Transcript of Audio: Step 5--Mindfulness and Grief
Although I have briefly discussed grief and mindfulness in the previous audios, the intense emotions of grief are a special case that deserve additional attention. I will first discuss the nature of grief, when it occurs, and how we experience it. Then I will discuss how a mindful approach to grief can assist with processing loss and the emotions associated with grief.
The mindful approach to grief allows the natural healing of the grief process to occur. So many people have difficulty with grief because they don't understand it and they try to avoid it. The intense emotions of grief are not only unpleasant but can be very disconcerting. What I mean by this is that some of the emotions may seem wrong. For instance, if you have cared for a sick elderly parent and you feel relief when your parent dies. This emotion is a normal emotion, as all emotions are, but some people are disturbed by this emotion thinking that it is wrong to feel it. Similarly, someone might even feel pleasure at the loss of a parent who was abusive but then feel guilty about having such an emotion. Or, a person might feel angry at God for having allowed death to occur and then fear retribution for being angry.
The intensity of the emotions of grief can be quite overwhelming which is why people want to avoid these emotions. However, the attempts to avoid grief can lead to other problems. For instance, people might use substances such as drugs or alcohol to avoid feeling. Or, people might decide not to risk loss by not becoming involved in another relationship. Or, the ability to trust might be affected. These are just a few of the methods people use to avoid emotions. But the avoidance prevents the healing process from occurring so that the individual creates a lifetime pattern of avoidance.
By understanding grief, you may be able to allow yourself to mindfully engage in the healing process of fully experiencing the emotions associated with grief. Grief is a complicated experience. And grief does not occur only with death. Grief occurs with any type of loss. If you lose a job, you grieve. If you lose a competition, you grieve. If a favorite plant in your garden dies, you grieve. When your child grows up and moves away, you grieve. When you move to a new home, you might grieve. In fact, we could say that grief doesn't occur with just loss, but with any kind of change. Because change involves loss. Even when change is for something better, there is still loss.
Some of these losses might be considered “necessary loss.” In other words, to gain one thing we must lose something else. For example, a person who gains fame loses their privacy. Someone who suddenly has a dream job might lose the comfort of a job with less to risk. When you have a child you lose the freedom of being single. These can be considered “necessary losses” in that you want what you will gain from the change in your life. However, it is also important to understand that you will feel the loss. And it is okay to grieve the loss of something even when you desire and work for what will cause the loss.
In these circumstances, too often people feel that they shouldn't be grieving. They believe that it is a happy time in which they have achieved a dream so why should they feel sad? However, to believe this way prevents them from fully processing the loss. The problem with this type of thinking is also that it is based on an assumption that happiness means that a person is never sad. More accurately, though, is that happiness is the ability to feel all emotions without having to get rid of them or avoid them. In this way, happiness comes from being able to process the information provided by emotions.
Some people may be thinking right now “Why should I process the loss if it is something I am happy about? Why should I feel sad when I have just gotten my dream job?” An important point here is that I did not say that you “should” feel sad when a loss occurs but that you need to process the emotions that do occur. For instance, if you feel sad and you don't recognize that it is a normal reaction to change, you might seek out some other solution to the sadness such as being diagnosed with depression and taking medication. Or, people who don't understand the normal grief reaction to change might make accusations. For example, a wife is angry and crying about moving away from her friends and family even though she is happy about her husband's new job and the opportunities for their children. The husband might accuse her “Nothing ever makes you happy!” If, instead, he understood this was a normal processing of loss, he could comfort her which would help with her coming to a resolution of the emotions.
How do people normally react to loss? Several stages have been identified that people commonly experience with grief. All of these stages do not necessarily occur every time or with the same intensity for each situation. Every person experiences grief differently so don't worry if you don't experience it according to these stages. However, it is useful to recognize the stages so that you can know what is normal to experience when grieving.
The first stage of grief usually involves some form of denial. This may be pretending that the loss didn't occur or that it doesn't really bother you. A common feature of this stage is bargaining in which you try to prevent the loss. This occurs commonly with ending relationships in which the person promises to make changes. At this stage it is important to recognize that a loss has occurred; otherwise, a person may become stuck in denial. When you acknowledge the loss, it is likely to lead you to the stage of anger. This is another place where people frequently become stuck in the process. Anger is a powerful emotion and the release of it can make a person feel better temporarily. Some people become stuck in this stage to avoid the following stage of sadness and other painful emotions. Feeling anger for some people is more tolerable than feeling sadness.
