Laura’s Story: Meditation & Healing from Grief 1

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. In this thoughtful piece, Laura Siegel describes how meditation helped her heal after the loss of her husband.

My husband died three years ago, shortly after his 74th birthday. We were together for 57 years. About a year before he died, a social worker recommended a meditation app called Insight Timer and the guided meditations seemed to help him immensely. So, the day he died, I began practicing them too.

The biggest challenge I faced was the ability to focus. My mind was in a constant state of fear and anxiety and thoughts wandered every which way. My heart hurt all the time.

My rabbi recommended that I try grief meditations. These were easier for me to follow. The one that helped the most was Guided Meditation for Grief, Anxiety, and Stress by Heather Stang. Her gentle voice is so soothing, and there’s lots of space in the meditation for silence. Other meditation teachers I’ve enjoyed on Insight Timer are Meg James, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff, and Lisa Machac. Pretty soon, I was meditating five times a day and getting much-needed relief.

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating.

 

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating. Sure, there were friends, movies, and TV, but for the most part there was this great void of human sound and closeness. Listening to guided meditations has helped to fill this void.

Along the same lines, listening to audiobooks also helped. I was no longer able to focus on reading: my grieving brain could not process the words. But I have always loved audiobooks, and I soon realized that they were becoming my companions as well. Simply listening to a vital living voice helped me through my grief and I did not feel as isolated and alone.

I found audiobooks by other widows and widowers to be extremely helpful. We all share the same struggle. Here are a few that have particularly moved me:

  • A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • A Widows Walk: A Memoir of 9/11 by Marian Fontana
  • The Widower’s Notebook: A Memoir by Jonathan Santlofer
  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I also joined several online widow and widower groups via Facebook, Hope for Widows and Hot Young Widow’s Club (you don’t have to be young or hot). Speaking to the other widows was like having a circle of nurturing support surrounding me. We are even able to laugh with each other – another important component of healing from grief.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life.

I begin each day with a 30-45-minute guided meditation (three years ago I started with shorter ones). I don’t even get out of bed. This is the easiest time for me to follow my breath and nurture myself. I do the same in the late afternoon. Right before bed, I listen to a five-minute guided meditation and then fall asleep to soothing music. My favourites are Gentle Morning by Weston Brown and Devotion by Mary Maddux.

There are other ways that I meditate, like taking walks in nature and swimming. When I am swimming it’s impossible to feel anxious or worried. I am simply moving with my breath.

I am beginning to feel the same way when I do guided meditations. My breath is guiding me. It’s as if there is nothing to fear, nothing to worry about. This is carrying over into my daily life. Things that have caused me stress before no longer have the same power. A sense of calm and contentment that I have never known before sweeps through me. I can also rest more easily. I can more easily accept my difficult feelings. I am less angry. I appreciate silence more. I can be happy with what I have.

Meditation has changed me very gradually. In the beginning I could not follow my breath without a million thoughts encroaching. And yet I’ve learned that it is the nature of the mind to think. Meditation does not mean that you stop thinking. It means that you notice thinking and return to your breath. Meditation is about learning to stay with what is.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life. Meditation gives me a way to take care of myself in every moment.


 

Laura Siegel is a writer supporting other bereaved partners through her blog, Breathing Into Healing.  She is also the co-editor of the anthology Out of the Closet, Into Our Hearts: Celebrating Our Gay Family Members.

If you liked this piece, we’d like to invite you to donate to the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of Laura’s husband Howard. You can pledge a donation here.

And for more information about meditating for grief, you can check out our beginner’s guide to bereavement meditation with Heather Stang here.

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1 Comment

  1. I am so glad you found comfort through meditation, Laura. Thank you for sharing your story and all the helpful ways you coped with your grief. Finding support through connecting with other widows made a difference, and now you are inspiring others to find healing through your story.

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How to Cope with the Sudden Death of a Spouse 0

Coping with the sudden and unexpected death of a husband

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Sarah Keast shares her hard-won wisdom on coping after the sudden and unexpected death of a partner.


Sunlight danced through the cottage. Squeals of joy echoed from the lake as my five-year-old swam with my dad. The baby monitor hummed as my two-year-old napped in a pack and play covered in a mosquito net. Hot, sticky sweat rolled down my leg as I watched my mom answer the phone and quietly whisper, “Okay, I’ll tell her.”

The world continued to turn as mine was about to explode. My mom hung up the phone, walked towards me with tears welling in her eyes, and said: “He’s dead.”

The walls caved in, the floor fell away and the room went dark. Distantly, I heard someone screaming in sorrow. As my mom’s arms wrapped around me, I realised that the person screaming was me.

On August 7th 2016, my husband, my best friend and my partner in life died unexpectedly from an accidental heroin overdose. He had struggled with depression, anxiety and substance use disorder for half of our 16 years together. The life and love we had built was gone in an instant. Like a magician’s trick, he left this earth in a puff of smoke. He was here – and just like that, he was gone.

 

My advice for coping with the sudden death of a spouse

How do you go on when you get a phone call like that? My world ended in a split second. Yet somehow, I was supposed to pick myself (and my young kids) up and carry on? I could barely catch a breath, let alone cope with this sudden and devastating loss.

It wasn’t pretty, and I cried a lot. I screamed a lot. I laughed a lot. But somehow, I got through the early days of this unimaginable nightmare. And as I sit here now, 2.5 years later, I can see that there are a few things that I did that helped me cope and made those days a teeny tiny bit more bearable.

