Chapter Eight

Grief for the Loss of a Loved One

When the young bodhisatta set out on his quest for awakening, he was looking not only for freedom from aging, illness, and death, but also for freedom from sorrow. When he fully awakened to the deathless, he awakened to freedom from sorrow as well. And just as he taught the way to the deathless to his students, he taught them the way to freedom from sorrow, too.

We’ve already noted in Chapter Six, his teachings on how dying people can be freed from sorrow and grief over their own impending death. He treats this form of grief as primarily an issue of fear.

However, he also teaches the friends and loved ones of those who are aging, ill, or dead how to handle their grief. In this case, he provides a different analysis for the causes of grief, which means that he has to recommend a different way of getting past it.

His advice in this area comes on two levels: symptom-management and total cure. In managing the symptoms of grief, you learn how to engage in skillful verbal fabrication, talking to yourself in such a way that you can keep the grief from overwhelming or ruining your life. You’re able to lift your mind from your own personal grief to the larger emotion of compassion for all, so that you can resume your normal activities with a renewed sense of purpose, even though the causes for suffering around grief haven’t been entirely removed.

With the total cure, though, you dig down into the mind to see how the ways you normally frame your own verbal and mental fabrications are causing you to suffer from grief. Then—when you’ve found the underlying concepts and attachments—you can reframe your inner discussion in a way that allows you to experience the loss of those you love and esteem without suffering any alteration in the mind.

There are two reasons why the Buddha needed to teach both approaches. The first is that the total cure requires a radical reordering of your views about yourself and your relationships with others. It calls into question common beliefs about love and relationships that many people are not ready to question. For this reason, the Buddha’s teachings on symptom management can provide help for people not yet ready to attempt the total cure.

The second reason is that the total cure can take time. Everyone, even those who plan to go on to the total cure, can benefit from symptom management in the immediate present when dealing with the aging, illness, or death of a loved one. And, as we will see, symptom management provides a perspective that helps to inform and motivate a desire to attempt the total cure.

Both of these approaches rely on the strengths we’ve been discussing throughout this book, although grief management focuses on the first four—conviction, shame, compunction, and persistence —whereas the total cure includes the remaining three—mindfulness, concentration, and discernment—as well.

Both approaches begin with a step that they have in common with the Buddha’s first step when dealing with aging, illness, and death: calling to mind the universality of what you’re suffering from. To the extent that there are beings, there will always be loss and separation as beings age, grow ill, and die.

The two approaches to grief differ, however, in how they analyze the universality of loss, and in the emotions they recommend developing in response to this fact. From this difference, the two approaches diverge in their aims.

Grief Management

AN 5:49 tells of how King Pasenadi happened to be in the Buddha’s presence when one of his courtiers came and whispered into his ear that his favorite queen, Mallikā, had just died. Overcome with shock and sorrow, the king could do nothing but sit there brooding, his shoulders drooping, at a loss for words.

The Buddha’s immediate response was to teach him three things to do to manage his grief. The first was to reflect on the universality of loss. No one anywhere, no matter how powerful, can arrange for what is subject to change not to change, or for what is subject to death not to die. To the extent that there are beings—past, present, and future—change and death happen to all of them. This thought helps take some of the personal sting out of the loss, allowing you to acquiesce to what has happened and not to waste energy in trying to undo what can’t be undone.

The second step the Buddha taught to the king was that as long as he saw that traditional funeral observances performed a useful function in giving skillful expression to his sense of loss and to his appreciation for the person now gone, he should arrange them. The Buddha never advocated that his listeners try to smother their grief with feigned indifference. As long as they felt a need to express their loss, they should try to do it in a skillful and healing way.

Among the observances he mentioned as potentially useful were eulogies, donations, and the recital of wise sayings. These three activities have since formed the core of funeral observances in many Buddhist traditions. If you actually want to help the person who has passed on, you make gifts and do good in other ways. Then you dedicate the merit to your loved one. To heal the wound in your heart, and to encourage goodness in the people still alive, you express your appreciation for your loved one’s goodness. To remind you of the continued value of Dhamma practice, you listen to passages of Dhamma. Weeping and wailing accomplish none of this. They destroy your health, cause distress to those who love you, and please those who hate or despise you.

