On Grief

I listened to the recent npr.org interview with comedian Patton Oswalt, whose wife passed away unexpectedly on April 21, 2016. I've chosen to share a few key points about his experience that I can stand behind 100% in thinking about my own: 

  • "You don't know the kind of pain and loss other people may have gone through, even close friends and acquaintances ... (Losing someone) is like seeing the world for what it really is ... You can only sympathize so far until it directly happens to you."
  • To completely shut down vulnerability in the face of grief is to do a disservice to the person who opened you up in the first place.  
  • Talking about grief is a way of moving it out of the muscles. 
  • "When you lose someone you tend to eat Wheat Thins for breakfast and re-watch The Princess Bride about 80 times and not sleep all that well, so... I don't know when the pushups are going to show up in my grieving process."
  • "You may be through with the past, but the past is not through with you. Grief will let you know when it's done."

As for my own grief, I've found that writing and talking about it does help enormously. It's a fine line, though, between expressing grief and wallowing in it. I can tell the difference in my own body by the way it feels- though I probably can't explain it.

It's been nearly 18 years since I lost my sweet, complicated, loving, troubled, amazing mother to the disease of alcoholism at at age 50, when I was 25- and every year around springtime, the grief wells up in me again. Fortunately, my practices, creative outlets, and supportive communities make it not only manageable but provide a way of staying in touch with the tender part of myself, the heart that opens willingly in the face of grief. The Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies wrote, "An open heart never grows bitter. Or if it does, it cannot remain so." 

Here's the piece I wrote about the last days with my mother and what it was like. Thank you, Valley Haggard, for publishing it on your site. (Her writing classes are life changing.) 

And lastly, from Patton: 

"Does this bum you out? Go walk for a half an hour... it'll flood you with endorphins." 

On Writing

I wrote my first legitimate piece back in my senior year of high school. It was about the loss of my dog, Pancake (Cocoa Bean in the story). Pancake was a terrier mutt we adopted when I was about 5. She was the coolest dog ever-- super playful, loved to go on runs with my dad when he was running, obsessive (as many terriers are) about small critters-- she would spend the better part of an afternoon tormenting a chipmunk trapped in some spare PVC pipe we had under our deck. Of course, she'd stay there, running from end to end long after the quick little bugger escaped without her knowing. Not the smartest dog. 

Pancake was a pretty old dog when my dad had her put down. I was 16, my parents had split, and Pancake had a few health problems, not to mention my dad had plans to move in with his new girlfriend. I came home (from school? from staying with my mom? can't remember) and he broke the news to me. I was crushed. She had been part of her family almost since I could remember. Everything was falling apart, and when I had the opportunity to write I wrote about her. It was a way of telling a story that was extremely painful. 

The piece won an honorable mention in a high school writing competition-- my English teacher submitted it on my behalf. I wrote some poetry too-- noodly, self-indulgent stuff-- but the seed was planted then that writing could be therapy. 

I left writing behind for a number of years as adulthood set in and real world problems took me over-- the illness and death of my mother, the resulting need to find stability in anyone and anything-- and I almost completely forgot about writing. 

During that period I got more into reading about spirituality and Eastern thought and this was the beginning of my journey into Yoga. I sometimes say I got into Yoga as a physical practice, but that's not entirely accurate. My first understanding of embodied spirituality (which is what Yoga really is, it can be said simply) came in a Zen Buddhism class. I understood the story of the Buddha to mean that if one took a seat in a comfortable way with the intention of awakening, one might uncover the nature of suffering, attain compassion toward it, and see the path to move through it, neutralizing its power. This was a tantalizing prospect for me, because by that point I had been suffering for nearly 20 years from unhealed childhood trauma. It's taken me a long time to accept that's what it was, and to call it by its real name. 

There's such a healing aspect to naming a thing. Writing, as I realized while writing about writing recently, is a way of making amends for having been out of step with the flow of the universe. If that sounds too fluffy-new-agey, I'll try to say it another way. Carrying a story in my head (and thus, in my body, if it's a traumatic story) is a painful burden. Telling it on the page (or verbally) is a way of letting the reins loose and taking on a softer, gentler attitude. When that happens, I'm often more ready to hear what I need to hear, to look with less attachment at a situation, have a more open, allowing orientation about my experience. 

A wonderful by-product of having told my story (or parts of it, time permitting) repeatedly in community over the course of the past few years is that I no longer carry shame about it. It simply holds no power over me. Of course there are times I go back to old ways, retreat, and clam up, forgetting this, but I've gotten pretty good at reading the messages of my own body and how held tension and stress are a signpost that I need to let go a little. And when I do, the results are pretty much immediate. 

The best formula for me seems to be: Yoga & meditation + writing + community + running & exercise + nutrition = health, balance, and wholeness. (More about wholeness in a future post.) 

What's your formula?