The Karuna Project


Everything is always changing. On a normal, un-bereft day, we might wake up feeling rested. On another day, we may wake up after a bad night. Lying in bed, stretching to alleviate an ache, or luxuriating in how nice it feels to stay a bit longer, listening to bird song. In all probability, in the next few moments, what we feel will change with a cup of tea or coffee, altering our outlook. A shower might wash away the dream shreds clinging to our brain and refresh our bodies enough to face the day with energy. Eating breakfast, traveling to work, observing people, smiling and saying hello or choosing to keep to ourselves – with every new moment and new interaction, we are changing in subtle ways.


There is nothing like death to shine an unwelcome light on change. What is normally perceived as small shifts in our emotional field become huge and unmanageable as we quickly cycle between numbness, sadness, anger and confusion. I remember those early days of grief when I would awaken peacefully for a moment, then suddenly be slammed with the fact of his death. Tears streaming down my face, I could barely force myself to get out of bed. Grief stuck me in place.


Many people believe the solution to the stasis of grief it to keep busy. It is true that if you have something else to focus on such as mindless TV, a project, a meeting, even a piece of toast, you won’t have time to get “stuck” in emotion. This might work for a while. Ultimately we cannot run away from our grief because it will follow us wherever we go. And if we ignore it for too long, it will overwhelm us.


When my husband died, I felt as if the ground beneath my feet had given way. The world slowed, and I moved within it as if wading through mud. My synapses misfired, my thoughts halted. I spent a lot of time staring off into space or wandering around my house. I had no choice but to sit down with my grief, that extremely uncomfortable companion. This is a harder choice than keeping busy – to sit with sorrow, to allow tears and anguish to flow and to not know what will happen next or even how you will get through it.


As a person who likes to be in control, I have learned that simply being for a time is as important as doing. Death taught me that I am actually not in control of anything and I might as well get used to it. We often keep busy as a default action, because we don’t know how to simply BE – activities keep us from feeling what is deeply affecting us. Yet within darkest depths, the seeds of change and growth are incubating. The darkness holds our memories and my continuing love, even though it feels as if it has no place to go. When I embrace my own darkness, I can slowly find my way back towards the light. And in allowing myself to weep, to BE with my sorrow, I discover that I can cope.


In the poem, The Guest House, Rumi indicates a way to cope with shame, sorrow, malice and other uncomfortable emotions. He says life itself is a guest house and we might as well welcome everything in, as if it were a gift. I thought about this a lot in the early days of my grief. I saw my sorrow was connected to my love. I saw that my life contained gifts that came from being in relationship with him. In the midst of devastation, love still connected me and, even though I felt broken, I knew that I would be able to live my life fully again.  In time…


So, I recommend just letting it all go for a while. Simply BE with your grief. Make sure you are in a safe place so you can really let your grief out. Have a box of tissues nearby and a glass of water. Hydrating is important when you cry. You might also give yourself a time limit so that you know you will rise up out of the depths after several minutes. Take some deep breaths and give yourself a hug. Sip the water. Slowly get up and splash some water on your face to cool it down.


Congratulate yourself on a good emotional release. If you like, you can now do something with this experience. Write how it feels to simply be with grief, to allow it to have its voice for a while. And write about the gift of love.


Claudia Coenen is a certified grief counselor in private practice in Hudson, New York. After being suddenly widowed, she went back to school to study. Claudia has worked in hospice, been a grief specialist in a trauma center and presents talks on creative ways to process grief. She is the author of Shattered by Grief: Picking up the pieces to become WHOLE again and the Karuna Cards, Creative ideas for grief and difficult life transitions, both published by Jessica Kingsley Books. She can be reached at