Grief and Buddhism: Comfort in Impermanence

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

My dad died when I was in college.  It was shortly after that I took my first class in Eastern Philosophy.  Something about Buddhist philosophy resonated with me in a way that few other religious or spiritual concepts ever had.  It would be easy to write it off as new concepts being introduced to an impressionable college student who was going through a lot, which is all true.  But in looking back I am struck by the ways Buddhism provided insight and comfort in my grief that was completely different than anything else.  It is something that still brings me solace many years later, though I am certainly not a Buddhist.  It brought me around to mindfulness, which I talked about in a post on grief and mindfulness, and continue to practice regularly.


Though it is tempting to channel my college days and write an essay on Buddhism I will resist the urge and stick to a couple of basics.  Impermanence in Buddhism is an inescapable truth of existence.  In a world and culture where we strive for permanence, Buddhism teaches us that impermanence is fundamental to everything.  From life to health to joy to sorrow to material objects to our very identity, nothing is permanent no matter how much we want it to be.  Everything is always changing; existence is always in flux.

Confused yet?  Wondering what this has to do with grief?  Buddhism goes on to explain that our attachment to things and failure to accept impermanence is at the root of our suffering.  Imagine I asked you to write a short paragraph about yourself, what would you say?  I am a husband, a wife, a father, a daughter, a sister, a friend.  You may outline your view of the world – I am an optimist, a Catholic, a Quaker, an agnostic, a rationalist.  I am a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a therapist.  These are at the very core of how we define ourselves.

Think about how we operate in our day to day life.  When life is good we want to believe it will always be good.  We, understandably, focus on the future – how can I continue to make money, how can I continue to be happy, get a better job, maintain my hopes and dreams.  We assume we will remain a wife, a mother, a teacher, an optimist because that is who we are.

Grief and Impermanence

grief impermanence 3

But as Mike Tyson (not a Buddhist, to my knowledge) once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.  The punch looks different for everyone – a cancer diagnosis, an overdose, a car accident, a shooting, a heart attack, a stroke, a miscarriage, and on and on and on.  Suddenly things that seemed immutable are . . . not.  Things that seemed constant and enduring are revealed as ephemeral.  Who am I if not a husband, a mother, a caregiver, a sister?  When my faith is shaken, who am I, when I have always been a believer?  When my passion for business is gone, who am I, when I have always been a businessperson?

As someone who had gone through a significant loss, this idea of impermanence resonated with me immediately.  As I read more and thought more I decided I had two choices.  I could try to restore the old life and self that I believed was the real “me” and how things should be.  Or I could accept that I was fundamentally changed.  My family was fundamentally changed, and we would keep changing.  We would forever be changing.  All I could do was accept the ebbs and flows that would come, rather than trying to restore myself as a person I no longer was.  I know, I know, this all sounds very abstract and theoretical, but it was a very real shift in my thinking that brought me comfort for the first time.

Grief settles in and it takes over — we have all been there.  The illusion of permanence may be revealed but grief can suddenly feel like a new permanence.  It is hard to imagine rational concepts soothing the pain of grief.  People said so many infuriating, rational things to try to make me feel better that only succeeded in making me feel worse or angry (see our post on what not to say to a griever).  But this concept was different for me.  It was a reminder that nothing lasts forever, at least not in the same form.  Though the pain was impossible and felt endless, it would change.  Even if I wanted it to last forever, it would change.   Let’s get one thing straight — it didn’t change the hurt I felt in the moment, but it did change my perspective.  I met people who were further out from their losses and we talked about our feelings.  I thought about how their grief still existed but it was different than my grief.  I thought more about the little ways my grief felt different today than it had the month before or the year before. We were all in flux.

Along came mindfulness and meditation.  Once I started thinking about impermanence, mindfulness made sense.  I could fixate on the past and try to restore something that was gone, but that would be useless.  The expression is sadly true: you can’t go home.  I could become lost in the idea that my grief was permanent, but rationally I could see this was not true.  I might grieve in some form forever, but it would be always changing.  It would not always feel the way it felt at that moment.  I could pretend I was the same person now that I was before, but I knew I was not.  I was fundamentally changed and I would continue to change.  Forcing myself to want and believe the things I wanted and believed before was not the answer.  I needed to focus on the present.  One day at a time.  One moment at a time.  Building awareness of my life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – all in flux and ever-changing.

We all find comfort in surprising places.  I share this because it gave me some hope when I felt hopeless and some perspective when I had none.  For someone else, it may sound like abstract, theoretical, hooey.  And that is okay.  Because a Buddhist would remind us that we should not become attached to our own path; it will look different for all of us.

Let’s be grief friends.

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20 Comments on "Grief and Buddhism: Comfort in Impermanence"

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  1. kathleen  July 16, 2021 at 5:37 pm Reply

    Today is a good day for me to read this post. Today I a wondering who am I if I am not my son’s mother. I do realize nothing is permanent, not my mother status or non mother status, not the days that I grieve hard or the days my grief subsides to a manageable level. It’s hard to make plans when life is ever evolving or “when you make a plan and get punched in the face”. Today is a hard day. Tomorrow…open for whatever.

  2. Raam Ges  March 16, 2021 at 12:30 am Reply

    A great blog .Though I am an Indian , a hindu and come from a country crawling with spiritual Gurus, your blog was fascinatingly beautiful and useful.i lost my wife after 27 years of married life – no kids for us – and am struggling to come out of the loss.Thanks.
    Your blog about the permanent impermanence has been an eye opener for me – hopefully for others too ! God Bless you !!

