The year of the pandemic witnessed many of us grieving losses of someone close. Many losses were related to Covid-19, and many were unrelated. Some were able to peacefully say goodbye, and many weren’t.
When we learn that we are about to face the loss of someone close to us, we enter a very delicate and intense passage of time. We find nostalgia, memories, panic, grief, and bittersweet things all creeping in – if not gushing. It is a time when we know seconds, hours and days count in a way that may not have before. We find ourselves hanging in that strange space where what once was, is, and will be all dawn on us – and that’s quite hard to get our heads around.
In this article I share suggestions to help individuals stay centred and present in the midst of such a turbulent, difficult time. I also share why any of this is important, as staying present is often the last thing on our minds at a time like this. The contents of this article are drawn from a combination of my own recent experiences, from true stories I have read, and from individuals who have graciously shared their experiences. My work in Mind-Body education informs much of the information set out below.
Staying Present: Why
When we stand in the face of loss, a time like this greatly challenges our capacity for clarity and stability, even empathy and perspective. Functioning can sometimes become a challenge. In addition to that we may also face the fragile situation that requires us to make delicate choices. We may be making decisions about withdrawal of care, alternative care, visitations where we want to feel brave, or having conversations where we want to say the right things. If we come from complex family constellations, we may also need to negotiate them with care. Most of all, we almost always want to create an environment that carries an energy of dignity and grace.
With so much at stake, our individual state of mind influences the flow of all of the above. How we navigate them depends on how well the underlying layers of our mind and body are functioning for us – the outer experience can be determined by the inner. (I talk about mental and physical health later on). Without a commitment to stay present, we may travel to turbulent places, make misaligned choices, or run the risk of a traumatic bereavement. The effects can be long lasting. But when we hold the commitment to stay present, we create an inner possibility for dignity and grace. We then carry this into our situation – particularly towards the one who may need this most right now.
It is a delicate passage of time. I highly encourage looking after your wellbeing. There is no question you will be looking after others around you, so here are some ways to look after you at this time. Some of these suggestions may be possible and some not, I invite you to explore possibilities that ring true to you.
8 Suggestions – Staying Present in the Face of Grief and Loss
1. Create space.
It is a heavy time and it’s useful to accept that we may need some space on ourselves to navigate things, make sense of internal storms, make difficult decisions, and negotiate things within close relationships. Without the space to think clearly, we do run into high-intensity battle zones be it with ourselves or others.
Creating space for yourself could include seeking additional support, delegating complex/challenging work, booking/purchasing leaves, or taking regular timeouts into your own space. Sometimes, it’s not that we don’t have available options, it’s more that we dont feel they’re available to us. I would encourage looking at your options and not hold back on taking them. Wherever you need additional support, know that there are kind people out there who would be willing to support you, including people you least expect 🙂
At the time I had a difficult bereavement ahead of me, I battled through a complex work project thinking there was no option. But when I opened up to my manager, he immediately relieved me of it, which was such a big surprise to me. This kind gesture changed many things within my work environment and also within the bereavement. Create your space, don’t hold back on seeking support to make this possible.
2. A day at a time.
Do think about treading things one day at a time: Think for Today. Evaluate for Today. Plan for Today. Worry about Today. Grieve for today. Enjoy little things for Today. Take delight in Today. Collapse for Today. It’s a form of mental boundary with yourself. Offer yourself the kindest reminder –
In a life-changing situation, it’s natural that our minds run into turbulence. This tips us easily into a state of overload and that’s when things become tricky – when we collapse or flare up in the midst of the intense situation. But by creating a mental boundary with ourselves, we reduce the chances of this significantly. We tread this delicate time with a sense of space, presence, clarity. And more than that, we allow our hearts to break open and feel the grief just as it is, without added salt or pepper. We get to experience love at its purest.
3. Slow and Intentional
The dawn of mortality is such a difficult one, that the impulse in us tries to run from the situation and we find ourselves speeding up to do more, fix more, solve more, think more. Deep down, it is because it’s such a hard reality to accept.
