"Nothing is more natural than grief, no emotion more common to our daily experience. It's an innate response to loss in a world where everything is impermanent. We don't know what to do with our pain, and we never have. We have been told to bury our feelings, to keep a stiff upper lip to 'get over it and get on with our lives' as though loss were not an inevitable part of life. As a result, our sorrow goes unattended and manifests itself in many unexpected ways," writes Stephen Levine (A Year To Live) who, along with his wife Ondrea, has counseled terminally ill people and their loved ones for more than 30 years. Their grief counseling work has reached many through their books, workshops, and interviews.
In this important work, Levine puts it all together and presents many practices that can help individuals cope with not only the sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one but also the losses that accumulate over the years through disappointments, setbacks, hurts and slights, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Many of these sorrows go unattended and then manifest in various ways a weakening of the body, a diminishment of energy, sleep disturbances, a dimming of intuition, a narrowing of the path of our lives, and a decreasing appreciation of life.
"Feelings of loss don't go away; they go deeper. When we lose or never exercise what we need or love, we call the hard contraction in the mind and body 'suffering,' " writes Levine. This apathy and angst can be alleviated by spiritual exercises designed to heal the mind, body, and soul. They include breathing exercises, keeping a grief journal, tracking sorrow through the body, talking to the dead, walking, silence, attending the mindset of loss, breaking the isolation of fear, forgiveness, overcoming perfection, singing, saying goodbye to loved ones through "heart speech," practicing loving-kindness, tapping the heart to draw awareness and healing into that area (see excerpt), and much more.
Levine outlines the three stages to working with mental and physical sorrow: softening the pain, cultivating mercy, and making peace with loss. We liked the mantra he suggests for those who are unhinged by chronic sorrow: "May I get the most out of this possible." We also were gratified to see Levine emphasize the importance of opening the heart through love, compassion, and forgiveness three spiritual practices that are always emphasized in the religious traditions as curative and restorative measures.