How do I grieve mindfully? - Veterinary Practice
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InFocus

How do I grieve mindfully?

Grief can be a lonely business, but there are ways for you to be self-compassionate and mindful when you are bereaved

When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about what we now call the five stages of grief it was her aim to describe the emotional journey of the dying person, and not the bereaved. But as the bereaved we are desperate for something to cling onto, something to normalise this unbearable desolation inside. Because although we describe it as unbearable, we cannot dismiss it and we have to bear it.

The loneliness of realising that grief is a personal thing, and that sharing our feelings with others doesn’t make us feel OK, drives us to reach out for an explanation of how on earth it can feel so bad. Can we just find an acronym for the five emotions (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, aka “DABDA”) and then the pain goes away?

What is grief?

Grief is what happens to us when we experience the loss of something which was embedded in our whole being and psyche. So, it is agony for our mind, our heart and our whole body.

Some of us are in “the club you never want to join”, where only fellow bereaved friends understand our pain. Others have yet to experience it and join this club. When my mother died, I remember so many friends saying that they had no idea how it felt. I was so grateful for every day of innocence I had prior to knowing how bad it felt, because nothing can prepare you for it. I felt there was no benefit to knowing, and I noticed gratitude in me too for every day my lovely friends had without grief eating them up from the inside out.

Grief is what happens to us when we experience the loss of something which was embedded in our whole being and psyche. So, it is agony for our mind, our heart and our whole body

My employer at the time allowed me three days to get over it. I pleaded for more days away from work, unpaid, for many reasons, one of which was that I could not actually see. As a surgeon, I was going to mess up. However, the firm answer was no. The practice was under unsustainable pressure because I, the surgeon, was off. My employer had both parents still alive. I even managed to feel grateful that he had a while longer before he could understand my grief. But I’m only human: I never forgot it.

Now, six years later, my wonderful father, my confidante and my partner in bad Irish jokes, is about to die. His morphine starts today. It’s just a matter of days before he’s gone. Do I look away? Or can I be grateful now that I’m already in the club so I can allow these familiar feelings to be within me rather than consume me?

Wouldn’t it be true self-compassion to allow myself to feel what might break me now, rather than blocking those emotions out, thus sealing my fate of definitely being broken by them later?

I’m no longer shocked at how much agony the human brain can tolerate.

Wouldn’t it be true self-compassion to allow myself to feel what might break me now, rather than blocking those emotions out, thus sealing my fate of definitely being broken by them later?

This time around, I have the time to feel what I’m feeling. Because this time around, I’m working for a practice where several of my colleagues are in the club you never want to join. Instead of three days to get over it, I have “all the time I need”. My colleagues have sent me cards, supportive messages, a bouquet of chocolate bars and a massive Deliveroo voucher to feed my kids and me for days. They have felt this desolation, and it has made them truly compassionate and sympathetic

How to grieve mindfully

As I have mentioned before, accepting, acknowledging and allowing yourself to feel the emotions you are feeling is an important step in letting them defuse their hold on you, and this can be a great act of self-compassion. Here are some ideas on how you can grieve mindfully.

Accepting, acknowledging and allowing yourself to feel the emotions you are feeling is an important step in letting them defuse their hold on you, and this can be a great act of self-compassion

Accept your feelings

Allow yourself to feel what you feel at any given moment, with a sense of self-compassion, and without judgement. Remember, it’s OK to be overwhelmed.

Express your feelings

It is just as important to express your feelings as it is to accept them. Talking won’t make those feelings go away, but it helps to straighten them out in your head so that they can form an orderly queue and thus be noticed one by one, defusing their hold over you with time.

Reach out

During this time, it is important to reach out in multiple ways. Reach out for guidance from a counsellor or a mindfulness group. Reach out to family and distant relatives to share stories of your loved one. Reach out to offer support to other grievers.

Find a balance between sitting with yourself and being with others. But ultimately, reach out – don’t isolate yourself.

Continue to take care of yourself and others

Living life while grieving is another chore. It feels counterintuitive to look after my body when my dad’s body is failing before my eyes. It feels disrespectful and even selfish. But it is essential that you look after yourself and others through your grief.

Celebrate your loved one’s life

When my mum died, I made a thousand cups of tea like a zombie, as person after person came to the house to talk about mum and how wonderful she was.

I remember wishing at the time that she could hear all these stories.

Gratitude

Now, in my dad’s final days, I am so incredibly lucky that person after person is coming to the house to talk about his life and share stories, but this time, it’s with him. He can chat and laugh and reminisce and, as he puts it, enjoy hearing his own eulogies before he says goodbye.

Laura Woodward

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.


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