Grief is a Scar

Please be aware that this post discusses the topics of death, grief, and loss.

To be human, is to experience loss. We cannot live or exist in this world without loss.

Most of us are familiar with the general process of and emotions related to grief. We know that it’s normal to move from denial to sadness and anger to guilt and so on; that these are “normal” emotional experiences following loss. And that, eventually, we move to acceptance.

I sincerely wish it were that simple.

In reality, the past year has taught me that grief isn’t a step-by-step process we simply move through. It’s not as though we suddenly stop being angry and then feel guilty and so on. Instead, these “phases” are intertwined and we move back and forth and sometimes experience multiple emotions at the same time. We can feel both anger and guilt, or denial and sadness in the very same moment.

Grief is like this living, breathing thing that co-exists with us. It is not a nice, tidy process that we someday emerge from saying, “ah, my grief is finally gone!”

Time does not heal all wounds. A more accurate metaphor would suggest that time allows a scar to form, which is slightly less painful and slightly more tolerable than the initial gaping wound with which the loss has left us.

Losing a sibling (or someone close to you) is unbearable. I imagine it’s a bit like losing a limb in that, you have this part of you that you rely on, that’s always there when you need it. And then one day, it’s just gone, forever.

And we think, oh my god, how will we ever survive without this?

And then, somehow, we just do.

We just survive.

We just go on living one day at a time.

We just learn to live with the giant, gaping wound of our loss.

We just learn to co-exist with our grief.

We  just learn to live with the hideous scar that has marked us for life.

This is grief, a hideous scar, for life.

For the rest of my life, every family gathering, holiday, wedding, birth, even funeral, I will think about how my brother should be here with us.

For the rest of my life, I will silently tell my brother how sorry I am that we couldn’t help him more, how I miss him all the time, and how I love him still.

For the rest of my life, I will have sleepless nights every now and then when my pillow becomes soaked with tears and I am consumed by my sadness.

For the rest of my life, I will have dreams of my brother and then awake to remember that he is gone.

For the rest of my life, I will try, patiently, to explain to people why depression is not a state of mind, but a very real disease that killed my brother.

For the rest of my life, I will carry this scar.

But carrying this scar doesn’t mean that we can’t (at least begin) to work through the complexities of our grief. It’s taken me a long time (and a lot of work) to arrive at a place where I’m finally ready to share some of my experiences of grief and mourning from this past year. For today’s post, I’m sharing some of my most meaningful encounters from Rishikesh, a place I (and many others) have come to believe is one of healing. I wrote the following paragraphs, in part, to fulfill the requirements of my continuing education for yoga teacher training.

Last October, I had the amazing opportunity to spend 10 days in Rishikesh (India). The purpose of this trip was to further advance my knowledge of yogic history and philosophy, yet my experiences were deeply healing in an unexpected way. Preceded by the sudden loss of my brother just two months before, my trip to India became a time to mourn his death and to process my own emotions of grief. I almost decided not to go after his passing (not wanting to be away from home and my family), but I could feel how much I needed space to heal. I craved quiet and stillness, time away from the demands of a new career.

Even knowing this, I’m still somewhat surprised as I reflect on the many ways that these experiences seemed to speak to and nurture my soul. It is as if the Universe heard my cries and gave me exactly what I needed to begin healing. The following pictures help to demonstrate a few of my experiences. Please excuse my ignorance and any unintended misrepresentations of culture or religion as I still have much to learn with regard to India’s history, Hinduism, and yogic philosophy.

This picture was taken at the Daksheswara Mahadev Temple (located in Haridwar) and shows a towering statue in which Lord Shiva is cradling the body of his beloved wife, Goddess Sati, after she had thrown herself into a fire. Deeply saddened by her death, he gently lifts her from the ashes and wanders the earth aimlessly for ages, refusing to let her go. As a result, there is chaos in the universe, and he cannot let go of his pain until he is finally forced to put her to rest.

This, as well as many of the other stories I learned during our visit to the sacred areas surrounding Rishikesh, allowed me to recognize that holding onto my brother, as Lord Shiva held onto Sati, is not healthy. This is not how we are meant to live. We are meant to mourn when we have losses, to be sad in those moments, and then to begin the work of moving forward. This, perhaps, sounds much more simplistic than the deep sense of knowing that resonated with me after hearing Shiva’s story, but it was as if I suddenly knew that I needed to begin the work of moving through my grief. I think this reflects important yogic principles related to impermanence, such as aparigraha (nonpossessiveness), santosha (contentment), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender).

