40 – Dealing with Grief & Loss


Mindfulness is helpful during the grieving process because it allows us to acknowledge the universality of loss. It helps us to accept the inevitability of loss as a part of life. At one point or another, we will all face the loss of everything we hold dear. BONUS: Guided meditation on impermanence.

BONUS: Guided Meditation on Death & Impermanence

This is the guided meditation shared in the episode above. This clip is the guided meditation only.

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Transcript of the podcast

Hello you are listening to the Secular Buddhism Podcast, and this is episode number 40. I am your host Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about dealing mindfully with grief and loss.
Grieving is the process of coming to terms with loss in our lives. We may experience grief for a number of different reasons. Could be the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship or friendship, or the loss of a job. Other significant life changes can also lead to grief like moving to a new home or a new city, losing our deeply held convictions or beliefs, or experiencing a sudden change in our hopes and dreams.

Loss is something we seem to deal with from the moment we’re born. I’ve seen first hand the discomfort a new born seems to endure at the loss and comfort of the womb. And from that moment on life can seem like a string of losses. And while the scale and the intensity of loss can vary greatly. Say losing a loved one compared to losing a material possession. In the end the loss of anything can cause suffering. And it may require the process of grieving to help us to adjust.
Now before I jump into this topic I want to remind you of a couple of things. First, is my commonly shared quote by the Dalai Lama that says “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” Regardless of which path you’re on or how far you are along that path, mindfulness can help you to be a better whatever you already are.

Second, this podcast is made possibly by the Foundation for Mindful Living. A 501C3 non profit who’s mission is to make the world a better place by teaching people to live more mindfully. If you get any value out of this podcast and if you’re in a position to be able to, please consider becoming a monthly contributor. Just two dollars a month can make a big difference. One time donations are appreciated as well. And you can make a donation by visiting secularbuddhism.com and clicking on the donate button at the top of the page.

And I want to say thank you to everyone who donates monthly to the podcast. And anyone who’s made a one time donation. Your donations are making a very big difference in the ability that I have to share this content with the world. Through workshops, through a mindfulness training program that I’m putting together, and several other resources that are in the works. All of this is being accomplished with your support and thanks to your support. So thank you very, very much.
Okay now let’s jump back into this week’s topic. I want you to take a moment and think about some of the losses you’ve experienced in your own life. Perhaps this is the loss of a loved one or the loss of a job. Or a meaningful friendship or relationship. This could be a material possession. Something that was lost or stolen, something that broke, think about that for a minute and see what comes to mind.

We all have losses. We’ve all experienced losses in the past. We may be experiencing loss now, or we will experience it in the future. And for the losses we experience in life, we need to grieve. And mindfulness practice can help us in this process to ensure that we grieve skillfully. Grieving is the natural healing process of coming to terms with loss in our lives. You may be familiar with the concept of the five stages of grief. As proposed by the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Gubler Ross. Her model proposes that a series of emotions are experienced by people who are dealing with loss.
These are denial, when you first learn of a loss, it may be normal to think well this can’t be happening to me. You know, you may feel shock or numb, this is a temporary way to deal with the rush of an overwhelming emotion. It’s kind of like a defense mechanism. So denial.

The next one is anger, as this reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless, and then these feelings can turn into anger. And that’s anger that may be directed towards other people, to a higher power, or to life in general.

Then we have bargaining. Bargaining, this is the stage where you kind of dwell on what you could have done to prevent the loss. And these are common thoughts like if only, or you know, what if I had done this, or had I not done that. Um, this is kind of that stage where you may even try to strike a deal with a higher power.
And then the next stage is depression. It’s the sadness that sets in as you begin to understand the loss and it’s effect on your life. And during this stage, signs of depression may include crying or sleep issues, decreased appetite, there may be a sense of feeling overwhelmed, regretful and lonely.
The final stage is acceptance. In this stage you accept the reality of your loss, you realize it can’t be changed, and although you can still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life. And because these stages are often referred to as stages, people often mistake these as a linear course that one needs to advance from one stage to the next as we come to terms with our loss.

Now in my own experience, it can be misleading or even harmful to assume that these stages are sequential or linear in any way. Well each of these emotions can be experienced throughout the grieving process. Grief rarely seems to follow any specific order or timetable. We all seem to experience grief in different ways, and while some of us may experience one or more of these specific emotions, they may not come in a specific order.

It may be that we advance from one stage to another only to come back again to where we were before. And this is kind of how I experienced it while dealing about seven years ago with the loss of trust and coping with betrayal and deception. I remember advancing through anger to what I thought was acceptance. Only to come back to anger, and then this was like a cycle that went on and on for months, even years. And for a time I genuinely thought I was crazy, ’cause every time I would feel like it was finally passed all of the emotions and I was at acceptance, it seemed like that should be the end of it. But the something would trigger a memory and I’d be back at square one.

