Monday, March 5, 2012

Grieving Mindfully

                                                                      from here

This little, unassuming book has been such a comfort to me since I've been reading it.  The section on identity and grief, especially, put to words what I've been feeling.

We grieve whenever an anchor in our understanding of our identity is lost. Picture your identity as a necklace of precious stones that comes undone and needs to be restrung. If some stones are lost, new ones must be added to replace the old ones. Grief can be understood as the process of picking up the pieces of your identity (the stones) without the help of someone you had assumed would always be there, or without a relationship that was a crucial part of your life (the string). Grief is the process of finding out who you are in a world that is barely recognizable because of the tremendous change that has taken place. You may not be able to answer the question, "Who am I?" for a long time after your loss.

So much of my identity was lost with Dave. Not a wife? Not a Mrs.? I had been a part of a "we" for 15 years, since I was 20. It's difficult to imagine that I'm edging closer and closer to a year of life without him. My identity is still being rebuilt, of course and I'm learning, bit by bit, to let that unfold without trying to rush it. But it's true that I won't be able to answer "Who am I?" for a long time and it's difficult to accept that. Difficult, but necessary.

The section on permanence was also especially meaningful to me.

We long for permanence in all aspects of our lives, often to the point of missing the present moment. You may yearn for youth long gone, unaware that your life today is what you will see as your youth in the future. You may wish you could reexperience some of your happiest moments, and in so doing prevent yourself from making new ones. You may wish you could stop thinking about someone or something, and thereby lose your experience of today by holding on to an unpleasant feeling. You may even imagine permanence where there is none. All these efforts to seek permanence are, in the end, futile. It is true, but hard to imagine, that in one hundred years, you and everyone you know will not exist. 

I recognize this tendency to long for permanence to the point of missing the current moment. It's a recurring lesson for me. All of this makes me think more and more that meditation and mindfulness in general might really help me. It was never before quite as clear to me until Dave died just how much time I waste worrying. I miss out on the present because I'm so fixated on permanence. It's just no use wishing things were different. Natural and understandable, YES, but my energy could be better directed.

I think the ability to be more mindful and live in the moment is like a muscle that can be strengthened with use, thankfully.

Strengthening this ability, according to the book, requires practicing mindfulness through meditation and one of the reasons I love this book, is that the author does a good job of debunking some myths about meditation. Instead of emptying your mind (which the author claims is fruitless), you focus on not engaging with the constant flow of thoughts that flit through your mind. You focus on the breath, the moment, whatever it is you're doing, and let those thoughts pass right through without letting them run the show. You practice staying HERE, in the now, even if it's only for 21 breaths. Eventually, Kumar says, you will notice it becomes easier to not engage those thoughts and focus more on the current moment.

I think those of us who are grieving could really benefit from the ability to detach from those thoughts long enough to be present once in a while. We have so much going  on emotionally as we grieve. We have our memories of our loved one's last moments and the guilt/fear/shock/terror that go along with those moments. We worry about our future without our core person. We try to make sense of things we truly can't make sense of. We struggle to figure out who the hell we are now. It's probably pretty crucial for us to give ourselves the gift of mindfulness occasionally as we do the hard work of rebuilding.

And we know, first hand, just how tenuous life is. The next moment isn't guaranteed and the past is over. All we have is NOW, after all.

Anyone else read this book and have some thoughts on it?
I highly recommend it, even if, like me, you think meditation/mindfulness is a little too "woo woo" for you. This is like mindfulness for the practical-minded! 


  1. Cassie, I think you are very fortunate to have found this book so early in your grief journey. What you are saying about mindfulness is so important for every human being, but even more for the grieving. The search for "who I am now" continues for me and I am into my 7th year without my husband. It is a hard truth to accept that there is no permanence. Nothing lasts, everything changes here on this Earth. I am reading and studying the the Bhagavad Gita, translated by Eknath Easwaran. I recommend it to anyone seeking the "answers." I consider myself a Christian, and I am finding out that this Hindu scripture is as encouraging and enlightening as scripture in the bible. Cassie, you have such a zest for living and I am grateful you are willing to share with everyone of the grieving world. Peace to us all.

  2. I'm so glad you've found comfort from the Bhagavad Gita. I read parts of it in college, but not since then. Maybe I'll pick it up again!
    Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Wonderful to have found such a profound read.
    I am Buddhist. Having converted from Catholicism so many years ago. I believe mediation and my practice is what allowed me to be so calm when my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
    It helped me - help him.
    I am forever grateful for the lessons of staying present. Without that we would not have had the year we had together.
    So blessed.
    We are only here now. I have given up projecting myself into the future.
    it doesn't matter.
    Love now
    Live now
    It is all we have.

  4. Cassie, I too was leary of mindfulness. I started it about 8 months after my Dave died and continued it for a year. (It was through Hospice and a year is all you get.) I decided to go despite my concerns over it's possible nonsense mainly because it was another form of a support group and I needed to get out of the house. I was immediately relieved once I realized there's no chanting etc... As you say, it's simply focusing on being aware of the present moment - not stuck in the past or thinking about future 'what-ifs'.
    I'm at almost 21 months now and now when I see a beautiful sunrise or sunset (alone) my heart usually doesn't swell up with sadness anymore that Dave's not here to enjoy it. I breathe it in and acknowledge how beautiful it is.
    It could simply be the passage of time, or the mindful effort to just enjoy it, or both.