This waterfall picture was taken in the Tehri Garhwal district, which is settled in an area at the base of the Himalayas. Beginning at the Kunjapuri Temple, where we had meditated at sunrise, we hiked down the winding terrain of the mountain (approximately three miles straight down, but my Fitbit logged more than seven miles all total). The hike was difficult as there was not a clear path in many areas. Where there was a designated path, it was often covered in small white stones that acted like gravel under foot. Perhaps as many as 10 times, I found that I had landed with a quick thud as my feet slid out from under me (I found several bruises on my back side over the next few days).
 

Our progress was slow, and in the heat of the sun directly overhead, I found myself near tears at times. I felt frustrated, wondering why I had opted to go on this torturous hike, when what I probably really needed was some rest. Then, at maybe two-thirds of the way down the mountain, I saw a small black butterfly on the path just ahead. The day we discovered that my brother had passed, a tiny black butterfly had perched on my dad’s shoulder while we cried together.

I immediately felt a sense of calm and my inner frustrations quieted. As I continued down the mountain, many more black butterflies crossed my path. When we finally reached the base, a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall awaited and it felt like the whole journey had been worth it. This experience echoes other yogic principles of understanding that life is a process, such as brahmacharya (nonexcess) and tapas (self-discipline). There will be hardship and moments when we must endure pain, but there will also moments of joy, comfort, and accomplishment.

This photo depicts the giant Shiva statue that sits on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) River at Parnath Niketan in Rishikesh. Our lovely tour guide, Pankaj, told me that the statue floated several miles down the river during major flooding a few years back (here’s some news coverage about it). Amazingly, the statue was undamaged and successfully recovered, putting it back in its rightful place; at home in Rishikesh. I noticed that the base appeared to have been reinforced in an effort to avoid this from happening again. However, I had the clear sense from Pankaj that if flooding were to happen again, they would simply pull the statue back up the river once more.

This story has really stuck with me and every time I see a picture of Shiva, I think about the statue in Rishikesh. To me, this is a story about resiliency. We will never be capable of preventing the flood waters from coming, or of planning for every potential tragedy. And, to be clear, there will be tragedy – because that is the human experience. But, we can learn to take things in stride. We can weather the storm and pick ourselves back up. We can come home or create a home or be a home for those around us. For me, this most strongly represents the practice of ahimsa (nonviolence) through self-love and compassion for others, but also clearly reflects ishvara pranidhana (surrender) through acceptance.

The final picture I’m including here was taken on Dewali. It was the final night we were in Rishikesh. After having gorged ourselves with delicious food, including many sweets, and having lit a large number of fireworks along with our hotel family and Pankaj, we ventured out to wander around Rishikesh. Many people were still lighting fireworks all over town and the air smelled of sulfur. A thick haze of smoke settled like dense fog. Eventually, we made our way into the Parnath Niketan where Ganga Aarti takes place. At this late hour, it was virtually empty with the exception of a few sleeping people and a priest who watches over the premises (it is my understanding that the area is never closed).

We sat quietly on the banks of the Ganga, taking in the quiet, though we could still hear the infrequent drumming of fireworks in the distance. I was rather surprised when the priest suddenly appeared to us and lit a small firework that spritzed white light into the air like a fountain. Then, he simply retreated to his quarters just as suddenly as he had arrived, without saying a word. I smiled to myself, noticing how much joy this simple act had brought me. I have always loved fireworks and counted down the days to July 4th as a child, excitedly awaiting their annual return. In that moment, it was as though I reached back to a former part of myself. I felt incredibly at home, at ease, in Rishikesh.

I was saddened to leave the next day, my eyes welling with tears as we piled into the car. I feared that I would lose that sense of peace and ease and of being home after leaving Rishikesh. But Rishikesh is something that I think sticks with you, if you allow it. My experiences in Rishikesh deeply changed me. Maybe it was the timing, as I doubt I would have understood my experiences in the same way had they not followed so closely to my brother’s death. For me, the process was like gathering all of the scattered pieces of myself – my broken and wounded self – in order to begin putting myself back together, though undoubtedly changed forever. In this way, it was reflective of saucha (purity). 

There is no doubt in my mind that deep loss is a scar we will carry for life. Despite this truth, I believe we can put ourselves back together; we can begin to work through our grief, if we are willing. Though we are changed, we will survive. And, sometimes, we will even emerge stronger.

I wish you peace and healing in whatever loss you may be experiencing at this moment, may you find your sense of home wherever you are.

With so much love,

Tiff

Photo Credits (in order of appearance)

Heart shape in tree bark photo by Christopher Paul High on Unsplash

All remaining photos were taken by the author

Resilience

For the past couple of weeks now, I’ve had this word – resilience – bouncing around in my head.

