By Guy Newland
When my wife Valerie died in 2013, I entered a hidden world coiled up tight inside the ordinary life-space of supermarkets and highways.
And I stumbled there for a while, blind and raw. I was alienated from everyone who seemed not to have been, or would not acknowledge being, in this world of utter loss.
When we such world-shattering pain that seems not to touch others, many of us get sucked into a sense this pain is our deepest identity. Intense anguish feels as though it were our private, secret, inner selfhood. On the other hand, some instead struggle to push pain away. If we deny it and try to “put it behind us,” then we turn our backs on a reality that will always be there.
The middle way is not denying our pain, while never identifying with it as our core self. Feel the pain, sit with it, let it ago. If you think, “I am the one who remembers and dwells in pain,” or “I am the one who lost my spouse,” “Only I truly understand the horror,” then samsara spins around again.
Like Kisa Gotami-–whom the Buddha sent searching for a mustard seed from a house that had not known death—I gradually got past the delusion that grief was private or particularly mine. Our vulnerability—our heartbreaks and traumatic losses—are nothing separate from our intimacy with others.
So: How do we enact this intimacy when someone breaks her neck, or loses a limb, or is dying? Or loses a partner? What can we do to help?
First, form a genuine and specific intention to help.
When you hear of someone’s suffering, make a mental commitment: “I will do something to help.” Don’t stop with, “I feel for that person” or “I should feel for that person.”
Never fall for the illusion that this is none of your business. You are dying. You are also facing grave loss.
Don’t be avoidant! The dying and the grieving radiate pollution and are made to know this. To face them is to face mortal terror. When you hear of someone’s traumatic loss, do you feel some subtle dread or aversion? Can you catch yourself pulling back or tending to sidle away? Notice these feelings and let them flow by. Open your heart. Say something heartfelt in whatever way you can.
Remember: It is natural that you do not know what to say. Of course: you fear you will say something wrong. Do the best you can. It will feel uncomfortable. Don’t expect gratitude or magical results. Do it anyway.
Don’t force kindness on someone who really wants to be left alone, but even if you are not very close to the grieving person, it is better to say something than not. Acknowledge that something important has happened.
But what do I say?
Maybe say, “How are you feeling today?” This implies actual, specific interest. It implies sensitivity to painful feelings and awareness that they are constantly changing.
When a loved when has died, offer something specific, factual and from the heart about the deceased. Can you recall some particular kindness that the deceased showed?
Or perhaps just say how deeply sorry you are to hear of their loss.
There are many true things one can say, but lacking omniscience, we rarely know which will be most helpful in a particular moment. Don’t play the expert; resist the temptation to give hollow consolation. Don’t try to make it seem alright—even though everyone desperately wishes it were.
Remember that no matter how well intentioned you are, you will make mistakes. It is just like meditation; we lose the object and re-set the mind. And then again. Don’t be discouraged.
If your relationship with a grieving person allows, look for situations where she can share feelings or tell stories. It might feel right to ask: “I can’t imagine what you are going through. I have had grief in my life, but I am really wondering what this could be like for you.”
Perhaps just be together in intimate silence. We don’t know what the other person feels. From within the naked honesty of this “not knowing,” give your full and open attention. Don’t deflect back to yourself or to something so similar that happened to your aunt.
Since each grief and trauma is different, we cannot always be the best person to help…but maybe we know of someone who is. Reading about grief experiences that were worse than mine was helpful in the beginning because it normalized my strange mental state. And later, hearing about traumas that other people had experienced was even more healing because it dissolved my self-pity and hellish alienation.
When the time is right, give the other person a chance to help.
Seeing others’ pain, and feeling that we might be able to ease it is often the best therapy for our own wounds. I felt put-upon when, within a month of my wife’s death, people invited me to give talks and to help them with their problems. But over time, I came to feel that those who imposed upon me in this way, forbearing my negative mind-set, gave me a precious chance to help.
And they were, therefore, great helpers.
Guy Newland is the author of A Buddhist Grief Observed (Wisdom Publications, 2016), Introduction to Emptiness (Snow Lion Publications, 2009) and other books, articles, Dharma talks and sermons. He has two adult children and has taught Buddhism at Central Michigan University since 1988.
Editor: Dana Gornall