How to Cope Mindfully with Bereavement

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How to Cope Mindfully with Bereavement

by Paul Garrigan

The topic at a glance

  • Mindfulness is not about escaping the pain of bereavement but about being able to be with this pain.

  • Self-compassion makes it easier to handle our loss.

  • Life would be deeply unsatisfying if we refused to get close to other people in case they died on us, so the risk of bereavement is a small price to pay for the gift of friends and family.

Is There a Right Way to Deal with Death

There probably is no ‘right’ way to deal with a bereavement, but there are certainly ways of reacting that can the situation much worse for ourselves and other people. This wrong way of dealing with grief could include using it as an excuse to abuse alcohol or drugs, making it all about ourselves (e.g. I perfected the art of being the saddest man at the funeral so people would buy me drinks), or taking our grief out on others.

Mindfulness can help us deal with death in a far more effective way. This approach will not provide us with the means to escape the loss, but it will help us face the pain of bereavement.

The Practice of Compassion

‘Compassion’ is the ability to just allow physical or emotional discomfort without any attempt to run away from it. When someone we know dies, it is normal to go through a process of grieving. Our sense of loss can be intense, but anything we do to avoid or escape this pain (e.g. turning to alcohol or drugs) can just make the process harder and more prolonged.

We might consider bereavement to be a potential downside of caring for someone else. It is a cost worth paying though. Life would be deeply unsatisfying if we refused to get close to other people in case they died on us, so the risk of bereavement is a small price to pay for the gift of friends and family.

Those of us who have developed the habit of always trying to avoid emotional pain (e.g. through substance abuse) can find it particularly hard to cope with bereavement. This is because the ability to handle loss improves through our previous experiences of facing pain – in other words, our failure to strengthen the ‘compassion muscle’ can put us at a bit of a disadvantage.

We pay tribute to those who have died by just allowing our grief to unfold. There is no right way to grieve. We just allow whatever emotions arise to come and go naturally – this is self-compassion in action. We don’t try to make ourselves feel any worse nor do we worry about not feeling ‘enough’ – we just feel what we feel, no more and no less.

Practicing compassion is a bit like weightlifting. If you walk into a gym and immediately start pumping the heaviest weights, you are likely to end up in trouble. If you feel overwhelmed by loss, you might not have sufficient self-compassion to go through the process alone – in this situation, you may benefit from the help of a therapist or GP.

Momento Mori – Death as a Reminder to Never Take Life for Granted

In ancient Rome, it was common for army generals to give attendants the job of carrying banners around containing the words ‘momento mori’ (remember death). These words were there to remind soldiers never to take their lives for granted – it was a invitation for them to treat every moment as precious and potentially the last.

We are all going to die, and it is going to happen a lot sooner than most of us would like given the choice – even if we live to be 100. Knowing this, why do we hold back from fully experiencing and appreciating each and every moment? Why do we waste so much time lost in useless thoughts about a future that will never happen and a past we can never change?

The death of somebody we are close to is a strong reminder of our own mortality – in fact, it can at least partially this that makes it so hard to face. Thinking about our own death may seem pessimistic, but it can be the perfect wake-up call so we stop wasting our time on bullshit and start appreciating every precious moment while we still can. It can also remind us to cherish those we love while they are still with us.

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