Two of my friends have suffered unbearable losses in recent months. Gina, age 60, married less than five years to a wonderful man, lost him to a swift moving cancer. “It’s so unfair,” she said. “His mother died at 104. I thought I might have another thirty years together with him.”  A younger friend, Mary, was six months pregnant with her first child when, on a regular pre-natal checkup, there was suddenly no fetal heartbeat. “I did everything right, ” Mary said. “No alcohol, no smoking, good nutrition. How could this happen to me? How could my baby die inside me?”

Both of these women are trying to bear the consequences of love; the bewilderment at whom they are suddenly without.  How can I comfort them? There are no words that can approach such loss that lodges in the breast and stomach and feels like a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon. Or are there words? Searching my own heart and experience I remember a line from Siddartha in which Herman Hesse says. “everything returns.” When I read those words after my husband’s death in Vietnam in 1969 they felt like a key to a locked door; a map to navigate the unlit rooms of my dark sorrow even though their true meaning was a mystery to me. What does it really mean to chant ‘everything returns” over and over when it’s painfully obvious that the object of our love cannot return? Perhaps they are words of compassion and mercy for oneself.

In his book describing the process of grief, Unattended Sorrow, Stephen Levine says, “…we must …cultivate mercy for ourselves, which will gradually expand into compassion for other sentient beings … Without mercy… we abandon those most painful memories within us to harsh judgment and merciless reflection.”

Even in our darkest moments we must embrace the words of the Buddha: “You can look the whole world over and never find anyone more deserving of love than yourself.”

Wishful thinking that a death “should not have happened” leaves us empty. Nor do we need to attribute a tragedy to fate and the Gods. That leaves us helpless. Our challenge is to make peace with our pain and allow ourselves to believe that everything will return; happiness, love, connectedness with another human being. Why not? There’s nothing to lose with such thinking except pain and empty caverns of loss.

Stephen Levine describes peace-making in this way: “To make peace with our pain, we must come to trust it enough to be able to approach it without tightening our belly. First we need to soften to our pain and send mercy into it, then fianlly we can perhaps make peace with it. To reclaim our heart we need to forgive ourselves for being in so much pain.”

It’s difficult in the midst of grief to take in too many words from well-meaning friends, but the suggestion that “everything returns” might invite new questions and a different idea along the path. As E.L. Doctorow describes, grief is like driving at night: though you can see only a few feet ahead of you, you can make the whole journey that way. 

We need those small signs/words that trigger our imagination and allow us to trust that we will return day by day, more and more.