Devoting to a Cause

We’ve all heard of courageous people who after experiencing a painful loss, transform their suffering into passion, purpose, and community. The word passion derives from the Latin passus, meaning to suffer. Guided by a desire to transform grief, they devote themselves to a cause larger than themselves.

A woman whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver started a group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The parents of Matthew Shepherd, who was brutally murdered for being gay, became strong advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and or queer (LGBTQ) rights and helped pass a federal law called the Hate Crime Prevention Act (HCPA).

And there is the extraordinary example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland at the outset of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese occupation. His Holiness embodies the losses and suffering of the Tibetan people, while also exuding kindness, love, and joy wherever he goes.

Small Acts To Transform Grief

Granted these are remarkable responses to unspeakable losses, but there are lots of examples of ordinary people who also acted with great joy, kindness, and generosity — who transformed their grief.

When one of my bereavement groups was ending, a widower named Charles joined a new bereavement group. He was beginning to feel happier and more rooted, and believed his experiences could be a beacon of hope to those newly bereaved.

Some people, to transform grief, join choruses that sing at the bedsides of the dying.3 Others volunteer at local shelters to walk dogs and reduce suffering of animals waiting for adoption, or ride their bikes in the Pan-Mass Challenge4 that raises millions of dollars for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston). Volunteers with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) work to create housing for adults with disabilities. A mother who lost her baby at birth raises money for her hospital’s neonatal unit—hoping to save another family from the tragedy she suffered.

How Can You Restore Your Well-Being?

How will you take your broken-open heart, your vulnerability and your tenderness, and allow it to restore your own well-being? At some point when you’re ready, and only when you are ready and have enough energy to reach out, how will you allow your grieving heart to connect with others and make the world a little more welcoming?


Sit quietly for a few moments and focus on the flow of your breath, in and out. Say slowly, to yourself, the following phrases:

May I allow myself to feel vulnerable.

May I have the courage to ask for what I need.

And may I find ways to help other people and living beings.

A Few Suggestions

Reflect on ways you might develop a support network for yourself.

  • Reach out to someone today and see if they would be a “grief friend.”
  • Look for a local bereavement group or an online community that can support you.

Take a few minutes to reflect on activities you love, such as making music, woodworking, learning a language, or playing sports.

  • What small gesture can you make to cultivate one or more of these passions, foster community, and give back?

Identify someone who is struggling—because of a difficult relationship, a sick child, stress at work, or homelessness.

  • What random act of kindness might you offer?*   *   *

Excerpted from Opening to Grief: Finding Your Way from Loss to Peace, by Claire B. Willis and Marnie Crawford Samuelson (Dharma Spring, 2020). Reprinted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser. All rights reserved.

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To read more from Claire B. Willis: Our Aching Earth: When We Grieve About Our Natural World – Open to Hope

Claire B. Willis is a clinical social worker who has worked in the fields of oncology and bereavement for more than 20 years. A cofounder of the Boston nonprofit Facing Cancer Together, Willis has led bereavement, end-of-life, support, and therapeutic writing groups. She has co-taught Spiritual Resources for Healing the Mind, Body, and Soul at Andover Newton Theological School. She maintains a private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. As a lay Buddhist chaplain, Claire focuses on contemplative practices for end-of-life care. She has co-authored Opening to Grief with Marnie Crawford Samuelson, and is the sole author of Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning Toward the Close of Life.


Claire Willis Claire

As a child, grief was the wall paper in my home. Unspoken traumatic deaths and losses swirled through the lives of both my parents. As a child I felt the unspoken sorrow in my home. I made a vow at that time to live differently. After college I went to social work school to become a clinical social worker. Initially my work was focused on working with those at the margins - the voiceless ones - and when my mother's health failed, I switched the focus of my work. I started working with people living with cancer when my mother was dying in the late 80’s. Before she died but with death clearly on the horizon, I had conversations with her that I had yearned to have my whole life. I saw how rich and healing these weeks could be in people's lives. I wanted to have conversations with people that were meaningful – that were open, honest and heartfelt. I found a place where my intensity was welcomed. About 12 years ago, I developed pulmonary emboli and had a near death experience. At that point, my life took an unexpected U turn. The first book I read after my hospitalization was called Living Fully, Dying Well. As it happened it was written by someone who had also had a near death experience with pulmonary emboli. He had experienced, as I had, that coming to terms with death enhanced his life. I felt even more deeply called at this point to working with people who were dying and grieving. Having come to that edge of life and death shaped my work going forward. Shortly after, I was drawn to a Buddhist practice when i met my teacher at a workshop. Buddhism emphasizes the impermanence of life and the inevitability of suffering. But I also came to realize that coming to terms with what is instead of what or how I wished things to be was essential to lessening the suffering in my life. I have had a daily practice ever since.

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