A Mindfulness-Based Approach to Healing From Loss

There are no short cuts, but there are practices that help.

Posted Oct 17, 2016

CC0 Public Domain / FAQ
Source: CC0 Public Domain / FAQ

Loss is part of life, and everyone has (or will at some point) experience significant loss. Loss can take many different forms, including but not limited to: the death of loved ones (including animals); the loss of important relationships through breakup, divorce, or relocation; loss of job, career, and/or financial status/material possessions, and loss related to deterioration of physical functioning due to illness, injury, or aging.

We experience a sense of loss whenever something or someone important to us is no longer available—we lose access to it or her/him. The significance of a loss depends on the emotional attachment to the person or thing that is no longer available to us—the greater the emotional attachment, the more intense the sense of loss. Furthermore, the emotional connection and meaning associated with the loss generally correlates with the amount of grief that is then experienced.

What is Grief?

Grief is the natural emotional state linked to loss. Grief can encompass a wide range of challenging and painful feelings—from deep sadness to anxiety to confusion to anger and depression. Healing from grief involves mourning the loss to reach an acceptance of it. Mourning is the gradual process of effectively saying goodbye to, and letting go of, that which we have lost.

The Process of Mourning

As painful as it tends to be, the mourning process is a necessary and healthy part of working through significant loss. Allowing ourselves to go through it gives us the opportunity to heal. The terms mourning and grieving are used interchangeably and are often described as consisting of five different stages (first articulated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying): denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although these stages help to define the most common elements of the mourning process and provide a structure for its general progression, this is a highly individualized process that works differently for everyone. There is no “normal” way for a person to mourn significant loss.

The stages of grief do not necessarily follow a linear sequence. While many people progress through all of the above stages in order, others may not experience certain stages at all, and still others may move through some stages and ping-pong from a “later” stage to back to an “earlier “one, prior to again moving forward. For example, someone may be nearing acceptance only to be triggered by an experience that reanimates the loss, sending him or her back into the anger or depression stage.

It is also important to understand there is no set length of time a person will experience grief. Time doesn’t heal the pain of loss, but it does help to lessen it. The most difficult and painful parts of the grieving process usually last several weeks to several months and, in some cases, a year or more. That being said, there is no definitive end to this process, and for some people mourning is ongoing as they struggle to come to terms with deep personal losses. Closure—the experience that grieving is “complete”—is often elusive, as well as overrated.

Mindfulness as a Path to Acceptance

Healing from loss is a process of regaining balance between the extremes of being overwhelmed by emotions related to the loss and avoiding feeling them because they are just too painful. It takes place over time not overnight, and is different for each individual. Acceptance can be facilitated through mindfulness practices that involve opening ourselves to the uncomfortable, painful emotions that are part and parcel of letting go of people and things that have been important in our life, but are no longer available to us. Such practices include consciously observing those feelings, allowing them to simply be, feeling them as they are, and being present with them. Ultimately, healing requires making peace with them. As the Tao Te Ching states in Verse 23:

"If you open yourself to loss,

you are at one with loss

and you can accept it completely."

Achieving acceptance of a significant loss does not mean there is no longer distress associated with it. Losses that are fully accepted can still be painful, but the emotional fall-out no longer hinders one’s well-being or ability to function. Much like a deep laceration that has healed, there may always be a scar. While life is rarely the same as it was, coming out the other side of this process leads to a “new normal” where things are different, but fundamentally okay.

A basic tenet of Buddhist psychology is that all phenomena are impermanent and constantly changing, yet people tend to relate to them as though they are permanent. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and accept this inherent impermanence is a source of much of the pain and suffering we experience in connection with significant loss.

Importantly, allowing oneself to feel the pain of loss takes considerably less energy than running from or trying to suppress it. Fighting against loss through numbing or other forms of avoidance may help us feel better in the short-term, but invariably it amplifies and prolongs the pain we experience and delays our healing. Hence, as the great American poet Robert Frost put it: “The best way out is always through.”

Copyright 2016 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain