Grief has been on my mind lately.
I lost a daughter to stillbirth at 37 weeks. Since that horrible August day in 2008 when Elsa’s heart stopped, so many layers have been added to my life story and I don’t think about her every day anymore. But when I visited a new gyn a couple weeks ago, I was unprepared for the exposure to dozens of pregnant women moving through the waiting room – some alone, some with significant others, some getting ultrasounds to find out the gender of their new little one, some getting unexpected procedures that delayed the start of my own appointment. The grief snuck up from behind and caught me off guard, welling up in my throat and leaking out of my eyes. Suddenly it was hard to breath, hard to see, hard to hope. I didn’t see it coming. My heart hurt, and it hurt for a long time after that. I’ve been missing Elsa.
In my church, we’ve grieved many deep losses over the past year, including the death of Luther Ward who served as a founding member of our congregation in 1962 and was still cheerfully telling jokes to anyone who would listen at the back of the sanctuary a few short months ago. At my work, I’ve been guiding a group of students in a therapy group related to the loss of parents and grandparents over the past year – losses that make it so difficult to stay present to their work as students heading into finals week – and the grief in the room is thick and heart-wrenching. And then this weekend, I read Bridge to Terabithia, joining my tears with the millions of readers over time who have been swept up in the loss and pain of the book’s ending (based on a real-life experience of the author’s family).
When my grandparents died two years ago, I started a blog post about grief and mindfulness that I never finished. Now that grief is showing up regularly again, I think it’s time.
My grandparents both died in 2017. We had always lived far apart from one another. Over my many years of restless moving, they were settled in a quaint little Iowa town that pulled our family back every two years at Christmastime. Those holiday gatherings were nonnegotiable for my grandparents – my grandfather especially – and we found a way to make them work, even near the end when their health was failing.
As my grandparents aged, it took me by surprise to recognize the depth of my emotional bond with them. They were often reserved, quiet, stubborn, and fiercely independent. And yet it became clear over time that they had created roots that were also my roots – their abiding faith, their unwavering love for me, and their insistence on consistent family gathering created a foundation for my identity as a loved child of God. A better writer than I could put the power of these roots into words. Suffice it to say that their quiet and deep impact on my life cannot be overestimated. I owe so much of who I am to who they were.
When my grandfather was dying, my husband, young son, and I dropped all of our responsibilities and drove the 8 hours to Iowa to be by his side. I had never watched anyone die before. It was agonizing. He was thirsty, he was uncomfortable, and it was sometimes hard to tell when he was conscious. But in true Granddad style, he was mostly lucid and sweet and funny. The night before he died, he requested steak and strawberry ice cream – not that he was able to eat anything more than ice chips – and by golly, I bought him the most expensive steak in the store, and we grilled it up on the neighbor’s grill, and my husband fed it to him in tiny chunks. That man loved steak and ice cream, right up to the very end.
Perhaps my sweetest memory from that time was peeking into my grandfather’s room and catching my six-year-old son sitting at his bedside. With his newly acquired New International Readers Version, and his newly acquired kindergarten-level reading skills, my son was reading Bible verses to encourage Granddad’s spirit – reading in his adorable little-boy voice to my 98-year-old grandfather, a retired pastor, on his death bed. “We will be with him forever,” he read, "so encourage each other with these words of comfort." Later, he learned how to say “First Thessalonians” so he could repeat the reading of this verse at Granddad’s funeral.
This experience taught me the power of showing up. I’m not always great at showing up for the difficult, painful, emotionally vulnerable moments of life. Sometimes there’s nothing to say, and sometimes it’s just awkward. Being guarded and absent can feel pretty nice sometimes, or at least pretty numb – oftentimes, I don’t even notice that I haven’t shown up. But going through the dying process with Granddad was a profoundly beautiful experience, both individually and communally. I was so glad I was there.
