Not one of us will shake loose our mortal coils without first coming face to face with the big G: grief.
Grief is sadness’s agonizing cousin, the black sheep of the family of emotions, often ignored, tamped down and blackballed from the holiday meal.
It will open its arms to us at some point, and probably many points, sometimes early in life, sometimes not until middle age. What will you do? What have you done? Are you willing to dance with your painful partner? Or bury it and go on as if everything is fine?
Amanda Neufeld is working to become a certified yoga therapist, and as part of that training, she studied with Antonio Sausys, a somatic psychologist and yoga therapist who specializes in grief counseling and grief therapy.
“Grief is loss of any kind,” said Neufeld, owner of Yoga Studio Satya and an E-RYT 500 — experienced-registered yoga teacher with 500 hours of yoga teacher training. “Most think it has to be loss of a loved one, but it can be loss of an object, job, mobility.”
Grief comes in waves, first through the primary loss, such as the death of a parent, and then through secondary, perhaps unforeseen losses that are a direct result of the primary loss. If you lose your mother, you also might lose her companionship and your hopes to create more memories.
This is about the time people often check out and begin to numb themselves through any manner of methods — food, alcohol, drugs — or preoccupy themselves so they don’t have to feel anything. But really, this is the moment to step into the emotions and feel them fully, even though it might feel as if you’ll be swept under a current of pain and never resurface.
“There’s a saying in yoga that the only way out is through,” Neufeld said. “The only way out of grief, or to change the experience of grief, is to go through it.”
Grief work involves exploring the emotions associated with loss: anger, anxiety, guilt, sadness. Understanding how they show up in an individual’s body and how they direct it is important in helping them learn to create healthier versions of that emotion and channel them in a better direction, rather than everywhere.
“Acknowledging the emotion, experiencing the emotion, allowing yourself to integrate that emotion,” Neufeld said. “And hopefully the container of grief you’ve been experiencing has shifted, so the experience of grief is both good and bad because they both exist.”
She quotes Sausys, who says if one doesn’t experience the grief, they won’t be able to experience its opposite, such as the joy at remembering the good memories they shared with a person who has died.
Society has a way of making the grief-stricken person feel as if their emotion has a timetable, a clear end point when they should be done with the grief. But no such time exists. Pretending that you’re over your grief only makes the process longer and more difficult. It can cause people to isolate themselves if they feel like they’re becoming a burden, when this is the time that leaning on friends, family or community is most important.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” Neufeld said. “In grief, you need friends, a support group to hold space for you, not to tell you how to feel better, but to just sit with you. Grief is a story that needs to be told until it no longer needs to be told.”
Yoga, which is translated into union or to yoke together, is a way to reunite body, mind and spirit. Neufeld recommends somatic movement for grief. Soma means mind body, and somatic movement is extremely intentional — slow, with focus on the breath and how the body is moving, which forces the mind to pay attention and not get distracted by disturbing thoughts. It helps create neural patterns and lessen the propensity to get triggered by an external event, such as having a conversation six months after losing a loved one with a friend who also recently lost somebody. That kind of incident can trigger a wave of grief, though it also can be part of the healing — learning how to more quickly come back to a baseline after a triggering situation.
Movement in general is a must for those experiencing grief, whether it’s swimming, walking or yoga. Even Crossfit can be a boon, said Neufeld, if somebody needs to move anger inside of their grief.
“Moving the breath, moving the body, it’s a great way of moving energy,” she said. “You’re able to move that energy, whether to move it to remind themselves of compassion or out to let go of something that’s not serving them. People in grief tend to hole up in bed and say, ‘I’m not moving.’”
Be present for the movement. Make it mindful. Connect your brain to your body and breath.
“Also a big takeaway is self-care and giving yourself permission to say no when you don’t feel up to it,” Neufeld said. “It’s giving yourself permission to stay in the car crying until you’re done. Sit there instead of saying, ‘I have so much stuff to do’ and then going into the grocery store. Sit there and cry. It’s OK.”