The Physicality of Loss

The Physicality of Loss
“Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”
— C.S. Lewis

The start of 2017 has been full of unexpected brave and beautiful conversations with sister-friends near and afar, many of whom have recently lost loved ones.  I feel blessed to be able to share with them openly about their grief and loss and mine.  The conversations have been full of love, pain, sadness and hope. Inspiring. Up-lifting. Life affirming. Making us feel connected and less alone, demystifying the whole 'how to grieve' crap.  There is no 'way' to grieve. This is precisely why we need to talk about loss and grief more - to make us feel less weird or abnormal. I don't have the answers, I only know what losing my Dad has been like for me and it's helped me to share it and I know it has helped others to read about it.  These conversations are so enlivening.

This post has been sitting patiently in the draft section waiting for me to hit publish. Part of me thinking 'not another grief post Dal'. See, I get caught up in it all too. So, after one of those precious conversations today I had a good old cry to some of my favourite 'I miss you Dad' (imagine me wailing with snot down my face) songs followed by some MJ, bad dancing and a walk in the woods. On the way back past my little local bookshop I noticed a book 'Yoga for Grief and Loss' in the window and there was my 'hit it' sign. Grieving is a profoundly physical process.

Now that my 4 month soulbattical has come to an end, 4 months of not doing the day job has been utterly revitalising. 4 months of catching up with myself and recovering from being a carer to my Dad to losing him has been a precious gift.  4 months of getting back on track with my fragmented social life. It was hard to give myself this gift - live off my savings because what if......???  Fill in the gaps. What if an asteroid falls out of the sky hitting my house and it's not covered by the insurance policy? What if I decide that I really do want to be Wonder Woman and need breast implants and hair extensions? What if no-one ever employs me again?  I will have to live in a cardboard box in the underpass (the one near Waitrose please).

Until I stopped last September, I didn't truly appreciate the profound level of exhaustion every part of me was feeling. Grieving takes a MASSIVE amount of physical energy. Few people talk about the physical effects of grief but they are there. And if we don't know about them we struggle to extend empathy to those grieving folks who are struggling with ongoing ailments. It's simply not their fault.

woodland heart

In my case, weird symptoms appeared and lingered. For months my rib cage ached and creaked feeling like it was going to crack under some internal pressure. My heart felt like it was so swollen that it would have to push out between each rib and beat there in a big splodge. Random pains moved around my ribs, my abdomen, my back and sides. My kidneys throbbed. My heart rate was scattered. I felt as if I had a huge mass of stuck energy swirling from my chest to my pelvis. It wasn't just down to the physical exertion of sobbing. This was a profound ache.

I was constantly tired and slept for hours and hours.  Numerous scans and blood tests came back clear. My GP looked at me kindly and said "you've been through a major life event..."  Yes, I agreed. No other notable cause other than losing someone I loved dearly.

Yet it felt so physically different from my usual experience of a stress related illness. Maybe my body had pre-programmed physical responses to stress - headaches, eczema, rosacea. But this was something else - my body hadn't experienced a loss on this level. A broken heart? Maybe my ribcage had to grow and stretch to allow my heart to expand in to the maelstrom of emotions it was experiencing, struggling to protect it at all costs.

Two weeks of sea swimming, sun, tears and journalling in Crete eased the creaks and pains but still they lingered. Finally I sought the ear of a counsellor and after one especially emotional session I awoke the following morning completely creak-free. The mass of energy had disappeared. My heart had let go and resumed it's place, no longer needing to spill out of my ribs. Moments like this are sometimes described as the hardwork miracle - you do the emotional work and one day everything clicks in to place. Grieving is hard work in every way.

feel it. the thing that you don’t want to feel. feel it. and be free.
— Nayirrah Waheed

I still feel the physical impact of grief on my body like an invisible scar that is slowly healing. When my soulbattical began I knew I had to take very good care of myself, needing the open stretch of time to resume my healthy ways and to recover lost parts of myself. Over the 4 months I returned to daily'ish forest walks (interrupted for a month by a weird ligament injury in my ankle that 'just appeared' out of nowhere after dancing to MJ's Don't Stop Till You Get Enough - maybe another grief response?), joined a  slimming group (I am metaphorically dying as I confess this) losing almost a stone in weight, and restored my regular Iyengar Yoga practice, focusing on stretching the capacity of my ribs. Little by little I am getting stronger, regaining physical vitality - a work in progress.

This sister is danced again...most notably on NYE for 3 and a half hours.

I'm writing this for the special sisters out there who have experienced great losses recently. Please be gentle with yourself in every way. Give yourself time and space in whatever way you can and do not worry about those around you who don't understand - they can't and that is ok. No-one will tell you how much energy it takes to grieve and when you experience the full heft of grief it might feel easier to bundle it away or to try and get through it quickly.

You think the pain will break you - let it try. Let it try and thoroughly break you in every way. You will see that it won't. Your grief is precious. Breathtakingly beautiful in as many ways as it is unbearable. Tears let loose are droplets of gratitude for the love we experienced and still feel. Grief is alchemical fuel and no text book will tell you that. It cracks your heart open immeasurably and is an agent of transformation, revealing hidden treasures. You got this sisters. xo