It struck me as we drove home from my grandfather’s funeral service that saying goodbye is best done when we are willing to genuinely say hello to whatever is happening – when we have shown up. I thought of the people who flew across the country on short notice to show up for Elsa’s memorial service after her stillbirth, and how much that meant to me. I thought of our dear friend Bob who openly grieved that loss with us, crying for our daughter and his elderly wife who had died months before as we hugged each other in the farmyard. I thought of the clients I have worked with over the years who have courageously shown up for their own pain and grief, walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23) in order to find God with them, in order to find healing. All of this showing up has meant so much to me, has been so enriching, has made life so much better. All this showing up has made the goodbyes (miraculously) beautiful.
So here’s where mindfulness comes in. To grieve well, show up. Wherever you are in the process – maybe there’s a loss coming soon, maybe you’re right in the middle of a loss, maybe the loss has already happened (yesterday or sixty years ago). Maybe it’s a death you’re grieving, or an ended marriage, or a devastating diagnosis. But whatever the loss, and wherever you are now, show up to your feelings, to your community, and to the work involved in the loss. Be present. Don’t numb it all out, don’t run away, don’t miss it. As much as you are able, stay present to the loss in all of its pain, receiving God’s kindness and care toward you along the way, and you will find all that you need.
As I write this, we are entering the Christmas season. Christmas is filled with memories of my lost daughter, and the six children before her lost to miscarriage. “Bless all the dear children in thy tender care” is not just a children’s carol for me, it’s a prayer that speaks my longing for my kids. And the piles of family photos that come through our mail box pull up old feelings of jealousy and bitterness about the families other people got – feelings that are ugly and painful, not to mention largely irrational.
So I practice mindfulness this Christmas season. I will have moments of joy and of sadness, moments of gratitude and of anger, moments of connection and of loneliness. There will likely be times of deep connection with Emmanuel, God with us. (By the way, that’s what we named our first miscarried son - Emmanuel.) And then there will likely be times of spiritual ennui and disillusionment. None of this need be threatening. In the presence of a God who loves us, all feelings are acceptable. All feelings are safe. I choose full presence to my feelings of grief and everything else, knowing that God is also fully present there.
Is grief on your mind too? It’s okay – lean in, open up, feel what you feel, as much as you're ready. Showing up goes a long way.
In the children’s worship class at my church, there is a tug-of-war of sorts over the music. For a long time, the standard request every Sunday morning was Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho. Kids lined up along the wall and sang the song, and then fell down at “the wall came tumbling down” – except that several children found it hilarious every week to remain standing, and then we would sing it again to see if we could get the whole wall down.
After several years of this routine, a number of us teachers felt that we could no longer take it. The song was loud and chaotic, and there was no evident spiritual benefit. Some of the kids really disliked it. So we wielded our adult power and stopped taking that request in favor of songs like This Little Light of Mine and Jesus Loves Me. Before long, a formal petition was registered by one child participant in the form of a letter taped to the children’s worship wall: “Don’t band Joshwa foght the Batle of Jaraco from this cherch.” Our worship director’s comment? “Song preference troubles start young.”
Indeed, we all seem to have strong opinions about church music. Song preferences run deep in the river of culture, generational experience, and personal life history. I have struggled through many a church worship service in my life fuming about the music. This, I could point out, is not the most Christian attitude toward worship.
Mindfulness has something to offer here. The things that get me fuming about song choice are thoughts. Not facts, but judgments – my interpretations and cognitive reactions to the songs. Recently, I have started practicing mindful awareness during worship services.
Mindfulness helps me worship.