So the mindfulness approach to grief and loss is not about trying to get through one stage to advance to the next or to try to rush through all of them. You know, to hurry and get to this acceptance and healing. It’s about applying acceptance to whatever stage we’re in. And to whatever the overall process of grief is bringing us. So through mindfulness we focus on, on removing any obstacles that might impede us from experiencing whatever the process of grief may have in store for us.
Now mindfulness is helpful during the grieving process because it allows us first to acknowledge the universality of loss. And it helps us to accept the inevitability of loss as a part of life. So at one point or another, we will all face the loss of everything we hold dear. And sometimes this happens when we’re not ready and when we’re not expecting it. And it’s resisting those losses that can cause us to suffer. Suffer beyond the pain that is already typical with loss.

So we know that all things are impermanent. We live in a world where ultimately everything that we hold dear will have to be relinquished. And Thich Nhat Hahn on this topic says it’s not impermanence that makes us suffer, what makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they’re not. And this reminds me of a story, during the Buddhist time, there was a woman named Kisa Gotami and she had married young and gave birth to a son. And one day the baby got sick and then died soon after. Kisa Gotami loved her son and she just refused to believe that her son was dead. She carried uh, his body around the village asking if there was anyone who could bring him back to life. And the villagers saw that and they saw he was already dead and that there was nothing that could be done.

So they advised her to just accept his death and make the arrangements for the funeral. But with grief you know, she fell upon her knees and she just clutched her sons body close to hers and she kept uttering for him to wake up and to wake up. And at this point a village elder took pity on her and suggested her to go consult with the Buddha. “So Kisa Gotami you know, we can’t help you, you need to go talk to the Buddha maybe he can do something to bring your son back to life.”

So Kisa Gotami was excited hearing that, and she immediately went to the Buddha’s residence and pleaded for him to help her you know, to bring her son back to life. And the Buddha said, “Well Kisa Gotami, I do have a way to bring your son back to life.” She’s like, “What is it gonna take, what do I have to do? I’ll do anything.” And the Buddha essentially says, “If that’s the case, if you’ll do anything then here’s what you need to do. Um, bring me a mustard seed taken from a house where no one residing in the house had ever lost a family member. And then you bring that seed back to me, and I’ll bring your son back to life.”

So having faith in that promise, Kisa Gotami just took off and she ran from house to house in the village trying to find this mustard seed. And at the first house she found a young woman who said “Yeah I have a mustard seed.” But then when she asked her if she had ever lost a family member the young woman said, “Yeah my grandmother died a few months ago.” So she thanked her and ran to the next house, she realized that wasn’t gonna work. And at the next house you know, she found someone who’s husband had died a few years ago. And at the next house someone who had lost an uncle, and then at the next house someone who had lost an aunt or a cousin.

And this process keeps going, she keeps going from house to house and she keeps finding the same answer, that every … Every household had some one who had lost a family member at some point. So by the Kisa Gotami finally realizes that there’s no one in the world who’s never lost a family member. So she now understood that death is inevitable, and it’s a natural part of life. And this acceptance allowed her to start working with her grief and to bury her son.

And the story of Kisa Gotami reminds us that loss is a universal experience. The Buddha’s lesson for Kisa Gotami allowed her to understand that her refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of loss was only adding to her pain. And I feel a special sympathy for her. You know as a parent myself, I’ve tried to imagine how difficult it would be to have to deal with the loss of one of my own kids.

If we know that loss and death are inevitable. Why not begin to prepare for the inevitable now. You know, why is there a cultural tendency to avoid even the thought of death. Or even the thought of losing the things that matter to us. You know remembering that all things are continually changing, we can avoid developing unhealthy attachments that may cause us to suffer. You it’s funny speaking of these attachments, just this weekend we were cleaning out our storage unit and I took a trailer load full of stuff to a donation center. And it was interesting to see certain possessions and to, you know, realize at one point how valuable that possession felt to me or how meaningful it was to me at one time. And now here I was at another time in my life just giving it away. And in the process of emptying all these totes that we had, one of the totes was labeled ‘Noah’s helicopter stuff’.

And as some of you may recall from past podcast episodes, there was a time in my life when I was in flight school training to be a helicopter pilot. It was a childhood dream that I had. And unfortunately the school that I went to back in 2008 filed bankruptcy and it was a school that had the business model where the students would pay up front for all of the training. And then, they would train you over the course of six to eight months, or twelve months. But it was running like a ponzi scheme, now none of us noticed that at the beginning. But they would have you pay up front, and then they would use that to keep recruiting more students and that’s kind of how the company ran. That lasted about ten years before the company finally went under.

