In their new book, Be Not Afraid of Love, writer Mimi Zhu explores how rituals around loss can transform deep grief into love.
Funerals have always frightened me as grim and formidable events. They remind us of injustice and mortality, and they reveal the inevitability of death. Death is simultaneously so simple and so complicated, and while we cannot romanticize grief as a mere celebration of life, it’s a crucial time for our deepest expressions. Those of us who continue to live must take our time to send sacred spirits to their afterlife. For years, I treated grief as if it were an unimaginable taboo. I raced toward mythical sunny utopias where sadness does not exist. I tried to escape the grief that required me to facilitate many funerals in my head. I have spent so much time running away from my looming grief, sprinting toward a purely joyful existence with intrepid speed. When I looked back at the tiny speck of me, I saw with widened eyes my deep neglected grief and my flowing sadness: the only thing I distanced myself from was me.
The Western world is obsessed with binaries, splitting joy and sadness into enemies. Life and death are classified as direct opposites too. Human beings have long understood the ecstasies of happiness and the heaviness of sorrow. Joy never ceases to be beautiful, while grief never seems to get easier. Binaries create fragmentations and opposing forces, and do not regard joy, sadness, life, and death as intrinsic to the wholeness and balance of being. While sorrow and death are difficult and scary experiences, instead of being taught how to feel and navigate them, we fear them so much that we strive to completely avoid them. It is not surprising that in the Anthropocene, human beings are obsessed with inventing technologies to achieve immunity to both sadness and death.
In his debut novel On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong wrote, “Too much joy, I swear, is lost in our desperation to keep it.” If we befriend only what feels good, we alienate our hurt. When we are judged by others and ourselves for weeping about separation, heartbreak, trauma, tragedies, accidents, and death, we push vital parts of ourselves away. The binaries of good and evil categorize our difficult feelings as evil, and our happy feelings as good. When sorrow is seen with self-judgment, it can generate a great sense of fragmentation within. Suppressing our sadness can grow into a cruel cynicism, making us scared of our own feelings and doubtful of the fullness of life.
We are taught that grief is dysfunctional and unproductive and that it gets in the way of our work. Or we are encouraged to milk our grief and capitalize on our experiences, generating trauma porn for the masses to consume. Either way, we are dissociating from grief and isolating ourselves in the process. When I was presented with the urgency of my mourning [following the end of an abusive relationship], I did not know what to do with my feelings. Instead, I dedicated myself tirelessly to work, to production, to proving myself immune to suffering. Even though death is inevitable, and loss occurs every day, it seems that we are less equipped to deal with it than ever.
The Western world is obsessed with binaries, splitting joy and sadness into enemies.
When our grief is neglected and unfamiliar, we begin to isolate ourselves in confusion. We cannot see that there are whole and multidimensional beings around us who have experienced heartache, and we become ignorant to the fact that we can be supportive to one another during these painful times. In a world dominated by performances that encourage us to portray ourselves as our most joyful, we begin to assume that everyone is free of grief. Perhaps we just want to cry with one another without judgment, or weep by ourselves and know that we can process our grief with somebody we trust. What happens when I am no longer embarrassed of my grief, and I am surrounded by humans, plants, and animals who hold me while I cry?
Amid our tumultuous global circumstances, we are experiencing much collective premature and unnecessary loss. Ironically, we are losing so much because of greed. We are in collective mourning, and we need to acknowledge our grief without exploiting it. Right now, collective grief is just as important as collective joy. Grief is an ancestor who teaches us to exercise constant and immense gratitude. Funerals are opportunities for us to express unconditional love. There is much to learn from swimming in the deep shades of our grief, and we will emerge from it basking in the sun. If we cannot honor our endings, then how are we supposed to usher in new beginnings?
When I was a teenager, I attended my po po’s (grandmother’s) funeral in Hong Kong. It was a traditional Buddhist ceremony held in a temple, and my extended maternal family had all come to pay their respects. As part of the sacred ritual, we prayed and chanted for nine hours to usher my po po’s spirit to the afterlife. Several monks guided our chants while we were kneeling, standing still, or walking in circles. It was pivotal to chant out loud so that her spirit could hear us, and the louder and more repetitive we were, the better. We had to commit to the melodies of the chant so that our message of grievance was clear. Her spirit needed to hear our grief so she could travel safely.
