Yoga Process Grief

Yoga Process Grief

About a year and a half ago, a month after my 50th birthday, I started to practice yoga. My first class was an intermediate one and it was humbling, not because I went in with expectation, but because it was so far beyond my scope of ability. Yet, it was also grounding, and I needed that in that moment. I went again the following week, thankfully to a beginners class where I was more able to follow along. Soon, I was going twice a week, and within a couple months I was going to more classes than almost any student. I had been to a handful of other yoga classes over the years, but I guess I wasn’t ready for it until then.

I did not see much in the way of physical progress from my efforts. My left leg is very weak and that made finding balance in the poses very difficult. However, my main focus was on the more spiritual and meditative aspects of the practice, and in this realm it showed a lot of dividends. I found that increasingly my emotional response muscles began to gain some ground on my emotional reaction ones. After each class, I felt significantly calmer and more centered.

I started going to yoga after a fairly traumatic couple of months, and the practice helped me let go of some of the angst I had been struggling with. I’d spent the previous decade working on a film about mind body interaction and I had been doing a lot of thinking about these issues. Yoga provided a powerful framework within which to go deeper into that space. About two months into the practice, my mom fell and cracked her skull. Part of the previous months of trauma had to do with her increasing health issues, so it wasn’t shocking, but it was a bit overwhelming. Over the next four months, I spent a good deal of time with her. Soon I developed a pattern of visiting while she ate dinner and then I would often rush off to Yoga class. The practice helped me find my way into greater levels of acceptance of my mother’s difficult and uncertain situation. This helped me to be more present with her and myself, and made more space for me to move into a much less reactive relationship with her. Still, her decline seemed to be taking place like a slow motion car crash, and that was difficult to deal with emotionally. In retrospect, the decline was quite rapid, but we were trying so hard to take control of the wheel that we had a hard time accepting what was going on. Her trajectory was moving steadily towards leaving this earth, but it was a path that I willed myself not to see because it wasn’t something I was willing to accept. We did everything we could to “get her better”, but after a couple of months it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to happen. That’s when we began to do what we could to support her without pushing, or willing her to get “better”. Even before the fall, she had been having issues with her memory, but the knock on her head caused a major acceleration of her cognitive difficulties. She had days where things were much better, and that gave us hope, but the following day she might not be able to get out of bed. There was one week where she didn’t speak, but could sing. Then she got her speech back for a while. The wild swings in her mood and ability were hard to navigate. That’s where learning to just accept where she was became increasingly useful. It’s good to be hopeful, but leaning into hope was problematic because it led to greater despair when the increasingly inevitable downturns showed up.

In August, I had to do some traveling with my family, and also for work. It was hard to leave my mother, but my sister and my wife were there to support her when I traveled to Europe to print a book and show some films. A day before I left, I had a really amazing visit with my mother. She had been mostly in a wheelchair or bed for the previous week and a half or so, but this day she walked several miles around the retirement community. She was talking and singing and seemed much more connected than she had been in weeks. She made up the song above and was talking to everyone who came in and out of the elevator where she was sitting. Still, when I left for my trip, I was aware that she might not survive until I got back. In fact, as I traveled from place to place, I let people know the situation because I was sure it was affecting me, and I wanted to be present with it rather than cover it up. Still, there was a part of me that was hiding how painful this was, even from myself. I had considered postponing the trip, but I also felt like things had been so uncertain for so long that I had to find ways of moving forward. I might have also been running from the grief.

After printing a book and showing films in Italy, I traveled to Israel to show our mind body documentary, “All The Rage”. After a screening, my host took me to swim in the sea and I gathered beautiful stones and shells for my mother. After the next screening, I woke up at 4 am because I was still a bit jet lagged. I checked my messages and found a note from my wife telling me that I needed to come home. Within an hour I had gotten my ticket changed and arranged a ride to the airport. The trip from Israel to the US was smooth. I knew that I had no control over the situation, so I was able to just be present with the idea that whatever happened would happen. However, on the flight from Newark to North Carolina, I was wildly agitated. I was both exhausted from the journey but also overwhelmed with emotions that I did not fully understand. When I got picked up by my wife and kids, I suggested going home to rest and visiting in the morning. My wife had downplayed the severity of the situation so as not to worry me too much, but made it clear that we had to go straight to see my mom.

