There are various emotional effects of bereavement that a person goes through. From isolation to withdrawal. But how can we transform our grief to growth? Let’s take a look at how life changes us.
Loss and grief can lead to spiritual growth and other positive changes.
KEY POINTS Bereavement is one of the most common forms of trauma people experience. Individuals who reported a spiritual awakening after bereavement also reported becoming more open and authentic, less materialistic, and more appreciative of nature. These changes tended to be stable and enduring over time.
One of the most famous stories in Buddhism is the parable of the mustard seeds. A young woman named Kisa Gotami was grieving the death of her baby son. She carried his body from house to house, pleading for some medicine to bring him back to life.
One of her neighbours advised her to go to see the Buddha, who asked her to bring him a handful of mustard seeds. The only condition was that, in the Buddha’s own words, “The mustard seeds must be taken from a house where no one has lost a child, husband, parent, or friend.”
Kisa Gotami returned to her village and went from house to house again. But of course, she was unable to collect any mustard seeds, since every family had suffered a bereavement. By the end of the day, the mother had realised the impermanence of life and the inevitability of death.
This parable is so powerful not just because it illustrates the universality of death and bereavement, but also because it suggests the transformational effects of bereavement. Kisa Gotami’s acceptance of death transformed her perspective on life. According to the parable, she became a disciple of the Buddha.
How People Grow From Bereavement
Bereavement is the most common type of severe trauma that human beings experience. When people die in old age, it seems natural and right. It may even seem like a blessing, if a person has become severely ill or mentally impaired. But when people die before their time—particularly in childhood—it usually seems incredibly tragic and unjust.
Understandably, some people may never recover from the grief of their bereavement and spend the rest of their lives in a state of depression and trauma.
However, precisely because bereavement is such a traumatic experience, it holds a massive amount of spiritual potential. When a person close to us dies, everything changes radically. Our seemingly stable and orderly lives are thrown into disarray, as if a tidal wave has swept through and washed away every structure.
Suddenly the world seems a strange unfamiliar place, pervaded with emptiness and loss. Our seemingly stable sense of self is broken down. We are no longer sure of who we are, since our sense of identity was bound up with the person we lost. All of our beliefs, hopes, and ambitions seem meaningless and dissolve away.
In 2017, I decided to conduct a research study specifically on bereavement, to investigate its transformational potential. (This has been published as the paper “Transformation through Loss and Grief.”) Working with my research assistant Krisztina, we interviewed 16 people who reported a spiritual awakening following bereavement. We also asked the participants to complete two psychometric scales that measure spirituality and awareness, to help us ascertain whether they had undergone a transformation.
The 16 participants (12 women and 4 men) had suffered a variety of different forms of bereavement—the death of parents, friends, siblings, and partners or spouse. For one participant, it was an abortion, which she experienced as a painful bereavement. In some cases, the deaths were tragic and violent.
There were two murders, three car accidents (also one bicycle accident) a suicide, and a drowning. The other deaths were mainly due to health problems, such as cancer or a heart attack. Most of the deaths were sudden and unexpected, rather than gradual and expected.