I noticed that with repetition, the chants began to envelop my body. They allowed a vital energy to be released from my soul, an energy that had long been constricted in my chest. During the lengthy ceremony, some of us wept in between chants, some of us chanted loudly then softly, and some of us needed moments of silence. There was no judgment, no hushing, and there was always immense respect. It dawned on me while I was chanting that this was the first major death I had experienced. I realized that the purpose of chanting was not only to usher my grandmother peacefully into the afterlife, but also to release our grief into the ether. It gave us a safe space to express how much we missed her and loved her.
The next day, our family shared a meal together. I remember sitting at a round table opposite my gong gong, my po po’s husband, with at least fifteen of my relatives. We were sharing food and conversation and eating our favorite dim sum dishes. I looked up from my bowl and noticed that there were tears streaming down gong gong’s face. He did not say a word, but he also did not stop his tears from flowing. He just sat there eating, sitting with the foods that he’d shared so many times with his wife and his children, and cried. His tears did not make anybody at the table uncomfortable, and I do not think they made him uncomfortable either. After a while, I gave him a hug and began to cry as well. We did not say anything to each other and just allowed this moment to unfold. Our grief was connected as we held each other through it. I learned so much about grief that day.
How do we mourn the relationships that we have lost with people who are living? I have heard many friends describe breakups as a kind of death. X [my ex-partner, who was also my abuser] had not died, but our relationship was long deceased despite our toxic efforts to revive it. Our relationship had a soul of its own.
Sometime after the rekindled relationship ended, I performed a long overdue funeral for the soul of our lost love. On small pieces of paper, I wrote every slur he had ever called me that was etched into my mind. This was an extremely painful practice, because I had to recall so many of the vulgarities that still lived within me. Each time I wrote something down, it felt like an extraction of poison. Looking at these slurs on paper allowed me to see that they were not inherent parts of me but lived outside of me. They were projections used to invoke fear in my spirit, and at the same time were reflections of the fear that lived in X’s heart. Twenty scattered pieces of paper surrounded me in a circle, and I read each of them out loud, burning them one by one. I cried as I read them, and I felt myself missing him too. This was a ritual of release. I watched them turn into ashes and realized that I was initiating a long overdue funeral service of my own. I allowed myself to weep as loudly as I needed to. I wept about the pain, the violence, the abuse, and for the first time in a long time, I wept for me.
Grief is an ancestor who teaches us to exercise constant and immense gratitude.
The funeral for our relationship helped me to express all my complicated emotions in an alleviating synthesis. In that moment, I no longer compartmentalized my feelings in binaries of good or bad. I stopped chasing utopias and allowed myself to steep in the depths of my grief. I let all the nuanced feelings that were held in both/and to come together and coexist. I finally gave myself permission to miss him as all the joyful, loving, painful, and violent memories played out before me. I wept and sobbed and lamented out loud, sending the lost soul of our love affair to the afterlife. Grieving my life without him meant that I had to usher in a new life. The ceremony simultaneously honored the death of our relationship and celebrated a new mysterious beginning that awaited me.
I do not believe that grief ever disappears. Grief morphs and shape-shifts as we honor it, as it begins to entwine with the contours of love. At times, it can tug at your heart and break it, especially on days when you feel vulnerable and tender. On other days, it can fill your spirit with immense gratitude for a life that was shared and a life that continues. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I learned that death is not an ending but a transfer of energy. As our tears send spirits to the afterlife, their energy is transmuted to new life. Our grief transforms, too, into an energy of love.
When I finally grieved my relationship with X, I was able to acknowledge that my capacity for tenderness did not die along with our union; I just needed to be redirected toward myself. I grieved our relationship to make space for new possibilities of true love. When I grieved my po po, I deeply appreciated her life and my own, and I watched the seeds she planted blossom into illuminating seedlings of her legacy. Each time I have explored the murky waters of grief, I have become profoundly closer to myself. To this day, grief has shown me that love does not die at the face of death; it is transformed. Our funerals are commemorations of life, and they honor what needs to be released. When you grieve deeply, you are shown your abounding capacity to love. Love does not die. Love sprouts from the ground that we have nourished with our tears.
Adapted from Be Not Afraid of Love: Lessons on Fear, Intimacy, and Connection by Mimi Zhu (Penguin Random House 2022)
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.