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Mindfulness and grief

Bereaved woman practising mindfulness for grief

From yoga instructors to business leaders, it seems that everyone is tuning in to how mindfulness can boost both emotional and physical wellbeing. The benefits of mindfulness are widely recognized by psychologists and doctors, but could it ever work to help people cope with grief?

What is mindfulness?

Being mindful means being aware of and accepting all your bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings. It requires focusing on what you are experiencing in the here and now, and mindfulness practice hones your ability to focus clearly in this way.

In her book Mindfulness and Grief, mindfulness practitioner Heather Stang describes mindfulness as “the art of using your senses to be fully awake in the present moment.”

There are many different techniques people use to practice mindfulness. The most well-known of these is seated meditation. Mindfulness exercises can also be practiced in many different situations, including while you are going for a walk, lying in bed or even eating food. Mindfulness exercises usually consist of steps that encourage you to focus on and appreciate what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel. They may also incorporate breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Plenty of people are skeptical about the benefits of mindfulness and write it off as a health fad, but mindfulness has been practiced by Buddhists for centuries. Now, scientists are beginning to prove that there are measurable benefits.

According to the American Psychological Association, research has identified many different benefits of mindfulness:

  • Stress reduction. Multiple studies show that mindfulness reduces stress, which has short-term and long-term health benefits, both mental and physical.

  • Better emotional coping strategies. One study conducted at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, measured people’s neural activity with brain scans. Researchers found that people who practiced mindfulness had different activity levels in their brain when watching sad films, compared to people who did not practice mindfulness. The researchers suggested that mindfulness gave people better strategies for coping with emotional stress.

  • Better memory. In a 2010 study, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University tested two groups of military personnel, one of which participated in mindfulness training over eight weeks. The group that practiced mindfulness had an increased memory capacity over time, while the other group actually decreased in memory capacity.

  • Better focus. Researchers consistently find that people who frequently practice mindfulness are more able to focus and pay attention to a specific task than those who do not practice mindfulness techniques.

  • Fewer depressive symptoms. Multiple studies have found that people who practice mindfulness report fewer symptoms of depression, such as low mood and ‘rumination’ (focusing all your thinking on something that causes you distress).

  • Better immune system. Some studies have suggested that mindfulness can actually improve the functionality of the immune system, promoting physical wellbeing.

How does mindfulness work for grief?

Mindfulness has experienced a boom in popularity in Western cultures over recent years, but with that popularity, some of its core messages have been watered down or distorted. Because of this, there’s a concern that where mindfulness could work as as a coping tool for the bereaved, the message may be misunderstood by someone who is grieving deeply and focused upon little else but their pain.

As Megan Devine, a licensed counselor and grief advocate explains: “In the mainstream language of mindfulness, if you would only change your thoughts, your grief would disappear. Any pain or trouble will be transformed if you think about it right. If you would only be here now, you would see that everything is okay, exactly as it is. That kind of talk is a smack in the face to someone in deep pain.”

Instead, Megan suggests how true mindfulness can help: “At its core, mindfulness does not try to talk you out of anything, nor does it judge what you feel. It’s not a prescription for happiness.

“Mindfulness is meant to help you acknowledge the truth of the moment you’re in, even, or especially, when that moment hurts.”

In this way, mindfulness can be a helpful way to cope with grief, as it allows you to acknowledge everything you are feeling, both physically and emotionally. It can be helpful to foster self-awareness, self-compassion and a greater understanding of your own thoughts and feelings.

As it does encourage you to focus on your emotions, there may be times when you become in touch with your most extreme feelings and need support around you. You may choose to practice mindfulness with the help of a counselor or therapist, or in the setting of a meditation class. This ensures that you are in a safe place with the support you need and may also help you get the most out of the technique.

The following institutions may be able to help you find a mindfulness coach, teacher or counselor in your area, as well as provide more information about mindfulness for grief:

  • Mindful provides free online resources to help you get started practicing mindfulness.
  • The Mindfulness Training Institute provides training for organizations, professionals and individuals, and has listings of accredited mindfulness trainers in the U.S.
  • lists research and evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness, as well as providing practical information and resources.
  • Mindfulness and Grief provides free online resources from Heather Stang and more information about her book, Mindfulness and Grief

Find out more about coping with grief, or contact a bereavement support organization for expert help and advice.

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