How Mindfulness can help soften the blow of bad news.

How mindfulness can help soften the blow of bad news.


December can be stressful on a good day. This year it could have been even worse. Just before Christmas I got what initially felt like bad, no terrible, news. After almost three years of suspecting that my mother has more than just a bad hip, sitting in the modern clinic at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton, on a Friday morning, when I should have been teaching fifty 7-year-olds how to be mindful, the doctor fed back the results of the recent MRI of her brain. Mum has alcoholic and vascular dementia. Despite the suspicion that this was the case for some months now, I was instantly winded and tears welled up. Then trickled down my face. I had to look away. And breathe.


Even though she was sitting right beside me, breathing, talking, alive, all I could see in my mind were images of the severely damaged parts of her brain, as a result of many mini-strokes over the last few years. Images of neurons that had been starved of blood and oxygen, and so would no longer be able to transmit signals to enable her to walk easily, remember consistently, feel happy or make decisions without confusion and anger. The real evidence before me that she was still there, was blind-sided by imagined images of what was not.


It took two full weeks for the news to sink in. During that time, I didn’t overthink or analyse, research or study. I just got on with daily life, not avoiding the situation but not obsessing either. Unlike the old me, there was a short period of figuring out what next, what needed sorting, fixing. But that soon subsided and I just let the news seep. Then after two weeks the reality began to occupy my attention a little more and I was astounded by what I found. Rather than go through the normal stages of grief at the loss of my old mum - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – I seemed to have skipped straight to acceptance.


I found myself at ease with consciously, mindfully, not judging my mother for the life choices she had made, which had caused the dementia – no exercise or socialising, too many cigarettes, far too much wine and a stubborn refusal to take blood pressure medication, despite being a walking time-bomb. Instead I consciously chose to be compassionate about the hardships she had faced from an early age, which had in part led to these actions.


I was also able to follow my own mindful advice not to strive to put measures in place to prevent further deterioration. Sure, there was a brief temptation to dementia-proof her home and life. But as soon this popped up, I was able to be aware of it, and seek support that would calm that urge and give me permission not to act. Not to fix.


What has become very apparent is that, although I might be dealing with things mindfully, thanks to the nearly five years I have dedicated to having a positive relationship with my thoughts, others are not dealing with the situation at the same pace. My patience is being tested, as I wait for others to realise the old her has partly gone.  The science is indisputable. It was hard not to revert to being a child who needs their mother, but I’m trying to give others the time to get their heads around that too.

So I am trying wholeheartedly to practice what I preach and accept. What’s done is done. Brain cells cannot regenerate (yet). You can’t undo a lifetime of physical and mental hardship and neglect. But you can cherish what you had and focus on the good that is still there. And I can learn from her choices and make sure I don’t repeat them; I can endeavour daily to look after my mind, body and soul, to prevent my own children from having to go through this.


So I have consciously tried to bring present moment awareness, day by day, to how I am feeling about my mother’s dementia. I have looked gently to find where in my body is responding to that, and breathe into that place, so that I can prevent my actions from being reactions to fear, anger, sadness or loss. I have decided to trust that I will have the knowledge and strength to deal with things as they unfold, and that people and the universe will be there for me if I falter.


But I guess what I possibly still need to do a little more, if I am completely honest, is let go. Release myself from the desire to do whatever I can to bring my strong, active, spirited mother back. Give myself permission to put some things behind me, for now, and just breathe and enjoy today. I don’t want or need to forget the good times we had for 45 years together, indeed I am actively grateful for those. But I also mustn’t ruminate on my, our, loss. I have to let go.


I am reminded of something a beautiful soul of a 10 year old student of mine once told me. We were talking about mindfulness helping us deal with difficulty and how we freeze, flee or fight in such moments if we don’t remain present and grounded. She explained how that weekend she had received the news that her grandpa had dementia. Deeply saddened by this she had fled to her room and cried. Then remembering what we had practiced in class together, she did a short ‘petal practice’ and calmed down. I can still hear her words as she told us all openly “I realised my old grandpa was gone and the best thing I could do now was be curious and get to know my new grandpa”. Little did I know then how helpful those words, and the other 6 pillars of mindfulness, would be to me today. The unfortunate diagnosis has actually turned out to be a relief from the not knowing for sure what was happening. Now it’s time to get to know my new mum …

Watching your parents age … mindfully.

Watching your parents age … mindfully.

Watching your parents age can be hard. At dinner this week, one of my three children (aged 11-16) commented - with slight surprise in their voice - that their grandparents had always been so ‘young’ but that three of the four had become more fragile, older. The innocence of the comment was light and the conversation soon moved on, but as daughter to one of those three, it hit a really sore point. So how can you sit with that thought, that knowledge, and not be sad, scared or overwhelmed with worry? And can you learn from it – the inevitability of ageing – so that your old age can be less debilitating and less worrying for those around you?

