The Wholeness of Grief

A woman sits on a cliff and stares into the sunsetWhen he was 3 months old, my firstborn child was diagnosed with a choroid plexus carcinoma—a rare, aggressive brain tumor that grows on the structure inside the brain that makes cerebral spinal fluid. Two weeks after the initial resection of the tumor, and two more subsequent surgeries to drain fluid from his brain, he endured his first chemotherapy treatment. Three days following the administration of the chemo, a CT scan revealed that his brain was completely destroyed. The scan showed no healthy tissue. Doctors called it “total neurological devastation.”

After 70 weeks of chemotherapy, more surgery, and radiation treatment, if he had defied all odds and survived the tumor, the neurological devastation would have ensured that my son would have had very little, if any, independent functioning. The likelihood of survival was minimal. We didn’t want him to endure any more suffering caused by chemotherapy or excessive surgeries. We chose to discontinue treatment of the tumor and bring him home to love him, take care of him, and make him as comfortable as possible. Exactly six months after the diagnosis, my beautiful baby boy died at home with his father and me, our arms enfolding him.

During those months and after, we endured immense grief. We experienced intense pain, sadness, and fear, but there were also beautiful moments spent with him—peaceful and sacred times. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been granted those months with him, to have experienced the joy and wonder of his arrival in this world, and to have had the deep honor of being there with him as he left.

The pain and sadness are still with me. Along with the rest of who I am, I will always be a bereaved mother. I have learned, though, that one can travel from the dark depths of grief into a place of warmth and light, where it is possible not only to survive the pain, but to thrive.

Understanding the Message of Wholeness

During times of great grief, we often look for anything that can bring small comfort. I am a student of yoga, which has been a source of peace to me in some dark times. One of my favorite yoga practices is that of chant—the repetition of a mantra. The words are repeated over and over to help calm the mind and lift the spirit. One of my most beloved chants is a verse from the Upanishads—sacred texts written thousands of years ago in the Sanskrit language. Some revered teachers have said if all other verses from all sacred texts were lost, they could all be reborn and rewritten from this one verse, known as the purnamidah. These are the words:

OM, purnamadah purnamidam purnaat purnamudachyate
purnasya purnaamadaya purnameva vashishyate
Shanti, Shanti, Shanti

Translated, the verse means:
This is whole and complete, that is whole and complete. This and that are whole and complete. From wholeness comes wholeness. When a portion of wholeness is removed, that which remains continues to be whole and complete. Peace, Peace, Peace.

The message of the purnamidah is that wholeness, fullness, and completeness enfold us all. All beings, souls, things, objects, planets, trees, stars, rocks, animals, energy, and matter are part of the wholeness. Nothing can be separated from that wholeness or completeness. In this belief, there is no death and no separation. The notion of separateness is false. A little bit of what is whole and complete may not be broken or taken away from that essential wholeness.

I chanted the purnamidah, which I learned in a yoga workshop years before, to my pregnant belly. I sung it as a lullaby to my son after his birth, during his illness, and after he died. I knew the translation of the chant, but had never really given it much deep thought.

One night, about a month after his funeral, deep in grief, I was soaking in the tub, which I often did. Hot tears mixing with hot water, the big, deep cradle of the Victorian tub was one place I felt a small bit of relief. As I soaked that night, I began to sing the purnamidah. As I cried and sang, I could feel the words, the sound vibrations, ancient and comforting, begin to take on a new significance, a depth of meaning and substance I had not fully experienced until that moment.

In an instant, a pause, a space between sound and breath, I had a direct experience with the immense truth of those words. It was as if multiple layers of knowing fell one on top of the other into my brain and into my spirit. I understood those words literally, spiritually, and existentially. When my child was inside my body, he was part of the whole that was me, and when he was removed from me through birth, he was a whole and complete being on his own. I also remained whole and complete. We were both whole beings, yet we were still connected on a physical level through DNA and molecules. The food I ate and the air I breathed had become part of him. We were also connected on a spiritual level—mother to child, person to person, and soul to soul. Those connections could never be broken; he would always be a part of me.

After his death, that is still true. I no longer experience his physical form coexisting here with me, but the connection between us remains. When I realized he was not separate from me, even in death, I also understood the concept on a universal level. We are all connected. I believe we are all made of the same matter, from the same source. We are connected to each other and to that source from which we can never be removed. The threads of connection are ever-present in our daily lives, with those we love, on our shared planet with its interconnected ecosystems, in our place in the universe, and on all physical, spiritual, and energetic levels. We are part of the same whole.

