Thich Nhat Hanh on coping with the loss of a loved one

Is there a way to deal with the death of a loved one? In particular, how can a mother deal with the loss of a partner and give their children the best possible upbringing? Is there a way to take the gloominess away? 

Visualize a cloud in the sky. Maybe one part of the cloud has become rain; half of the cloud remains in the same form and half has taken a different one. And you cannot say that the rain is less beautiful than the cloud, or the cloud is less beautiful than the rain. They can both be beautiful. ☁️

When you live with your beloved one, be aware that he or she is a kind of cloud. You are also a kind of cloud and are not entirely here in this body, because every day you produce thoughts, speech, and action which continue independently of you.

So we are like a cloud in the sky: every day it can produce rain or snow or hail. We can see the continuation of the cloud, even if it is still there in the sky. 

Human beings produce thoughts, speech, and action every day. And that is our continuation. We must meditate in order to see ourselves not only in our bodies, but also outside of them.

I can see myself not only in this body; I can see myself in my friends, in my disciples, in my work, in many things. And if you want to recognize me, don’t look in this direction; this body is only a small part of me.

So the person that you believe is already lost is not lost; he is still there in other forms. Look for him inside yourself, look for him in your children. That person is still available in the here and now.

So when you look at the rain or the tea, if you recognize your cloud there, your sorrow will vanish. You will know that your cloud still exists in new forms, and you can talk to and be with your cloud. That is called signlessness. You are not caught by a particular form.

You can recognize your loved one in many other forms. I think it is easy enough to see the father in the children. You can talk to the father through the children, and you can take care of the father by taking care of the children. And not only is he in the children; he is also in you.

The fact is that nothing is born, nothing dies. It is impossible for a cloud to die, so it is impossible for anything to die, to become nothing. That is why meditation on death is so helpful: it helps you to see that there is no death. There is no birth and death, there is only transformation. Nothing can be lost.

Sometimes your loved one can hide himself or herself and take another form, so that you will know better how to cherish their presence.

In the Lotus Sutra, a chapter talks about a doctor with the power to heal. And his children rely on his presence: “We have a father that can heal us, so we don’t need to take medicine, we don’t need to do anything.”

The doctor wants to help them, so he goes away and sends word that he has died. And the children cry, and cry, and cry, and begin to drink the medicine and are healed. So the father has to hide himself in order to help his children to take the medicine. 

Many of us are like that. We don’t cherish the presence of our beloved enough, until we no longer see that familiar form. And we learn. We learn and we heal, and we rediscover our beloved in other forms.

The meditation on death is a very important meditation. When you meditate on death, you love life more, you cherish life more. We can learn many lessons from it.

Mindfulness allows us to recognize and cherish and treasure what is still available, so that in the future we won’t say, “While the person was alive, I was not aware of their precious presence”.

That is why it is so important to go home to the here and now and recognize and cherish the positive elements that are still available.

With the practice of mindfulness, you can look deeply and discover the nature of no birth and no death, and find out that nothing can die; that nothing can be lost.

Every day I live with my sangha – monastic and lay sangha: monks, nuns, lay practitioners – and I find that my sangha looks exactly like the sangha of the Buddha. They have very much the same problems, the same joy, the same happiness, and the same suffering. And I feel that the Buddha and the sangha of the Buddha is available to me in the here and now.

I don’t miss the Buddha or the sangha of the Buddha, because I am able to see the Buddha, and his sangha in my sangha. Because my sangha is first of all the continuations of the Buddha’s sangha.

We have the Buddha available. We have the sangha of the Buddha available today. So there is no reason to be sorrowful.         

[This transcript has been edited for readability.]

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  1. I am fortunate and grateful to have read Thich Nhat Hanh’s helpful words on July 1, 2021, and every day since, because my father passed away the day before this post, on June 30, 2021. Thank you.

    1. Dear Julia, thank you for sharing this with us. We are happy to know that it has been a help for you during this time.
      Sending love and compassion to you and your father 🙏🧡.

      With much care,
      The Plum Village App team

  2. Thank you, this will help me feel better and remind me that my loved one is still here close to me, inside of me 🤲🏻🌻☁️☀️

  3. Dear respected Thay
    Dear beloved Sangha,

    Thank you for this beautiful practise and teachings on grieving through breath during death and lost of a loved on. A dear friend recently lost her dear daughter because of cancer at a very young age. In order to support her grieving and be there for her, i am learning and sharing Thay’s practise on grieving and how to transform it into compassion. Thank you. 🙏🏽❤️

  4. Gratitude to Thich Nhat Hahn, & thank you for this, it has blessed me with much peace.
    My parents divorced when I was a teen, & my father soon after remarried & moved to another country for work. Very shortly after this, we got word that he had passed very suddenly, at 55.
    I was so lost & confused for so long, even before that.
    Some time after, a part of me started to see that he had given me this deep gift; without his transition, my heart & eyes would not have been cracked open to start to realize the precious blessing of existence, connection & spirit, & the love shared.
    His spirit is love & light & joyful laughter, inspiration, dedication, kindness, generosity, beautiful songs of nature & rejoicing, pure connection & deep peace. I look & see & feel him everywhere, & his love lives within me.
    Sometimes thoughts come up, wishing I had asked him about this or that, or thinking of all the things we could have done together if I had just appreciated more & not been so self-centered, but when they do, I shift to focus on all the love we shared, all the beautiful memories & blessings & gifts & growth he gave so generously & selflessly, especially to me.
    & I focus this wonderful light on presence so that I truly cherish & appreciate everything as it is, & while it is here & while I am here in this form.
    My intent is for the merit, love, positive energy & precious connection to be at the forefront, always.
    Thank you, blessings & peace to all🌼🌸🦋💗

  5. I so very much love Thay! These words, written, and spoken are so comforting and loving. What a sweet man! To dedicate his life to teach & help others. I very much appreciate that while Thay is not present in his body, he is here with us. I remember watching this on youtube the first time, it is so lovely and meaningful.

    I am thankful for this lesson, and how beautiful to use a cloud to explain transition. I was so very sad to lose my partner & best friend, to cancer. Now I realize he is here, in his daughter, and in me, in his family, and friends. Recently, a friend of mine transitioned, and I was able to comfort her family, in a more spiritual way. They thanked me for that. Now, I thank you, for Thay is in you, and in me, and you are sweet to help the world!

    With Peace, Love, and Blessings, Always,
    Jenn Olsen <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

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