Transforming Grief and Letting Go

Solar Term 18 | October 21 – November 7

There is land behind my house that needs attention.

Every day I walk past, trying to create a vision of its potential. It’s been neglected for so long that it feels downtrodden.

I walk through the plants pulling invasive weeds, inspecting the earth, and thinking of what will revive this land and bring back its growth energy.

Finally deciding on a meadow, I purchased a mix of grass and wildflower seed.

Waiting for the growing season to be finished to sow the seed for its revival, the final killing frost finally arrives.

The name of this Solar Term is “Frost’s Descent.” This frost marks the end of the growing season.

It is the end of harvest and the beginning of the coldest time of year. A time of transition.

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. – Lao Tzu


Fall reminds us that loss is a natural part of life.

The simple inner transitions that happen constantly are easy to overlook for a time; suddenly, we are coping with significant life transitions and are unprepared.

Not knowing how to handle the emotions of loss, we start to contract, like the sap in the trees during fall.

This contraction becomes embodied as settling in the chest. There is a presence that feels heavy. It causes our chest to sink in, our shoulders to slump forward, and our eyes to become downcast and cloudy.

Unacknowledged, the loss collects, and we begin to feel dull, numb, cut off, and lonely.


Grief is held in the body as a mist.

It contains water vapor, which is why it feels heavy in the body. It collects like fog rolling in during the night.

The vapor is held in the chest, the thoracic cage, which involves the shoulders, breasts, heart, lungs, the mid-thoracic spine, esophagus, and the thymus gland found behind the sternum.

It prevents the proper movement of water which creates knots in these areas of the body, like the lump in your throat when you hold back a cry.

It’s the holding back of the flood of tears that is painful.

If we allow ourselves to let go and feel the pain, the lump will resolve, and we will be able to have some peace.

But this can be difficult because processing grief stirs up your past regrets, insecurities, and unresolved issues.

This can seem too painful or overwhelming, so we bury it instead. We hold our breath.

The role of the lungs is to disperse water vapor around the body and expel it in the form of carbon dioxide.

Instead, there is a further concentration of water vapor into phlegm, which lodges deep in the body, and is the beginning of the disease.

Long-term, unresolved grief held as phlegm can cause chronic pain, tension, and diseases of the chest, breast, heart, and lungs.

Letting Go

Letting go is a topic that comes up frequently in the clinic.

In Chinese medicine, the fall season, “letting go,” grief, and death are associated with the Metal element, which relates to the Lungs and Colon.

Many people feel overwhelmed by the sense that they need to let go but have no idea how to begin or complete the process.

I think the letting go process is for the small stuff that comes along. This is done through the lungs in the exhale and the colon through bowel movements.

But once the loss is more substantial and has settled into grief, we need to move from letting go and, instead, begin transforming.

Transforming Grief

Transformation is evolution.

This is the fundamental orientation of Eastern thought: Yin turning into Yang, day turning into night, the wheel of life turning away from the past and towards the future.

What is meant by the transformation of emotions is moving from focusing on the past to looking toward the future.

Grief is one of the most challenging emotions to process, but when adequately transformed, it provides powerful life lessons to propel your growth on your path of self-cultivation.

This kind of transformation happens in the body by first increasing circulation in the chest, moving qi and blood.

Taking long, deep breaths during a meditative state can help unravel grief constructively by activating the lungs to move and expel pathogenic water vapor.

There is only one law in the universe that never changes —
that all things change, and that all things are impermanent.
― Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

Inhabiting Vulnerability

The heart is impacted by loss and grief.

The pain we feel in our chest is the heart’s contraction, preventing proper blood circulation, as if to prevent our wounds from bleeding.

Transformation can only occur when we open ourselves to the vulnerability of living with an open but broken heart.

“VULNERABILITY is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without; vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding under-current of our natural state.

“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant, and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.”

Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words by David Whyte.

Further Support for Healing

Please reach out for more support during your journey to ease your suffering and propel growth on your path to self-cultivation. 

  • Herbal Medicine – Herbal medicine can transform the water vapor, or phlegm, collected within. It also will repair a damaged heart and get the blood circulating again. For example, a famous herbal formula to heal from heartbreak is Gui Zhi Tang, which translates as Broken-Hearted Soup.
  • Acupuncture – Unparalleled in its ability to open the chest, promote circulation, and harmonize the systems impacted by loss and grief. I have seen grief transform and people being able to finally move forward with their lives with just acupuncture.
  • Diet – Reducing/eliminating sugar, fried foods, frozen and cold foods, cheese, gluten, alcohol, and over-eating because these foods create phlegm.
  • Movement – Shoulder openers and flexibility in the thoracic spine through backbends and twists. Exhaling deeply through your mouth with these movements to expel water vapor.
  • Language – Orienting to the future, embracing vulnerability, courage, and compassion, and using the tapping techniques discussed in the last blog post, Solar Term 17.
  • Lifestyle – Exhaling completely, having proper bowel movements, crying, and sweating are techniques that also expel water vapor.
  • Art – I find great solace in art, music, and poetry to help express and feel vulnerability.
  • Nature – May the pure potential locked inside seeds waiting for the return of the growth energy of spring give you solace and healing in this time of loss. The sun will rise again, the flowers will bloom again, and the wheel will turn.

sun | body | soul
aligning wellness to nature’s rhythms by exploring mindfulness philosophy

By Maile McKain, L.Ac. Dipl. OM

I’m an acupuncturist, herbalist, educator, and absolute believer that healing is always possible. I practice medicine for living systems to initiate healing, restore balance, and create harmony so you can reach your full potential.