As some of you know, after Andy died I didn’t run away from the pain. I embraced it, somehow intuitively knowing that was the only way I was going to get through it. It’s like the bear hunt song I have referenced before….can’t go over it, under it or around it. You have to go through it.
Meditation guru and all around soul-sister-genius, Pema Chodron, calls this “leaning in.” That is to say, when you “lean into” the pain, it allows room for healing. Whatever that means, I have experienced it as truth.
But something strange and consuming and exhausting happened after Zach died. I couldn’t find the pain. None of it. Where did it go? The anguish. The grief. For Andy, for Zach, for their consecutive deaths, my consecutive heartbreak and the end of the life we once knew.
I knew that this grief was close, so close that in certain moments I could feel it, as if tripping over my own foot in the dark. In other moments I could hear it echo ever so quietly, like a shrouded whisper, but coming from every direction.
It was lost. I was lost. I needed to find it. And myself. Or just a tiny piece of both so that I could begin to heal and move forward once again.
I registered for a “Transformational Grief Retreat” at a peaceful sanctuary of a location nestled in the healing energy of southern California’s gorgeous Ojai valley.
Even if I didn’t have the intention of finding my grief, I would have found some healing anyhow. The villa we stayed in was surrounded by nature: squirrels running and birds chirping their calls while the trees and bushes rustled in the very mild breeze. It had a large hot spring sort of soaking pool, indoor and outdoor fireplaces, a yoga studio and so many other details you will just have to trust felt like shangri-la for your soul. I probably drank 20 cups of tea, each one warming parts of my heart that had been frozen…completely numb…for months.
We had our own personal Ayurvedic chef whose loving, healthful and living meal creations helped us heal from the inside out. The kitchen was the central force in the villa’s great room, so for much of the day we were soothed and enchanted by the sounds of his chopping, stirring and humming. Our senses came alive as the herbs, spices and ingredients came together into these nourishing works of art. And I probably don’t need to say what an absolute treat it is for a working mama to be cooked for and served 3 exquisite meals a day. Like I said, just being there for 2 days would have helped me in so many ways.
But then there was the company. The fellowship. The weekend ended up being all women—the most extraordinary group of women. In just 48 hours we became deeply connected, united by our individual and collective grief experiences. We cried a great deal but laughed almost as much, and I think both healed and bonded us equally. Our first evening together was spent making introductions and small talk while enjoying our first meal. Then the energy shifted completely as we broke ourselves open one by one, sharing as much or as little about the loved ones (and their stories) that we had come to grieve. It was a consuming, depleting and yet powerfully connecting experience. Sleep was welcome as we all wondered what tomorrow would bring.
I started the 2nd day with a healing massage and reiki session by a wonderful master Reiki teacher. I was on a heated massage table outside, underneath a beautiful oak tree with tiny warm rays of sunshine peeking through. Lying on that table, just yards away from everyone else but protected by my blanket and the practitioner’s healing hands, I felt both fully exposed and completely safe; this was actually how I felt the entire weekend. This session was wonderful and helped loosen me up physically and emotionally for the the work I was about to do. Tension was released and space was made within and throughout my body.
We then went on to do nearly two hours of gentle, effective and healing yoga. It was therapeutic, cathartic and revitalizing. After the yoga, a hot shower and a delicious lunch, I was ready for some solitude and set out to hike on nearby trails. At the end of my hike, I felt a huge shift inside of me. It was familiar; it felt hot and suffocating and like it might never end. I had found the pain again. I think I had finally made room for it in my mind and body, and it was oddly welcome because within it I discovered a context and truth I had been denying myself for months.
I am keeping that part ambiguous because I need to. I am still in it, living it, breathing it and processing it. It was indeed a breakthrough and it hurt(s) like hell.
But the miracle and the beauty is that I found my broken heart in the safest place…amidst a dozen others. No one else was in my shoes or had losses quite like mine, but my companions for the weekend held that space for me to just drop into the ache. And we all knew full well it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The rest of the weekend was filled with more soulful discussions about everything from our process and experience to our beliefs about the afterlife. We did more yoga and meditation. We ate. We cried. We laughed again and again. And we lit candles for the beloveds we had lost, honoring them and completing our weekend together.
The whole thing was nothing short of extraordinary. I didn’t leave feeling refreshed and restored like I have on other retreats; in fact, I left feeling like crap. But that’s okay. The point is I left feeling. And that is what I set out to do.
When I described my experience to my husband, he said, “it sounds like you found a foothold.” And I did. For myself. For the pain. For what I need to do and where I need to go right this moment.
The whole weekend was an exercise in “good” grief. The best grief, in fact. It let us embrace a natural and undeniable process that takes us to hell and back. I am not back yet, but I am deeply grateful to be on the road again.
***My heartfelt gratitude goes to Claire Bidwell Smith and Thea Harvey for facilitating this incredible weekend. And much love and endless thanks to each one of the beautiful women who shared their hearts and grief with me.***