Healing in Southeast Asia, Part One

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Wendy Black Stern
Founder and Executive Director
Grief Support Network

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February 7, 2018

On Feb. 29th (yes, he died on leap day), it will be ten years since my son, Noah, passed away. As always, I can feel the tension of his anniversary building inside of me through the month of February. This is my grief month. For me, it offers a time of remembrance of Noah’s sweet presence and introspection of what my life would have been like if he had not died, as well as the difficult but heart opening journey of my grief. This is a tender and sometimes confusing time, because I can feel both my grief and my gratitude mixed together — sometimes in the very same breath. Most years, February moves slowly and painfully, like sludge, re-opening the carefully protected wound in my heart. However, this year, there is something new happening. Another layer of my grief reveals itself, as I find myself lost in my memories of Noah and even more poignantly, my travels to southeast Asia immediately after his death.

This was a potent and transformative time for my husband and I, and as I reflect on that journey almost ten years later, I am able to receive new insight and give thanks for this life-changing event that shaped my understanding of love and life and how to grieve in a way that is healthy, mindful and in connection to myself and others.

The day of Noah’s funeral, Brian and I decided that we would travel to Bali, Indonesia and Thailand in search of a culture that could help us make sense of our loss. I remember the moment vividly. Sitting on the bathroom floor upstairs trying to get away from all the people who filled our home, we looked into each other’s eyes and felt fearless for the first time in our lives. We had just lost everything. Our world had literally fallen apart. The unimaginable had happened to us. And, in that brief moment we became fearless because we had nothing left to lose! In hindsight, I have never known such freedom and I am unsure if I will again. This was a fleeting moment, of course, and I certainly did not appreciate the experience of freedom because I was hurting so badly. But, as I reflect on that time now, I can recognize that there was something meaningful and important happening in the month between Noah’s death and day I found out I was pregnant with my second child, Hannah. In that small window of my life, I was more present in my surroundings and in flow with myself than I have ever been. Each moment simply led to the next with ease and curiosity. All I had to do was focus on one step at a time and be open to the beautiful people and experiences that we would meet along the way. It was magical, really, and liberating to be THAT PRESENT.

There is a phrase that I often say in my yoga classes during meditation, “there is nothing here to do or make happen,” and that is exactly how I felt throughout my travels. That is, until, I felt the first stirrings of life growing inside of me. For weeks, I tried to put it out of my mind but I could feel every tiny change happening in my body. I prayed and I waited and tried to distract myself until I finally could not take it any longer. One morning before dawn on the shores of Koh Samui Thailand, I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter, Hannah. It had been 5 weeks since Noah’s death and it happened to be my first Mother’s Day since Noah’s birth and death.

I have no words to describe the emotion that I felt as I watched the sunrise over the ocean and noticed the familiar feeling of fear creep back inside of me mixed with the immense joy of new life growing in my womb. The impact of this event was so great that it continues to haunt me and draw me back into the past. With Noah’s ten-year anniversary approaching and two of my closest friends traveling in Thailand as I write this post, I am reliving my experience in this sacred land — wishing that I could hold onto that precious feeling of freedom and expansiveness that I felt there. At the time, all I wanted was a baby in my arms. In every temple that we prayed in, every Buddha that we visited, our prayer was the same – to conceive a child to bring light back into our lives. I was consumed by this desire, so much so that I didn’t appreciate the freedom that I had from my fear. I have never felt as present, connected and mindful as I did during this journey. Nor, have I felt as embraced and held in the gentle, kind and mindful ways that this culture lives. Even though my lens of this journey was through the eyes of a person in deep grief, my heart and mind were wide open and receptive to the people and practices that we experienced along the way. For this, I am forever grateful. My southeast Asia journey would change me forever and create a seed inside me for this work that I love.

In part two of this blog, I want to share the profundity of what I learned from these cultures and the impact of the kindness of strangers that we met along our way. Stay tuned as we will post this very soon.

Also, if you are interested in how I founded The Grief Support Network and this work of mindful grieving, please listen to this recent podcast facilitated by Noah Goldstein from Heartseed Health.

