Every human being on the face of the earth has lost something. A loved one, a pet, a job, their youthful innocence, their car keys. And, for the deeper losses, we grieve. In fact grief is as much a part of life as love is.
DABDA: Stop Me if You've Heard This One
In 1969 Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published her groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, inspired by her work with terminally ill patients. In the book she provides a model of how we grieve, dividing the process into five distinct stages. This model, usually known by the acronym DABDA, has a lot of wisdom about how we move from loss to acceptance and healing.
Stage One: Denial
The first stage is, of course, Denial. We stand in the street and can’t believe the accident we just witnessed. We sit in the doctor’s office and tell him there must be some mistake. We hang up the phone after devastating news and go numb. We shake our heads looking at the financial statements. This is also the stage where we probably cling to a false reality, one in which the loved one is only on vacation somewhere unknown, instead of gone.
Stage Two: Anger
The second stage is Anger. When we can no longer deny the truth of what’s happened we usually become truly and righteously pissed off. We can especially get angry with specific individuals, whether or not they deserve it. Like snapping at the dog when he gets underfoot instead of the usual snuggling his muzzle.
Stage Three: Bargain
In the third stage of grieving we channel our inner Internet day trader and we begin to Bargain. This is one of the last stops on the road of trying to avoid the truth of what’s happened. We promise god we will give up smoking (and drinking, and swearing) if only the test will come back negative. We promise to seal every morning departure with “I love you,” if only the other car could stop at the red light.
Stage Four: Depression
In the fourth stage we often fall into Depression. If the loss is really true, then why bother with anything anymore? We can’t integrate the new loss into our old world, so we go flat. This is also the part where we might start driving without our seatbelt or eating the whole package of cookie dough, thinking that if we can’t stop death anyway then why bother caring for the self at all?
Stage Five: Acceptance
But lest you be feeling this whole list is a massive downer, Kübler-Ross promises that the sixth and final stage is Acceptance. This is the part where we finally accept what has happened and what it means for our life. We embrace our own future or our own mortality and move towards it with a sense of calm.
Sometimes terminally ill folks get to this stage even before their caretakers do.
Kübler-Ross went on to expand this model to be useful in understanding any type of loss; a loved one, rejection, betrayal, divorce, illness, etc. and she’s right, anyone who has ever felt a loss has probably felt each of these emotions in some combination or other.
But here’s the problem; we each love and lose differently, in fact the uniqueness with which we love is what makes it LOVE, isn’t it? So if we love uniquely, why shouldn’t we grieve uniquely?
IVTPP: The Fierer Model of How to Survive Grief
(Or Perhaps Better Titled: How NOT to Survive Grief)
I’ve had a bit of loss in my life. Both parents (one due to domestic violence), beloved dogs, friends and lifelong teachers, jobs and relationships, and innumerable socks. And along the way I have discovered my own personal five stages of grief. If you’re like me, you often learn best by trying the ill advised first.
Stage One: Intoxication
This is the stage otherwise known as ‘let’s just pretend this craziness never happened’. Let me explain: I’m not necessarily an advocate of this method, simply that it’s one I tried and tried and tried. Until I discovered that every attempt led me more quickly to the realization that this methodology failed me miserably.
Stage Two: Vindication
What Kübler-Ross postulated as the stage of anger, has been in my experience, much more like rage. In the words of Robert F. Kennedy, “Don’t get mad, get even”. For example, when I discovered my college boyfriend cheating on me, I got even by denting the hood of her car with a piece of lumber. That was the last time a tried Stage 1, and a few years before I discovered yoga and began practicing the yogic principle of Ahimsa (non-harm).
Stage Three: Trepidation
Dictionary online defines this best as, “a deep fear or dread about something on the horizon”. This is the feeling I had as I saw the flashing red and blue lights of the police cars (yes plural) headed straight for me after bashing my ex’s new love’s car with the 2x4. And, although that sounds like the lyrics to a country song, it may better be described a unique blend of what Kübler-Ross refers to as Depression Acceptance and the possibility of Bargaining.
Stage Four: Postulation
Not a word we often use or hear, however, utilizing the meaning; suggesting an idea or a theory to initiate a discussion. That’s exactly what I did when the first of the police officers approached me. That sobering moment of “Oh crap! I need a good story to explain this.” As a young child, I began postulating, avidly suggesting why I shouldn’t get in trouble. In grief, we tend to revert back to familiar ways of responding.
Stage Five: Prostration
Those moments of pure exhaustion, flavored with grief. Also known as surrender. There’s no coincidence that each yoga practice ends with some version of ‘corpse pose’ (Savasana). In fact, according to the Yoga Sutra, a collection of teachings that are traditionally imparted through chanting, originating between 2nd 5th centuries BCE, the ultimate goal, if you will, of yoga is this notion of surrender. It’s called Ishvara Pranidhana. I like to think of it as the sweet space in which I realize I’ve exhausted all of my idiotic (and even non-idiotic) ideas, and relinquish to aligning with the divine. This is the one Stage of IVTPP that’s worth advocating for.
How to Grieve
How to grieve is vastly an individual process. In general, give yourself space to FEEL. Excuse yourself from the board meeting and cry in the bathroom stall.
One of the most healing things we can do is to feel our feelings when they arise.
Movement and breath work aid greatly in the process of moving through feelings. Suppressing grief is like trying to ignore a toothache. It doesn’t just go away; instead the attempts to block feelings of grief manifest in ways such as physical illness, stress, and anger.
Yoga Practices to Help With Grief
The practice of Sun Salutations provide a way to move energy in a rhythmic pattern that combines a focus on breath work along with movement. Even just pausing when feelings arise to take some deep breaths; you can count the length of your inhale (use a count of 4 or 6 as a good place to start) to match the length of your exhale.
Open the Heart
Postures that open the heart, such as Standing Backbend or Anuvittasana provide the opportunity for both grounding as we root through the feet, draw the energy up through the legs and torso, extend your heart towards the sky to lift the rib cage away from the pelvis. You can cactus your arms or extend arms overhead.
For a more relaxed or Yin heart opener, place a bolster or rolled blankets under the length of the torso, laying back onto the bolster/blankets, allow your arms to relax alongside with palms face up. Legs can be in any position; outstretched if that feels comfortable on the low back, in a butterfly position (can use blocks to support outer knees), or, for best support of the sacrum, bend knees with feet wide, allow knees to rest in towards each other.
When we open our hips, our hearts more naturally open. Postures such as Half Pigeon or Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, are wonderful shapes to invite space into both the hips and heart. For Half Pigeon, start in a lunge or tabletop shape; align your right shin so it’s parallel to the top, short edge of your mat. (Ensure that both knees feel comfortable or utilize blankets or bolsters for support.) Extend your left leg back so your toes point straight behind you. Puff up your chest like a proud pigeon, and lay forward to the extent that’s accessible in your body. Then switch sides. For a more Yin version, use a bolster to support the vertical length of your spine (can use a block under the head end of the bolster), and a bolster supporting the length of your back, extended leg. See that your back foot hangs off the tail end of the bolster beneath your leg.
Grieve the Way You Love
Whether you learn best by way of trying what NOT to do, or if you take a somewhat softer road, find your way to your own personalized flavors of grief. Nourish the moments of introspection in ways that are most uniquely suited to you. And invite yourself to grieve the way you love.