Mind-Body Skills for Honoring Grief
Many of us in the U.S. have grown up in a culture that does not fully honor grief, and barely acknowledges death, quickly offering up platitudes directing us to think positive and find the silver lining.
Often as children, we learned to be good by being quiet, and not disruptive, not pitching fits or temper tantrumming. And when we were overcome with powerful emotion, we were either shunned or shushed, and often by well-meaning people in our lives. We learned to treat ourselves as we had been treated, and to shun our unwelcome grief before it could be scolded away by others.
When we experienced the rush to soothe, comfort and quiet us, we naturally learned to contain our authentic experience for the sake of others, and to maintain our connection to them.
Even trained professionals often try to rush us through our soul’s dark night into a bright, shiny day, because, as psychiatrist, Kelly Brogan points out, “We, as a culture are terrified of grief, pain, suffering, and struggle. Tears, in fact, are a diagnosable symptom in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry.”
What if it was only through grieving fully (or allowing our grief to fully grieve us) that we could benefit in positive ways from what is irretrievably lost? What if it was only through grieving fully, that we could be able to enjoy and share in happy memories of a lost loved-one; or be able to appreciate a newly empowered sense of self because of what we let go of, and how that connects us to the depths of soul?
The work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the normal, natural stages of grief was a helpful start in support of us allowing ourselves to come back into our bodies to grieve, and Karla McLaren’s brilliant research on grief and its gifts are spot-on, but unfortunately not yet main-stream. As an uptight, white, American gal, I learned the most about the importance of grief from an African woman who brought her tribe’s grief ritual to the States.
Sobonfu Somé was from the Dagara tribe in West Africa. Her name means Keeper of the Rituals, and before her recent passing, she toured the U. S. and Europe teaching workshops to use ritual to support healing and joy. At one of her annual Memorial Day weekend grief rituals, she asked us to imagine what the build up of toxins from everyday living would be like if we never showered or washed our clothes, and compared that to the build up of emotional and spiritual toxins from not expressing our grief.
She explained that when we compartmentalize our grief because expressing it in an unwelcome place will lead to more grief, that the toxic load of pain creates a tendency to blame or hurt others around us, or to loose our health. She said people never harm out of joy, but give pain to others because they too are hurt or in pain.
On another Memorial Day weekend, I was at a barbecue when one of the many children there ran into the yard crying because her brother had run over her foot with his skate board. She climbed into my lap and cried, and cried, and cried, and wailed so long and loud that I recognized that in the safe acceptance of my non-shushing lap, she was releasing a deep well of stored-up grief she’d accumulated in her nine short years.
There were many looks of concern as it went on, and I sent a look of assurance to her distressed parents and they allowed it to continue. I instinctively rocked her, adding to the rhythm of her flow, and then she was done. Up she got and ran to play.
Grief allowed to flow, powerfully, profoundly, and intelligently clears the debris of what’s shattered and scattered in our lives - hopes, dreams, and expectations, now dashed and done, making way for renewal and possibility.
When you’ve experienced a tragedy, your grief will grieve you, if you let it. No special skills required, your grief knows what to do and will move through you like a tsunami devastating your inner landscape until what once was, is no more, and you are left, bereft, to rebuild from the ruins.
Tragic, unexpected loss is a violent blow to an unsuspecting psyche, and whether it’s one BIG tragedy, or many unprocessed, dismissed little ones, the internal structure that once held us in the world, eventually, wisely, collapses in surrender, and like Humpty Dumpty, is impossible to put back together again in the same way.
The clients in my mind-body healing practice have made it unequivocally clear that unless the experience of loss is honored fully, and the organic grief allowed to flow, that the psyche will not let you free of what waits to be completed. The most tragic and horrific experiences can only be “moved on” from, by honoring the experience and allowing the natural organic flow of emotion.
Big, tragic, unexpected loss and betrayal; or long, drawn-out deaths we see coming and are powerless to stop, as well as the more easily dismissed little deaths - of dreams that will never be, parents that couldn’t or wouldn’t meet our needs, abandonment, betrayal, dishonor and violation are a universal part of the human experience. Losses often minimized, that never-the-less stop our life in its tracks. Only through a fully grieved loss, can we bring treasure back to the world from the depths of devastation and create triumph out of tragedy.
Easier said than done in a culture where dramatic expression of emotion is frowned upon - especially the so-called “negative” emotions.
When grief is not honored, supported and allowed to flow, the potential good to be made of something oh-so-bad, is simply not accessible.
It is important to grieve. It is a service of great value to support others in their grief.
The mind-body tools below can help you to safely express your grief, and welcome the grief of others. These tools support your innate abilities, and expand your capacities, to be present - with yourself, and your grief, and with others in their grief.
For you - the aggrieved:
- Let yourself be consciously aware of the feelings in your body - emotions, sensations, aches, pains, nausea - whatever you notice. This grounds and connects you to your power to best respond to what is calling to you from your inner world.
- If you are in a safe place where you will not be shamed, shushed or otherwise rejected, let it move, let it move through you, allow it to flow, and support its flow with your breath, deep and full into a soft belly.
- If you are not in a safe place, or the circumstances don’t support your natural flow of grief, imagine yourself talking to the part of you bursting with grief, and let it know that you will allow it to express itself as fully and completely as it comfortably can at a specific time and place. Name to yourself the specific time and place, and honor your commitment to this part of you.
- Create time and place to honor and express your grief, daily or weekly or monthly, and on anniversaries, with a structured ritual of your own inspired design, connecting to your sources of strength and support, honoring the feelings, sensations and emotions, and directing the flow of your grief into an imagined container, or vehicle, or heavenly helper’s hands.
For you - the friend and supporter of the aggrieved:
- Practice the four steps above when your backlog of unexpressed grief is activated in the presence of the aggrieved.
- Breathe deep into a soft belly and honor the experience being expressed in front of you and rising up inside you.
- If the activation of your backlog of grief is too destabilizing for you to remain present, breathe into a soft belly while going to your right brain hemisphere for help. Whatever comes to mind in response to your request, immerse yourself in its details, however bizarre, non-sensical or unlikely. Notice how your body responds and your systems stabilize in response to this internal imagined remedy.
If allowed to flow, the waves of your grief may spend themselves until you have no more, or may intermittently flood through you as long as you live. Either way, you’ll have the dawn between the dark nights, and a rich opportunity to bless what remains in this world - for when the scales have been harshly torn from your eyes, your heart has been ripped open, and your soul laid bare, you have access to more than you knew you could do, be, or create in the fleeting experience of this human life.
Give yourself the gift of grieving, and give the grieving the gift of your presence, honoring the loss so renewal can begin.
Gina Vance teaches methods of self-inquiry and self-discovery that lead to profound change in a short time. She shares tools that inspire and catalyze awareness and connection to the truth of your beauty, power and value. Gina is a mentor and guide to Pathfinders - those who are here to find their unique path of genius and service, walk it successfully, and help others do the same. Learn more at MindBodyJourneys.com