No one on earth escapes grief. It’s woven into our human experience and is something we’ll all inevitably endure many times throughout our lives.
Heartbreak, the loss of someone we love, lost opportunities, disappointments, and hardships are unavoidable—and life doesn’t care who you are, what you believe, or where you come from; grief happens to all of us.
So how do we deal with grief in a healthy way? Fortunately, Eastern medicine has a unique perspective on grief that can help us understand how it works and ways that we can move through it and emerge stronger on the other side.
Emotions and Our Bodies
Eastern medicine views emotions as an integral part of the human being and vital to overall health. Unlike the Western view that has separated the body into the physical realm and the less important mental and emotional realm, Eastern medicine has remained holistic. In the Eastern view, every aspect of ourselves—physical, emotional, and spiritual—is an essential component of a whole, healthy human being.
In Eastern medicine, our emotional lives are just as important as our physical and spiritual ones. Emotions and their expression are a normal part of being human, but when they’re repressed, unexpressed, or expressed without control or in the proper context, they can make us sick.
Emotions being a cause of illness probably doesn’t seem so strange if we consider how our emotions can make us feel physically. When we get bad news, we feel it in our bodies. When you get angry or worried, where do you feel it? These sensations often manifest physically, and if we don’t acknowledge and process them, they can linger and become causes of disease.
In Eastern medicine, these connections are well known and understood, and emotions are associated with different organs, which is how they affect the body.
Grief is associated with the lungs and its partner organ, the large intestine.
Each emotion is associated with a specific organ, as listed below:
- the lungs—grief, sadness
- the heart—joy
- the spleen—worry, overthinking
- the liver—anger
- the kidneys—fear
Emotions can affect all organs and the entire body, but each emotion is seen to have the most potent effect on its associated organ and organ partner. This partnership is also used as a diagnostic tool, helping a practitioner to isolate a problem depending on its location and what is being felt.
The Lungs and the Power of Letting Go
Every organ in Eastern medicine has a partner organ, one yin and one yang, that work in tandem to keep the body balanced. When dealing with grief, the lungs are the yin organ, and their yang partner is the large intestine.
The lung’s job is to bring oxygen-rich air into the body, and the large intestine releases the waste in a constant cycle of interaction—taking in the new and letting go of what’s no longer needed. Many breathing and bowel disorders are rooted in excess grief—conversely, excessive grieving can lead to problems of the lungs and large intestine. This connection between grief and our physiology happens because the balance of yin and yang, or intake and outtake, are vital to health and well-being—allowing the new to come in and letting go of the old. Therefore, being open to new experiences and letting go of things that are no longer useful is essential to our physical and emotional health.
In Eastern medicine, emotions can either be the cause or the result of an illness. For example, asthma can be caused by prolonged sadness (the emotion of the lungs). In contrast, someone who has had chronic asthma over many years can develop grief—the cause of the grief is the asthma.
The Emotional Aspect of the Lungs
In the Eastern view, when the energy of the lungs is balanced and plentiful, we think and communicate clearly, are open to new ideas and experiences, have a positive self-image, and can relax, let go, and be happy.
When we grieve, especially intensely or over extended periods, it can weaken the energy of the lungs and diminish lung function. Energetically, when dealing with intense grief, we’ll have difficulty coping with loss and change, a sense of detachment, and a lingering sense of sadness that doesn’t improve.
The lungs are also associated with our sense of attachment, so if you have a hard time letting go of people, places, or experiences—or are constantly reliving the past—it can lead to weakness in the lungs. These feelings can be common when going through an intense or extended bout of grief.
Prolonged grief can weaken the lungs and their ability to bring new energy, or qi, into the body. Qi is the energy the body gets from eating and breathing, and we need it to perform multiple vital functions. This is how grief can negatively affect the lungs and the whole body. Extended grief that isn’t acknowledged, processed, and released can lead to depression and other more serious problems.
