Let the Body Grieve Itself

Let the Body Grieve Itself

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Let the Body Grieve Itself

You don’t think you’ll live past it and you don’t really. The person you were is gone. But the half of you that’s still alive wakes up one day and takes over again.

Barbara Kingsolver

I woke up early on January 1, the first day of the new century, and crawled out of my cave (the name I have given to my bed). It had been an uneventful New Year’s Eve, in bed by 10 P.M., pillow over my ears to block out the sounds of centennial celebrations in my neighborhood.

I had spent the past several years at the bottom of pain after my twenty-one-year-old daughter, Jenna, was killed in a bus accident while studying abroad. Her death and that of three other students on the bus in India had made news all around the world. I was a heartsick father, convinced there was nothing further to celebrate, ever. I went through the motions of trying to put my world back together. I acted as if my life would one day have purpose and meaning again, but I lived in utter despair. My life, as I had known it, was over. There would be no “good times,” no celebrations, not without my daughter.

As I stepped over Rascal, the family dog, nestled in her spot bedside the bed, the phone rang. It was my friend Anne, in a panic and asking for my help. “Ken, I’m worried about Howard. He’s been depressed all week. Would you please call him, Ken? Today?”

And so it was that I called my buddy Howard, whose third-generation family business was losing millions of dollars and facing a hostile takeover. Howard was glad to hear from me. In response to my invitation to go to lunch, he said, “I am on my way to yoga. Why don’t you join me and then we can go for lunch?” Realizing I could help a friend in trouble and escape my own misery for a few hours, I agreed.

An hour later I was sitting lotus style next to Howard in a room full of bright-eyed yoga students. A surprising number of them were men my age who appeared to be in very good shape, and I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. I could not remember the last time I had stretched; I had been filling my emptiness with food since Jenna’s death and had gained twenty-five pounds. I also felt a little awkward sitting among a group of straight-backed, New Age types who obviously knew what they were doing. Then I gazed over at my friend, his face full of anguish, and he looked back at me, trying to smile. I was quickly reminded why I was there. I felt somehow closer to him than ever before, like he was beginning to understand what it was like to have your heart ripped out. I felt somehow less alone.

As the class settled in, a beautiful, young, soft-spoken yoga teacher named Diane invited us to turn our attention inward. She asked us to “find a comfortable position, close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, and on the out breath, release any tension you might be holding.” Weaving a barefoot path through the mire of students, Diane then spoke the first of what would be many words I would never forget. “Let go! Trust. Let the body breathe itself.”

What? I thought.

My breathing had become shallow and controlled. My pain was often so big, I did not know whether I could make it to the next moment. I had been fighting just to survive. And yet, listening to Diane’s soft, reassuring voice, I was able to surrender a little bit at a time. Let the body breathe itself, I repeated over and over until I could feel myself soften and then let go. My body had been frozen by the trauma of my daughter’s death. Each cell had been turned inside out. In a way, I too had died, had ceased to breathe. But here I was sitting on a yoga mat, discovering new breath, new movement and new life.

Diane then led us into a yoga posture she called “the heart opener.”

Before I was able to fully grasp what my body was doing, I had let out a soft, harrowing sigh. Then I felt tears running down my cheek. In its wisdom, my body was allowing a small release. I had discovered a new cave, a safe, five-thousand-year-old refuge for my grief called “yoga.” In the next hour, Diane’s soothing voice led me on a gentle journey back into my body, my heart and my soul. The more she guided us, saying things like, “Let yourself in, gently, compassionately, without straining,” the more I realized how I had locked myself out. I had shut down my body and emotions. Without really being aware of it, I was dying. Perhaps like many parents who experience the unspeakable, unthinkable nightmare of losing a child, I had shut down as a means of coping with the seemingly unending pain. And I had given up.

Guided and encouraged by a wise and caring teacher, I took my first baby steps. I began to learn the practice of self-compassion. And I had discovered a path to begin healing my life. Yoga taught me to reopen my heart and still my mind. Diane’s invitations to “notice how your body is different each day” and “differentiate between tension and strength” taught me more about grief, healing and the rebirth of hope than any book I had read. I began to find nourishment in silence and felt somehow more connected with my daughter in those moments. At the end of that first class, as we sat silently, I spoke to Jenna, telling her that I loved her, that I was going to try to fight my way back into life and make her proud of me for not giving up. In the weeks and months to follow, I learned to calm the obsessive thinking that so often accompanies traumatic loss and to reactivate the “fight back” and “feel good” systems in my body. With coaching, I slowly learned that it was okay to allow grief to move through me. Let the body grieve itself, I began to tell myself.

It became a ritual for me to gently place my hand over my heart and cry softly for several moments during each class and to talk to Jenna during the closing meditations. I was clearing the way for a new life, one in which I could live with and through my loss. I would always grieve the death of my daughter. Now I could experience the joy and privilege of having had her in my life for twenty-one precious years. She would be in my heart forever. Since that day, I have attended yoga classes two or three times a week. I am gradually learning to live within my own skin again. I now accept that my grief is as choiceless as breathing. It cannot be forced or resisted, but it can be allowed. And I teach this to other parents each day through The Jenna Druck Foundation’s Families Helping Families Program. I keep myself in top shape through yoga, physically, mentally and spiritually, and honor my daughter by walking with bereaved parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends as they find their way through the darkness that is grief.

I thought I was saving a friend’s life by going to a New Year’s Day yoga class. It turns out, it’s my own life I saved.

Ken Druck

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