I was sitting on an airplane when I saw confirmation of my mother’s passing. It came in the form of a broken heart emoji. I froze at the sight. Just that morning, mom was in synagogue for Shavuot services; she recited yizkor and even carried the Torah through the women’s aisle of her Orthodox synagogue. She went home, felt intense heart pain, and was rushed to the ER. She never made it out of surgery. Everything happened so quickly that my emotions couldn’t keep up with the events. All I can recall from the flight was resting my head against a window and silently crying in the thankfully dark plane.
At the time of mom’s passing, I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for close to 15 years. Mindfulness, simply put, is paying attention to the here and now. It’s not dwelling in the past, not projecting into the future, and not casting judgement about the present. It is holding your attention on the experience of the moment – what’s happening in your body, your thoughts, your feelings, and the world around you.
So how was I mindful with my grief? I cried. A lot. I felt the tears stream down my cheek. I experienced the sinking feeling in my stomach, the ache in my chest area, and the constriction of my energy. I felt sadness wash over me and did not run from my pain. I did not ask, “why mom?” I did not entertain past regrets. And I did not spend much time in future thinking.
Following the funeral in New Orleans, we settled in for Shiva. Though I had attended Shiva gatherings in support of others, this was my first as the recipient. I did not expect to experience the many parallels to my mindfulness practice. To begin, the word Shiva means “sitting,” and meditating is often referred to as sitting. Shiva is designed keep our sorrow front and center – to fully experience our reality and associated grief. We cover mirrors to avoid vanity, we greet visitors but don’t engage in small talk, and we refrain from work or other escapes from our sadness. It is profound presence in the here and now.
For me, the most overtly mindful aspect of Shiva was the closing walk. Our Shiva walk consisted of myself, my 87-year-old father (and his dog), my 23-year-old nephew and our Rabbi. We left the house for the first time, other than going to synagogue to recite Kaddish, in a week. We walked silently for 10 minutes, and then paused. Rabbi Gabe explained that this was the conclusion of the deepest layer of grief. He directed us to look around, to notice the trees and surroundings, and to start to appreciate that life continues – a classic mindfulness practice. I silently stood there, felt my grief, felt the warmth of my dad’s frail hand, and keenly heard a bird’s mournful tune. I was in the moment, mindful of my body, feelings, and the world around me.
The power of mindful grieving is healing. Fighting grief only intensifies it. Shiva and the year of mourning that follows provides a structure and guideline to help us be present to our pain and to remind us that it takes time for the hurt to subside. We simply cannot rush grief. And when our heart, body, and mind are present to grief, other unexpected gifts arise.
If and when you lose someone close to you, I wish you the gift of Shiva and mindful grieving to help you cope. The present experience brings depths of sadness alongside unexpected gifts and depths of beauty.
Shayna Kaufmann is the founder of Embrace the Middle, a company focused on female midlife empowerment. Learn more at www.embracethemiddle.com.