It was a Monday morning in early May. I had just positioned my chair by the window to catch the warmth of some early spring sunrays on my skin. For the first time after what had been a long and trying winter, I felt my energy picking up, and with it came inspiration and motivation – things I was looking forward to express in my work that day.
The sound of my phone abruptly brought these plans to a halt. As I received the news I heard myself gasp. The impossible had become possible.
My loving, playful, intelligent, problem solving, creative, stubborn father had taken control over his health challenges – by ending them, once and for all. That included his life.
Staring at the phone in my hand in disbelief, I felt unsure weather to let myself fall apart, or kick into action mode first. I made some more phone calls and booked two one-way flights for me and my husband to Amsterdam that evening. I had to go home first. Only then could I begin to process the impact of what happened.
It was a process in which the practice and application of mindfulness turned out to be invaluable.
Not that this was a time to sit on my meditation cushion and focus on my breath. This was the time to turn theory into practice. In case you are new to mindfulness: mindfulness practices aim to see the present experience (including the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise moment to moment) clearly, in order to skillfully navigate difficult emotions. Breath focus is just one way to practice this. Mindfulness is NOT an exercise in positive thinking, or aiming to change the experience and making you feel any different than you do. Some examples from my experience with grief might help.
These are the strategies that helped me keep my head above the water when I felt I was drowning:
What do you do when you’re cruising along the river of life and suddenly find yourself in a thundering white water river that sweeps up and crushes everything on its way? When you know that resisting and swimming against the current is not an option? You surrender. Allow it to pick you up and crash you down, while keeping your head above the water as best you can.
Allowing oneself to feel the pain of loss takes much less energy than running from, or trying to suppress it.
At times, this pain hurt more than I thought I could bear. My mind had turned into a movie screen on which the same horror movie was being projected over and over again, as if to convince me that this had really happened. I didn’t try to stop these disturbing images. A part of me knew I had to experience the pain they caused, in order to fully process the emotions. Each time I replayed the scenario, it upset me slightly less.
Recognizing that these episodes of pain, sadness and helplessness came in waves, helped me stay centered during the most difficult parts: whenever I sensed the beginning of a new wave, I focused on the sensations in my body and let them wash over me, while breathing slow breaths. Focusing on the physical sensations helped me stay grounded in the present, while processing (rather than suppressing) the emotion fully.
Surrendering went hand in hand with acceptance.
Acceptance didn’t mean that I approved of what happened, but I accepted that I couldn’t change the situation or fix anything, that I was not in control, that this was now my life, including all the various emotions that came with it. Approving or disapproving was beside the point – it wouldn’t change a thing. The sooner you accept that you can not change or control a situation, the better to prevent feelings of helplessness and depression.
My mind demanded answers.
For millennia it has evolved to provide solutions to undesired situations, and now it was simply trying to apply the same strategy to this ‘problem’. But what if there is no real solution? What if we can’t change a thing about the situation?
It felt as if my mind was chasing its own tail, desperate for understanding: How could this happen? Who is responsible? What could I (or others) have done to prevent this?
Not only did those thoughts not get me any closer to a solution (my dad was still gone), they instantly added feelings of defeat, betrayal, failure, guilt, anger, and blame – unnecessary added pain, resulting from an effort to gain control over the situation.
All I could do was to bring awareness to what my mind was trying to do. Sometimes simply shedding the light of consciousness onto my own thoughts was enough to calm my mind down, like a light bulb chases away darkness. Other times, when thoughts were more sticky, I needed to question them some more, by asking myself: Is this really true? In other words: is this an objective observation, rather than a reflection of my conditioned beliefs and assumptions about the world around me?
This was particularly important when the dark voice of depression raised its ugly head, with thoughts like: Life is against me; I don’t deserve to be happy; I’ve had the best part of my life; I’ll never recover from this, or be happy again – if I wasn’t already feeling down, these thoughts certainly had the power to take me there!
Being a MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) course facilitator, I’m well aware these kinds of thoughts (AKA ‘automatic negative thoughts’) typically accompany a depressed mood – thus creating a downward spiral and more depressed feelings. Still, they nearly escaped my conscious awareness. They seemed so compelling, so real – almost impossible to see them for what they really were: thoughts. Projections of my mind. Compelling yes – but not real, true, hard facts.
Understanding where these thoughts came from, and not taking them too seriously, helped me stop the vicious cycle of my sliding mood. While I didn’t have control over the original ‘problem’, I did have a certain amount of control over the way it affected me, by not letting my own thoughts add fuel to the fire – something Buddhists refer to as pain (which is inevitable in life) versus suffering (which is optional).
