What’s wrong with me?
I should be stronger.
I shouldn’t be so angry.
I should be able to handle the holidays without crying.
As human beings we often judge ourselves harshly, even in the aftermath of profound loss. Instead of kindness we offer ourselves criticism thinking this will somehow spur us toward letting go of the grief that weighs upon us like a too-heavy coat. But it does not – instead it makes it harder to move forward with our grief.
Recent research in the fields of mindful self-compassion, mindfulness and positive psychology indicates that self-compassion is the cornerstone of emotional healing and well-being. Mindful self-compassion provides an avenue for taking an active, balanced approach to depleting, uncomfortable emotions that often take the form of self-judgment in the grieving process so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated but dealt with skillfully. That is why I share self-compassion practices with all of my grief support clients at the beginning of our work together.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion is generally defined as offering yourself understanding, kindness and tenderness when you fail or make mistakes rather than judging yourself harshly. Self-compassion involves realizing that suffering, failure and imperfection are part of the shared human experience; it also entails treating yourself as you would treat a dear friend who is suffering.
When applied to the grief experience, the practice of self-compassion can best be described as actively practicing loving kindness - both in words and actions - towards yourself with the intention of healing your pain and suffering.*
There are three key elements to the understanding and practice of self-compassion:
1. Self-kindness. Self-kindness is the process of actively soothing yourself and offering support and care to yourself when you are in pain. You are not soothing yourself to make the pain go away but rather you are soothing yourself because you are in pain. It can be helpful to think of self-kindness as treating yourself as if you were your own beloved child.
Self-kindness can help lead us toward acceptance of ourselves just as we are in our moments of suffering and pain, which can then lead towards greater acceptance (the foregoing of struggling against what already is) - no matter how painful.
2. Mindfulness. My favorite definition of mindfulness is awareness of present experience with acceptance. Awareness in this context means: in this moment I will investigate without judgment and with acceptance or being with my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. It is actively doing some sort of mindful self-compassion practice (see below) that allows us to investigate our present experience with a necessary attitude of kindness and curiosity that then directs the compass of our hearts towards the fulfillment of our healing intentions.
3. Common humanity. By its very nature, grieving is a lonely experience – only you can truly know what you have lost and the depth and source of your pain and suffering. The third element of self-compassion is common humanity – the understanding that although your grief is unique to you, grief, loss and pain are part of the shared human experience: you are alone in this grief, but you are not alone in grief. A comforting thought that helps us realize that, yes, healing is possible.
A Favorite Self-compassion Practice
I recommend self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff’s website www.self-compassion.org to all of my grief support clients. The website has a wide variety of free guided meditations and writing exercises designed to help cultivate self-compassion. My two favorite practices from the site are Soften, Soothe, Allow and The 5 Minute Self-compassion.
Soften, Soothe, Allow is a guided meditation that I guide clients through who have recently suffered the loss of a loved one. The practice offers a set of compassionate responses to difficult emotions that can and often do become housed in the body as pain or discomfort during mourning. Please consider checking-out the 15 minute guided meditation on Neff’s website.
I have modified The 5 Minute Self-compassion Break below so as to be more specific to the grief-processing experience.
Steps for the 5 Minute Compassion Break
Step 1. When you are struggling with challenging, painful or distressing emotions, thoughts or physical sensations related to grief (such as confusion, anger, yearning, rapid heartbeat etc.) STOP whatever you are doing.
Taking time to pause can help you to let go of struggling against what already is with mindful acceptance.
Step 2. Say to yourself either silently or out loud: This is a moment of suffering. If you like you can, add: Suffering is a part of life. I am not alone in this.
This step can help you to recognize two things: 1) that this moment of suffering is just that, a moment, that will eventually pass; 2) and there is a universal, common humanity within your individual experience of loss and pain.
Step 3. Put your hand or hands over your heart and notice your chest rhythmically rising and falling beneath your hand/hands. Focus on breathing in and out.
Bringing attention to the breath helps to calm the body and mind. I recommend imagining that the breath is flowing into and out of the heart or chest area, and then breathing a little slower and deeper than normal, to comfort; this can be effective in bringing balance to the nervous system which then helps lessen some of the physical discomfort caused by distress.
Step 4. Say to yourself either silently or out loud:
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
(Your name), I am so sorry for your suffering.
May I, be healed from suffering.
You can also say whatever phrase or words that you feel you most need at this time, such as: May I accept myself just as I am right now or May I accept this moment just as it is right now. This step is about offering yourself kindness and soothing in the midst of pain; it is also about treating yourself with the same kind of compassionate caring you would a friend who has suffered a profound loss.
You can follow The 5 Minute Self-compassion Break by then asking yourself if there is anything else you could do right now that would comfort or nurture you, such as talking to a friend, or taking a walk in nature, and then acting on it.
Self-compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Kristin Neff, PhD
How to Be Compassionate by His Holiness the Dalia Lama
Good Morning, I Love You by Shauna Shapiro PhD
A Widow’s Guide to Healing by Kristin Meekhof