Mind the (Mindfulness) Gap

In January, I completed an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) and during the final session, we were asked to write a letter to ourselves that would be posted in a few months time.  And a few days ago, mine arrived.  I actually couldn’t bring myself to open it initially: I have felt anything but mindful these last few months and I felt ashamed that I had let my practice and acceptance of the skills slip.  I have been in a bit of a fog, that has actually been in a very dark hole at times, and I know that I have allowed myself to be at the mercy of my thoughts and emotions.  I don’t feel quite ready to discuss all of these just yet, but I hope one day I will, since this is all part of my own journey to motherhood, and it is a path that hasn’t worked out how I had expected.  This envelope therefore felt like a very heavy weight when I picked it up from the doormat; a huge wooden door back to pregnancy after loss that I felt scared to face.  What I was scared of exactly I don’t know – maybe it is the fear of being catapulted back to a time of intense fear and trauma.  Or maybe it is facing the reality that I could potentially feel more scared, more stressed and less like I am coping on the much coveted ‘other side’.
As someone who loves yoga and who strives as much as I can to be in the here and now, I hoped that mindfulness could be a tool for me to survive the rocky waters of pregnancy after loss.  I was somewhere in my second trimester when I started, which for me was a particularly tricky time; the time that you start to feel movements and try to watch for a pattern developing, yet feel completely paralysed in those quiet moments when it isn’t yet possible to feel everything.  I was back at work, keeping busy during the day, but outside those times of much needed distraction, I was terrified.  Pregnancy after loss is something that is almost indescribable.  It is an experience that is as physical as it is emotional.  Adrenaline can sear through your body in an instant, the knot of anxiety sits firm in your stomach, tightening and loosening regularly, but always there.  Your mind can race with a million thoughts, or feel completely blank and detached.  It is all encompassing and you are focussed on an end goal that in fact feels too fragile to focus on.
Mindfulness has had an incredible amount of press over recent years and has very much been hailed as an effective approach for many mental health difficulties.  It is used in hospitals, outpatient services, schools and workplaces and through the use of apps such as Headspace, it is easily accessible anytime, anywhere.  Yet sometimes, I feel that the core principles get lost along the way – or at least, there is a focus on mindfulness being about focussing on the present moment, taking notice of things around you and showing some form of appreciation and gratitude.  I worry that this makes it seem like a practice of gratitude, where you just need to stop and notice the positive and then everything will be okay.  Yet what if slowing down and taking notice means that you are faced with something awful?  That what you are experiencing is distressing and painful?  What about when it is almost impossible to see past that to the light and hope?
For my own benefit really, I wanted to revisit my understanding of mindfulness, what I took from my practice and how I can start to reintegrate it back into my everyday life now that Esme is here.  Mindfulness and parenting are a perfect fit, since parenting – whether that be a live child or a child that you have lost – is hard.  Really bloody hard.  And I need to find a way to enable me to embrace the myriad of experiences this brings, both pleasant and challenging.
So, what even is mindfulness?  I particularly like these descriptions because I feel that they capture the essence and spirit of it in a pretty straightforward way:
‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally’ – John Kabat-Zinn
‘Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now without wishing it were different; enjoying the pleasant without holding on when it changes (which it will); being with the unpleasant without fearing it will always be this way (which it won’t)’ – James Baraz
One of the key things I took from the course was the need to embrace all experiences, whether they be pleasurable or aversive.  It is about acceptance in that moment and not trying to change your current state, no matter how intolerable this may be.  It is about learning how to relate to your experiences rather than learning a way to change them.  Of course, sometimes we do need to act on our experiences, and particularly so in pregnancy after loss.  However, the practice of mindfulness even in these moments was a really important tool for me; when asking for help or seeking reassurance from my midwife, I used mindfulness to accept and observe what was unfolding: anxiety, panic, guilt, shame, defectiveness – it didn’t stop me from asking for help in order to alleviate some of the worries (because that is not what mindfulness is about), but it did help me to relate to my experience of this in a different way.  I could notice these emotions, and the thoughts that came with them, without berating myself as much as once would have.  I could see them for what they were: emotions, thoughts and physiological states.
Of course, this is very hard indeed and requires a lot of practice.  In fact, it is more than just practice, it is immersing yourself experientially in the act of mindfulness each and every day through both formal practical exercises (e.g. the body scan) as well as undertaking your day to day activities in a more mindful manner.  Something that really helped me with this was John Kabat-Zinn’s seven major pillars of mindfulness practice.  Holding these in mind enabled me to understand why I was doing what I was doing and the key principles to hold in mind.  They do not tell you how to do it, rather they explain the spirit with which to approach your practice:

  1. To hold a non-judgmental stance – that in becoming aware of our experiences, both internally and externally, we take a step back and avoid making judgements of these as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (or anything in between). We are an impartial witness to these experiences and do not try to stop or change these.
  2. Patience – to understand that things will unfold in their own time and that we should allow for this to occur without trying to rush it.
  3. Beginners mind – to always approach each and every mindfulness practice as if you are a complete beginner. There is no end goal in mindfulness practice and we are a beginner in every moment.  It is about cultivating a mind that is willing to see everything as if you are seeing it for the first time.
  4. Trust – to trust in yourself and what you are experiencing and trusting your own intuition.
  5. Non-striving – not to practice mindfulness with an end goal in mind. Mindfulness is about learning to see what is happening for you in that moment and in accepting this – not trying to change it.  Becoming someone who watches their own experiences rather than someone who is trying to change them.
  6. Acceptance – to accept whatever unfolds for you, both positive and less comfortable. To avoid denying and accept a willingness to see things as they are.
  7. Letting go – as humans we strive to keep hold of positive experiences and to try and eradicate negative ones. Mindfulness practice is about neither one, it is letting go of the intention to do something with our experiences rather than allow them to just be.

Simple?  Of course not.  But it is certainly a practice that I have found invaluable.  Mindfulness helped me in pregnancy after loss, because it enabled me to develop acceptance and taught me the importance of taking a non-judgemental stance.  I came away with a level of comfort in the fact that I knew that the anxiety was there, that it was there for a reason and that I needed to trust that it would pass.  Mindfulness did not eradicate my anxiety, but it helped to make it less of an enemy.  And it helped me to accept the additional waves of grief, anger and frustration: pregnancy after loss is so starkly different from pregnancy before loss, and the overwhelming sadness I felt at the loss of my previous naïve innocence is something that, whilst often overlooked, is an equally valid part of the process of bringing home a live baby.
And as for my letter I wrote to myself – well, it was everything I needed to read and more at this moment in time.

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  • Reply Jennie October 1, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    Thank you as always for your honesty Michelle. It really helps to hear about what others are experiencing slightly further along their journey.
    I am very keen to join a Mindfulllness course but have been advise that it’s not a good idea to take something like this on when youve recently experienced loss of a child as it might be too emotionally challenging. Do you have any advice about how long you should wait, or if there is any way of deciding when you might be ‘ready’ to undertake such an experience? (My son died 4 months ago). I’m sure it’s something very individual with no clear answer, but I’d like to hear your thoughts.
    Go gently

    • Reply dearorla October 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm

      It’s so hard to know when the ‘right’ time for any of this is; mindfulness is hard and I think will be whenever you do it. But with the right teacher and support, it can be incredibly powerful and helpful. I’m not an expert in mindfulness, but I wonder if another therapy / approach beforehand might provide some skills to deal with intense emotions before embarking on something that is very exposing? I know that there were some people in mu group who struggled with it because you sometimes have to sit with intensely uncomfortable feelings. It is incredibly individual though – but for what it’s worth, I started the course seven months after Orla died. xx

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