If you’ve had the unwelcome experience of a loss—the death of a good friend, family member, or beloved animal companion; the ending of a significant relationship; a disability; or perhaps the loss of health or unemployment—the ensuing emotion is grief. And yet, this bitter taste of life can be the occasion to live more mindfully. “The mind has the capacity for great things,” writes Zen Master Huineng, “it is not meant to behave in petty ways.”
Here are ten ways to grieve mindfully and process the pain skillfully.
1. Mindful Breathing
Grief produces stress and when you are stressed you experience physical changes such as increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and rapid breathing. The shortest route to reducing this stress is to breath slowly and deeply. When you breathe this way, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. A simple but highly effective breathing practice is to intentionally make your exhale longer than your inhale. Holistic physician and author Dr. Andrew Weil explains:
“One way to promote deeper breathing and better health is by exhaling completely. Try it: take a deep breath, let it out effortlessly, and then squeeze out a little more. Doing this regularly will help build up the muscles between your ribs, and your exhalations will naturally become deeper and longer. Start by practicing this exhalation exercise consciously, and eventually it will become a healthy, unconscious habit.”
Repeating this breath pattern for as little as two or three minutes will produce positive benefits.
2. Mindful Thoughts
When grieving, it’s easy to let the mind gravitate toward negative, catastrophic thinking. However, it doesn’t need to be that way. The ancient Yoga sage Patanjali advised: “When presented with disquieting thoughts or feelings, cultivate an opposite elevated attitude.” Rather than have your mind manage you and your feelings, flip the switch and manage your mind, training it to think positively and optimistically. Whenever negative thoughts emerge, replace them with positive ones. Move from “I can’t” and “I’m not able” toward “I can” and “I am able.”
Consider this motivating insight from Swami Sivananda: “I have no such words as ‘cannot,’ ‘difficult,’ ‘impossible,’ and ‘weakness’ in my dictionary. Those who are attempting to strengthen their will-force should remove these words from their dictionary.”
3. Mindful Words
“Watch your thoughts; they become your words,” notes author Barbara Ann Kipfer. The transition from mindful thinking to mindful speaking. Pay attention to the words you use and the sentences you utter. Is your vocabulary positive and uplifting or does it tend to focus on the negative and pessimistic? Use words, phrases, and sentences that build up, encourage, and inspire, and applaud yourself and all those you come in contact with. The difference between loving or hating your life, valuing or devaluing it, will be highly influenced by the content of your self-talk. The Sutra on the Buddha of Infinite Life offers this insight: “Coarse language harms oneself and others. It is harmful to all. Cultivating and using good language benefits oneself and others. It is mutually beneficial.”
4. Mindful Support
There are individuals around you who want to be as helpful as possible. Be mindful of who they are. Don’t hesitate to lean on them from time to time. Avoid the temptation to isolate yourself when you are struggling. Reach out and let someone touch you. One very effective way of doing this is to join a grief support group. “People in these groups understand your fears and frustrations; they have been there,” says Rabbi Earl Grollman, an authority on loss. “Allow them to help you out of your isolation with a meaningful support network. Often, these sufferers become closer to you than your own family and friends.”
5. Mindful Action
Psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan, author of Healing Through the Dark Emotions, suffered a harsh blow with the death of her first child, Aaron, who died two months after birth. Looking back at that season of grief in her life, she now recommends taking mindful action to skillfully deal with the painful emotions of loss. “Action can be strong medicine in times of trouble,” she writes. “If you are afraid, help someone who lives in fear.
For example, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter. If you’re sad and lonely, work for the homeless. If you’re struggling with despair, volunteer at a hospice. Get your hands dirty with the emotion that scares you. This is one of the best ways to find hope in despair, to find connection in a shared grief, and to discover the joy of working to create a less broken world.”
6. Mindful Meditation
Grief generates a variety of anxieties and fears. Research confirms that sitting silently in mediation helps reduce them. CPR (calm, peaceful, relaxed) is a simple meditation to practice. Find a comfortable place to sit quietly, either on the floor or in a chair. Gently close your eyes. As you inhale, say to yourself, I am calm, and exhale. On the next inhale, say, I am peaceful, and exhale. On a third inhale, say, I am relaxed, and exhale. Cycle through the CPR meditation until you physically feel more calm, peaceful, and relaxed.
7. Mindful Eating
Grief disrupts appetite. Some grievers eat too little while others overeat. Practice mindfulness at meals. Be sure to eat fresh, healthy foods to keep your body strong during your grief journey. Avoid unhealthy “comfort” food as much as possible. “The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison,” says holistic health specialist Ann Wigmore. If preparing meals for just yourself is uninspiring, use this as a reason to invite company over for a meal or try a new restaurant with a friend.
8. Mindful Exercise
To offset the shock and sadness of grief, engage in regular exercise most days of the week. A recent review on the effects of exercise published in the journal Brain Plasticity
discovered that after exercise, people reported a better mood with decreases in tension, depression, and anger. Even if you feel you can’t possibly drag yourself out of bed, get up and get moving. Think carefully about an activity that appeals to you—yoga, hiking, biking, swimming, group fitness classes, dancing, kayaking—and do it. For greater motivation, consider working out with a friend.
9. Mindful Determination
Grief doesn’t allow you to rewind your life, so it’s important to find ways of motivating yourself to keep moving forward. This means cultivating a deeper determination, the will to deal daily with emerging issues, and overcome grief. Zen master Hsing Yun observes: “A determined person will always find ways and methods to success. An escapist will see only difficulties and obstacles.” Similarly, the 19th-century educator and author Horace Mann urged: “Let us not be content to wait and see what will happen, but give us the determination to make the right things happen.”
10. Mindful Possibilities
As grief eases and days become lighter and brighter, remain positively mindful about your future, about your ability to move forward and reinvent yourself. Just as you have survived other traumas, trust that you will also recover from this loss, that you will heal, and that you will regain the joy of living. Be inspired by this wisdom from Buddhist monk and author Yongey Mingyur: “If you’re determined to think of yourself as limited, fearful, vulnerable, or scarred by past experience, know only that you have chosen to do so. The opportunity to experience yourself differently is always available.”
Suffering a loss? Try this ritual for honoring a human or animal companion.