Many moons ago I wrote a post about how philosophy became my primary grief support when I was in college. Weird, I know. But when you are 19 years old seeking grief support isn’t exactly on the top of the to-do list (or it certainly wasn’t for me). Yet, despite the hundreds of articles here on the blog about grief, it occurred to me recently that I have spent very little time talking about how philosophy shaped my grief and, in many ways, floated me through some of my darkest days.
I could fill volumes on my experience with grief and philosophy, so now that I am feeling inspired to write about it I am struggling with where to even begin. I’ll start with what got me thinking about this recently: I was talking to a grieving mom last week and she somewhat sheepishly shared that one of the few things she found comfort in was thinking about other parents who had also lost children, and had often found comfort thinking that every person goes through the death of a loved one in some way, at some point. Though these thoughts brought her consolation, she expressed feeling horrible just admitting it out loud, feeling guilty that she could possibly find solace in the suffering of others.
All at once it brought back a Buddhist story that had brought me much comfort in the early days of my grief, one that I hadn’t thought of in approximately forever. I have dug around online and I have sifted through all of my Buddhist philosophy books from college (which I of course still own, because I am a book hoarder) but couldn’t seem to dig up the translation I first read. But I found this translation, which seems close, from Buddhism: a Sketch of the Life and Teachings of Gautama, the Buddha
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Kisagotami [Kisa Gotami] is the name of a young girl, whose marriage with the only son of a wealthy man was brought about in true fairy-tale fashion. She had one child, but when the beautiful boy could run alone, it died. The young girl, in her love for it, carried the dead child clasped to her bosom, and went from house to house of her pitying friends asking them to give her medicine for it.
But a Buddhist mendicant, thinking “She does not understand,” said to her, “My good girl, I myself have no such medicine as you ask for, but I think I know of one who has.”
“O tell me who that is,” said Kisagotami.
“The Buddha can give you medicine. Go to him,” was the answer.
She went to Gautama, and doing homage to him said, “Lord and master, do you know any medicine that will be good for my child?”
“Yes, I know of some,” said the teacher.
Now it was the custom for patients or their friends to provide the herbs which the doctors required, so she asked what herbs he would want.
“I want some mustard seed,” he said; and when the poor girl eagerly promised to bring some of so common a drug, he added, “You must get it from some house where no son, or husband, or parent, or slave has died.”
“Very good,” she said, and went to ask for it, still carrying her dead child with her.
The people said, “Here is mustard seed, take it.”
But when she asked, “In my friend’s house has any son died, or husband, or a parent or slave?” they answered, “Lady, what is this that you say? The living are few, but the dead are many.”
Then she went to other houses, but one said, “I have lost a son”; another, “We have lost our parents”; another, “I have lost my slave.”
At last, not being able to find a single house where no one had died, her mind began to clear, and summoning up resolution, she left the dead body of her child in a forest, and returning to the Buddha paid him homage.
He said to her, “Have you the mustard seed?”
“My lord,” she replied, “I have not. The people tell me that the living are few, but the dead are many.”
Then he talked to her on that essential part of his system — the impermanence of all things, till her doubts were cleared away, and, accepting her lot, she became a disciple and entered the first path.
I wrote a draft of this post earlier this week sharing all my memories of what this parable meant to me then and what it means to me now (something that has changed radically). Then I deleted it. I suppose because what I think is so amazing about the parables and thought-experiments of philosophy and religion is that they bring us each different things, in different ways and at different times. As I reread the post I had written I realized I was far less interested in my other thoughts about the parable (and how that has evolved over time) and far more interested in what others’ thoughts are. So today I am going to take a cue from the WYG book club and ask what you found in the parable : did you love it or hate it? Did you find comfort or upset? Or did you find nothing at all? Leave a comment with your thoughts. I’ll share my thoughts in the discussion too. Promise.
Not feeling the Mustard Seed story? No worries, once I started thinking about this the floodgates opened of other philosophical texts I connected with in my grief. I am going to restrain myself to only sharing one more for now. No promises about how many more I will share in the future.
This one comes from a totally different school of philosophical thought, and takes the form not of a parable but more of a thought experiment. In a number of his works Friedrich Nietzsche shared variations of the same concept: eternal return. What he intended in discussing this concept is still debated by theorists, but luckily we are all free to read and take from it what we like. Here is one variation of the thought-experiment, the one I read first and that had a deep impact on how 19-year-old-me conceptualized my life and my grief. This comes from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science.
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
As you probably guessed, this is where the first draft of this post included thoughts and reflections about the impact this concept had on me at the time, and my thoughts now. Instead I am leaving it to all of you to keep this post going by leaving a comment with your thoughts, whatever they are (even if it is to say you think philosophy is just a bunch of useless hooey that has nothing to do with grief at all).
What are you waiting for? Comment away . . .