Can Meditation Help Deal with Tragedy and Death?
Losing a loved one is devastating. Everyone has their own, personal way to cope with the death of a beloved friend, relative, or even a pet. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Many factors enter into how grieving unfolds, including cultural and religious backgrounds, the closeness of the relationship, social support systems and the bereaved’s personality and resilience.
Mourning is the normal human reaction to loss. We think of loss as related to the death of someone near and dear, but we may also mourn the loss of a job, a relationship, the ability to do certain fulfilling things, and so on. As a result of our grief, we may find it difficult to sleep, our eating patterns change, we can’t control our tears, we may experience despair, anger or guilt, and we may avoid the company of others.
As uncomfortable as all this is, it’s also perfectly normal. Well-intentioned friends and family may urge us to “get on with our lives” but there is no template for mourning. The fact is, because of this loss things will never be the same for us, and we all need time to adjust to our new normal.
What are the phases of grief?
Bereavement can be seen as a process of letting go and renewal. Many bereavement experts present the course of grief in several stages: numbness, yearning, disorganization and despair, and renewal. Numbness is another way of saying that that feelings are temporarily repressed, giving the mourner a sort of buffer zone before he or she is able to begin processing the loss. This stage is followed by an intense yearning for things to be different, accompanied by “pangs of grief.” Disorganization and despair arise with the realization that time can’t reverse itself, but old psychological habits – like expecting your departed pet to wake you up in the morning – continue. Reorganization is the adaptation to the new normal accompanied by a sense of renewal. Note that the progression isn’t linear; you may essentially be in one phase and notice that you are experiencing moments of another. This is normal.
As Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, a prominent voice in grief education, puts it, “If you love, you will mourn.” Wolfelt considers that the pain of loss is an inevitable result of the ability to give and receive love. Wolfelt suggests that grief is not something to “get over” but it’s something you learn to live with and even move towards as a transformative life experience.
How can meditation for grief and loss help?
There are many techniques available to help the bereaved work through grief. Bereavement counseling, in groups or one-on-one, can be immensely helpful. Some people benefit from a period of communion with nature, silent reflection, or prayer.
Some kinds of meditation can also be very beneficial. If you already have a mindfulness practice, this will be an enormous help, since your practice will have confirmed that you can give your emotions ample space to express themselves without fearing that you will be overwhelmed or that things will never change. If meditation teaches us one thing, it’s that everything changes.
When you practice mindfulness, you are able to let go of the story that your grief comes back to and focus instead on the feelings themselves, without judging, rejecting or grasping. There is a reassuring calmness in this respectful distance between the emotions that arise and the mind that acknowledges them.
If you are experiencing loss and are new to meditation, there are guided meditations that are designed for you. The only thing you have to do is listen and, to the best of your ability, stay focused. For example, this short guided meditation by world-renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield inspires us to take the time we need to grieve and encourages us to be kind to ourselves in the process. Kindness ultimately brings acceptance of how you are dealing with your loss, the patience and forbearance you need to embrace mourning, and the strength to fully feel your sadness and loss.
Preparing for the truth of impermanence
Change happens. Sometimes it brings exactly what we were hoping for, and sometimes it is utterly devastating. Meditation on death is a powerful and effective technique that prepares us to integrate change by working with the truth of impermanence on the cushion or chair. In her Mind Talk on Grief & Loss, Maria Camara, PhD explains that following a loss, our loving capacity can be revitalized through meditation practice. And check out our articles on Meditation for Seniors and Best Meditation Techniques for Seniors.