In love,

Wendy

The Fearless Path of Mindful Grieving

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Wendy Black Stern
Founder and Executive Director
Grief Support Network

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January 2018

“The only way that I can make sense of your leaving so ephemerally is to take the spark of your light to change my life in a way so profoundly that I live your light and share it with the rest of this suffering world to do some good.” read by Irene Schmoller (my cousin) at Noah’s funeral

Today was one of those days where you wake up and feel like the world is upside down. The holidays now over and the promise of a new year to reset and start anew had fleetingly filled me with hope, but as the first few days of 2018 passed, I found myself sinking into the familiar anger and confusion of my grief. All of the darkness and angst of the past few months swirled inside me and I felt like a corpse of myself as I went through the motions of my morning. Nothing mattered. I felt like I was moving through sludge as I brushed my teeth, got the kids dressed, made my bed, had breakfast and drove on my usual morning route to hike Sanitas before my work day. The cemetery that I pass each day on the Diagonal and never really noticed glared at me as I drove by. Tears began to stream down my face and, as if on autopilot, I turned right instead of going straight and found myself parked in front of Noah’s grave stone. “What was I doing here?” said a voice in my head. Go hike. Go move. Do something to make yourself feel better. Don’t wallow. Don’t give in to depression and fear. And, most importantly, don’t open the carefully contained chamber of your heart where you hold your grief and pain and memories of your first-born child, Noah.

Grief has the power to bring us to our knees in truth and that is exactly what happened to me on this particular cold, gray morning in January. I sat on the grass before Noah’s gravestone, taking in the image of his name and the dates of his short life. My insides froze as I allowed myself to go inside and feel. As I wrapped my jacket tightly around me and closed my eyes, I remembered something that my Rabbi had said to me on the one-year anniversary of Noah’s death in this very spot. She said, “You can think of the gravestone as the end of a long kite string that offers a way to stay tethered to Noah.” For me, this made sense because I knew that Noah was not in the ground but boundless and free in his spirit body. His gravestone had had little meaning for me as I stood there almost ten years ago with my 6-week old baby daughter in my arms struggling to make sense out of my loss and this place where his body was buried. But, today, as I settled into meditation and allowed myself to sob and grieve and feel it all, I began to understand the wisdom that she shared and the teachings that were available to me in this sacred place. The teachings from Noah.

My meditation practice has always been the most direct pathway to calming my nervous system and receiving the no nonsense download from heart and soul. I often resist it, but the moment that I tune in to my breath, notice my body and allow myself to observe my internal landscape, the fog begins to lift and life comes into clearer focus for me to see what is really happening. It isn’t always pretty, but it is honest and always true. As I sat with myself at Noah’s grave, a message came to me piercing through my longing and pain, self-pity and anger, brokenness and confusion. Sitting there in the cold, I could feel him closer to me than I had been willing to feel in a long time. It hurt like hell, I will not lie, but the feeling of his presence there with me and my newfound capacity to open to his love helped me to understand myself better, receive Noah’s teachings (which are really my own!) and to integrate this wisdom so that I can share it with others.

The Fearless Path of Mindful Grieving

  1. Keep your Heart Open and Feel More Instead of Less

It is instinctive to constrict inside when you feel the intense and painful feelings of your grief. This is our body trying to protect us or shield us from the pain, but if you can breathe right into the space where you feel the tension well up inside of you and create more spaciousness inside to feel and stay present with the feelings rather than collapsing or contracting, the grief will be able to move through you. This is what brings about the release and experience of freedom and lightness in your body, mind, and spirit. This is what helps us to Let Go, over and over again, so that we don’t have to carry the burden of our grief with us wherever we go.

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Let Your Love Shine Through You – The World Can Handle It!

Grief opens us to our darkest shadow as well as our purest, brightest, deepest Light. For many, the experience of loss initiates a spiritual crisis that challenges our preconceived ideas about our identity, desires, beliefs and purpose in this life. As the heart cracks open with grief, it also grows bigger and allows more of our light and love to come through, if we let it. This can be a new and vulnerable way to be, especially in a culture that is judgmental, guarded and lacking in self-expression and authentic connection. If we are willing to speak the truth and reflect each other’s light and love back to each other without judgment or having it make us feel bad about ourselves, then we will have more confidence to be who we are and each learn to shine in the unique gifts that every person on this earth has to offer. Through grief, we have the opportunity to transform our pain into love. Don’t be afraid. Let yourself shine as brightly as you are!

  1. Be Vulnerable and Authentic and You Will Know Peace

Grief is a powerful teacher because it strips away all of the bullshit and forces us to get real with who we are and what we stand for. Like nothing else, going through loss will put your life into perspective and help you remember what really matters and all that does not. When we can find the courage to be vulnerable with ourselves and each other, with our tender hearts wide open and willing to be seen and fully loved, then we can come to know the true peace and joy that exists when we are in flow with the universe and Love itself. This is a pathway to Gratitude. When we feel loved and accepted by ourselves and another human heart, all tension dissolves and our hearts can, at last, know peace.

  1. Be Present, Be Present, Be Present

It is a powerful time to sit with yourself when you are grieving – in quiet, in peace, in connection to all that is moving through you and outside you. It is a new year and we find ourselves along with the world wanting to begin anew. I have been setting my intentions now for the last few weeks. These are personal and intimate inside me. Do you have a special way of setting intentions to honor your journey? Do you write in a journal, grab a guitar and wail, jump in the car and travel to your special hiking spot for some time alone with yourself? I also encourage you to find a trusted friend to share your feelings, insights and goals. Or come join us in one of our yoga therapy programs as we do this process in community. Witnessing each other helps to hold the space of accountability not to mention the blossoming of deep deep love.

