Grief and Non-Attachment
December 4, 2021
Reflections on Grief
Turning the Corner on Grief Street
by Terri Daniel
This is a good place to explore how it’s possible to experience a traumatic loss and emerge whole and healthy rather than bitter and broken. Let’s start by examining the difference between non-attachment and detachment:
Indifferent, apathetic and/or uninterested. A person who is truly detached has no interest in the subject matter or the outcome of the situation, and there is no emotional involvement of any kind. As an example, I am totally detached when it comes to football. I don’t know (or care) who the teams are or who wins a game. I’ve never even watched a football game. I am utterly detached from football.
Connection, acknowledgement and honoring of the issue, and able to accept the outcome without clinging to the desired outcome. Using the football example, if I was a fan, I would enjoy watching a game for entertainment, and although I’d be disappointed if my team lost, I would accept it. I might mourn the loss of the money I bet on the game, but I would find a way to incorporate that loss into my world and work with it.
In terms of bereavement, it is hard to imagine that anybody could experience true detachment concerning the death of a loved one. In that case, the detachment would probably be a defense mechanism to block off strong painful feelings. Some of my detractors have accused me of this, because as Veronica so eloquently stated above, “They can’t understand why I am not just a lump of depressed flesh.”
The people quoted in Chapter Five express what I consider to be a healthy form of non-attachment. They are in touch with their pain, they feel their feelings, and they honor those feelings by allowing them in, sitting with them for a period of time, then letting them go with love and reverence. They know the waves of sadness will visit again, and that the cycle of allowing, accepting and releasing will continue forever, and they accept it.
My friend Mike gives an excellent example of how misunderstood healthy non-attachment can be. Someone told him that he was being “callous” because he seemed so unattached to the trauma surrounding the suicide attempts of both of his sons in the same year. His answer was:
“I became less attached when I started to notice what thoughts were bringing me sadness. Once I saw that they were nothing but guilt thoughts of “should” and “shouldn’t,” those thoughts just left me. It doesn’t mean we don’t do everything we can to help another, but we get to a point where we can’t join in their suffering anymore. That is when we can be of the most help and simply be there in pure presence and unconditional love for them… without judging them or ourselves.”
A few weeks after he said this, Mike’s dog died, and although he was devastated to lose his beloved companion of 14 years, he found himself deeply pondering the nature of his grief. He began to examine his sad thoughts and discovered that they were always about his needs, or in his words, “completely selfish.” He realized that his grief was all about him, and when he realized this, he had to laugh at the lack of respect it showed for the soul of the dog and its needs. When our own needs are stripped away momentarily, we are left with nothing but gratitude for the blessings that soul shared with us. Mike was able to see this and shift his attachment to non-attachment. But most of us are so afraid of being perceived as callous or heartless that we aren’t willing to take that step. The good news is that there are tasks, tools and techniques for working through grief that do not render us heartless, but actually open our hearts to more love and deeper understanding of the “lost” relationship.
Clinical psychologist and thanatologist Therese A. Rando49 identifies the following six primary tasks of grieving. It is important to remember that these tasks are not necessarily experienced in order, and that any individual may have difficulty or get “stuck” anywhere on the spectrum:
1. Recognize the loss
For someone dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis, recognizing the loss may come in the form of accepting the prognosis and researching the illness and treatment options in order to become educated about what to expect as the illness progresses. For a sudden death, recognizing the loss may come in the form of identifying the body, or viewing the body as part of a memorial service. This is part of the reason we have rituals… to gather the community together in recognition of the transition that has occurred.
2. React to the separation
What I love about the story of the Native Americans in the ICU in Chapter 5 is that they reacted to the separation in a natural, uncensored way. Feeling and expressing our grief is vitally important to the process of healing. Non-attachment does not mean non-reactive.
3. Recollect and re-experience the deceased and the relationship
It is a popular practice these days for a friend or family member to prepare a slide show of photos from a person’s life to show at a memorial service. This is a wonderful way for the community to recollect and re-experience together. This can also be done with people who are terminally ill by looking at old family photos with them, talking about their lives, and perhaps even keeping a written or digitally recorded journal of their recollections to share with future generations.
4. Relinquish the old attachments to the deceased and the old world
We have all heard about (or experienced) the difficulty of facing a dead child’s empty room or a dead spouse’s empty office. This is particularly difficult when it comes time to alter that room or office in some way, such as getting rid of the person’s clothes or belongings, or re-purposing the room for a new use. This is when ritual becomes a valuable tool. One way to relinquish old attachments while still keeping our loved one’s spirit close to us is to create a ritual around the shifting of items that are attached to the deceased and our previous life.
