Dealing With Bereavement, Grief & Loss

When we encounter some sort of life tragedy,  there is an understandable human tendency to shut down. We experience mourning, bereavement, depression, intense sadness.  It might be the loss of a loved one or of something we valued such as a job or a home. It might even be some sort of physical handicap such as the amputation of a limb.

Such feelings are normal and part of the human condition. Indeed, even animals are known to grieve the loss of loved ones, or go through huge emotional changes when subject to massive upheaval of environment. Hence, there is nothing abnormal about feeling deep emotions of loss or regret.

However, it is very important not to remain in that place indefinitely. Eventually, normal life must resume and the sooner it does so, the better. If we dwell too long upon our loss, or upon negativity in general, we run the risk of making that place our permanent home. In other words, if we fixate for too long upon certain emotions and ways of thinking, they become our natural way of thinking about life. That can be good if they are positive emotions, but absolutely harmful if they are negative ones.

Some experts state that it takes months or more to recover from bereavement. However, that is really just a belief, based on the statistics of how most people actually do choose to behave when faced with this situation. However, it really is just that – a choice. The fact that most people choose to respond in that way does not make it a law of Nature: it is just the retrospective statistics about how most people behave. Hence, you do not need to use that sort of research as further evidence to maintain your negative emotional state. You are not a statistic and you do not have to correspond to how “the majority” are behaving.

I think that for many people, they stay in grief for a very long time almost as a sort of proof of how much they loved the departed person (or situation or whatever). It’s as if to say, if they recovered completely within 24 hours or something, it would mean that they didn’t really love the person very much at all. However, that is not true. The length of time we spend in this depressed unresourceful state does not correlate at all to how much we loved the departed person. One could argue that the best thing we could possibly do to show our love for that person would be to live to our fullest and best, in just the way that he/she would have wanted us to do.

Tony Robbins teaches that to create and maintain an emotional state, we have to think and do certain specific things. To be either happy or sad, we have to do certain specific things with our bodies, breathe in a certain way, and think/dwell upon certain specific thoughts. Hence, to be depressed and sad, we have to slump our bodies, look at the ground, breathe shallowly, sigh a lot, and think about sad and depressing things. These are things we DO and they help to create and maintain the emotional state of misery.

However, we can change our emotional state in an instant by reversing all of those things. If we look upward, smile, breathe deeply, think about happy things/times and the people who love us, we can go from sad to happy almost immediately. This is a fact – the body can lead the mind, and you can change your emotional state NOW by changing (1) your physiology, i.e. how you hold your body, and (2) what you focus your mind upon.

So why don’t people do that? Because they don’t want to. The state we are in tends to perpetuate its own existence. Someone who is sad and depressed (and bereaved) does not want to change from that state, and therefore lacks the will and motivation to do so. They actually want to be sad and lifeless. I know the feeling: I have been there myself.

The only reason it takes so long to change is because, rather than consciously taking control of the process, it is left to time and nature and other people to bring us around. The grieving person’s natural tendency is to stay in that miserable state, but eventually life, obligations,  necessities and events intervene to gradually distract us out of the unhappiness we are stuck in. That is how people eventually recover, i.e. in a more or less random uncontrolled fashion.

However, you can make that happen for you much faster, IF you want to. I would suggest that you think of your loved ones and how much they need you at your best. Give love to them and smiles and think of the best times in your life. Consciously control, to the best of your ability, how you hold your body, how you breathe, and what you are thinking about. Yes, it is not easy because a depressed unhappy state tends to perpetuate itself, and leads to lack of energy or motivation. However, remember that a happy joyful state can perpetuate itself in much the same way if it becomes your habitual place of operation.

Also, remember that you need to be at your BEST to be in a position to handle your challenges in life, be they financial, work, relationships or whatever. You owe it to those around you to be at your best. You also owe it to the person you have lost, if you are suffering a bereavement, because that person would surely want you to be that way? Would he or she want you to live like a destroyed person, for their sake? Truly?…

When we are bereaved about a loss, it is primarily because of what that situation means to us. In other words, we suffer and grieve ultimately for ourselves and our loss. We primarily grieve and suffer because we loved that person (or situation) and now that person is gone and we fear we will never see him/her again. It is not really for the other person that we grieve therefore, but rather for ourselves and our beliefs about  the other person’s new state of being (e.g. as perhaps non-existent?). Perhaps we also blame ourselves or feel guilt that things should have been some other way or that we should have done better in retrospect.

However, what if we change our beliefs? What if the departed person really is in a better place, or undergoing the next stage of spiritual evolution? What if our belief that we will never meet again was not true?  The Irish have what they call “wakes” for the recently diceased, where they actually throw a party and celebrate the person’s departure. This is a major difference in meaning about what it means to die, compared to what the rest of the world believe.

If we change any of these beliefs, then perhaps we have no further need to grieve. For example, if I don’t see my father for three months but KNOW that he is just fine in another country, I might miss him but I would not grieve for him. Grief and bereavement only set in when I adopt a certain set of negative beliefs about the situation. However, they are precisely that – beliefs. They may not be true and you have literally no evidence that they ARE true.

