Posts Tagged ‘Meaning of life’

One Day – an idea that will horrify you now – the misfortune will be a blessed

memory of a being who will never leave you.

But you are in a stage of unhappiness where it is impossible

for you to have faith in these reassurances.”

~~Marcel Proust

Someone posted a question to my About page, questioning what I thought about the idea of “gifts” that come from loss.  Essentially, this is an area that I tread lightly in… for the person who is in the depths of their grief, gifts, meanings, messages, life lessons, etc is something that I do not talk about at that time.  I think it can almost be cruel… like when someone says to a grieving parent, “you’re young, you can have another…”

I can think of nothing else that could be more injuring to the memory of the person who died or to the aching heart of the bereft person.

There have been times, where I can honestly say, yes, I’ve wanted to hit someone for foolish, hurtful words like these.  And I have to remember that we are just so uncomfortable with our own pain but to be present to another’s pain is a thousand-fold worse for so many people.

I’ve thought a lot about this topic during the past week and posted a reply to this “sister” blogger last night… I am sure that she will not be the only person to bring up this topic and so I decided to post my response here.

I am so grateful to her for asking her question and I hope that this will either comfort someone, help them understand another’s grief, or at the very least, get us thinking about our reactions to the grief of another person.  So, here is my reply:

I do not believe that there is any inherent purpose to death.  It is a function of being a human being and having these bodies that we do.  I don’t think there is any more inherent purpose than I believe that there is any inherent meaning.

The existentialists were split into two camps about this very topic… there were those who believed that there was no meaning in the world and were nihilistic.  There was another group who also did not believe that there was an inherent purpose, however, they did believe that we create our own meaning.

In this second group, I think of Viktor Frankl.  He once said, “For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”  And this is how I see the losses we endure.

I don’t believe that there was “a” purpose to my brother’s death.  There were three of us that were most affected by this loss and we all had different relationships to him and this loss.  We each had to find our own meaning and purpose to live with this loss.

I know that all three of us would prefer, in some ways that he was back in our lives, happily living.  But he wasn’t happily living while he was here and through his dying, our lives were changed and other people have been influenced by us.    And if he was alive, he would not be healthy.  Given that, I have to make sense out of this loss in order to live with it.  That is where the purpose comes into the picture.

I know that many people who are bereft, especially parents of young children, hate hearing that there is a purpose to the death of the person who they loved.  And I struggle when I hear people saying that to them.  If we come to that place, in our own lives, over our own losses, then great.

But I think we have to face that for most of us, if it was the choice between us gaining some gift (compassion, insight, greater love, etc.) and the person who we lost, I cannot think of anyone I have ever met that would choose the gift instead.

I also don’t think that finding meaning and purpose is a panacea or defense mechanism.  I think that when we find meaning and purpose, if we do, that it helps to guide our lives.  It gives us an ethic or viewpoint, a lens, that we see the world through and then act in accordance.  I don’t think we use that as a way to deny the pain, though I suppose it could be.

I think we have to find ways to re-create our lives and figure out how to live them without the physical presence the person we love because they are not coming back.

These are just the thoughts that have been swirling around in me for the past few days.  They are influenced by my philosophical and spiritual ideas and my experiences.

They are also informed by the hundreds of people who I worked with at hospice, those who seemed to struggle and soar after someone’s death and those that seemed to struggle for the rest of their lives.

May the merit of all the good we do go out into the world

and shine on all who are in need of light.

May the merit of our love

be an inspiration to all those who have never felt love.


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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…


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