How to Better Cope with Grief through Mindfulness
“Grief is the price we pay for love.” ~ Queen Elizabeth II
This past year I lost my life partner. Mary was a beautiful soul. She was loving, compassionate, and had a way of bringing out the best in people. She was the love of my life. She was also the cofounder of the Mindfulness Meditation Institute. Her loss was one of the most painful things I have ever experienced, and coping with the grief has been a challenge.
We all, at one time in our lives, lose someone or something dear to our heart. It may be the loss of a loved one, a pet, a job, a house, or our health. Whatever our loss, we will all experience grief as a result.
How we cope with the grief will determine how well and how quickly we heal. It will also determine if it makes us stronger or weaker. Some of us find a way to cope with the grief in a healthy manner, and in time, learn to accept the loss and move on with our lives. Others get caught up in the emotions, and are unable to let go and accept the loss.
If you get stuck and are unable to cope with your grief, you could be in for a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering, which will harm your other relationships, your health, and could prevent you from ever being happy again. Is that what your lost loved one would want for you? Probably not.
What Is Grief?
Grief is a natural reaction to loss. We all experience it when we lose someone or something important to us. You may feel a variety of different emotions, such as sadness or loneliness. With the loss of a loved one, you may also experience other emotions, such as guilt or anger due to unresolved issues.
We All Grieve Differently
We all cope with grief in a different way. There are several reasons for this:
Differences in relationships. Each of us had a unique relationship with our lost loved one. Those relationships were different according to affiliation and history.
Different coping skills. We each have learned different coping skills throughout our lives. Some of us may be young and have not yet developed good coping skills, and others may be mature and more accepting of the inevitability of death.
Unique circumstances. The circumstances of our loved one’s death are all different. It may be a peaceful transition for someone who has lived a long fulfilling life, or it may be an unexpected tragedy.
Different spiritual faiths. We all have different beliefs about our existence here on earth. They may even be different within the same spiritual traditions. And each time a loved one passes on, we question those beliefs to try and make sense of our loss.
Now, even though there are great differences surrounding our loss, there are some common patterns in how we cope with grief.
The 5 Stages of Grief
Most of us are somewhat familiar with the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Keep in mind that not everyone goes through the 5 stages in a straightforward manner, and sometimes we may go back and forth between them.
Denial: At first, you may not believe what has happened. This is the shock of first learning about your loss. You may go numb and wonder how you can go on. Denial is a survival mechanism to help you cope with your loss as you’re able, instead of all at once.
Anger: As you begin to process your loss, you may look for someone to blame. It may be God, or life in general. It could be someone who actually caused your loved one’s death. It’s also natural to be angry at your lost loved one.
Bargaining: In this stage, you might begin asking yourself what you could have done to prevent the loss. You may think “What if…” or “If only I had…” You may even try to strike a bargain with God.
Depression: As the reality of your loss begins to set in, you may experience the usual symptoms of depression, such as crying, sleep problems, decreased appetite, and the inability to function normally.
Acceptance: This is the stage where you begin to come to terms with your loss. Your loved one isn’t coming back, and even though you’re still sad, you think about moving on with your life. Here is where you find some peace of mind.
How to Practice Mindful Grieving
Mindfulness is about being fully aware of our experiences as they are happening in the present moment. We are aware of our thoughts, emotions, and our body sensations. So you can see how mindfulness can help you cope with grief. A noted psychologist and grief advocate, Megan Devine, has developed a 7-step approach to coping with grief mindfully, which you may find useful.
1. Acknowledge and accept your feelings. This is probably the most important step in coping with grief. When we are going through a difficult time, our tendency is to avoid painful thoughts and emotions. However, if you avoid the painful feelings, you will never heal. You will never be able to make sense of your loss.
Now, this doesn’t mean to dwell on your emotions. That can lead to depression. The idea is to allow your feelings to come up, and try to gain a little more understanding each time they arise. This is the key to healing.
“Embrace your grief. For there, your soul will grow.” ~ Carl Jung
2. Express yourself. While some people find it useful to talk about their loss, others don’t. Find some way to express yourself. This can be a great emotional outlet. You probably already have some interest or hobby, such as art, music, gardening, writing or journaling, exercising, or volunteering. By finding a way to express yourself, you avoid getting stuck.
3. Know you’re not alone. Never forget that you’re not alone in your grief. We all experience loss. I was surprised to find that several of my friends have lost their spouse, and some of them after I lost Mary. We’ve found great comfort in supporting each other.
“We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world — the company of those who have known suffering.” ~ Helen Keller
If you feel like you need help, you may want to consider a support group. There are always people coping with grief just like us. Sometimes, just knowing we’re not alone is a great comfort.
4. Try grief-focused meditation. Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can help you calm your emotions and relieve stress. When coping with grief, meditation can be a difficult task. However, it can significantly speed up the healing process, as it enables you to see things with greater clarity. Sitting quietly can give you a safe place for your emotions to surface, and allow you to reflect on them without judgment.
