Email to My Mom about Grief
An Email to My Mom about Grief By Stephanie Nash
My mother finished her dissertation for her PhD in Health Psychology a few years ago. She would sometimes comment on how she was the oldest person in the program – to which I’d respond, “You’re 83 years old! Of course you’re the oldest person!” (Silly woman!) :~)
Her first “gig” as “Dr. Mom” (well, only a few of us call her that), was going to be to speak and have discussion groups, with residents of a senior center where she used to teach a popular tap dance class, in a 4-week workshop about issues pertaining to them. Each week has a different topic: a) health/exercise/polypharmacy, b) grief, c) dealing with Alzheimer’s, and d) depression & loneliness. She sent me her outline to get my feedback.
My mom had been an amazing teacher for at least 30 years - I mean, she was the kind who would change people's lives, I still hear stories. But, for the first time, she was delving into territory that we share - both in content, audience, and format, and she asked me for my thoughts.
I looked it over. It was good. It was a class I’d like to take – one that I felt would take a good deal of research and time to prepare and present. I was impressed and glad she’s getting the opportunity to share what she knows – and I’m sure it will all be quite helpful to these people who already adore her (and thus will listen to every word.) What a great opportunity for everyone.
There was, however, one key component I felt I could offer (that she didn’t really know much about. - And no, my mom doesn't meditate, don't you know - and this was the first real inquiry into it, so my ears perked up.) That component that I felt I could contribute was, of course, mindfulness - i.e. how mindfulness can play an important role – especially for the healthy processing of grief – and loneliness & depression.
Below is what I wrote to to my mom. This was, for me, "my one shot." I was thinking that she may never ask again. I wanted to supply the best information. Yeah, I would probably say too much, but she's a great teacher and an amazing student and, if interested, I was thinking to put it in easy-study format so she would learn best. And the next thing I heard from her ....was that she was "printing it out". (That's a sign that she wants to spend time reading something. She doesn't like reading on computer screens. .... Yeah, she may outlive us all.)
.Anyway, what is written below led to a few phone calls where we discussed this in more depth, and, I gotta say, I was excited that we were having the conversation. I was envisioning seniors benefiting. And I have a smilier vision when I post here what I wrote to my mom. Hope it's interesting and helpful - even if just one tiny bit.
“I can simply offer the mindfulness perspective on all that – in case you think you might like to add that to all that you already have. And, as I’ve told you, I do always emphasize that mindfulness needs to be part of a balanced approach that includes exercise, diet, getting out in nature (which in the desert could also be getting into water – i.e. swimming), and social relationships – and you seem to be addressing all of that in your proposal.
The mindfulness perspective is one of discrimination (of the different strands of experience) – and of acceptance of one’s experience without judgement.
Usually we have an agenda: We want good things – i.e. pleasant sensations and emotions – plus certain external conditions – and we don’t want discomfort or unpleasant external conditions. Mindfulness is about being happy independent of conditions.
We learn that we don’t really want pleasure – we really want satisfaction. And we don’t really want no pain – we really want no (or less) suffering. Increased satisfaction & reduced suffering is what mindfulness is all about.
This doesn’t mean we don’t take steps for a healthier outcome in the external world – but we get rid of the “friction” or “resistance” or “grasping” ( all = forms of tension in mind & body) – so that our experience is one of fluidity.
The term “in the Tao” or “in the Zone” refers to such fluidity. And this fluidity is almost always a pleasant experience and tends to create better circumstances – i.e. you draw good things (circumstances, relationships) – but if bad stuff happens, it doesn’t break you – because you’re fluid.
So, for example, let’s address GRIEF:
When I’m working with someone who is grieving, there is always an initial period when they do not want to work through it – they need to feel the grief. (And this period may be short or so long that it’s not healthy – that has to be judged by how functional the person is.) In that first period of time, I do not attempt to direct their awareness away from the grief or to substitute something for grief – that may trigger that “resistance” (which is the source of all suffering according to Buddhism.)
(A side note about grief is that people will/can hold onto it as an honoring of their loved one– i.e. they grieve to prove they loved. They may feel that if they stop grieving it will somehow dishonor their loved one or mean that they didn’t really care. And here’s where psychological reframing can be quite helpful, and we help them find new says to “honor” the departed loved one that involve taking care of themselves. But I do find that often the person is not aware that is why they are holding onto their grief so tightly and so sometimes just that insight can be integral in helping people to let go just enough to focus in a more productive way.)
In any event, the process of tuning into one’s emotional experience in body & mind with discrimination & acceptance is key.
So, with skilled guidance, one can delve into exactly what one is feeling in his/her body – and usually we also discover love, joy, and maybe anger or fear – it’s not just sadness. Really tuning into and discriminating those different strands of experience is quite empowering and brings one more fully into the richness of the present moment – so that one can feel the grief -PLUS all the other flavors present fully, with acceptance, and then, the natural shift will take place – that takes place with everything – i.e. everything that arises will pass away.
The acceptance of the sensations (in this case of feelings in the body) will help the feelings no longer be stuck and they will flow on through – as they are designed naturally to do – like weather. It’s a lovely process to be part of, actually.
Most people have never just attended to the physical sensations associated with an emotion – and just that process of separating the physical component from the story/image/idea can be quite effective in reducing suffering. Then the willingness to really check it out, feel where it is, and allow it to be there and move as it wants, not only sets the stage for this natural fluidity – but for insight & purification.
So our work as facilitators, is often just to set the stage and help direct awareness – and the process that unfolds is a natural one – like childbirth and we’re the midwives.
Let me know if I can explain further or support you in any way on your new journey as 'Dr. Mom.' .... I’m so proud of you.”