A Practice to Work with Grief

Kimberly Brown takes us through the practice of “standing on the earth,” which can help us in times of great change and grief.

Kimberly Brown
20 May 2024
Photo by Sergei A.

In August 2011, a doctor at a hospital in mid-central Wisconsin called to tell me my mother was in the intensive care unit. She explained that Mom was suffering from dehydration and kidney failure and had been brought by ambulance to the emergency room. Sitting on my couch in my apartment in downtown Manhattan, I was angry and impatient, interrupting the doctor to ask, “Is she dying?” There was a pause as she considered her words. “Well, I can’t be sure . . . but it looks pretty bad. I think you might want to come here.”

When someone is alive, it’s almost impossible to imagine that they’ll no longer be here.

That was exactly what I didn’t want to do. My mom, suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as emphysema, had been in the hospital four times during the past year, discharging herself as soon as possible and refusing to comply with the doctors’ instructions to eat, take her medication, and quit drinking and smoking. I thought this time would be the same as the others, and I was mad even as I booked a flight to Mosinee Regional Airport and began packing. My friend Stephanie came by to help me, and as I sorted through my drawers and closets, she said, “I think you should pack a dress.” Annoyed, I asked, “What for?” To which she replied, “Just in case there’s a funeral.” I wore that dress a week later. Despite knowing that she’d been in decline for several years, that her illnesses were progressive and worsening, that she was more than eighty years old, and that she badly abused her body, I was the last person to comprehend that my mother was dying and was utterly shocked when it happened.

When someone is alive, especially someone we love or know well, it’s almost impossible to imagine that they’ll no longer be here. Even if, like my mom, they’ve been sick for months or years, the irrevocable and mysterious nature of death feels almost beyond our comprehension.

Buddhist students like me are continually reminded to recognize the impermanence of all things and to remember that every human will get sick, grow older, die, and lose all we hold dear. We’re trained like this so we can face the truth of our precious and brief lives and help alleviate suffering for ourselves and others. Death and grief are unavoidable, but it’s possible to learn to respond to this fact of life in ways that are supportive and strengthen our relationships.

Although a sudden death seems like a big surprise, we all know it’s not; it’s just that we tend to forget that our lives are impermanent and vulnerable and could end at any moment. One practice from the early Buddhist teachings is designed to help us remember: the Five Contemplations, or the Five Remembrances. It’s a way to understand reality and prevent us from denying or rejecting the truth. If you recite the reminders every day, you might find yourself less surprised by the impermanence of life and more compassionate to yourself and others, because recognizing the brevity and fragility of our own lives means recognizing the poignancy and preciousness of all lives.

The Five Contemplations are:

  1. I am of the nature to age and grow old. There is no way to escape aging and growing older.
  2. I am of the nature to get sick. There is no way to escape sickness.
  3. I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.
  4. All that is dear to me and everyone I love is of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Some believe that this moment in time is the most dangerous and divisive of any in our human history, as we experience the devastating results of environmental damage and pollution, recognize the deep inequalities among us as a result of ignorance and greed, and face a mental health crisis rooted in a lack of compassion and a failure to prioritize the development of mindfulness and generosity. At no other time has it been so clear that we need each other like never before, that we are connected through our shared suffering and joy, and that we can use these terrible challenges to come together and share our abundant resources, reconnect to our wisdom and courage, expand our circle of care, and create a healthy and equitable world for everyone. If you or someone you love has experienced a loss, and neither I nor anyone else can tell you how to act or be.

Using mindfulness practices can bring you closer to both your sorrows and your gladness, so you can welcome life as it unfolds with presence, balance, and peace. It can give you the confidence to reconnect to yourself and rediscover that you have everything you need to navigate grief and mourning. Tools like mindfulness practice will help you welcome all that’s in your heart — the painful, the delightful, the ugly, the beautiful — so you can become what you already are: a dear and loving friend to yourself.

This practice helps you to do so in the face of sudden change and death, after which you might have an impulse to do something. To contact someone, to make arrangements, to figure something out — or to scream at the top of your lungs and smash a few dishes just to ensure yourself that you’re not dreaming. But don’t. For a few moments, don’t do anything, just stand there. Stand on the earth, take a few breaths, and wait a few minutes before you speak or act.

Standing on the Earth

You don’t have to take a formal meditation posture or a special seat to gather your attention and feel your feet on the earth. Try this exercise anytime you feel swept away by shock or confusion or when you feel unsteady and ungrounded.

1. Stop what you’re doing and stand up. If you’re unable to stand because of disability or health reasons, stay seated and adapt this practice to your ability.

2. Bring your full attention to your feet. Feel the soles, the toes, the tops of your feet. Notice the weight of your body and feel the ground beneath you.

3. Raise your arms above your head. Push down gently into your feet, straightening your knees. Notice you’re securely attached to the earth even as you’re stretching to the sky.

4. Let your arms hang loosely by your sides. Take a few breaths, inhaling to your toes and exhaling from your belly.

5. Repeat as necessary.

6. Before you get up, take a few deep conscious breaths and thank yourself for your care. Afterward, rest and give yourself whatever might make you feel nourished and comforted. Perhaps you have time for a nap, a walk, or a talk with a good friend. Pay loving attention to your feelings, and remember you can always rely on your body and breath to anchor and ground you whenever you need.

Excerpt adapted from Navigating Grief and Loss: 25 Buddhist Practices to Keep Your Heart Open to Yourself and Others. Copyright © 2022 by Kimberly Brown. Reprinted courtesy of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved.

Kimberly Brown

Kimberly Brown

For over a decade, meditation teacher and author Kimberly Brown has offered classes and retreats that emphasize the power of compassion and kindness techniques to reconnect us to ourselves and others. She is the author of Navigating Grief and Loss: 25 Buddhist Practices to Keep your Heart Open to Yourself and Others (November 2022; Prometheus Books) and Steady, Calm, and Brave: 25 Practices for Resilience and Wisdom in a Crisis (revised version to be released in January 2023; Prometheus Books). Kimberly’s teachings provide an approachable pathway to personal and collective well-being through effective and modern meditations based on traditional practices. She is a long-time Buddhist student, trained in both the Tibetan and Insight schools of Buddhism, who retreats regularly at Insight Meditation Society and a Certified Mindfulness Instructor. Kimberly teaches at many meditation centers, including The Rubin Museum, Mindful Astoria, New York Insight Meditation Center, and The Interdependence Project, and is a regular contributor to Tricycle, Lion’s Roar, and other publications. You can learn more about her and her work at meditationwithheart.com.