Eleven years ago, when she was just 64, my mother had a nasty fall, resulting in a broken hip, which was initially pinned and eventually replaced a year later, due to loss of blood supply to the head of the bone, which all but disappeared. In one flight of stairs, she went from an active curtain-maker, hauling kilos of designer fabric and climbing step ladders nimbly, to a retiree with a dodgy leg and a crippling grudge. The broken hip in itself should not have been the end of the world. In the UK around 65,000 people over 60 break their hip each year. The incidence of hip fractures increases with age, doubling for each decade after 50 and because women are more prone to osteoporosis (loss of bone tissue) than men, we are more likely to get a hip fracture (both important facts for me, as a woman nearing 48). But as I said, the break itself was fixable. However, how she went on to deal with it is becoming less so. And seeing that has been hard and at times painful.

The transition from child to carer can often happen without you noticing it. One minute your parent is your child-carer, helping you juggle work and raise a family, and the next they become one of the many you care for, worry about and juggle life around. Noticing that shift doesn’t always happen straight away. Perhaps you ignore it so as not to patronise. Or you deny it because of the consequences for them, rather than you. And accepting it can cause great sadness. When your work involves helping others become aware of their thoughts so they can be happy, involves helping heal life wounds, your automatic response is to turn your attention to healing the ones you love. To fixing them. But as my writing teacher Deborah Levy once told me, ‘you are not responsible for everyone’. Letting go of that responsibility when you know you have the ability to turn a situation around if the other one will just listen, is hard to do. All you can do is try your best and not beat yourself up if you ‘fail’.

Recently as her physical and mental health has deteriorated, I have needed to up the ante on tactics I use to deal with this, and have called more and more on my mindfulness and coaching skills. So what can we do to make life with an ill and ageing parent easier?

·         Not judging; you might have chosen to make sure there is a balance of work with learning and stimulation, social events, physical activity, good diet, moderate alcohol and plenty of fresh air in your daily life, but not everyone has that luxury or those desires. Not everyone has the knowledge that they are all necessary for a healthy life. Not everyone has the clarity of mind to analyse what is missing nor the skills to make the changes for the better.

·         Not striving too hard: with all the good will in the world, you can’t change someone. They have to want to change themselves. To heal. Trying too hard to make things YOUR way will only cause arguments and upset everyone.

·         Being patient: the ability to take on new habits doesn’t come easily to everyone, even if their life, their sanity, depend on it. All you can do is plant seeds. Share ideas. And wait. Maybe one will take root. Maybe not.

·         Have a beginner’s mind: just because you have had one or two or three unpleasant times together, doesn’t mean each and every encounter will be difficult. If you think it will turn out badly, you are practically inviting a negative outcome. Don’t avoid them. Take each day as it comes.

·         Accepting: there are so many amazing elderly people in the social media nowadays. Angela Rippon and Gloria Hunniford are both about my mother’s age. Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are both 10 years older. All four are still fit and working, but not every septuagenarian or octogenarian will have that experience of old age. As Byron Katie suggests, ‘loving what is’ is easier for everyone.

·         Trusting: however wrong it seems, however angry or fragile the parent in front of you appears, trust that it is at it should be or can only be. So many things happen in our parents’ lives before we even come along that will impact how they embrace old age. We are not to blame. As the great man says, ‘So long as they have their breath in their chest, everything is ok.’

·         Letting go: you might recall fun, active times with your parents when you were a child camping, them helping you set up your room at Uni or your first flat. You might recall them helping out with your first child. Your second. All wonderful memories of a younger, stronger, maybe even nicer, parent. And while it is good to recall good times and feel them in our bodies wholeheartedly, we have to beware of attachment. Holding on to a past that is no longer can cause pain. And if you hold on too long or too desperately it can cause suffering. Don’t forget. But do let go.

·         And however hard their poor choices are to watch, whatever harsh words they hurl at you in moments of anger, having compassionate and kind eyes and ears can help you be grateful that they are still there and that you can learn from their misfortune.

I am blessed that I work with children as well as adults. One day, last year, an 11-year-old was sharing with me and the class her initial sadness when she discovered her grandfather had Alzheimer’s. She said she missed the fun times they had. Then she remembered what we had learnt about being curious and went back upstairs to have fun getting to know her ‘new’ grandpa. What a wise, young girl, who open-mindedly accepted the ancient knowledge: everything changes, nothing stays the same.

So next time it hurts to see your elderly parent struggling, turn your attention to that place in your body where you are feeling it. Take a breath in and send it there. Fill that place with loving kindness. Then take the attention off you and your pain and turn to them … while you still can.

How to help your children become happy teenagers.

