Q&A with Sameet Kumar, author of Mindfulness for Prolonged Grief, Part One

Sameet M. Kumar, Ph.D. is the author of the newly published Mindfulness for Prolonged Grief: A Guide for Healing After Loss When Depression, Anxiety, and Anger Won’t Go Away, and the best-selling Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss. He is a psychologist at the Memorial Healthcare System Cancer Institute in south Broward, Florida with over a decade of experience in working with end-of-life and bereavement.

What was your motivation in writing Mindfulness for Prolonged Grief?

The response to my first book, Grieving Mindfully, was tremendous. In the years since it came out, one topic that kept coming up again and again among the public as well as mental health care providers was how to help people suffering from “complicated grief,” which many of us prefer to call “prolonged grief.” It’s a subset of grief that I think is very well addressed by mindfulness practices and strategies that are informed by a regular mindfulness practice. I wrote the book to help bridge the gaps that I felt Grieving Mindfully didn’t address for this population and to also add a workbook component to better help motivate readers to achieve their goals.

How would you define prolonged or complicated grief and how prevalent is it in modern society?

Grief is considered prolonged if after six months there is still a disabling yearning for a loved one, as well as a cluster of other symptoms including an interference with the ability to carry out daily tasks; numbness; mistrust of others; being in a daze or continued shock; bitterness and anger; feeling like life is meaningless; disinterest in life; feeling confused about who you are; avoiding reminders of the loss; or difficulty accepting the loss. We suspect that somewhere around one-third to one-half of all people suffering from grief may experience prolonged grief. This number could potentially be in the millions in North America alone.   

Can you outline the mindful approach to coping with prolonged grief?

The basic premise is that developing a sustained mindfulness practice can help people navigate the frequently jarring ups and downs of prolonged grief as well as many of the other symptoms that it brings. Part of what a mindfulness meditation practice can do is to stabilize the mind during emotional roller-coasters, and set anchor points in the day around which other activities can be structured. My approach is to then use the stabilizing capacity of mindfulness meditation to invest in other evidence-based health promoting behaviors that can together help transition readers from just enduring their suffering into an emerging sense of resilience after loss. For many people, grief doesn’t ever truly go away, it just becomes part of who they are. Mindfulness can help encourage these people to maintain their overall health as they grieve, and still strive towards attaining their life goals as best as they can.

Bereavement has long been regarded as a natural and beneficial process. While grief can be subjective and cultural, is there a stage that someone suffering from symptoms of prolonged grief should seek professional counseling or assistance?

First off, grief is absolutely normal. Yet it can feel so isolating sometimes, and it’s often so hard to relate to some people after we suffer a loss, or losses. If anyone feels like they don’t have understanding people to talk to or just feel like they need help, that’s usually enough of a sign that they may benefit from speaking with a skilled professional. If the pain continues to be really intense and people are unsure what to do with it, and it’s interfering with their ability to manage basic tasks—stacks of bureaucracy and paperwork that go neglected, belongings to sort out, and even just not being able to shower and eat regularly—that’s usually an indication that more regular follow-up with a skilled professional can be helpful. The bitterness, anger, and loss of long-held spiritual and religious beliefs that sometimes accompany prolonged grief can be particularly challenging and often frightening for people to experience, and they can benefit from professional help when they do. Time with a skilled professional can also simply provide a safe sanctuary to cry or talk about things that make others uncomfortable. The most important indicator that someone needs help is when they feel that life is no longer worth living. An area that I find I come back to with my clients is the search for meaning after loss, the sense of trying to figure out what this whole cycle of love and suffering is all about. Everybody has to come to their own understanding of what roles love and loss play in their lives, and why life is worth living, even under the most horrible of circumstances. There are no clichés that help answer those questions; it’s a very individualized search. 

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