Matthew Brensilver, PhD

Reflections on Grief & Mindfulness

I recently received a question from one of our course graduates asking about grief. I wanted to share what I wrote to her as grief is such a universal theme. Because we love deeply, and things change, grief, in an important sense, is woven into the fabric of our biology. It needs its rightful place in the human experience – and in our mindfulness practice.

I’m really sorry for your loss. My heart has also ached deeply with loss, but I can barely imagine the intensity of losing a spouse. Any response you have would be understandable. In the cauldron of loss, the mind does what it can to make it through. Sometimes, it’s said that loss proceeds according to stages. Stages of shock and denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and then acceptance. The process often seems more messy to me. Each movement of the mind is an attempt to cope with the enormity of the experience.

Grief has its own rhythm. It is something that needs time – and needs to be on its own time. Leonard Cohen wrote, “I cried for you this morning, and I’ll cry for you again, but I’m not in charge of sorrow, so please don’t ask me when.”

Sometimes, we get into thinking, “I just need to let go, to stop clinging, to just accept.” But this doesn’t honor the rhythms of grief. Grief can feel like a wound that simply heals very slowly, and according to its own rhythms, rather than something according to our own time.

In fifteen years of mindfulness practice, I’ve found that my practice has made a range of difficult emotions hurt less, often much less. Anxiety and worry, irritation and anger, judgement and self-harshness. Practice has tempered these states. They arise less frequently and when they do arise, they sting less.

But not so with grief. I think mindfulness, if anything, has made grief hurt even more. The undefended heart feels loss even more acutely. Unclouded by rationalization and defensiveness, the loss strikes closer to the heart.

Yet, in another sense, mindfulness has protected me. It has protected my heart from harm, even though grief still really hurts. Our hearts need not be harmed by the pain of loss. Maybe this is what we can ask for: that the experience of loss actually expands our sense of what it means to be alive.

In some ways, grief is the contract we enter into when we love. And we must all love. As children, we have no choice but to love. It is what we mammals do.

Here’s Mary Oliver, In Blackwater Woods:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

So, what are we to do? Mostly, at least in the beginning, we’re just trying to survive the loss. Stephen Levine said that “Grief is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I find that such a touching description. We can’t imagine how we’ll let go, how we’ll feel better, how we’ll move on. We can’t see any further than our headlights reach. And yet, this is how we can let go. This is how we can heal.

Freud said that in the back of our minds, we always harbor notions of our immortality. Perhaps we also fantasize that our loved ones might also be protected from the relentlessness of time. But in grief, we see this is not true. And this is a glimpse into the groundlessness of our existence – our lack of control. We influence so much yet own nothing. I think Jorge Luis Borges said: “You can only lose what you have never had.”

To deeply love someone is to recognize them as a separate being: to recognize their freedom. They have their own life trajectory, even though we hope to share the same trajectory for as long as possible.

Groundlessness can make us hate – or it can make us love. It can harden the heart into grasping and resisting or it can soften us into a very gracious kind of love. A love not merely for our loved one, but a commitment to a broader love. A love that honors how deeply we all long to be happy.

Perhaps this is the redemption of grief done well. The love becomes bigger.

As for practices, it can be good to have additional support – groups or psychotherapy. Perhaps practicing mindfulness with others you care about. Kindness can be like oxygen during this time. To the extent possible, lavish yourself with that.

Opening to grief is different than marinating in it. When we’re opening to grief – digesting the experience – it hurts, but it hurts in the way that a good deep-tissue massage hurts. You can almost taste an element of relief. Marinating in it feels more cyclical, bottomless. The lines are not always clear, but do your best.

Sometimes, it is practice that will be helpful. Sometimes, it will be action. The gravitational orbit of grief can be so strong that sometimes it’s better to move the body, rather than try to move the mind.

Perhaps these words will be soothing for a time. And then they won’t. And then again, we can wake back up to what we know. Suffering is a kind of forgetting  becoming disconnected from awareness and love. Mindfulness is a form of remembering.

I wish you much goodness.