Grieving loved ones in Buddhism

Grieving loved ones in Buddhism February 16, 2009

Thinking of the recent loss of my friend Ken, as well as of my paternal grandmother two months ago, my mind returns to a passage in Matthieu Ricard’s book, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.

Matthieu recounts meeting a friend devastated by the loss of his father:

“My father died a few weeks ago. I’m devastated, because his death seems so unfair to me. I can’t understand it and I can’t accept it.”

In response, Matthieu gently recounted the story of a woman, Kisa Gotami, who lived at the time of the Buddha and had tragically lost her only son.

He went on:

I also told him the story of Dza Mura Tulku, a spiritual master who lived in the early twentieth century in eastern Tibet. He had a family, and throughout his life he felt a deep affection for his wife, which she reciprocated. He did nothing without her and always said that if anything should happen to her, he could not long outlive her. And then she died suddenly. The master’s friends and disciples hurried to his side. Recalling what they had heard him say so often, none dared tell him the news. Finally, as tactfully as possible, one disciple told the master that his wife had died.

The tragic reaction they’d feared failed to occur. The master looked at them and said: “Why do you look so upset? How many times have I told you that phenomena and beings are impermanent? Even the Buddha had to leave the world.” No matter how tenderly he’d felt for his wife, and despite the great sadness he most surely felt, allowing himself to be consumed by grief would have added nothing to his love for her. It was more important for him to pray serenely for the deceased and to make her an offering of that serenity….

“The best tribute you can make to me as a mother is to go on and have a good and fulfilling life.” These words were spoken by a mother to her son only moments before her death.



Few of us will react with the Tulku’s equanimity in the face of the loss of a loved one. It is important to accept our attachments; and even our wish that others are attached to us (how many of us could tell a loved one to go on as the mother in the above story?). Our tendency is to cling and want others to cling to us. “Build me a great temple when I die, make images of me, tell my story far and wide,” we may secretly wish. All of this is fine.

But move forward. Our friends and loved ones truly are a gift, and truly are impermanent. Cherish each, old and new. Invite celebration to bring equanimity in times of grief.

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