Why are Self-Compassion and Self-Love essential to our Deep Diving through Grief?

I am writing this post because of my personal experience with my own grief over the past year and how writing my memoir triggered so much grief that I had thought I had processed, and I had only begun! I have had many opportunities to face my grief head-on and I am extremely grateful for all of them. Each time we are curious enough to deep dive into ourselves, we learn how to offer ourselves more kindness and self-forgiveness. This profound softness is our pathway deeper into our greatest gifts and wisdom. It takes courage and skill to stay with the unrelenting, unpredictable patterns of grief. And yet, what is on the other side is profoundly life-changing. Please read on….

What is Grief?

Grief is the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. Sometimes the complexity of grief can cause us to shut down because it scares us. When we do this, we cut off our ability to process and digest our grief in a healthy way. When our hearts are hardened against the pain, we no longer have the ability to open to it.

The process of grief is not linear.

Sameet M. Kumar, Ph.D in his book Grieving Mindfully conceptualizes grief as a free-form curving line that often takes the shape of a spiral staircase. He feels this visual illustrates how unpredictable and repetitive grief can be —the ups and downs in the spiral can be triggered by certain people or situations not related to one incident or one timeline. Emotions may repeat, or disappear quickly; only to return again later. Every person’s grief experience is unique.

In our world right now, we are also experiencing huge losses in relationship to our natural world, the living animals and plants, huge shifts in climate which are impacting our sense of safety and connection with the Earth, and huge waves of fear and disconnection and negativity as a result of Covid and it’s impacts along with the political unraveling of our capitalistic economic system. These changes are triggering each and everyone of us deeply and bringing up unresolved grief, fear and loss from our lives present and past. “Climate Grief” can be a name for specific losses related to climate change, but this is only a part of all the loss we are experiencing.

Why is Mindfulness helpful with Grief?

I love how Dr. Kumar speaks of the value of grieving mindfully. “Mindfulness can help you experience Grief as a purposeful, meaningful journey. Mindfulness can help give the intensity and distress of grief a positive role in transforming the rest of your life.” He reiterates what I have learned to be true:
We can grow tremendously by facing and allowing our grief to expand our perspective of ourselves and our path in the world. Mindfulness is the tool that helps us move into this deeper more meaningful life. Also, mindfulness is a way to work with what is happening rather than resisting it which causes more pain and suffering and grief.

The goal of mindfulness is not to cover up the pain, but rather, to help you be okay with being human, being yourself in this moment. In the context of mindfulness, pleasure and pain are treated equally and with awareness. Awareness is not holding onto the pain—it is feeling it fully so that it can process through you naturally. Our bodies know how to process our feelings. It’s often our thoughts and our reactions to our feelings that block our ability to process them. Mindfulness helps us stay with each moment using our breath and body no matter whether it’s tough or helpful. Mindfulness helps us see when our thoughts are helpful or not helpful and we can choose to let them go. We learn to ride these waves of moment to moment awareness of accepting and allowing all of it to unfold naturally..
In this way, mindful grieving is a very embodying experience.

Self-Compassion is the lubricant to soften our hearts

In our world today, we sometimes harden our hearts or block them to cope with the intensity of negativity coming at us. Practicing mindful self-compassion can open us more quickly than just mindfulness. Compassion is concerned with the alleviation of suffering – actively giving care. When we give care to ourselves with this attitude, we are giving self-compassion to ourselves…..“By wrapping pain in the warm embrace of self-compassion, negative states are decreased while positive states are increased.” (Kristin Neff and the Center for Mindfulness in San Diego).

Kristin Neff, Ph.D. in her research in Self-Compassion has introduced 3 elements of Compassion for Self and Other:

1. Mindfulness – Notice and allow it to be here

2. Kindness – Active element of giving yourself care by doing something to soothe and support

3. Common Humanity- Moves us out of the world of our ego (Why me? Personal trauma and self-critical parts) and into the interconnectedness of our human experience in the world. When we get this larger perspective, we feel safer, less fearful and polarized within our bodies, and able to feel a deep human connection that frees our hearts even more. We feel that we are no longer alone in our struggle but that our struggle is everyone’s struggle and the Earth’s struggle as well.

Self-Compassion strengthens the Mind – allowing us to expand our perspectives and vision

Another researcher, Paul Gilbert, agreed with Dr. Neff that working more with compassion in contemplative practice can give us more muscles where we need them more – to learn how to change our brains with mindfulness. Compassion is a way to organize the mind by cultivating a COMPASSIONATE APPROACH to ourselves and others by training the brain that way. Practices of well-wishing or bringing in goodness give us connection and affiliation which is healthier than being alone. Also, kindness calms us down and regulates the nervous system, which allows us to grow, heal and transform. He also noticed how much SHAME blocks our ability to connect with each other. Our disconnection must be broken with this more compassionate approach.

In Buddhism, The Buddha’s teachings on compassion generated through the Bramaviharas gives us another path to cultivating a compassionate mind. They are: loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. In Sanskrit, these are maitri (also known as metta), karuna, mudita, and upeksha. Thich Nhat Hanh calls these the “Four Elements of True Love” and are known by different names across the various Buddhist schools and traditions. These practices build on each other to specifically to generate warmth and kindness inside of us – the Buddha understood this brain/body-embodied practice and how important it is to bringing deep relief and resolution to our struggles.

Stephen Levine, a great facilitator of grief work, says “Loving kindness is a liberating, nonjudgmental state of clarity that accesses the heart and calms the mind….It lessens hard judgments and affirms a whole new level of responsibility.. the responsibility to respond instead of react.”

Breaking through the hardness with Soothing Touch Practices

Soothing Touch is placing warm human touch on places on the body that are in pain or tense from emotional turmoil. It has been introduced by all the Self-Compassion teachers as a part of their practices to start moving the body out of fight/flight and suffering and into softening, soothing and allowing.

Steven Levine in Unattended Sorrow suggests that “Tapping the heart” is a powerful technique for getting through the levels of numbness and unfinished business of grief. This tapping draws awareness and therefore, healing, into the area and unblocks the armoring of the heart which is composed of “layer after layer of disappointment and unresolved vulnerabilities.”

Taking action- bringing care to ourselves is the key to Self-Compassion

Working with Grief requires mindfulness—mindful self-compassion. Otherwise we get all forms of resistance to working with our feelings. These are unhealthy ways of coping (resistance to working on grief) such as: Caretaking, worrying, staying busy, being anxious, workaholism, addictions, denial, depression, over thinking, doing, doing, doing.

These reactions create deep suffering and make our situation more painful. Choosing to respond responsibly to grief is the practice of Loving Kindness. Here is a Loving Kindness Practice for you to use when you are feeling deep loss and grief:

(Start by taking 3 slow calming breaths and placing your hands on your heart or another place that feels soothing to you; speaking each word and phrase slowly feeling the meaning in each word)
May I be at peace
May my heart remain open
May I awaken to the light of my own true nature
May I be healed
(Find any additional phrase that expresses your deepest need here and make it into a wish)

This practice can be expanded to address the larger concentric circles of connection in our lives and to help us feel this larger perspective of our connection to all living beings, ie, A friend, A difficult person, The community, the Earth. This metta practice is an opportunity to set an “intention” to be loving rather than mean-spirited, competitive or revengeful towards yourself or others. The intention is to open your heart and cultivate something different than what is around you and to observe yourself in the process of opening your heart. Remember to be patient and loving with yourself as you slowly grow this softer part of yourself stronger.