Self-compassion and Grief

In my early 20’s, my grandmother died of lung cancer. She was 58 and we were a young family that had not experienced any deaths. My grandmother, who was truly our matriarch, had opted for hospice and the nurse who was with us that day – she was sent by an angel. She guided us through the dying process, helped us understand, answered our questions and helped us normalize our feelings and reactions. I am forever grateful for her presence, as she showed us the meaning of true compassion.

The struggle of grief that followed her death was unlike any experience I had ever known. Without a guide to walk with me through it, I struggled. I was constantly questioning my feelings – judging them for being too intense or too flippant. Often, I felt like I was going crazy, and my own inner voice was confirming those thoughts. “You’re not doing this right.” “You’re grieving the wrong way.” I just kept thinking, if I was grieving correctly, then I would not be in so much pain. If I was grieving correctly, I’d be able to find a solution to ease the pain. I was my own worst critic and harshest judge.

When someone we love dies, we are struck twice. Once by our own grief and then again by our reaction to our grief. Self-compassion is a powerful way to reduce our own suffering. Many bereaved know that they are capable of compassion for others, and they know exactly what to say to help someone else. However, when it comes to matters of their own heart, they are at a loss for how to have compassion for themselves. They may not even realize that they are lacking that compassion.

Self-compassion can help us cope with the intense feelings of grief and our own reactions to our loss. Grief can be a scary time full of anxiety, shame, guilt, and sadness. While experiencing these primary grief emotions bereaved can become overrun with self-criticism and judgment. Some bereaved feel that there is something they could have said, done, or known that would have changed the outcome of how their loved one died or, at the very least, could have protected them in some way. This self-criticism or judgment then causes a secondary layer of pain in the form of increased suffering and increased incidence of a more complicated grief journey.

We all will be affected by the death of someone we love, multiple times in our lives. And, how we react to our emotions can change the trajectory and intensity of our grief. A mom may tell herself that, because she is a mom, she should have known about her son’s drug use. A husband may say that he should’ve seen the signs of depression before his wife completed suicide. A brother may feel shame and sadness that he is relieved that his brother’s suffering is over. How we think, and what we say to ourselves in these moments, can either comfort or compound our grief. Based on the research and the teachings of Kristin Neff, Ph.D. self-compassion is an essential coping tool that people must cultivate as a skill. Self-compassion includes self-kindness, awareness of our common humanity, and mindfulness. These three components have been shown in research to decrease suffering and increase comfort while grieving and through all of life’s struggles.

If I could speak to my younger self and teach her self-compassion, I would encourage her to be aware of her self-talk and be kind. I would tell her that it’s ok to miss her grandma so much that she cries herself to sleep for months after she is gone. I would let her know that it is normal for the bereaved to hear their voice or see them in a crowded mall, that is all part of the seeking and yearning we experience when someone dies.

Most of all, I would wrap my arms around her and show her love and acceptance of her feelings.