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Dharma Care

Pastoral Care and Counseling from Buddhist Perspectives

It is said that a woman named Kisagotami visited The Buddha with her dead son in her arms, asking The Buddha to bring him back to life. The Buddha advised her to collect a mustard seed from every household where no one had died. Guatami followed The Buddha's instruction and returned to him without any seeds. During this process, Guatami learned that death visits all families and every one of us. How should we respond to Buddhists who are grieving the loss of a loved one?

Listen to the bereaved. Assess whether they are like Guatami, wanting their beloved restored to the living. Bring forth wisdom and ask yourself, "Is now the time for education and a reality check?" Sometimes we do not possess the pastoral authority of The Buddha to command one to enter into a reality check. Even if we had such authority, it may not be wise to direct one away from their feelings. Therefore, listen and wait a while. Empathize. For a brief moment, touch on what it feels like to lose a loved one (be compassionate), but do not remain in your own pain (practice equanimity). Let the bereaved tell you what their loved one meant to them and what it will mean to be without them. Assure them that you are there for them and that you will do what you can to ensure they are attended to during this time.

Ask the bereaved what their practice tells them about the nature of their suffering and how to relieve that suffering. Let this information (and what you observe about their body language) guide you as to what to offer.

Encourage the bereaved not to avoid grief. Paradoxically, attempts to avoid grief can prolong and complicate grief. Let them know that grief is a natural consequence of having loved and lost (as in dependent co-arising) and that good practitioners also experience grief.

Create a circle of practitioners to surround the bereaved with compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity and empathy. Let them share memories and let the circle be a witness. Chants on impermanence may be helpful during times of bereavement.

If you notice that grief gives way to anxiety and depression and lasts several months, the bereaved may need longer-term counseling beyond pastoral care. Please suggest they consider seeing a counselor.