To me, it seems clear that humans are wired to be resilient. We are survivors.

Let me give you an example.

Every semester, I teach a basic public speaking skills course and I frequently give this talk about how it’s normal to feel nervous before giving a speech. In fact, you’ve probably heard the reference to Jerry Seinfeld’s joke about people being more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying (and that’s actually true).

Your palms may get sweaty, your heart may race, your mouth may feel dry. These are all things that commonly happen when adrenaline is pumping through our veins. But why is it that something like simply giving a speech can cause an increase in adrenaline?

Adrenaline is our body’s physiological response to fear. When our brain tells our body that it perceives a threat – even if that perceived threat is giving a speech – our body’s response is to produce adrenaline. It gives us the stamina needed to cope with the perceived threat.

It’s our fight or flight mechanism. It’s a survival instinct.

It’s the same instinct that has allowed humans to lift cars off of their children or to outrun predators or fight back in order to survive.

Humans are survivors; we’re literally built for it. We’re resilient.

You may think I’m overdramatizing the current situation by drawing a comparison to the stress we are facing today with life-threatening situations, and the truth is, you might be right. My point here isn’t to debate how real the threat is. It’s about the perceived reality that we are all living; the immense stress under which many people are simply trying to survive.

In the past few days, I have had multiple students disclose varying degrees of mental distress, including panic attacks, loss of time, and general anxiety. I have heard many of the same stories over and over again about how much more work is involved in online coursework, how they are concerned about their ability to pay rent, how they are worried about their leases ending and not having a plan in place for moving, and how they feel incredibly alone in all of this. They’re stressed – to say the least – and so am I.

If you’re like me and you’re fortunate enough to be able to work from home, you may be feeling a bit less stressed than those who are currently out of work or those who must continue doing jobs that are essential, despite the potential risk.

And, to be clear, I really do consider myself fortunate. However, that doesn’t mean the situation is ideal. As many of you are probably finding out, teaching (or working) online requires a lot more effort. And spending most of the day in Zoom meetings can be really draining (here’s a great article that helps explain why). Add to this the fact that most of us don’t have all of the technology needed to operate well from home (I’ve crashed my Surface twice already) and you can begin to understand why it’s not really all that simple – for faculty, for students, and for others attempting to work from home.

The focus of today’s post is on offering some tips for coping with stress beyond simply surviving — in other words, how to be resilient. Some of these things have worked well for me and some are based on the ideas of others. As always, take what works for you and feel free to leave the rest. I hope you find some peace in all of this chaos.

Maintain connections. People are meant to be connected with others. It’s important to be a part of a community (or many communities) by staying connected with friends and family. While the physical isolation is a necessary precaution most of us are living, there are some ways to maintain relationships despite the physical distance. Schedule social events via Zoom (or FaceTime or House Party or another app) with friends or family. You can virtually meet with others for a coffee date or cocktails and simply catch up with each other. While it may not be at your favorite venue, the perks are that you can wear your favorite comfy cloths and you don’t need to find a babysitter (if you have tiny humans running around).

tilt shift photography of green mailbox

You could also go old school and actually take the time to pen a note and mail (yes, snail mail) someone a letter or card. You don’t even have to come up with something novel to say – you can copy down a favorite poem or quote or just write in giant letters, “I MISS YOU,” or sketch something or draw a doodle. The point is, most people (like pretty much every human I know) loves to feel like someone cares about them, and knowing you were thinking of them enough to send something through the mail will probably make their day.  

If you’re lucky enough to share your living space with others, simply being present doesn’t always translate to feeling connected with these individuals. Many of us live with children or elders or other roommates who are important to us, but may in some ways interrupt our ability to nurture relationships with others, especially partners. If you find yourself here, I know it’s hard. Be patient, things will return to normal eventually. In the meantime, try sending a text to the person across the room that says, “I was just thinking about you,” or “I love you,” or just “Hi :).” Try to take time to be alone with your partner if and when it’s possible, maybe early in the morning or late at night. Go for a walk together, watch a movie in bed (even if it’s just on your laptop), make a meal together, have a conversation. Leave notes for your partner where you know they will find them (like on their pillow or in their coat pocket). Be kind to each other.

