In early 2020, my husband, the love of my life, took his life. He was 34 years old. His suicide was completely unexpected. He left letters revealing that he had struggled with anxiety and trauma his entire life; however, he kept these feelings completely hidden. When he ended his life, there were no visible signs that he was considering suicide, or that he was suffering at all.
After practicing yoga and meditation for several years, I had become an enthusiast of mindfulness meditation. Immediately after my husband’s death, I dove deep into my mindfulness practice. I knew that my body was in overdrive, and I needed help regulating the shock of this unexpected, traumatizing loss.
What I didn’t realize was the extent to which mindfulness would foster healing and help me process my grief.
Using Mindfulness to Feel Safe
Mindfulness is a mental state of being aware of what you’re seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling in the present moment. The practice of mindfulness, then, is making an intentional effort, through breathing or meditation, to get to this mental state.
Central to the practice of mindfulness is the release of racing thoughts. As thoughts float in during mindfulness meditation, we welcome them without judgment — and then gently escort them out. When the mind wanders, we aim to come back to our anchor: Our slow and deliberate breath.
At first, mindfulness offered me emergency relief. In the days and weeks following my husband’s death, waves of panic frequently washed over me. When this happened, wherever I was — at the funeral home, in the grocery store — I would stop in my tracks, close my eyes, inhale, exhale deeply and focus on the pattern of my breath.
Within minutes, sometimes seconds, my heart rate would slow. My chest would loosen. The panic would subside. And inevitably, the rush of tears would release as the adrenaline dissipated.
I was safe, even if my life felt like it was falling apart.
Learning to Sit with the Pain
As time and grief wore on, mindfulness became less of a survival tactic, and more of a mechanism to understand my pain. I designated time each day to pull out my meditation mat and, without judgment, just breathe and observe. Slowly, mindfulness became a vehicle through which I could safely sit with my pain. By gently observing my body and my thoughts as they arose, I gradually opened up to experiencing the difficult emotions and physical hurt of loss and grief.
Through this practice, I “got to know” my grief and how it lived in my body. I felt its physical manifestations: tight chest, stomach cramps, clenched jaw, pounding headaches, uncontrollable tears. And I felt the emotional pains: emptiness, confusion, anger, loneliness and the deepest sadness I have ever experienced.
I bore witness to my racing thoughts and the endless list of questions — an inevitable aspect of suicide loss. What didn’t I see? Why didn’t he ask for help? How will I live again? And the most painful and frequent of all: Why?!
With each inhale, I acknowledged these sensations. Then with each exhale, I released them as gently as I could.
With practice, I was able to return to the present: my body, my breath and the solid ground beneath me. Behind the veil, I was processing and healing. But in that moment in time, my only task was to breathe.
Holding and Healing My Grief
As I sat with myself day after day, letting my thoughts come in and go out, I began to notice how mindfulness impacted me off the mat.
I was thinking more clearly. With time, I began to have breakthroughs in understanding my loss. Among the most impactful was realizing that the pain I carry stems from both my and my husband’s suffering. As I observed, these two threads of pain felt different in my body and, in turn, required different responses in order to heal.
The pain that stemmed from my own suffering oscillated from sharp and seething to shocked and numb. I felt abandoned, lost, victimized and deceived by the person I love most in the world. My own pain was anger. It was pity. It was helplessness, emptiness and confusion. My own pain wanted answers.
The pain that stemmed from my husband’s suffering was deep and profoundly sad. This pain was rooted in his trauma, and my futile desire to save him from it. This pain stemmed from years of his accumulated anxiety and hidden depression, and from him masking his suffering until he no longer could. This pain was his, carried over to my body.
Distinguishing the pain I felt (and still feel) for my husband versus the pain I hold for myself has been critical in my healing. It has helped me recognize intrusive thought patterns related to his death and approach them in ways that better serve me.
Making this distinction has also helped me empathize with my husband and his actions. It has allowed me to imagine the gravity of his suffering — while allowing me to separate myself from the aspects of his pain that I could not heal or control.
Moving Forward with Mindfulness and Grief
To cope with my grief and process my trauma, I also see a counselor, participate in support groups and turn to family and friends. Still, mindfulness plays its own essential role in my healing.
The practice has helped me regulate my stress reactions, keeping my body safe in moments of distress. By following my breath, I have survived the waves of panic that are frequent and even fatal in early grief, especially for survivors of suicide loss. Further, mindfulness is always available: Late at night, early in the morning — moments when my support network typically is not.
As my grief evolves, mindfulness continues to be a vehicle through which I express kindness to myself and give gentle space to my broken heart. Through mindfulness, I am making space for my pain with openness and curiosity and learning to coexist with my grief.
If you are thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States at 1-800-273-8255 and Suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
Lenore Matthew, Ph.D., MSW, is a writer, researcher and Doctor of Social Work. She is also a young widow and a survivor of suicide loss. Today, she helps other survivors of trauma and traumatic loss heal through mind/body/spirit interventions, including meditation. Connect with her at www.drlenorematthew.com.