When my Mother died, it was the end of a difficult 5 year decline. Yes it was a blessing, in that her suffering was over. But it was still a shock. The woman who gave me birth, who loved me unrelentingly all my life, who called me her beautiful, beautiful boy, was gone forever. In the immediate aftermath, I found keeping busy a good temporary coping mechanism. There was much to do comforting Dad and handling Mom’s affairs, on top of the regular tasks of work and family life.
However, having seen other friends deal with a close loss, and knowing that if you do not deal with emotions, they have an inconvenient way of dealing with you, I made sure I allowed enough quiet time to feel whatever was coming up, and let whatever tears needed to flow, flow. Emotions seemed to come in waves. Some days I was fine and a few days later I would feel sad or tired.
It was a relatively busy time in my work and volunteer activities, and I was able to keep things moving. However, I noticed I simply did not have the same energy or interest level in activities that might have previously engaged me, and it was definitely harder to keep a focus. I just kept letting whatever thoughts or feelings that wanted to show up, show up and be fully experienced. And it really helped to regularly share whatever I was feeling with my wife or a close friend.
About 10 months after Mom’s passing, my daughter asked me to join her in a hot yoga class. I am not a fan of hot yoga, but I do my best to say yes when my daughters ask me to do stuff. Halfway through the 90 minute session, I was in the middle of the camel pose (that one where you are on your knees, bending backwards, opening up your whole chest), when I became acutely aware of a strong sensation. It was a significant contraction in my torso, and felt like what can best be described as an intense ball of energy in the center of my chest. My first thought was, “Is this a heart attack?”. But it was not painful and I was pretty sure my physical heart was in good shape. So I just watched and waited a few seconds wondering what was going to happen next.
As I observed this very palpable sensation, I noticed it was slowly moving from my chest up through my throat, where it was beginning to constrict and interfere with my breathing. Only able to draw a fraction of my normal breath, I could feel the start of panic rising. But just a few seconds later, right about the time when I had concluded I should probably run from the class – the energy ball/constriction popped up and out of my throat. It was totally gone. But I was shaken.
Being a recovering engineer, and scientific materialist most my life, I came home, got online and tried to figure out what had happened. There was no obvious medical or scientific explanation. So I reached out to a few of the more experienced yoga teachers I knew. When I described my experience to one teacher friend, he said, “Sounds like you had a release from your heart chakra, have you lost anyone lately?”
At that time I knew very little about the links between the mind and body. I had always assumed talk of chakras, chi or prana were the products of over-active imaginations. Up until that time I was generally skeptical of any phenomena that I did not learn about in my many high school and university science classes. However a direct experience of something like this, opens you up, gets you curious and questioning some of your assumptions. I went back to that yoga class a few more times. Each time the experience repeated with less intensity. After the 3rd class there seemed to be nothing left to release.
What I noticed after that whole experience was I felt much lighter. It was if a weight had been removed from my shoulders. Also, the entire world looked far more colorful. I hadn’t noticed the gray veil of grief that had been subtly hanging around for months. It was suddenly easier to laugh and feel happy again.
What I learned from that experience is that emotions are held in the body and mind in ways we are not fully conscious of. I saw much more proof of this a few years later when I took a yoga teacher training. I was doing 5 hours of yoga a day with 18 women, and for the first few weeks, it seemed a day did not go by where all our bending, twisting and opening work did not stir up something in one of my classmates – who ended up in a fetal position crying and feeling her way through some old trauma.
We may do our best to control our lives and keep our loved ones safe. And yet loss, grief and bereavement is guaranteed in any life. It most certainly is one of life’s greatest wake up calls, and it hits everyone differently. However, from my own dance with grief, and the stories and experiences I have had the privilege of sharing with other people, I have learned a few things I would like to pass on, in case it helps someone:
In the wake of an important loss:
Don’t be surprised to initially feel in shock. And over time be prepared to encounter a whole range of emotions including; deep sadness, anger, confusion, loneliness, fear, numbness, or depression. Do not be surprised to feel really tired and listless. Don’t be surprised if some of this stuff shows up in your body. Grief can be a real roller coaster. It can bring up a lot of issues. So do yourself a favor and don’t act prematurely on any big life decision. You are not in your normal state of mind.
Consciously set aside time each day to feel, and express, whatever is coming up for you. If you want to cry, cry. If you want to rage, find a safe place to rage. You really do have to feel to heal. It is how the psyche/soul recovers. Do not attempt to avoid these emotions. That may be a common strategy, but it is a really bad idea. It will only lead to bigger problems down the road.
Reach out to those few people in your life who you can talk with about this stuff, the ones who are not uncomfortable with the topic, and will not attempt to quickly fix or distract you. (The biggest gift you can give someone at these times, is just being there, and just being open to experience it all with them.)
Notice that every emotion you may ever feel, comes and goes. Also notice that to any strong emotion there are two parts; a bodily sensation, and a story. Feel the sensations. Really observe where they are in your body, and how they change in time. They will not overwhelm you. However, be very curious, or better yet full on skeptical, about the story associated with the emotion. The story side of any emotion is most probably way too general, out of date, or overly dramatic. And you will find that the minute you stop feeding the story – with attention or belief – the emotion starts to move on. (One of the gifts of grief is that it brings to the surface a bunch of old beliefs, fears and superstitions that have been operating under the radar and negatively impacting your life for years. Bringing them to the surface gives you the opportunity to revise and update the narrative. And most of us have a bunch of old stories about loss, love, life and death that would benefit greatly from complete housecleaning or a mature and judicious pruning. )
Let the process of grief run its course. How long it takes, and the extent of what you will experience is individual to each of us. Surrender to the healing. Be open to its many lessons and gifts. Life and death are profound mysteries that defy our simplistic attempts to conceptualize. And yet life is good. Trust life, the alternative is just plain stupid.
Some of the biggest and most wonderful discoveries of going through the death of, (now), both of my parents is that life really does go on, you do recover, and that love held in the human heart never really diminishes with time.
Anytime I want to feel the love of my Mom or Dad, I simply close my eyes and picture them. I imagine them at one of those special moments when we were most deeply and tenderly connected. I feel their love. It is as alive and vibrant today as it ever was. I usually sit with the feeling of love for a few minutes. It is beautiful. Then, typically, I notice it slowly spreads to a feeling of gratitude and a general sense of awe. I connect again with the beautiful mystery of life.
Finally, you may never be the same after a big loss, but that is the good news. Grief is the price you pay for living and loving deeply. It is a cost worth paying. When you fully honor a loss, it opens you up more fully. And ultimately it increases your capacity to love.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
– Anne Lamott
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