How to help your children become happy teenagers (23 Jan 2018)

By Anna Wille, Mindfulness Teacher, Author and Coach, Twitter @willeanna, Instagram annawille.lovelivelead

There is increasing recognition by schools and parents that we need to help children develop their emotional intelligence and learn to nurture their own happiness. Whereas in the 1950’s depression was something that might set in in our early 30’s, today we know that the early onset of depression occurs at just 13, and that this generation of ‘Millenials’ (those born since 1984) have lower self-esteem than any other. So there is a real need to offer pre-teens opportunities to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes, that will safeguard their happiness.

As a qualified MiSP teacher, I recently held my fourth dot.b mindfulness-for-teens programme to a group of 48 fifteen year old girls. They attend a ‘non-aggressive’ and ethnically diverse independent school in South London. After briefly explaining the course content, I was saddened, but not surprised, to hear what they hoped the 6-hour course would bring them and what they feared the most, which we shared anonymously.

Top of their list of desires was to stress and worry less. In fact, half of them quoted this as what they most hope for. Next, over a quarter of them said they would like to have more self-confidence; a little surprising, as they had all been ‘selected’ for their ability four years earlier, in exam rounds that now see 7-10 children compete for 1 place. Third in the list, over a fifth of them hope for happiness, or as two girls put it “to actually be happy” and “to feel real happiness for once in a long time”.

Reassuring them that the course would help with the above, we then explored their fears and worries. Despite being 16 months away, over half were anxious about their GCSEs or exams in general. Given that they had sat Mocks a month earlier, that wasn’t too surprising. However, what followed was. Over a fifth of the 15 year olds in this friendly school, shared that they feared others’ negative opinions, being judged or not being liked. One girl stated that she worried “that people don’t like me, that they are all being fake to me” and another said “I’m scared that everyone thinks I look awful and hate me but are too nice to say so and put up with me”. But most alarming to me was the third most common worry: loneliness. Over 20% of the room feared being alone.

Luckily, having taught mindfulness to nearly 1700 children and adults over the last two and a half years and received feedback from each one, I was able to rest assured that 9 lessons later, if not before, these girls would have tools to alleviate their worries. But it did get me thinking. How is it that our teenagers, who spend 8 hours a day among friends and are constantly connected and communicating on social media, fear being alone?

In his fabulous talks, Simon Sinek explains that the adolescents of today live for peer approval. They skilfully put on a false image of being tough and ‘sorted’ on social media, that it is no wonder that they don’t believe what others say about them. Also, they have got into the habit of using texting when they are lonely, rather than face-to-face connections, relying on dopamine-releasing replies for approval and company.

So how can Mindfulness reduce teens’ stress, low self-esteem and loneliness? Underpinning this practice (at its least) or lifestyle (at its best), are seven founding attitudes. When practiced daily for as little as 10 minutes, they enable us to know where our attention is, focus on the good and be happy, joyful and at peace with ourselves and the world.

How? First, we learn non-judging. Fourth on the girls’ hopes, it encourages us to criticise ourselves and others less. Second, we learn to strive less. Not be less ambitious or determined, but have a gentler approach to our ambition and determination, which came to mind as I read one girl’s worry that she ‘wouldn’t achieve any of her goals in life’ at just 15! Thirdly, mindfulness encourages us to practice patience. Only one girl quoted this as a hope, but a lot of the stress felt by others stemmed from wanting things to happen more easily and faster. Indeed, Simon Sinek, best-selling author, ocnfirms that this generation seek instant gratification and have little patience.

Fourth, we learn to have a beginner’s mind. A quarter of the girls hope to day-dream less, concentrate more or focus better on schoolwork, easier if we approach each moment with curiosity. The fifth attitude is trust; that what is happening is exactly what we need now and will serve us. Next Mindfulness teaches us to accept; events, our ability, our bodies … the latter being a fear held by one sixth of the girls. And finally we learn to let go, of the past, of arguments, of exam results, of things we can’t change, to enable us to be at peace.

Statistically, for five teens in that group, anxiety or depression is already a reality that the course can only help relieve and keep from recurring. The practical breathing and attention skills they will learn, if practiced, will set them all up for a happier, more joyful and more peaceful adolescence and adulthood. To reduce that number however, we need to bring these tools to our children earlier. Dot.b offers priceless life skills to pupils aged 13-18, however schools can ‘teach’ happiness by introducing courses such as paws.b to children as young as 7.

How? Having a Mindfulness champion is key, whether it’s the head, deputy head, SENCO/ELSA or PCSHE co-ordinator. The MiSP offer great teacher training courses. Some schools prefer to hire external trainers, such as myself, to provide expert input, encourage a teacher to take on the role, or lighten the teachers’ load. Both require a budget; about £1000 for the former or just £20 per pupil for the latter. As budgets are tight in the state sector, schools I work with are creative, using pupil premium, sports budgets or getting support from PTA funds. At the very least, there are resources that teachers and parents can use, such as my Mindfulness Shuffle (published by Findel LDA), which offer easy to follow, simple exercises to help develop our children’s emotional intelligence mindfully and consequently safeguard their happiness. For every mind matters.

23rd January 2018.