The stages of grief are well known, but what about the journey through those stages? How can we mindfully and consciously navigate the pain of anger, denial and acceptance in a way that heals our broken hearts, and makes a way forward seem possible?
Grief is an inevitable part of being human. The price we pay for love and connection is the aching loss when this is no longer around. And yet for all the inevitability and universality of grief, it still takes us by shock. For many, grief is often so raw and so big it feels too painful to sit in, which is why denial is often the first stage of grief that we turn to. Feeling loss like this can be so heavy that you cannot face it all the time. You have to pick it up, in stages, and then put it down again. Denial can be about not really facing that someone is gone, or even a simple denial of the pain that this loss has caused.
Sadly, many people never move out of this state. The numbness of denial is preferable to the pain of loss, especially in a world where we continue to hide grief from public view. ‘We often hide our pain from the world, wrapping it in a secret mantle of shame,’ says psychotherapist Francis Weller, the author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow. ‘This causes sorrow to linger unexpressed in our bodies, weighing us down and pulling us into the territory of depression and death. We have come to fear grief and feel too alone to face an encounter with the powerful energies of sorrow.’
And yet, the only way out, is through. Unresolved grief accounts for at least 15 per cent of mental health disorders, because our minds and bodies have to actually physically metabolise our grief to cope with it. ‘Grieving is an actual evolutionary need, since attachment and connection is embedded within our limbic circuitry,’ explains Jennifer Wolkin on mindful.com. ‘Whether we are conscious of it or not, or like it or not, relationships deeply imprint upon our neuronal selves.’
And when that relationship is changed by death, the loss of it must be thoroughly felt within us. ‘When our grief cannot be spoken, it falls into the shadow and re-arises in us as symptoms,’ explains Weller. ‘So many of us are depressed, anxious, and lonely. We struggle with addictions and find ourselves moving at a breathless pace, trying to keep up with the machinery of culture.’
To heal, we must feel. And that means connecting with the most painful part of ourselves, in a world that is hurrying us to get on with it and get over it. ‘If you don’t carve out some time for yourself to be present with yourself and your breath you will likely keep suppressing all the emotions that deserve to be felt, until they one day inevitably overflow and you may not have the coping mechanism in place to support yourself through it,’ says mindful grief coach Tahnee Knowles, who turned to mindfulness as a way to navigate through grief when her second son died shortly after birth.
Mindfulness is heavily linked to the idea of impermanence, a Buddhist concept that encourages us to focus less on the past and the future, and more on the present moment. We know that each moment is fleeting (or impermanent), and we can sit in that space – in the pain of it, or the joy of it – without guilt or fear. This too shall pass, so for now, until it does, we sit here.
‘To grieve mindfully is to be fully present in your experience of grief,’ says Knowles. ‘An example of this is when an uncomfortable thought arises rather than pushing it down and suppressing it you make room for it. Allowing yourself compassion and understanding for feeling the way you do and not forcing yourself to feel any other emotion that the one is arising at that moment in time.’
When we think about this in relation to grief, it means that we are able to allow the stages of grief to move through us, without fighting them. We know that pain and sorrow, like life, is temporary. We know it will be there, and then, one day it won’t be. And then, it will return, and later leave again.
Adopting mindfulness can also help you to cope with the feeling that the rest of the world has moved on without you. ‘How can everyone continue to walk around as normal when everything for us feels so wrong?’ asks Knowles. ‘We sometimes keep going just to catch up and keep up with the world around us and the reality is, most of us have no choice but to continue.’ Carving out some time for yourself each day to sit with the grief, and no distractions, is what will allow you the space to live in the world as it is, while grieving an enormous loss.
While we are sitting in these moments of pain, which can feel all-consuming, we can use mindfulness practises, such as meditation, breathing, yoga, walking in nature and journaling to support us in our grief.
To the newly bereaved, silence can be terrifying. Our friends and family circle around us, making sure we are never alone. But this can mean we also never have real time to grieve as deeply as we need to. Sitting in our silence, focusing on the breath is a process of hollowing out to create the space we need to see what is emerging for us. ‘Silence is a practice of emptying, of letting go,’ says Weller. ‘Our work is to make ourselves receptive…to feel the deep ache of loss, the bittersweet reminders of all that we loved, the piercing artifacts of betrayal, and the sheer truth of impermanence.’
TRY: Diaphragmatic Breathing Meditation.
Sit up straight in a cross-legged position, relax your muscles, and find a focal point in front of you. Start counting your breaths on the exhalation – focus on your body, air coming in and out and counting. Acknowledge thoughts as they appear, and then let them go. This takes practice, so each time you do your breathing, focus on the letting go, not the fact that you are besieged by external thoughts. The more you do this, the more you will be able to filter out the thoughts you want, and eventually sit in quiet stillness, allowing space for your feelings of grief to work its way through you.
People will offer all sort of kindness towards you when you’re grieving, but it is the loving kindness you show to yourself that is the most important. Especially if you are someone who is struggling with acceptance and being critical of your ‘progress’ through grief. ‘When we have a physical wound we tend to it,’ says Knowles. ‘It’s important to acknowledge grief as such. I see self-care as a form of wound cleansing. If you have a bad cut you will clean it before dressing it to help it heal, you don’t just bandage up without ensuring the correct preparation is done to enable the best possible healing.’
Mindfulness meditation that focuses on self-love and self-care can be really important here. You can also focus compassion and kindness towards the person who has died, which allows you to continue that relationship
with someone you love, after they have died.
TRY: Finding a Mantra. Find some words that truly speak to you about loss, grief, love. Use words that you can easily remember and that make you feel safe and supported. You want to create a mantra that you can say silently, or out loud, that helps you to keep moving forward to acceptance. A type of mantra to recite to yourself silently, or out loud, that helps you move toward accepting these words as true. Knowles’ mantra helps her to acknowledge her love for her son, and creates a space for grieving, while helping her to keep moving forward. ‘Grief is love with nowhere to go. For as long as I love I will grieve. I choose to nurture it and provide it a safe space to flourish, forever a part of me and always with me.’
Sometimes it can be hard to find the words you need, or the quiet space you want to let your grief move through you. We are physical beings and our pain is felt in our body, as much as in our mind. At these times, movement can be a supportive, and powerful resource. Whether that’s walking outside, doing yoga, or learning a dance – rhythm is a great way to access hidden pain – when you move you allow the mind to quieten down and the truth of your body’s language to speak. For pain that has been buried deep, movement can unlock the door to feeling, and ultimately acceptance.
TRY: Mindful Walking. Walking in nature can help you to face the unthreatening reality of the natural cycle of life and death, seen in plants, earth, trees and animals. And to connect with the beauty of the natural world. Start outside, and spend a couple of minutes standing still, feeling your feet on the earth. With your eyes closed, pay attention to what you can discern through your other senses. Finally open your eyes and allow this sense to take in all that is around you – think about colour, shape, texture, detail. Once you start walking, shift your weight from foot to foot, and your attention from one sense to another. Keep doing this as other thoughts come in, let them swirl around, always keeping your attention on the process of walking and sensing what is around you.