“When you are about to die, you may not be very aware of your body. You may experience some numbness, and yet you are caught in the idea that this body is you. You are caught in the notion that the disintegration of this body is your own disintegration. That is why you are fearful. You are afraid you are becoming nothing. The disintegration of the body cannot affect the dying person’s true nature. You have to explain to him that he is life without limit. This body is just a manifestation, like a cloud. When a cloud is no longer a cloud, it is not lost. It has not become nothing; it has transformed; it has become rain. Therefore, we should not identify our self with our body.”
— No Death, No Fear, Thich Nhat Hanh
I once heard about a young Irish mother who lost three children and a husband to influenza, all in the space of a month. The month was October, and when the last knot was tied on the last shroud, her tongue was tied with it, and she didn’t speak or leave the house all winter. Come spring, the town’s fiddler came to camp out under her window. He propped up a lean-to against the side of her house, filled it with a sheepskin bedroll and woolen blankets, and began to fiddle. He had played at her wedding, and he played those songs again. He knew her children’s cradle songs, and he played each one. He played sea shanties from the town where her father’s people lived, and tavern tunes he’d belted out over ale with her husband. He played shire songs from her mother’s country, ancient songs originally gifted to the people by faeries. Slowly, inside the house, she began to stir, then move, then cry, then scream, then … she began to talk. The fiddler untied her grief-stricken tongue with music: an invisible cure for an invisible problem.
Definitions of grief range from “the simple and short (yet profound) to the highly complex and sophisticated.” Grief is both a process and an outcome, and when deep enough, it can be a teacher and a life path. It’s understood to be a universal experience, but it’s not included in the standard seven universal emotions (anger, contempt, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise) because grief can contain all of these. It is not a single emotion, rather it is clusters and layers of emotions, some or all of which are moving and changing. It has a range of intensity and is felt in the body, mind, spirit, and soul, which accounts for its potentially overwhelming nature.
Grief, mourning, and bereavement are three common words used to describe aspects of loss. Grief refers to the emotions we experience around a loss. Bereavement is the state of having suffered a loss: “They are currently bereaved of their great uncle.” Mourning is the external expression of an internal experience. Mourning is the public face of grief; it abides by protocols embedded in our cultural customs, languages and religions. We all feel similar, universal feelings when we grieve, but each society has its own rules about how to show it.
Catastrophic loss can usher us into major grief, but more subtle losses like selling a beloved old vehicle can also be cause for mourning. It’s arguably important for our emotional hygiene to acknowledge the whole spectrum of loss. The Japanese Buddhist mizuko kuyo ceremony for infant and fetal deaths has been adapted to accommodate less serious losses: mizuko kuyo has been done for worn-out pairs of trusty eyeglasses, ancestral fishing nets, and the Schick Razor Company of Japan hosts a yearly mizuko kuyo in honor of its used and discarded razors. Even mundane stuff like ripping a favorite jacket, losing a set of keys or failing to pay a bill on time can cause a flash of melancholia. Grief can come to stay for a lifetime, or it can breeze in and wisp out, like an interesting (or tedious) short-term guest.
Grief is something we all feel, yet it’s still unpredictable and mysterious. It has to run its natural course; nobody can tell grief what to do, when to arrive or when to leave. It has a life of its own. Like parenting, it doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and we have to figure it out by living with it and listening to it.
Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hahn spoke on how bereavement can teach us about impermanence, transformation, life cycles, and being happy with what we have right now, instead of what we wish we had or think we should have. In the realm of psychotherapy, Freud’s “work of mourning” has become “grief work.” As William Worden puts it, “… time heals is only a partial truth. Healing comes from what the grieving person does with the time.” A focus on active grieving allows for the empowering lessons of grief to emerge. Grief becomes not only something that happens to us, but also something we can work to learn and grow from.
The ongoing loss of human lives and communal interaction due to Covid has laid a veil of grief – sometimes a gossamer shimmer, sometimes an unbearably heavy pall — over the global population. Our instincts are to gather together, hug, and touch in order to regulate our collective grief – but we can’t. On top of that absurd reversal of instincts, mainstream Western culture was not adept at managing grief before Covid – and we are now inundated with images of illness and death, which clash with the youth, beauty, and perfection that has become idealized in our modern society. All of this has put us in a collective pickle. Just as we need to boost physical immunity, we also need to remember – or learn – the value of grief, and how to grieve. Our global health depends on it. Maybe the town fiddler can help.