Grief. A Chinese Medicine Perspective.
By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP
I have been dealing with a lot of grief lately. This is usually the way it goes. A patient comes in who is suffering with loss. Perhaps it is the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a pet or the death of a loved one. There is nothing more devastating to us than loss. It hurts the heart and leaves us with an emptiness that is difficult to fill. It is something that everyone on the planet will have to deal with many times in their lives, so I thought that I would talk about some of the ways that it can be made a little easier, less painful, and with minimal suffering in the context of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
I find that I tend to treat conditions in waves. It is common for a patient to seek out treatment for say, anxiety, and then you find that for the next little while, there is a constant stream of anxious patients coming to see you. You can speculate as to what the reasons for this are, and I suspect that might be the subject of another article, but for now let’s just say that in my experience, this is how it happens. And lately, many patients have been suffering with grief. Overwhelmingly.
Who doesn’t have to deal with grief at some time or another? Grief is a natural, healthy emotion and is an important part of being human. Unpleasant as it may be to feel, it is important that we feel it, make our peace with it, and let it go. I am not talking about letting go of the memory of the pet, the person you are no longer with, or the loved one who has passed away. Those are memories you will have forever. It is the grief itself that must be expressed so that it can be let go. This is healthy.
So, how do we measure grief? How do we know what we are experiencing is not “normal” and that we may need help in letting it go? It is true that you cannot listen to grief with a stethoscope, or measure it with a blood test. How it is experienced is highly individualistic. The severity of the grief is not reflected in how it is seen from the outside, it is measured by how it is felt by the individual, or experienced from the inside. The breakup of a relationship may to one person be sad but manageable, but to another may cause the fabric of their life to unravel. The loss of a pet to one person may be unpleasant, and devastating to another. The severity of the loss is measured in how it is FELT, not by some external metric, comparing situations with levels of grief.
Chinese medicine is concerned with grief that is repressed, unexpressed, (unable to be expressed), expressed without control or in the proper context. Emotions are only considered pathological when they are particularly intense, felt for prolonged periods, unacknowledged or unexpressed.
So how do we express grief in a healthy way? This is what I would like to share with you. And to do so, we will have to look briefly at the way Chinese medicine sees the body, the emotions and their connection to our health.
The Chinese Approach To Health – A Holistic System
Chinese medicine has a holistic view of the body. Everything is seen to exist within the continuous circle of nature. When the elements of nature are in balance, life is in harmony and flourishes. Humanity cannot be separated from nature, we are nature, manifest as people. Living in harmony with the world around us is the way to maintain health. If one were to live out of balance with nature, illness would develop.
Another vital aspect of the TCM model is the psychological aspect of our beings. What we feel has a huge impact on our physical bodies, thus, emotional wellness is an important aspect of our health. In the West, I believe this connection is just recently being acknowledged and accepted, but the Chinese have known this for thousands of years. How could it not be a factor? Our bodies are the way we physically experience the world, but only one aspect of how we experience our existence. In TCM, every aspect on every level is important, and all must be considered when evaluating a person’s overall health.
Grief – The Emotion of the Lung
The Function of Lungs
Let us look at the lung, the relationship it has to specific mental states, diseases and our ability to maintain health.
Every organ in TCM is associated with an emotion. For example:
Liver = Anger
Spleen = Worry or Overthinking
Heart = Joy
Kidneys = Fear
Lungs = Sadness or Grief
The lungs are responsible for taking clean, oxygen-rich air into the body, and breathing out air full of harmful carbon dioxide. They are responsible for taking in the new and letting go of the old, the constant cycle of life.
Every Organ in TCM has a partner organ. One is yin, the other yang and they work together to keep the body in balance. The lungs are yin and their yang partner is the large intestine. The lungs take in the new, and the large intestine releases the waste. Many breathing and bowel disorders are rooted in excess grief and sadness and excessive grieving can lead to disorders of both the lungs and the large intestine. Therefore, our abilities to accept and be open to new experiences, and to let go of things that are painful or harmful is important to both our emotional and physical well being.
Overview of the Lungs in TCM
In traditional Chinese medicine, every organ has a series of things associated with it. These are the clues to dealing with the organ when it is out of balance, either in excess or deficient. For example – when the lung is weak, eating pungent foods is beneficial. The best time to tonify the lung is in the autumn when its energy is at its peak, and the emotion of sadness affects the lungs more than any other organ.
Related Organs (Yin-Yang Partner): Large Intestine
Emotion – Grief / Sadness
Season – Fall / Autumn
Flavour – Pungent
Colour – White
Healing Sound – sssssssssss
In Chinese medicine, we don’t use words like “disease” or “illness”. These are Western terms. In TCM, we say the body is suffering from an Imbalance or a disharmony. In TCM, the emotions can be either the cause or the result of the imbalance. For example – asthma can be caused by prolonged sadness (the emotion of the lung), conversely, a person suffering from chronic asthma over many years may develop grief (the cause of the grief is the asthma). It is a circle of interaction.
