Lesley Postle, editor of this website, looks into how mindfulness, led by researcher and trainer of therapists, Joanne Cacciatore, could become the forefront of bereavement therapy in the future and suggests some easy ways it can help you with your own grieving process.
"And when we allow ourselves to feel that which is legitimately ours to feel, we rebel against the rigid grief-denying structures of society." Joanne Cacciatore
Mindfulness and meditation are practices that have been around for thousands of years and are the foundation of religions such as Buddhism and practices such as Yoga. Far from being 'way out' practices that only yogis and rainbow clad hippies practice, mindfulness can be as simple as smelling a flower or sitting quietly with a cup of tea. You're probably practicing some of the techniques in your life already. So there is nothing to be afraid of in embracing mindfulness to help you on your grief journey.
Those of us who practice mindfulness are well aware of the benefits it can bring to our physical and mental well-being, but western medical science has been slow to catch up with this ancient wisdom.
Things are now changing and over the last couple of decades there has been a lot of research to show that meditation and mindfulness are effective in treating depression, PTSD, chronic pain and many other conditions.
Until recently however, no research had been undertaken into how this beautiful, ancient wisdom can benefit those who are struggling with grief. One woman, Joanne Cacciatore, is leading the charge to prove how mindfulness practices in therapy can help those who are coping with traumatic or complicated grief. Many of those practices are simple things which you can do yourself at home, whatever stage you are at in your grief journey, and we'll share some of them below.
Joanne had her own tragic experience of grief when she lost a child soon after birth. She realised pretty quickly that the culture in which we live is steeped in grief avoidance so that we are all expected to just 'get over' our grief within a fairly short period of time. No doubt you've experienced a lack of patience from friends and family who expect you to get on with your life and recover from your grief within a few short months. Most grievers have heard typical phrases such as 'just think positive' or 'surely you should be over that by now' which diminish and negate the love that you will always have for the one you lost. The time limit that society puts on grief can end up with you burying your true feelings and on top of that feeling guilt and shame when you can't cope or become overwhelmed.
For the last 20 years, Joanne Cacciatore has been working to change the way that grief is regarded in society and treated by professionals. She has worked tirelessly so that people like her, when she lost her child, can recover in their own time with compassionate and understanding support. She is now a Professor at Arizona State University and has published numerous papers (1) showing how mindfulness based interventions can help even those who are still struggling with their grief many years later.
Her work with those coping with traumatic or protracted grief has also led to her setting up a farm retreat full of rescued animals which she believes are the perfect beings to help those in trouble. Animals can be of great comfort to those who are grieving, as Joanne said of herself: "I used to say my dogs and my 3-year-old were the only beings that could stand to be around me without trying to change how I felt — without trying to cheer me up or make me better". She has called her retreat centre 'Selah' which in Hebrew means 'time to pause and reflect'.
The thing about grief which Joanne makes clear in what she said about animals, is that it is not a disease to be cured or made better. Those who grieve know that it will be with them for life. It's not a case of 'getting better' or 'getting over it' but of finding ways to live, ways to cope and eventually ways to find joy in life again, (alongside the grief, not instead of it). Animals can help with that.
It may well be a while before mindfulness practices become mainstream in the training of bereavement therapists, (Joanne is busy training as many therapists as she can) but there are many things which you can do yourself which will help you to face your grief and learn to live with it.
Mindfulness is not a complicated or difficult yogic practice that you need to learn from a guru. You don't have to learn how to meditate, although you can if you want. It is just a way of being in the present and getting in touch with your body and mind, feeling your feelings and acknowledging who you are, and where you are at any given moment. It's about accepting what is, and being with it.
It has been shown that burying grief through distractions, or worse numbing it with alcohol, drugs, sex or self-destructive activities can lead to physical and mental health issues (2). Unfortunately, extremely tough as it can be, there is no other way to deal with grief than to go through it, not around it. Some of the practices below can help you to start this process and be with yourself as you go through this painful time.
Joanne Cacciatore is the author of 'Bearing the Unbearable - Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief'. You can read our review of her book here.
(1) Joanne Cacciatore & Melissa Flint (2012) ATTEND: Toward a Mindfulness-Based Bereavement Care Model, Death Studies, 36:1, 61-82, DOI: 10.1080/07481187.2011.591275
(2) Neria, Y., & Litz, B. T. (2003). Bereavement by traumatic means: the complex synergy of trauma and grief. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 9, 73–87.
(3) Kalff D. (2003) Sand Play: A psychotherapeutic approach to the psyche. Cloverdale, CA: Temenos Press
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