I often think of my work as a therapist as being the work of bearing witness to people’s stories – stories of love, of grief, of rage, of helplessness, of triumph, of the everyday. Each story is as uniquely textured as the person telling it. And yet, these stories, told by diverse individuals from many different walks of life, have common threads that tie them together.
One such common thread is that we all have losses that we must grieve. Some are the shocking losses that completely obliterate life as we knew it. Some are the expected losses that grind us down with their ordinariness. Both kinds can feel overwhelming, like it will be impossible to continue on in a life that is not what we imagined, a life that we did not choose.
And it is here is where the hard work of grieving begins.
In his book No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh points out that, as a society, we tend to think of suffering as something bad, something to be avoided. But, he says, “suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”
In order to grieve well, we must stand in the mud. And we must find the lotus.
We must stand in the mud because it is only by being in contact with our pain, honestly and directly, that we can begin to reckon with it. And we must stand in the mud because it is important to honor our experience, to acknowledge to ourselves and others that this loss is unfair, and tremendous, and has opened a deep well of grief, and will never be okay. And we must stand in the mud because ultimately, we will need to take gentle care of our pain in order to begin to soothe it.
And we must find the lotus, because we need to create meaning from our experiences. Perhaps more importantly, we must find the lotus just because it is there, and to walk past it would be another loss – an unnoticed loss perhaps, but a tremendous one just the same. The lotus might be difficult to find, obscured completely or in part by the pain that goes along with grief and loss. It might be difficult to find because we may, on some level, feel that if we acknowledge the lotus, we are in some way saying that we accept the loss which created it (this is not true. It is a tricky balancing act, but possible to hold and honor both the lotus and the mud). It might be difficult to find because initially, we might not even know what we are looking for. But it is there.
Perhaps growing up with an addicted family taught you how to take care of yourself as well as others. Perhaps you unexpectedly lost your mother and were surprised by who showed up to help. Perhaps the loss of a job brought on a reckoning in terms of your identity and allowed you to adjust your life course to one that is more congruent with your values. Perhaps the bottomless grief you experienced when your best friend died taught you how to breathe into suffering and soothe yourself, and this allows you to begin building a relationship with your father, with whom you were previously so angry and reactive that the smallest issues triggered you to fight and flee.
Even in the thickest, most immobilizing mud, the lotus is there. You are capable of finding it, and you are capable of blooming.