Silent grief

Most of us carry within us some kind of ‘silent grief’ – a disenfranchised grief for something we’ve lost which isn’t publicly recognised, but which may still burden us. Sometimes this grief is quite minor – a slight yearning, a small sense of loss. Perhaps your childhood home, which hasn’t been in your family for years, is being demolished. You feel a little sad about this, knowing you will never be able to see the house you grew up in again, but you’d hardly travel to the address to stage a public funeral on the footpath.

Other forms of silent grief, however, cut us far more deeply, and can over the years lead to feelings of bitterness and isolation. Having a parent with dementia is one form of disenfranchised grief – the person you knew is no longer there, they are no longer acting as your parent, but on the other hand there’s usually been no ritual to mark this transition. Each society has its own forms of disenfranchised grief – losses which aren’t validated by the community. One example, which is slowly changing in some places, is the disenfranchised grief of a same-sex partner who has no say in end-of-life decisions or funeral arrangements. The silent grief can also be the loss of our hopes and dreams, being incapacitated in some way, a past injustice, or historical wrongs which haven’t been acknowledged.

Immigration is another form of loss which isn’t generally validated by the new host country. Immigrants are supposed to be delighted and happy they’ve been accepted into their new home, and there is usually an expectation of rapid assimilation. Yes, by all means bring some of your wonderful cuisine along and open a restaurant where your whole family can work long hours to feed us. But apart from this, do make sure you quickly learn how things work here. And please don’t go hankering after the ways of your old country…

A regular mindfulness practice will, sooner or later, open us up to the silent grief within us. At first this might be vague, a generic form of Weltschmerz, feeling the pain of the world. Over time, however, we become more attuned to the losses inside us, and what might trigger feelings of grief. Do you feel very moved by the online footage of the teenage Syrian refugee who has brought his puppy with him to Europe? ‘I love my dog’, he says, ‘everyone told me I couldn’t bring him along. But I have water, and food for him. I love my dog.’ Maybe you had to leave a beloved family pet behind when you moved countries? Maybe you are unable to keep a dog where you live? The Internet, the news, daily life, they are full of triggers for our silent griefs. Grief is just a natural part of life – there is nothing wrong with grief. But it helps to understand where it comes from, how it affects us, what might trigger it. It helps to hold the silent grief with mindful compassion, to honour and respect it, so it’s no longer a disenfranchised grief but simply becomes part of our common humanity.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one of your silent griefs? Perhaps you can invent a small ritual to mark it? It doesn’t need to be elaborate – a simple gesture to acknowledge the grief, such as lighting a candle, or placing a flower in a stream and watching it float away, can be very powerful.

Anja Tanhane

Releasing the old

There is nothing more precious to us than the breath – without it, we can’t survive for more than a few minutes, and yet we comfortably let it go hundreds of times a day. The breath flows out, there is a pause, it flows back in. Even though the breath is so terribly important to us, we instinctively know we have to release it. There is no point in holding on to the breath, in clinging to the old, stale air, just in case it might come in handy one day. We need to let go of the used-up air, so that fresh, oxygenated air can flow back in and nourish and sustain our body.

It’s a good analogy for our life, where it’s so easy to grasp on to what’s old or outdated, ‘just in case’. We do this with our possessions, of course, but more importantly, we do it with unhelpful behaviour patterns, both in relation to ourselves and with other people. It often takes someone else, a trusted friend or therapist or mentor, to point these patterns out to us. Usually we’re so caught up in them, we’re like a fish which doesn’t know what water is. Even when we do become more aware, it can be surprisingly difficult to let go. Releasing old patterns and memories requires a sense of trust – trust that the void which has been left will be filled by something which is helpful to us. It is the same sense of trust we show every time we release our breath, when we leave our body empty, having faith that the next breath will flow back in and provide us with the life-sustaining oxygen we need.

Sometimes when we’re stressed, it can be wonderfully healing to really release the breath – either with a big sigh, or, if this isn’t possible because of other people around, at least by taking a slightly deeper breath and extending the out-breath, allowing ourselves to relax into it. In a similar way, it can be helpful to consciously release something which no longer serves us. All cultures have rituals for releasing and letting go. Funerals are the most universal of these – we all understand how important it is to formally say good bye to a person who has passed away. Yet many of us live with disenfranchised grief – grief for something we have lost, but which has no public recognition, no ritual or communal coming together to mark it. Next week we will look more deeply at this ‘silent grief’, and explore how mindfulness can help us to work with it in the absence of societal rituals and support.

Weekly practice idea:

A few times a day, take three slightly deeper breaths, releasing them with a sigh. Notice how you feel after-wards.

Anja Tanhane