This coming week, I’ll be speaking on a panel as part of an annual series I’ve been putting together at our local Open Way Mindfulness Center the past few years, called Mindful Community Conversations (MCC).
MCC takes place once a month from September through December and focuses on heart-heavy topics, or topics otherwise held in the shadows of our awareness and/or attention. This past fall we’ve covered the topics of: Prison Reentry, Working Skillfully with Sexual Energy, and Healing Journeys of Mental Health. Our next and last installment of MCC, which I’ll be on the panel for, is on the topic of Grief and Loss.
In past years, I set up each MCC with one speaker but this year I thought we’d try something new and I set up each topic evening with a panel of 3-4 speakers. Our speakers thus far have, almost solely, been members of our local sanghas: Be Here Now and Open Way – practitioners of mindfulness who have lived through or with a particular challenge and are able and willing to share their personal experience of healing and how their practice helps support them.
Here’s what I plan on sharing:
I used to think that grief was something experienced solely when someone close to me died. But as I get older and spend more time on the planet interacting with people, I’m realizing that my original and long-held view of grief is narrow and not inclusive of all the many ways that grief can – and does – manifest and show up.
So I’d like to share a few situations where I experienced grief and loss during times when I wasn’t expecting to and/or when it didn’t make sense to me.
The first time I can remember feeling the grief of a loss that I didn’t anticipate was when my stepson, Jaden’s, favorite teacher in middle school died suddenly of a heart attack a few days before the start of his 8th grade year. This teacher was also the dad of a good friend of Jaden’s, so I knew him outside of the school setting as well. At the time of his death, I was really active on the parent council and spending a lot of extra time at the school on nights and weekends and getting to know some of the faculty and staff more, so I interacted with him on a regular basis, but I didn’t know him well. We weren’t close at all. We were what I would consider to be friendly acquaintances. When he died, I was deeply affected and I didn’t understand why. Because we weren’t close and never hung out as friends, I didn’t initially realize I was grieving the loss of him in my life. When I did finally land on the fact that I was grieving, I gave myself a hard time about it. Why are you so sad, you hardly knew him? my inner dialog would play on repeat. It doesn’t make sense that you should be so impacted by his death, you barely know him.
A resurgence of this same sort of scenario rose again in February of 2018, when a long held acquaintance of mine, a childhood friend of my husband Mike, died by suicide. Once again I was plunged into a state of deep grieving and sorrow, telling myself it didn’t make sense that I should be so affected by the death of someone I hadn’t seen in months.
In both cases, I used my practice to converse kindly with myself when the unkind voice kicked up telling me that it was silly to be sad – and in doing so I learned how to allow myself the necessity to grieve; to give myself permission and space to experience fully what I was feeling.
These were the first two encounters I had with grief that started to expand my awareness and understanding of the differing ways grief can show up in my life and it prepared me for being able to get in touch with other situations where I felt and held the presence of loss. Situations where I don’t think I would’ve been able to recognize that I was grieving had it not been for this expansion of understanding. For instance, when the Missoula Independent free local newspaper was suddenly shut down, I felt a great deal of sadness that I was able to recognize pretty quickly as yet another avenue of grieving. And I gave myself much less of a hard time when that happened. Instead of trying to get over it because I deemed it silly to be feeling heavy with sadness, I acknowledged and embraced my feelings of loss and I allowed that experience to further expand my connection to what it means for me to grieve.
And my most recent – and really challenging – venture into new grief terrain centers around close friendships changing and falling away; losing close people who haven’t died but are no longer active and alive in my life. And this aspect of grieving has been the hardest for me so far. When I love, I love big and so when friends fall away I feel the loss of them in equal accord. Last year, a close friend dropped off of our friend-map and just stopped getting back to me and sort of disappeared suddenly from my life and it took me a long long time to realize, yet again, that I was in a state of mourning the loss of him. And once I recognized that I was grieving, it helped me to be with and move through what I was experiencing, as prior to that I was stuck in a state of confusion and hurt and anger, which wasn’t serving me well. And there have been other friendships too that have followed a similar course, some with friends that I’ve intentionally stepped away from and others who have intentionally needed to step away from me. And regardless of who stepped away from who, I can touch the feeling of loss for each one of them within me whenever I take the time to hold them in my heart and mind, which is often.
I’m learning for myself that grief isn’t really something that goes away with time. It softens and changes but it doesn’t vanish. Grief is what results from loving and engaging and connecting – and for me it’s worth it. What I’m also learning is how to recognize and allow grief to instruct and guide me. Because in each of the experiences I just shared about, once I opened up to my own grieving process, I learned something new and important about myself, and about how to keep loving and opening my heart. I think if I didn’t have an active practice of mindfulness, I would have allowed those same experiences to become excuses to build walls around my heart, in an effort to minimize future feelings of pain and loss.
My grief journey continues in other ways too: my stepson graduated from high school in 2018 and stopped residing with us; and this past June, our second of two brother cats died – his brother having died in June of 2018. We acquired our feline boys when they were a few weeks old in 2004, when my stepson was 4-years-old. For the first time ever in my husband and I’s 20 years together, our house is empty of beloved and cherished other beings to care for.
I’m starting to deeply understand that grief is not separate from life. Grief and loss are part of the fabric of living.