We’re all vulnerable to loss—through death; separation or ending of a relationship; family conflicts; rejection based on race, religion, disability, or sexual orientation; separation related to military deployment; loss of health or well-being through illness, injury, or mental illness.
We’re in the midst of a month of the celebration of holidays for many cultures—Ashura, Bodhi Day, Hanukkah, Las Posadas, Christmas, Boxing Day, and Kwanza, among others. Though for some people the holidays are a time filled with joy, for many, holidays are a time during which grief and loss are accentuated.
The family gatherings for celebration can magnify the absence of a loved one or feelings of separation due to feelings of lack of belonging due to differences in race, religion, health status, or sexual orientation. Cultural expectations that the holidays should be a happy season tends to only exacerbate the feelings of aloneness and grief.
When we feel a sense of grief or loss, our most common unconscious habitual patterns are to avoid it or sink deeply into it and feel consumed by it. The creative things that we do in attempt to avoid it—such as eating too much, drinking too much, smoking, watching too much TV, etc—typically only create additional suffering in the end. Whether we attempt to avoid the feelings or sink deeply into them, we may judge ourselves mercilessly with thoughts like, “Why can’t I just get over this?” or for the ineffective, at best, and destructive, at worst, things that we do in our futile attempts to cope. Friends that can’t relate with their expectations of a speedy recovery, although well intentioned, often increase our sense of isolation.
What matters most is that we remain willing to be present with feelings of grief, embrace our vulnerability, and continue to live wholeheartedly, balancing making room for the pain with opening to joy. Gradually we learn that as we develop the skill to meet the loss, the meeting is much less painful than pushing it away, and that when we close ourselves to grief and loss, we also close ourselves to joy, happiness, and love.
Mindfulness and compassion practices provide a path for being present with loss and feelings of grief. When we practice mindfulness, we can learn to relate skillfully with grief with attitudes of acceptance, interest, and compassion. We learn to cultivate the heart to meet our experience with mindfulness and heartfulness. In learning to meet our own experience with compassion, we soften, our hearts open, and we find a greater sense of peace and ease, not only in our capacity to be present with our own experience, but in our ability to feel compassion toward others.
Grief, like any other feeling, comes in waves. Waves of grief are similar to waves in the ocean. Waves swell, sometimes crest, and then fall. It is our anxious and fearful thoughts that keep the emotion fueled for what can sometimes feel like an eternity.
When we experience a strong emotion, our first thoughts are something like, “Oh no, not this. It’s too much.”
These sorts of thoughts perpetuate and/or exacerbate the feeling, and our mind becomes convinced that it is eternal and intolerable. If we can learn to embrace our experience, let go of the thinking, and move into the most direct experience of the present moment, which is the experience of the feelings in the body, we learn that we can feel our feelings without becoming overly identified with them or feeling overwhelmed by them. We learn to invite the grief in without turning away from it.
It’s not the grief that feels so intolerable but our resistance to it. It is said that pain x resistance = suffering.
Just as it’s important to learn to be present with the grief, it’s equally important to learn to balance feeling the grief with opening to joy. Life consists of 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and if we only focus on the sorrows or the joys, we become imbalanced. Mindfulness practice allows us to learn to embrace both and still maintain a sense of inner peace and equanimity. We can begin to open to joy by focusing on healthy pleasurable experiences and really taking them in, pausing to notice what it feels like in our body, heart, and mind to feel pleasure or joy.
As we move through the waves of grief, it’s critical to cultivate patience and remember that grief lasts as long as it lasts. Grief, similar to all of our experiences, changes over time. As we become more accepting of our feelings and more compassionate toward them, they gradually transform. If we reach out for support, we learn how to make room for the grief so that it doesn’t pile up like unattended-to chores, and we learn to begin to really embrace living again.
Minute by minute, we come to learn that it’s possible to feel whole and alive again, even during the holidays.
Jennifer Johnson, MS, LPC is a psychotherapist and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher offering mind-body wellness counseling for people who want to live with greater peace, happiness, and well-being. She enjoys working with people who are struggling with stress, grief/loss, chronic illness, anxiety, depression, mild brain injury, stroke, and war related trauma. Jennifer has a private psychotherapy practice and teaches MBSR and mindfulness meditation classes in Wilmington. She offers distance based counseling and mindfulness training by phone and Skype.