From a seasonal perspective, autumn is the season of the lungs, so this is the season where it is most important to take care of this delicate organ so that we can avoid colds, flus and allergies. From an emotional standpoint, It is the season where we should become a little more introspective and concentrate on resolving or at least coming to terms with any underlying emotional issues and letting them go. This will allow us to make new space to bring positive emotions into our hearts and lives. Walks in nature, and breathing in the crisp, dry air will help immensely in this process.
The energy of the lungs is the lung “qi” (pronounced chee). Qi is best translated to “energy”. Lung qi is the energy by which the lung functions take place. If these aspects are functioning properly, then your lung qi is strong. The lungs have many functions in TCM. Here is what the lungs are responsible for…
Qi and Respiration
The lungs are the organ that take qi from the world and breathe it into the body. The lungs govern qi. Qi is the energy that is needed for all the body’s processes. It is like the gasoline that a car needs to function and go. The stronger the lungs, the more qi they are able to take in and distribute to the rest of the body, necessary for all its vital functions. The weaker the lungs, the less qi there will be, and an imbalance is created.
Skin, Body Hair & Sweat
The condition of the skin and body hair is a direct reflection of the strength of lung qi. This includes the sweat glands which are part of our ability to remove toxins and waste materials from our bodies, as well as protect us from the outside from things like pathogenic factors. The skin, body hair and sweat glands can be loosely translated as a part of our immune system. If your lung qi is weak, you are susceptible to colds and flus. If these colds and flus are not resolved quickly they get deep into the body and can turn into bronchitis and pneumonia. The lungs are particularly susceptible as they are one of the few organs that have a direct connection to the outside of the body.
The lungs are the boss of qi. They are located in the upper region of the body and are therefore responsible for making sure the qi descends into the lower part of the body and gets everywhere it needs to go. A chronic cough illustrates this function as a cough in TCM is energy ascending rather than descending due to weakness of the lungs energy.
Opens into the Nose
As anyone with allergies can tell you, we need our noses for breathing. The energy or qi of the lungs is needed for proper respiratory and olfactory function in the nose. When the lungs are strong, we will breathe easily and our sense of smell will be sharp. When lungs are deficient, we will be congested, have a runny nose and our sense of smell will be impaired.
The Emotional Aspect of the Lungs
The lungs are associated with clear thinking and communication, openness to new ideas, positive self-image, and the ability to relax, let go and be happy. When the lungs are out of balance or you are dealing with excessive grief, you will have difficulty coping with loss and change, a sense of alienation, and experience a prolonged sense of sadness that does not dissipate. The lungs are also associated with attachment, so if you have a hard time letting go of people, objects, experiences or spend a lot of time reliving the past, this can point to a deficiency of the lungs. If the energy (or qi) of the lungs is weak, you may experience an overwhelming, constant state of grief that does not ease. This deficiency, if prolonged, can lead to depression and other issues.
In contrast, grief that is expressed fully and resolved is strengthening both physically and psychologically. Therefore it is not avoiding grief, but rather dealing with it in a healthy way that is the key to being happy and maintaining balance in all aspects of life.
What Can I Do To Help With My Grief?
There are many things that you can do to help you through a difficult period of grief. One of the most important is to acknowledge how you are feeling. It is common for people to avoid feeling emotions that are overwhelming and/or unpleasant, but it is only in acknowledging our feelings that we may begin to deal with them and move on. Secondly, don’t judge. One of the most harmful things that we can do is to judge our own feelings. This is often worse than the emotion we are judging.
Here is an example:
I am feeling frustrated because I have been plagued by headaches lately. The pain makes working difficult and it is hard to concentrate or get anything done. When I think about my anger I instantly feel ashamed because my best friend is in the hospital dying of cancer. How can I be irritated by headaches when she is suffering so much more than I am?
You see, anger is the emotion and shame is the judgment. There is nothing wrong with being frustrated by having headaches. That is normal. But judging that emotion is not healthy and only makes you feel worse. It is also entirely self-imposed. I mention this because I have seen this so much in practice. I find that people are very hard on themselves, as there is a constant comparison to what other people are dealing with. So, my advice to you is this. Feel what you are feeling. Don’t judge it. It is good and valid. Try to step outside of it. Observe it, and let it pass. And be kind to yourself. I think we could all use a little more self-love too.
Below are some exercises specific to grief, some beneficial foods for the Lungs, and other recommendations to help deal with grief in a healthy way, and let it go so we can move on to better things.
Breathing Exercises – Releasing Grief
Because grief is associated with the lungs, the way to release it most effectively is through deep breathing exercises. By deep, I mean by breathing into the diaphragm and filling the lungs to capacity. Deep breathing is practiced in meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong and many of the internal arts. Even more powerful is breathing with visualization which helps to cleanse, detoxify and release grief from the body. Below are some breathing exercises for releasing grief.
Breathing Exercise 1- Deep Breathing
Breathe in through your nose, and think of breathing in all the way to your belly, taking is as much air as possible. Once the lungs are completely full, hold the lungs full for a count of five. Once you have counted to five, exhale through your mouth from the very bottom of your Lungs until they are completely empty. Do this three times. This exercise should be done three times daily.
