For many years, I have been a bereavement counselor and have sat with people grieving a partner, a pet, a job, a friend, a spouse, good health, the loss of their childhood, or other profound losses caused by extreme climate disruption or the winds of political change.
It’s my hope in writing my new book, Opening to Grief, that my co-author Marnie Crawford Samuelson, and I have created an easily accessible companion or guide that offers comfort and ideas to you and others who have experienced profound heartbreak, feel untethered, or are searching for a path across intensely lonely and uncharted waters to find new meaning, balance, and peace.
In this week’s blog I am focusing on kindness, the importance of beginning with kindness in a time of grief: in particular remembering to extend kindness first and foremost to yourself.
Recently, I listened to a woman named Marilyn share her feelings about her partner’s painful death. Even though she knew the palliative care team had done everything possible to alleviate his pain, she felt certain there was some way that she should have done more. Unable to let go of the idea that she’d let him down, she was suffering terribly with regret. She felt guilty that he had died in hospice and wondered if he would have lived longer at home under her care. She blamed herself for not pushing harder for him to participate in a clinical trial, even though the doctor told her he was too weak. She wished she had insisted that he go to the doctor sooner to try and halt the metastasis of his cancer.
In Buddhist teachings there is a parable called The Second Arrow that I believe could help Marilyn find peace. The story goes like this: The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained that in life we can not always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our response to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice. (https://www.alustforlife.com/soul/you-are-alive/how-the-buddhist-metaphor-of-the-second-arrow-can-help-you-be-nicer-to-yourself)
We can’t avoid being hurt when something difficult or painful happens to any of us. This is the first arrow – an event that comes from the outside, which we can’t control, such as illness, death, loss, or disappointment. For Marilyn, the first arrow was her partner’s painful death.
But we do have some control over the second arrow. We don’t need to burden ourselves with more pain and harshness from a second arrow of shame, judgment, criticism, anger, guilt, or regret. Instead, we can choose to give ourselves a gift of kindness, in fact as much kindness toward ourselves as we can generate.
Try to think of ways to treat yourself, just as you would reach out to a friend you love who is in pain. You might put her hand over your heart and say silently or aloud, “This is incredibly difficult.” Or you might ask, “What can I do to make my life a bit more easeful right now?”
See if you can identify second arrows that you generate and that cause you needless suffering. Just recognizing them is a wonderful first step toward healing.