Other people get stuck in this stage because they are uncomfortable with the emotion of anger. As a result, the emotion never gets released and it is difficult to move into the following stages and fully resolve the grief. As I just said, sadness follows grief. It is possible to become stuck in the sadness stage usually because a person feels that letting go of the sadness means that they no longer care. The final stage is resolution. This does not mean that the person never feels the pain, anger, or sadness again. It just means that they have come to some sort of understanding or acceptance of the loss. Resolution looks different for each person. That is why it is so unhelpful when someone tells you how you should be handling a loss. What worked for them may not work for you.
Sometimes people believe that they have fully grieved when they may have not. They report that they cried and were angry. However, they may have shut down the process because it was too difficult. One way to know if a person has fully grieved is if the individual can talk about the death or trauma or other loss and experience the emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
The most important aspect of processing grief is to trust the emotional process. If you allow yourself to experience and accept all your emotions, whatever they might be, associated with your loss, you will be on a path to recovery. It is when a person doesn't accept certain aspects of their emotional experience that the may become stuck in their grief.
I have found that often, the only time people seek out therapy is after a devastating loss and it is usually because they do not understand the emotions of grief. When I explain that all of the feelings no matter how strange, or intense, or even irrational are normal, they are relieved, able to grieve and don't require ongoing therapy. For many people, just understanding the nature of grief can help with the process.
However, at other times grief can be so intense that even understanding it doesn't help cope with it. A particularly intense grief experience occurs with trauma. The difficulty processing the powerful emotions that occur with trauma can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, in which a person relives the traumatic experience through flashbacks or nightmares creating a high level of anxiety. Many people with PTSD try to avoid this painful experience. However, as I have explained in a previous audio, when you try to avoid unpleasant emotions, you end up avoiding all emotions even the desirable ones. So many individuals with PTSD become emotionally numb or alternate between the painful emotions and numbness. They become unable to feel joy or happiness.
I consider this reaction to trauma to be unresolved grief related to loss. Consider, typically trauma involves numerous losses. In particular, there is a loss of a sense of safety in the world. Sometimes, when people are violated by those they know, they experience a loss of trust. Other times, trauma may also involve a dramatic change in life circumstances such as a child being taken away from an abusive parent and having to live with strangers or a family struggling with the suicide of a parent. A loss of innocence can occur with certain types of trauma such as that associated with war or sexual abuse. So, for many people who have experienced trauma, they have numerous over-whelming losses.
For someone who has not experienced trauma and the many associated losses, it is impossible to imagine the devastation trauma can cause. Other people will sometimes diminish the emotional reaction a person has to trauma with statements such as “You just need to get over it” or “You are too sensitive.” Sometimes they make a comparative statement that may not acknowledge the degree of difference: “I was abused as a child and I got over it” does not distinguish the severity of the abuse. These types of messages from others become another part of the loss that is experienced because the individual may come to believe they are weak and unable to cope.
One method that can be helpful with the symptoms of PTSD is mindful grounding. When a person is having flashbacks to the event, it is very intense and very real. Mindful grounding helps to refocus the attention to the present through a deliberate observation of the present including touch objects (hence, the term “grounding”). It makes the present more real which allows the person to refocus away from the past memories. There is an audio on this site that teaches mindful grounding
Generally, what does it mean to be mindful with grief? It's very simple, really. Feel what you feel. And trust in your emotions. But don't get sidetracked with the thoughts about the emotions. Hopefully, by now, if you have been practicing the methods of mindfulness, you have learned that emotions are just experiences. And as experiences, they are limited to the present. However, thoughts keep emotions intense by recreating them.
In other words, feel your emotions but don't keep recreating them. If someone hurt you, be angry. You have a right to be angry. You don't need to justify your anger with thoughts. Too often, thoughts prevent the resolution of grief. For instance, a common occurrence with the anger of grief is either to blame oneself or to seek revenge against the person who has caused harm. Either of these scenarios involve thoughts such as “I should have been more attentive” or “I'm going to hurt her like she hurt me.” Thoughts such as these interfere with the resolution of grief.
