Interfaith Grief Guide



*with thanks from my friend Rev. Mary Bredlau, MA, CT

  • Acknowledge this will not be easy nor quick
  • Talk about it with someone who will just listen
  • Try to realize grief is neither orderly nor logical
  • Surround yourself with comfortable people
  • Realize this loss may stir up unresolved wounds
  • Treat yourself with kindness and gentleness
  • Consider that some “Big Whys” have no answers
  • Believe that no two people grieve alike
  • Seek out a grief support group or grief counselor
Interfaith Grief Guide

Day of the Dead

All Souls Day… Day of the Dead…Dia de los Muertos… today we remember those who have gone before us in death… our personal saints who have lived among us. Who are your souls…your dead loved ones whose lives live on in you?

Day of the Dead

Flowers for the Dead

I gather flowers for the dead. I have been at this shady harvest for more than 30 years, training with the best: Martha deBarros from the Zen Hospice Project of San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC); Frank Ostaseski, cofounder of Zen Hospice and founder of the Metta Institute; and Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center’s Being With Dying program. We practice light and grave accord with the dead. Holding solemn ground at the threshold of the Great Matter, we are also intimate and joyful.

Last spring on a brilliant Sunday afternoon 84-year-old Daigan Lueck, Zen priest, poet, and painter, died peacefully at home in the heart of Green Gulch Farm. Daigan and his wife, Arlene, are deep Zen practitioners and friends of our family. When I heard that he had died, I entered the tangle of our Muir Beach garden to harvest the astringent herbs needed to bathe Daigan’s body: pungent white and black California native sage, English peppermint and shadowy yerba buena, rosemary, camphor rose geranium, and yerba santa, gathered from the stony paths of Mount Tamalpais where Daigan loved to walk.

Arlene and an intimate group of friends bathed Daigan’s body with the fragrant herbs. Rubbing alcohol closed the pores of his skin. With mindful care, Daigan was dressed in his monk’s robes and arranged in state in the room where he had died. A simple shrine was set up at the doorway as practitioners arrived to sit in meditation with Daigan for the next 24 hours.

In the SFZC tradition we mark four essential ceremonies for attending the dead: the ceremony of bathing and sitting with the body, the cremation ceremony, the funeral or memorial service ceremony, and finally the ceremony of interring or scattering the ashes of the deceased. For each occasion scented flowers participate in the ritual.

I give full attention to the plants that I harvest for the dead. Like apothecaries throughout history, I am guided by the evocative alchemy of aroma. Ancient families of scent are exuded by the plant world. Musk, resin, mint, floral, ethereal, acrid, and foul scents are expressed, according to some scientists, in exact geometrically shaped molecules that fit precisely into distinct neural niches in the nasal epithelium, triggering primal response in the brain.

My neural network was firing long and strong as I harvested the plants for Daigan’s body. Memory and scent intertwined in grave accord. From the edge of the garden, Prospero’s Rose poured dark burgundy fragrance into the waiting chalice of my collecting vessel. “Be cheerful, sir,” Prospero’s Rose whispered, evoking Daigan’s favorite passage from The Tempest, “Our revels now are ended.”

I mixed the floral tones of rose, jasmine, and daphne with the acrid herbs of antiquity. Daigan was a pungent poet, never sentimental. Rue and tansy came to his deathbed to pierce the veil of sorrow with their scent, and stinging nettle was laid down with wormwood to stanch the raw wound of mortal existence.

At his cremation ceremony a few days later, close to 50 Zen students gathered for Daigan in the inner crematory chamber. We chanted the Dai Hi Shin Dharani [Mantra of the Great Compassionate One] and covered his cardboard coffin with drifts of richly scented rose petals collected over the last year of his life. Underneath the floral glory I tucked one of Daigan’s early poems beneath rank pennyroyal and purple nightshade, essential medicine from the underworld to accompany this poet priest on his fiery journey:

Ready at last to stop
shaking a fist at the sky
and the passing traffic
drop your heavy bag
empty your laden pockets
stop, breathe, sit
and let yourself cook
until you’ve smoked out
all the bitter taste
and are ready to
be chewed on by
the ten thousand
laughing mouths
of this present moment.
        —David Daigan Lueck

Wendy Johnson is Tricycle’s longest-running columnist. She is a lay dharma teacher and the author of Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World.

Flowers for the Dead

When Grief Becomes Angry

…and in the days that would follow her sudden death and burial, I came to realize that anger was simply easier than grief. Being pissed off – blatantly or subtly – became my frequent companion…a sarcastic friend growing more familiar and more constant. Depending on my many moods, I could be increasingly more annoyed, displeased, aggravated, irritable, indignant, hostile, bitter. Rage became less uncommon. Obsessed with whose to blame, I was on a mission.

Grief was my slow burn. Drinking more, gambling more, high more…even fucking more. More avoidance became my elixir for less pain. More distractions. Make no mistakes. I’m sure you don’t understand. I have every right to feel like this.

You don’t understand and I’ve convinced myself you can’t understand. I’m misunderstood.

