This pandemic has been the year of grief, loss and letting go. There has been tremendous losses of lives due to COVID-19 and grief for their loved ones. Losses of fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents and aunts. There is also shutting down of academic institutions, with a generation of youth navigating distance learning. Losses of businesses, jobs and homes. Losses of visions, aspirations and dreams. Losses of social interactions in work place, classrooms, and family gatherings. Many families are planning to have Thanksgiving dinner this year through zoom meetings . Pastors are giving powerful sermons, broadcast over internet, in empty churches and temples. Sports and athletic activities are suspended. About half the country lost their vision of political leadership after the elections. Doubt and fear abound about whether life will go back to pre-COVID-19 era.
Bruce et al. (2011) conducted a study by interviewing patients experiencing terminal illness (Longing for ground in a groundless world: A qualitative inquiry of existential suffering). The study’s findings resonate deeply with the experience of loss. They discussed concepts, such as, groundlessness, taking refuge in the habitual by consciously turning away from the groundless experience at times and living in between the space of groundlessness and habitual world experienced by people facing death. They also talked about these ideas being applicable to the loved ones of the dying patient. This post will explore grief, loss and letting go in terms of groundlessness, maintaining ground and letting go through the framework of Bruce et al.’s (2011) model and reflect on the experiences of people who face losses, such as loved ones, homes, businesses and sense of selfhood and losses that have not yet been named in this pandemic.
Grief and Emotional Pain
Grief is possibly the most difficult human condition. Grief is experienced by each person differently. Some people grieve privately, whereas, others grieve publicly. Grief has cultural determinants. For example, in traditional cultural beliefs in India, when a woman looses her husband, she goes into mourning for a life-time where she only wears white sari, no jewelry and eats vegetarian foods. I saw both my paternal and maternal grandmothers demonstrate this after the passing of my grandfathers.
When I lost my beloved mother about 9 years ago, it was deeply painful. The pain was realizing that my ma is not there for me to call, chat, hug, cry and laugh with or chit chat about the day. The excruciating nature of the emotional suffering is part of grieving. I was also struck by the depth of emotional pain in grief by Bishop T.D. Jake’s powerful and brilliant sermon that even Jesus, a Divine being, wept after the loss of His beloved friend, Lazarus. (Bible, John 11:35) .Somewhere in my catholic school classes, I remember one of my teachers stating that “Jesus wept” is the shortest sentence in the Bible. The teacher also shared that this sentence is powerful because it indicated Jesus’s humanity. My teacher talked about the honor of worshipping her Lord Jesus, who despite His Divinity, understood the painful nature of being human.. This is mind boggling that Jesus wept after experiencing loss of Lazarus in His humanity, even though, He , in His Divinity, resurrected Lazarus from life to death. Jesus’s dual nature of Divinity and Humanity made His parables so beautiful, full of wisdom and compassion.
Grief and Groundlessness
Bryce et al. (2011) reported their participants describing experiences of groundlessness as marked by “shaken to the core”, “unhinged” and “emotionally frayed”. Some participants reported that the social sciences do not have words to capture this experience and so they turned to literature, religion and poetry for comfort.
From the perspective of psychology, we, as human beings, work hard to create grounding. Our sensory and perception systems make sense of the environment. Our brains are wired to recognize and record patterns and predict future scenarios based on past patterns. Our biological systems continually maintain homeostasis in the body. We form relationships for support, growth, grounding and create meaning and purpose in life. The experience of grief and loss is devastating because it throws us into groundlessness. In other words, the experience of grief and loss annihilates the very assumptions, balance and order that we created and mapped onto our world. In groundlessness, uncertainty and the unknown abound.
In her book, The Places that Scare You, Pema Chodron , the Buddhist nun discussed the concept of groundlessness. Groundlessness is frightening, unbalancing, full of uncertainty, unknowing and disorientating. She talks about the Buddha creating an experiencing of groundlessness when he pulls the rug under his students, meeting on a mountain retreat. As the students reached a deep state of meditation and wisdom, the Buddha, pulls the rug from under the students and students are plunged into an experience of groundlessness. The Buddha discusses that the ego tends to grasp to an understanding of reality, but, spiritual growth means letting go what we consider our reality.
After my mother’s passing, the spiritual truth that life is impermanent shook me to my core. I realized that things can change in a minute. I realized chasing or grasping for what I lost increased the emotional pain. I had regrets that three months before her death, ma talked about a sense of inner knowing that her time was coming to an end. I remember not taking her comments seriously. I remember being caffeinated and super busy, a Starbucks coffee latte in my left hand every day. One of my regrets is that I did not slow down and spend as much time with her as I should have in those last months.
