Grief Brain and Moving Forward with Grace
By Paul Denniston
Experiencing loss and sadness has a profound impact on our life. Grief brain is real. And it takes a toll on our body.
Last year, my younger sister was in the final stage of losing her 7-year battle with cancer. At the same time, I was witnessing my 16-year old dog wind down in life as her body slowly fell apart. Death was knocking on the door to my life. Not to take my life, but to take away two of my dearest companions.
The anticipatory grief was exhausting to process. A cloud of depression hovered above me and I felt unmotivated to move forward.
My mind was filled with anxiety. I was scattered and unfocused. I was focusing on the future and what life would be like without them. My body felt drained because the worry in my head took so much energy. I felt helpless. I wanted to do something to help those I loved dearly, but there was nothing to do except to just be with them. To take care of them as their body slowly began to break down. And to be with myself in the sadness.
When I’m in grief, my mind can get dark. My critical, judgmental mind becomes loud and cruel. I beat myself up for what I’m doing, or how I’m doing it. I tell myself I’m not doing enough. I judge others for how they’re handling things.
In my darkness, my mind is loud and crazy. My monkey mind jumps from thought to thought, and branch to branch, screaming like a crazed animal searching for security and safety. My heart feels heavy and my body feels drained.
I’ve had to come through many obstacles of expressing my sadness and anger. I grew up in Texas and wasn’t taught how to express grief. I wasn’t taught how to release and talk about my anger. I just get stuck in my dark mind and feel hopelessness.
As a child dealing with grief and anger, I would isolate. I’d be a turtle climbing into his shell to hide away from the world to find safety. I do that as an adult too.
In my isolation, my thoughts are cruel. I search for light and hope, but I don’t know where to look. Because the grief is draining, I lose all motivation in my body.
I grasp for tools to help me in this struggle. I remember a wise yogi teacher telling me, “The body follows the mind. The mind follows the breath. Deepen the breath to quiet the mind.”
If my body is following my mind, my mind is stuck in suffering. My mind is being cruel, and so I’m being cruel to my body. I eat things that don’t support my body. I turn to candy, chips and salsa, and ice cream. Delicious in the moment – absolutely. Good fuel for my body – Nope.
I become lazy and binge watch TV. I get lost on social media comparing my life to others or witnessing the craziness of the world.
I can’t express the darkness in my mind. I am stuck and don’t feel motivated to move my body. I have grief brain and have a hard time focusing.
I want to understand the struggle I’m experiencing. So, I connect to my fear. I’m afraid of losing those I love dearly. I’m afraid I’m not doing enough. I’m afraid my life doesn’t matter. I’m afraid of expressing who I am. I’m afraid of showing people who I truly am. I’m afraid of sharing this vulnerability.
I take a moment to be with those thoughts. To hold these feelings with tenderness. I tell myself, I hear your fear. I hear your desire for connection. I know you’re afraid to express it, but I witness it here.
As a Grief Yoga teacher, I know how important it is to hold that space for others, and I remind myself to do it within. This is so challenging, but I don’t want to stay stuck.
I place my hands on my shoulders and give myself a massage. I gently tell myself I love myself just as I am. I do some neck rotations to breathe in some space in my tense shoulders and neck. I bring fresh oxygen into my brain.
I get still and connect to my intuition. I connect to the place in my mind that is all knowing. I tune into my breath and get present.
And when I hear myself saying, “I don’t know anymore.” My intuition guides me into inquiring, “What do you know?”
And in the stillness, here’s what I know.
I know this struggle too shall pass. And I breathe.
I feel the anger in my gut and the anxiety in my shoulders. And I breathe.
I know that there’s a lot of sadness beneath the surface. And I breathe.
I know I’m doing the best I can in this moment. And I breathe.
My grief brain is having a hard time being present in this moment. I’m focusing on the future. I’m stuck in the past. It’s difficult to just be in this moment here. Because a part of me doesn’t want to accept it. Accept the reality of where my life is. Accept the fact that I’m witnessing people I love dearly and watching their body waste away. Seeing them in pain and feeling helpless.
I sit with the heaviness of the moment. I hold that space with love as I feel the tears in my eyes. I release the tears knowing they are an expression of my love. I know that these tears help purify my heart.
I know life keeps moving. I know this is a new day. I know that I don’t want to feel stuck. I decide to move my body. I stretch to connect to sensations in my body as I bring more oxygen in. I walk through nature. I put on a song that reflects what I’m feeling, or want to feel, and just move my body to the music. I go to a yoga class to find my flow again. I work on regaining my balance in my body and mind.
The body follows the mind, the mind follows the breath. Deepen the breath to help quiet my anxious mind. Observe how the meditation becomes a mental shower for my brain.
In this moment, I’m seeking connection. I connect to where I’m touching the earth, grounding down. I connect to the sensations in my body and become the observer, breathing into any space and sensation in my body.
I connect to something greater than myself. To God. To spirit guides. To the expansive Universe above. To my ancestors who came before me. In this moment, there is life. There is breath. I acknowledge my body and also know it too shall fade away. Beneath the surface of the skin lives spirit. That part of me that is eternal. The light that will never die.
In this moment, I find connection – to my mind, body, and spirit. I remember that is Yoga – Union. This comforts me as I self soothe myself. I’m finding harmony within the storm.
I hold space to whatever feelings come up and let them flow through like waves. Like breath. Embodying grace and flow. I listen to my body in whatever way it tells me to move.
I explore my edge and get outside of my comfort zone. I try something new. Exploring a pattern change in my life experience that helps me not feel so stuck.
I embrace a beginner’s mind, knowing that this is a new day. A new chance to share who I am. To express to others my love and thanks for their presence.
And to find the balance of knowing when to rest and when to move forward, even if it’s just small steps.
I explore a moment of thanks. Thank you mind for helping me to solve my problems. For helping me to show up when I need to. Thank you body for holding my spirit and allowing me to experience this gift of life. Thank you emotions for letting me express who I am and allowing me to feel this experience of life. Thank you spirit for reminding me that even in death, my light is eternal.
In this space, I surrender this moment, this life, this breath, this day. I let go and move forward. I choose to flow with grace in my mind and body. And just stay curious to what is around me.
As I embrace my grief, I also witness the grace.
Paul Denniston created Grief Yoga, which blends many branches of yoga and movement to compassionately locate healing after loss. He teaches this practice to cancer support groups; bereavement groups; addiction groups; workshops on healing after a breakup, divorce, or betrayal; and is also trained in Heart Touch Massage for the dying. Paul has taught Grief Yoga to over 6,000 therapists, counselors, and health care professionals around the world.
Grief Yoga: Honoring Loss & Moving Into Empowerment
A Two-Day Workshop with Paul Denniston
Sundays, August 16 & 23, 2020, 1:00 – 4:00 pm EST
For additional information or to register click here.
Originally published on griefyoga.com