I wasn’t naturally good at grieving. I ruminated over rampant thoughts and made myself suffer immensely. But now, I view it more simply: Grief isn’t something you get over with the passing of time, it’s something you transcend with growth.
In 2010, my wife and I were newly married, in our mid-thirties and thinking we were about to start a family. Early in the pregnancy, we learned my wife had some medical issues that warranted at least a little extra concern from the doctors. I frankly didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it was a case of the doctors just being extra cautious, as doctors are wont to do.
That quickly changed during a brief conversation in the parking lot of the doctor’s office, as we were walking back to our car. My wife said, “Everything I’ve been Googling says the baby will die at the end of the second trimester.”
I was really taken aback by that comment. That was the first time I considered it a real possibility something could wrong. I still thought the baby would be fine, though, but I at least considered that it was possible that it wouldn’t. But the concept of losing a baby was so foreign that I couldn’t even imagine it.
A week and a half later, I woke up early on Mother’s Day with my wife, half in tears, telling me that we had to go to the emergency room.
First Pregnancy: The Great Unknown
First-time pregnancies for couples are such an unknown experience. Even when things go perfectly, I don’t think anyone has a good idea of what to expect. Our situation was a little more stressful, but my wife’s condition really isn’t all that rare, and I imagine that no pregnancy is completely routine. There’s always something out of the ordinary. Everyone is at the mercy of the unknown, and I remember thinking that it’s normal to be anxious, and it’s also normal for everything to work itself out in the end.
At the hospital, the baby started kicking around at one point as she had been doing the past couple weeks and was perfectly normal and healthy for a baby that gestational age. But I had never got the chance to feel it before. My wife grabbed my hand, placed it on her belly and I felt two little kicks. That would be the only thing I would ever have that would come close to physical contact with my daughter while she was alive.
After that day I grieved and suffered for a long time. I tried the usual things. Peer support groups. A therapist specializing in infant loss. SSRIs. Nothing really helped.
I started looking for answers elsewhere. The first thing I read that resonated with me was by Eckhart Tolle. That was the first time I had ever heard that I am not my thoughts. What an amazing discovery. Another teacher I really liked was Thich Nhat Hanh. I read every book I could get my hands on. I also started meditating daily. It wasn’t an overnight success, in fact, it was the opposite. The changes are so small, they are imperceptible in the short term but add up big in the long term.
These are the four most important things I learned about grief:
- Attachment to form causes suffering. It’s not the loss that causes us to suffer, it’s the way our ego attaches itself to what we lost. It’s not that we shouldn’t care about what we lost, as if we were robots on autopilot. But we should eventually be able to recognize that the suffering is just the ego’s attachment to the loss. The worst part is that our ego can use our pain to try to replace what we lost. It’s easy and normal to resist letting go of our pain.
- Accept the loss. If attachment causes the suffering, how do we let go of attachment and accept the loss? It’s probably going to seem impossible to do at the beginning. The most meaningful thing I have read about accepting loss is that if you can’t accept it, at least accept the fact that you can’t accept it. That’s much easier to do. That little step opens a tiny bit of space that will begin your transcendence into acceptance.
- Mindfulness will quiet the ego enough for you to not suffer. We all have a prefrontal cortex in our brain that constantly spits out thoughts. Those thoughts cloud our perception of reality. A ten-minute meditation, practiced daily, over time will quiet those thoughts, and give us just enough clarity to choose to ignore the thoughts when they do arise. Thich Nhat Hanh uses a great analogy to illustrate this. Imagine you are swimming across a lake while carrying a big load of rocks. Those rocks are our thoughts, and they will weigh us down until we go under. Mindfulness is like giving us a boat. We still must carry the load of rocks across the lake, but with the boat now we are able to do it.
- Nothing is ever really lost anyway. Thich Nhat Hanh uses another beautiful analogy to illustrate how nothing is ever truly lost. Imagine a cloud in the sky. Eventually, the cloud will turn to rain, and the rain falls to the ground and becomes a river, which eventually runs into the sea. The cloud may not be visible, but it certainly has not been lost. That’s just like the loved one we are grieving, they aren’t really truly lost.
When you put these four lessons together, you can realize that grief is only an emotion, but it is ultimately not who we are, it’s just something we temporarily experience. Transcending grief doesn’t come in one big cathartic moment, but with mindfulness, we slowly gain enough clarity to let it go.