Healing My Grief with Creativity, Part 4
Healing in Community
There are so many sources of nourishment in the present moment. Right now. Right here. Can I activate my gratitude?
January 25, 2019
As I shared in my previous three posts in this series on using creativity for healing grief, I have spent time over the last week in deep contemplation. I have used a variety of creative strategies in solitude to explore and alleviate my sadness and grief about recent and past losses of people who were dear to me. These strategies included creating a meditative image using watercolors, meditating in nature, writing an imaginative letter to a beloved deceased, engaging in mindful videography, and making a memorial mandala with natural materials. Today I exit solitude and re-enter my Sangha meditation community in the hopes of gaining more wisdom and supportive human connection.
I spent the morning alternately working on a new art workshop poster, writing in my journal, and shedding tears left over from the previous day’s heart-opening; my grief feels like an over-ripe peach–one slight squeeze and the juices will pour out. I arrive at the meditation group about 10 minutes early, hoping to connect with the group leader one-on-one. I want to share a little bit about my emotionally-charged week and reassure her that if I begin to cry during the meditation, I am okay–just releasing grief. When I enter the chapel, there are a few regular attendees chatting with the group leader. When the moment feels right, I decide to share a bit of my story with everyone, all of whom I suspected knew my friend, who died.
“I just want to let you know that I will probably be a bit weepy today,” I explain. “Judy’s passing last Sunday has hit me pretty hard and is triggering some grief about my late mother. I’ve spent much of the week crying, especially in quiet moments.”
The group leader says, “Oh, I understand. Yes, her passing is a sad loss for our community. Thanks for telling us how you are doing. We are here for you. That’s what our Sangha is for, to be here for each other.”
I smile and breathe a sigh of relief. It is a blessing to be in a space where I can be totally authentic and share what is present in my heart, trusting that what I share will be held with compassion. “Thank you so much,” I say. “I’m glad to be here today.”
As more people arrive, I walk over to a small shelf in the corner of the room where there are candles, prayer books, and Buddhist magazines. I pick up a small box of tissues and bring it back to my seat–I know my sinuses. The group leader mentions that after our usual thirty-minutes of silent meditation, we will turn to reading and discussing The Five Mindfulness Trainings by the renown Tibetan monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The group leader asks me if I would be willing to read aloud one of the passages when the time comes. I feel grateful for her invitation and agree. I announce that I choose the first reading, “Reverence for Life.”
Before our period of silence begins, we go around the circle and introduce ourselves. We have the option to share briefly about what brought us to the group today, or, if we have a home meditation practice, how it is going. When my turn comes, I share that I am a regular and I come because I enjoy this community. I also share that I have been experiencing grief over the last week and I am seeking some balance, a way to hold both the joy and sadness in my heart. It feels good to share my feelings authentically in the group. I value such alignment of feeling and expression; it’s part of my intention for 2019: To live in integrity.
When the bell rings to begin our silent sit, I do what I usually do. I focus on the rise and fall of my breath to the degree I am able. Eventually thoughts saunter into my awareness and wander their circuitous path; I name them, “thoughts,” but it is not long before I begin to walk alongside them and my visual centers activate with images of those whom I have lost. About ten minutes into the sit, my eyes are leaking and I am quietly wiping my nose with tissues I from the box I stashed under my chair. In recent years I have learned to be less self-conscious about crying in the presence of other people, but sometimes I still feel uncomfortable. In this silent-meditation setting, most people’s eyes are closed, like mine, which helps my tears flow freely down my cheeks without too much self-consciousness. I try to honor my emotional expression but not disturb those around me (it helps that I am talented at crying incredibly quietly, as a counselor once observed). During this sit I practice self-compassion and self-acceptance, knowing there is no “perfect” meditation and my wandering mind is today’s experience of being here now. In fact, the “thought distraction, then return to the breath” in a way defines the process of meditation for me. I am here. I am aware. Imperfection is the best I can do, and imperfection is the practice. So, it’s win-win. Let go of all expectations… Let go of self-judgments… Just let go.
When it is time to read aloud, my tears have dried. I am ready. I read a paragraph about living in accordance with principles of non-violence, something I strive for in my intra- and inter-personal relationships: “I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” The entire passage, along with The Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be found here at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village website: https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-5-mindfulness-trainings/
Other community members read the four other mindfulness trainings: True Happiness, True Love, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, and Nourishment and Healing. Some sentiments in the final training, about the virtues of staying in the present moment, settle in my heart. Yesterday I felt so triggered when I thought about my relationship with my late mother… have I been allowing regrets and sorrow to pull me back into the past? Or is generalized grief part of being present with my heart? Does the distinction even matter? I don’t know, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right: There are so many sources of nourishment in the present moment. Right now. Right here. This beautiful day, full of opportunities. Can I see the gifts through the fogged lenses of my grief? Can I look around the corner and invite them in? Can I activate my gratitude?
During our discussion period I listen to other people’s contributions, then share that I feel grateful for the readings and especially appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s statements about the virtues of living in the present, even when the present is painful. It’s such a seemingly simple concept, not at all new to me, but still difficult to practice. In general, I notice that I suffer most when I am focused too intently on either the past or the future; I have control over neither. Lately, present grief has invited my mind to wander into the past, which has contributed to deeper distress. Perhaps I have not noticed how much joy and peace can also be found, and held in balance, with pain. And that I’m curious about that, the noticing is helpful.
As I am leaving the meditation, a few of the other participants stay behind to talk with me and offer a kind word, a hand-pat, or a hug. One friend lingers for about ten minutes and listens with compassion as I reminisce about our mutual friend. He shares some memories, too. Then I enter the church office and speak with a staff member about an administrative matter. I share a bit about how I’ve been grieving lately; she offers a hug and kind words, as well. I open up my grief in community and find so many willing comforters!