The Buddha mentioned this last point as motivation for gathering energy for the third step, which is to remind yourself that there are still good things to accomplish in life. For the sake of your true well-being and that of others, once you’ve skillfully expressed your appreciation for your loved one, you need to get back to the good work that the loss has interrupted.

The Buddha gave just an outline explanation of these three steps to Pasenadi, perhaps assuming that the king would know how to fill in the details, especially for steps one and three. But our discussion in Chapters Three and Six should allow us to fill in the details ourselves.

With regard to the first step, reflecting on the universality of loss: In light of the practice of the brahmavihāras, when you think of all the beings everywhere who have suffered loss, the obvious response should be compassion. When you think of how unavoidable and pervasive loss is throughout the cosmos, it helps to broaden your heart and to enlarge your compassion for the suffering of others. At the same time, the act of broadening your perspective on others’ loss and grief helps you gain some distance from your own. You pull out of your grief, not by denying it—for that would be inhumane—but by turning it into a more healing, expansive, and uplifting emotion, one that acknowledges suffering but, instead of being swallowed up by it, allows the mind to grow larger than its sufferings and to manage a more ennobling and nourishing response to them.

From this enlarged perspective, you can gain a broader sense of what needs to be done in the third step of grief management, reflecting on what good work you still have to do in life. In the words of the question that ended the Buddha’s conversation with Pasenadi, you should ask yourself, “What important work am I doing now?” The wise response is not to define “important” in terms of the pressing responsibilities of the daily grind. Instead, you think about what’s important in terms of the future course of your life as a whole.

As Pasenadi himself noted in SN 3:25, when you reflect in this way, you realize that the important work is Dhamma practice. And as we saw in the discussion in Chapter Six, this means developing qualities like conviction, virtue, generosity, learning, discernment, and the sublime attitudes. These are the qualities that can help guarantee good opportunities for rebirth when you approach your own death. If you want to meet your loved one again in a future life, these qualities guarantee that you will have the opportunity to meet in positive circumstances.

When we view these three steps in grief management in terms of the seven strengths, it’s easy to see how they employ and foster the first four. Conviction reminds you that you can’t just wallow in your sorrow. Given the need to continue creating good kamma for the sake of your long-term happiness, you’ve got to get to work to manage at least the symptoms of your grief. The reflection on how excessive grief distresses your loved ones and pleases your enemies should appeal to your sense of shame. The reflection on how it destroys your health and interferes with the work that needs to be done to keep yourself from falling into even greater suffering appeals to your sense of compunction. Finally, persistence is what actually allows you to think in these terms and to pull yourself out of your grieving thoughts into the more ennobling emotion of compassion for all, and then to act on that compassion for your own good and that of others.

As we’ve noted, the Buddha offers these steps to King Pasenadi simply as basic instructions in grief management. They’re designed to assuage the pangs of grief only to the extent of ensuring that grief doesn’t become self-indulgent and ruin your life. They can’t entirely remove the arrow of grief from the heart.

The Cure

The Buddha’s more advanced instructions for going entirely beyond grief take the same three steps—accepting the universality of loss, skillfully expressing appreciation for what has been lost, and directing your focus to the good things that still need to be done—and pursue them on a deeper level.

First, the universality of loss: The Buddha recommends taking the compassion developed in the first stage of grief management and developing it further. After all, if compassion is genuine and thoughtful, it contains within it the desire to do something about the causes of grief. Think of the Buddha on the night of his awakening: In the second watch of the night, he viewed the sufferings of all beings from a cosmic perspective, but he didn’t stop there. The sense of distance from his own sufferings that he gained from this knowledge enabled him to see objectively the causes of suffering within himself. He then went on to apply that knowledge for the purpose of putting an end to suffering, first by ferreting out and removing the causes of suffering in his own heart, and then by teaching others how to remove the causes of suffering in theirs.

In the same way, the objective distancing from your own grief that can come with compassion isn’t an end in itself. It’s meant to help you look objectively into the internal causes of grief. It then motivates you to do something about them.

