I experienced a major death in my life when my grandfather passed away 5 years ago. We shared the same birthday, and we’d always been close. Then he was diagnosed with dementia.
Our connection strengthened during the last year of his life when I became his primary daytime caregiver.
If this hadn’t been the case, my grief might not have been so hard to handle. Like many 29-year-olds who lose a grandparent, I might’ve felt the hurt but also accepted his death as a normal part of life.
Instead, I felt the loss deeply.
I avoided the things we used to do together, like trips to Costco or eating sweet potato fries. And, when my birthday rolled around, it was more bitter than sweet.
Luckily, I was able to access the quiet power of mindfulness to help me digest the pain.
Grief may be an inevitable part of life, but how we approach it can make the difference between enormous agony and tender, delicate acceptance.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to grieving. What may pass quickly for some can take years for others.
In reality, when we lose someone we have an emotional attachment to, the feeling of loss never truly passes. Rather, it becomes a part of our lives.
At some point, most people will experience the loss of a friend, a parent, a relationship, or health.
Grief is a completely natural human response, and there are countless reasons to grieve. These include the loss of:
- a job (yes, even one you didn’t completely love)
- a pet
- a relationship
- a pregnancy
- a loved one
- a home
- your health
- your mobility
I haven’t found myself at funerals often, but I do know the feelings of loss and grief intimately. From miscarriages to abusive relationships to an ADHD diagnosis late in life, grief has visited me in many ways.
The last two instances resulted in a powerful sense of lost time for the years I spent with a destructive person and the feeling that something was wrong with me without knowing why.
Out of all of this, I’ve made friends with grief and discovered some effective, mindful coping methods.
When we lose someone we have an emotional attachment to, the feeling of loss never truly passes. Rather, it becomes a part of our lives.
According to Mindful Communications, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing, you’re being mindful. This includes:
- what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch
- your state of mind
- your thoughts and emotions
- your bodily sensations
- your breath
- your environment
Sometimes, this happens automatically. Sometimes, it takes a little practice.
There are countless ways to practice mindfulness, and a bit of exploring can help you find the method that’s right for you.
There’s no right way to grieve, but there are ways to support the grieving process.
“Mindfulness as a practice, paying attention to what’s happening as it’s happening, is actually really helpful inside of grief,” says Megan Devine, a psychotherapist and grief advocate
Devine points out that it’s important to remember grief is normal and natural.
She says the goal in using mindfulness while grieving is “to survive, to manage it, to cope with it, but not to fix it.”
While there’s nothing wrong with being positive, it’s crucial to not rush past or push aside difficult emotions in the healing process.
The most common misunderstanding about grief is the belief that it’s a problem.
“Looking at grief as a problem to be solved, instead of something to be tended and respected, [is] the main way that 90 percent of grief support is doing it wrong,” Devine says.
Because mindfulness is all about being with whatever comes up — good or bad — it makes an ideal companion for healthy grieving.
Because mindfulness is all about being with whatever comes up — good or bad — it makes an ideal companion for healthy grieving.
Devine’s stance is consistent with scientific research.
A 2020 study found that mindfulness as a trait predicted higher rates of post-traumatic growth (PTG) for individuals who experienced traumatic grief.
A 2017 study found that 15 grief group facilitators who received mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training were more effective in their roles, leading to an increase in program quality, teamwork, mutual respect, and a shared experience of compassion.
In a 2019 study of family members caring for a loved one with dementia, researchers found a strong inverse relationship between caregiver grief and mindfulness. Results were measured by questionnaires and fMRI data gathered from 19 participants.
Researchers noted that mindfulness therapies may be specifically effective at helping family members process the drawn out grief that comes from caring for a loved one in mental decline. Still, larger studies are needed.
According to Devine, there are seven steps that can help you cope with grief mindfully:
- Acknowledge and accept your feelings.
- Express yourself.
- Know you’re not alone.
- Try grief-focused meditation.
- Create healthy boundaries.
- Get “unstuck.”
- Tell your story.
Acknowledge and accept your feelings
While it might not be easy, accepting how you feel is the first step to healing and the most essential in the process of mindful grieving.
By allowing yourself to feel what you feel without judgment, you stop resisting your emotions. That means you can stop fighting what you feel.
You also start to understand that grief is not a linear path with nice boxes to tick off. Rather, it’s a cycle. It may come in waves, ebbing and flowing without explanation.
By understanding that, you can start to see that grief comes and goes. It becomes much easier to handle your feelings knowing that, eventually, they will pass.
Once you accept your feelings, you can give them a healthy outlet. This can include:
- writing or journaling
- talking and sharing
- cooking or baking
- listening to or playing music
While some individuals find relief by talking through their feelings, others don’t. It’s helpful to find a way to express your emotions so they don’t get stuck.
For some, that may be a form of putting pen to paper, whether that’s by journaling, stream-of-consciousness writing, or “one line a day” writing.
A 2019 paper presented at a conference stated that art therapy provides a way to alleviate and contain feelings of fear, crisis, and threat, while at the same time honoring the experience of the person who was lost.
No matter which method speaks to you, self-expression is an important part of the grieving process.