As I walk toward the church parking lot, I feel lighter. I feel glad I came to the meditation today and feel grateful for everyone’s expressions of empathy. I reach my car, open the driver’s side door, sit down, start the engine, and look up. Right above where I have parked is a circle made of bricks, attached to a brick wall of the church (the sanctuary’s outer wall).
Oh, my! I never noticed that circle before! I usually do not park in this area and I was so focused on getting to the meditation group early, I didn’t notice the circle when I arrived. I smile as listen to the hum of the engine. I think about the various ways mandalas, those ubiquitous sacred circles, enter my life at different times and in different ways. How serendipitous to notice this sacred circle mounted on on this house of healing at this moment, today, when I have received healing words and actions from community members. I am part of a sacred circle now; I am one point on an infinite community circumference: A Mandala of Life. I take a few moments to contemplate this idea and notice my heart feels more deeply settled than it did at various times earlier in the week. I feel grateful not only for the human connections I am savoring, but also for the deep listening. It is not always easy for me to reach out for social support; I’m an introvert, my default process is solitude, and I was raised to be self-reliant. But even for those of us who cultivate energy from within, it is so helpful to be heard and understood with compassion. Empathy heals. Community heals. Yes. Perhaps with the help of community I am turning a corner in my grieving…
About a year after my mother died, I began a personal research project to learn about how to cope with grief. I knew next to nothing about how to cope, and as death anniversaries and holidays began to take a toll on me, I took several months to begin to educate myself. I began by attending grief support groups, which were helpful in normalizing my emotional process. I found a lot of validation there. I also conducted deeper study by reading books and articles on the topic. I remember longing for a way to control what felt like an overwhelming loss-of-control experience. For instance, when I walked into a supermarket in May, I knew there will be signs, cards, candy, and gifts all oriented towards Mother’s Day. How could I not be devastated? I knew I couldn’t completely control my grief, but I wanted some degree of control over it. I needed to learn ways to be with my losses that were nourishing and meaningful to me. That’s when I started making memorial mandalas and attending my meditation group…
When I return home from the Sangha, I crack open one of my old journals in which I took copious notes from a book called Healing Grief, Finding Peace: 101 Ways to Cope with the Death of Your Loved One by Dr. Louis E. LaGrand. I spend some time reading over my notes and nodding as I recall important points he makes. One thing I learned from Dr. LaGrand’s book is that trauma takes many forms; loss of a loved one is one of them. Further, it takes longer to heal from experiencing multiple, or “compound” losses in a short period of time. The brain can only handle and integrate so much information at any one time. This is why people often say grief is a process: We integrate and re-integrate losses of all kinds over months and years. In my case, the loss of my father and mother approximately one-and-a-half years apart, not to mention other spiritual losses I experienced concurrently, is considered a compound loss; further, that my relationship with each parent was often grounded in conflict contributes to an experience of “complicated grief.” So, it is no surprise that my friend’s recent death, just two-and-a-half years after my mother’s passing, would stir up deep, intense feelings.
Among some of the other things I learned from Dr. LaGrand’s book:
1. When experiencing grief, it’s important to create a nurturing support network. I didn’t have such a support network when my parents passed; I needed to create one. A grief support group can be helpful; so can a grief companion or a counselor—basically someone who is willing to listen and offer empathy without giving unsolicited advice or needing you to be any different from someone who is grieving. It’s best to avoid sharing grief with people who either demand that you “snap out of it” or believe dismissive statements like, “move on and cheer up, already” are supportive. LaGrand explains that “the goal of grieving is not to ‘get over it,’ but to relate to [the loss] differently.” I’m grateful to have found a meditation community within which I can invite and explore my grief journey.
2. It’s important to allow oneself the freedom to hurt: Accepting and feeling the pain is “good grief.” It’s been a learning process for me to welcome tears instead of ignoring, suppressing, or redirecting them (all strategies that were part of my childhood programming). I spoke recently with a friend over the phone about our mutual loss of my late cousin last year. He said, “I didn’t want to call you. I knew calling you would make me cry. I didn’t want to cry.” I told my friend what I tell myself, often: It’s okay to cry. It’s an embodied release of sadness. It’s a part of healing the body, mind, and spirit. For about a half-hour we reminisced and released some tears. I felt grateful for our connection.
3. There is an important distinction between the concepts of “grieving” and “mourning,” which I used to believe were synonymous. “Grieving” is a person’s internal experience of sadness or loss. Some examples can be found in my use of creativity in solitude to express and manage my feelings over the past three days. “Mourning,” by contrast, is a shared social experience which often includes ceremonial or ritual elements. When attending a funeral or memorial service, for instance, we mourn and heal in community. It seems to me that both grieving and mourning are important, if not essential, elements in healing from loss.
In closing, I’ve done a good deal of grieving this week. I paid special attention to my heart. I treated myself with compassion. Now, I feel like it is time to mourn the loss of my friend; however, a memorial service will not take place for a few weeks. Waiting that long to mourn in community and ceremony with others who knew and loved her feels challenging, but I have no control over such things. In the meantime, I can continue to reach out to others. I can also continue to use my creativity in grief rituals and in the practice of gratitude. According to Dr. LaGrand, when we feel a downward spiral coming upon us, “gratitude is the energy force that will punch a hole in your pain and bring stress relief.” True. And it is also important to remember we are allowed to take breaks from grief! We can detach entirely, go see a movie, do something fun. Tomorrow I will attend a silent half-day retreat which I believe will provide more community, plus peace, quiet, and cognitive integration time. I’m grateful for that!