We need to get some distance from our grief if we’re to understand it because it has very deep roots that reach beyond the particularities of loss down into the mind’s underlying attitude toward itself—an attitude you might rather not question. But it’s true: In line with the Buddha’s understanding of causality and the three types of fabrication, we suffer not so much from the loss of things outside, but because of unskillful tendencies inside.

Ven. Sāriputta once remarked to a group of fellow monks that, on reflection, he realized that there was nothing in the world the loss of which would cause him any grief (SN 21:2). Ven. Ānanda, who was sitting in the group, immediately countered with the example of the Buddha: If the Buddha were to pass away, would Sāriputta still feel no sorrow? Sāriputta replied, “Even if there were change and alteration in the Teacher, my friend, there would arise within me no sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, or despair. Still, I would have this thought: ‘What a great being, of great might, of great prowess, has disappeared! For if the Blessed One were to remain for a long time, that would be for the benefit of many people, for the happiness of many people, out of sympathy for the world; for the welfare, benefit, and happiness of devas and human beings.’”

Ānanda then commented that this was a sign that Sāriputta had no māna, or conceit—meaning, in this case, not excessive pride, but the simple insertion of the thought, “I am,” into his thoughts.

This was a very astute analysis on Ānanda’s part. We feel the sting of loss because we make it “our” loss. And, as the Buddha points out elsewhere (SN 42:11; DN 21), we make it ours through the passion and desire we have felt for the people and things we’ve lost. Looking even more radically, we can see that we wouldn’t have even developed a sense of what’s dear to us without the sense of “I am.” That “I am” needs to feed, which is one of the reasons it looks for people and things to love. This is why love almost always entails feeding on our loved ones emotionally. When we’ve lost them, we’ve lost our food. This is why grief is so intimately felt. We’ve been internalizing the other person or the situation now gone, so what we had made a part of ourselves has been ripped away. Grief is grief because loss deprives us of an intimate portion of who we have assumed we are.

This means that to go totally beyond grief, we have to learn how to stop making things ours. And the first step in that direction is to reflect on the universality of loss in a way that gives rise to another emotion, beyond acceptance and compassion: saṁvega.

As we noted in Chapter Three, saṁvega is the terror or dismay that arises when you reflect at the meaninglessness of all the many sufferings and conflicts that life everywhere entails. The sense of “I am” that leads to the desire for love also leads to conflicts. When you realize this, a sense of saṁvega motivates you to want to go beyond simply recovering from grief over a particular loss, and to aspire instead to freeing yourself from the possibility of experiencing grief or conflict ever again.

When you develop saṁvega, it lifts you from what the Buddha calls house-based distress (MN 137)—sorrow over the loss of the people and sensory objects you love—to what he calls renunciation-based distress: the sense that there is a way out of experiencing this kind of loss, but that you haven’t reached it yet. This realization is distressing because it alerts you to the amount of work that needs to be done, but it contains an element of hope that house-based distress doesn’t: the conviction that it is possible to get beyond grief. Renunciation-based distress, for this reason, doesn’t just indulge in sorrow. It uses sorrow as motivation to do what needs to be done to get out.

It was to induce this useful sense of distress that the Buddha once asked a group of monks which was greater: the water in the four great oceans or the tears they had shed in the course of their many lifetimes over the loss of a mother (SN 15:3). The answer: the tears. The same answer applies to the tears shed over the loss of a father, a sister, a brother, a daughter, a son. The emotion that comes with this reflection is a mixture of acceptance and defiant unwillingness: acceptance that this is the way things will continue to be if you don’t find a way out, and an unwillingness to stay trapped in this immense and unending suffering.

The proper response to this reflection is to look for the way out and to develop conviction that the path of practice will take you there. It’s from this perspective that the Buddha has you develop further the second step in going beyond grief: expressing appreciation. In this case, the appreciation goes in two directions.

The first is to realize that the best thing you can do for those who have helped you is to follow the noble path all the way to the end of suffering, and then to dedicate the merit of your attainment to them. In this way, the good they have done for you will bear them great fruit (MN 39).

