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,
Photo Credits (in order of appearance)
All remaining photos were taken by the author