Grief shows up in various forms and at various times. It may arise when you lose a family member, friend, or your beloved pet. Grief may be part of the heartache of a divorce. You may grieve the loss of youth, or perhaps you grieve the life you hoped you might live or the child you wanted to someday nurture.
The curveballs of life often create loss, and that loss may, in turn, create grief. Healing the soul becomes a priority.
When I experienced intense loss for the first time, I was 27 years old. My father was killed in a tragic accident while out for his morning jog. Completely devastated, I found myself eager to quickly move through the stages of grief in order to finally land at acceptance and closure.
I had understood, incorrectly, that a person experienced stages of grief in a certain order, and that once you reach that final stage, the grief is—poof—gone. In fact, until my late 20s, I associated grief with the death of a loved one and didn’t realize grief includes various forms of loss. I didn’t know how to deal with death.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about what grief was or how one experiences it.
The Expansiveness of Grief
A few years later, I found myself facing another sudden loss—the loss of my marriage. When a good friend of mine pointed out that I was grieving the life I had expected to live, I experienced an “aha” moment. I finally realized that grief applied to many forms of loss. This explained why the pain of losing my marriage felt so similar to the pain of losing my father. The intense grief left me in physical pain, even though they were two completely different versions of loss.
Everyone faces loss at one time or another—it’s a large part of the human experience. Yet you may not be equipped with the knowledge or skills you need to manage loss when it happens.
So, is there a “right” way to heal? Is there “good” grief?
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are some resources and words of wisdom that can help you heal.
1. Stay Present with Your Feelings
You may want to run away from the painful feelings of grief. Do you find yourself turning to something that will numb you—like comfort food, Internet shopping, or a few glasses of wine? Perhaps instead of pouring yourself another drink, you pour yourself into your work as a method of avoidance.
These salves might help your wound feel better temporarily, but they simply mask the pain.
Instead of pushing pain away, try to bring awareness to the feeling and see if you can stay present with whatever you notice.
In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chödrön writes, “To stay with the shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge--that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.”
2. Plan Ahead for Special Days
Emily A. Meier, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry with UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center recommends that the grieving person should plan for certain days. “Anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and other special days may trigger intense grief reactions. By predicting what may trigger a grief reaction and planning ahead, it allows individuals to cope better.”
Look ahead in your calendar, map out those potentially triggering days, and make plans that can help you cope. Nourish and comfort yourself on those days in whatever way feels best for you. You can ask friends to spend time with you or gather family members to share a meal.
3. Understand the Fluidity of Grief
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed and wrote about the five stages of grief in her book On Death & Dying. Those five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—became the blueprint for grief, although they have been misused.
Just like I did, many people incorrectly learned that the process of grief begins at the top with denial, moves down the line in order, and finally ends with acceptance.
Instead, coping with death—and grief in general—can be a zigzag across those stages with no particular order, and you may not experience every stage. There is no prescription for the process of grieving, and grief doesn’t merely disappear once you’ve zagged across every stage. You may never experience closure after loss.
Pauline Boss, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, posits that there is no such thing as closure. In her On Being podcast interview, Boss said, “I think ’closure,’ … is a perfectly good word for real estate and business deals, so I don’t want to demonize the word ’closure.’ But ’closure‘ is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them—when they’re lost, you still care about them.”
She goes on to point out that society wants to “close the door” when someone passes away. Boss argues that you can live with grief. Similar to the way you can live with chronic pain, you can live with the pain of grief.
4. Usher in Feelings of Common Humanity
When facing intense suffering, you may feel isolated. I remember feeling terribly alone after my dad’s accident and while going through my divorce. It seemed like everyone else kept sailing through life without a care while I slowly stumbled through the murky and muddy waters of loss.
I wish I had realized that I wasn’t alone. I would have felt much less pain if I had ushered in common humanity—the recognition that others experience suffering like I do.
Common humanity is one of the three main components of self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., one of the leading experts on self-compassion. “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ’me’ alone.”
Keeping common humanity in mind can comfort you by reminding you that you’re not alone.
5. Try Meditation
Speaking of self-compassion, it’s difficult to practice it while grieving if you don’t take the time to observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Meditation can help you notice and stay present with what’s happening within and around you, and it can help you comfort yourself.
Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, “Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limits and to not get carried away by hope and fear. Through meditation, we’re able to see clearly what’s going on with our thoughts and emotions, and we can also let them go.”
This Affectionate Breathing meditation can help you cultivate mindfulness and self-compassion:
- Please find a posture in which your body is comfortable and will feel supported for the length of the meditation. Then let your eyes gently close, partially or fully. Taking a few slow, easy breaths, releasing any unnecessary tension in your body.
- If you like, placing a hand over your heart or another soothing place as a reminder that we’re bringing not only awareness, but affectionate awareness, to our breathing and to ourselves. You can leave your hand there or let it rest at any time.
- Now beginning to notice your breathing in your body, feeling your body breathe in and feeling your body breathe out.
- Just letting your body breathe you. There is nothing you need to do.
- Perhaps noticing how your body is nourished on the in-breath and relaxes with the out-breath.
- Now noticing the rhythm of your breathing, flowing in and flowing out. Pause. Taking some time to feel the natural rhythm of your breathing.
- Feeling your whole body subtly moving with the breath, like the movement of the sea.
- Your mind will naturally wander like a curious child or a little puppy. When that happens, just gently returning to the rhythm of your breathing.
- Allowing your whole body to be gently rocked and caressed—internally caressed—by your breathing.
- If you like, even giving yourself over to your breathing, letting your breathing be all there is. Becoming the breath.
- Just breathing. Being breathing.
- And now, gently releasing your attention to the breath, sitting quietly in your own experience, and allowing yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling and to be just as you are.
- Slowly and gently opening your eyes.
*Excerpted from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Chris Germer, PhD. Copyright (c) 2018 Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.
6. Continue to Connect with Your Loved One
It may seem like a good idea to avoid anything that makes you revisit your loss, but when grieving a loved one, it can be helpful to intentionally connect with that person.
The nonprofit organization The Dinner Party aims to help grieving people thrive after loss. It organizes community dinners where each person brings a favorite dish that reminds them of their loved one. Perhaps it’s the recipe your loved one used to make for you, or maybe it was his or her favorite dish. By coming together in community, you can share your loss with others and also help them heal.
Another way to keep your connection is through rituals that help you honor and remember your loved one. Dr. Meier says, “The use of rituals can be extremely healing during the grief process. It is often helpful to create family or individual rituals that honor the loved one as an additional way to cope with grief.”
Rituals can take many different forms. You can find inspiration from cultures that honor those who have passed. For example, many Latin Americans celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in October. Originating in Mexico, the lively holiday honors ancestors and deceased family members.
7. Seek Help
If you tune into your body during moments of stress, you can notice the desire to find support.
Author and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., mentions in her popular TED talk that you release the hormone oxytocin when you experience stress. She says, “When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.” Whether you seek out a grief counselor or reach out to your close friends, it’s important that you don’t try to conquer grief on your own. In order to heal your soul, don’t go it alone.
When Dr. Meier counsels patients who are suffering loss, she shares, “There is no right or wrong way to grieve as it is a highly individual process with no specific timeline. It is important to practice self-compassion while grieving, to continue to find opportunities that allow for a connection to our deceased love one (memories, memorials, celebrations, laughter, joy) and to practice patience.”
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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