We are living in an unprecedented time where much grief is felt around the world. There are losses of material goods from economic fallout of the COVID 19 pandemic. There is also the loss of a loved one from the coronavirus, as well as floods, and fires caused by climate change. With so much going on, how do we work with grief?
What Is Grief?
Grief makes us listless, withdrawn and it may even keep us awake the whole night. Grief, like anger, causes stress in our body. Stress can cause us to lose appetite, and disturb our daily sleep and eating habits. Stress releases cortisol to cause our fight, flight, or freeze response. Although cortisol can help us achieve feats under duress, in the long term it causes health problems.
Animals Also Experience Grief
Scientists often refer to animal behavior to compare to human emotional experience. They found that large brain animals such as dolphins and those with smaller brains like house cats change their behavior, similar to that of grief when a close one dies. These animals lose their appetite, become listless or restless, and also become withdrawn.
It is interesting to me how scientists are always comparing human and animal behavior. This points to the fact that scientists think that humans are actually part-animal – at least in the behavior of survival and bodily reactions. However, there is something that differs between humans and animals. That difference is human consciousness. Animals too are conscious of their surroundings via their senses, like humans. But animals act upon their senses as an instinct. Human beings, on the other hand, are able to be aware of their instincts and refrain from it.
Grief in Different Life Stages
I am not a pessimist by nature. I always look forward optimistically supported by logic and science. That means I am cognizant that life here on earth is not a permanent one. As sentient beings – animals and humans who are dictated by physical sensations, are doom to suffer losses due to changes. But much of our actions and behavior are geared towards not wanting to experience them.
For example, we are all by nature subject to growing old. Ageing in itself brings about uncomfortable sensations. I am sure you have seen older people as well as an ageing pet limping while working. There is grief when one grows old and have to suffer the pains of the body. How can we work with the grief of ageing?
Then, there is the inevitable physical discomfort we have to go through when we have an illness. The coronavirus causes loss of smell and taste, cough, fever, running nose. For some they may get heart complications and blood clots. It may even affect the brain. But before the coronavirus, we already had to deal with diseases caused by lifestyle and body deterioration.
Last but not least, we are all on the path to experiencing the loss of a loved one. Even our own lives will be gone one day. Illness, ageing and death are all inevitable in life itself.
Is It All Doom and Gloom?
Why I spoke about life in its different stages and the inevitable end we all meet, is not about being pessimistic. It is just an acceptance of how life is. Do we want to treat illnesses if we are sick? Of course. Do we want to get aids if we have trouble walking due to arthritis? Definitely.
Just because life is itself change – from youth to ageing, from life to death, it does not mean we have ill treat ourselves or others while alive by denying ourselves to medical treatments. But it also means we have to accept the process of life and joyfully accept what comes.
However, for the most, we fight to deny the facts. And we live our lives as though there will never be any changes.
But What About Grief?
The fact that we experience life through our senses, it means that everytime the mind and body is in contact with situations or material objects, our senses would react to it. Grief is one of our sensory reactions. How then can we work with grief when it arises?
As humans, we have the ability to be aware of our senses. That makes gives us a higher ability than animals, because we can be aware of our impending deaths. To be able to work with grief, we have to first fully experience the changes life brings us. It starts with now. Experience the changes in your body. How you are never well or unwell a 100 percent of the time. What you experience, is also another person’s experience. The difference is each person’s level of awareness.
When we learn to calm our minds and to stay above our thoughts through meditation, we are able to still our minds. This allows us to be sensitive to sensory reactions. When a loved one is suffering, we can learn to calm our senses and provide calm and reassurance to them. We can assure our loved ones that everything will be fine (if treatment is available and the diagnosis is optimistic). Otherwise, we can assure our loved ones that we have all lived a happy life together and we can keep that experience in mind. Life was never meant to be without change. It was never meant to be permanent.
Life Can Be Joyful
Despite the changes and losses we experience in life, when we accept facts, we can be joyful. Before we can accept someone else’s death, we have to accept our own eventual end.
Life can be joyful when we live with awareness, being cognizant and conscious of each moment. It is when our minds are absorbed in subjective thoughts and feelings, that we feel we have not really lived. When the time to leave comes, fear arises because we have only lived in our thoughts and concepts. Regrets often arise because of our lack of awareness of how we conduct ourselves when we are alive.
Staying present in mindfulness is a lot more than just relieving stress. A mindful life, where we learn to stay conscious of our actions, experiences, and others’ reactions and impact on our mind, helps us learn to live joyfully.
Take part in our 8-week MBSAT workshop or course, if you would like to learn mindfulness in daily living.