    I'll have to add this to my list of books I want to read. However I just recently made a decision to stop (at least temporarily) reading all the grieving and self-help books. As I look back I realize that's ALL I've been reading since Dave died. They've served their purpose - along with 6 months of individual grief counseling, 13 weeks of a griefshare support group, and a year of mindfulness. I feel I need to just try get out and enjoy life again.

    The current book on my nightstand - "The Book of Awesome".

  5. I read this book and in many ways I think it saved me! Out of all the books I read this was one of the best. I have recently started practising yoga to further be in touch with myself.I have been better able to accept my pain and present situation without fighting it.leaning into the horror and accepting what I can not change.Grief is much easier to handle now. I wondered if anyone else had read the book!

  6. Hi Cassie,
    Thank you for the book recommendation. I am now 2 years, 4 months without my beloved Tim and have been doing mind/body practice since just after year 1. I am happy for you that you have found this helpful in your first year. I was busy with rituals and firsts that kept me focused the first year but then I knew I needed something deeper. You and I met at Camp Widow last summer. I recall admiring that you were only a few months without Dave and you were at Camp--fantastic! Your story and posts so resonate with me. We did not have children and we have 2 cats!! But of course, there is so much more in your writing that I find profound as I recall similar feelings in my first year. I hope we see each other again. I wish you much peace and love.

  7. Valerie,
    I will be looking up The Book of Awesome after I type this. How could I NOT?!
    I go through stages where I can't bear to pick up ONE MORE GRIEVING OR SELF HELP BOOK! And then I'm ready for them again.
    This one makes me feel most "normal" of all the ones I've read. Whatever normal means now.
    Sounds like you've done so much hard work for yourself.
    It's great to hear that you can enjoy things in the moment.

  8. By the way everyone, I have NO ties with or this book. I just found that out of all the self help books I've read since Dave died, this one connected with me the most and soothed me the most. I felt it important to share that with my widowed community.

  9. Thank you for this book suggestion, Cassie. I have had one by my bedside for awhile, "Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond" by Ajahn Brahm. I'm not so sure about the bliss part anymore, but he does help one to understand how meditation and mindfulness can help one relax, deal with life's problems and help to transform our lives, all with a bit of humor.

    I, too, am beginning to shy away from the self help books. They tend to take me back to the past, and I want to move forward from those days. Be here now.

    1. This post is great, really, and timely for me. Both you and the quotes from the author are right on. I am at 28 months. I remember very early on, I instinctively made an effort not to think beyond the present day. It was way to painful to try to project into the future, almost like my brain wouldn't let me. And it turned out to be a strategy I used many times. I'm glad I checked in tonight because I've been feeling really lousy lately, this whole experience has been such a roller coaster but lately I feel so useless, hopeless, isolated, all kinds of negative stuff. Earlier tonight I came to the conclusion (right or wrong, I don't know) that maybe because I'm at 28 months, which is not a lot, I know, but more than before, that I have been expecting too much of myself and of life. Maybe somewhere inside I thought I was coming out of it, but the past couple of weeks I'm mired back in the negative identity/life stuff. So thanks for this tonight, it's giving me a glimmer that maybe I'm not finally going nuts, which I've been suspecting lately. Kind of bummed to think of how hard I have worked on myself (grief counseling, journaling, pushing myself) to think I'm back to the black hole. How many times can you pull yourself out, so exhausting. Words of encouragement will be welcomed in a big way tonight.

    2. Dear Anon,

      You are right to not be too hard on yourself. The reality is that for every peak there is a valley. So try as we might to jump from peak to peak...there are necessary lessons in the darkness of the valley as well. So though you may feel that you have worked so hard to find yourself in a valley again, what you have really done is climbed one mountain and have begun the journey on the next. Just keep taking one step at a time, and know that your fellow travelers are right beside you, even when the darkness is so thick that you can't see us. You aren't alone, and you are doing the best you can. That is not only all anyone can ask of you, but it is enough. Really. Hang in there, keep taking care of yourself a little each day, and come back here...we are pulling for you!

    3. Michele, Thank you so much for your wise words. I will remember my fellow travelers are right beside me. Odd how one can feel like they are moving up the mountain one day and the next....right back to square one. I so appreciate the fellowship here, and I will count on it.

  10. Today is my 60th birthday, I'm sad to not have my husband with me to celebrate it together....he's been gone 18 months. I felt so adrift last winter, fearful of the intensity of my sadness and grief and grasped at a meditation course like a lifeline for my sanity. It helped me immensely, keeping me in the moment, practicing gratitude and saying prayers for those needing comfort and strength ( including myself). I would highly recommend anyone dealing with grief to look into some books, find a group or a course. My emotional roller coaster has mostly leveled off...I'm grateful and hopeful for what my future has in store for me. weaving a new identity and liking who I'm becoming. thank you, Cassie for raising this topic.

  11. Thanks Cassie for this poet and I have found the comments here, especially from those two or so years out and more ( I am 26 mos) for your views from the realization that the books on the nightstand have been mostly grief related (I, too resemble that remark) to hearing of mindfulness has been like taking a good deep breath. Sometimes there is comfort in knowing you are not alone, even in your thoughts and awareness, on this path.
    Am on Amazon looking for some new reading....