Know you’re not alone
Grief can be a lonely place. Whether every thought is consumed with your loss or it comes and goes, the truth is you’re never alone in your grief.
Grief is a universal experience. If you can use mindfulness to be aware of your feelings, you can also be aware that you’re not alone in these feelings or your grieving process.
You may even consider finding a grief support group through a bereavement resource guide, like the one compiled by Eluna Network.
The universal nature of grief
A Buddhist parable tells the story of Kisa Gotami, a young mother who lost her infant early in his life.
She frantically searched for help, nearly losing her mind with grief, until someone suggested she visit the Buddha.
The Buddha told her he could help if she brought him a single mustard seed. The only catch: It had to come from a home that hadn’t been touched by death.
Gotami knocked on every door, desperately searching for the mustard seed. Although many people were willing to give her a seed, each time she was thwarted by the fact every family had experienced the loss of a loved one.
Eventually, Gotami had the realization that loss is universal, and she was released from her desperation to bring her son back to life.
Try grief-focused meditation
In theory, meditation is the simplest thing in the world. In practice, especially during times of loss, meditation may seem like an impossible task.
Sitting with only your thoughts and emotions can be overwhelming. With practice, meditation can create a structured space to allow yourself to just be, feel, and accept.
This creates a safe environment for your pain to simply exist, without resistance.
A 2019 study looked at whether a mindfulness meditation app could improve psychological well-being, reduce job strain, and reduce ambulatory blood pressure. Participants reported significant improvement in their well-being, distress, job strain, and perceptions of workplace social support, both in the short-term and long-term.
Create healthy boundaries
When you’re grieving, well-meaning friends and acquaintances may want to step in to help. While their hearts may be in the right place, it might not be what you need.
For instance, some people may try to lessen the blow by saying things, like:
- “They’re in a better place now.”
- “They wouldn’t want you to be sad.”
- “Other people have it worse.”
- “You have so much going for you in life.”
This can feel like they’re trying to erase your pain and loss.
Others may repeatedly check in with phone calls or visits to your home. While this may be helpful for some, others may need space and time alone.
Devine explains that you can communicate your needs and set healthy boundaries. The way you do so, she says, may depend on your relationship with the person you’re setting boundaries with.
When it comes to an acquaintance, you can say something simple and to-the-point, like:
“I appreciate the sentiment. That’s not something that’s helpful for me right now, but I hope you have a nice day.”
With friends or family, you might say:
“I know how hard it is to see me in pain and that you’re trying to help. Can we talk about what’s helpful for me and what isn’t?”
It can be difficult to ask for what you need, but a simple request can go a long way toward helping you feel supported and understood in your grief.
There are a lot of ideas about what grief should look like. Because of this, Devine notes that you can sometimes feel like you’re “stuck” in your grief.
This means that you may be holding yourself to false expectations of how to grieve “correctly.”
When it comes to grief, there’s no finish line. While grief may come and go, the loss remains.
If you still get teary-eyed when someone you’ve lost comes up in conversation or in your thoughts years later, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck. In fact, this may be a healthy expression of your continued love and appreciation for that person.
Things like changes in appetite and sleep disturbances can make surviving grief even harder. While it doesn’t mean you’re “stuck,” some normal grief responses can negatively affect your life.
If you’re not sleeping well because you’re having nightmares, it might be time to research ways to improve your sleep or seek out a professional.
While it’s normal to lose interest in work, hobbies, or even friendships you enjoyed before your loss, it’s important to maintain social connections where you can.
When does grief become a problem? Behaviors to look out for include:
- addictive behaviors
- extreme isolation
- thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- long-term sleep or appetite changes that impact your health
- long-term inability to acknowledge or talk about your loss
Devine says that, because we don’t often talk about grief as a normal part of life, it’s easy to think you or loved ones aren’t grieving correctly. That means that many of us don’t talk about how we really feel.
It’s that long-term inability to tell the truth about loss that truly makes a person “stuck” in their grief.
Grief is a powerful but universal experience. You don’t have to go through it alone.
There are multiple resources available to help you navigate grief. These include support groups and grief therapy. In some cases, your insurance may cover therapy, and there are affordable options as well.
Talk with a healthcare professional to explore which form of grief support is right for you.
Start telling your story
Though it doesn’t need to happen right away, Devine strongly suggests sharing your own story with grief.
Speaking your truth about what happened and what your grieving process looks like can be incredibly powerful.
“In telling the truth about your own experience, that is how things change,” Devine says. “Stories are at the root of grassroots movements, and grassroots movements change things. Find places to tell the truth about your grief, and be ferocious about your rights to feel supported and honored in your own loss.”
Sharing your story not only honors your grief process. It honors the memory of your loved one as well.
When approached in a healthy way, mindfulness can help you cope with loss and grief with grace, acceptance, and surrender.
Simply knowing that it’s OK to feel whatever you’re feeling is the first step.
While grief is never easy, taking steps to be with the process can ease the hardship of bearing a loss. It can also remind you that you’re not alone in this most human of experiences.
Ashley Hubbard is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on sustainability, travel, veganism, mental health, social justice, and more. Passionate about animal rights, sustainable travel, and social impact, she seeks out ethical experiences whether at home or on the road. Visit her website wild-hearted.com.