5. Readjust to the new world without forgetting the old
Many bereaved people are told that they must “move on,” “get over it” or “let go” in order to continue their lives, and it is a shame that these terms are used so carelessly. Moving on and letting go does not mean that we leave our deceased loved ones behind. It means that we integrate their presence into our reality in a new way. After the death of a close friend or loved one, we are forced to occupy a new world in which they are physically absent. But as many discover, that new world can be filled with emotional and spiritual riches that would have been previously unavailable. The spirits of our loved ones are present in that new world with us.
What does reinvesting look like? If we use a financial model for the concept of investing, it looks like placing our energy and assets into something new and possibly risky in the hope that it will pay off in some way. The assets we risk in the grief process are our belief systems about how the world works. If we’re willing to risk those, the payoff is enormous.
Using my own grief experience as an example of how these tasks might express themselves, my reactions to my son’s illness and death followed Rando’s steps, but not necessarily in order. Because I was dealing with anticipatory grief, many of these steps took place while he was still alive. With his diagnosis I recognized the loss. In preparing for the years ahead, I reacted to our pending separation, and the inevitability to his death. During the his illness and physical degeneration, we, together, recollected and re-experienced our relationship by creating photo albums and a memory quilt, talking and meditating together, visiting old friends and acquiring memorable experiences. Also during this time, I relinquished attachments to our old world through a variety of rituals that helped me release those attachments (see Chapter Nine). After his death I recollected and re-experienced our relationship again, trying to adapt to its new form, ultimately reinvesting in myself by going back to school to study theology and becoming a hospice chaplain.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who have not learned, through self-study, spiritual guidance or appropriate counseling, to practice non-attachment. As an example, if you’ve ever attended a conference for the national bereavement group The Compassionate Friends, you’ll know that many of the attendees use the phrase “Joey’s dad” or “Bereaved Mom” as the title printed on their name badges. For this type of conference, especially for the newly bereaved, this is a beautiful idea and can be a healthy way of acknowledging the grief event. However, I have seen this concept taken to extremes when people attach to the role of bereaved parent as their primary identity. I know one woman who lost an infant 27 years ago, and still attends these conferences every year wearing the baby’s picture and the name “Melissa’s mom” on her badge in lieu of her own name.
While this may be one way to honor the deceased, it also makes the statement that the bereaved person has not found a new identity. Many people have a belief operating just below their conscious awareness that identifying as yourself in your new life somehow dishonors the deceased, when in fact, just the opposite is true. I can’t say this enough… our departed loved ones want us to become new people and live complete, fulfilling lives.
I now want to share a brief story of what I think non-attachment can look like in bereavement, at least the way it looks for me, in my own life.
My son Danny died at age 16 in 2006 after being seriously ill and severely disabled for nearly half of his life. I have moved across the country and lived in a few different places since then, because my life changed radically after his death, ultimately leading me to a new path as an author, spiritual teacher, minister and hospice worker. Last year I moved again, downsizing from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom apartment. I sold or gave away most of my furniture and possessions, including Danny’s bed.
I had no idea how strong the feelings would be about letting go of that bed. The day I put the ad on Craigslist to sell it, I wrapped myself in one of Danny’s old blankets, lay down on the bed, and immediately started sobbing, feeling a mixture of guilt (for letting the bed go), sadness, loneliness and grief. I could feel Danny there with me, and could feel all the energy of our deep love held in the fibers of that bed. I missed him so much it was unbearable. I had slept in that bed with him for hundreds of nights while he suffered through his illness. He died in that bed, and afterward, I continued to sleep there, dreaming, channeling, meditating and receiving the first messages he sent me from the Other Side. Letting go of that bed ripped my heart out, because it felt as if being without it would somehow separate me from him.
It was deep, deep pain, but it was good pain, and it was exactly what I needed. It had been a long time since I had touched into that degree of despair, and as I teach others, pain opens our hearts and can actually heal us if we recognize its deeper purpose. Like most people, I go through my busy life in a sort of numb state most of the time, taking care of earthly business and functioning more or less reasonably in the world. But every once in a while I catch a glimpse of that grief, like I did that day with Danny’s bed, and it is like a welcome visit from a dear old friend. I say to my grief, “Oh there you are. I haven’t seen much of you lately. Welcome into my heart. I accept you and honor you. Stay and visit for a while.” It hurts, but it is alive, vibrant and healthy. I’m not afraid of it. It keeps me open and human. It is a state of grace.
But I can also let go of it. I can hold my grief in a place of honor in my heart with an open invitation for it to grab hold of me whenever necessary. But the grief is not my identity. I am not a “bereaved person.” I am a mother who experienced the death of a child.
That is non-attachment.
by Terri Daniel