Archive for February 6th, 2012


This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.

To watch the birth and death of beings is like

looking at the movements of a dance.

A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky,

Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”

~~~ Buddha, as quoted in The Grace of Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh

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Spiritual Reactions

  • Searching for meaning in loss
  • Changes in spiritual beliefs, feelings, or behaviors
  • Experiencing a sense of the deceased’s presence
  • Searching for a way to live without the decease

They say the clothes make the person. . .

but I think what makes the person is their spirituality and their relationship to it; especially when it comes to grief. Even a lack of spiritual beliefs, ideas, or feelings is still spiritual for some.

For many, they have never questioned what they believe or what they have been taught to believe.

Sometimes it is the loss of an important person that shakes them by the shoulders and gets to them to start questioning. I’ve seen people go on spiritual quests — not off to India or Italy like in Eat, Pray, Love, but on their own journey to find the answers that will settle their minds and be a balm for their hearts.

At the same time, I’ve seen people dig in and hold on to their spiritual beliefs with a new vigor. They embrace their beliefs by going back to temple, going on mission trips, spending time in bible studies. Some widows have needed to do things like change parishes, Mass times, or go to services where there was little singing so that they could avoid old memories.     And I have encouraged them to do what they need to in order to keep some link to something spiritual, whatever that might be that gives them comfort in any given moment.

What’s common for both of these experiences is that these people become seekers. . . they are searching for something to help them make sense of the world. Death often does that; it turns everything we know and believe upside down, inside out, and we become disoriented. We go searching “out there” or within for meaning, purpose, reasons, explanations, etc.

For me, I went on a lot of solitary retreats while my brother was dying. I lived near Nashville and was able to spend time at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center, where I was able to stay in a little cabin with only electricity. I brought no clocks, left the cell phone in the car, and went armed with a notebook and pen.

I hiked during the day, took naps, wrote poetry, cried, yelled, was silent, did yoga on the deck of the little cabin, and spent hours wrapped up in blankets to keep warm near the space heater.     For me that was what I needed because I had to find some insulation from the world of social services and family and death. I needed to recharge, refuel, and reset myself.

I found it interesting that in 2003, I was working with a lovely family, doing some reiki with one of our hospice nurses for a patient we had admitted. I got very close to this family because someone on our team told them I was Buddhist.    It was about this time that I left for a 5 day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastics. I was so grateful to the local sangha (really regional sangha) for bringing Thay at that time. And the last day of that retreat, Thay talked about “No Death, No Fear” which had just been published.

I left the retreat ready to face the world again and it was in less than a month that special patient with whom I got so close to died. And I was ready. I had quiet time at the retreat at was mostly held in silence to walk, meditate, see the sunrise, eat mindfully, and really settle into a place that I feel is the soft achy center of my heart (much like the heart that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche writes about in his book Shambhala).

Suffice it to say that just as we have different reactions to loss on every sphere of our existence: cognitive, social, behavioral, emotional, and physical, we also have different reactions spiritually. The confusing thing for so many is that we don’t all grieve the same way. Some of us will grieve more behaviorally or emotionally. Others will grieve more spiritually.  But even within each of those spheres, we will grieve so differently than others.

For example, my mother said a lot of rosaries after my brother’s death. For me, before and after his death, retreats were important to me. My dad, well, my dad went where he is closest to his source of the divine — the trout stream.

When families and friends aren’t accepting of the fact that we will grieve on different spheres, in different ways, with different timing, hurt feelings can ensue. So can misunderstandings and a lot of heartache. Be gentle and kind to how you need to grieve and give those around you space to grieve how they need to as well.

If you missed any of the Common Reactions posts, see below for links to each one.

I have not discussed the last bullet point listed above because that could really be its own post. . . experiencing the deceased . . . and I will most likely write about that soon. But until then, check out the related article below about spiritual signs of the deceased…


Related articles

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Experience . . . don’t pick it apart. . .

Life is but a dream!

As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw.

— Shunryu Suzuki

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