Bearing the unbearable

December 17th, 2012

Dealing with grief that arises from other people’s tragedy

Just before Christmas of 2001, my mother called with unbearable, unthinkable news: a close family friend had lost two of her three young children in a house fire. The youngest was a baby, seven months older than my one-year-old. Her daughter was five years old.

It was the saturation point of a grief-flooded year. My father had died in late August, from a wasting illness that made other terminal diseases look merciful. A few weeks later, the attacks of September 11 happened. A month after that, my toddler and I watched helplessly as our family dog drowned (I had a crawling baby in my arms and dared not go in the lake to save her). Meantime, a  couple of enormous marital and family crises were unfolding in our home. Somewhere in there, both my grandmothers died.

I wouldn’t have thought I had room to absorb one more tragedy, but I was haunted by my friend’s loss. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, in horrifying, specific detail. I was similarly haunted by the deaths of September 11. Out of nowhere, an image would come to me–a fresh aspect of fear and suffering–and I would be fixated on it, helpless to turn away. I couldn’t pick up my own baby without following my friend’s son through his last moments.

Throughout all this, I am ashamed to say, I was unable to reach out directly to my friend. I was in a paradoxical state of paralysis, where I couldn’t face the enormity of what had happened, and neither could I look away. I had come up to the edge of grief’s chasm, and was hypnotized by the dark swirl below.

I knew I had to snap out of it, but I didn’t know how, until one night, I woke up thinking about my friend’s little girl. “Hannah,” I whispered with a pang. If I were this affected by the loss of a child I’d never met, belonging to a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in years, what must her own mother be going through? How could she ever sleep, or even make it through the next breath?

And then a thought occurred to me. Maybe these sudden pangs of sorrow were invitations to carry a bit of her burden for a moment. Maybe, by taking in that pain, I was somehow converting it at a collective, unconscious level, so that my friend could catch her own breath for a second. Maybe human suffering is meant to have an overflow valve — what one of us cannot handle alone, spills over into the hearts of others. Who knows? But the thought gave me peace, and forever changed the way I meet grief that arises from other people’s tragedy.

I later learned that this is very much like a Buddhist principle called Tonglen, that teaches neither to resist or cling to suffering when it comes, but breathe in the pain, and breathe out peace. A kind of spiritual photosynthesis that helps everyone.

I got to practice it again and again this weekend, as each unthinkable thought arrived on my heart’s threshold, asking to be let in. Instead of pushing against it, I bring it in, with the thought that by doing so, it might help a grieving parent across the country bear the unbearable for another second. Then, instead of fixating on it, I let it go, and I go on my way. Life is for the living, my mother always says. And that helps me, too.

I’m not sure what I believe about afterlife, but there’s no scenario I can accept in which the victims of tragedy want the rest of us to remained trapped in the burning house, the hijacked plane, the terror-stricken classroom. I believe that they have moved on, and so should we in due course, with all honor, gravity and respect. In dealing with grief, we need to go with its flow, but not let it take us under.

Remembering someone’s life does not mean reliving their death. When the faces of those little children from Sandy Hook come to me, I try not to drag them back to the scene of horror, or into my own personal nightmares. Instead, I imagine them as a neighbor’s children, sent to my door because their loved ones need help bearing the unbearable. They have run out of hope, and peace, and breath, can I lend them some of mine?

Yes, gladly. And anytime they need more.


40 Responses to “Bearing the unbearable”

  1. Amy B. says:

    I have practiced Tonglen for years, and it is truly life-changing. And I love what you have written here. Thank you, thank you.

  2. Hannah says:

    Oh. This is so beautiful, and haunting. Thank you.

  3. marilee pittman says:

    Very beautiful and what we as humans should be about…

  4. Natalie says:

    I love this so much. Thank you for sharing. It truly is a beautiful post.

  5. Sheena says:

    Thank you, Kyran. This is beautiful. You have helped me.

  6. Alison says:

    This is a beautiful insight that will, I think, help others bear the unbearable. My chosen career, prior to becoming “Happily Homeless” with my husband, was in bereavement support, and I believe strongly in the practice of “Tonglen” as a way of being proactive in grief, so to speak. I’m still actively involved in my non-profit that I started years ago, supporting daughters grieving their moms, and I’m going to pass your article here along to them, as a new way of perceiving something that can leave us lost and breathless.

    May you be surrounded in love through the holidays, and thank you for speaking so eloquently from your heart~
    Alison Miller
    aka 1/2 of Happily Homeless

  7. […] the wisdom I have found in other women who write online. This is from Kyran Pittman’s blog, Planting Dandelions, just this morning: If I were this affected by the loss of a child I’d never met, belonging to a […]

  8. Kristina says:

    Thank you for sharing this and reminding us about this practice – a way to create healing energy with every breath.

