“Our culture sees grief as a kind of malady: a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible. ” Megan Devine
Each time we check in at Mindful Moments, we hear about someone dealing with a loss or unwanted change. We all have ideas of what our lives should look like, and when they no longer meet those expectations, we grieve the loss. As change and death seem to be the only certainties in life, learning how to hold grief gently is vital to becoming more peaceful and building a life around our loss.
I am no expert on grief, so we won’t practice dealing with the big losses in our lives. Instead, we will cultivate our ability to turn toward grief and hold it lightly by practicing with the everyday griefs in our lives. The times when we want to hold onto moments of the past. For me today that is being able to go running, my body feeling like it is falling apart, and not having the energy I used to have. In the past it included not getting a promotion I felt I deserved, my kids going off to college, COVID ending our Thanksgiving bowling tradition.
“Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve, we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve. It takes courage to grieve, to honor the pain we carry.” Jack Kornfield
I never thought that any of my little losses brought up grief, but with 20/20 hindsight I see that they did. I just never allowed myself to feel the grief. Each time we experience a loss, no matter how little, it is painful. If you are like me, most of the time you just sweep these griefs under the carpet. To not feel the pain, we need to contract. Practicing self-compassion gives us the courage to acknowledge the pain of these everyday griefs.
“Sometimes we try not to feel what we’re feeling because we have this image of a “gang of feelings.” If I feel sad and let that in, it’ll never go away. The gang of bad feelings will overrun me. The truth is a feeling that moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.” David Kessler
I felt that grief was ganging up on me when I was on retreat after my mom passed away. There were so many feelings that it was overwhelming. But when I went outside onto the beautiful snow-covered lake, I calmed down. Painful feelings contract us and our viewpoint. Positive feelings provide more spaciousness so we can see life from a wider perspective. By calming down, I saw that there were many feelings, and I didn’t have to deal with them all at once. Looking back, I realize that there would have been fewer of them to deal with if I had practiced with the little griefs that I had been ignoring.
The project manager in me thought I could impose order on my pain. I could list what each of the feelings underneath the grief were and one by one process them. But it doesn’t work that way. We can’t create a plan for our grief. All we can do is deal with the feelings that come up when we have the strength to do so. And distract ourselves when we don’t have the strength. Taking a break from overwhelming grief may feel impossible, it is necessary. That is why we have to practice taking a break and letting in the good when we have little griefs.
“We think there are only two options in grief either you’re stuck in your pain or you’re going to triumph over grief and be transformed. There’s a whole middle ground between those two extremes. A way to tend to pain and grief by bearing witness. By neither turning away, nor rushing redemption, but by standing there, right there, inside the obliterated universe. By somehow making a home there.” Megan Devine
When we experience a loss, we must acknowledge the loss. Telling ourselves that it is no big deal and that others have it worse, does not fix grief. The loss is real, and it will always be a loss. The only thing we can do is to learn to integrate that loss into our lives. As we do that the pain won’t go away, but it won’t feel so overwhelming. We can either choose to ruminate on the loss, pretend there is no loss, or we can figure out what our new life looks like with this loss and live that new life.
“When confronted by harsh realities in life, or even some small discomfort or inconvenience, our instinctive reaction is to run in the opposite direction. But we can’t escape suffering. It’ll just take us by surprise and whack us in the back of the head. The wiser response is to move toward what hurts, to put our hands and attention gently and mercifully on what we might otherwise want to avoid.” Frank Ostaseski
So how can we learn to turn toward and live with our losses?
- Realize that grief is not a problem to be solved. Grief is a natural human reaction. Everyone experiences grief, although we don’t always show it. And there is no right way to grieve. Don’t compare your messy interior with some else’s carefully curated exterior.
- Practice by meditating on the little losses you experience. Allow yourself to feel the pain of your little losses. This will build your tolerance for being with discomfort.
- Treat yourself as you would a good friend. Talk kindly to yourself, allowing your feelings. Silence your inner critic so you can hear your inner nurturer.
- Pay attention to what makes you feel better and what makes you feel worse. That knowledge will come in handy when grief overwhelms you.
- Reach out for support from people who can support, people who can go deep, people who can distract, people who can listen. Each of these groups of people plays a role in giving you the strength to be with your grief. Instead of feeling isolated, you feel a sense of connection.
- Think about how you have overcome similar challenges in the past. Remind yourself of the things you did to help navigate grief or challenges in the past.
- Trust that you will take care of yourself, and you will learn to live with your loss. Don’t compare your grief with other’s grief or with other’s expectations of your grief. Be true to yourself and let your grief unfold in your own way.
- Ask for what you need at any given moment. Those who love you can’t read your mind. Don’t expect them to know what you need, whether it is support or alone time.
- Distract yourself when the grief feels like it is too much, or you don’t have the strength to deal with it in that moment.
- Allow yourself to take in the good: spend time in nature, listening to music, watching puppy videos or whatever gives you a moment of pleasure. Remember that this opens us up to a wider perspective.
- Keep a gratitude journal, or if that is too difficult, just count your wins, the positive things you do each day. A win could be just that you got out of bed.
- Think about what your life can be instead of ruminating on the loss. How can you build a life around this loss? Be the author of your next chapter.
Each of these practices is not meant to erase the pain. They provide you with tools to be with your grief. By allowing yourself to touch your suffering, your innate compassion will emerge. Instead of trying to push the pain away and playing whack-a-mole, you allow the pain to be there. You will find that being gentle with your pain makes it easier to bear, giving you the space to figure out how to live with it.
“That’s the real work of grief recovery – finding ways to live alongside your loss, building a life around the edges of what will always be a vacancy.” Megan Devine