Take time for wellness. I know I talk about this a lot, but it’s because I think it’s really important. This could be a great time to practice learning to listen to your body and what you need. Take breaks from work as often as you need them. I’m guilty of totally skipping meals because I’m so focused on what I’m doing, which is terrible for our bodies. If you find that you’re not great at taking breaks throughout the day, schedule them into your day or set an alarm (maybe every hour) to get up and stretch. Try to stay physically active by going for walks or doing home-based workouts (there are literally hundreds available for free on YouTube, including this restorative yoga video I made).

woman doing yoga meditation on brown parquet flooring

If you’re spending more time at home than usual, you may want to try out some new (or old) approaches for developing your own mindfulness practice, such as meditating, journaling, drawing, painting, etc. All of these practices can be great for helping manage anxiety, and you may just find you actually enjoy doing them. Take time to do things that bring you some joy. I’ve started baking again for the first time in years and it’s been fun. When I’m stressed, I sometimes find it difficult to focus on a task that requires a lot of mental energy like grading or writing, but baking (or organizing, or cleaning, or sorting, or whatever) can be an activity that allows me to feel productive without using a lot of mental energy (because I bake simple things like scones – this is totally not a home version of Nailed It!).

Getting adequate sleep is also really important, especially when we’re mentally stressed. If you are able to work from home, consider starting your day a little later than you typically would. To me, there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a bit – it’s one of the perks of working from home and making your own schedule. If you find that you struggle to fall asleep at night, developing a bedtime routine can help you wind down. It may involve taking a bath, reading a book, turning down the lights, and limiting your phone use after a certain time. Again, do what works for you – no one knows you better than yourself.

Practice flexibility and adaptability. When there are so many unknown factors – like when social isolation will no longer be necessary, when a vaccine will be available, how our economy will recover, when we will be able to travel again – it’s important to keep an open mind and to practice flexibility. While it’s not easy to do, managing our expectations – as in, not having specific expectations about how or when things will change – can help us maintain a more positive outlook.

Additionally, realizing that even our day-to-day plans may falter under these circumstances and becoming adaptable  can help us develop greater resiliency. In a recent meeting (online, of course) with students in my research methods course, I encouraged students to take the path of least resistance in completing the course (let me clarify that this is not something I would typically say under normal circumstances). While I realize some of them had impressive plans for the remaining assignments, I wanted them to know that scaling back in order to better manage their time to complete their assignments (in my class as well as others) is completely okay.

The same is true for all of us. You may have had an awesome project planned for your students, or intended to work on a research proposal or to develop a new class, or maybe you were planning your wedding or graduation, or something else very meaningful, but it’s okay to let go of some of our expectations for right now. It’s okay to lessen the pressure we’ve put on ourselves. It is not a failure to do so, it is the ability to adapt under extraordinary circumstances. And, it doesn’t mean we must let go of that expectation altogether – we can simply put it on hold until later.

I encourage you to have compassion with yourself and with others.

Show some emotion. I realize that we live in a culture that does not often embrace the expression of emotion. In fact, after years of working in retail and being told that I needed to “grow a thicker skin,” I am now working to undo much of that effort and to become more in touch with my own emotions. Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions – anger, sadness, frustration, fear – is vital to our ability to process this event. We are not robots and we were not designed to subdue our emotions. We are allowed to feel bothered by the events we are experiencing because they are bothersome.

woman touch rainy glass

I encourage you to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling about these current circumstances. Take the time you need to be sad or fearful or angry, and then, move forward. At the same time, I also encourage you to find joy whenever possible – perhaps in the fact that you can wear yoga clothes all day and you don’t have to put on shoes! (those are mine 🙂 ) – and to laugh when there is nothing else to be done. Realize that technology will fail sometimes. You may get kicked out of Zoom in the middle of your class or someone may flush the toilet in the room next to you when you’re talking to a student, and it’s okay. Laugh at the circumstances, at yourself, at life, and know that you are not in this alone in this.

Reach out for support. I know I’ve said this before, but if you find that you are unable to manage your stress on your own or if you fear that you could possibly harm yourself or others, please reach out for help. Many therapists are working from home at this time (including mine) and many are accepting new patients. While this may not seem ideal, there is a benefit to being able to chat with someone from the comfort of your own home. Please know that it is okay to lean on others when you are struggling. Sometimes just venting or talking through something can bring a lot of relief and I encourage you to reach out to a friend, family member, other trusted individual, or mental healthcare professional for help if you need it.

hands formed together with red heart paint

I hope you found some of these insights of use. Above all, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of showing compassion to others as well as yourself.

With much love,

Tiff

References

American Psychological Association. (2020). Building your resilience. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020). Coping with Stress. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide/copingwith-stresstips.html

Mayo Clinic. (2020). Resilience: Build skills to endure hardship. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Retrieved April 14, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/resilience-training/in-depth/resilience/art-20046311

Photo Credits

Cover Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Mailboxes Photo by Daria Nepriakhina on Unsplash

Woman Doing Yoga Meditation Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Woman Touching Rainy Glass Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Hands With Red Paint Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash