There are many things that we can do to learn how to hold and heal our grief. Some we do naturally without even realizing it. And some we discover or have to choose.
Our bodies, minds, and spirits naturally want to move towards healing and wholeness. However, the loss of something or someone we love can make us question everything we once knew and feel disconnected from everything that once brought us joy and hope.
Being with family when you’re grieving a loss, whether that loss be a friend, career, lover, or lifestyle, can be such an isolating experience. Moments of laughter and smiles, conversation and catching up, all haunted by this lingering feeling that something is missing...
Someone, is missing.
Summary of How to Hold and Heal our Grief
If we didn’t walk into the room already with a conscious awareness of our grief, of that missing piece in our lives, it finds ways to pop into our mind at the most unexpected and distracting of times. Mid conversation or maybe in that moment when you pause to take a drink.
Something is off, out of place.
This sense, this awareness flashes for a split second and we’re right back there in the presence of our grief, reminded of our loss.
This isn’t the same as it was. As it could have been.
From there, grief is less of a slippery slope and more of a trapped door back into our awareness that the thing, the person that we loved, what is no longer there or no longer possible. This emotional trap door opens to a cascade of neural firing in our brains as all the thoughts, all the narratives, all the emotions and confusion, guilt and remorse, longing and loss begin to fill our heads in that fraction of a second.
This sudden tsunami of thought and emotion can make more difficult and confusing to know what we need to hold and heal our grief that we are carrying
For many, not knowing how to hold and heal our grief feels like real pain, and for some it is! Physical symptoms of pain (think of the term heartache and that feeling of tightness in your chest or pit in your stomach), loss of energy, concentration, and even memory resulting from emotional experiences.
For others of us, the grief was too strong, too sudden, or we didn’t know what to do with it for too long that we shutdown or collapsed into a kind of numbness, functional maybe, but numb.
But oftentimes, especially when everything and everyone around us just wants or forces us to keep moving forward, to be strong, or worst, just be “ourself”, the natural impulse is to escape and be free from the pressure, shame, and disappointment of the present. At its most extreme, but sadly not uncommon, is taking one’s own life.
Making sense of it…
Most of us have things that we want to live for. But the loss of something or someone that cannot be replaced, a time we can’t go back to, or a future we’ll never have, can all easily suffocate hope, or at least distract and distort it and launch us into our own pit of despair where life and light are sucked out of us.
How does it get to that point? Unfortunately, it isn’t hard and is more common than most realize. Many people are familiar with those impulses of turning or letting go of the wheel, taking one step forward, or to the left or right, or simply walking into the ocean or woods.
This can happen unexpectedly, especially at times when we can’t make sense of or find relief from our pain, or we can’t feel any sense of control over our thoughts and emotions, our life or our future. At times when our body, loved ones, or even life itself seems to have betrayed, disappointed, or let us down, objectively, it makes sense how we could end up wanting to exercise our most basic and powerful element of control.
If there is no source or object of hope, if we have no idea how to hold or heal our grief in the present, and life feels like nothing but pain or even the opposite, meaninglessness and emptiness, life, often, just doesn’t seem worth living. Even if we do have a sense of control, losing hope and meaning can be like losing anchors on a boat in the middle of a terrible storm.
Meanwhile, back at the point of being engaged with friends or family or in that moment of quiet, a moment that was so rudely interrupted by a flash of grief across our field of awareness, try as we might to re engage the moment with the people around us, the narratives and imagery quickly bombard and barrage us.
A memory comes to the front of our minds… followed by “Never again.”
A thought about what this day, this month, this year, this holiday was supposed to be like…
“And what about next year?”
“What about your birthday?”
“What about that trip, that experience, that dream, that goal, that promise…?”
Then, so quickly, it snaps back to something beautiful to keep you there, drifting further into the abyss. This is the spiraling pit of grief and loss. If we’ve learned how, for better or worse, to ignore the thoughts and feelings or shut them down completely by checking out or escaping somehow, disassociating or distracting ourselves, we will. At least, that’s the impulse.
I want to offer some tips and wisdom for how to hold and heal our grief during the holidays, and any time we find ourselves with family and friends when grief, anxiety, depression, and even the impulse to escape from the pain in any of its forms are with you, or even if they are all you can feel. The goal is not simply to manage negative symptoms, but to practice intentional rhythms of self-care and self-love that can bring progressively greater healing and wholeness during the holidays, and to life in general.
1. Take breaks to make space for yourself
Showing up and being present the way we or others might want us to be can amplify our pain by making us constantly aware that it’s not just our circumstances that have changed, we are also changing. Pain, love, loss always changes us, either by making us harder and more rigid, or expanding who we are and what we thought was possible. Giving yourself permission and being intentional to step outside or into a bedroom or bathroom for a few minutes every now and then will help prevent the build-up and overwhelm of thoughts and emotions. Shed a few tears. Take a few breaths. Pause and be still for a moment so that you can again be present.
2. Prepare and practice grounding and centering
Here are a few examples of effective grounding and centering activities to help manage overwhelming emotions or ruminating thoughts while you try to hold and heal your grief.