Pretending fairly well at work, most days anyways…I am worse alone. Little things became big issues with no effort. Traffic, spilled milk, Fox News, just running late…no matter…stupid people piss me off. I don’t need the aggravation. Easily distracted, I crave new and different ways to keep my internal departments in tight order and declare to all I have no interest in dealing with any of that shit… I told you I don’t care!

I’m not going back…there’s no returning. Dead is dead. All that’s left is her ghost that haunts me.

But all the while, I would surely know my anger was my poison. Toxicity leaking gradually into my thinking, my loving, my body, my soul. Pushing others away while making room for “just let me be” and my growing desires to control anything or anyone that’s really uncontrollable. I don’t want to hear it.

OK…You happy now? I Googled it.
Pissed is best than helpless, hopeless and disinterest.
Bad sleep, bad energy, preoccupied…not much interest anymore.
Sometimes reckless… I said “fuck it.” It don’t matter. Hypercritical, more judgmental but don’t ask me to decide. Self-loathing. Aches and pains…back hurts…stiff neck…I’m sore, God damn it!

I don’t remember when I missed the part that I was dying too.
Leave me alone. Let me be. Get away. I got this. No!
Beyond what I used to think was love… what I felt was love – I was dying too.
Gradually, not suddenly, I found the careless truth in that old sad song: “You always hurt the one you love.”

Now I know how love hurts. Anger is the mask I wear. I disguise the grief and loss and fear I keep because you died on me.
My secret is that I’m so scared.

*I dedicate this post to all who grieve the loss of love and are left with fear.

When Grief Becomes Angry

Turning Positive

Dear Compassionate Gardener, how do I keep negativity, bad news and bad vibes out of my life? I’m trying to do a 180 turn and find the right path for me. How long did it take you?

Great question! Thanks for asking. My intention is to keep this blog straight-forward and simple so I’ll let those two principles guide my response.

Your question sounds like you are changing…or at least wanting to change. Congratulations! My years have taught me repeatedly that we’re always changing. Its all about change. I’ve come to believe resisting change is one source of suffering (Buddha thought so too). Bluntly: its all change. Sometimes change hurts.

I truly think and feel that living is change. Its kind of like we’re created to change…born to change…live to change…and die to change as well.

Change is a process. While catastrophic events can initiate change, most of us change one moment at a time, an hour at a time, a day at a time. Pretty soon, those days turn into weeks, weeks into months…and alas…I’m changed!

I change. You change. Everything changes – including our relationships with ourselves, each other, our jobs and our environments.

I counsel that baby steps of change are just fine. They also tend to produce less dramatic results. As I’m allergic to drama…gradual change is OK for me. Think: ITS ALL PROCESS. One action…one reaction at a time.
Embrace change. Resistance is futile.

Psychologists suggest that awareness is the first step of change. So you might begin by asking: What needs to change?

Recognizing the negativity and its pervasive allure is not good for us is a big change for many because its counter-cultural.
Once recognition of the extent of negativity happens…it can be a bit of a jolt because we’re overwhelmed with negativity but we didn’t really understand its scope or its depth. This stuff is overwhelming.

For me negativity and fear are almost always hand in hand. That’s a toxic friendship.

Clarify your values. What is important to you today? Write it down. Start small. The list is going to change. Expect the change…add/subtract to the list as you go. I keep several lists in my smart phone: values list, goals list, forgiveness list, peace list. They’re there when I need to remind myself.

While I continue to judge myself (sometimes too critically), I work daily to stop judging others. This is very hard for me. I grew up in a family, religion and profession that not only values evaluations and judgments…judging was rewarded and reinforced repeatedly. We live in a judgmental world.
Less judgment…more acceptance is a value. Tolerance is a value. Compassion is a value. Forgiveness is a value. Live and let live is a value. We are one is a value. We are all interrelated is a value. Let your values be your guide.

Change is an inside process that manifests outside.
External changes that are not mirrored internally are smoke and mirrors. I call that calling a spade a spade. My sister who is developmentally challenged would look at me and simply say: “Bryan, it is what it is.” She’s right.

Knowledge is power. Use Google. Sift through the propaganda for accurate, reliable and accountable information. Once I truly began to really understand the methods and affects of the American diary industry… justifying my milk or cheese consumption became increasingly more difficult. Its called cognitive dissonance. It’s a real social psychological construct and it is VERY powerful if you pay attention to it. (Think: Psych 101’s Leon Festinger).

Ask questions. It’s always wise to ask: who says so? Challenge responses.

Recognize what you can change. Release what you cannot change. Think small bites… or else you will choke.

Pay attention. Wake up. Don’t believe everything you read. Fox News is not divinely inspired. All media is about the spin. That’s the way it is.
Avoid complicated.
Practice gratitude every single day. Then practice forgiveness everyday.

Whenever possible imitate nature.
We are integrally interconnected with nature. We’ll never control nature. We are nature.
Consistently move toward the path of least resistance. Think rivers…think flow.

Be prepared to recognize that the opposite may also be true.

Stop hanging out with negative people. This is really hard for some. Its a choice and you get to decide. I prefer to be alone than mingle with toxicity.

