The other week, I lost a dear friend and colleague, Jamie Zimmerman. A physician, meditation teacher, and author, Jamie lectured internationally on “meditation medicine” and living your calling. She was passionate about global health and believed that healing happens from the inside out. A medical journalist at ABC News, she loved spending time in nature, exploring museums, yoga classes, cafes, and live music. She died as she lived—taking the time to connect to nature and herself in Hawaii, where she was taking a few days for vacation before she was going to speak at a conference.
Jamie’s death is a profound loss to so many people, and many of us grapple with understanding how to grieve. Her death was sudden and shocking, and in trying to make sense of something so seemingly senseless, I found myself remembering one of our last conversations. Jamie and I spoke about the vast potential of maintaining a beginner’s mind and that the essence of mindfulness is remembering this idea when we are faced with something we think we already know. Dear Jamie, all of us who were, and continue to be, touched by your work are forever mindful of you. As we struggle with grief, we will try to do what you would have sought to do with grace and wisdom—bring a mindful perspective to all we are now experiencing.
I offer here five ways to grieve mindfully, but first, I want to touch upon a question I’m asked often as a psychologist. What IS grief? Psychologically speaking, according to Dr. Kubler-Ross (1969), grief is an emotional response to loss. This emotional response is conceptualized as a non-linear expression of different stages of feeling states including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (aka: “dabda”). Biologically speaking, grief is a homeostatic process, a journey that our mind, brain, and body need to engage in to best recover from the trauma of a loss. This is an evolutionary need, since attachment and connection is embedded within our limbic circuitry. Yes, whether we are conscious of it or not, or like it or not, relationships deeply imprint upon our neuronal selves.
Grief is not, by any means, a one-size-fits-all kind of process.
Second, I want to note what grief is not. Grief is not, by any means, a one-size-fits-all kind of process. In fact, it is a uniquely individual process that often feels amorphous and difficult to capture with words. When it comes to grief, there is no “normal” or typical way to “do it.” Despite what some believe, in my opinion, there is no “normal” time period allotted for grief.
It takes a boat load of self-compassion to allow oneself to feel whatever it is you are feeling at any given time, without judgment, without comparison relative to another’s explicit portrayal of their own process. In this way, to grieve is to be mindful of our thoughts and feelings.
Finally, while there is no one “right” way to grieve, to actually grieve is essential for our ability to employ our human capacity to find a renewed sense of meaning. Grief elicits resilience. The capacity to continue to hold a loved one in our heart/mind while still forging forward with purpose and direction.
Five ways to Grieve Mindfully
- Accept your feelings: Allow yourself to feel what you feel at any given moment, with a sense of self-compassion, and without judgment.
- Express your feelings: Just as important as accepting your feelings is expressing them in a way that is helpful to you. Journaling, talking about the experience, scrapbooking, or dancing, for example, are helpful ways to process grief instead of allowing the feelings to stay stuck.
- Reach out: During this time, it is important to reach out in multiple ways. Reach out for guidance from a spiritual counselor or a psychologist. Reach out to share stories of your loved one with others. Reach out to offer support to other grievers. Find a balance between sitting with yourself, and being with others, but ultimately, reach out—don’t isolate.
- Continue to take care of yourself and others. Living life while grieving often feels like scaling a mountain. Grieving takes energy and can often feel draining. As much as possible during this tough time, continue to eat well, exercise, and maintain wellness practices.
- Celebrate your loved one’s life: It is important through the grief process to keep the memory of your loved one alive in some way that both inspires growth, and reflects and honors your unique relationship. This can include donating to a charity, meditating in their honor, and even planting a tree.