Feeling Anguish? Listen to Your Body. Not to Other People.
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The body says what words cannot. — Martha Graham
I love swimming in Austin’s amazing Barton Springs Pool — it’s cold and enlivening. Most of the time I swim there three times a week, year round.
But last year my dad and my dog died in the depths of winter.
It doesn’t get that cold in Austin, but it takes much more mental discipline and grit to jump into the cold spring water when it’s 25–45 degrees outside than when it’s 95!
When my dad and my dog died, everything in me demanded that I pull in, curl up, and treat myself tenderly. Treating myself tenderly did not include swimming in the cold. It was hard to allow myself to give in to not swimming for an indefinite period time, especially during a phase of my life when I’m not getting any younger so exercise is essential for maintaining my energy and health.
Yet I remembered something crucial I’d learned about grief back in 1992 when my first husband died. After living all the way through that hell (and after helping many of my clients live through grief), the most important thing I’d tell my 1992, 30-year-old self from here is:
Pulling in, curling up, and convalescing will allow your grief to heal you. You will regain your energy over time, especially if you treat yourself tenderly now.
So last year after the deaths, I listened to my past self and surrendered to the urge to stay in where it was warm and to snuggle into my soft sheets. By summer, I was still sluggish and weighed down by grief, so I gave in to the urge to remain in the dark with the blinds drawn (instead of swimming) even when the summer sun beat down at 99 degrees.
(Note that I was not depressed. I didn’t feel bogged down and paralyzed with depression’s deadness. I was simply grieving. I can tell the difference. I’m going to write an entire post about discerning the difference between grief and depression soon.)
Even though I had learned the hard way that listening to my body in grief was the most useful strategy, I hadn’t lived through another big loss myself since learning the lesson. Living through fresh loss with insight gleaned from my past loss was like carrying a mini-mentor with me through the whole process. So I held onto faith that my body was telling me what I needed.
Thus it seemed miraculous to my present self that listening to my body’s need to lie around and restore during the most ripped-open phase of my grief did indeed allow me to heal and restore:
On my birthday in November, eleven months after my losses, I spontaneously needed to swim. Hard. In the cold water.
My body and soul needed to move — to expend energy, to feel blood pumping through my veins and cold water on my skin — in order to affirm my gratitude for still getting to be alive to mark another year while people I loved were no longer fortunate enough to have bodies that could know such joy. My arms reached and my legs kicked, and I felt at one with all the people I love, past and present. My heart burst wide with wonder as I felt it all.
Swimming on my birthday reignited my desire to swim regularly, so I picked it back up again, at the beginning of winter, without any hesitation. My body guided me through the whole process, down and through, and back up again. Amazing.
(Not that I’m “finished” with my grief, and not that I don’t still have sluggish days. It’s just that the phase of needing to pull in constantly has moved through, at least for now…)
If you’re grieving your own loss, or experiencing an intense emotional situation of some other kind, your body might tell you something similar to what mine did during this time of my loss. Or it might tell you something different. Every loss and every body is unique.
When my first husband died in 1992, that loss was traumatic— sudden, unexpected, out of the natural order of things. The losses I experienced last January were different. They were in the natural order of things, as my dad and my dog were both old and weakening — extremely painful but not traumatic. They were two distinct flavors of loss.
In 1992, I not only lost my husband in a devastating way, I also lost my entire identity and way of viewing the world. Nothing made sense any more. I was entirely disoriented and shattered.
So my emotions then were explosive, roiling, fierce. Sadness would practically knock me to the floor with its force. Rage at the universe over injustice burst out of my chest and throat. When I tried to rest and pull in, anguish pushed me to kick and scream. The feelings were so potent I needed to move them through my body.
I was a runner back then (before I blew out my knees), and running saved my life.
I buckled my year-old baby into our blue running stroller and ran until I couldn’t breathe. The pound, pound, pound of my feet upon the earth rattled the overwhelming feelings out of my body and into the earth. The earth absorbed them without complaint. Sweat poured down my chest and ragged breaths tore at my throat to match the intensity of my emotions, and helped me regain my sanity.
I’d arrive back home, fall onto the driveway, and sit on the blistering concrete while my son toddled around filling buckets with water from the hose. My breath would settle, and I’d feel able to make it through a few more hours.
Then, I could pull in and rest for a few hours after my boy was in bed. Before the roiling began again. At 2am. Every day. For a very long time.
There’s a whole lot if information I have about why movement and rest of different sorts help with intense emotions such as grief. I’ll write about that in another post.
But here I’m offering my own stories to give you permission to listen to your own body, to allow it to guide you through whatever kind of physical activity or rest will help you the most during your grief or other kinds of difficult emotions right now.
Unfortunately our culture is full of shoulds and prescriptions. People will tell you that you MUST move to prevent depression, or to pull yourself out of the (very normal) sluggishness of grief. Others will tell you that you MUST get your rest and not push yourself so hard.
In 1992, I definitely needed to learn the difference between listening to my body’s need to move for emotional expression, and my fear of sitting still to allow myself to rest. We all need some of both. But that was my lesson to glean. A lesson that was presented to me as a f***ing opportunity for growth within my grief. Not something that someone else could prescribe to me.
I wouldn’t have such faith in what I learned if I hadn’t wrestled with the difficulties myself.
I want you to know that your body is the container for all of your grief emotions, so your body will tell you what it needs. We’re socialized out of listening to our bodies, so it can take effort to learn to listen to the natural signals we’re getting. But I’m hoping that by hearing my stories, and having me articulate for you that both rest and movement of different sorts are extremely useful and natural ways of tending to your grief and other emotions, you’ll feel free to experiment.
Listen to your body.
Listen to your feelings.
Your grief is unique to you. Your loss is like no other.
Movement and rest both help, in their own ways, in their own time.
In the comments, or in a reply email, tell me what kind of movement works for you or what doesn’t as you feel intense emotions…