You must also stand guard to maintain your own mental and physical health in these situations, and also when you are caring for the sick and elderly. The spiritual teacher John-Roger has, as one of his three ground rules for living, “Take care of myself first so as to take care of others.” You can only be at your best to take care of others provided that you are taking enough care of yourself, and this applies especially after situations of loss or bereavement. If you perpetuate a negative state of mind out to the universe, then by the Law of Attraction, you will tend to attract more things to be worried and negative about! Hence, you do yourself and others no good by staying in this condition.

When the Buddha was dying, his chief disciple Ananda was beside himself with grief, crying and wailing. The Buddha actually scolded Ananda, saying in effect “Why all this crying and wailing? Is it not at the very heart of my teaching for of all these years that all conditioned things are impermanent, that everything is subject to change and ultimate decay? If so, then what are you crying about?”

We need to realize and accept then that death and change are inevitabilities that happen to us all. How we view them and react to them are CHOICES we make. We can choose at any moment to feel sad, depressed and overwhelmed (yes, even now). Likewise, we can choose at any moment to feel happy, joyful and uplifted; helping and healing the world with our efforts. It comes down to the choice of what we put our mental attention upon and how we handle our physiology.

That choice is always yours.

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Copyright 2010. Asoka Selvarajah. All Rights Reserved.

About Asoka Selvarajah

Dr. Asoka Selvarajah is a writer and teacher of personal growth and spirituality, and the author of numerous books and courses. His work helps people achieve their full potential, deepen their understanding of mystical truth, and discover their soul’s purpose. Subscribe to the Aspire To Wisdom list to receive more articles and resources to your inbox.

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  1. We always have a choice. I try not to LABEL anything as good or bad, it is just another learning experience, given as a gift to me.
    Namaste my friend. Thank you for writing!

  2. Thanks for another wonderful article! 🙂

    In my own personal experience and understanding, I think there are different levels of grief, due to the ways we choose to face and deal with it. The normal reaction will be to move away from the pain by trying to deny it – or the other extreme is to simply let it overwhelm us.

    To pretend that grief is an unnecessary emotion and to force ourselves to be celebratory joyful in spite of it, is a form of self denial. I know that is not what was inferred to in this article, but I’m just thinking that some can draw that inference like I once did. I read so many spiritual/self healing books that taught that emotions are not real, that we need just be in the moment and all fears and feelings will disappear and that one would experience Bliss/Nirvana. Although I do understand the concept of meditation, it’s an impossibility to live & function in a meditative state in a real dog eat dog world – and the real feelings and underlying thoughts will re-emerge after the meditation or other medication!

    So what worked for me was to understand the truth of what I was feeling. I experienced it as DISCOMFORT, as PAIN, yet it was realy just natural but discomforting GRIEF. I knew I was grieving but did not really know what grieving truly entailed. It’s really about our loving attachments to people and to pets and things and even though people, pets and things can and do be replaced, it doesn’t mean they were not special and worthy of our love and our grief at it’s loss.

    Once we know what it’s about, then we really get a kind of a closure on that and hold a special place for that person or pet, or thing and move towards other wonderful experiencings with other relationships and objects.

    But grief is natural and it’s good – it reminds us to be grateful and appreciative for what we do have today in our experience. Without grief we’d never know the value of friendships, partnerships, relationships with people, pets, objects, nature. We simply need to learn to accept loss as we will readily accept gain! It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn, it just means we can (and should mourn) and do whatever we need to do, to recreate a newer and grander experience for ourselves in spite of such loss.


  3. Thanks to both of you for the comments so far.

    Yes, I think the point that Keith makes in the last reply is an important one, about this not being some sort of “let’s pretend” everything is fine and happy, when it isn’t. That was a concern I had that people might take away from this article and so I am happy to have the chance to clarify that somewhat. That is definitely not what this is about.

    The point I make is that while grief and mourning are natural and to be expected for the most part, they are not places to get stuck in indefinitely. We eventually have to find a way back to a normal mode of functioning, and not let an unhappy mental framework become our normal mode of functioning.

    Yes, attachment is at the root of grief, and feelings of loss and bereavement. This is why Buddhism teaches desire and attachment as being the ultimate root of ALL suffering, which is why they must be eradicated according to this spiritual tradition. No easy at all in practice, but definitely something to aspire towards, particularly when life is running fairly normally.

    I think it also helps to find empowering meanings for the life (or situation) that has passed, i.e. life lessons that help to view the passing in a better light.


  4. In many mystic circles it is understood that to weep and grieve continously for a loved one or an object of affection holds their spirit to earths plane. That is why in many european cultures ,east indian and afrikan cultures they make a joyous occasion of the transition from this life to a better life in the next world for their loved one soul. Hanging on to material loss will only block one from obtaining something better.
    Peace and Light Nur’Lola

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