A Mindful Path Through Grief
I am not a newcomer to grief.
At the age of 13 years old I lost my father, grandfather and great grandmother in a matter of three months.
What I “learned” then was to not talk about it and act like nothing happened. These loses deeply affected me and still impact me to this day.
Ultimately, I had to face loss on my own and transformed my life goal to work with grief and transitional life concerns. I have volunteered at Touchstone, interned at Children’s Hospital and consulted with many traumatized personnel and companies facing huge layoffs. Over the years I learned so much from my grieving patients. These “lessons” include, but are not limited to: it’s okay to say nothing, it’s okay to cry or laugh, or reach out. Conversely, I “learned” that it’s not cool to be too clinical, self-absorbed, directive and distant.
With that said, there is no way to truly escape grief. It will happen to virtually everyone sooner or later and that is, unfortunately, a fact.
We can neither fully prepare for it nor rush through it, but many of us try to resist it. Undeniably grief is the most painful emotion to experience. It doesn’t matter how we prepare ourselves for it, grief has a way of taking over every aspect of our lives for a time and leaving us feeling drained, barren and overwhelmed. Loss of a loved one often leads to feelings of panic and despair as well.
Grief, however can also show up when we go through common transitional happenings such as job loss, illness, financial woes, divorce, or our children growing up or moving away.
Despite this, I have noticed in my 30 years of counseling individuals and families how many of us try to resist or deny the pain of grief which becomes worse when we hold on to our judgments and create unrealistic expectations of ourselves.
A Way Beyond Grief
However, by adopting a mindful approach to grieving, we can openly embrace grief, better navigate through our losses and discover more fulfillment for living. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn being mindful calls upon us to stay open, aware, non-judging and present which all defy resistance, but encourage resilience.
Here are some mindful strategies that have helped many of my patients and their love ones find a more peaceful path through grief.
Accept and set boundaries: Grief brings with it tons of new demands and decisions. Being mindful means doing one thing well at a time. You are not supposed to tackle everything that comes at you all at once. It is perfectly okay to say this has to take a backseat or “this is all I can do today”.
Rest up: Grief in any form is jarring to our mindset. Our time, energy and mental capabilities are all being taxed. Staying mindful means listening to your own needs first before attending to others. Adjusting your schedule to fit in stretching, health snacking or even napping can give you a renewed perspective and help you face more unpredictability.
Stay flexible: Our whole belief system changes when we are thrown into grief. It is normal to one minute like this and the next minute not. Such mood fluctuations are frequently reported and not to be thought of as bad. It is mindful to give ourselves permission to plan just for the moment. Actually, spontaneity can bring relief and reduce unwanted anxiety.
Reach out: Talking about what we experienced through loss not only helps us, but others. We’re not alone, but if we don’t allow ourselves to get support, we may very well be (or become) alone. People going through grief can be our strongest supporters. And even if our neighbors don’t know what to do or say, just knowing they are sorry may be enough. Optimism is the cornerstone of mindfulness. So believing that those around us are doing their best can give us more hope. Now is the time to reinforce our connection to the world despite how vulnerable we might feel.
Ease back into life: Our brains, and being, are in a very different places than they were prior to our loss. It may even feel non-operative at times and that is why hitting the door running may not be our best bet. One of the tenet of mindfulness is to slow now. So, here’s your opportunity to expect to be slower and carefully plan your entrance back into your old, active, lifestyle.
Focus: When we lose something, or someone, we tend to obsess about what is missing now that our home, money, person, and/or job etc. are gone. By doing so we deepen our misery as well as our dependence on things to keep us numb (like over-eating or drinking). Mindfully it is important to focus on the good times we’ve had, what we’ve learned, and how we’ve grown will help us feel empowered and reduce our overall stress.
Forgive yourself: It is natural to turn our anger about the loss against yourself, others or the universe. If we can, for a moment, mindfully acknowledge what we and others have endured through this loss, we can gradually move away from blaming our character flaws and find new meaning to our existence.
Your Grief Is Not My Grief
There is no single right way to grieve … grief is like a tidal wave. We can’t predict our every reaction, or plan for how we’ll handle it in any detail, when it comes our way with tremendous force.
What we do know is that grief is as unique as we are and our lives are different for having faced it (which can actually be a net positive for us).
Jealousy and feelings of rejection don’t need to replace our feelings of abandonment. There is an easier way to deal with grief and mindfulness allows for it.
Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness… by Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh