Grief and Mindfulness: Spending Time in the Present

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams


I was worried that if I posted on mindfulness and grief you might get the impression I am a new-age, raw-foodist who has all the time in the world to read, do yoga, and meditate in an ashram.  So if you don’t mind, before we get going I’d like to get a few things straight – although I have been known to read Nagarjuna, do yoga, and meditate; I have more often been known to drink beer, get sucked into all-day Law and Order marathons, cover my house with to-do lists to try to keep my life straight, and change into my yoga clothes only to decide to go to brunch instead. 

What does any of this have to do with mindfulness? Not a thing.  Which is exactly the point – I want you to know that meditation and mindfulness are not all or nothing.  One can learn a lot from Buddhist concepts without becoming a Buddhist.  One can learn about mindfulness without moving to an ashram.  These are just interesting concepts that regular people can apply in everyday life as they please. You may not practice these concepts every minute of every day, and that is okay.  Choose what speaks to you, don’t feel intimidated, and definitely don’t feel guilty grabbing your coffee or a glass of wine while you read on.


Mindfulness and Grief

At the core of Buddhism is the concept of mindfulness, and it is deeply connected to impermanence. Impermanence is a Buddhist concept that brought me much comfort in the first few years after losing my dad. When someone values permanence, they may look to the future obsessively or dwell on the past. However, when a person accepts impermanence, they allow themselves to live in the present moment. In this article, I’d like to specifically focus on the idea of living in the present moment (i.e., mindfulness in grief). 

Mindfulness is a way of life in which we become aware of the present – our thoughts and feelings, our physical experience, and the world around us. Though people often associate mindfulness with meditation, meditation is just a way to learn and practice mindfulness. Mindfulness stretches into every part of life, giving us a tool to live in each moment, knowing it is fleeting (i.e., impermanent).

What does this mean for grief? 

There are two common ways many of us cope with grief. Either we become entirely consumed by our suffering. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, we try our best to avoid the pain and emotions of grief, so we don’t become consumed (which, sorry to say, doesn’t work).

Mindfulness and impermanence remind us that pain and sorrow, like all else, are temporary experiences. Does this mean grief goes away completely? Of course not. But it does mean that it will change shape, and it will ebb and flow. 

Some days it will hurt like hell, and some days you may start to feel a little relief. Once we accept this, even if only rationally, some of our need to avoid our grief may start to diminish. Even when it seems grief is relentless, we can acknowledge it isn’t permanent.

grief and mindfulness

Mindfulness Practice

Let me start here by saying that I am no guru, and this is the briefest of introductions. This is how I understand these practices that have served me well, and if you are interested in learning more, there are many books, websites, and podcasts that can truly get you started.  

Mindfulness practice in meditation begins with diaphragmatic breathing and developing a deep awareness of our breaths. This type of breathing causes the diaphragm to expand as you breathe in and contract as you exhale. 

Start by sitting up very straight in a cross-legged position, relaxing your muscles. Keep your shoulders, jaw, and arms relaxed and find a focal point in front of you. Make sure you are in a quiet space without a lot of distractions. 

Once you are comfortable, you can begin breathing and counting your breaths. Beginners may want to keep their hands on their belly to ensure their breathing remains in their diaphragm. Then, count each breath on the exhalation.

Don’t be scared off by the idea that you also have to clear your mind. This practice is about building an awareness of our thoughts, noticing them, and letting them go. I can promise you that emptying my mind continues to feel nearly impossible on most days – don’t let this stop you from developing a practice.

As you start breathing, try to focus on the movement of your body, the air coming in and out, and your counting. Thoughts will come up as distractions, pulling your focus away from your breath. Don’t be scared off by the idea that you have to clear your mind. This practice is about building an awareness of our thoughts, noticing them, and letting them go. I can promise you that emptying my mind continues to feel nearly impossible on most days – don’t let this stop you from developing a practice.

When thoughts come up, notice them, identify them, and let them go. You may be shocked by the constant flow of thoughts that pull your focus away from the present moment. Everything from what that clicking sound is, to what you will have for dinner, to regret something you did or didn’t do, to pain around your loss and loneliness, and everything in between. At first, letting these thoughts go may seem difficult – how can you let thoughts go?

Like everything, this takes practice. As the thought of what is for dinner comes into your mind, you may start thinking – what do we have in the fridge? Did I remember to pick up peppers at the store for that recipe? Oh wait, I can’t make that anyway because we don’t have cumin. Oh no, Jim’s friend is coming over too. Does he have any food allergies? And on and on and on. Suddenly you have entirely lost track of your breathing. 

One technique I’ve found very helpful is a visualization technique called leaves on a stream. There are many variations on this, but this one is simple. Imagine a stream on the edge of the woods. As a thought arises in your mind, notice it, label it, and imagine it is a leaf floating on the stream. Watch the leaf float down the stream until it disappears and resume the focus on your breathing.

As you practice mindfulness, it will grow far beyond just the moments of sitting and counting breaths and can become part of your day-to-day coping. As you do the basic tasks of life, which can seem so impossible while grieving, you can slowly incorporate mindfulness. You can become aware of the thoughts that are flooding your mind, notice them, accept and acknowledge them, let them go, and remain focused on the present moment and task.

After both the losses of my dad and my sister’s boyfriend, I found driving an impossible task. I would get in the car and be flooded with tears. This went on for not days or weeks, but months. Even when I felt in control in other areas, the car always set me off. 

Applying mindfulness techniques was what finally helped me. I would concentrate on my breathing and the experience of driving. Also focusing on the physical experiences in my body when I started to feel overwhelmed by emotions. I would concentrate on noticing my thoughts and letting them go, refocusing on my breathing and the driving experience. It wasn’t always easy, and it didn’t always work. But it helped me to accept overwhelming thoughts while remaining in the moment of the tasks in front of me. This is not easy – it takes hard work and practice. It will not happen in a day or a week, or a month. But each day, it will get easier. It will become a more natural part of how you approach the world.


A Final Note

It is important to mention that letting thoughts go in mindfulness is not the same as avoidance. In fact, these techniques can make us more aware of the specific thoughts and feelings that are consuming us. Though we often know we are experiencing general feelings of pain, fear, anxiety, and pain, mindfulness can help us notice what specific thoughts and feelings are consuming our minds. Seeing and accepting these thoughts can let us find the appropriate time to address them.

Like this post? Want more creative, down-to-earth, and unique approaches to coping with grief.  Of course you do!  Subscribe on the sidebar to get our updates by email. 

Let’s be grief friends.

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11 Comments on "Grief and Mindfulness: Spending Time in the Present"

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  1. Elaine  May 2, 2021 at 1:41 pm Reply

    Hi,
    My 88 yr old mother has recently deteriorated from being independent because of a fall and leg fracture. She has been in a care home for 3 months now and is more settled. However she now appears to have fluctuating dementia and is now wheelchair bound. From early teenage years the family atmosphere was very tense, mum would drink and become aggressive and violent. She only hit me once, but emotionally I was terrified most of the time wondering when would the next outburst be. I was left to deal with her on my.own more or less and these experiences have heavily influenced my life and the person I’ve wanted to be.
    Now she is failing and ‘contained’ I have been devastated, crying a lot and feeling so much pain. So tired all the time. I try to keep going, but feel I should just surrender and let the tears flow. Thing is I feel guilty about doing this infront of my husband because he knows I’ve always had problems with her and she has been very difficult. Can you help me just ‘be’ please. 😪

  2. Jack Johnson  June 26, 2020 at 1:03 am Reply

    What if it has been too soon since my loss for me to start accepting feelings that are too fresh, raw and painful for me to accept? Won’t mindfulness strategies like these make me acknowledge feelings that it’s too soon for me to acknowledge? Shouldn’t I wait like 3-6 months until I’m ready?

    1
  3. John Rand  June 13, 2018 at 3:00 pm Reply

    Thank you for this article. This resonates very closely with my own experience following my wife’s death and my subsequent search for peace and acceptance. I tried to explain my journey in an article titled Acceptance – A Personal Quest, which has recently been posted on Heather Stang’s supportive web site.

