“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” Hafiz
One of the hardest parts of grief is to feel alone. It never feels like anyone else truly understands because each experience of grief is personal and unique. Being alone in grief is also bad for your health. Heart attacks, for example, rise 250% following the death of a spouse, compared with non-widowed people of the same age.
Connecting with people who share similar experiences can be transformative. The first truth of grief is to be fully present to the pain. The second is that you are not alone.
There is a famous Buddhist story about a woman who lived around the time of the Buddha. When her young son died suddenly, she was paralyzed by grief. She carried her dead son in her arms and went door to door to see if anyone could perform a miracle and bring her son back to life. Finally she went to the Buddha and begged for his help.
The Buddha agreed to bring her baby back to life, on one condition: ‘You must bring me a mustard seed from a house in which there has been no death.’ And so the woman went from door to door with her dead son asking for a mustard seed. Many of them were willing to give her a mustard seed, until she asked them if anyone in the family had died. In every case, someone had died. After several hours of going house to house and connecting with families who had experienced grief, some incredible healing took place. The woman no longer felt so alone. It helped her to begin to come to terms with her own loss. She was able to let her son go, she didn’t feel so alone, and it transformed her whole experience of life.
The experience of grief connects you with all other people, because we have all experienced grief. Sometimes you find these connections without looking for them, like the woman in the story. Sometimes you decide to step outside of your own circumstances to find a new connection. As Winnie the Pooh wisely said,
You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes…
When you feel able and ready, it may be time to step out find some people you connect with. Find people who will truly listen to you and help you to listen to your own pain. This deep listening creates incredible human connection. Because we all tend to be busy avoiding truly feeling, it’s sometimes hard to listen to each other.
Pooh also said this about listening,
If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear…
That’s a generous perspective on our tendency not to listen. Be patient, with yourself and others. We all have our defense mechanisms. Do what you can, be as present for others as you can and be patient with others as they learn how best to support you.
Supporting Others In Grief
One of the saddest funerals I ever led was for a woman in Sydney. The only person who attended the funeral, alongside myself and the funeral directors, was the woman’s sister. She was a tiny frail woman. It seemed like she would blow away if the wind picked up. The two sisters had lived together, alone, for years with no other family. I was overwhelmed with compassion for this woman. It struck me that she only had a few years left in this world, and that one day I would be taking her funeral and there would likely not be a single person present. That’s exactly what happened about 2 years later.
At her sister’s funeral I decided to adopt this woman. I decided that as far as I could control it, she would know that she was not alone. As far as I could tell, I was the only person who knew or cared about this woman in the final years of her life. Imagine if we acted towards everyone we met as if we were the only person who knew or cared about them. When someone is testing your patience, remember that they have their pain and grief just like you, and you might be the only person who can care for them. Grief has an incredible way of crossing boundaries, bridging divisions, inspiring compassion and bringing us together.
As Plato said, “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Lastly, there is a big difference between being alone and being lonely. It’s possible to be lonely in a room full of people and its possible to be completely content when you are on your own. It’s a personal matter. There is a massive difference between solitude and isolation. Solitude is a choice. Isolation is a burden. The more you come to appreciate your own character and strength, a strength sharpened by grief, the more you will appreciate your own company. You will be spending a lot of quality time with your biggest supporter. Spending time with other people will then become an enjoyable bonus rather than a desperate need.
As the poet Rilke said,
Your solitude will be a support
and a home for you,
even in the midst of very
and from it you will find all your paths.
Grief is healed somewhere in the space between solitude and connection. In finding this balance, you will discover the meaning of Rilke’s definition of love- “Two solitudes that meet, protect and greet each other.”