Acute grief is one of life’s most painful experiences and in our culture we don’t want it to linger. We often urge ourselves to get over it. We push ourselves to move past acute grief. A person suffering from complicated grief often hears a chorus of harsh grief criticism. “Stop wallowing.” “You need to put this behind you and move on.” “You need to get over it.” These admonitions are impossible to follow and can provoke hurt, anger, guilt and shame. What the person needs – indeed what everyone experiencing intense grief needs – is acceptance and support from others and also from themselves. In other words they need compassionate support and they need to practice self-compassion. Many people don’t know what that means.
Compassion is a feeling of wanting to help a person who is suffering. The word compassion brings to mind ideas like “tenderness,” “kindness,” and “understanding.” Most of us try to be compassionate to others, but often we are not compassionate to ourselves. We often find it difficult to practice self-compassion even when we are always very kind and understanding of other people.
Being self-compassionate means treating ourselves gently instead of being harsh and self-critical. It means remembering that everyone suffers and everyone makes mistakes. When we are grieving we oftenfeel estranged from others. When we practice self-compassion, we remember that everyone grieves. A further aspect of self-compassion is keeping our suffering in perspective. We need to acknowledge that what we are feeling is important without allowing our feelings to completely take over. Self-compassion means remembering that we have been happy before and we can be happy again, even if it’s hard to imagine feeling that way.
The ability to exercise self-compassion is especially important when we are grieving because feelings can be very intense and insistent. Self-compassion facilitates successful mourning. It allows us to see that grief is a form of love and reminds us to do what we can to both accept and ease the pain. Self-compassion after a loss means remembering that we all experience loss and we all grieve, even if each person experiences grief in her or his own unique way. We all suffer when we lose a loved one. Additionally, self-compassion helps us be mindful of the natural oscillation between confronting and accepting the pain and setting it aside. We accept our yearning, sadness and urgent thoughts of the person who died and we also accept and appreciate the times that we find respite from the pain. People with complicated grief almost always have difficulty with self-compassion.
The good news is that we can decide to practice self-compassion, and if we are having trouble doing so, we can learn.
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