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

 

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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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Nine-month yoga program in Boulder aims to help with loss

By Cindy Sutter

This article was originally published in the Boulder Daily Camera.

When Swati Miller’s mother died suddenly three years ago, the then-Californian found herself awash in grief.

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“It just destroyed me on every level,” she says. “It was not just loss. It was also trauma. Dealing with the level of trauma compounds the grief process.”

What Miller was experiencing was more than just deep sadness.

“The grief process has affected me physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually,” she says.

One of the hardest and most shocking things was that the grief took away her most effective life coping mechanism: movement.
“Physically, my body completely changed. It was something I couldn’t have been prepared for,” says Miller, who was 35. “I’m a dancer. I’m an artist. I’m a mover. I couldn’t even move anymore.”

The inability to move came as Miller was in a movement-centered master’s program in California.

Wendy Stern, a yoga instructor and founder of the Grief Support Network in Boulder found that yoga helped with her grief after her son, Noah, died.

Wendy Stern, a yoga instructor and founder of the Grief Support Network in Boulder found that yoga helped with her grief after her son, Noah, died. (Richard Cummings)

“I was not feeling safe physically,” she says, explaining the experience of being overwhelmed: “I might get flooded with tears, start to go into stories and remember … places that really increased the trauma of my loss. I found myself avoiding movement of all kinds.”

Miller relocated to Boulder in August and found the Grief Support Network, a local non-profit started by yoga instructor Wendy Stern, after her 9-month-old son, Noah, died.

Stern’s group offered support and resources. And something else: an emphasis on the physical aspects of grief and the healing power of movement through yoga. The marriage of the two was born from Stern’s own experience.

“(It was) so powerful for me to have my yoga practice as a personal sanctuary,” Stern says. “It was a safe place I could go to … to be with all the big feelings, pain, love, joy … one place I could show up and be with my own self.”

But that practice wasn’t necessarily the peaceful picture that might be painting itself in your head.
Stern would set the timer, roll out the mat and let the grief out.

“Some days I would do yoga, stretch and breathe,” she says. “Some days I would throw an epic tantrum, kind of scream on the mat.”

When the specified time was over, no matter what the practice had brought that day, she rolled up her mat and walked away.

“It served a very specific function,” she says of her yoga practice in those early days. “It was a container to let go and fall apart. I needed to do it over and over … to begin to move through it. It showed me how much of my grief and pain actually lived in the personal body.”

Stern, whose nonprofit has sponsored support groups and put together a network o
therapists and practitioners who help with grief, has now started a new program that in some ways mimics her own experience. It is a nine-month program with classes once or twice a week, as well as meditation, journaling and nutrition support. The program costs $150 a month or $1,350; an option with one yoga class a week is somewhat less expensive. Stern hopes to raise money to support those who are unable to pay the full price through a Kirtan fundraiser on Thursday.

Stern says she has been influenced by several different yoga styles, but the one that she taps most is Phoenix Rising.

“I’m using a lot of language to stay very connected with what’s happening in the body. It’s not about being perfect,” she says. “It’s what people are experiencing and exploring, noticing in their p
stures, the physicality and also the emotions that come up, the connection to a higher purpose, the deeper parts of ourselves. This style of yoga helps.”

The group that started Tuesday will contain about 10 people, as will a new group that will start in September. While anyone is welcome, Stern says the group would probably be most effective for a person in their first year or so of loss, perhaps a few months after the loss has occurred. Too soon, and the person may not quite be ready for it.

Stern emphasizes that the class is not just a place to vent sad feelings, although cathartic release is a part of the class and part of the healing process, she says.

“It’s also inspiration from the collective, the themes of the classes and teaching that
llows you to be present with sadness,” she says. “It also gives you this spark of hope that there is a pathway out of the darkness and into the light.”

In the body, anger and fear are “sticky and hard to move,” Stern says. But grief is different. “Grief moves in waves. It flows like water. It can move through us easily if we let it.”

Avery Oatman, 26, has been working with Stern after her father died from pancreatic cancer in August. She has struggled with the suddenness of his death three months after diagnosis, the fact that few people her age have similar losses and the profound sadness of missing him in her life.

Therapy has helped, as has yoga in a different way

“To get up and move to do yoga is extremely powerful,” she says. “It helps integrate the inner body sense of extreme grief with a kind of outer expression.”

The sadness is still there.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get up in the morning,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be in tears all day.”

Even in her grief yoga class, which helps, there’s the ironic realization that she wouldn’t be there if her father hadn’t died.
Yet, she says, “I’m always left feeling a sense that this is such a universal thing. It helps to shift things …”

It can also bring a different sense of self.

“I feel like I get caught up in my mind, my emotions, missing him,” she says. “Through the movement, I can feel, ‘Yet, I’m still here. The world is moving quickly. It can move through me. It can’t be so awful forever.'”

Stern says yoga connects her to her body and helps her find pleasure there.

“I remember how powerful it was when I was grieving to have a place where I could access some pleasure,” she says.

Still, Stern says, yoga is not like a magic pill.

“It’s an ongoing process. The yoga opens the door, but the work is for each person to do,” she says. “Yoga gives you this very direct connection to your heart, to your spirit. It gets you really engaged with yourself. The personal growth work — that’s a life’s journey. The yoga’s a tool on the way. There’s no quick fix.”

Cindy Sutter: 303-473-1335, sutterc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/cindy_sutter

Reclaiming Mother’s Day After the Second Anniversary of My Mom’s Death

Tanja Pajevic is a writer, mother, teacher, dancer, coffee-lover, fierce and tender hearted. This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post’s Common Grief Blog.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I feel an old, familiar dread. My mother died two years ago and no, I’m not over it yet. Worse still, I may never be.  
After the second anniversary of her death, I assumed I’d finally be all right. At least I’d be over the worst of the grief.