Imposter Syndrome is the belief that you are not qualified for your work, even when other people think you are - the belief that if others discover that you don't have what it takes to meet expectations competently, they will be disappointed and you will be shamed. Some groups at particular risk of Imposter Syndrome include first-generation college students, graduate students, minority group members, high achievers, and young women in the workforce. But any of us can fall prey to this anxious condition, and Christian mindfulness can offer relief. Here are some steps to follow:
Collect feedback and facts
Opening ourselves up to the truth can be the hardest thing to do, both when it comes to our strengths and our weaknesses - it feels vulnerable. But this is just what you'll need to do to build a rational framework for addressing Imposter Syndrome anxiety. Start by asking yourself (and/or others) these questions:
Write down the specific answers to these questions. Consider including feedback from others who know your work well - your boss, your professor, a coworker, or a customer. No interpretation, arguing, or minimizing here - keep your observations as factual as possible.
Now it's time to create some observational distance.
Here is where mindfulness kicks in. Read over the feedback and facts you wrote down and start to pay attention to the thoughts that arise in your mind while you read. With an objective and curious awareness, begin a list of these thoughts. Examples might include thoughts like “I have no idea what I’m doing," “they don’t know the whole story,” or “that was so dumb of me.” You might notice pleasant thoughts here too, such as "that was really nice of my boss to say” or “maybe they liked what I did.”
Whatever the thoughts are, without judgment, write them down and cultivate an attitude of light-hearted (even amused) attentiveness as you read them over. To cultivate observational distance, it might help to imagine that someone else wrote this thought list and you are simply reading it over with curiosity. In this step, you are becoming more aware of your thought cycles, the mental architecture that is driving your emotions and perceptions of your competence.
Now, it’s time to recognize some feelings. Put your writing aside and take a moment to close your eyes, sit in silence, and feel the emotional reaction to what you have written down.
So now you have three lists:
Set these lists before God with curiosity and openness to what He might do with them. Then give yourself time - lots of time - to observe these three areas day-in and day-out. Keep writing down your observations in each of these areas, and keep setting these before God to see how He might speak into them.
As you’re ready, consider adding one of these more formal mindfulness practices into your routine:
Along the way, engage in active beginner’s mind. This means a recognition that you (like all of us) come to each moment as a beginner. None of us can be a true expert in anything, since every moment in this vast, mysterious universe is brand new to us. Only God truly understands it all - we are free to be small and dependent learners during our short time here on earth. How freeing!
You don’t need to change your feelings or fears to move out of Imposter Syndrome, you only need to cultivate observational distance from those feelings and fears while also cultivating awareness of deeper truths. You are learning, just like the rest of us. You will make mistakes, and those will be opportunities for more growth and transformation. God has given you abilities and passions, and he will use those to accomplish his work in the world. You need only bring what you have and he will take care of the rest.
“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” Psalm 103:13
Being a parent has some really, really challenging moments. My lowlights reel from the past two weeks includes forcing my second grader to follow through on a performance commitment while he angrily panicked, feeling tearful and fragile after he beat me at checkers for the fifth time in a row (?!), and obsessively worrying about whether he will dread coming home for the holidays when he is an adult. These moments all included feelings of shame, anxiety, and depression. In fact, I would prefer to focus on my highlights reel, which is what you’ll find on my camera roll – moments of love, connection, pride, and raw joy. But it is our struggles that pull us together, so let’s take time here in this shared moment on the world wide web to pause and acknowledge the struggle that is parenting. Parenting is a hard job.
I don’t know about you, but here are some of the things that make mothering hard for me:
This is just an initial list, and if you’re a parent, you probably have plenty more types of challenges to add that reflect the particularities of your life. (Note: If you’re a parent who says that raising a child is all butterflies and rainbows, you’re not an honest parent. See #6 above.)
So I dedicate this blog post to all of the parents out there. If you would like to stop reading here and just dwell in the solidarity of shared suffering, be my guest – this is a nonjudgmental space. But if you are interested in hearing about how mindfulness can support us during moments of parenting pain and open us up to moments of parenting joy, I invite you to read on. Because parenting is one of the areas where I have found mindfulness to be the most delightful and impactful, and I am excited to share with you some of my experiences and practical applications in the area of mindful parenting.
