My client Elizabeth recently shared with me her feeling that “old grief” about losses related to her mother were stuck in her chest. No matter how much or little she talked about the grief, the tears she wanted “out, not in” would not come.

A yoga teacher, Elizabeth often talked about how the practice of yoga helped her find mental and emotional clarity when dealing with a problem. With that in mind, I suggested Elizabeth do a guided grief support exercise while in my office called Mapping an Emotion and end the exercise by doing whatever yoga pose/asana felt right. 

The process of mapping an emotion entails: 1. visualizing an event related to your loss; 2. noting what emotion arises as a shape, color, feeling or sensation; 3. and naming and putting in map form that emotion on paper. Once the emotion of anger surfaced in the exercise, Elizabeth lay down on the floor with a pillow behind her upper back – arms straight out, legs tucked under – closed her eyes and began to breathe deeply. A few minutes later, the tears that had been so elusive for so long began to flow. 

Tapping Into Your Inner Wisdom

Prior to our work together, it had not occurred to Elizabeth that her yoga practice might be directed in specific ways to explore the pain of loss. This is not surprising. In the presence of grief, it is common to feel as if whatever came before our new experience of loss holds no place or value in the now. But it is during the grieving process that tapping into our inner wisdom and what we already know is most needed. That is why I explore these five questions with grief support clients at the beginning of our work together:

1. In the past, how have you gotten through and healed the pain of loss?

Many losses are experienced over the course of a lifetime: loved ones die. Friendships and marriages end. Jobs are outsourced. The wonder of innocence gives way to the harshness of reality. Hopes and dreams go unfulfilled. 

Each experience of loss can reveal valuable life lessons, leaving us more knowledgeable about our ability to navigate adversity and the unknown. When a loved one dies, looking back at how we got through past loss experiences can be helpful in providing a starting point for how we might find acceptance of what has now happened, adapt to our new reality and eventually move forward in our grief.

As a starting point consider what people, activities, practices, rituals and routines, and resources were helpful in navigating past losses.

2. What are your gifts, talents and passions and how might they be applied to process and heal your grief?

My client Elizabeth is an example of how one’s talents, gifts and passions can be used to heal after loss. Another example can be found in my client Mary’s collage-making.

Mary had always found it soothing to cut pictures out of magazines of “things that appealed to my eyes” and paste the pictures into notebooks. After her husband died suddenly, Mary found herself drawn to collage-making “every night, like a magnet”; for eight months she pasted pictures on a wall in her basement recreation room until one day she stepped back, realized she had expressed “everything I wanted to say to myself about my grief”, and “felt done for now.”

During times of grief, engaging our passions, gifts and talents can provide a sense of purpose and movement, as well as stability and focus. As a starting point, consider engaging talents, passions and gifts that provide the greatest inner comfort so as to help soften some of the stress of the grieving process. 

3. What are your qualities of soul, and how can they be engaged to process and heal your grief?

Qualities of soul are attitudes, emotions, and acquired knowledge that express our best self as individuals. When expressed, these qualities give us a positive felt sense of connection to who we feel we truly are, others, the world around us, and the God of our understanding. Taking note of our qualities of soul during times of grief and then consciously engaging those qualities can help to lessen the sense we often have that our best self was lost (if only temporarily) when we lost our loved one.

Examples of qualities of soul include: appreciation; acceptance; attention; balance; beauty; friendship; calm; compassion; endurance; faith; love; strength; simplicity; trust; creativity; courage; determination; patience; focus; forgiveness; quiet; renewal; understanding; and more. 

4. What are your coping skills? What tools do you already have in your coping tool bag and how can they be used to process and heal your grief?

The strong emotion of grief has a profoundly depleting effect, compromising our optimal physical, emotional, mental and spiritual functioning and sense of well-being. Depletion highlights a need for renewal, requiring that we seek to consciously engage in practices and coping skills that help counter the physiology of grief. (Read more about The Physiology of Grief.)

Taking an inventory of the renewal tools in one’s coping tool bag can be a helpful starting point for figuring out what skills and practices are currently of benefit and how they might be applied to processing the pain of loss. Some examples of renewal tools include: prayer; meditation; mindfulness practices; guided visualization and imagery; self-compassion practices; walking in nature; art-making; dance or movement; listening to music; and more. 

5. What skills do you need to develop/ what tools do you need to add to your coping tool bag to help you heal at this time?

Every loss and how it affects us is unique. When a loved one dies we sometimes find that the coping tools we relied on to carry us through past challenges are no longer enough. When this happens, the tendency can be to say “this has always worked, this should be working now” and stay the course, no matter how ineffective. Rather than stay the course, it can be helpful to understand “shoulding” as an indication of stress and grief overwhelm, directing us toward the need to develop new practices and skills - or tweak already existing skills - so that we might better meet the challenges of our current loss.