I recently listened to a harrowing BBC Radio interview with Matt Briggs, who’s wife Kim was run over and killed in London by an aggressive cyclist. The killer was cycling at speed, had no brakes, and showed no remorse for the death he had just caused and the family just devastated. Kim left behind two children, barely ten and twelve at the time, whilst Matt was left with the daily struggle to care for his two children alone.
Matt was incredibly stoic about his family’s loss and talked about how grief had affected him and his young family. I was struck by his strength and wisdom but also reminded of a reassurance that we often hear in connection with grief: of the inevitability of ‘getting over’ it. People tell grieving friends and relatives that their grief will pass. ‘You will get over it,’ they say. While those in the throes of grief reassure themselves with the mantra: ‘I will get over it’.
But is this the best way of coming to terms with grief?
Grief is over-whelming. It is painful beyond measure. Grief is the realisation that you will never, ever, see, hear, touch or smell a loved-one again. It is the most painful emotion that any human can ever experience. It is far worse than physical pain. Infinitely worse than splitting up from a lover or losing your job, house, and money. All of those things can be ‘got over’. They are replaceable. But grief entails the absolute loss of someone who is unique and irreplaceable so that the very idea of getting over it is a fallacy. You simply can’t. You can suppress it though, for a while at least, but this can have devastating long term consequences because if you suppress one emotion then you end up suppressing all of them, which will leave you cut off from all that is good about life.
I lost my mother when I was 13. Even now, from time to time, I grieve for her. Just writing this has brought tears to my eyes. I can feel a yawning chasm in my life where my mother once stood. I feel for the things she will never see; my beautiful wife and two young children, the success I have enjoyed after numerous long diversions, the happiness I now enjoy. I want her to see these things. To understand that she did a good job bringing me up in very difficult circumstances. But she will never see these things and it hurts intensely. The idea that I should ‘get over’ her loss feels almost like an insult to her life. So instead, I have come to an acceptance of the loss without any false beliefs about its impact. It was an extremely long and tough process and one which I undertook the hard way because there was simply no one who could help me when I was 13-years-old and was forced to bring myself up.
So I understand why someone would want to ‘get over’ the intense pain of grief, but I don’t believe it is the wisest course of action. In our mechanistic world, grief, like all uncomfortable emotions, is seen as something that should be either got through as fast as possible or pushed away at all costs. To this end, people often go to extraordinary lengths to suppress ‘negative’ emotions such as anger, fear and grief while chasing the ‘positive’ ones of happiness and contentment. But this approach is fraught with perils and is actually the root cause of many people’s dissatisfaction with life. Life is beautiful, but painful too. You can’t have one without the other, although we desperately want it to be so.
We take this approach because we misunderstand the true nature of our emotions. They are seen as mere messages sent from the brain to the conscious mind. This leads to the mistaken belief that you can become blissfully happy by simply suppressing the bad and chasing the good. But emotions are not solid and pure entities. They are flexible entities that are both message and messenger sent from the deepest reaches of the psyche. When it comes to emotion, the medium really is the message. So in practice, if you try to suppress the message, then the dutiful messenger will keep on coming back to pester you until you have felt the emotion it is trying to convey. And each time you turn away the messenger, it will try a little harder to find another way of conveying its message. With each twist of the cycle, the message will become more and more distorted and powerful so that even the mildest of ‘negative’ emotions can become an intense spikey knot of pain.
Emotions are also mistakenly see as absolutes; as solid entities that are either good or bad, sweet or sour, painful or pleasant. But the emotions we actually feel are fusions of many different feelings. We rarely feel pure anger or happiness. Happiness might have a sad undertow, while anger might be tinged with sorrow. Grief is even more powerful, subtle, and complex. This is why it is so overwhelming. It is an amalgam of all our most powerful feelings in a distressing roiling cauldron of emotion. It is anger at the injustice, bitterness about the loss, fear for the future, regrets about the times you were less than perfect. There is loneliness, too, but also happiness at their memory, and thankfulness for their presence in your life.