  3. Chad  October 23, 2019 at 10:03 am Reply

    Your post gives me hope and is inspiring as I deal with a sick loved one who is struggling right now. Thank you for your wisdom and words.

  4. Leigh Ann  September 18, 2019 at 9:43 am Reply

    This is so important to me. After my brother took his life 7 months ago I have had a fear of impermanence. I was just talking to my niece (my brother’s daughter) about this exact thing. Acceptance of impermanence is difficult but very necessary…and freeing.

    Thank you.

  5. Nadia David  August 4, 2018 at 1:32 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for posting , sharing this experience.
    I live through the 3 d week after my mother’s death.
    For months I identified with her struggle that she tried to bear with a smile so as not to burden her dear children.
    There were unheard of beautiful , intense moments.
    She had the rare talent to always transform reality into positive , hope, joy .
    I saw her departing.
    Death is so simple
    The period that follows seems unbearable.
    Especially when being far from real friends in a different country where friends let you down.
    Your writing reminds me things I know, Buddhism was always there for me at so many difficult moments.
    Your words are anything but abstract, they are most real and hope giving .

  6. Tracy  April 2, 2018 at 4:13 am Reply

    Your post touched me. George, my son died by suicide 2.5 years ago and I’m stuck….. trying to return to the person I was. You explain it so well that I now realise I need to accept who I am right now and’ go with the flow of the river’.

    It brings me real comfort to know that I am not alone and your teachings, thoughts and guidance fill me with hope that this pain will dull and I will be able to laugh and really live again.

  7. VanPeer  January 29, 2017 at 5:32 pm Reply

    You have articulated the Hindu Vedanta philosophy I was raised in better than I ever could (or follow). I am struggling to come to terms with the death(s) of my older relatives and your post about accepting impermanence offers a possible solution.
    Thank you
    (posting under pseudonym).

  8. Erryn  July 24, 2016 at 11:17 am Reply


  9. Beverley  June 21, 2016 at 8:55 pm Reply

    My mum passed February 20,2015 as the result of a fall that lead to a rapid brain bleed. She lived in canada and I live in Calif so didn’t make it in time before she left. The question I continued to ask myself is “who am I in a world without her?” Your comment about the only 2 choices to respond and move through the grief cuts to the chase. I spent 1 yr in private and group therapy. I have finally reached acceptance but your words ring so true. Accept the fact that you will never be the person you were before. Even when death is a blessing for the one experiencing it, there is still that bit about feeling the loss. I found myself both tortured and uplifted and appreciative when the memories came. I just went through the death of my aunt with whom I was very close. I spent a month gone from my home and family and helped to care for her. She passed June 14, 2016. It is very fresh in my heart and mind. Somehow, despite hearing the same words from many attempting to comfort me, it didn’t penetrate that place in me that your words have today. I thank you so much for sharing your experience. With much appreciation, beverley. The words “and this too shall pass” which were said to me after losing my mum are finally beginning to take root. They made me feel that the person had no understanding of the feelings I was going through.

    • Litsa  June 22, 2016 at 7:53 am Reply

      Beverly, I am so sorry for the death of your mom and your aunt. That is a lot of loss in a relatively short period of time. Isn’t it funny how sometimes you can hear things your have heard before, but it is all about being in the right “place” to hear them. That has happened to me many times. I am glad this post was helpful and I hope you continue to find support on our site. Take care.

  10. Q  March 3, 2016 at 12:52 am Reply

    Thank you for this post. I have been struggling with grief tied with loss recently. This post provided much needed insight for me. I appreciate you sharing this story/perspective with all of us.

  11. Tracy  January 23, 2016 at 5:13 am Reply

    Thanks this brings me comfort and reminds me of the Buddhist lessons I learnt in my student days too!
    It also helps in recognising that this grief in my life will change too!

  12. Asta Wichmann  September 26, 2014 at 1:14 am Reply

    Love this post, explains the way I have been feeling since my loss but couldnt explain it.

  13. Joy  September 11, 2014 at 7:59 am Reply

    Thank you for writing this. It is a good reminder that our grief will change and that it to is not a permanent state of being. It’s very helpful to remember this when we have those times of being overcome with our grief. Very well written.

  14. Mary Lou Barian  September 17, 2013 at 4:30 pm Reply

    Your words “All I could do was accept the ebbs and flows that would come, rather than trying to restore myself as a person I no longer was.” beautifully illustrate where I am in my own life right now. Just lovely!

    • Litsa  September 19, 2013 at 10:52 pm Reply

      Aw, thank you. Funny how sometimes we stumble on someone else’s experience and it can resonate so much with our own. It is one of the reasons I think it is so important to share our grief experiences- it makes us realize we are not alone and we are not crazy 🙂 Take care.

  15. Becky Livingston  June 8, 2013 at 6:19 am Reply

    What a wonderful post, Litsa. Yes, don’t we find comfort in ever-changing ways and places!

  16. Annette  May 13, 2013 at 10:33 am Reply

    surprising places indeed. I found comfort in your post. Thank you. Namaste

  17. Bill LaCasse  April 19, 2013 at 7:11 am Reply

    Excellent article. You articulate the shift in your thinking in a way that I am able to relate to and share in your optimism for the future. To find solace in imperemence is spiritual growth to help us develop more effective responses to those things that we do experience because of the impermanence of our lives.

    • Litsa  April 19, 2013 at 8:41 pm Reply

      Thanks Bill – glad you enjoyed the post. I fully agree with you — though this may not strike people as a “practical” post for coping with grief, this shift in thinking has helped me to more effectively respond to challenges that have arisen over the years. Though on the surface it can feel very abstract, I believe this shift in thinking can lead to very real comfort.

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