How to turn your grief into joy Mind­ful­ness Man Martin Ste­pek

Sunday Herald Life - - MIND & BODY - Martin Ste­pek is founder of Ten­forZen, of­fer­ing guided mind­ful­ness ses­sions in handy, 10 min­utes a day, au­dio cour­ses. Au­thor of four books, he is fre­quently asked to speak on mind­ful­ness, his re­mark­able fam­ily her­itage, and on busi­ness. See ten­forzen.co.

IT’S that time of year again for me. You’ll have yours too. The dates that make you re­mem­ber. For some peo­ple it’s Christ­mas. If you’ve lost fam­ily then, Christ­mas can be a time you dread be­cause all the grief, loss, and the stark fact of them not be­ing there, can weigh you down for weeks be­fore De­cem­ber 25.

For me it’s a four-week pe­riod start­ing in a few days’ time. Wed­nes­day, Oc­to­ber 25, is the 75th an­niver­sary of my grand­mother’s death in Te­heran, and the fol­low­ing day, Oc­to­ber 26, is the fifth an­niver­sary of my fa­ther’s death. Just over three weeks later it’s the an­niver­sary of the date my mother died, also five years ago. That they died only three weeks apart means I re­mem­ber both of them for the whole of this pe­riod of the year. My mind can’t sep­a­rate out their deaths as two events. It’s one stretched chunk of time, a blur of woe, and memories of be­ing washed over by emo­tions while or­gan­is­ing fu­ner­als and try­ing to en­sure that my chil­dren were han­dling the death of both their re­main­ing grand­par­ents.

The deaths of my par­ents was real. I saw the de­cline then the ab­sence of life in each of what were once liv­ing bod­ies.

The death of my grand­mother Jan­ina is dif­fer­ent, I never knew her. I de­cided to de­lib­er­ately in­vent her life afresh, to cul­ti­vate and nour­ish her in me.

She was 40 when she died, of star­va­tion and ex­haus­tion, in what we’d now call a refugee hospi­tal in Per­sia, now Iran. Two months ear­lier she had fi­nally been evac­u­ated from the Soviet Union, one of tens of thou­sands of sur­vivors from mas­sive eth­nic cleans­ings in eastern Poland by Stalin’s troops in early 1940. De­ported with her were my fa­ther and his two younger sis­ters. They were teenagers.

On re­lease from their labour camp in late 1941 they had to make their way from near the Arc­tic Cir­cle to what is now Uzbek­istan, and hav­ing no money and lit­tle food, they fre­quently got lost of stuck in sev­eral feet of snow in Siberia. By the time of their fi­nal voy­age to free­dom across the Caspian Sea in Au­gust 1941, they had been wan­der­ers and in­ter­nal refugees in the Soviet Union for al­most a year, most of which time they suf­fered mal­nu­tri­tion and fa­tigue. I knew lit­tle of this un­til I started prac­tis­ing mind­ful­ness, which I have since used to learn as much about Jan­ina as I could, not only to try to know her in ret­ro­spect, but to cul­ti­vate a more uni­ver­sal sense of com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy for oth­ers. Not just other peo­ple, but all forms of life. Ev­ery time I drink wa­ter I bring her to mind. A woman who died in large part for the want of wa­ter on her odyssey to free­dom. Her or­gans started to mal­func­tion for the lack of wa­ter. Ev­ery sip a cul­ti­va­tion of com­pas­sion. Ev­ery sip a nur­tur­ing of a de­ter­mi­na­tion to do what I can to help change the cul­ture of hu­man­ity so that it makes it truly unac­cept­able that liv­ing, sen­tient be­ings can be sub­jected to such ag­o­nies.

I do this be­cause I know that com­pas­sion and kind­ness are the finest of hu­man val­ues. I do it be­cause not to do so means I will treat oth­ers’ pain with less em­pa­thy and prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance than I oth­er­wise could have felt and done.

At a sci­en­tific level, this is me de­lib­er­ately us­ing my un­der­stand­ing that our minds are neu­ro­plas­tic. That means that ev­ery ex­pe­ri­ence we have changes our brain and there­fore changes who we are. My mind­ful­ness prac­tice of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing com­pas­sion at my grand­mother’s un­bear­ably aw­ful death cre­ates a drip by drip growth of love and kind­ness for all life in my mind. I be­come, thought by thought, re­flec­tion by re­flec­tion, a bet­ter hu­man be­ing. Lit­er­ally.

As for my par­ents’ deaths, I think back. I let heal­ing, healthy grief flow, then gen­tly turn it into an avalanche of grat­i­tude for all they did for me. I turn grief to joy.

This is how I mind­fully use and deal with this time of the year.

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