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Mindfulness

Memorial Mindfulness: Grief and Gratitude

Mother's, Memorial and Father's Days can kick up feelings. Mindfulness can help.

Key points

  • The trio of current holidays on the calendar can be joyous for some, painful for others in terms of memories, trauma, and longing.
  • Meditative tactics can help us (and our patients and students) engage the moment and what it generates.
Pixabay, altered with Photomania
Source: Pixabay, altered with Photomania

It's a kind of irony that superimposed on the blooming of Spring is an annual "season" of sorts. It starts with Mothers' Day, includes Memorial Day, and concludes with Fathers' Day. While the fall/winter holidays involve a celebratory sharing of customs and beliefs, these three direct attention toward individuals, toward relationships.

These events can be potent for their joy for some, and suffering for others borne of past experience either occurred or wished for. Many of my patients actually dread them, feeling forced by custom to revisit painful circumstances, losses, absences.

Avoidance is a valid option. But I usually encourage the opposite. Those generated feelings and memories can benefit from some mindful attention, using some directed meditation practice.

All three involve their own potent emotional triggers. Current and past experiences, love and trauma, longings fulfilled and left unresolved - all may be in play in this trio of events. Gratitude for a parent's love, care and modeling tends to be the mass media norm, but can be a painful reminder for some of the absence of these, or worse, past or present. Grief is inevitable as our elders pass into memory.

Memorial Day has its own potent symbols and signifiers - heroism, selflessness, duty - raising proper gratitude for those who have served, as well as the obvious grief toward those who sacrificed life or limb.

"Sitting with" a state of mind is not in my view a beginner's practice. Cultivating a stable sense of attention on some predictable physical targets, starting with the breath, is the foundational routine to get a predictable feel for the way our awareness operates, gets lost and is regained. Part II of Practical Mindfulness moves out of that introductory work into more complex practices, such as this "sitting with a memory" (or idea, or situation in mind).

But life happens, including these experiences generated by the calendar. We can work with them, and teach our patients to take a moment and address the mix of phenomena mindfully. I recommend a kind of mindful sandwich - starting and ending with a brief period of breath meditation (the "HWG" and "TWA" intro and outro is a good idea, too) but with a middle section of opening to the memories, feelings, thoughts that may present themselves. This routine can become "the" routine as meditation skills mature, but here can be a useful structure for an unexpectedly intense moment.

Here are a couple of options:

  • "Short Order": A version of "open to whatever is arising" is the plan here, knowing that what comes up is likely some impact of the day. Whether it's a current reaction to a mom or dad, or being a mom or dad, or a service member or veteran, we move our attention to that, then watch what happens - flows of emotion, thought chatter, changes in the clarity of attention. Expect the potency of the day to perhaps generate some extra stuff, some distraction.

  • "Theme Ingredient": Instead of being at the mercy of whatever momentary experience is happening, we can plan to work in a pre-planned way with - "sit with" - any anchor, including a "scenario." We sit with the experience in imagination of a parent sitting with us, or words of gratitude to a service member. We can even serve the very idea of grief or gratitude as the "theme" to sit with.

In either of these routines, we open to not just the concept in play, but especially the subsequent stuff that arises in our experience. Expect some stuff... some distraction, some challenge in moving back to the intention, even some discomfort, albeit in the service of insight, of understanding.

One other tip I suggest in engaging these thought and memory-heavy states in observation: pay special attention to the heart and the body. Whether in the midst of a potent "scene," or if distraction into a blizzard of chatter or a sluggish head, some directed breathing "into" the physical reactivity and emotional tone of the moment pulls the whole self into the moment. This often is relieving in terms of held tension, but as important is the full body/heart/head "snapshot" that can be identified, demystified, and learned from.

However cliche', it's clear that most every moment can be a mindful one, a moment to be observed, understand, and adapted to. The calendar amplifies some moments more than others. We can teach our patients to use them. We can use them, too!

References

Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.

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