Guest Post by Deah Robinson
⚠️ Content Warning – This blog post contains information about trauma, grief, and loss ⚠️
Grief, Loss, and Trauma
This past spring, I took a graduate class called Death and Dying. When I told my wife, she said, “Why? That’s so morbid.” We both laughed and as the semester unfolded, I realized how necessary learning and exploring death and dying is for living a full embodied life. So many times, we can shy away from (and perhaps avoid) topics and conversations that feel uncomfortable, inappropriate, or dark and twisty. The bad news – The suffering, difficulties, and challenges of life are unavoidable. The good news – mindfulness can help.
But first, some psychology! During my Death and Dying course, we covered topics like how different cultures, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds conceptualize death, end-of-life care, how to handle affairs (e.g. advance directives, wills, health care), and how to be a compassionate surrogate for someone. All heavy stuff. For the final three weeks of class, we explored what happens after death for the living. Grief and loss can be very traumatic for us to process. So much of the current research at the forefront surrounds trauma, how our bodies handle trauma, early developmental trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk, has become the textbook for folks delving into the topic of trauma. It has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 148 weeks (and counting!) and for 27 of those weeks, it occupied the number one spot. The book’s success signals that not just mental health professionals are trying to learn about the effects of trauma and how to heal trauma. Individuals from all walks of life and professions want to learn how to soften the grip that trauma can have on our lives.
Many moons ago while I was in graduate school for counseling, when trauma was referenced, it typically referred to war experiences, sexual assault, or natural disasters. In recent years, how we define trauma has come to encompass more life experiences. In her book Widen the Window, psychologist Elizabeth Stanley (2019) suggests that stress and trauma are on the same continuum. Stress is our internal response to an experience that our brain perceives as threatening or challenging. Trauma is our response to an experience in which we feel powerless or lacking agency. Considering stress and trauma on the same continuum might explain why an event that is stressful for one person can be traumatizing for another.
How do we handle trauma, grief, and loss? Do we ever get over it? One theory that intrigues me about grief and loss is post-traumatic growth (PTG). In the 1990s, researchers Richard Tedeschi, PhD, and Lawrence Calhoun, PhD, developed a theory that asserts that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward. About 70% of people experience positive psychological gains after going through a traumatic event. Tedeschi and Calhoun (2021) have defined trauma as an event that can produce transformative change because of challenges to one’s core beliefs. After a significant disruptive event, a person’s core beliefs may be shattered. There is a definite before, where the core belief is intact, and then an after when a person attempts to reconstruct the beliefs that employ meaning-making.
When the COVID-19 pandemic happened in 2020, it shook collective core beliefs. For example, this emergency medical crisis challenged the belief that a threat of this magnitude with advances in medicine was minimal to none. Due to the delays in production, many experienced challenges obtaining household items during the pandemic. Many grappled with the idea of feelings of lack of safety, financial loss, instability, and mortality. The World Health Organization (2022) reported a 25% increase in major depression and anxiety during the pandemic. The American Psychological Association (2021) reported that 1 out of 3 Americans experienced such significant levels of stress during the pandemic that they struggled to make everyday life decisions. Ultimately, we all experienced a shift from the life we knew to a new normal.
So if 70% of people report positive psychological changes after trauma how do we facilitate post-traumatic growth? The research suggests that processing the experience with a therapist or expert companion helps facilitate positive cognitive reappraisal. Other ways to increase PTG are connecting with social support, engaging with religious beliefs and practices, and exploring new possibilities. Many suggestions for facilitating PTG are metacognitive in nature as it helps with the reconstruction of our beliefs and schemas, and encourages meaning-making.
Mindfulness as an Ally for Post-Traumatic Growth
While there have been a few studies that consider the impact of mindfulness on PTG, it is an area where continued development is needed. Let’s explore how mindfulness principles and practices might employ skills that assist with positive growth after trauma.
Like the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Science answered it – the egg). The same might be asked of mindfulness or awareness. Must one become mindful of becoming aware, or does awareness facilitate mindfulness? I might argue that both are true, but the importance of awareness within mindful practices is undisputed. Buddhist meditation teacher Lodro Rinzler describes mindfulness and awareness as “the ultimate tag team duo”. While mindfulness is our inherent capacity to focus our attention on something specific at the moment, awareness can be described as the complementary force that reminds us of our environment and brings attention back to our surroundings.
During a mediation practice, when our mind wanders away, awareness is what gently invites us to come back to mindfulness, this present moment. When we are able to return to the present moment, we become aware of all that is present – our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment. While easier said than done, our continued practice helps create more spaciousness of a more comprehensive lived experience.
- 3-minute Body Scan Meditation – Greater Good in Action
- 6-minute Breathing Meditation – Mindful.org
- 30-minute Mindful Awareness Meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn – Mindful.org
Now before we get into welcoming everything, I want to acknowledge how hard this practice may be, so hang in there with me.
Mindfulness invites us to welcome everything, every thought, every feeling, and every sensation. Whether we view whatever is arising as positive or negative, we place the welcome mat out for it all. The goal here is not to turn away from something that might be painful, difficult, uncomfortable, or adverse. This does not mean that we agree with a painful bodily sensation or a difficult emotion, it means that we acknowledge what is present at any given moment.
Frank Ostaseski, author of The Five Invitations writes, “To welcome everything and push away nothing is an invitation to discover a deeper dimension of our humanity, to tap into something beyond our habitual selves. We can gain access to some part of us that includes, but is not driven by, our reactivity… At the deepest level, we are being asked to bring forward a kind of fearless receptivity. It begins with our own commitment to notice how we cling to comfort and pull away from suffering.”
The poet Rumi expresses this same sentiment in his poem, The Guest House:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
The welcome mat at my front door says, “Come as you are”. My intention when buying the mat is that whoever is coming to our home can come as their authentic self. They don’t have to come polished and poised. Whatever is right or wrong will be received compassionately and lovingly. It is an act of love to welcome everything in your experience. Love yourself well.
- 12-minute Meditation – Welcome Everything – Mindful.org
- Book – The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully
- Welcoming Practice*- The Vining Center (*has reference to God within the practice)
- 9-minute Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn – YouTube
Practices of self-compassion have become popularized because of research by Kristin Neff, PhD, and Christopher Germer, PhD. While many of us are familiar with what practicing compassion for others look like, it can be difficult to pinpoint what will help me be more self-compassionate.
Neff defines self-compassion as, “Acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality, you stop to tell yourself ‘this is really difficult right now’, how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?”
As we practice self-compassion through mindfulness we might notice increases in three main areas; self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is related to our ability to be warm and understanding when we face suffering or difficulties. Common humanity is the realization that the human experience contains suffering and we do not suffer alone. Through mindfulness, we are able to view our situations with openness and clarity.
Self-compassion involves reorienting the way we relate and treat ourselves. “With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience. This allows us to hold ourselves in love and connection, giving ourselves the support and comfort needed to bear the pain while providing optimal conditions for growth and transformation” (Neff, 2023).
- 5-Minute – Self-Compassion Break – Selfcompassion.org
- Tonglen Practice (Meditation starts at 2:15) – Pema Chodron
- 19-Minute Self-Compassion with Kristin Neff, PhD – TED Talk
Showing Up Wholeheartedly
When we are able to live fully, we experience the full spectrum of light and darkness. In those dark times, we can hold on to the hope that we will grow from every experience. To support our process of living and growth, mindfulness offers principles that allow us to have the capacity to show up wholeheartedly in every situation. Mindful awareness brings our attention to what is happening in this present moment, welcoming everything encourages us to not turn away from our suffering, and self-compassion asks us to bring warmth and understanding to all circumstances. Experiencing trauma, grief, or loss can come at a great cost, but if we can hold both the suffering and the growth together, we invite healing and wholeness into our lives. For many, recovery from trauma means no longer being triggered, absence of distress, and growth. The poem, The Cure by Albert Huffstickler (1989) considers maybe it’s not the cure we are seeking, but the wise way of seeing one’s life:
We think we get over things.
We don’t get over things.
Or say, we get over the measles
but not a broken heart.
We need to make that distinction.
That things that become part of our experience
never become less a part of our experience.
How can I say it?
The way to ‘get over’ a life is to die.
Short of that, you move with it,
let the pain be pain,
not in the hope that it will vanish
but in the faith that it will fit in,
find its place in the shape of things
and be then not any less pain but true to form.
Because anything natural has an inherent shape
and will flow towards it.
And a life is as natural as a leaf.
That’s what we’re looking for:
not the end of a thing but the shape of it.
Wisdom is seeing the shape of your life
without obliterating (getting over) a single instant of it.
Practice with MAM – View the calendar of our current offerings
- Neff, K. (2013). Self-compassion. Hodder & Stoughton.
- Ostaseski, F. & Remen, R. N. (2019). The five invitations: Discovering what death can teach us about living fully. Flatiron Books.
- Stanley, E. A. (2021). Widen the window: Training your brain and body to thrive during stress and recover from trauma. Yellow Kite.
- Tedeschi, R, & Calhoun, L. (1995). Trauma & transformation: Growing in the aftermath
of suffering. Sage Publications, Inc. https://doi-org.ciis.idm.oclc.org/10.4135/9781483326931
- Tedeschi, R. G., & Moore, B. A. (2021). Posttraumatic growth as an integrative therapeutic philosophy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 31(2), 180–194. https://doi.org/10.1037/int0000250
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hyperion.
- Schwartz, A. (2020). The post-traumatic growth guidebook: Practical mind-body tools to heal trauma, Foster Resilience and awaken your potential. PESI Publishing & Media.
- Ungerland, B. (2020). Post-traumatic growth: Thriving in the face of adversity. Chapel Hill Press.
- Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory
- Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) at MAM