However, avoiding the emotions also interferes with the resolution of grief. So, sometimes people need to engage in the thoughts to help get in touch with the emotions. This is especially true for someone who tends to intellectualize or distance themselves from emotions. But this is best for the purpose of accessing the emotions, not for avoiding them.
For instance, over the years, I have frequently found the method of writing a “grief” letter to be effective for my clients (and myself) when suffering a loss. Now, the more I have come to understand mindfulness, I think it is writing a grief letter is an effective tool because it is a very mindful way of processing grief. Writing a grief letter involves writing a letter to the person who is the source of your grief without any intention of sending it. Not intending to send it allows you to write in an uncensored fashion. The process is a free-flowing letter that allows all emotions to be expressed without having to hold back. This type of letter is particularly useful when a person is stuck in the anger stage of grief. There is something about writing a letter, even when you don't intend to send it, that is processed by our brain in a way as if we are actually speaking to the person.
Therefore, in situations where it may not be prudent to express the anger directly, writing a letter can be just as effective. In fact, I recommend this as a first step when there is family conflict after the death of a parent. All too often, the anger due to grief is displaced from the death to the surviving family members and things are said or done that wouldn't have been otherwise. It is much better to process the grief by writing a letter that is not sent (even writing a series of letters, if necessary). When the grief is resolved you can re-evaluate the situation and determine at that time if there is still a problem that needs to be addressed at which time you can re-write the letter. But it is best to never, ever, address problems in the heat of the moment when you are grieving. Much of the time you will end up regretting it.
Writing a grief letter can also be effective when there are unresolved issues with a person who has died. Since the letter doesn't need to be sent in order to resolve the loss, it can still be effective in this situation.
Keep in mind that writing a grief letter is just one method. It is not something everyone must do but it helps when people have trouble either getting in touch with their emotions or with releasing their emotions. The key, though, as I said previously, to mindfully resolving grief is to let yourself experience the emotions. Some people do this through writing, some can do it through art, some do it by talking with others and sharing their feelings. It doesn't matter the method that is used as long as it allows the emotions to be expressed without interference from demanding or blaming thoughts.
If you have been practicing the first steps of mindfulness, you have learned how to be mindful with discomfort and how to be mindful with unpleasant emotions. You may have learned that sometimes the mindful attitude transforms the experience so that it is not uncomfortable or unpleasant. You may have learned that being mindful allowed you to tolerate things that were truly awful. Being mindful with grief takes this a step further. It is not about transforming the grief so that it doesn't bother you as much. It is also not about tolerating the emotions. It is about using the emotions for the purpose for which they exist. Our emotions help us to process the things we can't understand in this world. Our emotions help us to heal from the pain of loss. Our emotions keep us sane even though it may feel otherwise at times. Being mindful with grief means letting the emotions do their work rather than interfering with the process by trying to avoid them or releasing them inappropriately. Feel the emotions without demand or expectation. Let them be whatever they are for however long is necessary.
How will you know when you have resolved the grief? I can't describe how you will know because the outcome of grief looks different for each person. The length of time for grief also varies depending upon the person and the situation. For instance, a close death can take a year or more to reach the acceptance stage of grief. A violent death even longer. Whereas something that was desired such as a new job may not take long at all. However, you WILL know when the grief has been resolved. You will feel different. Typically, with resolution you will notice that the intensity of the emotions will have decreased and you will feel more at peace with the situation. You are likely to be thinking differently about the event. You can still feel the loss but the loss doesn't consume you. Over time you will have more access to the positive emotions and memories. For instance, with death the initial feelings are loss and sadness. Memories tend to remind you of the loss. Whereas, later on when acceptance occurs, you are more likely to remember the happy times which brings more positive feelings such as enjoyment of the memory and even seeking out such memories.
Getting stuck in grief tends to interfere with access to the positive memories and emotions which can leave the person indefinitely in the state of loss. Which, to get to the point, is the purpose of the mindful experience of grief. By fully feeling the grief which will lead you in its own time to an understanding, resolution, or acceptance of the situation, you will be able to fully feel joy as well. Trust the mindful experience of your emotions. It IS a healing process.
Copyright © 2014
by Excel At Life, LLC
Permission to reprint this article for non-commercial use is granted if it includes this entire copyright
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