Breathing Exercise 2 – Healing Sounds
Find a comfortable place to sit with both feet flat on the ground. Place your hands in your lap, left over right. Mentally locate your lungs in your chest, and connect to them. The more clearly you are connected to them, the better and quicker the results.
Practice the breathing technique from above, filling your lungs (through your nose) to capacity. Do this a few times and really connect your awareness to your physical lungs in your chest. As you exhale, tilt your head back with teeth loosely clenched, tongue pressed gently to the roof of your mouth.
Exhale while making an ssssssssssssss sound. It is like the ‘s’ in snake. Repeat at least three times. Do as many times as you wish, but always in multiples of three. You are breathing out the toxicity and negative energy in your lungs. You are literally breathing out the grief and sadness.
The more you do this exercise, the more grief you release and the better you will feel.
Breathing Exercise 3 – Love and Light Technique
This technique uses two things along with deep breathing. Love and light. The colour associated with the lungs is white, so we will envision white light.
If your grief is the loss of a person or animal, imagine a happy time or funny situation you shared with them. This will cause you to smile and feel love. We will use this energy to heal the lungs. Use this technique after doing the healing sounds exercise.
Using the same breathing technique as the healing sounds, take this love energy after a deep breath (through the nose) and hold the breath while directing the love energy down into the lungs. Exhale through the mouth. Send the love energy down into the lungs as many times as possible, at least three times. Sense the love energy in your lungs.
Use the same breathing technique but now, when holding your breath, picture white light flooding your lungs and filling them to capacity. This is white, healing light. Exhale through the mouth. Repeat at least three times and repeat as many times as possible in multiples of three. Sense the white light healing your lungs.
Below is a list of foods that are beneficial for the lungs. Since these foods strengthen the lungs, eating them will give the lungs the energy they need to help you to move through your grief more quickly.
The flavour of the lung is pungent, so foods that are the most nourishing to the lungs are considered pungent in TCM.
~ Sweet potato
~ Black pepper
~ Navy Beans
~ Soy Beans
~ Mustard Greens
Get an Acupuncture Treatment
Once grief has taken up residence in your body and psyche it is doing damage that is important to have undone. Experiencing prolonged grief has a negative effect on every part of your being. The acupuncturist will help you to rebalance. When you are speaking with your acupuncturist, be honest. Tell them how you are feeling. That you have experienced a loss and are feeling sad is just as relevant to them as having diarrhea or a yeast infection. Acupuncture works to rebalance the body, but is also immensely helpful for moving emotional blockages, and opening things up so they can be released.
I have treated grief many times. I have many protocols for moving it out of the body. There is often crying. Sometimes people cry and can’t stop. Frequently they are alarmed by their own outburst, but I know why they are crying, it is because the grief is moving, and they are finally letting it go. I am prepared with tissues and a kind heart.
In the privacy and safety of an acupuncturist’s office, people manage to let go of what has been festering for weeks, months and sometimes years. And that is wonderful. I include this because I think that many people don’t know about both the scope of acupuncture and what it can treat, and the importance of the emotions in the TCM medical model. If you have emotional issues that you are having difficulty dealing with, I urge you to try these exercises and foods, and if they are not enough, to seek out an acupuncturist and work with them to deal with the issues once and for all.
Massage is a very good way to move any stagnant or “stuck” grief in the body. Massages, like acupuncture, are very moving. If you have ever had a massage and been surprised by knots in your muscles that you didn’t know you had, you will understand how emotions affect the physical construct of our bodies.
Unpleasant emotions cause our bodies to constrict and stiffen up. That is why when people are sad, depressed and angry, their bodies often ache and they have a tendency to headaches, and other problems. These are the body’s way of communicating to you that there is something wrong. Massages of all sorts are wonderful for releasing tension, alleviating pain and moving grief and sadness.
Like acupuncture, it is not uncommon for someone to cry when they are having a massage. But, that is good, that means that the pain, grief, and sorrow is being released and moving out of the body. A massage along with the breathing techniques listed above walks in nature (while breathing in the fresh, new air), and adding some beneficial lung foods to your diet will have a huge impact on your ability to deal with your grief.
Another thing that you can do to help with grief is to massage along the lung meridian, which is located on the arms. When a patient comes in suffering with grief, I always include this in the treatment to help move it. The lung meridian is located bilaterally (on both sides of the body), begins under the clavicle, and descends down the arms, terminating at the corner of the nail on the thumb. I have included an image so you can more easily visualize it. Massaging the arms along the lung meridian is helpful, and they will often be sore if you are grieving. You can massage your arms, or have someone do it for you. Remember if you are using long, sweeping motions, always massage towards the heart.
In summary, I hope this gives you a better understanding of grief and how it is viewed in TCM. One of the reasons I wanted to write about it is because grief is so common and something I see so much in my practice. It is something we all experience, and Chinese medicine offers us many ways in which to deal with it in a healthy way. Our emotional lives are just as important as our physical ones, so staying balanced in all aspects is important to our overall health and wellbeing.
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If you suspect you are having problems with grief or your lungs and would like an expert opinion, Emma Suttie D.Ac, AP offers skype consultations. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Grief. A Chinese Medicine Perspective