If you asked me what my grief feels like I would describe it as an undertow: you feel like the pull away from shore isn’t that strong but if you allow it pull you away, or if you aren’t a strong swimmer, getting back to the beach is much harder than you’d think.
That is what I experienced after I got the call from my dad. My husband and I were enjoying our favourite Friday night ritual of pizza, beer and movies (I know- painting the town beige, right?). My cell phone rings but I miss the call- unknown number.
“Probably just mom calling from the hotel to say that they made it safe and sound, thanks for watching the dog and to let us know what their trip plans are.” I say to my husband, as I barely miss the call. But then his cell phone rings. “Oh shoot- now mom’s probably calling you!” I giggle as my husband picked up the phone and I hear him say, “Hi —–, yep she’s right here.” (Here it comes- my mom’s familiar voice, thanking for watching the dog, letting me know about their drive up, what the hotel is like and what not; typical mom!)
But it’s my dad. (That’s weird- mom is always the one who calls for that sort of stuff.)
He says, “Dana, mom’s gone.”
“What do you mean? Like something happened to her? Like she’s sick?” My mind is racing.
“She had a heart attack and she’s gone.”(There were more words said, but after “she had a heart attack and she’s gone” my mind is blank)
I consider myself extremely fortunate to say that I had more support between family, friends and co-workers, but that undertow of grief still held on and s-l-o-w-l-y pulled me further from the shore throughout the coming days, at the funeral and post-funeral.
Aside from the disgustingly insensitive words people offered to me (including, “don’t be sad” at the funeral… when the F do I get to be sad then? STEP OFF!), the meaningful barrage of, “let me tell you about my experience” and adjusting to a new way of being, grief can be a comfortable friend. When it feels like it’s too hard to swim, when your limbs are tired and the sun too bright, that undertow of grief is right there to say, “It’s OK. I’ll carry you away from the chaos.”
But therein lies the rub; that chaotic shore is where your feet touch the ground, where you get to decide to get out or enjoy the water. But get far enough away and that undertow can make it difficult to stay where you are, it can make the shore slowly disappear and swimming against it is exhausting.
As I worked through my sadness it was hard to ignore that nearly everything reminded me of mom. The sun, snow, my cat, a bag of sugar- yes, I saw a bag of sugar in my cupboard and almost collapsed because it reminded me of her. It was easy too- sitting, being stuck, letting sadness and memories wash me out, feeling like a failure because this sadness wouldn’t leave.
So what does this nautical metaphor have to do with mindfulness? (For those of you not familiar or seeking more information, allow me to be so bold as to recommend this link.
Well what I’ve learned from my mindfulness practice (as rudimentary as it is) is that there is no need to judge how I feel, or when it will pass, but that I also can’t let those feelings rule me. It’s OK to take the time to sit with my emotions, feel them, give them my attention and allow them to pass.
Let us back up this bus and take a look at what that bag of sugar incident (coupled with mindful thoughts in italics) might have looked like:
– – I am sad (that’s OK)
– – I’m going to open up the cupboard, grab a mug and make a cup of coffee.
* I open the cupboard and there’s a devastating bag of sugar * (it makes me sad because it reminds of me of how mom used to make me angel coffee- a glass of milk, teaspoon of sugar and about ½ an ounce of coffee, served only on Sunday mornings.)
* I can feel the tears welling in my eyes and my chest gets tight as I try to hold my breath * (that was a special thing mom did- she was a good mom who loved us very much. It’s OK to miss her, miss the things she did. Let’s sit with this sadness for a bit)
*Minutes pass, tears stream down my face but I’m no longer holding my breath and I feel myself relax * (It’s OK to miss her; that feeling could come back but it comes from a place of love. Mom had endless love for us. Right now the feeling is starting to subside and it’s OK to let it go. Right now you are ready to make that cup of coffee and move forward with your day)
Just a small snippet of how mindfulness helped me get through grief- did you see what it allowed me to do in that hypothetical situation? There was no judgement surrounding the feelings, there was no pressure not to feel a certain way, there was no fear about those emotions coming back; just sitting in the present moment, acknowledging why that sugar triggered those feelings and being OK that even though this sadness might come back, that for now it’s OK to keep moving forward.
I still encounter moments that hit me like a shock wave, sometimes stopping me in my tracks and I know there is the possibility of those feelings coming back, but keeping my mindfulness in mind I have been able to keep my feet in the sand and decide for myself how long I spend in the water.