Lean into the sharp points and fully experience them. The essence of bravery is being without self-deception. Wisdom is inherent in (understanding) emotions.
— Pema Chodron, The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.
I have been captivated by death and dying for as long as I can remember. Long, long before I became a Grief Counselor.
From the time my beloved grandmother died when I was thirteen, the dying and bereaved have told me their stories and shared with me the even deeper wisdom of their silence. Their gifts have graced my life in untold ways, carrying me forward further and stronger with each passing year.
Then, three months ago, my mother died.
And all those years of experience and learning seem to have dissolved into a life that is barely recognizable as my own.
This is grief.
My mother’s death is, of course, not the first I have experienced since I became a “death professional” in 2004. Most notably my precious sister, Debbie, died in 2007, and she has been followed by other family members and friends. But there is something about the loss of a mother.
Just as so many have told me so often.
I have spent the three months since her death in a haze, wandering from one task, one responsibility to the next, in a state I would call somnambulistic were it not so painful.
But, then, who says the sleeping feel no pain?
I do a lot of public speaking about death and dying, grief and loss. No matter the topic, I find that I return over and over again to one key theme: bringing mindfulness into both the experience and aftermath of death.
There’s quite a bit of talk about mindfulness these days. I am both grateful for and a bit skeptical about that. Grateful, because I believe so strongly in the power of true mindfulness, skeptical because even the most well-intentioned practice can be so easily skewed in the fun-house mirrors of media attention. One of the greatest misconceptions I’ve found is the tendency to use the terms “mindfulness” and “awareness” interchangeably.
Mindfulness and Awareness are not the same thing. They are especially not the same thing when it comes to grief.
I may be aware, all day, every day, that I am grieving, but that doesn’t mean I am mindful of my grief. I can be aware of my grief and yet still be un-mindful of it, because what I am basically aware of is my sadness. Each time I drive down a certain street, open a certain door, hear a certain song, I am deeply, wretchedly aware of my sadness. So much so that I avoid certain streets, keep certain doors closed, skip certain songs. This is habitual, albeit painful, awareness, not mindfulness. Mindfulness is purposeful awareness.
That’s where “leaning into the sharp points” comes in.
True mindfulness involves disengaging from other thoughts and other actions — including actions of avoidance (certain streets, doors, songs, etc.). What’s more, true mindfulness means not creating additional thoughts, positive or negative about the experience. It encourages the non-judgmental observation of whatever we are thinking and feeling. In this non-judgmental state, we become aware of self-talk that can be and usually is very debilitating.
So, how do we turn habitual awareness of our grief into being mindful of it?
First, we must realize that we have a choice at all.
Grief can be a very chaotic experience. It is often described as a “storm”, a “whirlwind”; people speak of their lives being “turned upside down”, their worlds being “swallowed by an earthquake”. It is hard to find any choice in a whirlwind or an earthquake.
But, the choice is there — and it is a simple one: to either embrace what is happening to us or ignore it, to experience it fully or push it away.
Of course, embracing grief is very much like trying to wrap arms around a cactus — there is no way to do it that won’t hurt, no way that won’t end in tears and bloodshed and pain, with the possibility of major damage and lots of scars. Just like grief. However, there is one major difference: Why? Why do it at all?
There is very little point in hugging a cactus; very little purpose beyond whatever might be learned from the experience itself. The same is not true of embracing grief.
Embracing our grief is a transformational experience. Not motivational, not inspiring, but transformational.
Choosing to mindfully experience our grief, in all its chaos, all its ugliness, with all its pain, not only changes us, it transforms us.
Therein lies the power.
Ignoring the pain, the ugliness, the chaos, robs us of all personal power and adds to the overall helplessness we feel in the midst of grief. Until we look at it, our grief is like an internal bleed whose source is unknown – if the source isn’t located and addressed, we will die.
And many do.
So, I ask you to join me here in the often painful, incredibly uncomfortable exercise of sitting mindfully with our grief. Stop avoiding the streets, the songs, the rooms. Instead, try sitting down and introducing your grief to me. Show me its photographs, tell me its name, what it smells like, what colour it is, how it tastes at 2:00 in the morning.
Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.
I promise it will help.
I can promise that because I have been a blessed witness to many brave souls as they courageously use mindfulness to transform the pain of their grief into the purpose of their lives.
I will if you will.