I honor each of you as you take up 2018 and bow to the truth of your journey and the promise of transformation.

In love,

Wendy

Self-Care Tips for Grief Support During the Holidays

 

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Wendy Black Stern
Founder and Executive Director
Grief Support Network

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December 2017

The holiday season can be a difficult time of year when you have been through a loss, regardless of whether it is recent or happened many years ago. For me, no matter how much healing work I have done, my grief still lives right beneath the surface and is easily triggered when I am with my family and steeped in the memories of holidays gone by that included my son. Over the past ten years since Noah died, I have developed some practices and simple tools to support myself and keep my heart open during the holiday season. Here are some tips to consider when caring for yourself or a loved one during this tender and often busy and overwhelming time of year. Please keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to grieve or to be there for another, rather, these are some simple and basic guidelines to help you stay grounded and connected to your body, mind and heart.

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Move Your Body Every Day

Each of us has our own outlet to relieve stress, anxiety, anger or whatever emotion arises from our grief. Take a moment to consider what your personal way is to let off steam and get your chi (energy) moving. Whether your preference is hiking, walking, biking, yoga, a sport or anything else, make it a priority to schedule in time each day to move your body and get your heart pumping. This will not only feel good and connect you with your body and breath, but it will also calm your mind and increase endorphins that release powerful ‘feel good’ messages to your entire being.

Create Quiet, Reflective Spaces to Tune into Yourself

The holidays can be crazy busy, so it is important to find quiet, calming spaces to be present with yourself and your feelings. When we get caught up in social gatherings, events and the demanding pace of this time of year, our grief can get pushed aside and neglected. This may seem like a positive temporary solution, but ultimately, it will catch up to you and often make you feel depressed, anxious and out of alignment with yourself. If we can tune into ourselves each day and check in with our feelings, then we have the opportunity to meet ourselves where we are in truth and allow our grief to be felt so that it can move through us.

Cultivate a Mindfulness Practice

To truly take care of ourselves during the holidays, it is helpful to cultivate a practice in mindfulness so that we remain conscious of our inner experience even as we are navigating the energy of our family, friends and colleagues. This can be really difficult when spending time with loved ones who are grieving alongside of us as happens often during the holidays. But with mindfulness, we learn how to stay in our center and pay attention to our thoughts, emotions, and sensations so that as they arise, we do not become overwhelmed by them. With mindfulness, we learn to calm our minds, notice what is ours and what is not and tend to ourselves by witnessing ourselves in our authentic experience.

Talk About your Loved One or Loss

One of the most healing acts you can do for yourself or another while grieving is to talk about your loved one. It is a great misconception in our culture that doing this will cause someone more pain — by saying their loved one’s name or sharing a memory of them from the past. The truth is, when we are grieving we are already thinking about that person most of the time. It is often a relief to share the moments of remembering them, missing them, loving them or just thinking about them with others. It can take courage to bring it up in conversation, but give it a try and see how your feelings of grief move just by talking about the person who has died but remained in your heart.

Give Yourself Permission to NOT be Social

During the holidays there is just too much going on and a lot of pressure to ‘show up’. This is difficult for most of us but when you are grieving this can push things over the edge and cause anxiety, anger or resentment (and lots of other feelings too!). To practice self-care, we have to listen to ourselves and trust in our body’s wisdom. If you feel called to be quiet with yourself and introspective, it is OK to opt out of parties, social engagements or anything external that does not support you in being tender and nurturing with yourself. Grief invites us to listen deeply to ourselves so here is a chance to practice radical self love and to do what is truly best for YOU.

With Gratitude,

Wendy

Our Grief Has the Wisdom to Move Through Us

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Wendy Black Stern
Founder and Executive Director
Grief Support Network

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November 2017

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Our grief does have the wisdom to move through us and it is a profound experience to have and to witness in each other. I just returned from leading GSN’s Moving Through Grief Retreat at SunMountain Center with my dear friend and colleague, Robyn Hubbard. The experience was profoundly inspiring and left me with a sense of gratitude for the great wisdom and intelligence that lives within our bodies.

Throughout the weekend, we created a learning community with 12 beautiful women who courageously showed up in their vulnerability and authenticity to do big work. Our weekend was guided by a powerful framework for moving grief called the Four Pathways, which delivered a tremendous richness and depth as we journeyed in intentional space and time within our sacred container.

