Bringing Mindfulness to Grief & Loss
Let’s start with a caveat. Grieving is natural and it is hard. There are many forms of grief; some stemming from birth and childhood, some from particular occurrences or from a progression of causes and conditions, some that will be with us every day, and some that do eventually ebb and integrate into the weave of our life. Each of us has our own unique array of losses and coping mechanisms. Each of us is on a journey to understand ourselves and this life.
Mindfulness simply put, is a way of orienting our attention to the present, expanding our awareness, and softening our critical/reactive impulses to our own inner experience. On the journey of reconciliation and healing, being more at peace with what has been and more present for the life unfolding before us, mindfulness supports the meaning making process. What is referred to in Buddhism as insight, and what is now referred to by grief specialist David Kessler as the sixth stage of grief. Here are some thoughts of how they go together.
It’s simple, but not easy.
Paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non judgmentally is one way to describe the technical mindfulness practice. This can be applied to daily tasks- wash the dishes while you wash the dishes. And it can be applied to formal meditation, be aware of your breath flowing in and out. As we attempt to be more fully present, we are often shocked with how hard or uncomfortable it can be. Distraction and preoccupation are ingrained habits and can be exasperated with grief and trauma. Getting pulled into difficult thoughts and feelings can also prevail. Building connection back to the physical body and present moment awareness may take some time and work. The effort is actually part of the healing.
Kindness & Compassion are a must.
Mindfulness is like the light of the Sun, helping us to see more of what is going on in our body, mind, and heart. Kindness & compassion are like the warmth of Sun, we need the warmth to help us make sense and meaning of our lives. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, one of the first experts in the modern field of death & dying used to frame all of our griefs as lessons to be learned so we could fully know love. When it gets hard in any moment, find ways to evoke the warmth of kindness and compassion. It is there, and you need and deserve it. To be able to care about your own pain is an important inner skill to practice. Sometimes the simple affirmation “this hurts”, “this is hard,” is enough to help you over the peaks of difficult emotions.
It’s OK that you’re not OK
When we start practicing mindfulness, we perhaps think we will feel some calm and then be able to do something productive with our messy grief…
In reality, as we learn how to be more present and aware of our inner experience we will see that it is messy! The practice then becomes getting to know that, learning to navigate that, learning from that.
As we are able to be more aware and less reactive to our sensations, emotions, and thoughts, we see ourselves in a bigger context. We are not just these sensations, emotions, thoughts. They are part of us, but they do not have to snare us the same way again and again.
We can acknowledge, honor, explore, even befriend parts of our experience that we couldn’t tolerate before. It is OK to be as you really are, right where you are, for now.
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
~Elisabeth Kubler- Ross