Grief and loss

Here is a selection of items from my main pages of ideas, stories and questions that relate specifically to issues of grief and loss. I hope some of them are a source of comfort.


We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are

Everything we experience is through our own unique set of filters, from the big things like love and beauty to the more mundane like the quality of a cup of coffee, black or white etc. Some important understanding arises from this :-

Our communications are at best approximate.

Others do not see the world as we do and never will.

Ideas about right and wrong are usually matters of personal judgement.

Disappointment takes adequate planning

When we invest too much of the future with our detailed plans and expectations we reduce the chance of being surprised by joy. When we take things as they come we just have our reactions, good or bad, to the events of the moment, not the burden of our past investment. If you suffer before you need to, you suffer more than you need to.

Freedom is what you do with what has been done to you

Sometimes, often, we can't affect the things that happen but we can have some control over our reactions to them. It's not an easy area, to react positively in a world that is often negative but it's a significant area of personal freedom.

The wake does not drive the boat

If you stand on the top of a cliff and look down at the sea where a fast boat is travelling you can see the wake spreading out behind. If you did not know better you could assume the wake was driving the boat. But you do know better, you know the boat has an engine and a set of controls operated by a driver. The wake is just what the boat leaves behind as it moves forward. (Wayne Dyer)

Substitute your life history for the boat's wake and the metaphor is complete. Our history does not drive our life, it only looks like that sometimes. You are the driver, you have control of the engine, you can choose the speed and direction you take. You can follow a path based on your history or you can choose to do otherwise. Your history is what you leave behind.

Description creates experience

How we describe what happens to us creates some of our experience of it. If we call something terrible we will not feel the same as if we label it as inconvenient, you can make up your own examples. I'm not suggesting you lie to yourself, or to others, but given a choice lighten your description and so lighten your experience.

Change is not painful

It's resistance to change that hurts. Even though you create your experience of the world there are many changes you can't resist, your children will get older (and so will you). When change is inevitable consider it might be easier to ride a horse in the direction in which it is going

Experience is not what happens to you

It's how you react to it.

If it were not so then everyone would experience the same event in the same way and we know that does not happen. So do we have a choice in our reactions to events? All I can say is our lives work better if we act as if we do.

Why be unhappy as well

"So your wife has left you, your business has gone bust and you think your children no longer love you, why be unhappy as well?" (Lionel Fifield)

In addition to making you smile, I hope, this is a reminder that our feelings need not be entirely dictated by our circumstances.

We do have some choice about how we feel and can choose to emphasise the feelings that work best for us.

Keeping a journal

This is one of the most powerful methods of personal exploration I know, not writing a diary of events but a journal of thoughts and feelings. If you can spend no more than 15 mins a day just writing you will soon become amazed by where your journal is taking you.

We create our own experience, sometimes

Try telling a naked man at -20C in a piercing wind that we create our own experience, he might not agree with you.

But you could tell yourself this when you get upset over something someone has said to you, over a forgotten anniversary, over a promotion you did not get, over holiday plans that go wrong, over a scratch down your car, over a rainy day...etc...etc

The difference between purpose and learning

I'm not sure about the belief that there is a purpose in everything that happens to us. Some events are so devastating that to suggest they have purpose can seem cruel. However I am clear we can learn from everything that happens, no matter how catastrophic the event. It does not mean it has to be part of a larger plan just that even the bad times can teach us something.

"There is a crack in everything"

This is a quote from a Leonard Cohen song "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in".

Leonard Cohen is a poet and so what he writes is open to a number of interpretations. But to me this quote is about how we deal with problems and difficulties of life. I don't hold the belief that everything has a purpose, that everything has a meaning, I just don't see life that way.

What I do believe is that all events, good or bad, have potential for growth and learning. I do believe that when things get broken, our relationships, our jobs, our health, along with the loss and sadness is the possibility of fresh light into the very core of our being.

The Sunday Tube Train

I was taking the tube one Sunday morning and reading my newspaper. At the first stop three young children and their father joined our carriage but the children were so badly behaved I found it impossible to read or enjoy the journey.

A little cross I asked their father if he could control his children better. He replied "Oh, I am sorry you were disturbed, you see we have come from the hospital where their mother, my wife has just died" (Stephen Covey)

Covey writes about his immediate mood change, from irritation to "How can I help?"

We never know the stories of others, why they act the way they do but we could try assuming people have a reason which, if we knew it, would change our reactions to them from negative to positive.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" (Plato)

Sharpening the Saw

A workman is trying hard to cut a large log in two with a saw that a passer by notices is obviously blunt. "Why not stop for a while and sharpen your saw?" she suggests. "I don't have time, I have to get this finished as soon as possible." is the reply.

How many of our tasks in life would be completed more quickly and perhaps with less effort if we started in a good state, a positive frame of mind? But this can take time to achieve and sometimes we just have to plough ahead and get things done because of time pressures. 

However more often than we think we can take the time to care for ourselves first, to spend more time in planning a task so we need to spend less on its execution. 

The Farmer and the Horse

A farmer has a horse which is admired by all. One day it escapes and her friends express their sorrow.  "Things happen." is the reply and within a few days the horse returns leading more horses, the friends express their pleasure "Things happen." says the farmer and a few days later her son breaks his leg trying to tame one of the new horses.

Again "Things happen." and a few days after that when the recruiting army comes to the village her son is spared enlistment because of the injury...and so it goes on.

We may never know the true meaning of an event, good or bad, until long after it has happened. Looking back some of our greatest problems have given us our best learning and what we thought was good news may have turned out to have been a mixed blessing. "And this too shall pass"

Living in the present

A man is captured by enemies and thrown into prison. That night he is unable to sleep because he fears that the next day he will be interrogated, tortured, and executed. Then the words of his teacher come to him, "Tomorrow is not real. It is an illusion. The only reality is now." Heeding these words he becomes peaceful and falls asleep.

My first reaction, nice idea, completely impractical. But then I start to think about the small steps I can make to living in the here and now rather than agonising over the past or worrying about the future. I don't think I will ever get to the position of the person in the story but I can do better than I am doing.

The travelling monks

Two travelling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up, carried her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.

As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out.

"Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!"

"Brother," the second monk replied, "I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her."

You probably know this story, its a very old one and much told. The trouble with familiar things is that we react to the familiarity and tend to miss the learning. If we could stop holding on to negative thoughts and feelings we could transform our lives and perhaps the world.

The Pursuit of Happiness

When the English comedienne, Joyce Grenfell first went to the USA she was asked by reporters what she thought about the ideals of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. She replied, "I'm not so interested in the pursuit of happiness as in the discovery of joy"

What a great distinction. Happiness often seems to be something we have to work hard to achieve. The discovery of joy suggests something that is already there, we only have to notice it.

The Cellar door

A child is told to keep clear of the cellar door and above all never to open it because what is behind is frightening and dangerous. When she is a bit older and her parents are elsewhere she decides to open the door and look for herself. She is scared but determined to be brave and as the door opens she fields, other children playing and the sun shining. (Based on an Emo Phillips joke)

We all spend some time trapped in cellars which others have made for us or sometimes in dark places of our own making. Try opening the door, peep in, look inside. Perhaps your courage will be rewarded and what is on the other side will turn out to be less a fright and more a delight.

The mustard seed

A woman comes to the Buddha pleading with him to revive her dead child. "If you bring me a mustard seed from any household which has not known death your child will live again" he promises. She searches for days but to no avail and on her return says "I understand now. Death visits every household and eventually each of us."

It's a story of both sadness and reality and as we read it we should realise that if we don't have a good reason for grieving we should be rejoicing.

The old coin

An unemployed father of four walks towards his nearest town in search of paid work, as he has done every day for the past few months. Bills are piling up and his wife is getting depressed. His toes kicked something and bending down he picked up an old coin.

Arriving at the town he took it to a coin collector who paid him £30 for his find. Passing a hardware store he saw some wood and decided he would build his wife the shelves she had been asking for. On the journey home he was stopped by a furniture maker who offered him £100 for the wood and also a new cupboard for his kitchen. Carrying the cupboard home he passed a house which was being upgraded and the owner offered him £150 for the cupboard which he accepted.

Pleased with his fortune he stood at the gate of his house counting the cash when a man with a knife accosted him, took the cash and ran off. Seeing the attack from the kitchen window his wife rushed out, "Are you all right?" she cried. "What did he take?".

The man shrugged his shoulders and said "Oh it was just some battered old coin I stumbled across this morning" 

Sometimes it pays to create the best possible explanation for things over which we have no control.

The two wolves

After the 9/11 attack a man was heard to say to his son "I feel like I have two wolves fighting inside me, one is angry and full of vengance while the other is still determined to be gentle and loving." "Which one will win?" asked the son, "Whichever one I choose to feed" replied his father.

Feelings, good or bad, don't survive without care and attention and it's our choice as to which ones we feed when we feel a conflict within us. In the end the negative feelings tend to feed on us but the positive feelings tend to feed us.

I'm not a carer

The elderly Jewish taxi driver is seeing a therapist to help ease the pressure of looking after his ill wife. His story unfolds and he talks about his alcoholic mother and how he needed to protect his younger brother from her rages. When he got married he and his wife had a severely disabled child who he has looked after. Now his wife has Alzheimer's.

The therapist says, "When you think about it you've been a carer all you life". The taxi driver replies "Carer is a modern word, what I've been is a son, a brother, a father and a husband".