 I was deeply touched by each of the participants and reminded of the early days after losing Noah and the intensity and depth of pain that lived in my body. As I was healing, my yoga practice became my sanctuary. Each time I arrived on my mat, I learned to look within my body for the answers to my suffering and I found that yoga gave me a way to stay grounded and connected to myself in order to release some of the pain that I felt inside. In the beginning, it was really about survival. I would turn to my mat in search of an anchor to keep me tethered to myself when so much of my being wanted to leave this physical plane and follow Noah. However, as the years have passed, my practice has opened the doorway of my heart for me to love, live and come to understand the true meaning of the word Gratitude.

 We will all experience grief, tragedy or trauma at some point in our lives. We can all touch these vulnerable spaces of loss within ourselves and through yoga, we actively look to our bodies to learn about ourselves and to grow. This is why yoga can feel so good!  Yoga provides us with an individual container, which often brings a sense of safety, to feel our grief and go deeper into ourselves. AND at the same time, yoga gives us a collective container to experience each other through energy, breath and sharing. When you combine this work with an incredible group of people and the mindful, soulful tools that the Four Pathways offer, nothing short of magic occurs. Yoga allows us to feel more. It keeps us connected, which is what we are all ultimately seeking, right? – But, as a culture, we are not really equipped to talk about loss or how to deal with grief especially when it happens to us. I certainly was not. Instead, most of us disconnect and isolate ourselves because those around us are uncomfortable with big emotions. But, what if we could grieve together in community, rather than having to do it alone? What if we could learn to trust in our bodies and experience the wisdom within? This is the paradigm of grieving that GSN has created. This is the community we are holding. As a culture, we cultivate greater gratitude and joy in our lives by learning how to stay connected in our bodies and opening our hearts to feeling more instead of less.

 My friend and co-facilitator Robyn Hubbard shares her reflection on the power of the four pathways: resource, release, rebirth and renewal.

“I have come to trust that the nature of grief is to move through us. It has a destructive quality that leaves us different than who we were before a life-changing event. But I have also come to trust that within destruction comes the promise of a rebirth of something new – often unimaginable to the mind and life as we have known it. The natural tendency for gripping, shutting down, or armoring ourselves to protect from the pain of shattering is normal and appropriate when the pain feels too intense to bear. As resources and support slowly come back online after an initial shock, some gentle movement can help encourage the moving nature of grief’s course through us. Again, as resources strengthen, more qualities and range of movement can be accessed to explore how our bodies can give us feedback of what we need and what resources are available to us (Resource), what emotions need to be expressed to be true to our experience (Release), what is ready to be shaken loose to create room for a new sensation to be experienced (Rebirth), and ways that our renewed experience can in turn be in support and service to ourselves and others (Renewal). This is the spiraling map of Soulful Grieving.”

It was such a great privilege to work with Robyn and co-create this mindful, soulful weekend of moving grief through the body in the sacredness of community. Sitting with you, journeying with you, and experiencing transformation with you brings the vision strikingly forward. We are climbing a precipice which must be climbed and won – to break the stigma around grief in our culture not only for our small community here in Colorado but for people everywhere and generations to come. To all of you, this is my heartfelt thank you for being a part of my life as well as a part of the GSN community.  

 

With Gratitude,

Wendy

 

Finding Authenticity, Connection and Self-Acceptance

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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

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October 2017

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.

Photo: Greg Lefcourt

Photo: Greg Lefcourt

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.

Photo: Greg Lefcourt

Photo: Greg Lefcourt

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.

Photo: Greg Lefcourt

Photo: Greg Lefcourt

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.

Photos: Greg Lefcourt

Photos: Greg Lefcourt

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.

With love,
Wendy

Finding Freedom Through Grief

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Wendy Black Stern
Founder and Executive Director
Grief Support Network

“You’ve got to break down in order to break through.”  ~  L.S.
Graduate of Wendy’s 9-month yoga therapy program

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September 2017

I have spent most of my life searching for freedom. For almost 40 years, I have been seeking experiences, tools and opportunities to feel less burdened by my fears and more comfortable in my own skin. Throughout my life, I have had glimpses of the light and carefree feeling that I long for, but it wasn’t until I lost my son that I came to understand what freedom means to me and an unexpected pathway to finding it.

There have been many ways that I have moved through my grief over the past ten years. What stands out the most are my experiences of opening myself through music, especially at Phish shows with my husband and community of friends. This may seem like an unlikely place to feel and know my grief, but the music touches my soul and invites me into my body in such a way that I can’t help but come alive and feel more of everything – more love, more connection, more confidence in myself and more willingness to be vulnerable and let my light shine. At first, these experiences were separate from my life. I would go and have fun and touch the tender places in my body and heart, but then come back to the grind and keep the memories tucked away. However, as I came to understand myself better and the desire that I have for greater depth, connection and authenticity in my relationships, I am learning to integrate these moments into my life. Through this I can recognize the precious opportunity that I have to feel my pain (in order to heal it) and as a result free myself from the burden of of my grief.