As soon as she made that clear I was resigned to it and I found some calm by the time we arrived. When I walked into the room, I understood that we did not have long. She was not cognizant, but my sister told me that when I came and she said that I was there my mom turned a little. Her breathing was labored but steady, and her eyes were cloudy. It was very hard to be there but I took a seat and just kept a hand on her.

She passed away a couple of hours later, just before midnight. As with my father’s death, my first impulse was to go into caretaker mode. I worked on the arrangements, but I was also aware that I needed to make an effort to be present with my grief. The next morning at 9 AM I was at yoga because I knew that I needed it to help ground me for the week to come, and I knew that I could use that space to meditate on my mother and on feeling the sadness that I typically run from. I spent the next days writing a eulogy, and doing my best to manage the details and the feelings.

That was nearly a year ago, and over the next six months my yoga practice helped me to both be with my grief and to escape from it. I went to more classes than anyone in the studio that fall. When the pandemic hit, and in-person yoga classes ceased, I struggled for a bit to hold onto the connection. Over time, the distance has forced me to be more self motivated and present in my practice. Still, the stress of the pandemic has taken some toll. My back is stiff and my weak leg aches. I accept it and try to use that as a tool for greater awareness. At times I’m more successful than others, but I’m continually learning by paying attention.

On July 27th I woke up and remembered that it was my father’s 86th birthday. He died when he was 72 and a half. It’s been a little over 10 months since my mother died. When my father passed away, I wasn’t prepared to process my grief. I now have a lot more tools for dealing with my emotions, so I have been able to lean into my grief around my mother’s loss. Each month I realize that my body notices the anniversary of her death before I do. I’ll feel out of sorts and realize it’s the one-month, or 4-month, or whatever-month anniversary of her passing. This awareness has helped me to carve out time to sit with the grief and accept it. My father was hit by a car which was traumatic for all of us. I quickly stepped into his role and handled the arrangements and supported my mother. I was happy to forgo grief for responsibility, but I also understand that I still have work to do in order to be with that sadness and sense of loss. When I woke up on my father’s birthday I wrote down some thoughts, and then jumped out of bed to join an online yoga class.

Here’s what I wrote down;

“Today would have been my father‘s 86th birthday but he passed away in January 2006 when he was 72. It was way too early. He was having a good deal of trouble with pain and weakening in his muscles, and was hit by a car while trying to cross the street to go to a Carolina basketball game. My mom had dropped him off at a traffic light and then driven into our neighborhood to park. It happened so quickly that she parked and walked up to the game without realizing that he had been hit. I was driving home from a very strange film shoot and I called him right about that time as I was driving over the Manhattan Bridge. My message was on the machine when I got home the next morning. It was followed by a message from my mom calling home to see if he was there because he hadn’t shown up at the game. She went looking for him at halftime and as she approached the intersection she saw a former student of hers from the school of social work who worked for the police department. She knew right away that something was wrong. His loss was devastating for all of us, but for her in particular it was not something she was ever able to get over. This year his birthday seems more significant because my mother passed away just under 11 months ago. I just checked my photos to see what we did on this day last year, and I realized that it is the day that I took her to see my photo show at the botanical gardens. It was a very difficult day, because my mom was barely up for it. I can’t remember if I thought about it on that day, but when my father was hit by the car, it kept flying through the intersection and came to a stop outside of the botanical gardens. So, inadvertently, I brought my mom to the site of his passing on his birthday, on the only occasion she left Carol Woods after her fall. It was a hot day and she was tired, and out of it, but it was important to me that she see the show. In some sense we all make work on some level because we seek the approval of our parents. It took a little time for me to get my father’s approval, but when I did it was meaningful. I’m aware that I will always seek it, even though they are both gone. I want to believe they are at peace together.”

