously unhappy for a week or two after this unfortunate incident, and a well-meaning friend (who was immersed in Landmark Education and the nascent field of personal coaching) told me the day after the accident that I could “complete my emotions” about the incident and feel normal again “like that” <snaps fingers>. I told him that I suppose that yes what he said was probably true, but that I thought that it would be a strange person who would have harmed people and lost a precious possession as I had just done and somehow felt fine about it all.
I think that it is important to feel all of one’s difficult emotions during periods of grief. I also think that we are most helpful and respectful to an upset friend’s process by giving them, within reason, as much space as they need to go through those emotions.
Anyway, I also do not want to ask a grieving person in pain to “look on the bright side” or “see the good in the situation”, because there will be a whole lifetime for them to do so after the grieving period has passed. And I do not want to say that “I know how they feel”, because I am not certain that I do.
Years ago, I realized that what eventually felt right to me to say to friends who are grieving often ended up to be about the same. The sentiment is informed by my Buddhist meditation practice, and to me it feels sensitive to people’s space. I eventually wrote a canonical copy of this benediction down, and have copied-and-pasted it and (with some modification/personalization/customization) sent it to various friends over the years during times of a loved one passing away, miscarriage, illness, breakup or divorce, loss of a job, or other major-league grieving situations.
The text is:
I have noticed that, in periods of grief and letting go, all sorts of unexpected emotions seem to arise for people, including not just sadness and loss but also relief, anger, hopelessness, shame, loneliness, contempt, regret, inspiration, fear, gratitude, betrayal, longing, guilt, insight, joy, and more. These emotions can sometimes feel embarrassing, make no sense and be confusing, be uncomfortable, come up at weird random times, and can be subtle but can also at times feel overwhelmingly intense.
What I wish for you during this time is that you are able to allow all of your full range of feelings to have play, to let them dance their dance for as long as they want or need to, and to be a big enough space to let it all happen inside of.
I hold it that the feelings of grief are meant to move through us; they are a journey that we take and that takes time to complete, a highway that travels through different terrains. I wish you passage along that route as smoothly as possible.
When I say something like that face-to-face with people who are a grieving, it seems to me that a sense of ease, relaxation, and dropping into a deeper and truer sadness seems to emerge.
This is a response my teacher Gil Fronsdal gave to a question that was put to him at the end of a talk on death:
Q. Having just lost both of my parents, my question is, how to work with the resentment that I have to suffer this loss?
A. I think it’s important to be respectful of all of the different feelings that can come up with grief. There can be a wide spectrum of emotions that come up, and they’re all allowed. We say, “Oh I shouldn’t feel resentful”. Or some people are so happy, “Finally! I don’t have the burden of caring for them anymore”, and you’re not supposed to have thoughts like that. So, a lot of what the mindfulness practice does in this regard is to help us identify ways in which we interfere with what we’re feeling during the grieving process, the way we try to get rid of it, judge it, second-guess it, or fix it. But anything’s allowed; you don’t know what’s working through you or what needs to digest and percolate. It’s important to get out of the way and allow your feelings space and time. You give them time and support. And sometimes it’s helpful, when you’re grieving, to have other people you talk to who can offer you support and presence without trying to fix things.
And here are some beautiful words from the blog of a psychotherapist named Matt Licata:
At times, the kindest thing we can offer a friend in pain is to sit in the darkness with them, removing the burden that they change, feel better, or heal in order for us to stay close. It may feel like urgent action is being called for and that we must shift their depression to joy, their sadness to bliss, or their hopelessness to hope. But in doing so, we disavow the jewels that are hidden in the dark soil of the body.
Let us love the other so much that we refuse to pathologize their experience, doing what we can to help them see that they are not broken, that no mistake has been made, and that they are not a problem which must be corrected by psychological or spiritual process. Let them know in their hearts that we will not remove our love, our affection, our attunement, and our presence simply because their experience is not conforming to our personal and collective fantasies of happiness and light.
As we weave a home for our own unmet sadness, disappointment, and despair, we withdraw the projection of our unlived lives from the environment around us. For it is to the degree that we can provide safe passage for the unwanted within that we can truly love another.
While it is very natural to have a bias toward positive states of being – toward the peaceful, the joyous, and the clear – the beloved does not appear to share this bias. For she is ready at all times to equally invoke the magic of the dark *and* the light in order to unfold and illuminate the path of love inside you.
The musician Nick Cave had this to say about grief:
It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of out love, and like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe.
Finally, a Rumi poem:
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.
They may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice;
meet them at the door, laughing, and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.