Grief, gratitude, mindfulness and purpose can lead to transformation
Words Carolyn Enting
Grief is something we all have to experience at some point in our lives. It’s a necessary part of processing loss. It hurts, but it can also be an opportunity to grow, providing the catalyst you need to grab life with both hands. This is not a preachy ‘how to’ article telling you how you should grieve – everyone’s experience is different – but it does offer some tools and ideas, because we all hurt sometimes.
Good grief. Is there such a thing? It may surprise you that grieving – once you’ve gone through the acutely painful phase – can be transformative.
As I come to terms with the recent loss of my beloved mum to cancer, 21 years after the death of my father, I’ve come to understand that she wouldn’t want me to be sad; she’d want me to be happy and living the best, most authentic and fulfilling life that I can. Dad would have wished that for me too.
It’s a mindset switch from the way I dealt with grief when Dad was suddenly taken from us in a car crash. Back then the floor was ripped from underneath us. It was such a huge shock and I crumbled.
How a stressful event presents itself within us, our response and recovery are all unique to us as individuals, and there is no single strategy or piece of advice that is right for everyone, says mindfulness consultant Suzanne Hansen of Ovio.
“An approach to re-building life for one person may not work for another,” says Hansen. “The practice of mindfulness allows us to observe in an objective way our own special unique thoughts, feelings and behaviours around grief. It’s a practice of being curious, kind and compassionate in regards to these thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You can’t get it wrong as all you are doing is paying attention to your experience as it actually is; everything is included – good and bad.”
By doing this we are accepting our thoughts and feelings rather than detaching ourselves and wishing they would go away. When we regularly practice mindfulness in this way it allows us to fully connect with our thoughts and feelings over time, she explains.
“The external forces of life can become too much for us at times, especially in regards to grief. In response we develop a state of being that is not perfectly balanced, we become skewed. One way to regain and enhance the ability of the body and mind for self-repair is through practicing mindfulness. This practice acts as a stimulus that enables the body and mind to do what it has forgotten or become less able to do: heal itself.”
Grief is necessary
Vashti Whitfield, performance coach and author of Spartacus and Me, is a huge advocate for understanding that grief is a necessary part of processing loss. Vashti was married to the late actor Andy Whitfield, whose best-known role was the lead in the television series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which was filmed in New Zealand. He died of cancer in 2011 aged 39.
“Grief is a really important process to be respected, and not have judgement around it or expectations. It is necessary in your healing. And it’s important to understand that grief is not linear,” she says. “Like the ocean, some days the waves are really big, and some days it’s a flat, beautiful lake-like thing, where you can look and see your reflection.
“For me it was about understanding on a day-to-day basis where I was at with it,” she says. “Today is absolutely fine, it’s okay to be in a good space. I want to laugh, do fun things and to not have guilt about that. On the days where it is like a tsunami, it’s all about honouring what you need to fit in that space.”
In the final year of Andy’s life the couple made a documentary film, Be Here Now, to give purpose to an unexpected and unpredictable chapter that had taken over their lives. It’s an authentic sharing of two people, particularly of one person who you perceive as living the dream, and then it is whipped away.
Whitfield’s book is a continuum of “giving purpose”: she shares her experiences of grief and of becoming a single parent and figuring out how to nurture her children through this traumatic transition.
Five years on, and Whitfield has launched a life and leadership Legacy programme (see coaching at maybemcqueen.com). Of course, she still misses her “best friend” Andy and wishes he was here, however: “Now, when I talk about him, I’m actually talking more about the experience of him and us, and what we went through to facilitate others. So it actually feels really inspiring because I’m talking about what an extraordinary person he was and it’s phenomenal that five years on we can mention his gorgeous name and it’s making a difference to other people and how they live their lives or approach their death or the death of someone they love.”
Continuing a legacy
The experiences Whitfield shares in her book taught her how precious life really is. She wants to harness the incredible force of that legacy and grief to help others realise their potential and make the most of their lives.
“For me it just comes back to one simple thing. How can I make a difference and how can I be the inspiring person that Andy would expect me to be and knows I’m capable of being? Whenever I’m not being that, I don’t feel like I’m honouring his purpose. I have always believed that everything that happens to you is an opportunity and the only time I ever struggle is when we step into victim mode and go, ‘oh why has this happened to me?’ However much it hurts, something out of it will be of purpose if you look for what that is. Having purpose is healing.”
Honouring their life
Having sat with Mum at the Te Omanga Hospice and having had the privilege of being with her when her life ended, in peaceful acceptance, was a reminder to be grateful for all that I’ve had and all that I have.
All we’ve got is right now.
And I now believe in angels too. They work at Te Omanga and other hospices around the country. Who knew there could be such beauty and dignity in death? And death isn’t something that we as a culture really talk about a lot.
“Culturally and historically we associate death with the worst possible thing, and that we’re supposed to mourn forever,” says Whitfield. “We talk about having evolved yet sometimes we operate with the mentality – not to be disrespectful of a Greek widow – to wear black for the rest of our lives, not smile or have fun. That, to me, is the polar opposite of honouring somebody’s life.