Mindfulness is intentional awareness of the present moment with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and nonjudgmental acceptance. This is often effective in calming our intense emotions and providing a calming response for others who are struggling. This makes mindfulness a very effective tool in responding to children, who are still learning to moderate their own emotions effectively while often triggering our own emotional responses.
Savoring the Good
The most beautiful part of mindful parenting is when it creates connection with our children, helping us to experience and savor the joy-filled moments. Here are some simple steps I take, when I remember, to capture these moments of beauty:
Caring for Ourselves
One of the most useful aspects of mindful parenting is using mindful awareness to calm down our own emotions, making us more effective in caring for our children and also for ourselves. Here some simple steps I take, when I remember, to effectively manage my own emotions in the midst of challenging parenting moments:
Teaching our Children
One of the most impactful aspects of mindful parenting is the way it teaches our children to manage their emotions effectively. Here are some simple steps I take, when I remember, to support my child in applying mindfulness to his own life:
If you are a parent, I would love to hear about your own moments of mindful parenting. How do you practice mindfulness in the context of your relationship with your child? What resonates with you about these approaches, and what would you add?
If you are not a parent, whether or not by choice, I hope you will find these thoughts useful in thinking about your relationship with your parents, with children in your life, or even with peers who are parents. During my many years of pregnancy loss and childlessness, I held much resentment toward parents who complained of their struggles. Mindfulness would have been helpful for me during that dark period of my life. Perhaps you have thoughts on that as well.
Either way, I hope you’ll drop me a line in the comments below or at email@example.com.
Special thanks to Lora Armendariz, who invited me to blog on this topic. You can find her own lovely thoughts on the subject at The Beautiful Day Project – I hope you’ll check it out.
And thanks to my wonderful son, Milo, who when asked if he wanted to contribute anything about mindfulness to this blog post said "Yes. That it works really well. And that I really like it, so I think that other people might too.” So there you go -- try it out :).
“The story of David begins in the middle of another story. All stories do. We never get a clean start in this business of life. The tablet is already scribbled all over, smudged with ink stains, blotted with spilled coffee.”
- Eugene H. Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, p. 32
During the Christmas season, we become especially aware of the juxtapositions of pain and joy, despair and expectation, darkness and light that permeate our existence. Sometimes the holiday songs of happiness and cheer can seem like the saddest sound in the world. Sometimes the visions of warmly glowing homes can seem like cruel parodies. Sometimes “the way it’s supposed to be” can echo like a taunt through the realities of family dysfunction, strained pocket books, and the dreary dark days of winter. There’s nothing perfect about Christmas.
Other times, our hearts are gladdened by the sounds, sights, and smells of Christmas. We receive and give kindness and are encouraged by the message of Jesus’ birth. We experience Emmanuel – God with us – and we know that we are not alone. Christmas is a beautiful season.
We’ve been studying the stories of David in our Sunday School class, reading through the book Leaping Over a Wall by Eugene Peterson. We have explored this mysterious juxtaposition – that in the midst of our mess (and David was a mess), God keeps doing good things. This means that we do not have to feel, think, or act a certain way in order for God to advance his Kingdom. God is working in the midst of our mess.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the pathways God has given us to see His work in the midst of our mess. Sitting in silent, curious, accepting, nonjudgmental, open observation of the present moment, I become aware of God’s gifts. This heartbeat, this breath, this touch of clothing on the skin, this hum of sounds, this place – here is God, here are God’s gifts, here is God’s Kingdom. Emmanuel, son of David, God with us in our mess, God doing his good thing all the time, whether we are aware or not. Let’s use this Christmas season to get quiet enough to be aware and to see, to receive, the gifts of his Kingdom.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
-1 Corinthians 13:12-13
The emotional surge of falling in love happens unexpectedly. However, there are certain conditions that make it more likely. The foremost of these is awareness.
