Meditation: Helpful to Those Who Grieve
by Mary Friedel-Hunt MA LCSW
It is only through holding our own broken hearts and wounds in an attentive and compassionate embrace, that we can, over time, move through our grief to some stage of peace and resolution. ~ Brad Hunter
Research studies confirm that the practice of meditation and mindfulness changes our brains and our lives; reduces pain, anxiety, confusion and stress; boosts the immune system; and increases concentration, focus and compassion, among its many other benefits. In addition, the practice of meditation and mindfulness can assist us in healing our grief, because it helps us live in the present moment...where our grief resides.
It gives us better access to the "now," thereby helping us become more aware of our pain and sadness, and in turn begin to heal it. Distracting ourselves from our grief is necessary and helpful from time to time, but repeatedly avoiding pain and grief only serves to prolong the journey to healing. Any tool that can increase concentration and focus and bring us to that place where grief resides (the present moment) is surely a tool that will facilitate grief healing. As a dedicated advocate of the use of meditation and as a fellow mourner, my hope is that others learn how helpful it can be as they walk the labyrinth of grief in their own lives.
The Author's Personal Story
A daily practice of meditation has been an essential part of my life for years: first as a member of a religious order in my twenties, then as a teacher in the early 60's and early 70's when I taught my 5th grade students how to meditate. In my practice as a psychotherapist, I teach and for many years have taught many clients to use meditation as one way to deal with anxiety, depression, grief and a host of other concerns. My husband Bill and I practiced meditation on a daily basis throughout the years of our marriage.
Why then, when I needed it most, did I abandon this lifelong and important practice? It happened somewhere in 2008, as Bill moved into the later stages of Alzheimer's disease and was no longer able to meditate or practice mindfulness. At the same time, as my husband's primary caregiver I was becoming increasingly overwhelmed and exhausted -- clearly in survival mode, doing only what had to be done as I somehow managed to take care of Bill, see clients, publish a local magazine that he and I founded and much more. Life was challenging and even traumatic, and eventually meditation and mindfulness got lost in the trauma and stress of Bill's final months. It was not until well after he died in 2010 that I realized how deeply I missed my meditation practice, and I knew it would be one of the keys to healing my deep grief.
In hindsight, if I had maintained my practice during my caregiving days and the early months of experiencing the gut-wrenching grief that followed Bill's death, I know that my life and healing would have been easier.
Many Ways to Practice ~ and Not as Difficult as You Might Think
Because there are so many ways to practice meditation, the thought of it can seem overwhelming to a beginner.
This chart describes some of the various types and steps: Meditation or Relaxation Techniques.
In reality, however, meditation is simple. Let's start with Mindful Meditation. Stop what you are doing and... look around your space. Let your eyes fall on the various objects that surround you. Really look! Really see! Choose one object and hold it in your hand. It can be a pen, a shell, a flower...anything will do. Block out everything except the object you have chosen to look at. Become one, so to speak, with the object. Study the tiny details, the colors, the shape. Do this for a few to several minutes. You have just practiced mindfulness: being present to the here and now, either by focusing on one object or all that surrounds you, including sounds and more.
Now try this. First read the following instructions, then sit up straight and close your eyes. With your eyes closed, pay attention to your breathing...follow your breath, in as you inhale, and out as you exhale. You can also imagine your breath moving through your nostrils, filling your lungs and traveling back out again, or you can count to 4 as you inhale and again as you exhale. When you are distracted (and you will be distracted), gently bring your attention back to your breath. Do this for a few to several minutes. You have now practiced another type of meditation, one with the goal of clearing your mind and focusing on just one thought.
Our minds are quite busy, producing some 40 or more thoughts in any given minute. It is what the brain does. Those of us who have meditated for a lifetime still have to deal with our "monkey minds." Your mind will wander. Don't fight with it; just gently return to what you have chosen as your focus. With time and patience, it gets easier to maintain that focus. With practice, you might notice a decrease in your blood pressure if it's been high. You may feel your emotions level out a bit, or you'll notice those all too common grief triggers becoming less stressful. When the tsunamis of grief come barreling into your day, you'll have a resource available to help you become calmer and more peaceful as the torrent of grief subsides.
Guided meditation is helpful to those who are grieving because, with the help of a guide or a recording, it provides something on which to focus. I know from experience that as you grieve, it might seem difficult if not impossible to sit quietly (even as the tears may flow) to focus on a flower, the sounds in the room or your breath. But be gentle with yourself and try it anyway. At first, perhaps all you can do is sit quietly for a few minutes. Once you can do that, try one of the guided meditations using the links below.
For me, the journey through grief has involved not only acceptance of my loss and my grief but an embracing of them. We who grieve learn to integrate our pain into our lives. What feels like a backpack filled with lead eventually lightens until we actually have moments and times when it is barely perceptible. And then in time -- your own time -- those times will increase, and grief will no longer control your life. Instead it might sit quietly in the back of your heart and/or mind, allowing you to honor the love you have for the one you miss so much, and even to be compassionate toward others who are walking through grief. Meditation is one tool to help you arrive at that place.
AudiosTara Brach - Free Guided Meditations
Bella Naparsteck - Ease Grief
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center - Free Guided Meditations (varied lengths; includes LovingKindness Meditation)
VideosGuided Meditation - Loving Kindness (13 minutes)
Jon Kabat-Zinn -What is Mindfulness? (2.5 minutes)
ArticlesTen Myths About Meditation
BooksMeditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield
Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg (with audio CD on Metta Mindfulness)
Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment -- And Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
* Written by Mary Friedel-Hunt for Marty Tousley's Grief Healing blog.