Just this weekend, I watched my friends love each other so freely and share their hearts. I realized that I am not alone in my longing for greater meaning and connection, and these experiences of expanding myself and exploring the infinite range of both darkness and light are all a part of finding greater freedom. When I can let go of self-consciousness – the feeling that I am too much for other people to handle – and let the full force of my loving heart come through me and just be who I am, I feel free. It takes way more energy to hold myself back. As a close friend and I discussed together, “we are all ultimately trying to find our way back to ourselves and when we show up authentically as we are, we shine the brightest!”

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My journey through grief has certainly been the most painful experience of my life, but there is something beautiful happening in the process. I am finding a freedom inside of me, a new capacity to experience the fullness of life – with all the highs and lows and moments in-between – that I did not know was possible before. In these moments of expansion, I am in touch with a sense of Gratitude that is not in spite of my grief, but because of it. Grief has taught me that we have to experience the depths of the darkness to fully know the light.

Like most of us, I have layers of grief and trauma to work through in this lifetime. There are moments of clarity, understanding of my purpose and gratitude for what I have and moments of despair and fear and longing for what has been lost. All of this is a part of my soul’s evolution. Each layer is a new opportunity to meet my fears head on – to feel the darkness and pain and all of the sensations and emotions that go with it and then let it move through me. Each layer offers a new perspective and each time I bump up against the same issues over and over again, I am spiraling closer in towards my center and my truth. Each layer is a part of my healing, showing me where I am holding onto my pain and holding back my love. To be truly free, I have to be willing to be with the shadow of myself, over and over again and for as long as it takes to release my fears. Of course, I am afraid to lose my children. Who wouldn’t be after living through what I have lived through? Yet, I know that I am resilient – I have already proven that – my fear says that to lose like that again would be too much. My greatest fear is that it will happen again and I won’t be able to return again into the light. My higher self knows that I am doing something important with my experience and learning through self study how to heal and transform grief into pure love. All I need to do is be patient with myself and to love myself through it – my shadow and my light – it is all a part of the pathway towards greater love and happiness and knowing how to share it with others.

I am blessed to have my husband, community of friends (who are so dear and precious to me) and Trey Anastasio (the guitar player for Phish). Through the safe, expansive, accepting and blissful spaces that he holds to explore the shadow and the light, I have found the meaning of the word FREEDOM – a light, comfortable feeling in my body and soul that opens me to the fullness of life.

With love,
Wendy

 

The Chaos of Grief Brings Change

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A part of my journey in finding my way back to life after my son died was the teachings that came out the suffering of my loss. When we are in the chaos of Grief, our instinct is to hold on tighter. To grip, grasp, control our surroundings and ourselves. To work harder, do more, try to fight our way through to the other side where the world makes sense again. This is what we have been taught to do by our society, but Grief can also teach us how to slow down, sit in the unknown and lead with love so that we can embrace the parts of ourselves (and the world) that are changing. To create positive change, both inside and out, we have to BE in the chaos and explore our shadows to find the answers that we seek. Our fear will not guide us through. Hate does not conquer hate. Only love does and compassion for the parts of ourselves (and others) that are hurting. To rise up out of the ashes of destruction, we are called to heal deep, ancestral patterns of trauma and loss. When we do this, we become free from the past and have the opening to start anew. This is the work of our times. This is the Gift of Grief and Chaos. And, it may be the very opposite of what our minds tell us to do. When we are hurting we want to bypass or resist the pain and hold on to something, anything to keep from going under, but at some point we have to sit in the fire and let go.  Only then can we soften around our edges, lighten our grip on what we are trying to do and step back so there is more space for the Divine to come in and help us find peace. When we are aligned, we can then manifest what is true and good and WAKE UP to the call of our soul’s purpose.

When I lost Noah, the world went dark. I was lost in the ‘tunnel of terror’ for days, weeks, months, years – it all blended together into a bleak, groundless period of time where I wandered between the worlds of the living and Spirit. Untethered. Broken. Lost in the chaos of my life path taking such an unexpected and painful twist, that I had to experience navigating through it.  Within the tunnel, chaos and fear presided and I had nothing but myself to hold onto to keep from slipping away. But, as I was tossed and thrown in my nightmare, my shadow grew bigger and I learned how to sit in my own skin and feel the pain. The tunnel was a scary place to be, much like our country feels right now, but there was value in what I learned there. I was forced to become brutally honest with myself. I felt almost naked as I came to see issues that had always been there, but were now so in my face that I could not ignore them anymore. My grief broke me open in a way that cultivated greater compassion and understanding for myself and most importantly, self-love and acceptance. In the tunnel, I found my spark. The light of my essence that was so much brighter, stronger, more forgiving and loving than I had known before.  I learned that I wanted to be in the world, to be happy and whole again and that I had the resiliency to weather the shit storm of my life and not only survive it, but thrive. As I slowly, tentatively emerged from the tunnel, I found my voice and power in a way that was new.  Who was this new person I was becoming? The anxiety and self-doubt that I had struggled with throughout my life had a different flavor. I felt like a warrior. A Heart Warrior capable of overcoming the most unimaginable pain and finding my way back to life with a greater authenticity and gratitude than I had known before. A Heart Warrior that had the courage to be vulnerable and strong. Our country needs us Heart Warriors to rise up together and lead this revolution with Love. My new favorite Phish song says it best.. “Vibrating with love and light. Pulsating with love and light. In a world gone mad. In a world gone mad. There must be something more than this.” I, for one, believe there is. Out of chaos and darkness, we can rebuild ourselves and the world to create something better.

