“It is June. I am tired of being brave.” Anne Sexton
After teaching yoga one morning a student, and widow, said, “You should be really feeling it now.”
She is right. The numbness and shock over Mark’s sudden death have faded and all the grief feels have emerged. Mostly at night. And I cannot use my grief chair, because -- as shown in the accompanying picture -- Jake has taken it hostage.
I wonder when this will pass, when I will feel stronger. “I am tired of being brave,” as Anne Sexton says.
Grief is not an appropriate small-talk subject
Since I am nocturnal in my grief, my acquaintances believe me to be better. Recently in the work lunchroom, I was asked:
“How are Mark’s kids doing?”
No other words before or after that sentence. Just this small-talk grief bomb.
During the day I have my face turned toward the work at hand. Like yoga spiritual writer Michael Singer suggests in “The Untethered Soul” I am not living in my grief all the time. It is healthier not to. A Harvard study found that in the year after a spouse’s death, 50% of widows develop depression and a study from the PubMed website says widows have an 11% higher risk of mortality compared with married persons.
So I am using yoga and spirituality tools to handle grieving better. Working to build a resiliency to suffering – an acceptance that it is part of life. After all, grief is something that we will experience more frequently as we age - as people die out of - rather than leave their relationships. But when I do experience grief, I let it wash over me. I feel it fully. Which can leave one emotional for a bit.
So please – I beg you – don’t make grief a small-talk subject.
The lunchroom person meant well. Her words were supposed to land kindly. Yet I spent the next hour in my office with the door closed - quietly weeping.
Early after his death, I sensed Mark was always with me, and that lulled me into forgetting that he was gone. Now, having to face Father’s Day this month, and Mark’s birthday the next, I am not sure how to get through it. Although my therapist says the anticipation of events is often worse than their arrival.
I understand why some grievers become agoraphobics
Recently I attended a concert and the sponsoring radio station was WMGK, a classic rock station Mark loved. Of course, the concert was at night when grief gremlins emerge.
The WMGK station booth was right by the bathroom. Soon I found myself sitting in a bathroom stall looking up at the unlockable door crying. I was remembering Mark telling me stories about how WMGK helped him on the three-hour rides back and forth to work the year his daughter died.
Which is why I played the station to help him deal with the constant annoyances of the neuro intensive care unit. When the nurses would ask, "Mark can you hear me? Mark can you give me a thumb’s up? Mark can you wiggle your toes?” Every hour they asked these questions as he gradually withdrew, and eventually stopped responding.
The first day he was in hospice I brought a boom box so he could listen to the radio station, not knowing it was the last day he would breathe.
Later after the concert, we drove one of our group home. At one point I realized we were in the University of Penn Hospital neighborhood. I looked up to see the same lit skyscrapers I viewed the night of Mark’s stroke - when I was carrying his phone in my purse, hoping he could still play that annoying Pokémon Go game, or text me “mi amore” one more time.
That night of memories was enough to make me never want to go out again. And although I was not going to become an agoraphobic, I understand why some grieving people do. It is so hard to let those feelings wash over you and not avoid them. It is tempting to stay inside where its safe, as memories lurk in the most unexpected places.
But realizing I am most susceptible at night when I am tired and emotionally used up is very helpful. A night of rest cures me, and I wake up hopeful, able to leave my house again.
More than survive
I realize that I haven’t been doing much more than survive since Mark’s death. I've been so busy. I had to finish my last assignments for my yoga therapy certification and wrap up my Elephant Journal teaching responsibilities. And my work situation changed in a good way – which kept me occupied. I kept doing what needed to be done without a lot of thought to what I was feeling. Or what my lack of clarity was doing to my health and self-care routines.
I look normal – so people think I am better and go back to leaning on me. But instead of taking on more responsibilities, I need to sit with my sadness. The sheer weight of all I have been through in the last three years is enough to bear.
And at times their needy demands make me angry and resentful - taking me away from who I want to be at my core.
To help I have been using virtues as intentions for my yoga practice. Who do I want to be today? What virtue (patience, kindness, compassion) do I want to project to the world for the rest of my day so I don’t take out my frustration on others? These virtues are not just directed toward the world – but to myself as well. More patience with myself in grief. Kinder to myself when I fail. Compassionate to my soul when it aches.
This experience has finally beaten into me that I should live in the moment and not to make plans. I planned to be married -- twice. Now no plans. Let what happens unfold. Surrender to the universe’s will, Donna.
And yet, I still meme, “Why is life teaching lessons I have no interest learning?” I guess because the ones we don't want to learn are the ones we need.
The puzzle was never the point
During meditation distractions I wonder if things happen for a reason. If I hadn’t met Mark and let him nurture the part that was injured during childhood, while undergoing a yoga therapy program requiring introspection, would I have been healed enough to survive his sudden death?
At work we are putting together jigsaw puzzles as a team-building exercise, something I have always enjoyed. In fact I was obsessed with it after my father’s death 30 years ago.
Puzzles provide structure and a clear outcome when life has neither.
It was while working on a puzzle one afternoon that I realized I was trying to rewrite my past with Mark. Trying to make everything fit into neat little outcomes. But life is quite mismatched. And trying to make everything fit might actually be harmful to healing and growth. Those thoughts inspired the #memeaday below:
Yoga Therapy Training Comes to an End
After three years of training weekends, over 30 case studies and countless homework assignments my yoga therapy training with YogaLife Institute came to a close this month.
On our last weekend a teacher asked what we had learned from yoga training over the last year. When it came my turn to share I said:
"People come up to me all the time and ask how I am doing so well after Mark's death. And I tell them I am leaning heavily on my yoga training. That this yoga sh*t really works."
My friends and fellow yoga students laughed and made that the catch phrase for our graduation weekend. Because it's true. All of my yoga training - including the meditation, spiritual teachings, and asana practice itself - have been crucial to my healing. And my awareness that I have more recovering to do. Every last bit of what I learned has been summoned during the last five months. And I know now that this yoga sh*t really works.
When will I write something happy again?
One day while chatting with a writer friend I whined, “When will I write something happy again?”
I did publish my first Elephant Journal column, but it was sad -- again. I feel like Frances in a scene from the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun.” A brave beautiful Italian woman says, “Frances, are you sad – again?” (Not familiar with this movie? Goeth now to Netflix and watch. Best rom-com travel movie of all time. And it stars Diane Lane. Need I say more?)
In hopes of eventually inspiring happier writing, I am:
As I take these steps I notice moments of real happiness – without the low hum of grief – and my yoga practice creates awareness and gratitude when they happen.
Hopeful that soon the joyful moments outweigh the sad ones.
“Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.” ~Anne Roiphe
May some of what I learned and experienced this month be helpful in your journey.
Thank you for reading.