If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.
No person can go through life untouched by grief. It is one of the universal human experiences, but no matter how much we acknowledge that loss is part of life, losing someone we love is undoubtedly one of the hardest things we can face.
We tend to think of meditation as a way to manage our stress levels – a lifestyle choice that makes things a little bit breezier and brighter during the good times in life. But meditation isn’t only a way to give a boost to our wellbeing – it is a truly powerful tool that can act as an anchor and a source of solace during the most difficult of human experiences.
There is no way to sidestep the pain of loss. Meditation for grief isn’t about escaping our feelings or obscuring the reality of what we are living through. What it does do, however, is help us to manage and process our grief – equipping us with the courage to move forward into a future where we can accept and live with the sadness of loss, without becoming overwhelmed by it.
Grief is rarely straightforward
One of the things that makes grief so difficult to cope with is that it rarely manifests exactly as how we imagine it might. Our emotions aren’t always straightforward or predictable, and we can beat ourselves up for not reacting in the way we think we should.
We might, for example, have lost a family member with whom we had a difficult relationship or were estranged from. This can stir up many emotions we thought we’d long learnt to manage, which coincide with the feeling we have no “right” to grieve due to the strained relationship. But having unfinished business with a loved one can make grief particularly acute – knowing with finality that the door to reconciliation is closed and there will be no apology or acknowledgement of hurt.
In other situations, we may feel intense guilt if our loss is mingled with relief, especially if a loved one has passed away after a long illness or if we were their primary caregiver. It is incredibly common to find that people, suddenly lifted from the burden of responsibility and worry that comes with a loved one’s suffering, feel an intense sense of reprieve alongside their loss – but it can still make us feel like a terrible person, and as if that we somehow wanted our loved one to die.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and as relief is defined as “the act of removing or reducing pain or anxiety”, it is a completely natural response to the abatement of the constant state of tension we live in when a loved one is profoundly unwell. It is essential to remember that humans are emotionally complex, and can feel multiple things at the same time – with profound sorrow, relief, anger, denial, yearning and guilt often coexisting. There simply is no “should” when it comes to how we feel in grief.
Finding it difficult to let go
Another complicating factor in grief is that we may be reluctant to let go. To move on from our grief is an acknowledgement that someone has truly left us, and we must make a life without them there. In The Life and Death of King John, William Shakespeare (who lost his own 11-year-old son) writes affectingly about the phenomenon, where we start to see our grief as our primary connection to the person we’ve lost.
You are as fond of grief as of your child.
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Meditation for dealing with loss
Meditation can support us through all the emotions and anxieties of grief in a variety of ways, helping us to process the negative and amplify the positive in even this uniquely fraught time.
Mourning is a natural and necessary response to bereavement, and may last months or years. One of the most important things is to allow ourselves to express our feelings – which isn’t always easy in a society where death is a subject most of us wish to avoid.
It isn’t possible to avoid grieving forever – and if it goes unacknowledged consciously, it will register in our unconscious and nervous system, affecting us sometimes years later in the form of physical or mental illness. By using meditation to support ourselves through this process, we can:
- Increase our present moment awareness and self-compassion.
Meditation is a really effective tool in learning how to place ourselves in the moment, and increase our awareness of emotions and sensations which may otherwise go under the radar of our conscious apprehension. The reason why this can be so useful in grief is that it helps us both to recognise and remove ourselves from unhelpful thought spirals or rising anxiety.
For instance, we may be trying to cope normally at work, and taking on far too much stress that bubbles under the surface until we make ourselves really ill or exhausted. With meditation, we recognise rising stress and have the emotional tools to step back. This allows us to experience our emotions rather than ignore them, and enact self-care.
- Create a sense of connection
Meditation connects us to ourselves, to the people around us and to our own “inner wisdom”. Grief can be an isolating experience where we even feel alienated from our normal selves – not recognising the person we used to be before our bereavement, or feeling shocked if something makes us laugh and wondering if this means we aren’t sad enough.
By forging a sense of oneness and connection with the people we love, and compassion for those grieving with us, meditation helps us to feel less alone. It also helps us to access the quiet, intuitive voice we all carry – the one which rallys our resources, strength and resilience – helping us to get through and show kindness towards ourselves.
- Helps us cope with the symptoms of grief, such as digestive upset, insomnia and chest pain.
Grief often comes with many physical symptoms. We may lose our appetite, find it hard to swallow, experience dizziness or become entirely unable to sleep. Many people find they experience literal heartache – an ache in their chest which feels like the physical embodiment of their emotional pain. While these symptoms disappear eventually, meditation can help us manage them in the meantime, and may even help to relieve them completely.
By helping to bring our nervous system and endocrine systems into balance, meditation addresses the root cause of these symptoms and allows our body to start functioning more normally. It is also a reliable way to improve our sleep and energy levels.
- Cultivates acceptance
As mentioned above, one of the key challenges with grief is that, at some level, we feel that we have to hold on to our sadness – as if letting go could mean losing the memories of the person we cared so much about. However, moving on from our mourning actually makes those memories brighter and more positive, rather than weighed down with sadness.
Meditation helps us by reducing our anxieties, which gives us courage and hope for the future, and allows us to uplift others with a natural sense of growing positivity. By providing a deep bedrock of calm and resilience where we can explore and experience even the most difficult of emotions without the worry that this may do lasting harm (and, in fact, actually facilitate our healing), slowly we can start to cherish our memories, rather than be burdened by them.
Even in the hardest moments, meditation helps us to appreciate that “this too shall pass”, and be comforted by the knowledge that while we will always miss our loved one, things will get easier with time.