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.
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.
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