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To You Who is Bereaved of a Loved One

First of all, I would like to extend my sympathy to you. As a priest, I have conducted many funeral rites to entrust the departed to Amida Buddha, and, as for my own family, I was at the deathbed of my parents and others, so I know very well, too, how important and hard a task it is to attend one who is nearing his/her time of passing.

I created this web page to try to pass on something helpful to you who are recently bereaved of someone familiar to you.

A YouTube video on this topic with subtitles is now available. (25-Jun-2020)

◆ Matters to be Told from Me to the Bereaved ◆

  1. To be bereaved is, so to say, to be injured in your heart.

    If you are physically injured, the fact can be shared between you and others, like "I know I am now injured. I have a painful wound;" or "I know that person is injured. I am sorry for him/her."

    On the other hand, however serious it may be, injury in your heart cannot be recognized from the outside. Therefore, you may be sometimes unexpectedly hurt by other's words, which can probably not be taken into consideration in a normal condition. Even if the words are of consolation coming from supportive intention, they may sometimes unfortunately hurt you.

    Thus, it is important for you to know that you are seriously injured in your heart.

  2. Don't strain yourself.

    Because you are seriously injured, additional stress should be avoided. You absolutely need rest. To go into mourning means that you need to be relieved from social duties to keep your mind serene. You may think you must decently conduct a funeral and related ceremonies. Maybe some due courtesies should be paid to your relatives and friends. However, the most important thing is not to unduly push yourself and pile up stress, so confide tasks to others where possible, or call on others' aid.

  3. Recognize that you are in a special psychological state, which is not normally experienced.

    Tears abruptly flood when I don't expect it at all. I cannot make the most trivial decision. I lose all sense of priority. I think I am out of mind. I am to blame for everything; or others are to blame for everything. Emotional ups and downs are excessive. I have a bleak future in front of me and I almost collapse from anxiety and fear. I cannot live any more. My life is meaningless. I am absolutely alone. I cannot sleep or I don't want to eat anything. I am absentmindedly occupied by wandering thoughts...

    You might experience such states of mind, which you are not familiar with. You are not alone in these experiences. These are physical and mental reactions common to all human beings when we incur a great loss. Now is the special time when these conditions are experienced. Moreover, such conditions also reflect your deepest affection for the deceased.

    Thus, please note that it is a natural phenomenon to experience such states of mind when you lose loved ones. Allow these conditions to occur as they do, and just watch them softly without condemning them.

  4. Don't hesitate to ask for someone's help.

    It may be helpful to show your sentiment to someone by telling him/her "I would like you to listen to me for a little while," or "You don't need to say anything. I want you to just listen to me." If you need, you may ask him/her not to say anything. This may relieve the listener, and you will be safe from awkward support which (s)he might otherwise offer.

    In another case, you may ask someone "Please stay with me without say anything for a while," "Would you help me do such and such task?" or on the contrary, "Please leave me alone for some time; please don't let me bother you."

    You can ask or receive favors from others, and ask them to tolerate your "selfishness." Note that people are often generous enough to accept your reliance with pleasure. If you do not know anybody to rely upon, you can go for bereavement counseling or use telephone services, such as telephone support provided by IFOTES or Befrienders. From my standpoint, it would be best to talk with the chief priest of your temple (i.e., some religious leader).

  5. Don't give up hope.

    The deep mental scar will probably not be completely removed. However, the pain in the wounded heart will certainly be lessened with time. You may be surprised to hear me saying that the deeper your sorrow is, the richer your life will be in the future.

    Believe me, it may sound incredible to you now, but the sorrow will not last forever. Be assured that you will be extricated from this predicament for sure.

◆ Teachings about Departure in Buddhism ◆

The pain of separation from a loved one is referred to as "ai-betsuri-ku [priya viprayoga duhkha]" in Buddhism (in Japanese). A baby crying loudly when losing sight of his/her mother, an adolescent crossed in love, etc...; no one can escape from this agony in life. Among these, the deepest sorrow is experienced in bereavement.

Buddhism has several stories teaching the grief process in bereavement. One of them is about a woman named Kisa Gotami:

Once upon a time, in a certain town, there was a woman who was called Kisa Gotami. She married a man and gave birth to a lovely little son. Unfortunately, the son died in infancy. She was so upset that she wandered around in town with her dead boy clasped to her bosom. "Would anyone give him medicine?" "Please cure his disease..." One person could not leave her alone, and advised her to visit Sakyamuni Buddha for help.

When meeting her, Sakyamuni told her, "I am glad to see you, Woman. To cure his disease, you need poppy seeds. Go to town, and ask someone to give you a few seeds. However, you must receive the poppy seeds from a family of which no member has died." Following the advice, Gotami went town and searched for such a family of which no member had died. Of course, there could never be such a family. In the course of her wandering, she finally realized the implication of the Sakyamuni's advice.

After she had buried her son in a grave, Sakyamuni asked her. "Gotami, have you got poppy seeds?" She answered, "Your reverence, I no longer need poppy seeds. I could not find any family of which no member has died. Please kindly show me the way." Thus she became a disciple of Buddha...

What do you think? Sakyamuni did not give any profound advice to Gotami, who was overwhelmed with grief. He knew very well that philosophical teachings, like "All things are impermanent" or "What is born cannot avoid death," would not help her. Gotami realized the fact by herself while she was walking around town in search of poppy seeds. In other words, Sakyamuni produced a situation in which she could learn the truth herself.

We can also attempt an alternative interpretation: Families that were visited by her probably felt and expressed enormous sympathy to her. With warm support from many people, her heart gradually became softened to help find her way.

Finally, I would like to share a beautiful episode relating words from a departing person. This is a message spoken by Sakyamuni himself to his disciples at his deathbed. I would like to conclude the message to you here by these words from Sakyamuni.

After talking to his disciples about ethics, discipline, etc., Sakyamuni said, "My brothers, don't stick to despair and distress by my death. We cannot avoid separation even if I live to hundreds of years old. It is impossible for us to stay together forever. There is no merit if I live longer because I have already guided people who should be guided, and sown the seeds of enlightenment in those who are not guided yet.

For me, to die is to remove a malignant disease. The name of the disease is the Body. We are born, grow old, develop a disease, and die. Removal of the Body that is entangled in this cycle is similar to extermination of bandits, which is a good thing.

My brothers, practice intently. Seek tranquility of mind. You will never find serenity in worldly matters.

Now I'm going to leave. This is my last message.