Remembering Peace in the Midst of Grief

Each person’s journey through grief and loss is individual, yet many grieving people are connected by the shared experience of pain, loneliness, chaos, and the knowledge of what it feels like to be shaken to your core. Regardless of a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs, I believe grief is always a crisis of the spirit. My spiritual self was deeply shaken by the death of my child. I am still rebuilding that part of me. I was fortunate to understand that I was whole, connected to my child, and also connected to something bigger than myself or my grief.

Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Peace can easily be forgotten in the midst of grief. In that moment, I remembered that peace. My grief is still present, but I try to remember the gift of that moment. I don’t always have to feel it to know it is true. That is what is meant by faith.

In the midst of grief and pain, it can feel next to impossible for any of us to believe that we are connected to anything at all, much less to something whole and perfect. If you are grieving and bereaved, holding on to even the thinnest thread of hope is sometimes all you can do. Hope is never a small thing if it can get you through the day, or even the next moment. The act can feel very difficult, but reaching out to those who support you can help you to feel less alone. They may help you grow the hope you need to sustain yourself and bolster you on your way toward healing.

If you are a person who knows or loves someone who is grieving, reach out to that person. Be there to listen or to offer support. You don’t have to know the right thing to say or do because there is no right thing. Each instance of caring, each phone call, every card, every visit, and each moment offers a tangible thread of connection. Each act represents a thread of hope for wholeness. When someone is alone, confused, angry, desolate, desperate, broken, or bereft, one thread of hope can be a lifeline.

All of us are part of the ultimate connection of wholeness, even when we don’t feel it, or when we have forgotten that truth. There are so many grieving people and families in need of a reminder that we are all infinitely connected. That connection can be strengthened by family, community, friends, or support groups. Individual therapy with a grief specialist can also be very useful in finding your way back to wholeness. If you are grieving, reach out for help and support. If you love someone who is grieving, reach out to that person. Now is when they need you the most.

Finding, reconnecting, and remembering your way to wholeness is part of the grief process. It is important to know that you are not alone and that there is help. Taking the first step to finding your own path is an accomplishment. Perhaps simply reading this article is your first step to reconnecting to wholeness. Remember to be gentle with yourself during the process, and take the time you need to find your way. You are not alone. We are all connected.

Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti. Om Peace, Peace, Peace.

© Copyright 2011 by Karla Helbert, MS, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 8 comments
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  • PW

    PW

    April 1st, 2011 at 5:51 AM

    Relations such as between a mother and her child are not only special but are sacred.Nothing can ever change that and even death cannot break this connection.It is sad to hear about your loss but I am happy to know of your ideas and belief that he will always be with you and this is something I completely agree with.

  • engine

    engine

    April 1st, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    Beautiful said. I am so sorry for your pain. But an idea that we are all connected is what I agree the most. We are ALL ONE.

  • Karla

    Karla

    April 5th, 2011 at 10:32 AM

    Thank you both for your lovely comments. I have always believed in the interconnectedness of us all. I am truly grateful to have had the direct experience of that belief. In my therapy practice I try to communicate some of that while keeping the space open for the bereaved to have their own experiences in the moment. Allowing for the openness of heart and spirit to facilitate those kinds of comforting moments can be so hard to do when you are in pain. I wish for all grieving people to have a comforting moment that they can hold on to. The memory can be a sheltering space when the storms of grief hit hard.

  • PsyLifeDoc

    PsyLifeDoc

    April 26th, 2011 at 6:34 PM

    Thank you for sharing this intimate experience. Connection is key.

  • Casey B

    Casey B

    May 18th, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    Thank you very much for this extremely thought provoking post. I’d never come across that mantra before (and was unlikely to do so, had I not stumbled across your blog- my faith seems to have deserted me.) but find it a great comfort. After recently losing a friend to anorexia, I’ll take it from wherever I can get it.

  • Rebekah

    Rebekah

    June 26th, 2011 at 9:39 PM

    This is beautiful. So many emotions put into words so eloquently. Those words are something that everyone can relate to.

  • Karla

    Karla

    June 29th, 2011 at 12:17 PM

    Thank you to all of you for your comments. Casey–I am very glad that you were able to use the mantra–I still chant it and still gain peace from it. Om Shanti~

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