grief [grēf] n.
1. keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.
2. a cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow.
In 1969, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five stages of grieving in her book, On Death and Dying; the five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Kübler-Ross added that these stages are not meant to be a complete list of the emotions one feels when grieving, and not everyone who experiences grief will do so in the order provided. Reactions to illness, death and loss are as unique as the person experiencing them.
At the 2011 Yoga Journal Conference in Estes Park, I had the privilege of attending Seane Corn’s class, Yoga for a Broken Heart. I figured it would be a class about mending a broken heart due to failed relationships or lost loves, and I went out of sheer curiosity and to offer my support for those who were suffering. What I got was something more powerful, more engulfing and much deeper than talking about break-ups and relationship heartache: the class was dedicated to grieving, and how we feel, express – and repress – grief in our lives.
Seane shared her story about her father’s recent death, and how his death sent her reeling, desperate to run from emotions she didn’t want to feel, from guilt to devastation to relief, and many in between. Instead of seeking solace in the people she loved, Seane found herself retreating inward, filling any empty space with versions of her grief, like guilt, sadness and anger. When people would try to console or empathize with her, she would scoff at their attempt, thinking that no one could ever know how she felt. When people asked how she was, she would reply with a blank “fine” – a word that we overuse, and an acronym for what we really mean: “Fucked-up. Insecure. Neurotic. Emotional.”
As Seane rode out her grief, she began to realize that when you don’t have the proper tools to deal with such a thing – when you don’t make an effort to create space and actively deal with your emotions – grief is cumulative. Every tragedy, every hardship, every failure stores itself in some form within your body, and until you take the steps to name it, claim it and release it, you will suffer from the residue of that event. This, combined with the notion that grief is not culturally acceptable in our stoic, avoidant, modern society, makes it something that is untouchable, yet excruciatingly debilitating.
In our yoga practice, we moved slowly and with deliberate effort, dedicating our movements to loved ones we have lost. Our dedications changed throughout the class: visualizing our loved ones before us, noticing how we felt when we thought of them and claiming those emotions, and releasing those emotions just as we released our loved ones. I imagined my Oma, who died of ovarian cancer, and my dog, Daphne, and the grief I experienced in their deaths. As I moved through slow, calculated sun salutations with their images in my mind, my eyes closed, and while tears streamed down my face, I knew I was doing something painful, cathartic and liberating all at once. By savasana, I was completely exhausted, having felt like I had relived the grieving process in fast-forward. The next morning, I woke up with a sore chest, right over my heart.
We all experience heartache and grief throughout our lives; and grief isn’t just about death of a loved one or a pet. Grief can be a break-up, terminated pregnancy, divorce, illness, rape, loss of a job, domestic violence – all of these events cause emotional trauma; and without taking the time to fully acknowledge and claim our emotions as active, relevant and real, we are only creating residual trauma that can haunt us for years, and maybe even a lifetime. I encourage all of us to become fully aware of what we’re feeling as we wade through grief, and to have the ability to name it, claim it and release it.