When you first lose someone you love, grief can feel like an unstoppable force. Even after the raw ache of it fades, the odd trigger – an anniversary, an uncanny resemblance – can bring it surging back into your life years later, painful memories in tow.
Everyone who grieves copes with this in their own way. But one technique we hear about a lot is meditation: learning to focus the mind, so that stress is eased, and distressing thoughts are placed into perspective.
So, how does meditation for grief work, and where do you start? We caught up with Heather Stang, author of Mindfulness & Grief and the host of the Mindfulness & Grief podcast, to put together these essential tips for beginners…
1. Start with some self-care
“In my opinion, the first thing to manage in the early days of grief is the physical body,” Heather explains. “Without good sleep, nutrition and hydration, it is hard for our brain to function.”
So, try to get back into good habits by sticking to a routine: three meals a day, plenty of water, an early night. Look after yourself. As you do, you can start introducing a few simple meditation exercises to help you get the rest you need:
“Focusing meditation practices send a signal to our body that we are safe, switching off the stress response that prevents us from sleeping,” Heather says. “You simply choose one thing to focus on, place 100% of your attention as best as you can, and practice, practice, practice.”
Want to try? Start by breathing in deep, and then breathing out slowly, repeating a word over and over each time you exhale. Begin again each time you forget.
It’s more important to practice a little each day than binge-meditate one or two days a week!
2. Work your way up to the harder stuff
“Start small,” Heather recommends. “Ideally, you want to practice for 10-20 minutes a day, but I have many clients who say that just a few minutes of practice can improve their mood. It’s more important to practice a little each day than binge-meditate one or two days a week!”
Guided meditations for grief are a good start, with apps like Insight Timer, Calm and Headspace taking you through soothing exercises. You can find free videos online as well: Heather’s site hosts a relaxation meditation for grief, anxiety and stress, while YouTube is a veritable treasure trove of guided meditations on all sorts of themes.
Having a community can also help, Heather explains. “Whether you join an online meditation for grief group, or start attending classes at your local meditation center, connecting with others like yourself will kick-start your practice and help you stay on track and overcome practice pitfalls.”
3. Find the right technique for the right moment
Different types of meditation can help with grief in different ways, Heather tells us. The key is to know which technique to use when:
- Focusing practices, such as mantra-based meditations, or counting from one to ten and back down again, can help steady a ruminating mind and calm anxiety. These are particularly useful for helping us get the sleep that can be so evasive when we’re grieving.
- Mindfulness practice, which is paying attention to the present moment and what you can see, hear, smell and feel with a sense of openness, can help us “understand what’s real, without all the stories that our mind makes up,” Heather says. “It can also help us appreciate what we still have, tapping into our inner wisdom and knowledge.”
- Compassion meditation, which uses visualisations and mantras to encourage us to feel more kindly towards ourselves and others, can help us feel more connected – and, says Heather, even reduce feelings of loneliness.
As you practice different grief meditation scripts and techniques, you’ll also find that some work for you better than others. Pay attention to the way you feel before and after a session and mentally bookmark the methods that really transform your outlook.
When you meditate, you have a skill that helps you decide how you want to be with your thoughts.
4. Remember, anyone can meditate for grief
Forget your preconceptions: you don’t have to have a New Age-y interest in incense and candles to meditate, or even a naturally calm demeanor. As Heather explains, anyone can do it:
“Many people think they ‘can’t’ meditate because they have an active mind. But the reality is that no one has a calm mind without practice – and even if you do meditate you will still have thoughts. The difference is that when you meditate, you have a skill that helps you decide how you want to be with your thoughts. And it is a skill: you can learn it, it just takes practice.”
That said, Heather recommends that people with post-traumatic stress disorder, intrusive images or other hallucinations talk to a mental health professional before meditating. You may also want to seek out a trauma-sensitive meditation teacher or yoga therapist. “This does not mean meditation won’t work for you – it might – but it needs to be approached with care and modified in a way that cultivates safety,” she warns.
Just remember that there are no good or bad meditators. There are just people that meditate and people that don’t.
5. Don’t be hard on yourself
It’s not always easy to meditate. Sometimes, you’re just busy, or tired, or your thoughts are too loud to settle down properly, and you struggle to focus. This is natural. According to Heather, the most important habit to get into when you’re using meditation for grief or healing is self-compassion:
“Rather than trying to be perfect, just be kind to the person you have the most control over – you.” She says. “You’ll forget to practice one day, two days, a month. Your mind will wander off a million times during a 5-minute practice. Self-compassion means that instead of judging yourself or giving up, you just begin again when you remember.”
When you stop pressuring yourself to be perfect, you’ll find that it’s easier to pick yourself back up and try again.
“Just remember that there are no good or bad meditators,” Heather advises us. “There are just people that meditate and people that don’t.”
Heather Stang is the author of Mindfulness & Grief and the host of the Mindfulness & Grief podcast. She runs online meditation for grief groups and leads programs around the US for grief professionals and bereaved people alike. Heather also holds a Masters in Thanatology (death, dying & bereavement) and is a certified yoga therapist.
If you’d like to find out more about meditation and grief, it’s well worth taking a look at Laura Siegel’s powerful story, Meditation and Healing After Grief. In it, Laura describes how meditation and mindfulness helped after the devastating loss of her husband.