Ayurveda's Answer to Healing from Grief

Ayurveda suggests that in coping with grief we acknowledge the pain on our journey to healing

Sweta Vikram

I saw a woman on the street the other day screaming, “I can’t take it any more.” People looked at her as if she was unhinged; on the other hand, I felt deeply connected to her emotions despite being contagiously resilient and optimistic.

Typically, I love January because it is my birthday month. Also, after all the fun of the holidays, for me January is a month of stillness, reflection, and self-growth. But January 2021 started with devastating news: one of my best friend’s sons was killed in a road accident. Even as I write this piece, my heart and mind refuse to accept the news. Grief. Then on January 6, the leader of our nation incited a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol? We witnessed a threat to our democracy, racial intolerance, and bigotry on a deeper level. Grief.

My friend who lost her son and I have known each other from the time we were 17. With our girl gang, we did a holiday catch-up call on Christmas morning. We talked about everything under the sun and giggled endlessly. How could she lose a teenager son a week later — someone who had stepped out to pick up pizza with three other people?

Most of us are experiencing grief currently. One of the meanings of grief, according to Webster’s Dictionary, is “an unfortunate outcome.”

The violent chaos that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol on January 6t has filled us with grief. Losing friends and family and colleagues to the virus has filled us with grief. Not being able to physically be there to comfort loved ones has filled us with grief. Untimely deaths, job losses, emotional breakdown, relationships ending of those we care about has filled us with grief. Missing big moments and celebrations has filled us with grief. Not being able to hug people and step out of the house can fill us with grief.

Ayurveda Says

What can grief look like? Not being able to focus and have coherent conversations. Spaciness. Emptiness. Scatter-mindedness. Fear. Anxiety. Not knowing what is going to happen next. Sleeplessness. Loss of appetite. Aches and pains. Poor circulation. Restlessness. This would be a vata imbalance from an Ayurvedic perspective. Vata is made up of air and ether.

What grief can also look like? Sitting on your couch with your hands in a pack of comforting junk food and trying not to engage with the world or move is another expression of grief. Lethargy. Emotional eating. Clinging to memories. Detaching. Feeling depressed. This would be a kapha imbalance. Remember, kapha is made up of water and earth elements. An imbalance could make you feel heavy, cloudy, sticky, and cold…in your thoughts, emotions, and physically.

I pride myself on being dependable in the times of crisis and knowing what to do when things go awry. I dressed up my mom when she died. I put kohl in her eyes and lipstick on her cold lips. I attended her cremation, lifted her body along with the men in my family, and rested her gently in the electric crematorium before touching her feet and saying goodbye. But I responded differently to the news of my friend’s son’s death. I found myself stammering, shaking, and searching for words. I could not sleep or shut the chatter in my mind. I worked out excessively. On January 6, I turned numb and inward. I didn’t want to move.

Grief shows up differently every single time. Grief manifests differently in each of us.

Ayurveda suggests that we acknowledge the pain. It emphasizes the importance of feeling our emotions, as opposed to suppressing them and ignoring them. It suggests giving yourself the permission to be where you are in your journey of grief. Ayurveda reiterates that we need to digest and process our feelings and thoughts. If we do not, we risk those emotions getting stuck inside us. They can turn to ama (toxins) and manifest as disease in the physical body. In a world afflicted by a pandemic, we all have to learn to depend on ourselves too. Because it is a challenging time for everyone. That is why healing has to be (often) intentional and can start as baby steps. How else do we end the vicious cycle and anchor ourselves?

Grief
Grief. Courtesy Wikimedia

Ayurveda Recommends

1. Eat nutritious and nourishing meals: Some grieving people lose their appetite or forget to eat (Vata imbalance); others might overeat and use food as a crutch for unhealed trauma (Kapha imbalance). Then there are people who might want to blame, criticize, and self-medicate with alcohol (oftentimes, Pitta imbalance). Ojas (vigor and vitality) is something that is often depleted during this difficult time, and diet is a great way to increase it. Simple foods such as figs, dates, almonds, ghee, and coconut are amazing at increasing ojas, and are very easy to incorporate into any diet.

2. Practice breathing exercises: The lungs are especially affected by sadness, so breathing exercises, or pranayama, are a great way to take care of oneself. It promotes optimal prana flow and brings ease and steadiness to both the mind and body. A daily practice of Bhastrika and Nadi Shodhana pranayama can be particularly helpful to bring relief. When prana (energy) is moving in the right direction, we can find more “sthira” aka stability and ease in our mind and body.

3. Spend time in nature: In an article on nature awareness as a healing therapy, Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, explains this key healing quality of nature as it pertains to grief: “In nature one becomes aware of the infinite circle of life. There is evidence of decay, destruction and death; there are also examples of rejuvenation, restoration, and renewal. The never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth can put life and death into perspective and impart a sense of constancy after experiencing a life changing loss or a death.”

4. Stick to a routine: Creating routines and structure can have a powerful impact on our ability to heal. Mourning the death of a loved or our democracy or our nation can make the process of returning to daily life and recreating a routine difficult to fathom. It will make you question, “What’s the point? Life in a disarray. Why should I bother?” However, this difficult change also creates an opportunity for growth in our daily lives. When we are grieving, many of us forget to look at the clock, let alone honor the circadian rhythm. Every dosha in Ayurveda (especially vata) can benefit from regularity and routine.

5. Add self-care to your life: Go to bed by 10 p.m. and wake before 6 a.m. This article that I wrote for SEEMA Magazine will explain why you might be waking up at 2 a.m. Meditate daily. Massage your feet at night. Get enough sleep. Read content that nourishes, not depletes you. Disconnect from social media and news channels at least a few hours before going to bed. Adding daily self-care to our calendar can bring awareness to our needs as well as ways to cope. Talk to those who uplift you, not those who bring you down.

“The dealing with grief cannot be bypassed. It is a road you must walk, a race you must finish and no one else can do it for you. If you try to sneak through it without it seeing you, it will seep into your life when you least expect it. Grief will not let you go until you satisfy what it came to teach you.” ~ Kate McGahan