Instead of speeding up, try slowing down. As if every motor movement mattered, you could engage with everything slowly, purposefully, intentionally – putting energy and intention into micromovement. This helps you invest your energy wisely and stay as close as possible to your present moment. You could allow every step, word, shower droplet, sip, bite to slow down – perhaps even reading this. In this way, you travel less towards places that may be too much for you, and that may not even be necessary for you to go to at this time. Slowing down allows you to navigate the reality of your present moment in a more graceful way. Compassion then, becomes a part of this difficult experience.
4. Hold the Facts Close
It’s helpful to distinguish between actual from potential, real from hypothetical – fundamentals of mindfulness. At a time like this, we may find our minds mixing them up. We then find, in those instantaneous moments, that we experience the worst potential possibilities to be true as much as the actual – i.e. we are experiencing that which is not as much as that which is true. This can feel incredibly overwhelming.
I encourage mindfully looking at the facts – repeatedly – so you don’t go into places that are too overwhelming at this time. Repeatedly bring yourself back to the facts in the present moment. In this way, you return to ‘what is’ (as opposed to ‘what could be’ and ‘what might/must be’) which allows you to act, think and be clear about things.
5. Actively seek Nourishment
I have spoken about slowing down and creating space. But what can we fill that space with? Nourishment. Actively seek out comfort, connection, heart-nourishing resources. When we are at our lowest, our Window of Capacity shrinks significantly. Nourishing activities help to expand this window. We may find ourselves turning away from nourishment, and a part of us may even feel undeserving of them at this time. But if we’re at our lowest, we wouldn’t be able to support or make clear choices that serve the bigger picture.
When my grandmother was unwell, one of the most useful and life-changing things I did was to understand death. The helplessness and powerlessness I felt was transmuted and I learned a lot about my role in her death from afar (I was unable to travel to her at the time). I also did regular nature walks, spoke about things to people I trusted, read, meditated, kept myself centred and deeply contemplated life in a way that I never had before. As a result, I felt in touch with some profound truths which helped me trust the larger life process. This not only expanded my window of capacity at the time, but its effects echo even until today.
Offer yourself the nourishment you need at this time.
6. Honour basic needs
Eat well, drink well, sleep well, move well. Grief and loss results in our thinking capacity shrinking and our bodies correspondingly carry unseen burdens. You may feel this physically; in heaviness, increased/decreased heartrate, lack of sleep, eyes darting in hypervigilance, heavy feet, or slouching body. These are signs the body is in need of nourishment. Mortality and loss are very complex for our human minds and bodies to attune to. This means our threat response triggers off (fight/flight or freeze) and many ‘systems’ within our bodies are hard at work for us.
Take care to honour your body’s needs through this time. Food, hydration, sleep and movement are some of its basic needs which the weight of grief may overshadow. Your thinking capacity, articulation of meaningful words, acting agility, acceptance of grief, and decision making will come from a place of largeness when the body is well-nourished.
7. Minimising Distractions
Be on the lookout for things that tug at your attention at this time. There may be an activated sense of fear that drive you towards distractions.
A friend who kindly offered his story shared that when his father was terminally unwell, there was very little he could do and felt a great sense of powerlessness. He found himself checking his phone, then again, and repeat. He tended to one thing after another and could not stop. Panic and hyperventilation were a big part of his experience. As panic escalated, it turned into rage and this rage eventually played out on someone close. It created an air of woundedness and pain for himself, for those close to him, and for his father.
The innocent act of tending to distractions not only make us hypervigilant, it also may activate our fear centres and possibly lead to unwanted reactions at a time like this. Take care of yourself, check in with yourself often, and check in with things that take you away from your centre. Create a peaceful inner environment, and the environment you will set for your loved one will be that of peace.