“You can’t truly heal from a loss until you allow yourself to really feel the loss.” ~ Mandy Hale
5. Create healthy boundaries. Well-meaning friends and family don’t want to see you suffer, and may want to do whatever they can to help. However, sometimes they may try and help too much, by constantly checking up on you, or repeatedly bringing up the subject. This isn’t always helpful.
It’s up to you to set healthy boundaries. Let them know in a loving way that you appreciate their willingness to help, and that you will call on them when needed. Remember, they care about you and just want to help.
6. Get unstuck. Not only do we all cope with grief differently, but we also have different ideas on how to grieve “properly.” There is no correct way to grieve. It is an individual process. Sometimes the process can seem extremely slow. But remember, you just experienced a major loss, and healing takes time.
While there is a tendency to isolate when you’re grieving, it’s important to maintain social contacts, preferably in person. This will help you avoid constantly dwelling on your loss, which could lead to depression. It’s much easier to avoid depression, than it is to get out of it.
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” ~ Henri Nouwen
It’s up to you to keep yourself moving forward. If you feel like you’re stuck, then it may be time to seek professional help. Signs that you may need help include addictive behaviors, extreme isolation, thoughts of suicide, difficulty sleeping, or loss of appetite.
7. Tell your story. It seems like there’s a part of us that wants to tell someone all about our loss, but we hold back because we don’t know how it’ll be received. I was actually put on the spot, and asked to share my story in front of a group of people. As an experienced speaker, I figured it would go fairly well. And if it didn’t, I could accept that too. I can tell you that I helped several people that day who were also grieving from a lost loved one, and that helped me heal.
Now, most of us don’t get the opportunity to tell our story in front of an audience, but there are other ways. Remember that your lost loved one may have had other family members, or close friends who are also grieving. Mary and I had a mutual close friend who also loved her. I found comfort in talking to her about Mary, and I’m sure she felt the same way.
4 Simple Mindfulness Practices for Faster Healing
Mindfulness is a powerful practice that can speed up the healing process, and help you avoid a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. It will enable you to process the flood of emotions in a healthy manner, and help you make some sense out of your loss. Here are some of the simple tools you can use.
Mindful breathing. At the heart of the mindfulness practice is mindful breathing. Paying close attention to your breath will help you calm your thoughts and emotions. It will keep you from becoming overwhelmed. All you have to do is occasionally stop what you’re doing, and just observe your breath for a few moments. You can count 5-10 breaths, and then return to what you were doing. That’s it.
Mindful walking. This is another simple practice. Unless you have mobility issues, we all do some walking throughout our day. When walking from one place to another, pay close attention to your footsteps, just like you do with your breath in mindful breathing. If the weather is nice, you can go for a mindful walk. Try keeping yourself in the moment by observing your surroundings. Notice the different sights and sounds of nature. I like smelling the fresh air and observing all the critters, both large and small.
Sitting meditation. Many people have the misconception that meditation is difficulty, and that they need to clear their mind before they can start meditating. That’s not so. Sitting meditation is actually quite simple. All you have to do is sit quietly for a few minutes, and follow your breath as best as you can. When your mind wanders off, and it will, just keep bring it back to your breathing.
If you’re new to meditation, try it for just 5-10 minutes each session. Then increase the duration as you’re able. Remember, you don’t have to do it perfectly. The ideas is to give your mind a break from the constant stimulation, and simply allow it to calm down naturally. And it will.
Writing meditation. This is a practice I developed to help you overcome stubborn habits that are preventing you from being at peace. What you do is take the scripted meditation, which is a set of affirmations, and copy it by hand over and over. This will imprint the affirmations in your subconscious mind, and they will manifest themselves in your life without any conscious effort. And it only takes about 5 minutes a day.
I’ve written a meditation specifically for healing. The writing meditation for healing will help you build the strength to do what is necessary to heal your broken heart by helping you turn to your faith for insight and support.
When Mary passed away, it was a shock, even though I was expecting it. She was elderly, and we both knew the time was coming. After the initial shock, my mindfulness training kicked in, and it has helped tremendously. While I am sad and I miss her dearly, I haven’t been overwhelmed by my emotions, nor have I engaged in any unhealthy behaviors.
My coping with grief has been a series balanced activities: being around other people and having personal time; talking about my loss and keeping to myself; allowing myself to feel the emotions, but not dwelling on them; remembering Mary, but not allowing the thoughts consume my mind.
“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” ~ J.M. Barrie
As I spent more time around other people, I realized how much they were helping me. Those who helped the most were the ones who didn’t even know I was grieving. They were the ones who always had a smile on their face, and a few kind words to share.
I also found a few people who were also grieving. Some of them had lost a spouse, others a parent, and some even a child. They reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my suffering, and it made my loss a little more bearable.
As time went on, I realized that I needed to find a new purpose in my life, so that I could be hopeful for a positive future. I have returned to writing and I’m considering the next chapter in my life. Even though it’s been less than a year since Mary passed away, I am optimistic about the future, and I know I’ll be OK. After all, that was a promise I made to her.
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