Mindfulness and Grief: Using Your Practice to Support Healing
Written by Anitra Rice

The sudden loss of a loved one is traumatic, leaving the bereaved in a fog of indescribable sadness. Depression from intense grief can cause a person to feel disembodied, as though they are only a shadow of their former selves. It seems incomprehensible to reconnect with the physical presence of things and people around you including your very own body. Grief is often marked by emotional dysregulation, emotional numbness and can trigger a battery of mental and physical ailments. After the sudden loss of not one, but two of my sons to suicide within sixteen months of each other, I can attest to feelings of being in an incorporeal-like state.

Grief shattered my idea of who I was. Mindfulness practice is a gift to rediscovering who I am with gentleness, kindness, self-compassion, and non-judgment. Mindfulness allows me to accept the nuances of grief as it comes. There are moments when my sadness needs my immediate undivided attention which can cause plans to be delayed or canceled. I am learning to accept the disruption grief causes with kindness towards myself without striving against it.

Mindfully building awareness of self allows me to embrace the irony of joy that somehow shows up in the midst of despair in the simplest ways. Shortly after losing my oldest son, Josiah, I remember walking down a city street where I suddenly began noticing the details of beautifully manicured shrubbery. I noticed the intricate details of leaves and petals studying their variance. Observing something so simple and beautiful brought surprising joy in the midst of profound sadness. It was then that I knew that I could hold space for deep pain and great joy, simultaneously. In this, I also found a sliver of hope. Mindfulness is now part of my healing care routine. It is a powerful way to support myself in the horrible aftermath of losing my precious Josiah and Jaden. While mindfulness is not a cure for the suffering of loss, it is a dear companion that does help in creating restorative and supportive thought patterns that leads to ease of suffering.

Healing from tremendous loss requires systemic awareness on a sensate level. This is because grief and loss disrupt our entire system affecting our awareness of self. Intense emotions, sudden, rapidly changing and altered circumstances cause an influx of stress and stress hormones. Mindfulness returns us to ourselves, our bodies, and minds with all of its sensations, calming the amygdala, thereby allowing us to tolerate our experiences.

Neuroscience teaches us that stress wreaks havoc on the system causing the parts of our brain responsible for higher levels of thinking and reasoning to go offline in an effort to keep us safe from any real or perceived threat. Neuroscience also tells us how trauma impacts the Broca’s area of the brain, which according to leading trauma researcher Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (2021), is the part of the brain that helps you say reasonable things, understand things and articulate them. Trauma causes this area of the brain to shut down, causing instability in our focus, decision-making, and our ability to process thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Thinking clearly and coherently becomes a futile effort making even simple word and sentence retrieval painfully difficult.

Dr. Catherine Cervin (2021), vice dean academic at Northern Ontario School of Medicine, writes after the loss of her love and life partner David Gass, quoting Dr. Jillian Horton:

“My ‘a-ha’ moment: mindfulness practices can help achieve system change because they change us…and we are the people who have to be able to withstand the system for long enough to change it.”

Mindfulness enables us to compassionately tolerate the extreme changes to our system that loss has formidably brought forth. There are several mindfulness-based interventions that use mindfulness as a way to help increase a person’s emotional tolerance, reduce stress and increase the ability to respond to experiences instead of reacting impulsively. According to research published in the journal of Human Brain Mapping (2020), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to enhance spontaneous emotion regulation among bereaved individuals.

During the grieving process I often hear well-meaning people tell me to take it one day at a time, but focusing on an entire day can feel like an eternity while in a state of disconsolation. I’ve consistently found that taking grief one moment and one breath at a time to be a much more manageable alternative. Attuning my focus to sensate experiences in each present moment without judgment builds my resilience in being tenderly present with painful emotions. Rather than agonizing over how I will manage to live a life without my Josiah and my Jaden, I focus on taking it one breath at a time. I don’t know how I will manage the future but I do know how to breathe right now, and so breathe, I shall.