Wendy Black Stern

Acute Traumatic Stress

By Dr. Arielle Schwartz, GSN Board Member & Provider 

Do Not Wait to Heal

Acute Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

If you have experienced a recent traumatic event NOW is the time to get support. Interventions immediately following a traumatic event help prevent the development of Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD). Do not wait. Many people inaccurately believe that they need to “give it time” and do not take advantage of this crucial period of healing.

“This post provides recent trauma survivors with an understanding about the types of feelings and experiences common during the weeks after such terrifying and life altering events. When we have such knowledge we are less likely to feel frightened by the intense emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations that typically occur. As a result we deepen self-compassion for our symptoms and work with rather than against the body-mind connection to facilitate healing.”
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Wired for Survival

Acute Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

As human beings, we are wired for survival. We will respond with stress whether when we experience any difficult life event.  Stress involves an increase in cortisols such as adrenaline into your bloodstream that facilitates a fight or flight response in your body. This prepares you to move in a way that metabolizes the energy released in your body. We are meant to move our bodies through running or self defense when threatened. Ideally when we reclaim safety the stress response resolves, your brain receives a signal to stop releasing these neuro-chemicals, and your cortisol levels return to baseline.

Trauma is typically understood to occur when we are in a situation that has life threatening implications with no actual or perceived exit. Typically we are trapped or immobilized that prevents us from engaging our defenses. In such a situation the body recognizes that fight and flight were unsuccessful and resorts to a “faint” or feigned death response.

You can think of it this way, a mouse is being chased by a cat. In the initial chase the mouse runs as fast as it can (flight). If the mouse makes it to the safety the rapidly beating heart and quickened breath will eventually subside (healthy stress response). When there is no place to hide the mouse runs without end exhausting resources (chronic stress). However, what if the mouse is caught by the cat? Once in the jaws of the cat the mouse faints in a last ditch attempt for survival. Perhaps the cat will mistake the mouse for dead and lose interest in the limp creature. This is traumatic stress.

Traumatic Stress and PTSD

Acute Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Differentiating between an acute traumatic stress reaction and full-fledged PTSD provides an essential key to unlock healing. There are a wide range of sensations and emotions that occur in the weeks after a traumatic event and these do not mean you will develop PTSD. Symptoms common during the initial period of acute traumatic stress include

  • Numbness
  • Disorientation
  • Disbelief or feeling that life is surreal
  • Feeling disorganized or having difficulty concentrating
  • Physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, dizziness, or difficulty sleeping

You can think of these experiences as your built-in biological protection mechanism that buffers you from the reality of the event.

When numbness subsides it is more likely to feel intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, and panic. You might also find yourself feeling depressed, helpless, or hopeless.

Like the old adage, it is better to get back on the horse that bucked you than. When we begin to avoid going to places or being with people that remind us of the trauma we are more likely to develop long term effects. PTSD is made up of symptoms that persist well after the event is over. Common symptoms include:

  • Re-experiencing symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, or ongoing fear
  • Avoiding situations that are reminders of the event
  • Feeling numb, cut-off, or unable to remember parts of the traumatic event
  • Feeling “keyed-up”, being easily startled, or having difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness, shame, or despair that persists overtime
  • Sleep problems that do not resolve

Caution

Acute Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Many people suffering from PTSD seek out medications to manage these symptoms post trauma exposure. Unfortunately, the use of such medications suppresses the very physiological and psychological processes necessary to facilitate resolution. Historically, military services have relied on prescription drugs (primarily benzodiazepines such as Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin) to help troops manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, as of 2012, the Army Surgeon General changed the military’s policy around prescribing benzodiazepines concluding the harm outweighs the benefits. This class of medications is now considered contraindicated for acute traumatic stress because they increase the likelihood of the development of PTSD. They are contraindicated for PTSD because they prolong the healing process.