Grief and Maintaining Ground
The paradox is as we deal with the groundlessness of grief, we need to maintain some ground. Bruce et al. (2011) reported people consciously turning away from the experience of groundlessness for a while and seeking refuge in the habitual world. Grounding in grieving for loved ones looks different for different people. Perhaps, habitual patterns in grounded includes making sure we eat appropriately, hydrate ourselves with fluids, sleep, and seek support from our loved ones and leaning on our faith or Higher Power. Grounding is also paying bills, taking care of children and family, and maintaining job. Grounding means enduring day to day to make it. Grounding may mean seeking professional help if negative feelings are overwhelming.
My biggest grounding during the loss of my mother was leaning on God big time. The essence of God as permanent and grounded is demonstrated by the Bible verse “For I am the LORD, I change not” (Malachi 3:6). I remember surrendering my mother to God where she is taken care of. I also remember the powerful words from the The Bhagavad Gita that human bodies are impermanent but our souls (atman) are indestructible.
I also know that grief and loss may led to anger and questioning of faith in God. Bruce et al. (2011) discuss people questioning their faith and asking God, “Why me” or “What is the justice in this”? This may need to be explored with pastors and clergy men as one walks through the grief process.
The other concept that I learned from grief and loss is from the Bhagavad Gita’s discussion of the duality of the human experience. Seeking ground in a groundless world is an example of duality. The Gita states that what brings us joy also brings us sadness and grief. Our loved ones, work, dreams that bring us bliss and happiness can also bring us grief and sadness when we face loss of these people and things. Therefore the yogic mind (discussed in another post) in the Gita is detached from both happy and sad things.
In one of sessions with a very wise client who was the facing loss of his beloved wife, we were talking about detachment due to his interest in Tibetan Buddhism. He said that this detachment idea sounds good but very boring. We both laughed. He is very right. Achieving or accessing what we are attached to is when we are super blissful. Conversely, the loss of the target of attachment results in despair and suffering. I am no where near the yogic mind of detachment. The attachment to my mother led my deep love for her. Loosing her was one of the most difficult times in my life.
In the Harvard University Press Blog, Sharmila Shen beautifully reflects on Rabindranath Tagore’s poem, “I wont’ Let You go”.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali Nobel Laureate, wrote about the human condition with honesty, tremendous clarity, love and compassion. He wrote about the complexity of darkness, shadows and light in the human experience in simple language. I find myself in tears after reading his poems or watching movies based on his novel and plays. As a Bengali woman, I was introduced to songs of Tagore, by my parents while a child in Asansol, India.
One of Tagore’s gems is his poem “I Won’t Let You Go”. He wrote about the timeless human cry, “I Won’t Let You Go”, especially one’s loved ones. Tagore experienced many losses in his life: his mother passed away when he was 14, in adulthood, he lost his sister-in-law, whom he was close to, his wife, two daughters and a son. Tagore wrote about the agonizing human cry to not let go as primal and perennial. Yet, he concluded that we have to let go. He described his endless love for his daughter and his love refuses to let her go, fighting with all his strength to keep her near. He talked about his sadness, tears, and shattered pride as his love for her is defeated as he had to let her go. He talked about separation in the human condition where a key lesson in humanity is let go. He talked about living in an universe where we need to let go. He was also deeply spiritual and talked about his loved ones existing beyond life and death.
The Buddha stated “In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?”. I love this quote. However, I have no recipe to let go, except it is something we must learn in the human condition. I think about letting go as a practice which we need to cultivate each day. It is also hard as hell. Radical acceptance of reality after loss is key to letting go. This radical acceptance process in unique for each individual. Grief seems to be the pathway to open the door to let go of “what was” in order to meet “what is”. “What is” may not as appealing as “what was”, but it is what we have to live in and work with.
Additionally, the practice of letting go may mean to not be afraid of negative feelings, but, sit with them, find healthy coping tools, support, and find safe places to weep and sob. Remembering the impermanence of feelings and nonjudgmental stance towards feelings is helpful.
I believe that we never get over a grief and loss of a person, but, that we are transformed by the experience. We need to walk through the grief and loss. I worry about people who try to run away from the grief. Getting stuck in grief is painful too. Complicated bereavement requires meeting with mental health professionals to walk through the process.
Not letting go may have severe consequences, such as, fighting the demands of reality. It is like a child screaming at the ocean, “Stop the waves” and “Get rid of the water”.
In 2020, many people are grieving the loss of “what was”. Many people may have accepted “what is”. I believe there is peace in acceptance of “what is”, regardless of how messy it is. With radical acceptance of reality and walking through grief, we find renewed sense of purpose and meaning.
My prayer is God guides us in living in the “in-between space” of groundlessness and maintaining ground as we walk through the grief process and finding new ground of meaning and purpose in letting go of “what was” to “what is”. My experience is my faith helped me tremendously in healing. Yet, a couple of months ago, I was at the temple and one of my ma’s favorite songs started playing in the background. I cried like a five year old girl. Bittersweet tears: sweetness of my memories and sadness that I cannot call her when I get home. Yet, it is what it is.