Coping with Loss
The impermanence of life is an inescapable fact. Yet while it is one thing to know, in theory, that each moment of your life may be the last, it’s much harder to actually live and act, on a practical level, based on that belief. Most of us tend to imagine that there will always be another chance to meet and talk with our friends or relatives again, so it doesn’t matter if a few things go unsaid.
But whenever I meet someone, I try to extend myself to them to the utmost, for that may be our last encounter. I never leave room for regret, aiming to concentrate my whole being in each moment.
Buddhism identifies the pain of parting from one’s loved ones as one of life’s inevitable sufferings. It is certainly true that we cannot avoid experiencing the sadness of separation in this life.
Shakyamuni, the Buddha who lived in India over 2,000 years ago, lost his mother when he was just one week old. As he grew up, he always wondered, “Why did my mother die? Where did she go? Where can I go to meet her? What is this thing ‘death’ that has robbed me of my mother? What, after all, is life?”
His sorrow at the loss of his mother became a powerful driving force which enabled him to have deep compassion for others and to seek the truth of life.
One day he met a woman whose child had died; she was wandering about in a grief-stricken daze with the tiny body clutched to hers. “Please give me some medicine to save my baby,” she begged Shakyamuni, her eyes red with tears.
He knew the child was past saving, but wanted somehow to encourage her. He told her to fetch some poppy seeds so he could make medicine, but only to collect poppy seeds from families which had never known bereavement.
The woman hurried off into town and called on every household. But although many had poppy seeds, there was not a single house in which there had never been a death. The distraught mother gradually came to realize that every family lived with the sadness of lost loved ones quietly concealed somewhere in their hearts. Through this experience she realized she was not alone in her feelings of grief.
Probably no words can heal the heart of a mother who has lost her child. Someone truly wise, on meeting a woman whose child has died, might simply sit down at her side, and stay there not saying a word. Even if no words are exchanged, the warm reverberations of concern from deep in that person’s life will be felt.
In the Buddhist view, the bonds that link people are not a matter of this lifetime alone. And because those who have died in a sense live on within us, our happiness is naturally shared with those who have passed away. So, the most important thing is for those of us who are alive at this moment to live with hope and strive to become happy.
By becoming happy ourselves, we can send invisible “waves” of happiness to those who have passed away. But if we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by sorrow, the deceased will feel this sorrow too, as we are always together, inseparable.
When I met Sonia Gandhi, widow of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, not long after her husband’s tragic death, I said to her, “The lives of those who have suffered the greatest tragedy shine with the greatest brilliance. Please change your destiny into a source of great value. If you are sad, your husband will grieve with you. And if you stand up with a smile, your husband will be happy too.”
A person who meets with a great tragedy will quite naturally be at a loss as to what to do with their life. I believe one has to decide whether to keep up one’s spirits and go on living with all one’s might or let oneself be broken by disappointment.
There are many examples where people who lost their mother or father early in life have gone on to achieve great things. My friend Oswald Mbuyiseni Mtshali, a famous South African poet, once told me that the first poem he wrote was to his mother. He said, “My mother’s death was a great shock to me, so great that I almost couldn’t recover from it. It took me a long time to get over it. But eventually I noticed something. Whatever strength I had was something my mother had given to me, left to me. My mother’s words were alive in me; my mother lived on inside me. When I recognized that, a poem to my mother welled up spontaneously from the depths of my heart.”
Through struggling to overcome the pain and sadness that accompanies death, we become more aware of the dignity of life and can come to share the sufferings of others as our own.
The Harvard University Library was donated by a woman who lost her son in the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Her son, Harry Elkins Widener, who died at the age of twenty-seven, was a graduate of Harvard who had a passion for reading and had collected many books. In fact, he had just completed a book-buying trip in London when he boarded the Titanic together with his mother and father.
Harry was a loving son to his mother, a gallant and heroic young man. Seeing his mother safely into the lifeboat, he stayed behind with his father on the sinking ship. The collection of over three thousand valuable books that he had already built up was left to Harvard University, but there was nowhere to put them. This prompted his mother to donate huge sums of money so that a library could be constructed. Out of this tragedy came a priceless gift to countless students.
Those who can overcome grief and continue to live with strength and courage deserve respect. I greatly admire someone who can overcome their personal suffering and go on to leave behind something of value for future generations.