Death and Grief: A Personal, Psychological, and Buddhist Perspective
By Kurt Kowalski

Each year the Hospice Foundation of America broadcasts a teleconference where national experts discuss issues that have to do with death and dying. When Cheryl, a grief counselor from the Visiting Nurse Association, asked me to join a public panel discussion that would follow and discuss last years teleconference, “Living with Grief,” I said yes without hesitation. Being on the panel would allow me to give back, in a small way, to an organization that supported me and my family during a very difficult time. When Cheryl further said she wanted me to “represent Buddhist beliefs about death and grief,” I paused and wondered what would I talk about? My mind was pretty much blank. I found this surprising and somewhat disconcerting. I was a practicing Buddhist. My wife Yoshiko had recently died giving me intimate experience with death and grief. Still, I was at a loss when it came to coming up with a clear presentation of Buddhist beliefs about these topics. What kind of Buddhist was I? Didn’t I know what we believed? Weren’t Buddhist beliefs guiding my life during this most difficult time?

After some thought, it occurred to me that the reason that I didn’t have ready answers to the above questions was that my life at this point is not so much about beliefs as it is about action. I knew what I and those around me did, and were doing, to help me and my children cope after Yoshiko’s death. Perhaps this is the practical aspect of Buddhism. It seemed more about living my life, and my wife’s death, in the present moment than about beliefs. This was okay with me because with Yoshiko, my heart and my anchor, gone, and two young children to raise, I didn’t have much confidence in or time for beliefs anyway. I needed things to do. Thankfully, the people around me, and my Buddhist practice, gave me those things.

Now, however, when I think about my actions, and the actions of the people around me, I can infer some beliefs. I did this. They did that. So, I guess we must believe this. Based on my experience and these kinds of inferences, I’ll try and describe what I think are three “practical Buddhist beliefs” about death and grief. Then I will compare those beliefs to what the psychologists and counselors at the national teleconference suggested.

Belief One: Death is an important part of life. None of us can escape this truth. I guess that is why Rev. Ken Kawawata talks about impermanence all the time. And why we read Rennyo’s “White Ashes” letter at funerals. We need to consider this truth and what it means for our life. We sometimes joke at the temple that Buddhism is a “hard sell” to non-Buddhists because we talk about suffering and death all the time. Interestingly, however, this was one of the main conclusions of the experts at the teleconference. That is, that death is an important aspect of life, and that as a society we really need to address this so we can do a better job of supporting people as they cope with issues surrounding death and dying. Turning away from this eventuality, as we are so often prone to do, only leaves us all the more ill-prepared when it comes.

Belief Two: When death does come it is hard. Despite almost weekly talks about impermanence, losing a loved one, or confronting our own mortality, is very difficult. It is clear we must believe this or we wouldn’t be so kind and compassionate to those who are faced with this reality. I only have to think of all the offers of help, and all the kind faces and arms filled with leftovers that they had bundled up for me and the children to take home after temple functions, to know that this is true. Thank you; the psychologist and counselors at the teleconference agreed. They noted that people need support as they go through this difficult life altering event, and that the support that they need and how long it is required varies. They insisted that we not minimize the social and psychological impact of loss and that we allow ourselves ample time to grieve, whatever that may be.

Belief Three: Our relationships with loved ones continue even after they die. Why else would we offer tea and incense at the altar each day, attend Shotsuki service, or hold memorials? In some way that person is still in our life, influencing our behavior and the way we interact with the world. During a sermon about Obon, I remember hearing Rev. Mas Kodani say that, “closure is bad!” We shouldn’t close off our relationships with our loved ones just because they die. Instead, those relationships continue and evolve over time, as evidenced by the fact that his own relationship with his parents is much different today than it was years ago when they died. It didn’t just end. Interestingly, the experts agreed on this point also. In the past, psychologists often emphasized the importance of closure and moving on after loss. Now it seems they have caught up with Buddhism! They talk now about the usefulness of maintaining a relationship with the deceased and how this relationship can be a source of comfort and strength and support healthy adjustment. They even suggested some ways professionals might try to facilitate this ongoing relatedness. Fortunately for us, our Shin tradition has been doing this for years.

In this brief article I have inferred some “practical Buddhist beliefs” about death and grief from the actions of the Buddhists around me, including myself, as we lived this reality. This seems to suggest that these beliefs were responsible for the actions I observed. Contrary to this, however, it may be that these beliefs are largely descriptive. That is, they describe or explain the observed actions, but don’t actually drive them.

There is psychological research to indicate that in some circumstances we infer our beliefs from our actions, rather than act out of beliefs. That is, we see ourselves doing something and we decide we must have a belief that is consistent with that action. We do this because we like to think of ourselves as consistent people whose beliefs match their behavior. But actually the behavior we observed came before the belief and was driven by something else. This something else is often contextual and not limited to things we are consciously aware of. Thus, while our small minds or egos might want to take credit for, and attribute all our actions to our own thoughts and beliefs, there appears to be something bigger afoot. Perhaps, that something bigger is the Dharma manifesting itself in our behavior without our conscious knowledge.

The recommendations of the psychologists and counselors at the teleconference were consistent with our Buddhist practice because, for the most part, they were merely describing what adaptive behavior in the face of death looks like. Our Buddhist response to death fits this description. It seems to me that the Buddhist response to death and grief is highly adaptive because it is a spontaneous and natural response to something larger than us. It really isn’t driven by beliefs, but by the reality of the situation itself. To paraphrase the theme from Shinran’s 750th memorial service, it is “life living us.” It is the Dharma expressing itself in our behavior at one of the most difficult and profound times of our lives. The kind and compassionate acts of the people around me tell me this is so. Thank you and Gassho.

Library Menu | Home