How to turn your grief into joy Mindfulness Man Martin Stepek
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.