Grief is a part of love. It hurts because we love. And just as we fall in love and want to share it with everyone, social media, weddings and parties… our grief too wants to be expressed. However, in today’s society we find it hard to know how to express grief, support those who are grieving and find tools to help us bare what is ours to carry as nothing will ever fix or solve our grief. Grief is a natural and healthy reaction to loss. When we experience loss, grief fills our life with darkness. This darkness never goes way, we just learn how to expand our life around the darkness.
In order to illustrate this point, for a moment I would like you, the reader, to call upon an experience of grief in your life. The story, the people involved, the unfolding of events that happened as a result of your loss. Notice as you recall these memories how you feel. Where do you feel it? What are the sensations? Sharp, numb, heavy, churning? What are the emotions? Fear, anger, helplessness, sadness, longing? Notice, without trying to change anything, what are you unwilling to feel? What are the words, thoughts? This isn’t fair! Why me? Why them? Now what? Thoughts will come up like; It’s going to feel like this forever. I can’t do this. Recognise and acknowledge with openness and kind curiosity these thoughts when your story is felt. Allow the hurt to untangle itself in this moment. Don’t try to change anything, allow it a canvas to express itself, to be heard, seen and felt. Be the loving witness to your heartache.
There are many tools to help with managing our grief. Talking to support groups, therapists or using art and writing are some of the ways in which we can creatively express grief. I manage grief through yoga and meditation. The Asanas of physically moving my body to release some of the build up of sensation or awakening the feelings by creating sensation is a useful method of encouraging the hurt to untangle. While seated practices and guided meditation help me find more resilience by allowing me to tend to my grief with more understanding, compassion and faith.
In my story of grief, I need anchors or objects to hold me down and embrace me when I feel overwhelmed and broken. A few things I use are my Mala beads to focus my attention and perform Japa, which is repetition of a mantra. This practice is to absorb the meaning of the mantra and create discipline of the mind to directing the message of the mantra. I have also found that listening to my teachers’ voices in meditation is an amazing way of tending to grief. The wisdom of my teachers connects me to the reservoir of light, love and faith felt in seeking to connect to the spirit in my very human experience of living with loss.
Finally another anchor I used in the past, and this is by no means for everyone, was a method of symbolically declaring the severance of the karmic ties that tethered me to my past. I got a tattoo (I know, so cliche) of a massive dorje on my back as a permanent reminder, a permanent mark representing the power I possess alighting my journey forward with diamond-thunderbolt luminosity to manifest my hearts prayers.
There are many means of finding these anchors or creating sensation to manage grief. We use objects, prayer and rituals to manage the unmanageable events we face in our lives. We all find ways in coping; some constructive, some destructive.
Two Parables of Grief
One of my favourite stories relating to grief comes from the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. The story of Kisa Gotami, who lived during the time when Buddha was alive. It was said that her young son died as a baby. She was so devastated she went door to door desperately asking her neighbours to give her medicine to bring her baby back to life. One of her neighbours suggested she go see the Buddha and ask him as it was known that he reached enlightenment/nirvana and could help her. She went to plead with the Buddha to bring her dead son back to life. He instructed her to go back into the village and collect a mustard seed from each home that had not been touched by death. With those seeds he would create the medicine to bring her son back to life. With this new found incentive and hope, she rushed back to each home of the village asking each occupant for a mustard seed. During her quest however, each of the people she encountered told stories of how they were touched by death themselves stating “the living are few, but the dead are many.” As she continued her quest to collect these mustard seeds she realised that everyone has a story of loss and the universality of death. As she realised the impermanence of life, her grief was calmed and she buried her son. Kisa returned back to the Buddha, confessed of her findings and entered the first stage of enlightenment, that to be born is to suffer due to change, illness, ageing and death; the first Noble Truth. From then on, Kisa became the first woman disciple of Buddha, studying the remaining Noble Truths and the 8 fold path of Buddhism.
This second parable comes from an Arab Folktale called “The Bedouin’s Gazelle”; A man and his son go out hunting together and an accident occurs. His son gets hit by a gazelle and dies. The man wraps his son up in a cloth and brings him home to his wife. To soften the devastating news, he informs his wife that he brought back a gazelle from the hunt and to cook it she will have to borrow a pot from a neighbour that has never known sorrow. She goes to every home in the village, finding no one who has not been touched by sorrow. She returns to her husband stating, “There are no pots that have not cooked a meal of sorrow.” With this the man unwrapped his parcel and showed his wife their dead son saying, “It is our turn to cook meals of sorrow, for this is my gazelle.”
Though our stories of grief may be different, we all know what it feels like to feel loss, hurt, longing, sadness, anger and grief. We all have stories of loss from minor to major. Not all grief is the same. The loss of a child is different to the loss of a parent. The loss of a relationship is different to the death of partner. It is hard not to get competitive with our stories of grief. I am not trying to create a “Grief Olympics” by telling my stories, but by telling my stories of loss, I hope to soften the edges of separateness and see that we can come together to learn how to hold our stories with more compassion for ourselves and others.