Lung Associations in Eastern Medicine
- Yin organ: lung
- Yang organ: large intestine
- Emotion: grief, sadness
- Season: fall/autumn
- Flavor: pungent
- Color: white
Moving Through Grief in a Healthy Way
Thankfully, there are many things we can do to help us through a difficult period of grief. One of the most important is to acknowledge how you’re feeling. Many people have a hard time acknowledging difficult, overwhelming, and unpleasant emotions, and some would rather avoid them, which is understandable. The problem is that until you bring your attention to what you’re feeling, it will sit and wait. This stagnant grief can wreak havoc on your body and your life until it’s processed and let go.
There’s no “best way” to deal with grief, and everyone must find the way that works for them. But acknowledging, processing, and letting it go is vital to our health and well-being.
The good news is that grief that’s expressed fully and resolved is strengthening, both physically and psychologically. This kind of emotional regulation is key to attaining balance in all aspects of life. Below are some ways to help you deal with grief in a healthy way.
Breathing Exercises for Releasing Grief
Because of the association between grief and the lungs, one of the most effective ways to release grief is through deep breathing exercises—breathing deeply into your belly and filling the lungs to capacity. Even more powerful is the addition of visualization, which helps to cleanse, detoxify, and release grief from the body.
Breathe in slowly through your nose, focusing on breathing into your belly, taking in as much air as is comfortable. Hold for a count of five when your lungs are full, then slowly exhale through your mouth from the very bottom of your lungs until they’re empty. Repeat three times. This exercise should be done three times daily for the best results when grieving.
White Light Technique
This technique uses breathing and visualization. Because white is the color associated with the lungs, we’ll envision white light.
Find a comfortable place to sit with both feet flat on the ground. Place your hands in your lap. Mentally locate your lungs in your chest and connect to them. The more clearly you connect to them, the better and quicker the results.
Slowly breathe in through your nose, all the way into your belly, filling your lungs to capacity, while visualizing your lungs filling in your chest. Now, while holding your breath for a count of five, picture flooding your lungs with a white, healing light. Then slowly exhale, completely emptying your lungs, visualizing the grief leaving with your exhalation. Repeat three times, each time sensing the white light healing your lungs. With each exhale, you’re literally breathing out the grief and sadness. This exercise can be done as many times as you wish and will help to move grief out of the body.
Walking Outside in Nature
Being outside in nature is one of life’s most healing activities, and this is especially true when you’re grieving. Walking outside, particularly surrounded by trees—the literal lungs of the planet—while taking deep healing breaths helps us to take in oxygen-rich air and exhale what we no longer need.
Talk to a Friend You Trust
Talking to a friend is also helpful to get grief moving and to help us process it. Emotions can harm us if we let them linger and don’t acknowledge their presence. Talking to a trusted friend can help you process your feelings and get some perspective. Talking is another avenue that allows grief out of the body.
Acupuncture and Massage
Because our goal in Eastern medicine is to constantly keep energies moving, when we have difficulty coping with emotions, they can get “stuck” and stop the flow, eventually making us sick.
Acupuncture and massage are both very moving to our internal energies, which is how they help keep us healthy. How often have you been on the massage table, and the therapist rolls over a big knot? That’s a physical manifestation of energy getting stuck.
When grieving, acupuncture and massage are beautiful tools to help get things moving and release anything that might be stuck. People sometimes cry during acupuncture and massage treatments because these treatments move things that have accumulated, sometimes for months or years—which is an excellent thing. Crying is another way to move grief out of the body—a powerful catharsis.
Some of these concepts might seem strange to us in the West, but thousands of years of observation and practice have borne them out. Emotional awareness is something that needs to be learned and cultivated, and it behooves us to do so because of its impact on our health and well-being.
Understanding and processing our emotions is an opportunity for growth, self-discovery, and, ultimately, self-mastery. Understanding ourselves helps us extend that understanding to others and operate in the world with greater compassion and awareness, which, according to many ancient traditions, are the keys to a happy, fulfilling life.