Wellness: Facing Grief Gracefully
Is it possible to grieve fully, achingly, not be in denial—and yet be in acceptance, calm, and even gratitude?
“You have become very quiet.”
My husband’s pronouncement made me realize that these days, when I'm on my own, I don't say much. That's not like me. My husband has seen me smiling easily, talking, and laughing with friends and family, making clients comfortable, and never having a frown on my face. It is not that I have socially withdrawn; it is just that I feel a lingering emptiness on the inside after the sudden demise of both my father and father-in-law within just two days of each other.
[Left] The author and her father
My father was a friend, colleague, critic, confidante, and a huge influence over my life. He was interested in my writing, in discussing social issues with me, in my doctoral journey, in the clients I worked with, in talking about Vedas, in gossiping about the silly members of the extended family, in discussing future travel plans, in topics of health and wellness. My heart aches for my father. His sudden demise has snatched my safe space in the world. I am trying to find myself and my purpose in a post-Dad world. There is a persistent yearning. There are memories and attachments, and a deep sense of loss. What I have is sadness on a cellular level.
With both my parents gone, I am an orphan now. I miss picking up the phone and calling them for things mundane and important. I dread their absence when I graduate from my doctorate program or when I turn fifty or when we hit anniversary milestones or when my next book comes out. I am also melancholic about a realization that dawned upon me in recent days—I no longer have a home address to fill in the immigration form the next time I go to India. Just like that, I have no place to call home in my motherland, the place which is such a huge part of my identity.
My mother’s death anniversary, Dad’s “chautha” puja as well as scattering of ashes, and my father-inlaw’s cremation were all on the same day. Despite the tragedy of two back-to-back deaths in the immediate family, and the somber thoughts it has triggered, I'm not depressed. There is no anxiety about whatif- I-lose-another-loved one. And it's not that I am in denial—authenticity is non-negotiable in my world as a wellness coach.
Yoga has taught me that nothing is under our control except for our thoughts. My daily holistic practices or dinacharya help me train the monkey mind. There is acceptance. There is calm. There is gratitude for their suffering coming to an end.
But even though my mind might be handling the grief, what about my body? According to an article in The New York Times, grief can have detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system, lead to inflammation, impact sleep, influence body weight, lower immunity, and much more. For weeks after losing my father and returning from India, I never felt hungry. Grief can give you digestive issues, create muscle stiffness, and impact your sleep.
But again, yoga and Ayurveda offer us tools to fend off detrimental effects of grief. I started practicing yoga asanas and pranayama that helped me stay in the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes your body after periods of stress or danger. The rest-and-digest mode is where most humans should spend 80% of their lives. But grief pulls us out of parasympathetic mode and throws us into survival mode or sympathetic nervous system.
Modern medicine recognizes that a broken heart, which includes intense emotional suffering, is as much a physical experience as it is emotional. I don’t care as much about the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Grief is a personal journey, and you don’t need validation from anyone about your feelings or stages of grief. I was at acceptance even before I got angry. And I never went into denial, bargaining, or depression. Then, a new yoga practice brought up anger after a month of losing my dad.
It’s normal to mourn when we lose a loved one. And there is no single template that is the right or wrong way to grieve. But knowing when it can become dangerous is key to our own well-being. For anyone experiencing loss, it is a lifelong journey of triggers, smiles, tears, and loads of happy memories as well.
Be mindful, be kind, and be compassionate. Loss shouldn’t be the reason we become the kind of people we have never wanted to hang out with.
Sweta Vikram, a graduate of Columbia University, is a mindfulness coach and Ayurveda practitioner.
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