My Story of Grief
My story (well, stories really, again its not a competition!) of loss are complicated and not straightforward. My husband of 12 years who I shared having 2 daughters with, relapsed on heroin after being clean for 13 years. It took him a year and a half to get clean again entering a treatment centre for 3 months. Five days from returning home clean and sober he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that metastasised in his brain, lungs and liver. The doctors immediately started him on a daily dose of morphine as his prognosis was not months, but maybe weeks to live.
The reality of his situation unraveled his sobriety and he went on using everything and anything he could get his hand on until he physically died 9 months later. The doctors told me his body continued to live, long past when it should have given up, for the drugs he ingested.
He died in my eyes and heart three times. The first time he died was when he relapsed, then, when he was diagnosed with cancer and finally when he left this earth on the 8th of January, 2012. The complexity of my story is that I was left with so much anger, rage even. Unlike some of the stories of my friends that were in love with their partners when they passed, my story felt so dark. The condolences and lovely messages from those who loved and adored my husband felt like knives stabbing me, diminishing the trauma of what my girls and I lived through watching the mess and wake of an addict’s destruction upon our lives. It took me 6 years to work through the anger and trauma to reach a true place of celebrating the love I had shared with my late-husband. His beauty, talent and charm that was lost in my life and in my girl’s lives.
At the funeral, attended by hundreds of fans, friends, and admirers all the platitudes and condolences I received from others made my blood boil, hardened my heart and made me feel resentment with everyone who was trying to comfort or fix me. I heard; “This has all happened for a reason”, “This will make you stronger”, “This too shall pass” and in my line of work being a Yoga teacher “This is your karma.” All these sayings have truth in their meaning, however, said to a grieving person can bring shame and guilt that we aren’t grieving the right way. I didn’t need this to happen for me to feel strong, learn lessons or understand my spirituality.
Grief in Our Time
I feel as a culture we don’t know how to support someone grieving. I find myself today, knowing what I know, being racked with helplessness when I hear my friend’s husband has just died of a heart attack, or that my client just gave birth to a still born, or of my client’s loss of his unborn baby and his wife to brain cancer, my friend’s child being diagnosed with autism, my client’s teenager cutting herself, suffering with anorexia and attempting suicide. The stories of sorrow are everywhere, however we just don’t get taught the tools to cope with such pain.
The images of smiling, happy and prosperous people are everywhere we look. Movies, social media (the highlight reels of our lives), advertisements perpetuated by a culture that encourages a fake reality and imposes that if you are not living up to this ideal that there is something wrong and that something wrong is YOU. This feeling that we aren’t getting over our loss quick enough, feeling better fast enough and jumping back on the conveyor belt of ‘normal’ to appease other’s discomfort that you are causing them, sets the griever up for more isolation and depression.
Trying to pretend that everything is okay creates suffering. Resisting the emotions and grief to be expressed creates suffering. We need to find ways to express our grief in productive ways, to be seen, heard, validated and felt with more kindness, compassion and love.
I haven’t found anyone who has been able to fix, solve or get over their loss. I have found ways in getting to know myself and how to tend to my grief in ways that draw me closer to love, peace and acceptance. My life today has expanded around my grief. I still carry it, however, I have better tools to be able to tend to it when it needs to speak. I also have been given more patience, understanding and empathy to those who have been touched by loss themselves. I am not an expert, qualified with credentials or a professional grief therapist. I am a Yoga and Meditation Teacher who has found ways of holding grief through these practices and I want to share the techniques with others in hope that it helps soothe the wounds, opening moments of serenity, contentment and peace.
Two Techniques for Grief Management
I would like you to do an exercise to help recognise what happens when we deny our grief from expressing itself:
- Call up your grief. See the story of your loss. The people, feelings and fall out to what has happened to you.
- Start a steady stream of no, no, no, No, No, No.
- Notice what happens physically, mentally and energetically when saying no to your grief. Tightening, constricting, hardening, shaming, denying. NO, NO, NO. Imagine if you did this all day, for a week, months, years.
Now shake that off and recall your grief again. The same story, people and feelings.
- Now direct yes, yes, yes, Yes, Yes, Yes to the experience.
- Notice the unique difference within the physical, mental and energetic encounter to YES, YES, YES. How you are able to create more space for what is yours to carry. How it becomes more bearable.
Can you imagine every time you have the spike of grief arise in your day you are able to say Yes, Yes, Yes giving it the permission to be felt with more care, attention and equanimity.
As Tara Brach, a Buddhist Psychologist, calls it; “attend and befriend.” This is a meditation that can be done in any moment when we feel the ‘should’s’ creeping in. “I should be over this by now” “I should be better” “I should be grieving like them” .
Another technique the teachings suggest is learn how to ‘surf’ the waves of emotions.
- Imagine you are in a clear, blue ocean. As you look along the surface you see a few big waves heading towards you. The first few are waves of fear.
- As they approach, feel the feeling, inhale dive into the fear wave and exhale on the other side. Do this a few more times.
- The second waves are of sadness. Inhale, dive into the sadness wave and exhale when you come out the other side.
- The third set of waves is of longing. Inhale, dive into the longing and exhale on the other side. Notice with every experience, you develop a sense of skill in surfing the waves of your emotions. The space between the waves become longer, the waves smaller and eventually there is a calm as you bathe in the residue of effort in the sea of serenity that holds you with more care and ease.