Editor’s note: Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW specializes in grief counseling and couples counseling and is the author of the book Transcending Loss. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled Grief Intelligence: What You Need to Know, is scheduled for 9 a.m. Pacific Time on August 22, 2014. The event is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members and is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.
I sat with Susan, a middle-aged woman, whose husband had died three years earlier. She sat upright, matter-of-factly telling me the story of his diagnosis, his valiant fight against cancer, and his subsequent decline.
But as she started describing the moment of his death, of holding his hand as he slipped from this world to the next, she began to tear up. She reached for a tissue and began to sob.
Something broke open for her and she let out three years of pent-up emotion. I listened and held the space for her pain to emerge. I told her that tears were an important way of processing painful emotion.
“This is what I’ve been avoiding,” she choked between sobs. “I hate this feeling.”
I nodded, “Yes, I know. But the pain has a purpose. It’s part of your healing.”
We, in our Western culture, are particularly skilled at avoiding painful feelings. Our society supports us in our endeavors to distract ourselves by offering a full range of numbing opportunities: alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, and assorted screen devices for our addictive consumption. It is easy to avoid feeling the full range of sorrow, pain, hopelessness, anger, and anguish associated with grief.
Mindfulness—the practice of nonjudgmental present awareness—is often touted in the mental health field as a miracle cure, as the golden ticket to resilience and coping. Mindfulness practices are said to soothe anxiety, lift depression, minimize chronic pain, and reduce stress. The problem for grievers is that mindfulness asks the griever to be present with the very thing that they’re trying to avoid. So what can mindfulness do for the heart-searing pain of losing a loved one?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
Being mindful allows the griever to feel and observe the pain without being swallowed by it. The act of being present with pain, being mindfully observant, is healing. Such presence allows the painful emotion to surface and shift.
I have worked with grievers for 25 years and I know that a mindful attitude toward the process is tremendously important. I find that the following three mindful strategies help the griever navigate painful terrain.
If you or someone you know is grieving, use these guidelines:
- Intention: Set a daily intention to be with your grief for a period of time each day. Take 5–15 minutes to just ‘be’ with your feelings. Set your intention to welcome the feelings, to learn from them, and to be open to finding the wisdom embedded within the process.
- Attention: Pay attention to the natural rhythms of grief. Notice the waves that ebb and flow. See grief rising and falling, washing over you and receding. Watch where the pain lodges in your body. Do you feel it in your throat, your heart, the pit of your stomach? Become an expert of your personal process by paying attention to the subtle changes in each feeling. Grief has movement to it.
- No tension: Suffering may be minimized to the degree to which you are able to drop your resistance to the feeling that ‘is’. Resist it and you will suffer more. In fact, stuffing your feelings down takes a toll; it exacts a price from your psyche. Surrender to your feelings and know that doing so is part of the natural reaction to the loss of a loved one.
The awareness and acceptance that are hallmarks of mindfulness help the griever ride the waves of grief and ultimately redirect the pain toward emotional and spiritual growth.
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