Making self-care a top priority
The week after the funeral I got sick with a flu. I can’t recall ever feeling this weak before: as if I myself was dying – that’s how little alive I felt. It occurred to me that living with such low life energy is not living at all, and not knowing how long it would take to come out of this was terrifying!
The feeling that I was either going to sink or swim sparked a surge of energy through me, a strong drive, a will to live.
If I live, I thought, I will truly LIVE, not merely survive. If anything, this tragedy will leave me more focused and determined to live life to the fullest, and bring all I stand for and have to offer into this world. That’s how I would honor my fathers legacy – this way, he would indirectly be my guide and teacher. Because to do this, I would have to do something I had never succeeded at before: make self-care my #1 priority.
So when every cell in me screamed to curl up under the blankets in fetus pose, I made a strong determination not to go down that hill, but to do everything I could to heal my body and mind.
Two things I can say here: 1) don’t wait until you ‘feel like it’ (because you won’t), but ‘just do it’. 2) Keep it simple. I found one Paleo cookbook and one yoga routine that I connected with, and that I could turn to every day, without having to think too hard about it. I took time off work, spend plenty of time outdoors, slept 8-10 hours every night, and used herbs and acupuncture for additional support.
I also learned to communicate my needs and boundaries. I had no choice: pushing myself had become a luxury of the past. The raw, hypersensitive state I was in made it very easy to notice my bodies’ subtle ways of telling me whether something (or someone) was either nourishing or depleting me. I honored that little voice inside by taking a step back, grounding myself more consistently, and by being more authentic and less focused on pleasing others – in other words: I started to change lifelong behavioral patterns.
Until, one day, I realized I felt better than I had in a long, long time: a sense of aliveness, a spark, a joy. This initiated a new cascade of thoughts and self-doubt, cause if I really loved my dad, wasn’t I supposed to feel heartbroken still? (Amazing how our minds tend to judge the way we feel – regardless of which emotion, good or bad, passes by!) But then it clicked: I had taken better care of me, than I had in years. And the state of heightened sensitivity I was in, turned out to have a pleasant side-effect: I was able to feel the life force within me much easier – similar to what I experience during meditation retreats. Silently, I thanked my father for his guidance.
Giving meaning to loss
How to give meaning to things that don’t seem to make any sense?
Grief forced me to re-examine who I am and how I give meaning to life. I realized how much I had taken it for granted that I would have both my parents around until they had reached an age where their death would become ‘acceptable’ – and how it would affect my choices and relationships if I lived with a greater awareness of my own and others’ mortality.
A quick look around the cemetery told me that my family is certainly not the only one to experience a difficult loss – many others have left unexpectedly, too soon for those they left behind.
The realization that this too is part of life, and so many others before me have gone through this pain – and have come out on the other end – was comforting, and helped me come to terms with my own loss. This connectedness to a world in which pain is inevitable, brought me back to the roots of Buddhist psychology, from which mindfulness practices are derived: that everything is impermanent and always changing – yet people relate to them as though they are permanent. This inability to acknowledge and accept this inherent impermanence is the source of much suffering we experience.
Knowing that I will likely experience many more losses, some potentially as unexpected and painful as my dads’ departure, propels me to continue to keep my ‘tools’ oiled, live life with an awareness that ‘life is now’, and not to let any chances to express love and gratitude to the people around me go to waste.
Grief has urged me to re-align myself with the things I derive meaning from in life, and not to put those things ‘on hold’ until later. One of those things is to experience living in a spiritual eco-community. And so it happened that I’m spending this winter in Damanhur, at the foot of the Italian Alps. During my 3-month stay this winter I plan to participate in many of the courses and workshops offered on-site. Meanwhile, I will continue to provide care and support to clients in various parts of the world, via online video consults.
Surprised I watched my heart slowly mend itself, piece by piece. I noticed a life force inside me that wanted to move forward, and that seemed to know exactly how to handle the trauma: like water finding its way, no matter how hostile the terrain. Somehow, in ways I never expected, my mind adapted to a new reality.
‘All’ I had to do for this healing was allowing nature to do its work – no different from my body healing itself after breaking a bone. This allowing was key though, and consisted of accepting, even welcoming the pain and emotions in all their fullness, not adding unnecessary suffering by getting my analytical & judgmental mind out of the way, and providing the essential elements for a healthy body and mind.
While the wound may heal, the scar remains – as a constant reminder of the lessons learned, and qualities developed through grief – lessons about compassion, expansion and softening, both towards others and myself.
What strategies have helped you recover from a difficult loss?