Navigating Grief and Difficult Emotions Using Mindfulness

As I wrote about in a recent post, our sweet dog and my friend for the last 18 years, Peanut, passed away recently. For the last ten of those years, after my son went off to college, Peanut and I were, in the words of Forrest Gump, “like peas and carrots.” Given his age, I thought I was prepared for his death. But when it happened, I discovered the impact that it had - and continues to have - on me.

Of course, I miss Peanut terribly. In fact, I noticed I was hesitant to sit down on my meditation cushion, afraid of feeling my grief. But when I meditated, what I found instead, was a still and peaceful spaciousness. This brought me some sense of relief. It was as if I had encountered a place within me that can hold everything - including the grief - without being swept away by it.

As I process the emotions that arise these days, I find myself contemplating how death and grief fit into the larger puzzle of life. What can potentially turbulent times like this teach us about our day-to-day approach to life as we encounter each precious moment of being alive on this earth?

In hopes of helping those who may also be coping with grief or other difficult emotions, here are a few insights that have helped me find more peace during these times.

ACCEPTING THE FLEETING AND EVER-CHANGING NATURE OF LIFE

When we first got Peanut, my son was only 8 years old. He’s now a grown man with a life of his own in another town. After Peanut died, I was on my way home and passed by a pizza place where my son worked during high school. It dawned on me that Peanut’s passing marked the end of a phase of life – the life of our nuclear family, just the four of us. A time of parenthood, travel, careers. Life has been changing all along, yet it seemed even more poignant now.

Assembling photos of Peanut from his puppyhood, through the prime of his life, to his old age, it dawned on me how his life had given me an opportunity to see the full spectrum of a life. The changes in my own life have seemed so gradual in comparison. In reviewing his life, I got an intimate glimpse into the ever-changing nature of it all - including the impermanence of our physical bodies. Witnessing the impermanent nature of physical life is often like having a messenger whisper in our ear: “Don’t let a single moment go by wasted.”

Everything in our lives can only happen in the present moment. The only way to experience each passing miracle is to stop, witness, observe, be, absorb. We have to open up all of our senses to fully experience its beauty.

It’s all right here, just waiting for us to encounter it directly. Like the rays of the morning sunlight against the wall that I can feel when I hold my hand out in them. Like the perfect blending of yellow, blue, and brown on the wings of a butterfly alighting on a spectacular yellow flower that my eyes get to witness. Like the soothing song of a bird in the still afternoon that I’m hearing even now. My connection with my buddy is my connection with the ongoingness of all of life.

“When we lose someone we love, we should remember that the person has not become nothing.  ‘Something’ cannot become ‘nothing,’ and ‘nothing’ cannot become, ‘something.’  Science can help us understand this, because matter cannot be destroyed—it can become energy.  And energy can become matter, but it cannot be destroyed.  In the same way, our beloved was not destroyed; she has just taken on another form.  That form may be a cloud, a child or the breeze.  We can see our loved one in everything.” - Thich Nhat Hanh

FINDING LIFE’S MEANING THROUGH PRESENT MOMENT AWARENESS

Mindfulness teaches us that resistance to what is happening is often at the root of our pain. If we learn to meet life as it is, we open ourselves to the profound stillness of this moment. Ultimately life is made up of all of it - the ups and the downs. When something unpleasant happens in our lives, we often question the very nature of life itself. Yet even that questioning is a vital aspect of experiencing our own humanity.

The longer I live the more certain I become that the answers to my big questions about life lie in the experience of the present moment. They are not in my thoughts and ideas about life, but rather immersed in the indescribable experience of now. This is where I feel my connection to the greater totality of all that is.

“All aspects of every phenomenon are completely clear and lucid. The whole universe is open and unobstructed, everything mutually interpenetrating. Seeing all things nakedly, clear and free from obstructions, there is nothing to attain or realize. The nature of things naturally appears, and is naturally present in time-transcending awareness; this is complete openness.” - H. H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Life is inherent in the building blocks of the universe. It naturally emerges and blossoms. Even science reveals that everything is just energy in motion and that energy cannot be created or destroyed. When I contemplate the seemingly finite nature of our physical lives, this thought brings me much comfort.

HOW MINDFULNESS PRACTICE CAN HELP YOU COPE WITH DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

As I think back to how overwhelmed I used to get by my emotions, I realize how deeply my meditation practice has changed me. I feel it has prepared me, little by little, to handle the gradually revealed profoundness of life. It has taught me to see life anew through pausing and shifting my awareness to the miracle of the present moment.

Through meditation, we can learn to be with our feelings without judgement or feeling the need for things to be different. We learn acceptance. Through that, we get to cultivate the inner strength and resilience to deal with challenging times in the future.

Practicing mindfulness can help us notice the space between our emotions and that deeper sense of self that witnesses them as they arise. Yet one of the most reassuring elements of mindfulness, for me at least, is the reminder that nothing is permanent - including our emotions. Even though pain may at times feel as if it is constant, it actually ebbs and flows - much like waves in the ocean. Its intensity may fluctuate, but in between there are always pockets of peace. The more we can learn to surf these waves of emotion without getting caught up in them, the better we are able to handle any unexpected tsunamis that may come our way.

“You can't stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

3 STEPS TO PRACTICING MINDFULNESS AMIDST GRIEF AND DIFFICULT EMOTIONS

1.  Allow yourself to sit with your emotions without judgement

Give yourself some time to be alone with your feelings. Use a guided meditation for grief and healing if you wish or sit in a quiet space. Recognize the urge that may arise to distract yourself by doing something else.

Remind yourself that it’s ok to feel grief. It’s ok to feel sad when you’ve lost someone or something dear to you. These feelings are an expression of love for something that meant a lot to you.

2.  Meet your emotions with compassion

Place your hand on your heart. Feel your own soothing touch. As best you can, feel your pain and grief as it ebbs and flows. Notice where you feel the sensations in your body. The fact that you can witness, identify, and label these feelings means that you are not them. You are the one that is observing them.

Incline toward yourself and your inner experience with compassion, because what you are feeling is difficult. Imagine how you would be with a friend dealing with these same emotions. Tap into that kind of compassion and direct it toward yourself.

Using a kind inner voice, express your own words of compassion for what you are feeling: "May I hold this hurting place inside me with love and tenderness," or "May I give myself what I need as I move through this."  Let yourself feel your own well-wishes of kindness and attention. Notice what happens inside you as you both send and receive compassion for what you are feeling.

3.  Remember that this too shall pass

Think back to other difficult times you may have gone through in the past. Regardless of how unbearable it seemed then, you made it. You are here and you are alive. Experiences are passing. So are our emotions. The dawn will come and the sun will shine again. Cultivate gratitude for your own life and your connection to those that you love. Can you feel the experience of gratitude and compassion in your body? What is it like?

When you give your emotions space, you will eventually start noticing a sense of relief as they flow through freely. You may receive inner guidance about what steps you should be taking next. You may even notice opportunities arising that you otherwise would have dismissed.

Mindfulness is a wonderful tool to help you meet life as it is - through times of bliss and through times of grief. If you would like to learn how to practice mindfulness in daily life so that you can feel less stress, build resilience, and feel more acceptance in the present moment, you can reserve your spot for the next cycle of my 6 week online mindfulness course “Mindfulness for Stress Relief” here.

If you would like a quick overview of what mindfulness is - plus three simple practices to help you cope with stressful emotions today - you can gain access to my free webinar here.

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