When it comes to tragedy, loss or unexpected death (such as by accident, suicide, acts of violence, or natural disaster), our focus is naturally drawn toward what has been lost. In our shock and sadness, we find ourselves spending countless hours wondering why and speculating about how something like this could happen. In our anguish over these situations, we could allow ourselves to slip into depression or rage. We may have an urge to judge this life, the world, or its inhabitants as valueless or hopeless. Or, our minds may turn toward placing blame, enacting punishment, or finding vengeance.
The title of this blog post includes a wise quote attributed to the Buddha. He is also quoted as saying, “With our thoughts, we make the world.” In other words, where our attention goes, so we follow. In tragedy and loss, our thoughts turn to what was and we struggle with our attachment to that which no longer is. We may cling to what was by making attempts at “undoing”, righting wrongs, or correcting.
To a limited extent, a “post-mortem” after a tragedy can be wise in helping us learn from mistakes and avoid any controllable contributions to future harm. However, the causes and conditions that lead to specific events are usually much more complicated than we would like them to be. The recipe for disaster has numerous ingredients and the time it takes to come together in just the right combination often takes many generations. Additionally, a significant proportion of these factors are not a part of our immediate awareness or in our direct control.
Grieving is an important part of healing after a loss, so take the time to experience your feelings and be patient with yourself. It always takes longer than you think it should. But, remember that grieving is only one component of healing. It is of little benefit to endlessly direct the greatest portion of our energies toward those who have passed on or the things we have lost. They have gone where we can no longer reach them. They are effectively what was.
Blaming, making emotionally driven changes, and taking revenge rarely create any significant or lasting difference in the suffering resulting from losses. Blame and punishment assume a singular cause as well as a simple solution with the philosophy that inflicting “deserved” harm on the transgressor will somehow serve the greater good. This includes times when the perceived transgressor is ourselves.
Our attention – our directed focus and energy – is full of potential. It is more beneficial to take the needed time to process and grieve, and then make a real difference by attending to the present moment – that which is still within our reach.
For example, we can:
- increase our own awareness, curiosity and openness
- learn to suspend judgment
- be more compassionate, generous and loving (even with ourselves)
- promote peace and tolerance
- refrain from doing harm and adding to others suffering
- develop more comfort with ambiguity, accepting that which is not within our control
- find the courage to be honest, assertive and set appropriate boundaries
- do what is in our power to make our neighborhoods, workplaces and schools more welcoming and comfortable
- make it easier and more acceptable for others to ask for and find help
- volunteer or donate time or resources to good causes
Most of all we can cultivate and express patience with and compassion for the living, who are coping here in this moment. Demonstrating compassion for the living and their complicated journeys can go so much further than focusing on what has been lost and is now beyond our reach. Acknowledging and addressing what is happening in this moment takes work and persistence, but over the long term, it is often more meaningful and fulfilling than lamenting or longing for what was.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
– Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay