Managing grief: Ancient practices that heal

Grief is a horrible feeling at best. Dealing with loss, especially the loss of a loved one, is painful. It can be mind-numbing and energy-robbing. It can set in motion an existential crisis about the meaning of life, often leading to depression and despair.

It is difficult to pull yourself together during times of loss, and especially difficult to focus and work. In the West, we look to grief as an emotion of the heart and mind. We seek therapy to help us “work through it,” and sometimes drugs to help “deaden the pain” enough to cope.

I recently lost a loved one, my best friend and mentor of nearly 25 years. I turned to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to help me cope and would like to share the concepts and method I am using today. But first let’s talk about how we grieve…

Grief defined

Grief is our embedded normal response to loss, especially the loss of a loved one to which love and a deep emotional bond existed. Grief is a multi-dimensional emotion that can affect you physically, cognitively, behaviorally, socially and philosophically. With all of this, it is no wonder loss takes so much time to process and come to grips with.

Grief is a deep and vast subject and there are many ways to view and approach it. One of the key ways of managing grief is by understanding the “five stages” of grief.  Everyone grieves differently, but the stages can serve as signposts or pointers as you make your way through the grieving process.

Most of us do indeed move through five stages of grief during our time of loss, mourning and bereavement, though not in the same order or for the same lengths of time. These stages are important to helping you regain your wellbeing — else repressed grief can lead to disease. The stages are:

Stage 1. Denial and Isolation
Stage 2. Anger
Stage 3. Bargaining
Stage 4. Depression
Stage 5. Acceptance

Grief and TCM

Traditional Chinese medicine is a holistic healing method that views the body, the being, the spirit and the energy all as a connected unit. Indeed, the physical body cannot be disassociated from the emotions, thoughts, foods or activities of a person. The specific part of the body that TCM views as affected by grief are the lungs — which are related to the color white. The season of Autumn, pungent foods, and the sound sssssss are also associated with grief.

The lungs are a pump in the body, drawing in fresh oxygen and expelling toxic carbon dioxide, their function is vital to life and daily feelings of wellbeing. In TCM, each emotion is associated with a specific organ and its function can be affected by that emotion. Moreover, each organ has a paired organ, connected through the timing of how energy moves through the body in a continuous flow over a daily cycle. As such, according to TCM theory, the lungs are associated with grief and sadness and are connected with the large intestines.

The disharmony of grief

TCM does not view diseases or conditions as autonomous things. There is no ‘treating grief’ or ‘curing asthma.’ On the contrary, because TCM views the body as an intimately connected unit, it sees an ‘imbalance’ in the intra-web of the body/mind/energy. Sadness and grief negatively affect the lung qi — or vital energy of the lungs.

When grieving or sad it is often difficult to breath — at times to even speak. This can lead to insufficient fresh air intake and decreased oxygenation of the blood. This can cause tightness and pain in muscles, lethargy, and depression. This is why it is said that the lungs govern the qi — or the breath regulates the energy and function of the body.

By understanding the many ways in which the lungs are connected in the body, and how grief directly affects the function of the lungs, you can then draw from TCM to help regulate and balance your lungs as a means to help manage your grief.

TCM Breath & Sound Therapy – Because grief affects the lungs, it’s important to calm your lungs and improve respiration by releasing grief from them. The fastest way, in the moment, is by setting aside some time to take a series of calm, deep breaths.  Because the lungs are associated with the color white and the sound sssss, they are part of the breathing practice for releasing grief. Let’s take a look.

Find a quiet place to sit relaxed, with spine upright if you can manage. First, take a series of slow deep diaphragmatic breaths to fill your lungs to comfortable capacity; but not so full they hurt. Exhale and repeat nine times. (In TCM theory, the number nine is associated with tonification or strengthening).

Next, continue breathing in slowly and deeply, but this time, imagine white loving light is filling your lungs. As you exhale, imagine the white light energy is permeating through your every cell as the negative energy leaves your body along with the carbon dioxide. Repeat this nine times.

And lastly, take slow, deep breaths while visualizing the loving white light. But this time, as you exhale, quietly make the sounds of sssssssss during the entire time the air is leaving your body. This sound resonates with your lung energy and causes your lungs to vibrate, thus breaking loose the stuck grieving energy. Repeat this nine times.

TCM Diet Therapy – Diet also plays a role in managing grief. According to TCM, specific foods positively and negatively affect the lungs, which are associated with grief. Foods that are bad for your lungs are those foods that are damp in nature and thus mucus forming. They make grieving worse by causing its energy to get “stuck” in the lungs. These include: sugar, milk, fried and greasy foods.

However, pungent foods are said to strengthen lung function, and so when grieving it is a good idea to consume more of these foods: almond, apricot, asparagus, banana, black pepper, broccoli, cabbage, cardamom, celery, chili, cinnamon, cucumber, eggs, garlic, ginger, leek, miso, mustard greens, navy beans, onion, pears, radish, rice, soy beans, sweet potato, walnuts


This may sound very “new-age” to you, but in time of grief and mourning, why not put aside preconceptions of how the body works and how to cope with loss, and give these basic TCM methods a try.

In the end, grief caused by loss leaves you feeling as if a piece of yourself is missing. You may never replace that piece, but you can use methods to refocus the memories away from the emotional and body pain to one of love and cherish. Working through loss and managing grief are a struggle for us all. But implementing some of the TCM methods shared here can help you heal the lung energy to restore equilibrium to your body, and hope to stay collected.


Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.