  4. Marga  November 27, 2017 at 10:19 am Reply

    Hello. Thank you for this post.
    I am starting to visit this site regularly after searching for information and help on the internet. One of my brothers, younger than me, passed away six months ago, after a quite long sickness but a quick deterioration after he was hospitalized. He was 38; only 1.5 years difference with me. We had a very close relationship, used to talk on the phone almost every day, we used to make music together and play in concerts when we were younger.
    One year before he passed away I had got in contact with Buddhism and the idea of impermanence and mindfulness. I got interested in it mainly because I have always been feeling scared of what might happen to the people I care about or to myself; being scared of bad things happening, which hasn´t allowed me to really have moments of real joy for many years. Somehow when I saw my brother in hospital for the first time I thought: ´so, really?, it is really going to happen; what I have been fearing for a big part of my life is really going to happen; what kind of bad joke is this`. In previous years I have had to grief my mother´s death when she was 52, and some other deaths, lets say; so it really looked like a bad joke to me.
    The idea of impermanence has helped me a little bit in understanding, bearing, giving a bit of sense to my brother´s death; but I am not able to attain much mindfulness. I try but most of the times my brain manages to be aware of everything possible except for the present moment. I have been ´practicing´ this for so long that it became a habit. Even when I saw my brother deteriorating in ways one cannot imagine for such a young person, and after hearing from the doctors that he was indeed dying, I kept looking for ways to cure him, to change to another hospital, also thinking if I hadn´t done enough in the past to prevent what was happening, instead of being aware of the fact that he might disappear soon and `being` with this idea, with that moment. Now I kind of regret it. Now my brother is not there anymore. I was still giving such a value to permanence and looking for it; I was obsessed with my brother´s permanence, so I really didn´t notice nor felt what was happening at that present moment while he was alive.

  5. Marga  November 27, 2017 at 10:19 am Reply

    Hello. Thank you for this post.
    I am starting to visit this site regularly after searching for information and help on the internet. One of my brothers, younger than me, passed away six months ago, after a quite long sickness but a quick deterioration after he was hospitalized. He was 38; only 1.5 years difference with me. We had a very close relationship, used to talk on the phone almost every day, we used to make music together and play in concerts when we were younger.
    One year before he passed away I had got in contact with Buddhism and the idea of impermanence and mindfulness. I got interested in it mainly because I have always been feeling scared of what might happen to the people I care about or to myself; being scared of bad things happening, which hasn´t allowed me to really have moments of real joy for many years. Somehow when I saw my brother in hospital for the first time I thought: ´so, really?, it is really going to happen; what I have been fearing for a big part of my life is really going to happen; what kind of bad joke is this`. In previous years I have had to grief my mother´s death when she was 52, and some other deaths, lets say; so it really looked like a bad joke to me.
    The idea of impermanence has helped me a little bit in understanding, bearing, giving a bit of sense to my brother´s death; but I am not able to attain much mindfulness. I try but most of the times my brain manages to be aware of everything possible except for the present moment. I have been ´practicing´ this for so long that it became a habit. Even when I saw my brother deteriorating in ways one cannot imagine for such a young person, and after hearing from the doctors that he was indeed dying, I kept looking for ways to cure him, to change to another hospital, also thinking if I hadn´t done enough in the past to prevent what was happening, instead of being aware of the fact that he might disappear soon and `being` with this idea, with that moment. Now I kind of regret it. Now my brother is not there anymore. I was still giving such a value to permanence and looking for it; I was obsessed with my brother´s permanence, so I really didn´t notice nor felt what was happening at that present moment while he was alive.

  6. Tom Umberger, LCSW  August 10, 2017 at 4:38 pm Reply

    I am a therapist that incorporates mindfulness with grief counseling, and other areas of my practice. This is a great, easy-to-understand introduction to mindfulness, and I will look forward to sharing it!

  7. Kristin  April 30, 2017 at 8:16 pm Reply

    This is very helpful. I lost my husband unexpectedly and am searching for ways to cope. Mindfulness and being present is something that I think will help, if I can get there.

    2
  8. Buffy  February 15, 2016 at 10:18 pm Reply

    Very insightful and helpful – thanks!

    • Litsa  February 16, 2016 at 8:34 am Reply

      Glad it was helpful!

  9. Brenda Hollweger  January 11, 2016 at 12:55 am Reply

    I have taught practices on Heart Meditation rather than just Mindfulness for many years based on Robert Sardello’s work. Check out his latest “Heartfulness”. It has some wonderful simple exercises you can follow. With only minutes a day you will begin to see really positive results garnering the wisdom of the heart to help with your own and your partner’s healing. Not a New Age aphrodisiac, but down to earth practical exercises in meditation.

  10. lina  December 26, 2014 at 3:46 am Reply

    Easy digest and informative post. Thank you.

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