Loss is one of the major stressors in life that affects our overall state of being. All aspects of our lives are touched as we cope with loss and grief physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritual. There are no quick fix recipes on how to best deal with grief, and everybody has their own individual process. While we cannot escape and suppress grief, we can adopt an attitude that will help us through it. One approach that has been found helpful in for this purpose is mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been getting a lot of press in recent years, with mantras like “Be Here Now” and “Live in the present moment,” but it is actually an old technique from ancient spiritual traditions. We can best describe being mindful as being present (with your full awareness centered in the “now” moment), not thinking about either the past of the future, being aware of your surroundings and experiencing the present moment with all your senses.
If mindfulness is adopted as our approach to improving all aspects of our wellbeing, it will significantly reduce the burdens and hardships of grieving. Here are a few examples of how mindfulness can benefit different aspects of the grieving process.
Grief is a usually a mixture of strong difficult emotions like anger, sorrow, hopelessness, worry, fear, anxiety and pain. It causes powerful emotional releases like crying and sobbing that can last for hours at a time, as well as complete numbness and disconnection. The mindfulness approach to hard emotions is to be present with them, acknowledge them and go through them rather than try to fight and suppress them. Suppressing emotions can lead to physical pain and even serious illness. Mindfulness teaches us to be compassionate with ourselves, and to allow ourselves to go through whatever we need to go through without self-judgment and denial. It teaches us to honor our feelings and express them. Some people even find that mindfulness inspires them to transform their grief through poetry, painting, and/or other art forms that will forever leave a beautiful reminder of the feelings they had for those that they lost.
Mindfulness is based on managing the focus of our awareness, so it changes what we think about and even how often and how fast we think. It slows down our rambling mind, thus saving us from the vicious circle of negative thoughts that accompany grief. We focus on our breath and our sensations. We let negative thoughts pass through our minds, acknowledging them, but not following them and not attaching ourselves to them. Since thoughts cause emotional responses, when we learn how to relate to our thoughts in this way, we learn how to manage our emotions. We can catch ourselves as we start going down the spiral of despair, and gently bring ourselves back into the present moment.
Thoughts produce emotions, and emotions produce physical responses. Increased worry, stress and agitation upset our central nervous systems, which gives rise to fight-or-flight-mode symptoms like muscle tension, increased heart rate, digestive problems, headaches and so on. Mindful breathing and visualization techniques take the pressure off our central nervous systems and activate the release of the right brain chemicals to bring us back into a balanced state. They calm us down, oxygenate our bodies and release tension. We are also more aware of our body’s needs when we are present with it, so we are able to eat, sleep and exercise regularly, which often becomes difficult when coping with grief.
If you’re trying to deal with grief and loss in your own life right now, mindfulness is a good place to start. It has no negative side effects, it is a completely natural way to help ourselves, it’s free, and we can find many resources online or in bookstores. We just have to open our minds and reach out for it.