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A Timely Word: What to say to the grieving?

Last week the world faced the grim statistic: novel coronavirus COVID-19 has now claimed more than 2 million lives. The inescapable reality of death has been brought home to us all in a fresh and often visceral way. Many are grieving the loss of loved ones. Many more are fearful for their own lives.

What can we say in the face of the greatest enemy?

In the class on early Buddhism I've been taking here in Nagoya, it's been fascinating to see how the Buddha addressed grief, according, at least, to the earliest sources that we have.

A number of stories are told of the Buddha's approach to the grieving, particularly in the Buddhist text known as the Therīgāthā, or the Verses of the Elder Nuns. This text is the earliest known collection of women's literature from India: some of the poems included date from the 6th century B.C.

In one episode, the details of which are filled out in a later commentary, a celebrated female disciple of the Buddha tells of the suffering that led to her enlightenment. The disciple, named Patachara, had eloped with her lover to avoid an arranged marriage. She later gave birth to two children, but when her husband died she determined to return to her parents' home. During the arduous journey, Patachara lost both of her children (one to the waters of a raging river and the other to a ravaging eagle) and she arrived home only to discover that her parents were also both dead.

Patachara came, in her distress, to the Buddha. Buddha's "comfort" was to remind Patachara that the tears of grieving women might fill the world's oceans. In other words, her grief was nothing unusual. Grief is a universal experience and the disciple of the Buddha must learn to accept it as inevitable and not be moved by it.

In another episode, a woman lost her baby, whose name was Jivati (which, ironically, means "life"). For many days Buddha watched the woman visit Jivati's grave to mourn her dead child. When the time was right, Buddha confronted her: "There are 84,000 little girls called Jivati whose ashes are in this graveyard. Which one do you mourn?" Again, the point of Buddha's question was to underline the universality of death and the need for the mourning mother to accept that there was nothing "special" about the one she had lost. Only with this realisation could she move beyond the grief that bound her.

In yet another story, a poor woman who was grieving the loss of both her husband and her two children came to Buddha, hoping that he might have some "medicine" to restore her dead family to life.

"Yes. I can make some medicine for you," said the Buddha, "but you must go and collect the ingredients for me, and they must come from a house in which there has never been the grief of death."

The poor woman went round all the homes in the village, only to discover that, unsurprisingly, there was no home that did not know the grief of death. She returned to Buddha, with a new realisation that her situation was the lot of all human beings, and found in this acknowledgment the path to enlightenment as a disciple.

What do these examples tell us? First, they appear quite severe to most people today. Maybe that's why Japanese Buddhism has very rarely followed the kind of approach to the grieving that we see in early Buddhism. For example, later accretions to Buddhist ideas in certain popular Japanese Buddhist sects saw the development of the idea of 極楽浄土 (gokurakujōdo) -- a place of no suffering to which people might go after death by calling on the name of Buddha in this life. Most Japanese will talk of dead people going to "heaven" (天国 tengoku) after they die as a means of comforting the grieving. There is no indication that Buddha himself taught any such thing, but the starkness of Buddha's own approach to the grieving seems too much for most to stomach.

Even so, second, it's possible to explain the Buddha's apparent severity along other lines. Buddhist teachers often account for these as instances of what is called in Japanese 対機説法 (taikiseppō). This means waiting for the opportune moment to share the truth, taking into account the mental and emotional state of the hearer. It's because of taikiseppō that the Buddha typically didn't just begin with a sermon: he used an object lesson, or else he would bide his time, watching before approaching a grieving person. Buddha wanted to lead people to their own realisation of the truth. That in itself is commendable. But is it really enough for those who mourn the death of loved ones?

Ultimately, Buddha had nothing to offer the grieving, beyond the recognition that death is universal and the insistence that grief must not be allowed to de-stable disciples from the enlightened realisation that all things must pass.

Christians have a better comfort to share. Jesus Christ claimed to be lord of life and death. He proved it by his resurrection from the dead. Indeed he said to one grieving woman who mourned the loss of her dear brother, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die."

This is the sure and certain hope that Christians can share with a grieving world. Death, the last enemy, has been defeated by Jesus. Christians grieve -- of course we do, for death is a cruel usurper, breaking loving relationships -- but not as the unbelieving world grieves. We share in the tears of the grieving and we help to bear their burdens. But death's universality does not mean death's victory. And so we can say to the grieving, and even to ourselves as we grieve while we wait for the restoration of all things:

“O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

(1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

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Thanks Richaerd for your prompt and helpful response. I feel this would probably have been more useful to me about 20-25 years ago. I like the idea of a 'dynasty of faith' ! surely what we all hope & pray for for our children and their children. Pray for wisdom for Yuko in her communications. Bit like "children of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob'. What a Legacy to leave!


Richard Brash
Richard Brash

Thanks Alan. You are right. It is a different situation. I imagine you have much more experience of this than I do. I have a couple of thoughts. We must not give false hope in respect of the dead or the living, but we can always assure people that if they will come to Christ they will be saved. In a sermon we listened to yesterday, the speaker said that the gospel is only really "good news" if it arrives in time. I might add to that, that there's a sense in which the gospel is only really "good news" if you accept it. On the other hand, the gospel is always a message of hope while there is life…


Hi, it is good to see the active contrast betwen a 'fatalistic' acceptance (some might say 'realistic'!) view of death and the reassurance for believers. The big question I've often encountered is what to say realistically, when sitting with grieving relatives. It some ways it is good to quote scripture (with believers) but do you feel that this is appropriate with 'non-believers' ? something I've often sweated over in my 'professional' past with grieving relatives. Would value your thoughts, or is it then too easy to promote the fatalistic acceptance of what has occured (see above).

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