And when it did, thousands of students across the country including myself we were out of flight training and out of the money that we had paid for it. So it was, it was a really difficult time. And it was one of my dreams, like I mentioned. So there was a dream that was shattered there was suffering that being being experienced, I was dealing with the grief and the loss of what seemed to be my life plan. That was my career choice.

So fast forward now almost ten years later, here I am, at this donation center looking at this tote and I open it and it had all of my flight gear. I had my headset, all of my books, my flight computer, the little thing that snaps to your leg that holds the maps of where you’re flying. It had everything. Everything that I used for flying. And it was interesting to just look at this for a moment to think how important these items were to me at one point. And here I was donating this entire tote away. Hoping some use would come out if to someone. And there was a tinge of sadness there with it, but I thought it was interesting that I had held on to these items for almost ten years. And I thought about that, you know attachment to the things that can cause us to suffer.

So, how does mindfulness help us to cope with the loss of things that we’ve become attached to? Well it’s similar to how we deal with any other emotion. Through mindfulness. You know, an emotion like anger or sadness, we simply acknowledge the emotion, we accept it, and then we let it go when it’s time to go. But there’s no need to have fear or aversion towards the grieving process. You know, we can be open to whatever grief brings. And allow ourselves to be fully with that experience. And remember like I mentioned before there’s no set time frame for this grieving process, it just has to happen on it’s own. And an important benefit of mindfulness during the grieving process is that it helps to keep us anchored in the present moment. ‘Cause the present moment is the only place where we can fully feel the pain of loss.

Now when we’re dealing with loss, it’s common to find ourselves experiencing anxiety about the future. You know, with the loss of a spouse or the loss of a job. We have legitimate concerns about how we’re going to get by. And other losses like relationships or divorce, you know these things may cause us to have concerns about our self worth. Or fear about ever finding meaningful love again. I remember with, you know with my story with the helicopter flight school. I had significant fears about well now what am I gonna do? You know? This was the career that I chose now how am I gonna pay this money that I lost. It was almost, it was $70000 that this school had taken from us. And those, you know that’s money I still pay every month. Student loans that I’ll be paying the rest of my life for something I never got.

But at the time, you know a lot of my fear and anxiety was anchored in the future, what is this? What’s gonna happen now? How am I gonna do this? You know, how am I gonna pay that back? What am I gonna do for a job? And the point is that, almost any kind of loss will cause us to wonder how we’re going to fill the void of what we’ve lost. And these are valid concerns, they need to be addressed. But we do need to know that spending too much time with our concerns about the future, can get in the way of the grieving process itself. Which requires us to momentarily set aside these concerns. And instead just be completely aware of our experience in the present moment.

This is where mindfulness meditation can be an incredible tool for coping with loss. As it provides us with the opportunity of attending to whatever experience we’re having in that present moment. And fully experiencing what we find in the present moment is an essential step for learning to think and act wisely. Now another topic that relates to this is something I brought up a few podcasts back, I talked about the art of self compassion. And how self compassion can play an important role in the grieving process. As it allows us to accept the compassion not only from ourselves but also from others. You know, sometimes when we’re going through difficult things, we need compassion but we struggle to allow others to give us that compassion because we don’t feel worthy of it. Or we feel that it’s a sign of weakness to accept compassion from others.

This is why we can work with self compassion. And compassion is one of the greatest things we can receive while we’re experiencing grief. You know, in part I think it’s because it reminds us of the universality of our suffering. Like Kisa Gotami, you know, we can be reminded that we are not alone in our experience of loss and suffering and this in turn I think eases or minimizes our sense of suffering. So dealing with our own suffering, it can be the catalyst for learning to develop compassion for others. You know, I imagine Kisa Gotomi at that point realizing with what she had gone through with the loss of her son, allowed her to feel compassion from that moment on for anyone else who was going to experience that same type of loss.
I remember feeling the same thing with my flight school. You know, thinking well now I know what that’s like to be robbed of a dream. And any time I’ve encountered that with anyone else in their life, and having you know life throw a curve ball at them that sends them in a new direction, I feel compassion for them because I know what that’s like. Same with my other experience in life with feeling betrayed or deceived. You know I can empathize with people who have gone through that. And the relationships because I know what that’s like.

So I think it allows us to develop compassion for others, our suffering can do that. And it can also be a reminder of how life truly is like a game of Tetris. Like I talk about all the time, you know. We only have the illusion of control, and yet we simply never know what piece is going to show up next. And I think experiencing loss and suffering it can be disillusioning in the sense that it helps us to get rid of the illusion that we even had control or the illusion that there’s permanence in any of this.
So if you practice developing skillful means with life’s everyday challenges, you know, it will allow you to be able to react more skillfully when losses come to you. As we all know they inevitably will. And remember loss and suffering is not personal. You’re not being singled out, it’s just that you’re experiencing life.

