Mindfulness and Grief

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After a year of this thing, I lie in bed with aches and chills and a fever and a raging headache. It’s all to be expected. The side effects of the shot will be gone in a few hours, and these discomforts are exciting, miraculous signs of my body mounting its defense against a cruel virus. I’m able to greet the side effects with curiosity, even a bit of joy, as I think of all the people experiencing the same temporary pains of inoculation. But I also think of those who have experienced the pains of the actual virus and all the loss it has wrought.

Tossing back and forth, hips aching, I tell myself that tonight my only responsibility is to breathe deeply. When I do, the clenched parts of my body expand and soften. When I accept my small pains, they diffuse into a boundless space of darkness. I’m not trying to hurry anything up. For the next few hours, this is my meditation.

Yet all around me, as I try to slow down, I notice my city speeding up. My friends are beginning to speak about the pandemic in the past tense, eager see something in retrospect which has not even ended. But I understand that it’s hard to be—to stay—right here. Spring has always been like this, full of movement and change and wanting (of summer, warmth, other people’s bodies). This year the feelings are amplified by the promise of mass inoculation and herd immunity. My friend says we’re already acting like that herd—like bulls in a pen, riled up before being pushed out. But I feel resistant to all this impatience, to the city and the sun and even my own body’s craving. I’m not ready.

This spring, one year into the pandemic, I am making a plea to myself to stay still. To take stock of things, including things lost, forgotten, missed. I want to linger in what’s here, which also means lingering in what is no longer here. Linger for a while in grief, and in the knowledge of death: how death has looked since the pandemic arrived.

Joan Halifax writes that there are “five great territories of grief”: the loss of a loved one, of one’s identity, of a relationship, of places and things, and of capacity. Of course, hundreds of thousands of families in this country don’t need a reminder. They’re experiencing that first territory: the loss of a loved one. This year was not only full of the most glaring loss of death though, but also the uneasy reverberations that come with not being able to sit together in other “smaller” losses.

I remember going through breakups where the only person I wanted to go through that heartbreak with was the person who broke my heart. The sadness of the separation was precisely the pain of not being able to share it with the person I’d lost. My experience with death this year has been surprisingly like that. Because with or without a pandemic, we know that death goes on and on. But this year was not only filled with more death. It also challenged our ability to be with that death by cutting off families and loved ones from one another. By going through loss alone, at a distance, we’ve often dismissed our share of grief and, in turn, our ability to connect with others who are grieving.

How many of us have missed an in-person burial this year? And how many of us are learning the unsatisfying particulars of two-dimensional mourning in the place of all of death’s sights and sounds and feels and smells up-close? I remember how my parents and I dressed up to sit in front of the computer and watch our friend be buried in Los Angeles: our first Zoom funeral. People from around the country wrote in the chat box: we love you always! My mother said one day spring flowers would burst from the place where we watched our friend’s casket settle into the soil. Maybe they’re blooming now.

In the months since her death, I keep reminding myself that she is gone, but sometimes I can barely tell the difference between the pandemic’s temporary separations and the separation of death. I can only assume there will be a day when I re-realize she’s gone with the power of grief delayed.

Meanwhile it’s already been a year since I’ve visited my housebound grandparents, one suffering from chronic illness, the other from dementia. My distancing has helped keep them alive, but it has also distanced me from the inevitability of their dying. The end of my grandparents’ lives has become hazier to me, as in the blurry videos my father sends me of them. He recently took a video of my grandmother on her 94th birthday. His voice sounds forlorn. Happy birthday, mom is tinged with a shadow, though I don’t know whether he’s grieving his loss of her, or her gradual loss of herself.

I was once interested, if not exactly excited, to share what I’ve been learning about mindfulness and death with my grandparents; to learn more about the Being With Dying program Halifax created in 1994, which teaches us how to truly be at the bedside of an ill or dying person. From Halifax, I learned about the practice of tonglen: breathing in others’ pain on the inhale, breathing out relief on the exhale. That I have not been able to do this practice with my grandparents is a small loss—for myself and also for them. But one after another, these losses do pile up.

When my father asked my grandmother how she felt turning 94, she said she felt “out of time.” Not that her time had run out, but that time is going on around her, while she operates somehow outside of it. I mulled over this terrifying, wonderful phrase. I know my grandmother thinks of death every day,just as meditation teachers say we ought to, looking back on her life to review it. In the video from my father, my grandfather sits by her side, his pants as loose as his skin, saying sorry in German. My grandfather’s dementia means that he can’t take part in my grandmother’s life reviews, in her reflections on their life together and their sixty-plus years of marriage. But perhaps my grandfather is on his own journey, tying up loose ends too; a journey that looks and feels different from my grandmother’s, and one that she is not a part of either.

Why does it matter to dwell on these things that are gone, that we never got to have? Doesn’t mindfulness ask us to “stay in the moment?” But it’s exactly my mindfulness practice that’s taught me the more I resist or ignore a thing, the more it grows bigger and heavier. Halifax writes that bereavement is “a critical life experience with which humans must grapple.” We resist grappling with it because grief forces us to slow down, or even to stop completely. It’s frightening when we stop, because then we notice what is already there. Or, in this case, we notice what isn’t: what we have lost. And it is terrifying.

Mindfulness meditation calls for letting something be, accepting it even when it feels uncomfortable. Allowing discomfort after discomfort without ever turning my face away: even if I don’t want to, even if I’d give anything to make it go away, or wish it never existed. That too. Okay, fine, I accept that too. I can apply the same practice of allowing to be present with grief: noticing what isn’t there, what I’m still missing, and what won’t just return with the flick of a switch or the jab of a needle.

On the night I wait for my immune system to make its antibodies, as in other moments of uncomfortable transition, I find myself reaching for my phone. Though sometimes it only serves as distraction, Instagram can also be a crowd-sourced teacher, and I scroll to an image I’ve never seen of heat maps of human bodies in various states of emotion. The depressed body is blue in the legs. the angry body lights up yellow in the mouth and hands. the anxious body is red in the chest, as is sadness, as is love.

Maybe that’s mostly what I learned this year: that anxiety and sadness and love are all in my chest, around my heart. Which still threatens to break even when I try to cup it in my hands. That’s all the anxiety is trying to do sometimes: just trying to hold something together that wants to break into a thousand pieces. Today, just for a moment, I don’t blame it or deny it. I’m not ignoring you, I say to my chest, looking down. It’s cold and lonely in there, after all, where the sadness lives. The least I can do is breathe in some warm air to it.

Meditation on Grief

(adapted fromGrief as Burden, Grief as Gift by Crystal L. Park and Roshi Joan Halifax)

May I accept that I will age.

May I accept that my loved ones will age.

May I accept that my life will end.

May I accept that the lives of those I love will end.

May I accept my sorrows.

May I be present for the full sorrow of the deaths of my loved ones.

May I be open to the pain of grief.

May I forgive myself for not meeting my loved one’s needs.

May I be open with others about my experience of suffering.

May I receive the love and compassion of others.

And finally, may I find the room and strength to use whatever I have to help others.

Lily Meyersohn is a writer and health researcher living in Providence, Rhode Island. Her recent work has been featured on Audible, the Los Angeles Review of Books, PIQUE, and elsewhere.

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