Sharing my article "Awakening the Compassionate Witness, The Life-Skill of Work Through Grief," food for self-reflection, healing and transformation.
A long time ago, the first teaching of the Buddha after his enlightenment was the Noble Truth of Suffering. His search was triggered when acknowledging the human conditions of illness, aging and death. In our Western modern society, we don’t like thinking that they may happen to us. Instead we prefer to ignore, deny or avoid suffering, hoping that –if unattended—it will go away. We “fight against” it, and “feel a failure” and ask “why me” when it comes our way.
Over time we learn that change and impermanence are the only constant, and so is the presence of grief. Grief is the natural response to loss, and often accompanies changes. Death is the most extreme loss; but grief comes up with divorces, illnesses, unemployment, and all kinds of endings. Certain anniversaries, and possibly the holiday season, may intensify our grief, fresh and old. We may think that “time heals all wounds.” I have learned that time alone does not heal grief, since more changes and losses will indeed happen to us.
As part of the natural cycle of life, many of us find ourselves in the painful and stressful role of taking care of aging, ailing and dying parents, a task we were not prepared for. All sort of new and old issues may come up, presenting the challenge of balancing the demands of this and other areas of our lives, sometimes over a background of unfinished business and conflictive emotions. We don’t have a map of this unfamiliar territory, yet someday we might play this same drama with our own children. The invitation here is to see the alleviation of grief as the cultivation of a life-skill, to better prepare ourselves to deal with the inevitable losses and suffering that are part of human nature. Since the grief journey is unique for each person, this is an opportunity for self-discovery, to grow out of our comfort zones and limited self-image, and find a bigger truth where there can be healing, growth, and lessons learned.
This counter-cultural perspective asks us to embrace the vulnerability of our human condition, not as a sign of weakness, but as a path of cultivating resilience, the inner strength that enables us to overcome adversities and thrive in life. Transforming grief is not about getting rid of suffering, but seeing a bigger picture that includes both the wounds and the inner resources to help us heal.
It is like learning a new somatic language that will allow us to have a different relationship with our losses, understand their impact on our bodies, mind and heart with compassion and hope, and be proactive about healing ourselves from within.
Paradoxically, the way out of grief is through it. “Being with” suffering is not a “doing,” nor fixing, nor repairing what’s really not broken. It’s accepting all our feelings and experiences as an expression of who we are. Having a self-nurturing attitude towards ourselves, we become a Compassionate Witness and our best friend.
Self-care is the acknowledgment that, as important as taking care of others, is to take care of our whole selves—body, mind, heart, and soul. Poet John O’Donohue said, “You lose balance of your soul if you don’t learn to take care of yourself.” It is a commitment to pay ourselves non-judgmental loving attention, in a way that creates safety for all parts of us to come to light and express themselves. Only then we can choose which ones to keep, and which to let go and release.
Thus, we learn to relax instead of constrict in the face of suffering; to accept and surrender, instead of sustaining the illusion of being invulnerable and having everything under control. This allows us to find inner and outer resources at the core of suffering, in the middle of things as they are. Like I tell the grieving children I work with, we can be happy for some things and sad for other things at the same time; and there are always things we can do to make the sadness smaller, and the happiness bigger.
Finally, reach out for support. Sometimes we think we have to do it all alone. At a time of grief, a compassionate presence can make a world of difference. Nobody can take your suffering off your shoulders, but you don’t have to suffer alone. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr said, “In soul work we don’t dare to get rid of the pain until we learn what it has to teach us.” Transforming grief is soul work, a life-skill that can help us enhance our life, no matter the external conditions. Everything belongs, including death, grief and suffering. Love heals all wounds; and the source is our own broken, vulnerable, empty, open hearts.