“I think we haven’t evolved in that way, in actually celebrating and honouring somebody. It doesn’t mean you can’t be sad. It’s absolutely key and it stops anger, allowing yourself to be sad. But if you don’t allow yourself to have a balance of that, we may as well be the one who croaked it. Do I need to be sad moving forward forevermore to appreciate that relationship, or can I go and enjoy all the lovely things that person did, and actually really enjoy my life in honour of them?”
Christchurch author and photographer Melanie Mason has also found inspiration by working through grief, and talking about death. Her best-selling book, Good-bye: For Times of Sadness & Loss, is a collection of images matched with her favourite song lyrics, poetry and prose. Her hope is that the book offers comfort and insight in times of sadness and loss. It’s a beautiful touchstone for anyone who is in need of heartfelt comfort.
“It is not only when we are bereaved that we grieve,” says Mason. “Loss and coming to terms with life changes is an integral part of being human. Throughout our lives we are constantly having to adjust to changes and say goodbye to things we have either outgrown or lost, or things that have been taken from us: our health, our job, our relationships, sometimes even a sense of who we are.”
The book, which came out between the two big Christchurch earthquakes, ended up being a crutch for Mason through her own grief process when her marriage ended and left her numb for months. It led to an invitation to complete a certificate in grief support, and death walker training. The latter teaches you how to face your own death and walk into that process with courage, calm and peace, as well as partner somebody else through that process.
Mason now runs a Death Café in Christchurch too, which is a hosted conversation (with cake) about death and dying. “The purpose of them is to loosen up about death and make us more willing to talk about it, and ultimately make the most of our finite lives, so we are embracing it – because when you have a death-phobic culture it bleeds through and then we are age-phobic and resistant to any appearance of getting old, which inevitably leads to dying. Or sickness-phobic, because that could lead to dying. It creates all this resistance and kind of holding on with white knuckles through your life, and you’re not really fully present, not really living. So I think it’s really healthy to be having these conversations, and that’s why I’m involved,” Mason explains.
Sense of gratitude
Mason’s second book, Thank You, was born out of the gratitude she now has in her life, particularly after the second earthquake. The earthquake struck just as she’d sat down for lunch in the old Post Office café opposite the Christchurch cathedral. “It was so violent, the building was twisting and heaving. I was on the floor holding onto this little pedestal table thinking ‘oh, it hasn’t even got four legs, I’m going to get crushed’. As it settled and there was dust everywhere, we were okay and able to stand up and I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of gratitude,” Mason says.
Wanting to retain the sense of community that developed in Christchurch during the rebuild, Mason printed thousands of Thank You cards, which she calls ‘tiny tools’, and put them everywhere. “After a disaster, you can have post-traumatic stress, but you can also have post-traumatic growth,” Mason says. “That is really exciting. It’s the invitation to live a richer, authentic, true-to-yourself, more connected and more amazing existence.”
As a life coach and mindfulness consultant Cheryl Strawbridge has helped many people cope with the overwhelming sadness and disorientation that comes with grief. Her mindfulness teachings were really put to the test when her father passed away. She shares what helped her most:
Mason’s writing and photography helped her focus in the present moment and her Thank You Project heralded a blossoming. “The gratitude was, and still is, just immense,” she says. “My life is so different now, so rich and full of these tiny pleasures every day.”
1 I approached my grief with kindness and curiosity and dismissed the notion that grief was something I had to ‘get over’. The experience of grief is similar to that of love in that it is totally unique to every person and every situation. It is a completely natural part of being human.
2 After Dad died I noticed my breathing had become very shallow so I consciously reminded myself to breathe deeply. Shallow breathing keeps our flight or fight response triggered and makes it difficult to sleep, digest food properly, relax or react wisely. I would pause for a moment and check in with my breath then inhale deeply and feel my tummy and lungs expand. I would notice the subtle pause at the end of the inhale and the delicious release on the exhale. I repeated this when needed.
3 I spent a lot of time journaling. My mind wouldn’t stop but by writing down these endless thoughts I felt a sense of relief and I also gained valuable insights by rereading what I had written. I also wrote down all of the things I should have told my dad but never managed to. That felt really good.
4 I found mindful walking helped to ground me in the present moment, and balance my emotions. I would walk consciously, engaging all of my senses. I was fully aware of each step I took and I focused my attention on all that I could see, hear and feel as I walked. When I noticed my mind had gone back to its usual ruminating I would gently, non-judgementally return my focus to my walking. Slowly my mind and body would unwind and I would find a sense of ease.
5 Through desperation rather than wisdom I became courageous enough to let others see my vulnerability and let them know how they could help. This was one of the most challenging of all the mindful teachings to follow when I felt so raw, but it helped immensely. It worked a lot better than expecting people to intuitively know what I needed – and being disappointed when they didn’t! g