Updated: Nov 8
Bringing Light to the Darkness: Mindful Moments with Grief and the Present Moment
Yes. It does have to hurt this much. -Melissa Devine
For everyone, the experience is different, the situation, the scenario is varied. The stories have nuances of meaning, the actors and what is taken away has as disparate characters as humans on this planet. And yet we are all connected in the feeling, the vast empty hollow in the chest or the pressing weight and crack that has so often been associated with the “breaking/broken heart”. This is real. This is one of the many emotions that make us human. There is a before. There is an after. There is a story that sticks in your ribs and cues your body to respond in specific ways.
Don't worry; it's not just you. Grief is a fact of life and a real human emotion that can leave us feeling isolated. Bringing awareness to what it is and how it plays through our bodies can help us realize we are not alone.
What is grief? A useful model
Grief has distinct way of playing out in the human body and psyche. One model that is useful and general are the five stages of grief known as the Kuebler-Ross model (i.e. https://www.healthline.com/health/stages-of-grief#5-stages). In this model, denial is the first stage, followed by anger, then bargaining, then depression, then acceptance.
To put brief story and body/brain response behind this model, the response to the shock of the experience of loss begins with pretending the loss did not occur. ‘Denial’ is the truth that perception of reality can be frozen in a time where the change has not occurred. “This can’t be real” or forgetting that you can no longer call this person on the telephone are oh-so-vivid examples of denial.
The next phases are active, and, from a body paradigm, stages where we are most often in fight/flight mode or sympathetic nervous system activation. As the realization of the loss hits the brainstem, the first reaction for many is anger, a pointing of blame at anything or nothing to mask the overflow of emotion. An alternative or next step is bargaining, attempts to justify the loss to hide the vulnerability of the intense emotions of grief. ‘Bargaining’ looks like “if only” statements as a means to control the situation.
Grief takes a lot of energy. Following active anger and/or bargaining, there comes a time when a quiet experience best characterized as depression settles in. In the best case scenario, this is a time of isolation to cope and make sense of the swirl of emotions and new life changes. In the other-case scenarios, feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness and incapability are common addendums to feelings of loss, pain, disbelief, betrayal… and others. Support often helps, especially here, so that a grieving person does not get stuck.
The final stage in this model is acceptance, which does not mean everything is perfect (again). Acceptance means allowing there to be a before and after, seeing the life change for whatever it is and allowing that to be okay, or finding an uplifting possibility that feels like something to hold onto that feels like hope.
How long does grief last?
These stages are not linear expressions throughout the lifespan of grief. Acceptance may be a culminating stage after cycling through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression five times. Finding yourself at acceptance only to be angry again sometime 3 months and 5 days later - and then again after 1 year and 17 days- is also a very real aspect of grief. Grief’s lifespan may very well be as long as our human experience’s journey on this earth is.
I sat by the water this evening sharing experiences of grief with a friend, and we talked about well-meaning people who offer the encouragement of “live in the moment” or “be here now” as a way to get out of grief over something that happened in the past. This seems so well-meaning. Aren’t we still here, alive and breathing and mostly full of life? Aren’t we made of endless possibility? Why bother ourselves with what has already been finished by time?
Interestingly, the answer is yes, absolutely. We are here. We have lived this long and have so many beautiful other aspects of life. AND ‘living in the moment’, from a body perspective, means noticing what is present in my body right now.
The body tells our stories
Every experience, good and bad, easy and hard, is always already grafted into the memory of my body; my nervous system is tingling with all the felt sensations I have ever experienced. I have, in my body and systems, the experiences of birthing children, running marathons, having sex, being betrayed, watching sunsets over water, losing people close to me, and immersing myself in art and satisfying work. This ‘history’ is as much a part of my present as the moment sitting by the water with the lights from house windows reflecting off water.
In the work I do, we pay attention to what is present in the moment in our bodies. I trust the innate wisdom of the body, that what is present or coming up- as either pain or curiosity or felt sensation- is a messenger speaking for something that wants to be heard or experienced in this present, now.
What is present-moment living?
So ‘live in the present’ is not a call to stoically or (conversely) hedonistically throw off the old stories for something much better. The grief and the stories that brought us to this point, full of sometimes bitter pain, are always there.
Our bodies are constantly moving towards integration. The present moment can be painted over with images of the past that want to be seen in the light that this beautiful present moment shines. Sometimes that means going through the anger and bargaining with God about the loss of someone close to us while the fish are making jumping splashes on the water under a waxing moon. There is deep, deep shadow coupled with brilliant light.
Because yes. Life does have to hurt this much sometimes. And maybe, just maybe, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story, our story. Maybe that is our choice, each moment. We get to choose, once we have felt all of the exquisitely human feelings, where we go from here.
With so much loss present in life, where are you in the process of grief? What is the feeling that is present in your body right now? What wants to work through now? If something comes up, feel free to connect with me and let me know.