You can’t fall in love with someone or something of which you are not aware. So awareness, or seeing, is a prerequisite of love. (And this is not a reference only to seeing with the eyes. Seeing here serves as a metaphor for truly and directly experiencing, with or without the physical eyes.)
What gets in the way of you being aware, or “seeing”? Since beginning mindfulness training, I have discovered that my primary blindness comes from internal distraction. My thoughts scurry restlessly, roaming everywhere except the place that I am. I am rarely thinking about the present moment – sometimes I’m astonished that I get through most days without major catastrophe.
This is blindness. Not seeing the thing in front of me. Not hearing the sounds around me, or experiencing emotionally the person I am with. This is a lack of awareness, and this gets in the way of love.
Sometimes when I meditate, I have the humorous experience of falling in love with the things in my moment. Last week, I fell head over heels for my wood floor, and a week later I still swoon when I notice it again. I know I’m not alone in these experiences – a student of mine once talked extensively of falling in love with her raisin during a mindful eating exercise. She was smitten, completely enraptured by this tiny piece of dried fruit.
I think this makes God’s heart glad, when we see stuff. He has woven beauty and wonder throughout the world – our difficulty seeing his Kingdom is not because it is small, but because we struggle to see it.
Mindfulness meditation can be one way of opening our eyes to what is there. When we are aware, when we see, then love will spring up unexpectedly and take us off guard. Consider yourself warned.
In traditional mindfulness practice, there is a meditation called Lovingkindness. During lovingkindness practice, the practitioner extends good wishes to a variety of people. This generally begins with the self: “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” The good wishes are then extended to a loved one, an acquaintance (or stranger), a difficult person, and then to all beings everywhere: “May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease.”
There is a prayer-like quality to this meditation. We are requesting good things for the world, cultivating care for others and including ourselves in this circle of care. As Christians practicing mindfulness, we can consciously request these good things in the presence of our loving God, knowing that he cares deeply for us and all others in the world.
I struggle with the wording of the lovingkindness practice. It feels unChristian to pray for these particular things - to be safe, happy, healthy, and living with ease. And yet when I look at the requests being made, I am challenged to ask whether these things are truly unChristian or whether I have simply encountered a cultural difference in the words being used. Do Christians not regularly pray for safety? (“Lord, please keep Aunt Jo safe as she travels home to Missouri today.”) For happiness? (“Lord, Bill is struggling so deeply right now - please restore his joy.”) For health? (“Lord, we pray against this cancer in your name, knowing that you heal.”) For ease? (“Lord, this pain is so intense - please bring relief.”)
I sometimes use an alternate Blessing meditation that instead holds people in the loving presence of God while offering this prayer: "May I (you) know God’s love. May I (you) know God’s rest. May I (you) know God’s peace.” This is also a beautiful practice. Receiving and extending blessing is deeply life-giving. But I wonder at my discomfort at the traditional lovingkindness practice. I wonder if this is just one of the ways that my faith-related cultural norms -- my usual American, evangelical ways of doing things -- get in the way of me seeking God’s face wherever, in whatever cultural context, he may be found. This is not a knock on American evangelical culture. Simply a reminder that God shows up in every culture. I don't want to get tripped up by unfamiliar language -- I want eyes to see Him everywhere I go.
So I pray for you today: May you be safe. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you live with ease. Amen.
One of the best thank yous that I’ve ever received for a gift was from a one-year-old, a person too small to talk. How did he say thank you without words? He looked at the gift for a looooonnnng time. He examined every nook and cranny of the elephant pull toy, swiveling the ears and pointing his tiny pointer finger at each color. He turned the wheels with curiosity. He gazed up in his mom’s face, smiling and pointing her attention to the new toy. He gestured to unwrap it, and then took more time to point, examine, and smile. His gratitude overflowed, and my heart as a giver was warmed.