 

1) You will feel ALL the feelings

You are now on a roller-coaster ride called grief. You did not sign up for this ride, but you got thrown on it, so hang on tight.

I would find myself completely frozen and numb, and then five minutes later I would be sobbing. Half an hour later, I would be screaming, “Fuck you for dying” at my husband’s pictures. I’d find myself overwhelmed with relief that my nightmarish life living with and loving someone struggling with substance use disorder was over. Then the guilt over feeling relief at his death would crush me, and I would be frozen and numb again.

Whatever feeling(s) you feel are normal. Feeling them all in the space of five minutes is also normal. Be with whatever feeling comes. Lean into each feeling, let it move through you.

Early on, I’d beat myself up over most of these feelings. I thought I was only ‘supposed’ to be sad. I didn’t know that the other feelings were also normal. In fact, whatever feeling(s) you feel are normal. Feeling them all in the space of five minutes is also normal. Be with whatever feeling comes. Lean into each feeling, let it move through you.

The feelings are all there inside of you, and if you push them away or ignore them or stuff them down, they only *temporarily* go away. They need to come out, so give yourself grace and let them.

 

2) Ask for – and accept – help

I could barely think straight, let alone cope with the demands of daily life in the days, weeks and months after my husband died. I quickly realised I couldn’t do this alone. I had to accept help, as humbling as it was to do so. You simply cannot manage grief and daily life on your own.

Coping with the sudden loss of a partner

My friends and neighbours organised a meal train for me where people signed up to bring my family a meal each night. I accepted these meals every night for months with gratitude – and embarrassment, and shame. Why couldn’t I handle everything? I’d yell at myself.

But as the nights of delicious home cooked meals continued, I could feel the difference it was making in my days. I cried tears of relief after the first snowstorm that winter when I was struggling to get my kids out the door for school and I realised my neighbour had shovelled my driveway. I suddenly understood how much people wanted to help me.

Letting go of those useless feelings of embarrassment and weakness was so helpful. I embraced the help that people wanted to give me. Accepting their help meant that while others dealt with the day-to-day stuff of my life, I could focus on the things that mattered: coping with my grief and parenting my kids through this nightmare. So: let people help you. They want to help. You do not have to do this alone.

 

3) You are in charge of your grief journey

The world, and especially the western world, is terrible with how we approach grief. Everywhere you turn, there is pressure to ‘get over it’, ‘move on’, ‘find closure’. Ignore those messages. You are in charge of this journey. You do not have to get over this when someone else tells you to.

You may well grieve your entire life. The way you grieve and what you feel will change, but in some way, shape or form, your grief will always be with you. This is okay. You will find ways to integrate your grief into your life and to move forward in your life, but this takes time.  

It’s okay to cry, yell, laugh or say nothing. You are the only one who knows what is best for you. There is no right time to do any of these things and there is no wrong time. There is only the time that is best for you. Listen to yourself.

In the meantime, keep your house as is and don’t move a single thing of his/hers, if that’s what you want. Or do as I did, and get rid of everything in a grief fuelled rage and re-decorate immediately – if that’s what you want. Date whenever you want. Say no to invitations to family events or holiday celebrations if they seem too hard or too overwhelming. Or say yes to every invitation, if you want the company and distraction. It’s okay to cry, yell, laugh or say nothing. You are the only one who knows what is best for you.

There is no right time to do any of these things and there is no wrong time. There is only the time that is best for you. Listen to yourself.

 

4) Care for your basic needs

Eat. Drink water. Sleep. Move. Shower. Simple things, yet they can do wonders to help you through this nightmare. I couldn’t figure out why I was so thirsty for the first few weeks…and then it dawned on me: oh yeah – I’ve been crying for days, so I must be dehydrated! Upping my water intake helped immensely.

I also went to a lot of hot yoga classes early on. I felt like I was literally wringing the grief out of my body with every posture. I was sweating so much that no one could see all the crying I was doing! It was so cathartic.

Grief saps all of your energy, and I felt like I was moving through cement most days. Anything you can do to replenish your energy is so helpful. Treat your body and mind with loving kindness as you journey through this nightmare. And yes, that may include cookies and ice cream as needed.

 

5) Find your tribe

Coping with sudden death of spouseLosing your spouse suddenly is a completely life altering and isolating experience. My long-time girlfriends have shown up for me in spades since my husband died, but all of their partners are still alive. They want to understand what I’m going through, but they can’t. The truth is, you can’t truly understand unless you are going through it too.

Find your tribe, so you don’t have to navigate this nightmare alone. There are online groups for widows and widowers on Facebook. You can follow other widows and widowers on Instagram. Find a support group in your area. Use your networks to find others like you.

Once you do, it’s a beautiful thing. I would never wish for my husband to die, but because he did, I’ve met some amazing women who have been instrumental in my grief journey. I am so thankful that I found my tribe. I’m not sure I would still be standing today if I had not.

Losing your spouse suddenly is earth shattering, life altering and indescribably painful. But you will survive this. You will thrive again. I cannot tell you when, as it’s different for everyone. But you will. Until then, just breathe. It’s the only thing you have to do in this moment. Breathe. You can do this.

 


Sarah Keast is a writer and activist, raising awareness around addiction and mental health. You can hear more from Sarah on her TEDx talk here, and on her blog, Adventures in Widowed Parenting.

A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation for Grief 0

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.

You can find out more about Heather and her approach on her website here, and you can buy Mindfulness & Grief from Amazon here.

 


 

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.