    • Kristina says:

      Just wanted to follow up – I shared your post on Facebook, along with this article on Tonglen I found via

      The responses have been really positive and filled with gratitude for such a positive way to deal with everything that has happened – so thank you again Kyran!

      • Thanks, Kristina, I will check it out. One of the beautiful things about growing older is feeling like we have some perspective and experience to share. Thanks for adding yours.

  9. Kate says:

    This seems like a really healthy way of dealing with the tragedy. Thank you for sharing your insight I had not ever heard of this practice but I agree with other commenters that it is a beautiful thought.

  10. Lesley says:

    Thank you so much for these beautiful, profound thoughts.

  11. Scarlette Chapman says:

    Thank you thank you for such a beautiful post and for expressing so eloquently what I’ve been feeling in my heart. A terrible sadness for the totally senseless loss of life. This really helps.

  12. Lee Cockrum says:

    Thank you so much for this post. You articulated this very well.

  13. Jennifer Kent says:

    Thank you Kyran

  14. Michelle says:

    Thank you for your words. Thinking of the human heart as an overflow valve makes me feel less helpless. A moment’s reprieve from overwhelming grief for some of the CT families may add some strength.

  15. Asha says:

    Thank you not only for what you write, but for how you think and feel and perceive the world and its mysteries.

  16. Marci says:

    Thanks Kyran, for this post. I had never thought about it like that. Beautiful!

  17. Polly says:

    Kyran, I was just thinking to myself, “tonglen,” in the paragraph before you brought it up. “Spiritual photosynthesis” is a beautiful way to put it. And I couldn’t agree more.

    It’s the only way I’ve managed to get myself through the darkest, hardest places, or try to get others through, is that. It may not have relieved my nephew’s pain during one of his aneurisms, before the pain meds finally took hold, but it was my way (along with my touch) that he could know some part of me was with some part of him. And that’s just what I’ve done whenever a haunting thought or nightmare image from Sandy Hook occurs.

    I love that you’ve portrayed those moments as the knock of the neighbor child’s hand on our front doors, come to ask to share what we can.

  18. […] that have followed are not just mine. I would encourage you to read the post which can be found here and share […]

  19. Pris says:

    This post was so helpful to me. Thank you!

  20. Robin T says:

    This is probably the most helpful and hopeful thing I have read since Friday. Thank you.

  21. Lance says:

    amazingly beautiful

    thank you for this

  22. H says:

    This has helped me so much over the last few days. Thank you.

  23. […] Read and Learn from my eloquent friend Kyran about how to help a stranger bear the unbearable. […]

  24. maggie may says:

    More than anything else I’ve read, this echoes my own beliefs on tragedy, and our human connection. Thank you.

  25. I don’t know. I just don’t. My own grief from losing my five year old son unexpectedly and suddenly has been so epic and tortuous and never ending, I just don’t know. There are nights when the grief is so loud it almost suffocates me. But then for a moment, more moments now, as time stretches on, I can breathe. And in that one single breath, life doesn’t hurt. And if it is because people like you take on my grief, our grief, everyone’s grief, well then thank you for those moments. They are the only thing that have kept me sane and alive through my loss. This was truly beautiful Kyran. Really.

    • Kyran says:

      Thank you, Tanis, for your courage and honesty in sharing about your own loss and grief process. Sometimes I think our culture has done such a good job at insulating us from that part of life, that we just don’t know how to act, or what to do, when we are forced to encounter it.

  26. PaullaT says:

    Beautiful, Kyran, and so helpful to think about it in this way…this thick, heavy grief we feel for those children. Sometimes if feels like I’ll never stop crying for them, for their parents….

  27. Carolyn says:

    an amazing post. new to your blog, came on over here from Five-Star Friday. just such an amazing view of grief, one that has never occurred to me, and I just wanted to say “thank you”.

  28. Janice Brown says:

    I’m only now catching up on my blog reading so just read this now, Kyran. Stunningly beautiful, insightful and wise. Thank you.

  29. Yolanda M says:

    Thank you spich for new thought. I am blessed to have found this.
    Thank you. Much love.

  30. Deidra says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article. I have thought of this concept in the past when a parent I knew lost a child; that I wished my sadness could somehow carry the burden of their sufferring for just a short time so they had a “break” from it. Thank you for putting that so eloquently in words.

  31. Mary says:

    This article is so beautifully written. I have found myself in a similar place in my grief with this tragedy….thank you for this!

  32. Libby says:

    I found the link to your site through Belleruth Naperstak’s Health Journeys blog. Thank you for writing this.

  33. Hannah says:

    I had to re-read this again today after hearing that an old friend had lost his son. I hope that somehow I can bear some of his burden and he can find a moment of peace today.

  34. First 5K run says:

    […] prayers. If you were not personally involved, but are feeling overwhelmed, you might be helped by this approach to bearing the unbearable. It has helped me find a way to be compassionate toward other people’s losses without losing […]

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