Take 10 deep breaths, with every inhale and exhale being four to eight seconds long. Breathe in through your nose slowly as you count, pause when you’ve breathed to a comfortable fullness, and slowly exhale, pausing again between breaths.
Affirmation, breath prayer, or mantra
Choose a word of affirmation, breath prayer, or mantra to repeat when you feel yourself becoming swept away or overwhelmed. This could be anything from “I love and approve myself”, to “God be with me”, to a single word like love, hope, or peace that can help still and focus your mind. You can repeat your affirmation, breath prayer, or mantra with every exhale.
Self-touch can also be an effective tool for grounding. This can look like placing your hand(s) over your heart, stomach, or even face. The best thing would be to gently feel, support, and embrace the part of you that feels the most distress. For example, if your heart is aching from sadness or longing, gently place your hands on it while you take some deep breaths. Bonus points if you also repeat your mantra, affirmation, or prayer with your breaths.
3. Practice kindness and forgiveness
Grief and emotional pain always have the possibility of turning inwards. This can take the form of shame, self-criticism, the endless cycles of if-onlys and what-ifs, and other patterns that focus on the past or the future in ways that we have no control over. In those moments, as much as possible, bring attention in your mind and heart to what you’re proud of, what you’ve done or are doing well. If that seems hard or awkward, start simple by making a list each morning and evening of 10 things you’re grateful for. Using a form of prayer called the Examen is a great way to do this!
Or, when you’re in the moment by yourself or with family or friends and you notice a critical or despairing thought crosses your mind, use your affirmation, breath prayer or other grounding exercise from step 2. The loss or sadness has enough complexity and pain to work through on its own, don’t kick yourself when you’re down. Or let anyone else for that matter!
4. Make Space for Mindfulness
Mindfulness is simply being aware of what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing in the present moment, with grace and acceptance. Typically, when we become aware of a thought or feeling, there is an impulsive or instinctual reaction to it. We might immediately start fighting with it (which often ends up making it stronger), run away from it by distracting or numbing ourselves somehow, or just shut down in overwhelm or exhausted surrender and sink further into the pit and darkness.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is like sitting in restful awareness next to a river as the thoughts and emotions come up and drift by on the stream. You can watch, you can observe, but you can do it from the safety of the shore. Centering prayer, a Christian form of mindfulness meditation, is a great tool to learn how and practice doing this. Or, in lieu of learning a new form of prayer and meditation, being grounded and centered using any of the above practices is a helpful starting point for practicing mindfulness that can help when surrounded by family and friends, or even when alone in the deafening silence.
5. Honor the wound and the love it represents
The hurt, pain, and confusion That we feel has a source, even if we can’t name or do anything about it. Some part of us has been and is still wounded. It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to not know how, when, or even if things will ever change. They will, but saying or hearing that doesn’t fix anything. For now, be intentional about giving yourself grace by not feeling like you have to have it all together, all the time. If your love was deep, the wound will be too.
6. Appreciate the little things
As much as possible, like a couple on their wedding day just trying to capture small moments in their memories amidst the overwhelming amount of activity, take mental snapshots of small positive moments. A great joke that had the room filled with laughter. The playfulness of kids. A meaningful conversation. Even one great bite from a good meal or your favorite dessert makes for a good pause to practice gratitude. Notice the little things, no matter how small or trivial to anyone else, pause and notice whatever helps you be present or feel a sense of gratitude, love, awe, or wonder.
7. Do something new or different
Because so much of the grief, pain, and sadness emerges from our awareness that something or someone is missing, or things just aren’t the way we imagined they were going to be, doing something new or different that you enjoy can help keep the experience and time feeling fresh instead of stuck in patterns of comparison and longing. Whether this activity happens on your own or you invite other people to be a part of it, start a new tradition or do something out of the ordinary like a game, puzzle, or project that you think you might enjoy.
If possible, find something simple that can improve the life of someone else. The outcome isn’t even as important as simply exercising your ability to experience something new or life giving.
8. Find something beautiful to enjoy
Nature and beauty are powerful and often surprising sources of inspiration, perspective, and pleasure. They can remind us of the best things in us and in this world that we don’t need money or even words to enjoy. Take a walk some place new. Wake up for a sunrise or watch the sun set. Draw a picture. Paint or color something. Read or write poetry. Or just sit in the afternoon sun or under the night sky. Beauty and nature can help bring our awareness into the simplicity and wonder of the world around and within us. Most of all, it reminds and helps us to slow down and be still and quiet once in a while.
Making notes and writing down our experiences can help slow down the chorus of noise and activity while giving us a record that we can look back on. Journaling using prompts, questions, or just writing whatever comes to mind is an easy and painless way to express what’s going on internally in a manageable way. Even having a written dialogue with your thoughts and emotions, starting with writing the words, “How are you feeling right now?” is a great place to start. And remember, as much as possible, be kind to yourself! Journaling is a simple way to practice self-reflection and give words to complex or intimidating emotions and experiences.
Whatever path or tools you choose, my hope and prayer is that you will be able to find small ways to be present, to bring light to the darkness, and begin or continue moving through your grief, pain, or sadness in life giving ways so that you can enjoy your time with family and friends.