Wendy Black Stern
Founder and Executive Director
Grief Support Network
“This process has helped me reconnect with myself in ways that I didn’t even know I needed. Thank you Wendy and GSN for creating such a nourishing, safe, healthy and embodied container to hold me and my grief.” ~GSN Yoga Graduate
Last week, while traveling to Morocco, Spain and Portugal, I celebrated my 40th birthday. This trip was a life-changing experience for me and it gave me the space to reflect on my journey over the past 10 years. When I turned 30, I had Noah in my arms and I thought my life was going to look and be a certain way. Now, only 10 years later, I have learned through the experience of losing him and my own self-discovery that the key to my happiness is this – I cannot be afraid to be who I am. Traveling abroad this time brought me out of my comfort zone and opened my awareness to the different ways that cultures behave, relate to each other, and live.
While staying at an Airbnb in Tarifa, Spain, I had a brief but impactful conversation with the women who owned the accommodation. She was asking me about my travels and commented on the fact that we were only staying in Tarifa for one night before moving on to Cadiz, another city nearby in southern Spain. Her reflection was that Americans are the only ones who pack too much into a trip. They remain in a place for a short period of time to see and do as much as possible rather than landing in each place to fully experience and appreciate the culture and relax. After this conversation, she had me thinking… Why do Americans always feel that more is better? Why do I determine my own value based on my accomplishments or how many people I have impacted rather than the quality of support and connection that I bring to each relationship? As I sat on the hour and half bus ride from Tarifa to Cadiz, I contemplated this American ideal of success and achievement that is engrained into the fabric of our culture. And, the more that I unpacked this for myself, the more evident it became that my self-worth has become deeply entrenched in the opinions of others and the success of my business. The “I am not enough” syndrome that many Americans are plagued with, lies at the core of my stress, dis-ease and personal struggles for happiness. This revelation gave me pause and invited me to look deeper at our cultural norms, how this impacts my self-worth and most importantly, what I want to do about it.
In Portugal, I had the amazing opportunity to practice yoga each morning on the pristine beaches of the Algarve Coast. This time — to move, breathe, be quiet and connected with myself — was an important reminder that my practice offers me a sacred space to slow down so that I can feel myself deeply and remember who I am. As Americans, we run around with our heads cut off always striving to be the best, make enough money or achieve a self-imposed goal that measures our success, which ultimately cuts us off and diminishes us. In this way, we are made to feel that everything else is more important and that we don’t have time for anything, let alone our grief. By experiencing the contrast of the gentler pace and spaciousness in other cultures, I really got it in my own bones. We have to have slow down the pace so that we can show up authentically in our relationships, both with ourselves and each other. The cultural norm will always push us to do more, be more, want more and have more, but to truly be happy I see that we need to work this out together and support each other to be mindful and more intentional in our actions and words so that we don’t miss out on the moment that we are experiencing. For me, the present moment is where the joy is. This is where we find gratitude and can transform our grief into love. To do this, we have to work in ourselves and together. This is the power of creating a learning community – a sacred space to reflect and share with others who are willing to be vulnerable and show up authentically thereby growing side by side.
I learned a lot about sacred space many years ago while traveling in Bali, Indonesia, just a few weeks after Noah died. The culture there to this day is the most nurturing, supportive and fertile place I have ever been largely because they have a strong framework built into their daily routines for how to integrate the sacred into their lives. In Bali, they have rituals that mark every rite of passage, from births, to deaths, to holidays that honor their Hindu gods to the simple marking of their daily rhythm. They bring intention to everything they do in Bali and they genuinely create the time and space to be present and connected to themselves and each other. For this reason (and many more), Bali was the most perfect and welcoming place to grieve. Through the rituals and ceremonies that they practice as well as their cultural way of openly talking about their feelings, experiences of life, death and all of the moments in between, they hold a sacred space to be present with the whole self. They feel the depths of emotions without shame, judgment or the discomfort of being with pain. This was a true gift for me at this vulnerable and impressionable time in my grief journey. It showed me another way to grieve. It gave me a role model of what true “support” and personal healing look like so that I could return to my life back home and have something to refer back to within myself. This experience with the gentle, kind people of Bali led the way for my personal yoga practice to serve as a container to connect with myself in order to know and accept myself more fully.
After 10 years of self-study and many travels overseas to experience other cultures, I have learned the essence of grief work comes down to three basic concepts – Authenticity, Connection and Self-Acceptance. We cultivate these qualities by creating a sacred space to practice in. We do it together and we do it alone. For each of us, this may look a bit different, but the practice of turning our gaze inward, sitting in our own skin to feel the sensations, emotions, thoughts and connection to our spirit are what allows us to feel our grief. And this is absolutely necessary to heal it and to transform the pain into the full radiance of light and love. In our culture, this is not what we are used to. In our success-driven society, we rarely make the time and space to sit with our feelings, which causes us to push them down, put on a happy face and be “strong” enough to keep on going. This is exactly the pattern that we must break in order to live a healthy and happy life.
For me, the most powerful shifts have taken place when I have been willing to give myself the consistent space to slow down, journey into my body and emotions and be witnessed in my grief. There is no magic solution for healing after a loss and life will present many distractions and obstacles to derail us from paying attention and moving deeper inside ourselves. But I know from experience that the only way to get through it is to commit to the healing. In my own personal yoga practice and in the programs that I have created, sacred space is the prerequisite for grief to have the opportunity to transform into something greater and more powerful through the beauty of self-love and acceptance. I invite you to participate with me in building a safe and loving container, where we can share authentically, stay connected to our higher selves, our group, our community and, most importantly, accept ourselves for being exactly who we are.