Meeting Grief with Mindfulness: How Embracing Pain Opens the Door to Joy

“We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, these two housed as they are in the same body.” ~Mary Oliver

Mindfulness is a way of relating to our experience that opens us to the totality of it—that is, we learn to embrace it all, the joy and the heartache. But some experiences are harder to be with.

It’s difficult to be with physical or emotional pain, and we often retreat to the mind in search of distractions. But when we are able to fully be with our experience, something that feels like magic happens.

It was a Thursday morning at 5am when I received news of my mother’s illness. She was septic and in the ICU at her local hospital.

I knew that sepsis was serious, but also that it’s treatable, especially for someone her age (sixty-nine). So after speaking with my aunt, who was with her, I went about my day.

I nagged my kids to put on their shoes, as per usual, then got them off to school and ate breakfast. I had a lot to do that day. I also had plans to help a friend move some boxes to her new apartment. The thought of my mom in the hospital accompanied me like a curious stranger throughout my morning.

It was an odd day in late April. The sun was out, but it was colder than what is usual for that time of year.

I was standing outside near my car as my friend and her husband hauled some of their boxes up to the stairs to their new apartment. The quality of the air caught my attention—it was so clean—and I wandered over to a small field between two houses.

Standing there, I thought of my mom and the gravity of her situation. It saturated my body, and mind and seemed to demand my full attention, as if imploring me to stay and be it.

For a moment everything fell silent. Looking out at the field, it sparkled from tiny flakes of snow that had touched its surface and liquefied. There were a few goats munching contentedly on grass.

I breathed in deep. I felt my feet on the ground and the breath entering and leaving my body. My eyes filled with tears and there was a deep knowing about the seriousness of my mother’s condition, despite overwhelming belief from others that she would get through it.

“I feel like this is it,” I cried to my husband the following day.

The evening before, her cardiologist had come bounding into her room while I was on the phone with my aunt. We had been weighing whether and when I should travel there, but we’d decided to wait a couple of days to see how the infection responded to treatment.