But the grief continued to rise and fall in unpredictable patterns. At first, I blamed it on external events: another holiday season, the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death, my 45th birthday. Or perhaps it was perimenopause, I told myself. As if the peaks and valleys of my grief were simply a side effect of my hormones.

Then I found myself thinking about acceptance and surrender after reading about a man struggling with the news that he might lose his leg. Instead of acknowledging the severity of his situation, he denied it, which magnified his suffering. Can you guess how the story ends? The man finally found peace after surrendering to the worst possible scenario, and accepting the loss of his leg.

This resonated with me on multiple levels. I’d heard others liken the loss of a loved one to the pain of an amputated phantom limb. Perhaps the loss of my mother was something similar. Perhaps it was something I’d never get over. And perhaps it was time to stop trying.

Anyone who’s lost a loved one will tell you that the grief, at times, appears endless, with its changing slopes and facades. For some of us, that doesn’t go away. At the end of his life, Morrie Schwartz (from Tuesdays with Morrie) still felt the pain of losing his mother—more than 70 years after her death.

What if Schwartz wasn’t the exception, but the norm? If that was the case, I desperately needed to find some long-term solutions for my grief. At very least, some more sustainable techniques. Ones that didn’t cause quite so much suffering for me or my family. Grief counselors suggest we keep our loved one’s memory alive through rituals, traditions and stories. Some holidays, I do this by lighting a candle in my mother’s memory or by cooking her favorite foods. One summer, I created a small memorial garden in my backyard before a windstorm destroyed that, too. Smaller rituals are also important. Some days, I spend a few moments at the small altar I built in my mother’s honor, or I say a prayer. Other times, I bring my mother into my day by choosing her favorite cup for my morning coffee. Lately, I’ve been making my coffee extra strong, as my mother did—zesty, she called it. But what I’m looking for these days goes even deeper. After having spent the past 28 months struggling to reconcile intense feelings of grief, anger, joy, rebellion and abandonment with a changing set of spiritual beliefs, it’s time for me to choose my own narrative. During this time, I’ve questioned myself, my past, my values, my heritage and my loved ones, not to mention who I am in the world and who I want to become. Now that I’ve passed my mother’s second anniversary, I feel an added pressure to get on with it already, and solidify my identity. Solidify my life.

Part of this process, I’m finding, involves reassessing my relationship with my mother.

Which of my mother’s ghosts am I ready to release? Which traits would I like to preserve?

This Mother’s Day, I choose to remember the funny, rebellious mother who pumped her fists in the air when she was excited and flipped people off when she wasn’t. The music-and-literature-loving mother whose passion for nature inspired us all. The woman with the tender heart.

As for the rest—the fearful, highly critical, wounded mother—well, it might just be time to leave those characteristics behind. Not just for my mother, but also for myself.

Meanwhile, I continue to sift through various grief rituals and traditions, so many incandescent bits of broken glass. There’s no right way to do grief, I’m finding. It’s messy, unpredictable and imperfect. It can also be quite frightening. And it makes us vulnerable as hell.

That’s OK. I choose to keep going because I can’t imagine any other way. I’ve chosen this open, tender heart, remember; it’s time to let the rest go.

However we choose to express our grief, let it be exquisite and true. Explore what that means, if you need to. Or experiment until something feels right — you’ll know.

For me, the method is always changing. Today, I choose story as memorial. Tomorrow, perhaps it will be laughter. And every once in a while, I’ll give somebody the bird.

Tanja_2015

 

 

Tanja Pajevic creates books, blogs and workshops to support life’s big transitions. 

She is currently completing a grief memoir as well as leading ReclaimingYourself After Loss, an online workshop. Connect with her at tanjapajevic.com.

SLOW DOWN, FRIEND

There is no urgency. Summer does not rush towards autumn. One tiny blade of grass is not trying to grow faster than its neighbour. The planets spin lazily in their orbits. This ancient universe is in no hurry.

But the mind, feeling so divided from the totality, wants answers now, wants solutions today, wants to know so badly. It wants to reach its precious conclusions. And, ultimately, it wants to be in control.

But you are not the mind. Mind is an aspect of the whole, but cannot capture the whole.Slow-down-sunset

So slow down, friend. Take a deep and conscious breath in your belly. Trust the place where you are, the place of ‘no answers yet’, the precious place of not knowing. This place is sacred, for it is 100% life. It is full of life, saturated with life, dripping with life, drenched with life.

Don’t try to rush to the next scene in the movie of ‘me’. Be here, in this scene, Now, the only scene there is.

Now is the place where questions rest, and creative solutions grow.

DO IT DAILY!

 By Jennifer Delaney, MA, NCC:

A body-centered psychotherapist, certified in Brainspotting, blogger, writing coach and speaker practicing in Denver and Boulder.

Several times a day in fact…
I was at a party last night when someone asked me what I speak about. “Or is it too esoteric?” he added. gsn-contact“No. No. Not at all,” I replied. As a matter of fact, it’s so simple that people find it hard to believe that it makes a difference at all.

It boils down to this:
Take your pulse.
Notice your feet in your shoes or against the rug.
See and describe the setting sun paint the snow a pink-gold.
Listen to the sparrows or to your cat purring.
Smile at someone –what does your face feel like when you smile?
Notice the tension in your body – maybe shoulders or stomach.
Breathe in for 5, hold for 3, exhale for 7.

Try one of these right now!

Do any or all of these as often as possible and you will change your brain wiring.

Many people don’t realize just how stressed out they are until they begin to check in with their bodies throughout the day. That’s when they realize how nonstop and compulsive their thoughts are. The thoughts don’t want to let go.