Grief and Mindfulness: How to Manage Your Emotions
Illustration: By Joanne Liu | A person aware of the rain, just like she’s aware of her emotions. Rain is unpleasant but not wrong.
Harvard Business Review recently interviewed David Kessler on That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief. Most people have heard of Kessler’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. He recently added a sixth stage: meaning.
A health care provider recently shared with me that they had gone past the initial stages and had reached the acceptance phase. I accept there are things that are within my control and things that are beyond my control. I feel at peace with whatever happens.
But when sadness and anger resurfaced, they were caught by surprise. They felt disappointed, frustrated, and a sense of despair—again. I thought I had already dealt with those feelings. Why are they coming back?
Myth 1: You go through the stages of grief only once.
Fact: You may cycle through some or even all of the stages multiple times. For the health care provider, they went through denial, sadness, and acceptance when the outbreak started. But when their coworker got tested positive for COVID-19, they went through anger and sadness again.
Myth 2: Everyone goes through all the stages and goes through them in the same order.
Fact: Everyone experiences loss and grief differently. Not everyone goes through all the stages. Some may never be in denial. Some may never feel a sense of acceptance. Likewise, not everyone follows the stages in the same order. How you process grief is unique to you.
Myth 3: There is an end goal and you want to reach it as soon as possible.
Fact: Processing grief is not a race up a mountain where the top (or the acceptance phase) is the final destination. It is not a linear journey. You are not trying to “graduate” from stage 1 to stage 2, and then stage 3 and so on. There may not necessarily be an end point. Even if you have “reached” the acceptance phase, it doesn’t mean that you will not experience grief again.
In order to lead thriving lives, we need to understand and learn how to manage our emotions. If not, they will spill over to other domains of our lives, leading to more conflict, confusion, and pain.
How can mindfulness help us manage our emotions in the face of grief and loss?
1. Be mindful of your emotions in the present moment. You may cycle through the different stages of grief within a week, or even within a day. You can pause and ask, What am I feeling at this moment? Not only do you not compare your experience to that of others, you resist the temptation to compare yourself with the past (How come I am still feeling how I felt a week ago?) or worry about the future (Will I still be this sad next week?).
2. Recognize that emotions are not good or bad. A lot of us tend to think of emotions as good or bad. Happy is good; sad is bad. Peaceful is good; worry is bad. Emotions are not inherently good or bad, nor are they right or wrong. It is how we handle or relate to them that matters. For example, anger may be an unpleasant feeling but it may also propel you to make social actions. In mindfulness, you are encouraged to label your emotions as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. This is one way to remove good/bad judgement from emotions.
3. Accept your emotions. If you label emotions as good or bad, you may think that it is bad to feel sad or you should strive to feel happy all the time. If so, when unpleasant emotions arise, you may want to avoid or get rid of them. Sweeping them under the rug, so to speak, which tends to cause more pain in the long run. You may also judge yourselves if you see certain emotions as bad or wrong. You may feel disappointed at yourself for feeling sad, or feel bad about feeling bad. These often make matters worse. Mindfulness is acknowledging and fully accepting whatever you are feeling in that particular moment of the day. Change and acceptance often go hand in hand.
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