The yoga class was very difficult, but the message of it felt very connected to my thoughts about my father’s birthday and helped me process some of my feelings about his death. After class we prepped to go to a lake house for a couple of days. On the way out of town I went down to the intersection near where he was hit in order to meditate for a moment and be with him. Cars rushed by and and it was hard to find the peace I wanted, but my short meditation led to a flow of thought that continued throughout the day. As we drove away I posted a piece I wrote a few years ago after my friend Hamish and I went down to the site to sit with him. There had been a series of strange electrical occurrences at the house and I felt like he wasn’t settled. When we got there it occurred to me to invite him home, which we did, and things settled down after that. This may sound crazy but it’s true;)

After a quick one-hour drive we got to the rental house and went kayaking and swimming. After dinner I noticed the sun was setting over the water so I jumped on one of the kayaks and paddled out. The sun was coming through a hazy cloud which diffused the light as I move through the water. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed; golden rings circled black blobs of water rolled into each other in wild wind driven patterns that ebbed and flowed. As the patterns merged, morphed, and danced with the light I thought about my parents, life, death, energy, water, light, sound, and perception. I keyed in on how even the smallest addition of energy, like my paddle dipping in the water, had long lasting and profound impacts on the various patterns of movement that intersected with the light at my specific angle. What really struck me was just how conductive the water was, and how complex the patterns were. I thought about how humans are something like 98 percent water and that we are animated by energy. We both take in and give off energetic impulses, and this energy is a large part of our communication process. Energy is neither created or destroyed. Instead it moves. As I had all these abstract philosophical thoughts they were grounded by an awareness of my parents and my grief.

When I came back inside, my family was settling down to watch “Bad News Bears”. I was dumbstruck by the coincidence. My father was a lot like Walter Matthau, and he had taken us to see the film when it came out. It was a meaningful experience then, when we were in the second or third grade. My dad wasn’t as much of a “loser” as the character in the film, but he was prone to bursts of anger, unflinching honesty, and tended to treat kids like little adults. That tendency to expect a lot of us had both positive and negative aspects. In any case, I was overwhelmed by how insightful the film is, and it helped me to feel more deeply connected to my grief over his loss.

We went for a late night kayak paddle after the film, looking at the stars from the lake. I went to sleep feeling fairly settled, but woke up several times with a stinging pain in my foot. Each time I fell asleep, the pain came back with more force. At 5:30 I was wide awake and struggling with the electric shocks that I was getting every few minutes. I tried to just be with the pain, and I also thought deeply about what emotions might be causing it. Eventually I settled on the idea that the day and film had brought up some things that I needed to deal with. Yet, I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. At around 6:00 I woke my wife and we talked for a while. That helped to calm me, but the pain persisted. At 6:30 we went for a sunrise paddle. The pain was still coming, but it was bearable, and I was increasingly able to feel it without reacting defensively. I tried to be aware of the grief that had been knocked loose, while also trying to not be too focused on it. I took tons of pictures and that helped to get me past the focus on my pain. By the time we got back to shore it was mostly gone, and we went back to bed for a bit. When I got up at 11, my leg and foot were tight but the electric shocks were almost gone.

By that afternoon, the pain was pretty much gone. My leg was still a bit tight, but the kind of insistent pain had left me. I can’t say that I figured out exactly what made the electric pain appear. However, while I can’t say that I wasn’t a little afraid of it at first, I can say that I was able to pivot to seeing it as a gift of awareness. I knew that there was something I needed to pay attention to, so I worked to make some room. I didn’t have an a-ha moment, but I was pretty sure it was related to grief. I’m going to have to continue that process of being with the profound loss of my dad. He gave me a lot of gifts; some of them more useful than others. However, even his death teaches me about life. Each day I learn more from him, and my mother, even though they are gone.

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