Using Mindfulness to Cope with Grief

Contrary to popular belief, current research suggests that grievers do not move through grief in a series of “five stages,” but instead tend to experience grief in cycles of recurring waves.

There are high tides during which emotions are intense and the griever is preoccupied with feelings and thoughts around the loss, alternating with restorative tides during which the griever feels numb or is more focused on adapting to life without the deceased. Although these cycles are normal and decrease in intensity over time, grievers often feel disoriented by these vacillating emotions and wonder how to cope with them.

One way you can cope with these waves is to apply the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of compassionately and curiously observing your feelings and thoughts and breathing through them without judgement. When we apply mindful awareness to an emotional response, we essentially notice the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that we are experiencing and accept them as they are, without judging them, or having a secondary emotional reaction to them.

When you pause and become mindful, you will notice that although emotions feel intense as they are rising like an enormous wave, they will crest and descend within a few minutes. Breathing through the experience with an attitude of acceptance and loving-kindness toward yourself will make it more bearable. It’s akin to surfing a wave or flowing with it instead of futilely standing against it and getting knocked down.

Here is a short beginning mindfulness practice you can use called the Mindful Breath:

Begin by noticing the rhythm of your breath without changing it. Place your hand on your belly and feel the expansion of your abdomen as you inhale. Then, feel the softening of your abdomen as you exhale. Do this for a several breaths.

When you become aware of any emotions you are feeling, notice where you feel them in your body, then gently inhale into this area of your body while you say to yourself, “I acknowledge my emotion.” Now, softly exhale while you say to yourself “I calm my emotion.”

Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Wisconsin have demonstrated that regular practice of mindfulness meditation actually changes the structure of areas of the brain so that you can better cope with stress, manage emotion, and cultivate a more positive outlook. Moreover, I believe practicing mindfulness gives you a way to be fully present as you open up to the awareness that you still have a connection to your deceased loved one. As Sameet Kumar in his book Grieving Mindfully, “Grief only serves to highlight the depth of our capacity to love and be loved.” Engaging mindfulness brings you into the awareness of that love.

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