This tiny, wordless human was practicing mindfulness. He centered his full, direct attention on one thing in the moment. He allowed himself to experience the visual and tactile features of the toy without preconceived notions about what a gift should be like. He was unencumbered by the filter of language, experiencing the object (and his mother holding it) in a pure form rather than getting lost in interpretations, analysis, or judgments.
We can receive gifts in this way; we can practice mindfulness as a way of experiencing and demonstrating gratitude to God. In mindfulness practice, there is nothing off-limits to our attention. All of life is a gift, every thing in every moment, the pleasant and unpleasant. So in every moment, we have the opportunity to really gaze at the gift. We can pause to experience the gift without expectation, without interpretation or analysis or judgment (positive or negative). We can be absorbed in the gift, long enough to experience the beauty that God has woven in. Long enough for the heart to settle, the peace to grow, the smile to come. I can only imagine that this brings warmth to God’s giver heart - us entering into a full experience of what he has lavished on us in the moment.
Here are some recent examples from my moments:
The examples are endless because the moments of our life are too many to count - the sheer extravagance of God in giving us so many moments, so many gifts, is staggering. By practicing focused, nonjudgmental attention, we receive God’s good gifts with gratitude and even with joy. The gifts are there, if we but take time to receive. When we do, we warm the heart of our giving God.
My six-year-old told me yesterday that he can go through life just thinking “oh, there’s a tree, there’s the sky, there’s a splash pad.” But when he goes “behind the scenes,” he notices how beautiful these things really are. I asked what he meant by “behind the scenes.” He said, “oh you know, just really noticing them and looking.”
Stop to notice, to really look. The beauty is always there for those who have eyes to see.
I typed out a snarky Facebook post: A quick perusal of FB this evening reminds me that everyone else is having a better life than me. Then I deleted it. I was feeling glum. James was in Hawaii. Anna’s kids had grown up into striking, good-looking teenagers. Susan got into a new graduate program and looked great in her snazzy professional suit. Alexis’ husband was publicly professing love for his beautiful wife who is an amazing mom. Jane’s family was vacationing in some tropical location so exotically cool that I had never even heard of it. *
None of these things were happening to me. Reading everyone else’s “highlights reel” in my frumpy pajamas, I felt discontent, jealous, and covetous. I was not experiencing the fruit of the Spirit – there was no abundance of love for myself or others in my heart. Things were looking pretty ugly inside.
Maybe you already know that the Bible has something to say about this common social media predicament? Coveting is uniformly discouraged, even condemned, in Scripture. We see this most famously in the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” A social media version might read “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s partner, or kids, or outfits, or career, or car, or vacation, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
So there was a pretty clear disconnect in that Facebook moment between my life and my faith. It was mindfulness that got me reconnected, following a path that looked something like this.
I noticed that it was raining and that the sound of the rain was beautiful.
I noticed that I was hurting, and that my viewing of Facebook was creating unnecessary suffering.
I chose to step away from the screen and into the present moment.
I closed my computer.
I stood up.
I noticed that my sweet husband of seventeen years was sleeping next to me. My heart grew warm.
I walked into the next room and saw my sweet son sleeping, ensconced in his stuffed animals. I felt a wave of amazement and joy.
I noticed the moonlight shining through the bathroom window. I stood in awe.
I became aware that I had a roof over my head, water piped into my house, and plenty of food in the kitchen downstairs – I felt deep gratitude for these provisions.
I remembered – oh yeah! This is where life’s good stuff is. Right here, right now, in the present moment. But I have to get my eyes off social media, off other people, and onto my own life, with mindful awareness, in order to see it.
* Note: Names have been changed for confidentiality…
I am Irene Kraegel. I work as a clinical psychologist and teach mindfulness on a faith-based college campus. I practice mindfulness because it opens me up to God (a.k.a. brings joy). I am writing here in hopes of sharing some of my experiences and thoughts related to the practice of mindfulness in the life of a Christian. Thanks for reading!
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