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Befriending Grief

As advocates, we are familiar with other peoples’ grief. We talk with clients about their losses, but how often do we work on our own? What do we do when we experience the death of a belief, idea, or relationship?


By Norio Umezu

Author’s note: Many of the practices in this post come from non-European cultures. Please check out this helpful article for tips on how to avoid cultural appropriation when using these healing practices.

What is grief?

It is hard to find one universal definition of grief. One definition says grief is “the range of emotions—including those that seem to be conflicting—that we feel in response to the changes in our lives.”[1]

This means that we can feel grief even during happy changes. Maybe we are moving out of shelter, but this means a loss of daily interactions with supportive residents. Maybe we won the legal battle, but now we must face the uncertainty of our future. Maybe we have found safety for ourselves, but lost a friendship with the person who hurt us.

Grief as a feeling

We sometimes talk about emotions as physical feelings. That is because different emotions pair with sensations in our bodies. Where do we feel grief? In traditional Chinese medicine, grief lives in the lungs.[2] Grief is closely related to sadness. When we are sad, many of us cry or wail. We use the whole respiratory system to move sound and energy through. When we don’t let ourselves feel grief, we can develop lung and respiratory issues such as asthma or a cough. As Mark Fiveman states, “When emotions get trapped in the body, they often lead to inflammation in the sites where the emotions are trapped. This is especially true of the ‘softer’ emotions like sadness and grief. Just think about it for a while – when you cry your eyes get puffy and your nose runs. These are inflammatory responses.”[3]

How to support a grieving body – “tend and befriend”

“Tend and befriend.” This is a saying my friends who are healers often repeat. With all emotions, we can “tend and befriend”. This means that we gently care for ourselves and pay attention to what the emotion is trying to teach us.

For oppressed people, grief can be communal. We might find that the grief we feel has no specific origin. Or the origin of our grief may be centuries old.

For people who grew up with abuse, our grief may be more about what never was, than what was lost.

Whether your grief is individual or communal does not matter. Whether your grief is present or historic does not matter. Grief can feel overwhelming, but we get to decide how much we want to feel our grief. We can work with our grief little by little.

“Tend and befriend” means we choose our own pace. It also means we define what healing looks like for ourselves. Here are some ideas for how to support our grieving bodies that do not have to involve talking about our loss:

Tai Chi for Healing

We start many of our wellness workshops with tai chi practices. These specific practices help us move energy through our body. Here are two practices you may enjoy.

Let Go of the Past and Open to Receive

With left foot forward, palms curved softly downward, push your hands outward in a gentle arc, letting go of all tension, negativity and violence within you. Turn palms upward and draw them back towards the chest, breathing in peace and healing. Repeat with right foot forward. Breathe out pain and violence. Breathe in peace and healing.

Fly through the Air

With your left foot forward, your left hand upward, swim or fly through the air. The motion should be free and light with arms and shoulders relaxed. Repeat the movement on the right side starting with your right hand upward. Fly freely through the air letting go of all that weighs you down, feeling light, alive and free. Open your heart to all the possibilities for your life and healing. This is good to release pain in back, shoulders and head.

Find more tai chi movements and other healing resources here

The Lung Meridian

In traditional Chinese medicine, the lung meridian travels through the center of your body and down the outer edges of your arms. If you are having chest pains or difficulty breathing due to grief, try stimulating your lung meridian. You can activate the meridian during an acupuncture session. If cost or availability of licensed, trained acupuncturists in your area are barriers, you can support the lungs through gently self-massaging the lung meridian.

Self-massage technique

Self-massage technique video (no subtitles)

Herbs and Essential Oils*

Many cultures use herbs and essential oils to support health. Some effects are well known. Others are not. We can learn from herbal wisdom to make healing tinctures and teas. Herbs and essential oils are often not a “quick fix.” They often boost systems in our bodies, so they can more effectively perform their function. Dried herbal teas are less concentrated than essential oils and when enjoyed as a tea, herbal drinks have the added benefit of helping move toxins through the body. Many find drinking warm liquids comforting as well.

Like any medicine, use with caution. There are many brands of herbal teas available at grocery stores. You can also order them online. Some popular organic herbal tea makers include:

Traditional Medicinals

Organic India

NUMI Organic Tea

*Disclaimer: I am not an herbalist. You should consult a trained herbalist before trying herbal remedies for medicinal purposes as there may be side-effects and potential drug interactions.

Two Iowa-based herbalists include Deer Nation Herbs and Green Angels Herbs.

Make Art to Honor What Was Lost

Grief is about feeling love for something that is gone, or never existed. Art can help you honor what was lost. There is no right or wrong way to create art. You can build an altar or sacred space. Your art can tell a story. Your art can express complex emotions. Your art can honor your journey. Your art can affirm your life. Share it, or keep it private. Creating art can help you have a place or thing to hold when you want to remember. Art can help remind you to be gentle with yourself.

Some people enjoy coloring, making scrapbooks, building a memory collection, or writing down stories. Some people don’t.

Here are some non-traditional art-making ideas for inspiration:

Make an abstract or non-linear movie

-Free video editors for PC

Build an indoor labyrinth and walk it

Create your own music beat

Choreograph your own dance

Create an art journal (or craft over an old journal!)

Create a blackout poem

Above all, grief is a teacher with a message about what we love and desire.


There is no right or wrong way to experience grief. There is no timeline. Sometimes grief is big. Sometimes grief is small. Above all, grief is a teacher with a message about what we love and desire. As you explore your own experiences of grief, be curious. How does your culture of origin grieve? Why? In what ways does that work for you? In what ways does it not? Working with our own grief can make us better advocates. Go at whatever pace works best for you. Wherever your journey takes you, remember to ‘tend and befriend’. Your grief is for you, no one else.

Further Reading

To read more about how different communities currently and historically use herbs for healing:

To read more about meridians and energetic bodywork:

  • The Subtle Body Practice Manual, A Comprehensive Guide to Energy Healing by Cyndi Dale

  • *Reiki for Life by Penelope Quest*

  • Capacitar International’s Emergency Kit

To read more about grief and the grieving process:

  • Wellness Workbook, 3rd Edition by John W. Travis and Regina Sara Ryan*

  • Grieving Mindfully by Sameet Kumar, PhD*

  • Bearing the Unbearable by Joanne Cacciatore, PhD*

*Available to read at the Networking Project office library

Sources Cited


[2] Dale, Cyndi. The Subtle Body Practice Manual.


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