Sadness is as much a part of life as happiness. We may wish that wasn’t true, and it can be easy to believe that loss is what happens to other people.
Until it happens to you.
And then you’re flung into a new world that you have no training for, feeling totally lost and without a roadmap. Having suffered multiple pregnancy losses, I spent about 7 years becoming quite well acquainted with grief and loss. I learned an awful lot about being human, not least that to feel sad is to be human.
Feelings of loss are common to so many of us – whether through bereavement, infertility or illness and the loss of health. It has helped me hugely to read other peoples’ stories. So I wanted to write about how mindfulness and self-compassion have helped me learn to live with loss.
There’s no manual for loss
When it first happened to me, I wished there was a handbook or a manual for grieving – some guideline for what I should feel, and what I could do to get through it more easily. My first instinct was to do something about it. I wanted to fix or solve my sadness, make it go away, or find a project to distract me and replace what I was feeling.
I even wrote a list of self-improvement projects. So desperate was I to ‘do’ something as a way to cope that I even wrote a To Do list: it included things like getting a new job, meeting new people, a healthier lifestyle etc. Of course, loss has changed me – and all those things did eventually happen. But I can see that at that particular point, when my grief was still very new, it was an attempt to escape my pain.
I now know that there isn’t a set process that we follow until we’re ‘over’ a loss and ok again. A tough lesson for me was that there wasn’t anything I could Do with grief. And so instead I started to learn about Being with it.
Grieving takes great courage, and a lot of energy
Following a loss, I sometimes didn’t feel ready to grieve straight away. During these times, my mind and body would shut down. I’d either feel completely numb, or just sleep a lot. I think this was how my body made sure I had the energy to get through it all, by making sure I didn’t try to feel it all in one go, but rather in stages – as and when I was ready.
It would take time for the initial shock to subside. Several times my grief hit me hardest about 6 weeks after the event. It was as if I’d needed to recuperate some of the energy that I’d used in surviving the trauma of loss. Only then did I feel ready to deal with fully feeling the emotional impact.
Periods of sadness would then come in waves, some shorter and some much longer. Some would feel like a big black hole or dark tunnel that threatened to swallow me up. Sometimes the waves would take me by surprise, and my reaction would be shock that I still felt it so deeply. So it was important not to rush it, to ride each wave as it came and then rest deeply in between.
Not wanting sadness
Gradually, I became aware that I was scared to let myself feel the grief, because I feared I’d get stuck in it. An important step for me was learning to recognise when I was resisting feeling sadness. I started to see more clearly that my typical response to difficulty was to try to fix things. This was a well-worn strategy of mine to avoid feeling pain. It had worked for most of my life – but not now.
So I experimented with not fixing the sadness, not pushing it away – and instead, beginning to let it be there, to let it be felt. Several things helped me do this: my counselling sessions, my mindfulness practice and my journalling.
I began to just sit with my sadness. Literally, I’d schedule periods to just sit with it. I had to go gently – going at my own pace, letting it in a little bit at a time. Later, when my mindfulness practice was more established, I’d use my meditations like this. There’s a Danna Faulds poem that describes how ‘When loss rips off the doors of the heart, or sadness veils your vision with despair, practice becomes simply bearing the truth’. My meditations felt like that. Just being with it, bearing it.
Or I’d write in my journal – completely uncensored, pouring out all the shock, disbelief and anger, the guilt and feeling like I was being punished; how lost I felt, how dead and numb and empty at times, how scared that I’d feel this broken-hearted forever. In the private space of my journal I also investigated the different layers of loss: my separation from who I’d lost, and also my loss of identity, of the life I’d never have now.
In all these ways, I made space for my feelings of sadness to be there, just as they were – through talking (and being listened to), writing, and just sitting with.
Feeling is healing
This was probably the first time in my life that I’d let tears come without wanting to make them stop. And that began to feel healing. In a way, grieving forced me into a very mindful space, where all I could do was be with my experience one moment a time, even if that moment was filled with pain. Letting myself just feel whatever I felt was a big change for me. It was like exploring completely uncharted waters.
I found that allowing myself these short periods to be with my feelings, instead of wanting to ‘get over it’, meant that I could spot more readily when I was pushing sadness away. That would then become a cue to let it in a little more.
Ironically, letting the waves of sadness fully come (when I was feeling strong enough) meant that in time I was able to let the good things in too. These were tiny moments of goodness, like a hug from someone who cared, or the warmth of the sun on my face. It was as if letting in all the grief enabled me to let in these other aspects of my experience aswell, instead of shutting myself off from them. At times I found there was even a kind of beauty in that sadness. As if my heart had broken wide open, and so it had let in the full range of experience, including this beauty that I’d never been open to before.
From sadness to kindness
Although I felt positive about developing a new relationship with my pain, I found that other peoples’ reactions to it could be awkward. At times I felt that others treated my grief like an illness that needed to be cured. But to me, that grief felt like all I had left of my children. Sadness, after all, can be a form of love. What I believe now (and mindfulness approaches very much teach us this) – is that sadness itself isn’t suffering. It’s painful, yes, but where it became suffering for me was when I was resisting it, adding the pain and fear of not wanting to feel it on top of the sadness.
Once I did start to feel that sadness, I could release the energy that had been used in resisting my emotions. And then I could use this energy in caring for myself while it hurt so badly. I was mindful of the potential for getting overwhelmed by these feelings, and at times I needed to hold myself with a huge amount of gentleness. I would set up camp on my sofa with a pile of DVDs, like a form of extreme self-care that felt very necessary.
For me, grief opened the door – for the first time – to self-compassion. I discovered that when sadness arises, it’s kind to let it be felt. I’d never known feelings like that, and I also discovered a new self-kindness that I hadn’t known before either. As Naomi Shihab Nye writes, ‘Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing’.
After each loss, I’d felt so broken and in need of fixing. But over time, my sadness has in fact made me feel whole.
Note – it may not be advisable to learn mindfulness for the first time if you have experienced a recent or traumatic loss, and you may need therapeutic support from a health professional.
The content of this site should not be used as a substitute for medical advice or support from a mental health professional – see About This Site for more info (plus author bio).