The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life After Loss (Basic Books, 2010)

One of the best books I’ve read this year! I admit, I do love research and “science” that turns a conventional idea on its head. This book does that with a blend of accessible studies and stories. While still academic in nature, it was a much easier read than I imagined.

George Boranna studies bereavement and asks if the ideas our culture tends to accept about our response to death and loss are true. He provides a history of how we came to think of grief in a certain way (that there are stages and a “typical” process involved, etc.) and he debunks the concept that lack of deep sadness or “grief” means we are in denial.

He says that traditional bereavement theories assume grief has to be painful, and that the comfort of memories is just another barrier to dealing with the reality of the loss. But, he says, the science of bereavement strongly counters this idea.

Despite the evidence, or should I say lack of evidence, the idea that not grieving enough will lead to delayed grief has somehow become a cultural given. Not only do most professionals still endorse the idea, but almost everyone else believes it as well.”

“These ideas create rigid parameters for ‘proper” behavior that do not match what most people go through . . . As a result, they foster doubt and suspicion about successful coping . . .”

I also appreciate Boranno’s findings that suggest we humans are much more resilient than we tend to imagine. His approach is mostly focused on the psychology of bereavement and resilience, and from this perspective, he shares qualities that create more ease when adapting to loss. This is exciting to me because it suggests we can implement inner skills that will have a positive impact on our experience of challenging times, especially the death of a loved one.

He also looks at if views about death are truly related to resilience during bereavement:

The study found that the people who years earlier had said they didn’t worry about death or who generally accepted that death happens were the same people who tended to cope best with the pain of grief when their spouse died.”

For me, as I’ve encountered people wondering if I’ve been suppressing grief, this research is incredibly validating. It gives me hope that we can shift how we respond to loss in ways that are create a healthier, happier society.

Suffering is Optional: Three Keys to Freedom and Joy (Keep It Simple Books, 2000)

An easy-to-read Zen Buddhist perspective on releasing suffering. This book is written in large handwritten-style print and offers a practical approach to being more aware of our thoughts and how this leads to more freedom and joy in our lives.

This book is based on material from one of Cheri Huber’s classes, with the style of stories, questions and interactive responses with her students. The three keys to freedom and joy she offers are: pay attention to everything, believe nothing, and don’t take anything personally (not even death).

Cheri talks about suffering as not getting what we want. In short, she says “We shift our focus from clinging to the content of our suffering to observing the process.”  For me, this has been an essential practice. Observing myself rather than believing the content of my thoughts.

Here’s one quote from the book that addresses looking at our inner and outer worlds without the habit of judgment or trying to intellectually find what is “right” or valuable. To me, it’s a practice of being with What Is:

Always I encourage people simply to notice. No right. No wrong. Just notice. What happens when this? What happens when that? We’re so conditioned to believe that we have to figure something out so that we will have the correct information and then we will know and then we’ll be okay. If we practice noticing for a while we notice that getting the ‘correct information’ does not make us ‘okay.’ Perceiving ourselves to be okay makes us feel okay. Period.”

I really resonate with much of what Cheri shares and proposes. I recommend this book because I believe she gets at some of the most typical causes of inner struggle, and shares simple practices to move beyond this space into one of compassion, acceptance and joy:

We are conditioned to believe that life has to be a certain way for us to enjoy it. We are trained to live for the big moments, the special events, the times that are inherently enjoyable. What we find with practice, though, is that every moment to which we are present is joyful. Presence itself is joy-full; the content is irrelevant.”

Yes, when we are in the middle of painful moments, it may be unlikely to recognize the joyfulness. But Cheri guides us through new ways to create significant shifts. In the book, she offers specific exercises to get at these concepts:

If we simply pay attention, if we just quietly observe, then how the suffering is held in place will be revealed and we will stop doing what we are doing to hold it in place. It will simply fall away.”

I have experienced this as very helpful in my life. When we no longer hold on to thoughts that we think are real, when we stop believing they are true, our awareness can begin to shift.

Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing (Hay House, 2012)

If you haven’t heard Anita Moorjani’s journey by now, it’s worth checking out. A woman born to Indian parents and spending most of her life in Hong Kong, Anita shares her life-changing story of surviving death. She also weaves in stories about her challenges as a girl and young woman, creating a moving commentary about gender, spirituality, and the power of fear.

In 2002, with advanced stages of cancer, she was given only hours to live when she went to the hospital in a coma. Anita experiences a remarkable Near Death Experience (NDE) and lives to tell about it. I highly recommend this life-changing story for a powerful dose of what is possible beyond our typical understanding of these human lives.

Here is one of my favorite quotes from Dying to be Me, which puts into words my understanding of death after feeling the peace and joy I believe my life-partner experienced when she transitioned:

I no longer viewed death in the same way as others did either, so it was hard for me to mourn anyone. Of course, if someone close to me passed on, I was sad because I missed them – but I no longer mourned for the deceased because I knew they transcended to another reality, and I knew they were happy. It’s not possible to be sad there. At the same time, I knew that even their death was perfect and everything would unfold the way it was meant to in the greater tapestry.”

And from the audio version of the book (which includes questions people have asked and Anita’s replies), here is another quote that is dear to my heart. Yes, laughter can be a spiritual practice! I love that Anita learned this after experiencing what she did and making major shifts in her life:

“Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to enjoy yourself and not take yourself or life too seriously. One of the biggest flaws with many traditional spiritual systems is that they often make us take life too seriously. Although you know I abhor creating doctrines, if I ever had to create a set of tenets for a spiritual path to healing, number one on my list would be to make sure to LAUGH as often as possible throughout every single day, and preferably laugh at myself. This would be hands-down over-and-above any form of prayer, meditation, chanting or diet reform. Day to day problems never seem as big when viewed through a veil of humor and love.”