Mindful Grief: 3 Ways to Manage Your Sorrow

Solitary bench in parkEditor’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.

Ashley Davis Bush

Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW Featured GoodTherapy.org Presenter

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Brooke

    August 8th, 2014 at 10:43 AM

    If you knew he pain that I have gone through you would understand why for so long I trued to deal with that pain by running away from it and choosing not to deal with it.
    What I did not realize though was that the pain may diminish but you will never truly heal without facing that pain and living it and breathing it and owning it.
    It is not pleasant but what a relief it has been since I have allowed myself to be with it and to finally seehow wonderful life can be again now that I have paid attention to it. This is what allowed me to move forward with my life.

  • Joy

    August 8th, 2014 at 7:38 PM

    Happy for you

  • david allen

    August 8th, 2014 at 2:04 PM

    It is so hard to surrender and give into that pain when you know that in the moment, it will feel better to hide it and pretend like it doesn’t exist

  • LynnL

    August 9th, 2014 at 9:59 AM

    If at all possible surround yourself with people who truly comfort you and care about your well being. This can make such a healing difference in your life, to know that there are those who will be with you through thick and thin, and if there is ever a time that you will need them then it will be now.

  • Campbell

    August 11th, 2014 at 11:24 AM

    How will I know when I am feeling better until I have let myself feel the worst possible pain that there is? When this has happened then you absolutely know when you are feeling better.

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    August 11th, 2014 at 12:43 PM

    Hello Brooke,
    You have so much courage to face that pain. I am so glad that you’re finding joy again. Peace, Ashley

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    August 11th, 2014 at 12:45 PM

    Dear David,

    So true. Avoiding the pain is always easier. But facing the pain is the only path for true healing.
    Wishing you peace,


  • Ashley Davis Bush

    August 11th, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    Dear Lynn,
    Yes, surrounding yourself with people who know, understand, and care can make a world of difference! That’s why grief groups can be so magical.
    Wishing you peace,

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    August 11th, 2014 at 12:47 PM

    Dear Campbell, Pain comes in waves, ebbing and flowing like the ocean tides. Feeling better is about riding those waves.
    Wishing you peace,

  • Hank

    August 13th, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    I would have to say that if there is any way possible, don’t allow that grief to pull you down so far that you are never quite able to come back from that grief. Experiencing it fully is one thing, but don’t allow yourself to become so caught up in that pain that you don’t ever go back.

  • Chris

    August 13th, 2014 at 10:04 PM

    I appreciate these kind words. True as they are, I’m desperate to find someone to talk with about a woman – the love of my life who used me a dumped me. this is so painful

  • Norma

    June 7th, 2015 at 6:40 PM

    Yes Grief does feel like it comes in waves. You never know when one is going to come very high.

  • Norma

    June 7th, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    Many professionals believe that it lasts 6 months. I don’t believe it is so.
    People can last years, do to the type of grief they suffer.

  • David

    November 6th, 2015 at 4:29 AM

    Where did you get that idea? I’ve been a therapist for twenty years and have never heard this idea that grieving lasts six months. Grieving lasts as long as it lasts. There is no time limit.

  • jan

    November 6th, 2015 at 6:28 AM

    Hi Norma my name is Jan I lost my husband to cancer 4 years this March aged 66 and I’m still struggling it didn’t really hit me till last August when I went to pieces all that happened in the 3 years he was ill just hit like a sledgehammer and I realised how did I get through this at all but we become like robots you don’t think about it you just do it then your left with nothing I kept myself nice hair nails makeup so that when I went to c my husband of 35 years he didn’t c a wreck but inside it was killing me so I kept happy and positive but I had no one to do the same for me it was just me someone said to me u shut be over it by now I cud he hit them the way I felt u never ever get over it how can you we lost our soul mate we just have to learn to live with it and its hard very hard I have so much empathy for anyone who has lost someone and my prayers and thoughts go out to you gid bless take Norma love Jan xxxxx

  • Ashley Davis Bush

    June 8th, 2015 at 11:18 AM

    Hi Norma,
    Yes, grief is a lifelong process with many twists and turns. Thanks for sharing and wishing you peace, Ashley

  • Lisa

    November 6th, 2015 at 3:12 AM

    Grief has become a part of my life since childhood. Not the grief of loss to death but a grief of other losses. Then beloved pets started to die,,,, then my son died and grief melded with all the other griefs like the snow ball effect. I lost the love of my life November 2013. It has been way too much. I can’t let it out. As a child I did a little b

  • Lisa

    November 6th, 2015 at 3:14 AM

    But now I just take my psych meds. Live in my room and wait for grief to consume me and robs me of my health … I have tried and tried.

  • Nicole

    November 6th, 2015 at 8:11 AM

    I am currently working toward my MFT License. While in my master’s program I took a mindfulness class with one of the leading professors in the field. The best thing she taught me was this formula: Suffering = Pain x Resistance. If you try to resist the pain you’re naturally feeling, you’ll suffer; if you accept what is and feel the pain, you won’t suffer. It has helped in my personal life as well as in my professional.

  • Criz

    February 22nd, 2016 at 1:14 AM

    This article helped me understand more about how to properly grieve the loss of my sister. At first I felt like I was overreacting or being weak. It’s normal to cry and be upset, I have begun to set aside time each day to miss her, think about her a62nd listen to my heart and just cry. Her loss was tragic and unexpected and very recent. She passed a 4 weeks ago so it’s still very fresh in our heart.

  • Lisa M.

    December 27th, 2016 at 4:15 PM

    To the author: thank you for such a beautifully written and helpful article. My dad passed away unexpectedly six months ago, and it’s been difficult to be with the pain instead of fighting against feeling it. But I will definitely try the techniques you have written. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Heidi

    March 28th, 2017 at 7:30 AM

    Very insightful. Thanks! I’m planning to share this with others and to also refocus on my own grieving. It took me about 40 years to really work through much of it and I continue to find new awareness as time progresses.

  • Steve

    March 29th, 2017 at 11:04 PM

    I lost my wife about 2 months ago and have experienced such an overwhelming pain that I didn’t know was even possible for a person to endure. She was 54 years old, so happy and full of life. But as I remember her daily, I know that she would certainly want me to live my life fully. For that is somehow important and I plan to honor her by not giving up, not becoming a victim of her circumstance. She will be proud.

  • joanie b

    September 18th, 2017 at 10:52 AM

    I lost my 45 year old daughter to brain cancer 14 months ago. we had hospice in our home for her and i held her as she died. she took 13 months to die, traumatic. my husband of 53 years died 3 months ago, my son and i held him as he took his last breath. so much trauma caring for both as they lost control of their bodies, My grief has been so painful, the mornings are the worst as I must remember thet are both gone. i have 2 granchildren who have experienced these deaths with me and my son. there is more but I wont write about it here. has anyone out there lived through this pain and is now feeling better?2ZkA

  • Terry

    December 4th, 2017 at 3:47 AM

    It seems to me that in our culture there are such mixed messages about feelings, even grief. People want you to feel, but only within certain limits that don’t disturb their comfort level. Beyond that, it’s considered “wallowing”. As someone who is aware (I think) of her feelings, I find it a fine line to walk with people, and in my own mind, how much to express, and who one can express it to. It’s good there are people who will listen, and support, people in their grief, even if they are professional listeners. I miss my brother dearly, even though we lived on opposite coasts for the last 40 years.

  • Deb

    May 22nd, 2019 at 9:42 PM

    Needed this thank you

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