Open Heart Extra - On Death, Dying, Illness and Grief – Part 1


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Question: I’ve had a lot of loss in my life and my husband has lung cancer and I’m facing more loss in my future. And I would like to know how I can use the grief that I feel to come to a deeper place of truth. And also when I notice myself in this kind of spiral of feeling my own pain and suffering and then other’s pain and the pain of the world, do I just stop and focus on my breath, or is that trying to escape feeling that?

Ram Dass: I know from our conversations, you have really indeed had loss after loss after loss. And now to be faced with your second husband having bone cancer, it’s like the life of Job. I mean you’re just faced with such a continuing barrage of suffering. And each time we form an attachment to another human being it is of course inevitable, sooner or later, that one of you is going to die. So that in a way in the nature of attachment to human beings there is loss built in. And that’s part of what makes it precious and frightening at the same moment. It’s what actually intensifies the attachment. The attachment has in it the recognition at some level of the changing nature of phenomena -that everything is changing all the time. And it’s uncertain.

So actually there is that thing that many of us have felt. The fear of loving too much. The fear and the pain of loving when you know there will be loss.  And when there is loss, there is of course deep grief. And the way we deal with grief has a lot to do with whether or not the grief heals and strengthens us or ends up depriving and starving us. And we have learned a lot of things about grief over the years. We have learned that that strong ‘grin and bear it’ ‘stiff upper lip’ response to grief, which involves denial, is not an optimum strategy for dealing with the mourning period. And my own reaction to people that are grieving is to really give them a lot of support in grieving. And letting the process run its course. And that means just not the grief of the loss of a person, but the grief of the loss of any dream in life. Of any thing that you have invested in where it is lost. There is a reaction to a loss that is a grieving process. And if you don’t deal with the grieving in a way that is true to your being – it’s just as untrue to grieve when you’re not feeling it as to not grieve when you’re feeling it. And you can’t really demand any person be on schedule. You have to ask them to be true to their own heart.  To say to somebody “You haven’t grieved enough” because they said I’m not feeling anything isn’t really necessarily tuning appropriately to another person. But when they don’t grieve in harmony with their deepest truth, they end up veiled from their hearts and they end up with increasing cynicism about life and increasing fear also. Fear of future involvement; fear of any risk.

So how you go through these processes as you’re asking is really very critical to your own evolution. And again from a spiritual perspective all of these things, including your husband’s bone cancer, from your spiritual – from your soul’s point of view – are offerings being made to you to give you the stuff through which you can grow clearer and stronger and emptier and more available.  With your heart more open if you approach it with a certain strategy. And part of that is the way in which you deal with suffering in general. Just the way in which you, we talked some about this already, develop the ability to live two levels simultaneously. One of them where you look at the universe of suffering. You recall the story of the Buddha where a woman came to the Buddha with her dead baby and asked the Buddha to bring the baby back to life. And the Buddha said, “Well, in order for me to do that, if you will go to a nearby home and find a mustard seed that comes from a house where death has not visited, I will help you.” And she went and she couldn’t find a house, because they would say “My father died” “my mother” “my child died”… And finally she came back recognizing the reality of the nature of death. And she was released from that kind of predicament that ‘only my child has died.’ She became aware of context in which life and death exist.

So developing a contextual appreciation of suffering – that suffering is part of the fabric of a human incarnation, as is death.  And not feeling that death is the enemy, but that death is part of a process. Just like Autumn and Winter aren’t enemies of Spring and Summer. They are just continuing parts of the process.  Now part of that is aided a lot by understandings and deepening faith in the fact that there is soul or there is spiritual contact in which physical existence dwells.   And as you develop that spiritual context and appreciate that suffering from within that context is the stuff of growth, then under those conditions you are much more capable of handling thephysical conditions even though your heart is breaking as I said the other day. And it is breaking and it will break and you will feel depressions and you will feel like crying and you have to be honoring that psychological process that is going on. At the same moment you keep cultivating the other part of you. And instead of judging God, “Why have you done this?”  says “Let me understand. Give me the wisdom to understand and to grow strong through this. And to appreciate the way in which all things are changing constantly and all of life is an inter-connected circle from birth to death.”


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