There is a story about death and loss that is a teaching story from Buddhism. It goes something like this…
Long ago, a young woman from a wealthy family was happily married to an important man. When her only son fell ill and suddenly died she was heartbroken with grief, unable to fathom a life without the precious child who was so suddenly gone. She had heard that a great teacher was in town who people called the Buddha. Desperately she grabbed her baby and ran to where she had heard he was teaching. “Please”, she begged with anguish, “please bring my child back to me.”
The Buddha listened to the distraught woman with patience and great compassion.” Gently he then said, “there is only one way to solve your problem. Go and get a mustard seed from each family in the village who has not been touched by death.”
The woman, filled with hope, ran from door to door, trying to find one household untouched by loss. Eventually she slowly returned to the Buddha, acknowledging the fact that death is inevitable and is experienced by all who live. She was then able to bury her son, mourn the loss of his presence, and grieve the death of her only child.
I know many of you have suffered the loss of loved ones. Ten days ago, my father died suddenly. Loss of this nature causes a great deal of grief and sadness. Ayurvedic medicine (the 10,000-year-old sister science of yoga from India) tells us that it’s important to digest our emotions, just as we must have healthy digestion of our food in order to attain optimal energy and wellness.
Let’s explore how to digest the pain of grief…
What is grief?
Grief is deep sorrow, especially over the loss of someone or something that was near and dear to you. The emotional pain of loss can feel overwhelming and be accompanied by other feelings of shock, anger, guilt, disbelief, numbness, depression, anxiety, and profound sadness. Your physical health can be impacted by sleeplessness, a change in appetite, a lack of energy and the inability to think clearly. These reactions to loss are quite normal and will be more severe if the loss is significant.
One of life’s greatest challenges is coping with the loss of those you love. However, you can feel grief over many different life experiences…such as:
- The loss of a job, friendship or relationship
- A decline in health or financial security
- The death of a pet
- The end of a cherished dream
- The loss of the image you want to have in life
- The loss of a felt sense of safety after a trauma
- The loss of your home or moving away
- The loss of community or church
- The end of a stage of life
- Empty nesting
- Change of any kind
What you deem important and how you experience loss is personal and your feelings will be valid and important to acknowledge to yourself. Finding a healthy way to grieve is the first step to the proper digestion of this uncomfortable feeling.
Grieving is a Process that Can be Messy and Doesn’t Follow a Straight Line
There is no right or wrong way to grieve and there is no timeline that every person follows. Your grieving process will be determined by your life experiences, skill level for emotional processing, your outlook on life, and your personality and coping style and what you are grieving.
Grieving cannot be hurried or forced. It’s important to be patient with yourself and to ask for patience from those around you. However, you cannot expect anyone else to know exactly what you are going through, nor how to give you what you need when you need it. It’s important that you know what you need and how to give it to yourself when you need it. You can always ask for what you need, but the people around you will also have their own life experiences, skill level for emotional processing, unique outlook on life, and their personality and coping styles.
The Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief
Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced her five stages of grief in 1969 that were gleaned from her work with patients facing terminal illness and death. They are:
Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
Not everyone who experiences each of these stages of grief. It’s not necessary to move through each step for proper healing. They are also not quite so neat and orderly in sequential experiencing. I didn’t go through denial when my dad died. I also didn’t get angry or bargain and so far I haven’t experienced depression. The reason for this is my parents and I have been openly talking about death and dying for several years. I am a conscious dying doula and have known what my parent’s wishes are for their death for some time now. I have been living in a state of gratitude for every day I have with them…knowing that they will eventually be going and making sure I am not clinging to them.
The point here is…these stages of grief are good to know so you don’t get stuck in any of them and find yourself emotionally constipated. Emotional constipation causes as many problems as physical constipation does!
How to Cope with Grieving
It’s true that death and loss are inevitable parts of life. Everything that is born must die. The suffering that goes with this truth is real. However, there are some steps you can take to make the digestion of grief go a little smoother:
1. Acknowledge your pain and give yourself permission to feel your feelings.
2. Expect that grief can be messy and come with some unexpected accompanying emotions.
3. Realize that you are unique and so is your coping style and grieving process.
4. Find the support you need from people who care about you and who have the skills to offer it.
5. Nourish yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
6. Be on alert for signs of emotional constipation, like anger or depression.
Digesting Some of the Accompanying Emotions of Grief
Shock and numbness: It can be hard when your loss is sudden. Make sure you practice mindfulness in your daily activities to continually bring yourself back to your body, your life, and your reality.
Emptiness, Despair, and Sadness: You might find yourself crying uncontrollably. You might be swamped with existential loneliness and despair. You might resonate with Simon and Garfunkel’s song, “The Sound of Silence.” Make sure if these are not moving through you that you reach out for support. It’s important that you don’t get stuck in these emotions. Checking in with your spiritual connection can be of great help if you have one.
Regret and Guilt: Not saying everything you wanted to say or regretting things you did say or do are common feelings after a sudden death. Remember that you can write a letter to your loved one or talk to them and clear the air even if they are not embodied any longer.
Blame and Anger: There is a natural tendency that you might feel to want to blame someone or something for the loss of your loved one. You might even be angry at the one who died for abandoning you. This is common and allow yourself to move through this stage by not suppressing your anger. You can take it out on a pillow, in a journal, at the shooting range, in therapy; just not on another being as it won’t bring your loved one back.
Anxiety and Fear: Death of a loved one often triggers death anxiety in the living. We are forced to confront our own mortality and perhaps our own fear of how we will die and when we will die and how much we will miss what we are leaving behind. A daily gratitude practice is a perfect way of digesting this fear. Talking to a therapist is a good idea if the fear isn’t transmuting into peace.
How to Find Support in Your Grief
Find comfort in your faith if you belong to a spiritual or religious community or tradition. Ritual at the time of death is a great way of drawing support for processing your grief. When we extubated my dad I asked the family members if they wanted to help me bathe him, change his gown, and put him on clean linens before the funeral home came. Every single person who took me up on this beautiful final gift and ritual for a loved on told me later how much it helped them come to acceptance that Dad was really and truly gone.
Attend a support group. No one knows what you are going through unless they have experienced it themselves. Sharing sorrow with a community of people who have similar loss can alleviate the loneliness of your experience. Check the internet to find a bereavement support groups in your area or reach out to your local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.
Visit a therapist or grief counselor. If your sorrow is too heavy and overwhelming to process, a skilled therapist with experience in grief counseling can help you work through your grief.
Social Media Memorial pages can be a quick way of finding support and they also allow you to convey the news and details of your loved one’s passing. Reading the messages of support and tribute to your loved one can feel comforting.
When You Get Stuck
If you find you are not able to eventually return to your routines, hobbies and interests, you might be stuck. There are a lot of lurking triggers that can cause your grief to get jammed up: anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, milestones, conversations with others. If you find you are caught in a rumination spiral, reach out for support in the ways listed above.
Other ways to keep yourself digesting properly emotionally is to keep your physical health up. Your body and mind are not separate. When you are physically fit it’s easier to feel emotionally fit. Get enough sleep. Avoid alcohol and caffeine and sugar. Exercise daily, preferably with some time spent in nature each day. Don’t use drugs to dull your mood or stimulate you artificially. Instead, get the natural high found in meditation, prayer, gratitude, journaling, volunteering, going to the dog park, engaging in an art project, being in nature, or planning a new experience or adventure with yourself or another loved one.