Yoga and Grief
In order to understand where I am writing this from, you must first know from where I’ve come. In October, I wrote in honor of the birthday that my dad would have celebrated had he not passed away in 2000. Less than three months later, my mother and my grandmother passed away within three days of each other. My grandmother had been set on passing for some time. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, had lost almost everyone she had ever known as a child by 2010 and was exhausted. She was admitted to the hospital two weeks before Christmas and passed away quietly on Christmas day with the family at her bedside, including me, my brother and my mom. We watched her take her last breaths with an oxygen mask tied to her face. Her breath became slower, and her mouth little by little took up all of the space inside of the mask as her last breath released. My mom, beating her own lung cancer, began to hyperventilate. She sat for a moment and regained her slow, deep breath. We thought it might have been anxiety. After all, her mother had just passed away. The funeral was three days later, and my partner, Jonathan and I drove the two hour drive back to our home state of CT. We had coffee with my mom at her house. I remembered a Christmas present I had left at home for her and mentioned I’d give it to her the next time I saw her. We made small talk, and then it was time to go. We took separate cars, my brother driving my mom in her car. We knew the way well. We had said goodbye to many of our family members at this funeral home. We walked in and my 2nd cousin went in with my mom to view my grandmother’s body before the services began. My brother and I waited in a small room for family, greeting the people who were coming in.
I saw my mother run by me with our cousin close at her heels. She ran out the door, and I ran to follow her. She was kneeling on the ground, crying (I thought) with people holding her up. I ran back inside. It was too much to see. My heart was breaking for her. She was with several people and I cried on a family friend’s shoulder. Commotion began to ensue. People were rushing, and I couldn’t tell what was happening. I went back outside, where my mom was on her back, mouth open and eyelids fluttering. Her legs were being held in the air. I knew she was dying. Family, friends, they tried to tell me that she was having an anxiety attack. The EMT’s came and intabated her after attempting CPR. My brother was in the room with her, and declined when they told him to leave. From the family waiting room, I could only see her legs and her winter boots in the doorway. I saw her briefly and noticed her wig had fallen off. I knew in that moment that she would not survive. I had never seen my mom without her wig, and I knew that she would have not been able to go on if she knew all of the people saw the results of her seven months of chemotherapy and radiation. To think about the gap between that and dying seems huge, but my mom was an extremely proud woman who thought of cancer as an inconvenience and never complained, never put herself first. To have been the center of attention would have been too much for her.
The EMT”s put my mom on a stretcher and took her out through the front doors of the funeral home, past all of the people waiting to come into my grandmother’s funeral. My brother followed the ambulance to the hospital and promised to call. I stayed, thinking I would attend Grammie’s funeral for both of us. I did not make it in. My brother called ten minutes later to tell me that our mother had died.
Jonathan and I went to the hospital to meet my brother while the funeral went on without us. I could not view my mother’s body. I felt like I could shut down and die at any moment and I went into self preservation mode, sitting instead in the bathroom whispering the words to myself again and again, “Mom passed away. It’s okay. We’ll make it. We’ll make it through this day alive.” I stood and looked at the face I no longer recognized in the mirror. I appeared old and confused to myself. Jon and my brother went in to say goodbye to my mother.
There have been moments when I regretted the decision to stay behind in the bathroom. I know that she would have tried to come and say goodbye to me, even under the circumstances. I must take solace in knowing that I was a good daughter to her, and that she would understand that losing the two women who I loved more than anyone else on the planet was too much for me in that moment.
The three of us went back to the funeral home about 15 minutes later. We had to bury our grandmother. We numbly drove to the cemetery. As fate would have it, the minister who spoke at the funeral could not come to the cemetery and so the funeral director turned to ME to say some words about our Grammie. I wanted to crawl in the ground, but somehow I found some words to say. The words were brief, and perhaps not appropriate for most funerals, but for those who knew her they were most appropriate. I said that she was full of piss and vinegar and also one of the most loving women I had ever known.