I find this a very moving statement, it expresses a dignity and set of values that in our "blame and claim" society we might be in danger of losing. Some pain can be eased, some has to be born as best we can.

How can I learn from or enjoy this?

Our experience of a situation, however difficult, is largely determined by our perception and is therefore something over which we have a degree of control.

This is a question which challenges us to find the best in everything and everybody. It can lead to quite unexpected answers.

How could I see this differently?

Perspective changes experience! Problems viewed when we have slept well can feel very different from when we are tired. We have choice over how we see things and it pays to look at situations from a number of different perspectives, even if, at first, we have to play 'make believe.'

Could I look forward to looking back on all this?

This is one for the problem times in life, when we feel the world is closing in and the future looks bleak. The truth is most things pass, most things look and feel different over time. Look back on a problem that filled your life some time ago and see where you are in relation to it now, it may give a different perspective to your current situation.

So if you believe things may well be better in the future, why wait? Look forward to looking back.

Who could help me with this? (1)

So often people are reluctant to ask others for help, they use phrases like; "I don't want to take up their time" or "They already have enough to do".

The same people, if asked to help someone else use phrases such as; "I'm so pleased they asked" or "Glad I could be of assistance"

Why not treat yourself as well as you would treat others?

Who could help me with this? (2)

A fun idea. If you could summon up anyone, living or dead, real or fictional, to help you, who would it be and what help would they offer? Note what insights arise, recognise these are really your ideas and see what these new ideas might lead to.

What do you say to yourself?

Everyone talks to themselves, if we do it out loud and in company we get strange looks but in the quiet of our mind no one knows what we say. 
What sort of things do you say to yourself, critical or encouraging? What voice tone do you use, soft or harsh?

Now how do you talk to children, possibly your own?

If the way you talk to yourself is harder and more critical than the way you talk to children then you need to change your habits because inside each one of us is a child, often a frightened one, that hears our own voice more than any other.

Does this problem need to be solved?

There are some problems in life you just have to take action on, things you can't live with or things that will get worse if you leave them.

There are also times when solutions take more time and energy than accepting and living with the problem. The world is never going to be perfect.

It's good to make a distinction so we can get on and enjoy the experience of being alive.

What gets remembered?

In the long term few people are going to remember what you did, even less people will remember what you said. Everyone will remember how you made them feel.

So in a world of plans and objectives, in a world of financial and business achievements, in a world of competitive education, in whatever world you inhabit, just notice first how people feel when they are with you, that's your real legacy.

What is courage?

Many 'people of courage' say the same thing, it's not the heroic act, the risk of life in an emergency, that defines true courage, although lets not discount that. True courage involves the day to day facing of difficult problems and still getting on with life despite often feeling despairing. So each time you keep going despite your feelings you belong to the ranks of the true heroes.

"Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear." (Ambrose Redmoon)

What is the smallest step you can take now?

We all like to take big steps, move fast towards where we want to be, it's exhilarating and exciting. However sometimes the way we feel will not support any major advancement but that does not mean we cannot make any progress. Perhaps the smallest action is all you can manage today but it's still worth doing.

A 15 minute walk or a good stretch to further a fitness goal.

Not buying something you can do without to support a financial goal.

An offer to help despite not feeling like it so realise a relationship goal.

Leaving something on a plate to move towards a weight goal.

Burning Communications

While it's true that honesty is important in a relationship it's also true there are some things best not said. When your strong feelings are about your own issues, when sharing them with someone close to you is equivalent to dumping on them then it's best to be silent.

But you are still left with the feelings.
Here's a technique that can work for times like this..

Write your feelings on a piece of paper, it's best to write rather than type but, of course that's up to you. In a ceremony at your own creation set fire to what you have written and while you watch the paper burn let your feelings be released and rise with the smoke. You may need to do this more than once. The technique improved with practice. It can also be used for:-

1. Letting go feelings towards people who are no longer around.

2. Letting go of past damaging experiences that are holding you back.

3. Letting go of your failures, your disappointments, your setbacks

A news fast

News broadcasters and writers have an important job in our society, they stand in our place to try and find out what is going on and inform us about it. They are also ambitious people working for commercial organisations and there is no doubt the "Bad news sells"

It's very easy for us to forget that all news media has a prejudice, it's all biased towards ratings, something the media itself rarely talks about.

Now if you are feeling good about yourself and about the world around you, if you are in a positive frame of mind there is no problem with keeping up to date occasionally via mainly negative reporting.

But if you don't feel emotionally strong, if life has dealt you a few blows I suggest one thing you can do to aid your recovery and that is to go on a news fast. You knowing about the worlds problems at a time when you are trying to deal with your own isn't going to help you, or the world. So, take a break, switch off when the news comes on, you owe it to yourself.

© 2019 David Mills