You do not need to medicate your feelings. Intense emotions and sensations are your body’s natural adaptive healing process at work. Anxiety and panic are expected after trauma. These are signs of your mind and body seeking resolution after a traumatic event. However, if you do need support to “cut the edge off” of overwhelming emotions consider this a short term option rather than a long term solution.

Healing Trauma

Acute Traumatic Stress Dr. Arielle Schwartz

In the wake of a trauma it is important to have strategies for healing. Otherwise we are more likely to lapse into passivity or feelings of helplessness. Resilience in the face of traumatic events does not always come naturally. Recovery from acute traumatic stress involves a mindset and behaviors that help you reclaim trust in yourself and the world.

Based upon the six pillars of resilience explore these action steps to facilitate your recovery during the acute phase of trauma recovery:

  • Seek help with a provider equipped to handle the treatment of recent traumatic events (e.g. the recent traumatic event protocol offered within EMDR Therapy).
  • Talk about the event to people who are able to listen to your experience without shutting you down out of fear. Seek people who are unafraid to ride the waves of panic and fear with you and to help your mind and body process through the experience.
  • Find healthy outlets for anger and rage. These emotions are essential for healing and we need to know that we are not “bad” for feeling hateful. We need healthy outlets for anger so that this emotion does not get pushed into the shadows to create harm. Need ideas? Yell in the woods, break a set of dishes in an alley, kick and throw balls in a field, tell someone you trust your darkest thoughts. These will set you free.
  • Move your body. Our bodies hold trauma and are essential for releasing stress helping us recover from trauma. Explore what works for you… start by exploring how your body wants to move intuitively. Find healing movements such as pushing, reaching, shaking, curling up, or rocking. Add in exercise such as walking, running, dancing, and yoga as is right for you.
  • Explore complex emotions such as guilt and shame. These emotions are common after trauma. Some people describe feeling survivor guilt. You might ask, “Why did I survive when others did not?” Some describe feeling ashamed as though they were the perpetrator despite being a witness or a victim. These thoughts and feelings are common to the disorientation that comes with trauma.
  • Write about your experience of the event. Include the hardest moments. Include the moments that allowed you to survive. What did you do to make it through? Who helped you?
  • Feel grateful for simple things…your breath, your body, a flower, a sunset, a friend, a caring doctor, etc.
  • Find creative outlets such as poetry, painting, music, and dance that allow you to process your emotions. Share these expressions or keep them to yourself.
  • Reach out to your community instead of isolate. Attend support groups. Let people know that you are hurting instead of trying to be strong or hiding your true feelings out of an attempt to protect others. Allow others to support you and receive what they have to give.
  • Create change in the world. This step may take time. If you feel compelled to share your story with the world listen to that impulse inside of you. You have an important perspective based upon your experience. Your voice is important! Maybe you write a letter to your congressman, participate in a rally, write a blog, or give a public talk. Someone is out there who will benefit from your courage to speak out.

the support and love of group healing

“My name is Jenna, I started with GSN about a month and a half after my beautiful mother passed suddenly in an accident. I am 32 years old and she was the young age of 59. I have never lost someone close to me, and as I was trying to soak in the news of this disbelief, I was also scared about how I was (and am still) reacting to the load of grief in such a busy fast past society where our lives get swirled into the tornado of never having enough time to focus on what we should for ourselves. Let alone process the loss of a loved one and give ourselves time to heal on top of having the heaviness and unknown of this brand new emotion.

I knew right away when I talked to Wendy that this was exactly where my heart was guiding me to be. For some reason when you are in a heavy grief you feel alone in the world. Even though you know there are many grieving the same person as you and many who have gone through the same type of loss as you. When I talked to Wendy I didn’t feel that way, I knew right away that GSN was exactly what I was looking for. This woman didn’t even know who I was or even if I was going to decide to take classes through her or not and she gave me her full attention, time and more amazingly she gave me the kind wisdom of her heart, and I could feel from her that she knew exactly where mine was sitting at that time. She also gave me the full understanding and hope that we have the ability to transform our grief into growth. She told me that when your heart is broken that gives it the space and capacity to grow and get bigger. Those were exactly the words my heart needed to hear.

This is an incredible program, ever since I have been attending, there is a new layer I shed off from my personal self into my growth and healing every week that I go. This class has allowed me to know that I have the support and love of a group healing the same wounds and acknowledging that they are there, not just shoving them away in our busy lifestyles. Acknowledging that death is a part of the circle of life and therefore should not just be brushed under the rug, for the emotional and physicality that come along with death are very real. The meditation has helped with the emotional challenges and the yoga has helped with the physical and emotional symptoms of my grief. This group helps you to understand that we are also all different in our grief, therefore it is important to get in touch with our inner self allowing us to understand who we are right now and the changes that are occurring and how we can turn them into positive growth.

