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Grief and loss – recovery through meditation

While travelling in the USA I have been reflecting on the retreat that I’m leading about Grief and Loss in October.

After 5 days of exploring California and Yosemite national park, and with aching muscles, I’m sitting at my friend’s house in Missoula, Montana and am finally putting pen to paper… so to speak.

I’m sitting out on her deck with a 360 degree view of the Rocky mountains, watching deer leap over suburban fences to munch heads off flowers and nibble at whatever they can find. They get into vegie patches, eat from pear trees or find bits of fruit that people leave for them to find.

The wind is blowing through the leaves of a tall Aspen tree in the next yard and it’s one of the most soothing sounds I know.

It’s a good place to reflect, away from Adelaide for a little holiday and immersed in nature. I’ll get as much as I can while I’m here – rivers, lakes, hikes, river sitting and just breathing in the fresh mountain air.

This is part of my “toolbox” – my resources to deal with and manage the busyness and pain that is part of life.

They call this state the “Big Sky” state, and it’s an accurate representation….. no tall buildings and a 180 degree view of the sky and surroundings…. It calms me.

In the far distance, I’m watching teenagers at after school American football practice. It’s a big deal here, a highly physical contact sport and requires a lot of effort to understand. A few years ago I went to a game and puzzled over the rules and laughed at a penalty given by a referee, for ‘excessive celebrating’ 😊.

Three days ago, my friend’s 15 year old son, who has just started playing football, broke his collarbone at a practice like the one I am watching now – in a ‘bad’ tackle. So, now he is off all sport for 8 -10 weeks, which is the foundation of his school life. He walks around the house a different boy. He cannot play the remaining games of the season and also possibly has missed out on the coming basketball season too. He can’t move well, is bent over in pain and has lost the use of his right arm.

I have watched him trying to understand his situation – home from school, no daily sport or contact with friends, emotional, sad and withdrawn. It’s a significant loss for him. We move around him, checking in and getting the “fine” response, when we know he is far from fine. We cannot know what it means for him, or how he really feels.

I have lost many things in my life and resonate with how he might be feeling.

I’ve been injured, lost people I loved, and had my life turn in different directions in an instant…. I have walked around as he is walking around now.

After a significant and traumatic loss, a friend called me from Italy soon after, and in an effort to explain what it felt like, I told him it felt like my right arm had been ripped off. Very gently, he told me that ‘life goes on without an arm’.

I have often reflected on that remark and wondered if now, nearly 12 years later, I feel as though a new arm has grown back in its place – a different and stronger arm.

What is meditation?

When we lose something or someone, often that is not the only loss – there are other things we lose too – friends, activities, the ability to socialize as we used to, our vibrancy or happiness, people, our jobs, partners, and the list goes on.

Sometimes, the loss of one thing changes everything about us and it can feel as though our identity has disappeared, or been blown up, or torn to shreads and is lying in pieces on the floor around us.

As we look around at the wreckage, we wonder how on earth we are ever going to be able to pick it all up and put ourselves back together.

This was definitely my experience.

I used this description to try to convey how I felt this great loss had affected me. A woman, also gently, suggested that I imagine the identity like a coat we wear, and if I felt like my coat had been blown to pieces, that I could salvage some of those surviving pieces scattered on the floor in the new coat I would need to make for myself now…. like using some for the trim along the hemline, or sewing some of the collected flowers onto the lapel. So, in essence, you bring some of the parts of your past life into the new one that is forming as you move along and try to negotiate the new and different way you are living with a new or different self.

It’s a hard path, no doubt about it. Not everyone understands and their comments and suggestions often do little to help. It’s a road that has taken you in a different direction without your permission…. Sometimes suddenly, tragically, traumatically and can leave you feeling isolated, alone, and without the sense of self you had before the loss. So, what do you do now? How can you continue in this new terrain of grief and loss?

Well, for me, I gradually built a toolbox and it has grown and developed over many years and has helped me through many subsequent losses and more grief.

Using meditation has been instrumental in the management of difficult situations and emotions and has facilitated incredible and unexpected development that has occurred as a direct result of my grief and loss. So that now I am actually really comfortable in my new and beautiful ‘coat’.

Time is a key factor, as is becoming used to not knowing and not being in control in the usual sense that we all think we are.

One perception I have worked with and an idea that has come to me many times through many different people is to approach the situation as an opportunity for growth and learning – a hard concept initially, especially when in the thick of emotional pain. But, putting this idea in your pocket, taking it out every now and then and looking at it, reflecting a bit at a time is a useful practice. As we continue to slowly build an alternate life, we learn to accommodate our grief or loss and we start to see glimpses of sunlight through the clouds.

You can have interactions with people you wouldn’t have otherwise had, lessons and experiences you wouldn’t or couldn’t have had if you had not been faced with your loss. We build a relationship with and learn to help ourselves. We also build resources, resilience and our own personalized toolboxes.

Meditation is one of the main tools for me. Meditations help to fill the space, create space, give pause, allow quiet, allow calm while the new road is being paved and prepared. It opens doors and gives insights, brings peace, aids acceptance and allows integration of these experiences into our lives, rather than wishing these things had never happened, our perspective changes.

In the next days, weeks, months and years, I wonder what will open for my friend’s son, who has lost his physical movement for a time. What might he see as a result? Will he change direction? Approach things differently? What will he learn and will he reflect back on this experience of loss as something that taught him something important?

Personally, I have learned so much from my losses and one such lesson is self-care and time in nature.

So, today, and here, I am loving watching the deer watching me, walking near these beautiful rivers, marvelling at the squirrels and tiny chipmunks, meditating on the sights and smells of this wild place, spending time with my friend… and wearing my new, beautiful coat proudly.

Ingrid Lienert

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