Grief and Mindfulness: the Importance of Checking In with Your Body
Illustration by: Joanne Liu
Many of us are experiencing loss or grief now. Loss of social connection. Loss of a sense of normalcy. Loss of employment. Loss of loved ones.
When we experience loss or grief, we are tempted to ruminate about the past or future. We may dwell on how good life used to be and grieve what we do not have. Or, our thoughts may be consumed by the future: Will I find a job? Can I still retire as planned?
It is difficult to thrive if we are not aware of how grief affects us. One way to manage grief is to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, and not judging ourselves. Some people may think mindfulness is just about paying attention to our minds, feelings, and thoughts. But our body actually plays a very important role because it serves as an anchor. While our thoughts often travel to the past or future, our body is always rooted in the here and now. Here are a few things you may try:
1. Mindful breathing
Mindful breathing is different from deep breathing. Deep breathing is breathing from the diaphragm (rather than the chest) so as to relieve anxiety. Mindful breathing is less about stress reduction (though most people find that to be true). It is primarily a way to cultivate awareness of the present moment. Our breath is a neutral anchor on which we place our attention. Whenever our mind wanders somewhere else, we gently but firmly turn our attention back to our breath.
2. Check in with your body
Where am I holding tension in my body today? The three most common places we carry tension are: the chest, gut, and jaw. We grind our teeth in our sleep. We feel tight or heavy when we are stressed. This 3-minute body scan may be a good way to help you reconnect with your body. By scanning and focusing your attention to the different parts of your body, you may notice tension in places that you didn’t know existed before. Good times to check in with your body may include: when you get up from your desk after a long meeting, after a difficult conversation, or before you go to bed.
When you start feeling overwhelmed or disoriented, grounding can be a helpful tool. Focusing on each of your five senses can be effective in bringing yourself back to the present moment. As you engage with each sense, be slow and deliberate. Notice how different parts of your body feels as you experience each of the senses.
- Sight: notice one thing that is in your immediate surrounding
- Smell: a candle, food stewing on the stove-top, herbs, or a house plant
- Hearing: close your eyes and see if you can differentiate the sounds you hear
- Taste: a piece of chocolate, a sip of coffee
- Touch: a soft piece of fabric, your comforter, or your pet
4. Repeat a mantra
Grief can feel disorienting as it often signals a loss of control. We may feel helpless in the face of a pandemic. David Brooks describes that the pandemic spreads an existential feeling of unsafety. Repeating a mantra that is personal or meaningful can orient and anchor you in moments of uncertainty. A mantra can be a word or a short phrase, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “be still,” “love,” or “peace.” Repeated practice allows the mantra to move from the mind to the heart.
5. Move your body
Movement is good because it forces you out of your mind and into your body. You may find walking in solitude particularly helpful to connect with your body during this stay-at-home order. You can do a walking meditation to build awareness of your internal sensations and external surroundings. If you are spiritual or religious, this guide from the Franciscan Order is another option for you to encounter God and pray during a walk. Others have found movements such as gardening or weeding to be helpful.