As a Funeral Director and Bereavement Educator for over 25 years, my mother Anne Sage dedicated her life to helping grieving families find support, comfort and healing in their darkest hours.
“For a person who has lost someone, the holidays can be a lousy time,” my mother says. “I think what often happens at the time of death is that suddenly you have to make all these decisions. It’s like planning a wedding without any of the joy. Frequently the immediate survivors are in a state of shock. They feel like it’s not real.”
She’s right. None of it feels real. It didn’t feel real when the doctors announced that my mom had terminal cancer in June. It didn’t feel real when they said she only had six months to live. Almost exactly six months later, it doesn’t feel real that she’s really gone.
I spent my entire childhood in awe of my mother and the way she so gracefully and compassionately helped others navigate their way through the tides of grief. Now, I turn to her words of wisdom to help me cope with my own perfect storm.
“You heal, but that business about getting over it? Nobody ever gets over it,” my mother once said. “You learn to live with it. You learn to live with the fact of it happening. You learn to cope with the sadness. You learn to let joy back into your life. People say, ‘You should feel this or that.’ There’s no ‘should’ with feelings. They just exist.”
Well intentioned people have told me how I should feel. I smile and thank them for their advice and support. I tell them what I think they want to hear—that my mom passed away peacefully. That she stayed positive until the end and when the time came, she just closed her eyes and let go.
But the reality is that there is nothing peaceful about cancer. It’s awful and heart wrenching. My mom is one of the strongest and most courageous women I have ever known, but cancer brought her to her knees. It ate away at her body and crushed her spirit with its angry claws. There was vomiting, morphine, constipation and unrelenting pain. There were tears, anger, fear and despair.
Yes, there was also laughter and love and the healing of old wounds. But in the end, she was simply scared. She didn’t want to die, but her body wouldn’t let her live.
I feel guilty for not being there when she died. I feel guilty for not doing enough while she was fighting her battle. But guilt, according to my mom, is normal and is experienced to varying degrees by everyone who grieves. She called it “the ‘woulda-shoulda-coulda’ syndrome” and said, “It’s beyond logic. People who qualify for sainthood feel guilty.” The important thing, according to her, is to acknowledge the feelings—whatever they might be so they don’t spill over like a boiling pot.
“We can feel guilty. We can be angry—at God, at ourselves. Grieve in the way that feels right for you. If you feel like crying, you should cry. If you feel like laughing, you should laugh. There’s no timeline and you are the expert in your own grief.”
For now, it still feels surreal. “Reality hits six weeks after the death of a loved one,” my mom says. “Until then, you’re either numb or preoccupied with all the business of death: doctor bills, estate processing, writing to friends. All the nice people who have helped go back to their own lives. Then reality hits you like a horse kicking you in the stomach.”
It’s been about four weeks since my mom died and I’m still a little numb.
The grief hits me in waves, and I cope by unrolling my yoga mat. I allow the tears to flow as freely as the sweat and when the tears don’t flow, I don’t force them. She taught me that it’s okay to feel numb. It’s okay not to be sad all the time.
She also taught me that it’s okay not to be okay.
As psychiatrist, pioneer in the grief field and one of my mom’s personal heroes, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says,
“I’m not okay, you’re not okay and that’s okay.”
Liz Arch is the creator of Primal Yoga®, a dynamic yoga/martial arts fusion class that merges Vinyasa yoga with the artistry of Kung Fu and the grace of Tai Chi into a creative and mindful flow. She has over 10 years of experience in various yoga and martial arts styles including Power Yoga, traditional Northern-style Kung Fu and Yang-style Tai Chi. She is an ambassador for RYU(www.ryu.com), a company that creates high performance eco-conscious athletic wear founded on the code of strength, honor, respect and sustainability. She teaches free yoga to women who are survivors of domestic violence and is a proud advocate for A Window Between Worlds (www.awbw.org), the only national non-profit organization that uses art as a healing tool for women and children who are survivors of domestic violence. Connect with her online on her website, via Facebook or Twitter @primalyoga.
Ed: Kate B.
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