We left the cemetery and went back to my mom’s house, where we were supposed to have a party in honor of our grandmother. We asked that no one attend, that we needed to be alone. We sat in her house among her things in silence, all of us in our own thoughts. People who were unable to attend my grandmother’s funeral began to call the house to offer condolences to our mother. After two or three phone calls, we just let it ring. Several hours later, we tore the Christmas tree down and threw it away. We went back to the funeral home to discuss arrangements for our mom.
The days that followed were filled with cleaning out our mom’s house. She was sentimental, but not at all organized, so there was a lot of going through bags of pictures we had drawn as children, letters to Santa, Barbie clothes, toy trucks. I simply do not understand how we made it through those earliest days.
It has now been three months since she died. We are still cleaning out her house, and my grandmother’s house, and working with lawyers and medical practices attempting to sell houses and settle debts. There have been moments when I have been the shell of the person I once was. I have tried to do everything perfectly and I have acknowledged my humanness. I have taught yoga through the entire process. There have been classes where I’ve cried while the students were in Savasana, when I’ve felt my mother’s spirit with me as I spoke about letting go, and times when I’ve nearly had to drag myself into the room to teach.
I’ve taken a few classes only since my mom has passed away. The first class I took I completely lost it in Child’s pose. I received a sacrum assist from the teacher and opened up to the intense sadness that I’ve felt over the last few months. I’ve spent so much time attempting to appear normal that I’ve forgotten to grieve. The second class I took was a memorial benefit in memory of my mom. There were students of my classes as well as my own teachers all practicing in the same room. I nearly fainted about three times. Every time I would come up from Uttanasana to Uphavista Hastasana, my head would get all fuzzy and I’d feel as if I was about to go down. I tried to breathe through it, and eventually did. I cried in Seated Spinal Twist through Savasana. The third and final class that I’ve taken was the first time I didn’t feel like I was dying, but that I was choosing to live. It was a warm Vinyasa class, early morning. I felt stronger than I’ve felt in a long time, and didn’t feel as if I would collapse. Sure, I still cried in Ananda Balasana (Happy Baby), but I just worked with it. I didn’t stop practicing, I just kept breathing.
For me, yoga in the face of deep grief is nothing short than a connection to the divine; my divine. It’s an acknowledgement that although my heart is shattered, breaking, just an absolute mess, it’s still part of this body that is going on in the shadow of this grief. It’s still part of this body in the deep surrender of Pigeon pose or the strength of Warrior III. It is with the breath that I warm the cool corners of the shadow of my grief and slowly begin to deem those corners once again inhabitable. It is through the practice that I begin to creep back into these places inside of myself and turn on the lights.
It’s frightening to begin the process of moving on. On one level, the very deep level of shame, it feels like a betrayal to the women I loved so deeply. How DARE I go on? But then I hear the voice of my mother. It is the same voice that cooed to me as a baby, grounded me as a teenager, debated with me as a young adult and supported me as a grown woman, a yoga teacher who is attempting to help others heal through the practice. I hear her voice, the same I’d know from a million miles away tell me to go on. I hear not words but her very essence with a hand on my back giving me a little push. She tells me through this essence that perhaps we’ll see each other again. She tells me she wants me to live and to be happy. She even tells me that it’s okay that I sat in a bathroom at a hospital instead of kissing her face one more time. She tells me to teach, to say what I need to learn out loud so that others have the same opportunity. She tells me to practice, to seek out teachers who understand grief and joy mixed together in the same glass, and also to practice on my own, to trust my intuition to know where I need to go.
So, I teach. So, I learn to practice on my own, to be with my thoughts of grief and joy, of sadness and hope. I know that it is the right path for me, no matter how frightening it may feel in those moments when there is more grief than joy. I know that all things pass through this life, whether it’s someone like my beautiful momma or fear in my mind. When we choose to release the fear and live fully, this is where the magic, the healing, the evolution happens.
For those of you that are grieving know that my heart is with you. I understand, and you are not alone. It helps to know that neither am I.
Practice, follow your hearts and breathe.