How Meditation Can Help You Navigate Grief
October 14, 2014 • By Juli Giordano, PsyD, LPC, Mindfulness Based Approaches / Contemplative Approaches Topic Expert Contributo
Grieving the loss of a loved one can be a horribly lonely experience. It is natural to assume that others don’t really understand or “get” our loss. Although we hope to find people who can truly understand and identify with our stories, be it via support groupsor self-help books, we rarely find the mirrors we seek. It seems we are more prone to focus on the differences than the commonalities we share, as though the comparisons we make somehow legitimize the degree of our pain. Questions such as “How old was he?” or “Had she been sick very long?” are typical as people seek to compartmentalize the experience and find a means of separating from it. Sometimes we even find ourselves trying to quantify whose loss was harder or more painful by making similar comparisons. It is the unlikeliest and perhaps most unfortunate of competitions.
The Buddha is said to have helped a woman who was trapped in her grief for her lost child by asking her to collect a handful of mustard seeds, one from each home and family whom had not also experienced a death. She was unable to collect a single seed as each and every family had a loss of its own. The lesson was intended to teach her the reality of death, but this exercise also acted as a lesson in showing how we are not alone but rather all connected in our experience.
Human beings have an innate instinct to “pack” or “herd,” especially during times of crisis. I recall being deeply moved on 9/11 by the amazing way in which Americans befriended one another and banded together in both our survival and healing. It is unparalleled in terms of collective strength. All the things that had, prior to that point, divided us evaporated in that moment of devastation. Political, religious, and racial separations became a ridiculous and superfluous distinction—spontaneously overridden by our determination to stay alive and thrive. We became a “whole,” and from that a boundless strength abided.
In meditation, we can practice this same interconnectedness, but without the pre-cursive trauma that often precedes it. The practice of Maitri is a meditation of meta-compassion, in which we connect to the pain and suffering of others. While this may at first sound counterintuitive in adding to our already heavy hearts, we paradoxically find healing in this reaching-out process, just as we did during our country’s tragedy.
We can begin the Maitri meditation by sitting alone in a quiet room and during a time in which we won’t be interrupted. With eyes either closed or softly focused on a single object, we reflect upon our feelings of grief. It is often helpful to place a hand on our hearts to convey a warm and healing energy, feeling the warmth move from the palm to the chest. As we do this, we imagine sending love to this place of suffering with an open and compassionate heart. This is not a time to think or question, but rather to tend to ourselves.
Once we have experienced the nourishment of this self-care, we seek then to extend our compassion to families and friends we have known over the years who have died or who have also experienced a loss, by sending them this same feeling of empathy. Imagine their faces and their suffering and send them love. Then, finally, we expand our compassion beyond the circumference of our inner circle and send this feeling to all of our neighbors who have grieved and who are grieving, near and far.
When we conduct this meta-compassionate meditation, the boundaries of our experience begin to blur, as does our sense of separateness, division, and aloneness, and we find ourselves deeply rooted in the collective experience. It is this offering of compassion to others that unites our capacities for healing and enables us to receive the strength of the sum, which greatly transcends that of the individual life and resources, and which is indeed limitless.