Now earlier in this podcast I mentioned that if we know that loss and death are inevitable. Why not begin to prepare for the inevitable now? You know, how do we prepare to deal with the loss of everything. Well have I a guided meditation that I want to share with you today in this podcast episode. And I’m also going to set this aside as a recording that can be listened to as the next podcast episode. It will just be the guided meditation, so that you can listen to it again from time to time, without having to listen to this whole episode and look you know, to the end to listen to this guided meditation.

So why don’t you take a couple of minutes right now and just follow along with this exercise. This can be a powerful technique for learning to think and ponder on the nature of impermanence. So this is a guided meditation on impermanence.
This is an ordinary moment. If you can, close your eyes and just focus on the sensation of breathing. Try to become aware of the breath. The in breath, and the out breath. And just become aware of this ordinary process that seems so natural that we rarely even think of it. And yet it’s this process of breathing that keeps us alive throughout the ordinary moments of our day.
And now imagine next to you a large platform. You’re standing next to this large platform or a stage, and it’s empty there’s nothing on it. And now I want you to imagine your favorite possessions. This could be your computer, your watch, your smartphone, maybe it’s a TV or your car. Just imagine all of your favorite stuff. And now imagine them being place on this platform or on this stage one at a time, and when they get placed there, they simply disappear. Everything that gets placed on the stage dissolves and just disappears.

Just imagine yourself for a moment seeing all of your stuff one by one being placed on there and then it’s gone. And how does that feel? Knowing all of your stuff is now gone. And now I want you to imagine all of your friends. All of your coworkers, you know, people that you know, just imagine their voices, they’re all talking to each other and they’re sharing their stories and as they do this they’re all slowly stepping on that stage in single file one by one, and as they do, they disappear. One by one until they’re all gone.

And after that I want you to imagine your family, your parents, siblings, children. I want you to imagine their voices, I want you to envision their smiles and feel the love that you have for each one of them. Just imagine them all stepping on that stage each disappearing one at a time.

And notice how now you’re standing there next to that stage and you’re all alone. How does it feel now to know your friends and family, they’re all gone. They’ve all stepped on that stage. And now I want you to picture the room where you are. Or the space where you are, your bed, your books, all of your other possessions. All of them on that stage now, and they all disappear. And you continue to scale back. Picture your neighborhood, picture your yard, the feeling of the sun on your face and the feeling of the wind on your skin. And rain, everything. Everything you see. It’s all on that stage and it all disappears.
And now as you stand there, I want you to imagine your memories, your feelings. All the knowledge that you’ve gained from the books that you’ve read and the school class that you’ve attended, every word you’ve ever heard. You’re entire vocabulary. Every song you’ve ever listened to, every sound you’ve ever heard. All being put on that stage. And it’s all disappearing.
And as each of these things goes, one by one. Now there’s just you. And it’s just you standing there. And now you walk on to that stage. And you slowly disappear. And then the stage is the only thing that’s there and then the stage disappears. And now that’s it, there’s nothing. There’s nothing left, there’s just the awareness of emptiness. The emptiness of all that is. And I want you to notice what you feel. As you become aware of this emptiness. And death will come in an ordinary moment just like this one.

Now bring your awareness back to where you are. The room that you’re in, the space where you are. Open your eyes if you had them closed. I want you to just look around for a moment, and notice how wonderful it is to just be alive. This is a simple guided meditation practice that can serve as a reminder that death will come in an ordinary moment. A moment just like this one. But for now, this ordinary moment is anything but ordinary. Because this is an extraordinary moment of being alive. And this is the nature of impermanence. Things are continually changing. One thing ends and another thing starts.
But in the end it’s all impermanent. And what there is, is emptiness. I want you to think about that. To just enjoy the feeling of how great it is to just be here. With everything just the way that it is, with the bank account just the way that it is. The friendships just the way that they are. You know, the student loans that you have just the way that they are. Everything just the way that it is. And how good that can feel.

And this is the meditation on impermanence. And if you enjoyed this podcast episode please feel free to share it with others. Write a review or give it a rating in iTunes, and if you’re new to Buddhism, or you’re interested in learning more. Remember, you can listen to the first five episodes of this podcast in order as they serve as a summary of some of the key concepts taught in Buddhist thinking.

And also you can check out my book Secular Buddhism, Eastern Thought for Western Minds. It’s available on Amazon, Kindle, iTunes and Audible. And for more information, and for links you can visit secularbuddhism.com . And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Until next time.