I'm A Death Doula — Here's What It Means To Grieve Mindfully & Why It Matters
Grief doesn't start with loss. It starts with love.
The thing about grief is that it does not mark the end of love—grief is love, just in new skin. It's how you show love for something or someone you have been separated from. We have some modern misconceptions about grief, and by clearing them up, we can be empowered to live more fulfilling lives.
4 common misconceptions about grief:
- Grief is something you just get over. No, grief is forever woven into the fabric of your life.
- Grief is something you come back from unchanged. Actually, grief is designed to undo, and therefore, transform. You will forever be changed by grief.
- Grief follows a certain path. In reality, grief is completely unique and takes many forms. Though patterns have been identified in the grieving process, it cannot be organized into an outlined process.
- Grief is a burden to your friends and family. It may feel this way, but grief is actually an invitation for deeper bonds to be built through the process. It is not meant to be done in private—it requires witnessing and has always been held within a community, not alone.
Why we have forgotten how to grieve.
In modern Western-dominant culture, many of us have forgotten how to grieve, and we isolate grievers by not creating safe spaces for them to feel deeply. Most people don't feel qualified in supporting a grieving loved one and worry they may say the wrong thing. This can keep people away from those who need them the most.
There is also a significant pressure to "be happy" and to find a "growth opportunity" in every tragedy. This is often referred to as toxic positivity, and it can cause us to wrap our feelings of sorrow in a layer of shame and guilt.
Strengthening our ability to grieve and to feel the depth of our sorrow is an essential piece of the recovery journey. That's the irony of the thing: Grief is the medicine for our sorrows. It provides the balm for our aching hearts, shows us the way forward, and allows us to heal. But, first, we must come into the right relationship with our sadness. We must come with respect and reverence to our grief, and we must tend to it with the same curiosity and care that we used when tending to our love.
How to grieve mindfully.
Mindfulness is one powerful way to relearn how to grieve. Not only is mindfulness a tool for living with loss, but it also has a lot in common with grief.
Grief, like mindfulness, is a practice. Think about how much effort it took the first time you ever sat down to meditate. You probably experienced significant distraction, self-judgment, discomfort, and the strong questioning of why you were there in the first place. This is similar to grief.
Grief, like mindfulness, starts off requiring a lot from you. It is overwhelming, uncomfortable, and effortful. Through these ebbs and flows, both practices need tending through your entire life.
Grief, like mindfulness, is not something you accomplish or something you can complete. It is something that you build a long-term relationship with. At times it may feel like a hurricane, and other times, it will feel like a gentle spring breeze.
Grief, like mindfulness, takes participation. It requires presence, acceptance, and intention.
How does mindful grieving support healing?
Mindfulness weaves together presence, acceptance, and intention. By integrating this into your work with grief, you will lay a strong foundation that will continue to anchor and nourish you, even in the hard times.
Presence can be strengthened through practices of embodiment, including movement practices, like qigong, yoga, mindful walking, body scanning, and breathwork. By safely anchoring into the physical body, you're learning to find a place of security within, even when the world around you feels unstable.
Acceptance is another huge piece of mindfulness and can offer powerful healing through grief. Practicing self-compassion and nonjudgment is an ongoing skill. This can be done through presence practices like meditation, and it can also be done through practices of expression.
Freehand writing is an important tool when moving through hard times. That is, writing without editing, not to read but to release and give voice to your emotions. Other expressive art forms, like singing, painting, and even speaking, can also be beneficial.
Intention invites you to be thoughtful about the way you show up to the table: What are you doing here? What is your grief asking of you? How involved in your pain and your healing are you willing or able to be? What are you expecting from this, and what are you willing to give to the process?
Lastly, and specific to working with grief, is the importance of community. Grief ritual is potent support for everyone who grieves small and significant deaths throughout their lives. Creating a safe space to be held and for others to help carry the pain of grief provides connection and serves as a reminder of humanity.
It confronts the reality of life and death, and when we allow ourselves to be held by others, we have the opportunity to release completely and to heal deeply.
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Alyssa Ackerman is a Michigan native, currently based in Portland, Oregon. She works as a licensed massage therapist, specializing in craniosacral therapy, Reiki, and end of life care. Ackerman serves as a death doula and volunteer for End Of Life Choices, Oregon and Hospice.