Painful as it is, the only way of truly ‘getting over’ grief – or any difficult emotion – is to actually feel it. To experience it. To accept it. If you allow the messenger to deliver its message by actually feeling it, allowing it to settle into your mind and body, then it will have done its job and will begin to dissolve. Make no mistake though, this is difficult. In the long run, though, it is far easier than living a life marred with suppressed emotion and cut off from the rich beauty of life.
What does the acceptance of loss and grief entail? It means the acceptance that you are on the most difficult journey that any person can undertake. Have no illusions; grief is horrible beyond measure. Grieving means powerful emotions will periodically tear your life apart, leaving you feeling utterly lost, alone, and broken inside. In time, between the gaps in your grief, mindfulness can begin to help you (see below for some practical ideas).
Mindfulness can help with grieving but try not to rush things. There is no destination to reach. No prizes for arriving. Baby-steps are best. Over time, you will come to understand that mindful grieving means feeling your emotional turmoil rather than suppressing it. It means embracing the dead person’s life with all of their faults and failings, suffering and regrets, happinesses and sadnesses. It means embracing both their memory and the loss. It means the acceptance that life is often far shorter than we might wish; that death often appears before we are truly finished with life. It means the acceptance that the price of life is death.
If you can progressively begin to do all this, then when your turn comes, perhaps people will laugh and cry at your funeral. And perhaps people will not ‘get over’ your death at all, but will instead choke on laughter and tears at your memory.
Some thoughts and practices to reflect on:
From time to time, remind yourself that everyone grieves at their own pace and in their own way. Do not listen to people who suggest that you should be ‘over it’ in a set period of time such as one month or one year. Your grief will rise and fall. Sometimes you will feel it intensely, other times hardly at all. The intensity of your grief does not reflect how much you loved the person.
When you feel grief arising, try not to fight it. Emotional turmoil is normal. Break down into a heap of tears if that helps. Depending on your character, you might like to allow yourself to cry in public or perhaps alone. The choice is yours. Do not be guided by culture or convention.
Don’t try to meditate on the person you have lost until you feel ready. There is no rush. Instead, allow yourself to feel grief and to cry when you feel able. When grief becomes over-whelming, allow it to flow. You may feel more comfortable taking yourself off to a less crowded place should grief appear when you are amongst strangers or at work.
When you do feel ready begin meditating, try this Breathing Meditation.
Try not to bring the person you are grieving to mind but if thoughts, feelings or emotions about them do appear, allow yourself to feel them for a while before returning to the breath. The aim of the Breathing Meditation is not to grieve but to ground you in the present moment and to see how all thoughts, feelings and emotions rise and fall. Later, if you wish, you might like to try the course in the bestselling book I wrote with Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Meditations from The Art of Breathing are a good starting point too.
Feel free to be as gregarious as you like or to be alone as much as you want. The company of friends and family will probably help you immensely but we all need time to be alone.
From time to time remind yourself that the price of life is death. That single sentence sums up the human condition more than any other. We are here on this earth for a short while, experience a panoply of bitter-sweet emotions, and then depart. We forget this at our peril.
Be aware of how your mind tries to distract you from grief by conjuring up other intense thoughts and emotions. Gently remind yourself that ‘You are not your thoughts’.
You should not feel guilty for experiencing positive emotions. If someone has died after a long and painful illness then it is OK to feel relief at their death and the fact that they are now at peace. Equally, happiness or even laughter are normal and uncontrollable features of being human. If they should arise, welcome them as the beginning of a return to normality not as a betrayal of your loved-one’s memory.
Don’t feel the need to remove all traces of the person you have lost from your life. How you choose to deal with this is your personal choice but try not to rush into any decisions. Allow things to settle for as long as it takes. When you feel ready to begin rebuilding your life, start to remove their personal possessions from day to day life. Give away or sell their possessions if you want to. Or stockpile them if you wish. Do not rush into any decisions about anything. The future is a big place.
When the intensity of grief begins to subside, take note of the other emotions you are feeling. There might be anger, fear, loneliness, bitterness, hatred and happiness too. Don’t try to consciously bring them to mind, just notice them as they appear and begin to subside. Notice their ebb and flow.
You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of?
My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much.
Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…
‘This book is inspiring. Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.
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