Friday, 16 December 2011

The Ache of Loneliness Continued: Grief & Suffering

No person on this earth is immune from suffering and grief, it is part of human life as is joy and love and of course mystery and wonder. Everyone has experienced the loss of someone they have loved with all their heart. If we have not, then we have never truly loved; if we have never truly loved, then we have never fully lived. This sounds like the worst kind of suffering of them all.

While life may well be simple it is not always easy. M Scott Peck began his seminal book “The Road Less Travelled” with these words: “Life is difficult."

"This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Life is awry, there is pain and suffering in life and no matter how hard we try this cannot be avoided. Modern day attitudes to grief and death highlight this growing immaturity. We live in a death denying culture that so often wants to rush people through grief and sorrow to some imagined place at the other side of the rainbow, where there is no pain. Oz does not exist! Sorrow and suffering are conditions that we must acknowledge and accept. They cannot be simply let go of and thrown in the bin of life. Not only can they not be thrown away it would wrong to do so and disrespectful to those we have lost and claimed to have loved. Where is the love in this?

In trying to flee our suffering we actually intensify the pain. Herman Hesse saw the truth in this when he said:

“Love your suffering. Do not resist it; do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.”

It is this aversion that causes the suffering within the suffering. It is this that causes much of what so many people describe as the loneliness of modern life. In trying to suppress our pain all we succeed in doing is cut ourselves off from the joy of life. While life may well be difficult and does involve grief and suffering, it does not have to involve “the suffering within the suffering”. Life itself is not suffering. We need not be identified by our suffering.

Eckhart Tolle suggest that we create needless suffering when we blame others for all our personal pain. He claims that the habit of blaming and cultivating outrage, anger, resentment and other negative emotions, what he names as our “pathological ego”, is what blocks us from knowing the truth about ourselves and the human condition.

He explains that although we do suffer, we are not our suffering, it is not our whole identity. The trouble is that we can become trapped in it and then it identifies all that we are. He calls this the “pain body”. He claims that we can step outside of it, but not by simply ignoring the pain and hoping it will just go away.

There are other forms of suffering that can never be justified. We should not simply passively accept all forms of suffering. Dorothy Soelle rightly criticised the claim that suffering is justified because it was the only way to achieve Salvation or Nirvana. As she said

“No heaven can rectify Auschwitz”.

She did not believe that suffering was ordained by God. Instead she saw God within the suffering. For her God suffered with humanity. For her salvation was achieved through experiencing God within humanities suffering, not as a result of it. She saw God as being in solidarity with the victims of oppression in human society. Therefore in her view to fully experience salvation is to work for liberation of the oppressed and to end man made suffering, not passively endure it. 

What is required is a compassionate response to suffering.

Compassion means to suffer with. We can learn to be with others in their suffering and with ourselves in our own. The opposite of compassion is apathy. To be apathetic to the suffering not only of ourselves but also that of others is the worst kind of hell any one can suffer from, it’s inhuman, it creates our loneliness and it creates our isolation.

To suffer with is to experience compassion and of course to grieve is to love.

Forrest Church claimed grief is not really about death at all but more about life and the courage to love. Grief is truly about love and therefore it is not an end point, it is not a land of sorrow and regret in which we become lost, but a bridge that leads us back to life from death. He claimed that grief is so intensely powerful that it has the capacity to lift up our lives to the most sacred of moments and remind us what really matters. That said it loses its power if the grief is suppressed or silenced or neatly packaged and sanitised. Life is not neatly packaged so why on earth should we expect grief to be?

When grief is allowed to speak its truth it does so powerfully. It is personal in its power to change individual lives and it is also universal as it will visit all who dare to love what is mortal.

 I agree with Forrest’s belief that the choice is not between love and death but between a life lived in fear of love, because of the reality of death and loss, and a life lived courageously with love despite death’s presence.

Love and grief have the power to change us forever. 

As Forrest has reminded me once again, from the grave, the purpose of life is not to avoid grief and death. Instead the “purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for by the love that we leave behind.”


  1. Thank you for this. I am still grieving for my cat who died, and you are right that grief is about love.