I am beyond greatful and blessed to have found this amazing family of incredibly wise and giving heartfelt people. This program is not only helping me through my grief and understand it on a personal level but at the same time helping me find myself and the strong woman I can be in a time of extreme change.”

-Jenna, current GSN Yoga Program participant 

what grief looks like for me (and you too)

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By Andrea Nakayama 
Functional Nutritionist 
www.replenishpdx.com

 

 

It’s been just over two months since my dad died.

The death of a loved one still lands as a curiosity and somewhat incomprehensible reality this early in the game, as you may very well know. And yet grief is a well-exercised muscle for me.

I encountered grief through loss earlier than some yet later than others. Sure, I suffered the loss of my grandparents. But they had lived long-lives and their passing, while perhaps still too young, followed a sense of natural order.

And I’ve endured the death of pets. These yank at our heartstrings as we often feel wholly responsible for their well-being. These are our true “dependents”.

But what I’ve learned over the years – particularly after the loss of my husband nearly 14 years ago, when he was just 34-years old – is that grief is a many varied thing. There are myriad factors that impact our response to bereavement.

Relationship is one of those factors.

The grief of a spouse is different than that of a pet or a grandparent, a sibling or a parent, or, I can only imagine (and hope to never know), a child. I witnessed with a keen eye how my in-laws, brother-in-law and I each processed Isamu’s death differently at a deep internal level. And how, for my son (who was just a toddler when his dad died), grief is still unknown despite the loss.

And I watch now as my mom assimilates to a new life after a partnership of nearly 60 years, as opposed to the near ten that I had with my husband.

But one place where grief does not differ is on the inside.

Our insides.

Just what’s going on in there when it seems like our heart has been twisted in a knot, our gut is hollow and void, and the compass that directs us seems to have gone haywire?

Research in the area of psychoneuroimmunology shows how grief affects a number of bodily systems, in particular, the immune system. While your mind is grieving, it may come as no surprise that there’s what’s called “crosstalk” between your head and your heart.

And it’s your heart that pumps the blood that carries so much information throughout your body and to your cells. Immune cells travel readily along that serum superhighway.

On the inside, a state of grief results in a depression of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that helps us fight infection and is part of our first line of immunological defense against viral and bacterial infections.

Simultaneously, there’s an acceleration of lymphocytes, a different type of immune cell that is part of our adaptive immune system and makes our allergic or autoimmune response more reactive. These cells are jumping in to save the day to keep us from getting sick, but their efforts can lead to further immune imbalances.

This likely explains why sometimes, in the elderly, one spouse dies shortly after the other. Or why we literally feel “sick” when we are grieving. And it’s why my mom arrived at my house early this week with a dual eye infection – red, itchy and flaking.

Yet despite these imbalances, we just can’t wish grief away.

All that crosstalk is happening and all we can do is stand by and witness it, as a natural part of human reality.

Yet what I’ve learned with my well-exercised grief muscle is that the best way to manage grief is to digest it.

After Isamu’s death, one thing I used to find myself saying was that “he brought out the best in me.” I was my best self with him and in his reflection. He thought I was captivating, beautiful, sexy, brilliant. He was completely enchanted by me and it was evident in his eyes when he looked at me.

In the months after he died I no longer knew who I was without that reflection.

And then I realized that what he was seeing was in me. It was me. (That’s what a reflection is, right?)

It was in that way that I began to digest the impossible. In small bites. It was as if I was taking each memory and literally swallowing the parts that were me and mine. Those, I realized, did not have to leave with him.

By embracing Isamu’s reflection of me, he is always with me. I’ll notice him in a gesture. In a song. In a place. Or in an expression from my son or his brother. But mostly I notice him in me. I would not be this version of myself without him. And in this way he lives on.

You may be sitting in a different grief today. It may be an overwhelming sensation that cannot be broken down into bite size chunks just yet. Or it may be grief for the loss of a favored food that you discovered you can no longer eat – like eggs or chocolate.

And I know many who grieve the self they once were when a new reality, like a diagnosis, is revealed. Those losses present grief too. And grief, as we now know, does not discriminate on the inside.

I invite you to digest. Digestion is how we assimilate what we need and filter out what we don’t.

Know that whatever you mourn has two sides – the sting that comes with its absence right beside the pleasure that once existed in its presence. And that mirth that makes you want to savor that person, place or thing forever has a memory that exists deep within you that is all yours. Nobody can take that from you. It’s yours to digest and assimilate and carry with you… forever.

When people ask me if I have taken time off to grieve, I say ‘yes’ – but honestly, I don’t know what they mean. You see, I have to break it down, do it in the moments in between, in an everyday sort of way. That’s the only way I can digest it.

Today, I savor a memory of my dad, to honor him, yes, but also for me and my immunity.

 

Warmly,

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