Grief in the Time of COVID: Sharing in Compassion and Resilience

When my father went into the hospital on May 6th, there were 76,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. By the time he passed away eleven days later, there were 90,000. It’s strange when something as deeply and personally felt as the death of a loved one becomes part of a national statistic. Yet it also points to the collective nature of grief related to the pandemic and the systemic injustices that it has revealed and intensified.

We are in a time of collective grief. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Others have lost jobs or been furloughed due to the lockdown of cities and towns across the country. On top of all that, since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, the streets have been filled with renewed anguish and calls for racial justice and the end of police brutality. The enormity of the crisis affects us all, directly or indirectly. How can we handle the emotional intensity and grief while supporting each other in the process and working for positive change?

Daily compassion practice can help. It accompanied me through the eleven days of my father’s journey with the virus—from the first signs of fever and weakness to his final days in hospice mostly sleeping and unresponsive. And it has accompanied me since, through the grieving process, allowing me to remain connected and supportive to family even through physically distanced and to attune to wider circles of loss during the pandemic, which have affected communities differentially.

Butter lamps offered with prayers for the victims of COVID-19 at Thubten Chöling Monastery in Nepal on May 22nd.

Compassion practice can help us feel grief without being overwhelmed by it, whether we are coping with the death of someone close to us or confronting the death toll in the news. It allows us to expand our hearts in response to suffering and develop resilience. Psychologists such as Olga Klimecki and Tania Singer (2015) have made a vital distinction between empathy and compassion.1 In the face of intense suffering, empathy—the capacity to resonate with the feelings of others—can lead to empathic distress. This is a key contributor to burnout among caregivers and those in the health and human services professions. Compassion, on the other hand, is a kind of active caring: the wish to alleviate suffering and the motivation to act in response. Klimecki and Singer document how, as a positive emotion, compassion promotes well-being as well as prosocial, helping behaviors.

In recent years, bringing contemplative practices into higher education, I have developed a secular version of tonglen, a compassion practice from Tibetan Buddhism, which I would like to offer here. Tonglen literally means “sending” and “taking.” We start by sending the wish to relieve suffering in the form of soothing light to someone we know is suffering or a painful situation we have heard about in the news. After doing that for some time, we let ourselves imagine the quality or texture of suffering of that person or situation, how it might feel, acknowledging we can never truly know the pain of another person or another community. Based on that, we engage in taking. We take in the quality or texture without taking it on. We let it pass through us and disperse into space.

Photograph by Diego Torres Silvestre. Creative Commons.

Here is a script that I composed as part of the co-design team for a Mindful Campus initiative at the University of Colorado where I teach courses on Buddhism. It uses the imagery of moonlight, based on the Buddhist metaphor of the “moon of compassion.” You can imagine the moon shining on you from above or hold the image of the moon in your heart, representing our natural ability to care for others.

1. Filling the Body with Light

To begin, take an upright posture. You can close your eyes or lower you gaze, as feels comfortable, and take three deep breaths. Imagine the moon either above you or in your heart—whichever feels more natural or helpful. Feel the soothing quality of the moonlight, allowing it to wash over or through you. Let the moonlight gradually fill your body, calming any tension, washing away whatever stress you might be holding. Take as much time as you need to let moonlight fill you as a way to take care of and nourish yourself before extending to others.

2. Sending Light to Someone Suffering

Then, whenever feels right to you, allow the moonlight to expand or radiate from your body into the space around you. See if you can fill the room or area that you are in with the soothing quality of moonlight. At this point, you can bring to mind someone you know who is suffering or a situation with suffering, as if you could see that person or situation in front of you. Simply extend beams of moonlight to them in order to relieve their suffering. Imagine its healing light bathing them and offering relief. Continue for a few moments sending compassion, the wish to relieve suffering, in the form of moonlight.

3. Taking in but not Taking on Suffering

When you feel ready, take a moment to imagine what the quality or texture of their suffering is. Allow yourself to feel that without taking it on as a solid thing. Just taste it and let it disperse into space. Practice taking for a few moments, just enough time to spark your compassion again and then return to sending. It’s a reciprocal process, like photosynthesis, here through the alchemy of the heart: sending the person or situation moonbeams of compassion, a sense of calm and relief, and taking in the quality or texture of suffering. You can alternate sending and taking at your own pace. Traditionally, sending is done with the outbreath and taking with the in-breath, but that is often too quick in the beginning. So go at your own pace. At any point, if you feel overwhelmed, you can return to self-compassion, feeling the calming quality of moonlight in your own body.

4. Expanding to All Living Beings

To expand the heart further, try to imagine all the other beings who are suffering in the same way as the person or situation you chose. For example, if you are doing tonglen for someone ill, you can extend to others who have the same illness or to those involved in their care: family members, doctors, nurses, and hospital staff. Simply send the healing quality of moonlight and allow the quality or texture of suffering to touch you and move you to expand further. Explore how far and wide you can extend compassion. For a moment, see if you can extend compassion to all living beings, all the creatures of the sky, land, and water, wrapping the whole world in moonlight.

When you’re ready, let go of the imagery and rest for a moment. Take a moment to feel whatever you feel in the wake of this practice. Then take a few deep breaths, wiggle your fingers and toes, and as you’re ready open your eyes.

Having just gone through the arc of loss, I can attest to how nourishing and replenishing it is to do tonglen for self, other, and all beings. It offers a moment of lightness in the heavy haze of grief that can weigh us down, mentally and physically. It’s important to honor grief and also hold it within a wider space of care. According to the Buddhist tradition, the human heart is capable of boundless love and compassion. Yet we usually carry around a small sense of self as we go about our day, and we can contract further after a loss. This makes it especially important to hold our grief while connecting with something larger. It can be as simple as looking up into the open sky or reaching out to others to forge connections of mutual support and, beyond that, collective purpose and action.

Rather than contracting, we can allow grief to open us into our shared vulnerability and common humanity. This helps us to remain responsive to the suffering within and around us.

Holly Gayley is a scholar and translator of contemporary Buddhist literature in Tibet and associate professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research areas include gender and sexuality in Buddhist tantra, ethical reform in contemporary Tibet, and theorizing translation, both literary and cultural, in the transmission of Buddhist teachings to North America. She is author of Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (2016); co-editor of A Gathering of Brilliant Moons: Practice Advice from the Rime Masters of Tibet (2017), and translator of Inseparable Across Lifetimes: The Lives and Love Letters of Namtrul Rinpoche and Khandro Tāre Lhamo (2019). For more than a decade, she has led meditation workshops and retreats. Currently, at the University of Colorado Boulder, she is a founding member of a new Contemplative Resource Center on campus and part of a co-design process for the Mindful Campus initiative.

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  1. Olga M. Klimecki and Tania Singer, “Compassion,” in Brain Mapping: An Encyclopedic Reference, edited by Arthur W. Toga, vol. 3 (Amsterdam: Academic Press, 2015), 195–199.