Some really quick “get down” suggestions to consider:
Sell or donate your television. If you choose to keep it, choose not to watch it one day a week.
Limit social media including email to short intervals. Use a kitchen timer or your smart phone alarm if that helps.
Mute your cell phone during meals and stop paying attention to it during conversations. Just do it!
Host a pot luck dinner. Suggest a discussion theme that matters to you or invite a guest speaker or facilitator. Check out who shows up.
IDEA: There is a World Water Day Event coming up next month. Host a potluck and talk about water…not in Africa…in Lake Mead.

Keep your response to negativity immediate and local. Its very easy to get caught up in the escalation of visions and voices of hate broadcast 24/7. Acknowledge it. Release it. Ask gently: What can I do right here and right now to mitigate that negativity. (This relates to one of my motivations to post “Good News” pieces on social media every single day. Believe me, some days it ain’t easy to find good news).

Embrace the principle that less is more.
Decrease distractions. (Why am I so attracted to minimalism). De-clutter. Don’t stop with your clothes closet or dresser drawers. Release stuff.

Silence is my friend. Drive more in silence. Sit more in silence at home. Walk or run in silence. While I have nothing against music… silence speaks.
There is a time and place for everything.
Speaking of silence, listen more…to yourself and to others. Rehearse less.
Get back to nature repeatedly. This is huge. Don’t let is sound trite. Embrace the Mojave Desert. See the sky. Look at the moon. Discover Spring emerging all over.

Be mindful. Google “mindfulness.” Lots of people write books about it. Enough said.
Remember that past experience filter present perception.
There is a huge difference between “news” and “opinion.” I filter all opinion pieces and editorials through my own criteria. I learn to trust some. Reject others as simply not for me to read, listen to or pay any attention to.
If it pisses me off…why am I doing it?

Surround yourself with people who are open to you, new experiences, new perceptions and new opportunities.

Teach yourself to care more deeply about what matters while paying less attention to what doesn’t matter.
Say out-loud: It doesn’t matter to me.

Can I flip this person, place or thing to a positive? If not, I release it.

Let it go = delete!
Erase. Use whatever mental imagery works best for you… find it and use it. You will probably need to do this more than once. Repetition works. You might have to do it 74 times a day. It doesn’t matter. Just do it.

Change does not happen in a vacuum. In fact, change affects many things on many levels directly and indirectly.
Change in patterns yield different patterns.
Change in habits witness new habits.
Change in attitudes bring new perspectives.

Trust your intuition. What’s your instinct saying? Most of us manifest feelings in our abdomens or chests. For some, this will mean think less…feel more.

While I may be in the minority, I find satire and sarcasm distasteful, not useful and poor communication. I avoid it.

Your “180 turn” is more likely to look like gradual movement just a few degrees at a time. That’s OK. Even 90 degree right angle changes can jolt the hell out of you. The very fact that you can ask the question about change…suggests you are changing.

Quick story: The notion of “unspeakable horrors” knocked me over the head with a “2X4” while writing a paper in seminary last year. In the middle of the night with thoughts flowing freely, sentences forming and paragraphs coming together…suddenly I stumbled on the quote “unspeakable horrors.” I was typing furiously, thoughts racing…and I became very angry. The words confronted me out of a complacency. I became intensely preoccupied with defining and understanding how any horror could be considered unspeakable. The words didn’t mean anything anymore. If a person can do it…a society has the responsibility to not only talk about…but to also deal with it. This single moment was a turning point for me in my life and in my ministry. The realization is still affecting my life, my choices, my actions.

My ministry teaches me daily that the loss of a love through death is a transformational experience for many. My own father’s death, the sudden death of my best friend and the death of my favorite pet – all were profound moments of change for me.

As always, its up to us to decide whether that change is for the better…or for the worse.

Believe that little shifts in values, responses and reactions can and do have impact both short and long term impact. Think ripple affect.

Remind yourself that bad news, gossip, awful events, tales of horror and evil stories are poison.
Daily, I filter out TMZ, Fox News, apocalyptic predictions and terror propaganda. I choose not to pay attention to it.

On an index card in my bathroom, I read: “You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.”

Several cautions:
Caution #1: My experience is not your experience. My path is not your path. What works for me may not work for you.
Caution #2: Change will affect your relationships on more levels than you expect. That can be painful.
Caution #3: At least someone in your life will accuse you of overdosing on Prozac or being Pollyanna delusional. So be it.
Caution #4: Never forget there’s always two sides to every story.

Final thoughts:
Whenever possible…and it’s always possible: Consider peace instead.
Change hurtful thoughts to compassionate thinking every time even when its very hard to imagine or feel.
Change what you can change. Make peace with what’s left.
Remember that I create my experience. I can control my experience. I can change my experience.
It’s really helpful to find a way to “meditate” or ‘pray” or simply be in the presence of what you consider Sacred habitually. Daily is optimal. Weekly is a start. Nothing fancy or complicated. Quiet. Peaceful. Whether it looks like jogging, Yoga, Zen meditation or watching trees in the wind – be mindful.

Two resources I’ve read many times and frequently refer to:
Buddhist Boot Camp by Timber Hawkeye
Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky

Turning Positive