The second direction is to develop appreciation for all the difficulties the Buddha went through in finding and teaching the noble path. This appreciation is followed by a desire to practice the Dhamma in accordance with the Dhamma—i.e., to follow the path as the Buddha taught it. Instead of trying to change it to suit your preferences, you try to change yourself to be worthy of the path. It’s only when you have great respect for the Dhamma that you’ll allow it to question your most firmly held views and feelings about yourself. This reflection, in itself, helps to take you beyond yourself and to help heal the “you” defined around the object of your loss. Instead of being a person defined by grief, you are now defined by your noble desire to follow the path.

This new sense of yourself leads to the third step in fully overcoming grief, which is to focus your attention on the good work that still needs to be done. The nature of that work is indicated in the Buddha’s response to the news of Ven. Sāriputta’s passing (SN 47:13). It’s somewhat ironic, in light of Ven. Ānanda’s conversation with Ven. Sāriputta, that Sāriputta actually passed away before the Buddha did. When Ānanda brought the Buddha the news, he added that when he himself had heard the news, it was as if he had lost his bearings, and all the directions became dark—his attachment to Sāriputta was that strong. In short, Ānanda’s was the typical reaction of intense grief: There was no brightness left in the world because the person he had relied on with so much trust was now gone.

So the Buddha questioned him: When Sāriputta passed away, did he take virtue along with him? No. Concentration? No. Discernment? No. Release? No. Knowledge and vision of release? No. In other words, the good work of the world—the best work of the world, the path to total release from suffering—is still there to be done.

This work, of course, is composed of all eight factors in the noble eightfold path. Particularly important is the work of right mindfulness, right concentration, and the discernment of right view and right resolve. As we noted in Chapters Two and Six, when your practice of right mindfulness matures as you develop concentration and discernment, it helps you to dismantle, in real time, the inner conversations framed by your sense of a self existing in a world—the basic parameters of becoming. You drop your narratives of your life—“you” in the “world”—and can look at the processes leading up to becoming without reading a “self” or a “world” into them at all. The pleasure and stability of right concentration allow you to do this in a way that is not disorienting, but actually more and more grounding.

It’s when this work is accomplished that renunciation-based distress leads to renunciation-based joy and equanimity: the joy that comes with the realization that you’re freed from any need to be affected by any sort of change at all, and the unshaken equanimity that reflects that freedom. The mind no longer creates the sense of “me” and “mine” that has to feed on things that change, because it has found a happiness that doesn’t change and hasn’t the slightest need to feed.

In that sense, the mind no longer turns itself into a being, for beings are defined by their attachment to how they feed (SN 23:2; Khp 4). When the mind no longer takes on the identity of a “being” anywhere at all, it’s everywhere released. In this way, you find that the Buddha’s words to King Pasenadi—“to the extent that there are beings”—turn out to have a limit. Going beyond that limit, the mind no longer stabs itself with the arrows of grief. From that point on, as long as it continues to live in the world, it will know loss but not suffer from it. When it has gone beyond the world, it will “dwell” in a dimension beyond time and space where there’s no possibility of loss at all.

That’s where the three steps in the Buddha’s total cure for grief can take you: freedom from having to experience grief or sorrow ever again.

Here too, it’s easy to see how this cure employs and fosters all seven of the strengths that have formed the framework for the discussion throughout this book.

Conviction in the Buddha’s awakening is what motivates you to take on the difficult work of dismantling your sense of “I am.”

Your appreciation of the Buddha’s accomplishment—the hard work and compassion that went into it—gives you a sense of shame around the idea of not following the path all the way to the end.

Your sense of compunction, when fully developed, is what sparks you to go beyond mere management of your grief to settling for nothing less than the total cure.

Your persistence, mindfulness, concentration, and discernment do the actual work of abandoning the last traces of conceit, allowing you to go beyond the birth, aging, illness, death, and sorrow that being a being entails.

It’s through these strengths that the bodhisatta became the Buddha. They helped him develop the undaunted heart that allowed him to attempt and complete the path to the deathless. When you cultivate them, you can develop the same undaunted heart as well.

With arrow pulled out,


attaining peace of awareness,

all grief transcended,

free of grief,

you’re unbound. — Sn 3:8