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Dealing with Loss and Change

Posted May 05 2011 7:00am

In the Great School of Life, I just took a class on loss and change. No teacher is quite like life experience. I learned much from my recent journey through the grieving process, and I thought you might benefit from a few mind-body techniques and concepts around loss.

If you’re like me and many of my clients, you may have ignored or suppressed past losses. You might even be downplaying a current loss in your life. I think grief is here to help us move through changes in our lives and to let go of the old in order to welcome the new. We may not always honor the grieving process during changes, because we think things “aren’t a big deal” or we “shouldn’t really be upset about it.” This can play a major role in pain syndromes, overweight, or any other problem directly related to emotional suppression.

For some reason, we save grief for the “big” losses like deaths of loved ones. Yet, there are many other losses we all experience every year in daily life. Some losses are larger and some smaller, but I don’t think the size matters. When you have life changes, they often include loss. If you’re experiencing a change or transition in your life, the question to ask is, “What loss do I need to grieve so that I can let go and move forward?”

Changes I have noticed in client’s lives recently have included moving, a child growing up, and a relationship ending. Grieving the loss of the old house, the loss of the experience of mothering a young child, and the loss of a lover can make the change process easier.

The question I found myself asking during my loss was, “HOW do I grieve?” When I was twelve years old, my aunt died. I didn’t know how to grieve then, and I stored the emotions from that loss in my body for years. I didn’t grieve any of the other losses in my life from that age until now. This current experience made me realize how much I have downplayed or minimized my grief over a variety of losses. It also made me see that I needed to learn how to grieve.

Grief is uncomfortable, like many emotions, but as soon as I asked the question, “How do I grieve?” I was able to allow the grief process instead of resist it. I turned to my favorite emotion expert, Karla McLaren , for some guidance. I read the grief chapter in her book, The Language of Emotions, and smiled when she recommended letting your body guide you through the grieving process. Sounds like a great thing for a mind-body coach to do!

I put my body in charge of the process, as she suggested. This meant connecting to all the different emotions I was feeling and letting myself take the time to feel them. It meant resting the minute I noticed I was tired and honoring whatever my true needs were, no matter what. In general, this is what I teach people to do in their daily lives, but I thought of it as no-holds-barred, emergency honoring of all body and soul needs. Rest, tears, hunger, sleep, sunlight, solitude, company…whatever I truly needed, I did. I let my body guide me toward ways to let the grief flow. For me, that meant drawing, dancing, and lots and lots of talking. I stocked up on Kleenex and cried buckets. I sat and wrote nearly every night.

All of these things helped me with what is most difficult in the grieving process: mentally understanding and integrating the loss. Karla explains that the mind just doesn’t understand loss the way the emotions and body do, which is why we need them to lead the way during grief. I think she hits the nail on the head with that understanding. It revolutionized my grieving and made it much easier to face.

I discovered several things that helped me create structure and support for my mind during the grieving experience. I’ll share them with you below, in case you are grieving a current loss or are discovering that you have past losses rising up to be felt and processed now.

In the end, grief is an amazingly helpful emotion. It allows us to let go of anything that isn’t working, is no longer meant to be in our daily lives, or is simply ready to be released. Then, grief allows us to discover what’s truly important to us, on a soul-deep level. It brings us ever-closer to knowing ourselves deeply, intimately, and lovingly. Nothing is more self-compassionate than allowing grief to flow.

During my grief process, I found that I could no longer spend time in my usual meditation/resting sanctuary, (an alcove in our house where I’ve created a comforting, safe space). For some reason, I couldn’t go into that space for nearly two months. I built a grief shrine, as Karla suggests, elsewhere in my house. In this new space, I poured out my grief, talking to the shrine, journaling in front of the shrine, and in general letting whatever needed to happen there happen. I let that be my special grief space.

This past weekend, my body felt ready for a little closure. I held a small ceremony, made a memory box for the items in my shrine, and moved back in to my usual sanctuary. As I sat cross-legged on the floor, a candle lit and a blanket snuggled around me, I felt at peace. I felt as though I was at once returning home and meeting someone brand new. I felt like my soul and I now have a completely new relationship that is much deeper, stronger, and sweeter. Leaving and returning symbolized the grief journey. I felt the subtle shift from letting go to moving forward begin. This is the power of letting the body and emotions lead the grief process.

So, I encourage you to treat any loss – old, new, big, small, or whatever it may be – as something that deserves to be grieved. I have not realized the importance of grieving until now, simply because I was so used to suppressing most emotions. In case you are in the same boat, here are some ways to help yourself grieve:

Now is the time to lighten your load in any way possible. Your body needs extra rest and downtime during any transition. Grief can make you feel exhausted. Honor that instead of pushing to work harder or even match your old workload.

This is a time to speak up and let people know what you need. If someone can’t support you, it’s likely that others can, so keep asking. Magically, the right people will be there for you. You might need practical help or a shoulder to cry on, and different people in your life will be available for different things. Create a grieving team. Don’t worry – at some point, you’ll pay it forward on someone else’s grieving team. You might even be surprised at the people who show up, unexpected, to support you when you reach out and ask. I feel very blessed and loved from all the support I have received recently, and this experience has deepened and even created friendships.

You might need to cry suddenly, randomly, and often. You might need to feel anger out of the blue. You might need to curl up in a ball and hide under a blanket. Whatever emotions arise, let yourself have them. You might feel vulnerable and even childlike, so do things that feel mothering and comforting for yourself. Give yourself extra time to get moving in the morning, or even better, give yourself an empty day as often as possible, with little or nothing scheduled.

Ask yourself what you need each day, or even each hour. Let your body and emotions be your guide. Don’t force yourself to see people if you need to be alone, or vice versa. Honor your soul-needs. Find out how much rest you really need right now. Lie down often, let yourself off the hook for as much as possible, and let yourself be exactly as you are.

If this feels helpful to you, I say go for it. As soon as I read this idea in Karla’s book, I knew it was for me. My shrine gave me a place to focus my grief, and objects to use for ceremony, closure, and memories. Fill your shrine with any objects that make you sob with abandon, as well as comforting and beautiful items such as flowers. Instead of hiding away the letters from your boyfriend or the pictures of your deceased loved one, put them front and center in your shrine. These objects will help you feel the emotions and therefore let go.

Grieving is actually hard work. It takes effort and presence, and it can be tiring. Make sure you bring some effortless mind-rest into your grieving process, too. This might be simply napping, talking about something banal, or watching a movie. It might be reading light fiction, or watching something funny on TV. Even if you can’t yet laugh, these light breaks will make the process feel less daunting.

I’d also love to hear what you’ve learned about grief, what helps you grieve, and any other insights you’d like to share. I’m obviously just learning how to do it myself, so I’d love to see your comments below. What helps you grieve?

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