8. Keep an eye out for unhelpful old habits
You may find yourself slipping into old unhelpful habits at a time like this. They may even be habits you’ve invested years coming out of, only to find yourself right in the midst of it. It’s important to understand that this is natural. Habits are essentially patterns that our bodies and nervous system have identified as “safe things to do when in trouble”. They may be helpful or unhelpful, but patterns do not understand this.
Keep an eye out for these habits and substitute them with something nourishing or nurturing instead. Consciously break unhelpful patterns, it also stops you from slipping into other traumatic patterns, if any. Keep yourself well-nourished and steady, and you’ll find yourself connecting with your loved one in ways you wish to be able to.
These are some of my suggestions. I hope you have found some useful. The truth is at a time like this, we may not be our best. But with some commitment, we have the capacity to turn a time as delicate and intense as this into a time of profound grace and wisdom. I’d encourage not to undermine the ripple effects of this – our presence impacts our present, our future, those around us, and most importantly the one who most needs us at this time.
If you’d like to understand some of the sciences and links to additional resources, you’re welcome to read on.
A Little Bit on the Sciences
Understanding our Mental Health
Mortality is an incredibly complex concept for the mind, therefore we mentally go into survival mode i.e. our ‘safe mode’. In this mode, we loose access to the higher centres of our brain capable of perspective, understanding, planning. We also loose capacity to articulate well. We may find ourselves easily emotionally hijacked against our will, and this is because the protectiveness of our limbic brain (emotional survival brain) takes over. We may feel hypervigilant, consumed by thoughts, and lean towards ‘doing more’ as a way to cope. We may also find ourselves slipping into old ways of thinking, being, doing, conversing. Due to the intensity of the situation, the brain activates old patterns it may have regarded as ‘safe’. We can expect some level of this to be natural and expected in the face of grief and loss, but the extent of this can minimised using the suggestions outlined above and using other ways you intuitively feel works for you.
Understanding our Physical Health
Sadness slows our metabolism. Our immune system is also ‘tuned down’ and therefore less able to defend our bodies. As a result, we may find ourselves falling ill quickly, recovering slower than usual. In addition to that, grief is an emotion that increases cortisol which then leads to a stress reaction. We may find ourselves in our fight and flight responses very often, which may show up in the way we converse, behave, speak, and even breathe (rapid/shallow breathing). The suggestions above should help with this to some degree.
A Note for HSPs and Empaths
If you’re a Highly Sensitive Person or an Empathatic person, you may pick up on many other emotions around you and find yourself overwhelmed by this. Your presence, grounding and centring are far more important now than ever. Due to your high level of ‘receptors’, HSPs and Empaths are likely to be in tune with subtler things unfolding at this time. You may find yourself ‘sensing’ the needs of your loved one, some very subtle needs which may be regarded as insignificant by others. Death is a process where one moves from gross to subtle (physical body to energy), and your heightened sensitivity towards the subtle cues may be quite important to trust at this time. Hence, your self-care and wellbeing are truly important, so your sensitive receptors are not dampened down.
Hope you’ve found the above useful.
Here’s wishing you warmth, courage, strength, and love at this time.
Online Article: Cry, Heart, But Never Break
A written article by Brainpickings about the profound sadness of loss that is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. An illustration of a children’s book (lovely for adults too).
Online Documentary: Griefwalker.
A free documentary on the work of Stephen Jenkinson, whose work – drawn from Indigenious cultures – is to turn the act of dying from denial and resistance into an essential part of life.
Book: There’s More To Death than Dying by Lama Shenpen Hookham
Drawing on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of positively preparing for death throughout one’s life. A warm, readable and heartfelt exposition on the issues that surround death and caring for the dying.
Book: Death, an Inside Story by Sadhguru
A detailed book about profound aspects of death that are rarely spoken about, drawn from a Mystic’s Inner experience. Based on the Yogic Tradition.
I am a Mindfulness and Somatic Practitioner, and a Mind-Body Education facilitator. If you’d like to have a conversation around loss and grief and want to use mindfulness practices to help you navigate, you’re welcome to get in touch using this link or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. More about me here.