Grief as a meditation on impermanence

Amanda O’Bryan, PhD
Apr 22 · 4 min read
Photo by Mario Azzi on Unsplash

If we are not empty, we become a block of matter.
We cannot breathe, we cannot think.
To be empty means to be alive, to breathe in and to breathe out.
We cannot be alive if we are not empty.
Emptiness is impermanence, it is change.
We should not complain about impermanence,
because without impermanence, nothing is possible.

-Thich Nhat Hanh

When we experience any true loss, it can give us a sense of groundlessness. We long for a return to the feeling of ground under our feet, and feeling like we have a sense of control. But ultimately, it is the clinging to this idea of control that causes suffering. Can we release hope, and the illusion of control without falling into despair? That is the question.

Grief is a complex set of emotions. It is a state. And it’s different depending on the person and the situation. We may feel helpless, confused and frustrated. We may feel angry because anger is how we feel when something unfair happens to us. We may feel guilt, guilt because we feel relief or guilt for ever feeling happy. The emotional make-up changes, but the state is grief.

The only real truth is change. Impermanence. Nothing is permanent and nothing stays the same. We know this, but we don’t know it. We cling to our hope that things will stay the same. We cling to our belief that we can control our lives. We do this, and sometimes it causes suffering.

How we work through the discomfort and suffering that impermanence brings to us is through acceptance. According to a theory that outlines the five stages of grief, the final stage is acceptance. That is the practice of mindfulness, each and every time we practice, we are practicing acceptance. Every time we sit down to meditate, and we feel unpleasant, pleasant or neutral feelings, emotions, or thoughts, we practice acceptance. We appreciate that they are here now, that they will be gone soon. Each breath is a new dawn. If we resist, if we fight against, cling to, or allow ourselves to hope it will stay the same, we will suffer. In order for suffering to cease, we have to accept that nothing is permanent.

Each breath is a new dawn.

When our heart breaks, impermanence is what breaks it. But it is impermanence that mends our heart. We cycle through a broken and unbroken heart our entire lives. This is living, this is good. As we are able to accept our grief, we find that our suffering is not permanent.

But what if we are clinging to suffering? We may want the pain and suffering to end, but we may also fear the end because we don’t want to “move on.” Maybe we are afraid we will forget our loved one. Maybe we have already begun to forget things. This is the nature of change. Our memories change. Our feelings change. To remain locked in a box of our own fear, this is true suffering. To see the cycles of birth, death and rebirth as natural and correct, this can free us from the jail of our own suffering.

Surrender. In order to feel acceptance we must surrender. And surrender and surrender again. We have to keep coming up against the pain and allow it to wash over us, feel into it. Accept it. In acceptance we know that our pain is very real, but it is also temporary. We know that we feel pain because of the temporary nature of things, and we know that clinging to the hope that things are not temporary is causing our pain. But we also know that in understanding the temporary nature of things, that our pain is also temporary.

Surrendering to hopelessness is not the same as despair, which has that feeling of anger and unfairness. But recognizing that control is merely an illusion can be a relief. Surrender feels like a loosening of our grip, like an exhale. One of the reasons that we fear surrender is because in overwhelm we fear we will never come back. But in taking solace in impermanence we can see that the sorrow and grief will pass too. Life is painful but our resistance to pain is worse. Living a life where all feelings are welcome, where we can surf the waves of emotion, and even sometimes allow ourselves to get pulled under, this is a life lived fully. Our hearts may break, but they will also break open, allowing more pain allows more love.

Embracing the mess that is my inner world. Meditation Teacher, Psychologist, spiritual life coach amandaobryanwellness.com

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade