My first brush with the pain of loss
I’ll never forget my first real brush with the pain of loss. It was after our fourth IUI failed when my tectonic plates started to rumble. Not quite one year into trying to conceive, things had gone rapidly and not well, and the world was starting to look and feel as never before. Like most of us I had no idea what to “do” with these immeasurable emotions that would come careening in without even a moment’s notice. I had contemplated actually feeling them, a quaint notion for me as back then as I used to refer to myself as “the head”.
So I wasn’t considering really letting it rip for any other reason than the fact I was out of options. When slaughtering emotions presented themselves I had tried every trick in the book applied by those who have no concept – from rationalizing, admonishing myself and everyone’s favorite useless advice, “think about something positive”. And spoiler alert – I couldn’t.
Reluctantly starting to feel
Common sense had informed me that anything that could be done about my “no pregnancy yet situation” I was already doing, and that there was nothing else left to do but feel.
And so there I was at Trader Joe’s food market, innocently trying to procure my organic chicken tenderloins whilst being squeezed by a stroller on my right and a mother with quite the new baby in a sling on my left. A sweet, picturesque scene for some but a most injurious debacle for the infertility patient. The conversation between me and myself went something like this.
Higher self: Ok, now don’t DO anything. This is where you have to feel.
Self: Oh, Jesus Christ. All right.
And then I paused to feel. Sharp shooting paints ricocheted throughout my body as my insides felt like they were being disintegrated by high heat and my soul wanted to run and hide.
Self: Hello?? Ok, I’m done. I felt my feeling. It was HORRIBLE by the way. So. Now what do I do?
Higher Self: Well, you simply keep doing that. Feeling.
Self: Whaat? This stinks!! I really have no idea what kind of an idiot would sign up for THAT. Got any other bright ideas while you’re at it??
And with that, I finished my shopping, went to stand in line only to be joined behind me by a mom and her two young kids (great, MORE feelings), and stomped out of Trader Joe’s in a huff, hard earned organic chicken tenderloins in tow.
Determined to take on my grief
Given my blatantly humble beginnings at connecting to my emotions, it’s hard to pinpoint why my determination to take my grief head on evolved.
It all started with that deep knowing there was nothing else I could do. But as time crept by I started to sense a truth and a power in how I felt. And as natural cycle after natural cycle continued to fail, all holistic modalities I tried were of no avail, and we embarked on our five failed rounds of IVF, there were only more and more staggering emotions and losses to process. My way of fighting back, ironically, was to surrender to my feelings and my experience. If nothing else, I was going to come out of this as whole as I possibly could.
I became aware at a certain point that I was already having enough taken from me, and that those living with infertility have much more than their children threatened. Every day our pain, losses, and stories are underestimated if not flat out denied. Our emotions are looked down upon, our coping mechanisms negatively judged, our experiences chalked up to a flaw in perception and attitude.
Owning my truth
This was, for me, where a line had to be drawn. I realized that life could take my children from me, and it did, but I do have ownership over my truth. And of course good ole feelings are the ticket to the truths of our traumatic experiences. Plus, my pain, losses, truth and story were the only remnants of my children I had, so that was where the gauntlet absolutely had to be thrown down.
There is something so undignified about losing one’s children AND being denied the emotional process that naturally and humanely comes with that. So I guess in the end I kind of did take all of that unempathetic advice I got to “focus on what I do have” to heart. Yes, that’s right. I’ve got an EXPERIENCE and a STORY, people.
Lessons on the Yin Yoga mat
At some point towards the beginning of this melee, I had taken up a Yin Yoga class that would alter the course of my process. Yin Yoga is a series of poses, most of them seated or close to the floor that one holds for an extended period of minutes (3-5 minutes minimum). On a physical level its main purpose is to stretch joints and ligaments, which respond to time and steady pressure (as opposed to muscles which are generally worked by quicker, more repetitive movement).
When sitting in a yoga pose for a number of minutes though, other things are bound to come up. Discomfort, for one, and more importantly your reaction to it. And since one is holding the pose for a number of minutes, there’s nothing else to do but be in and observe your experience and your responses. The student is encouraged to do this by practicing non judgement towards their actuality and by not striving towards or away from any kind of feeling.
Can you see how these useful healthy tools might translate to the daily experiences of infertility and involuntary childlessness? I refer to this as “practicing the art of being in what is”. Practicing both non-self judgement (I feel that does not equal I am that) and non-striving (for me this meant un-tying of the knot of feeling like a failure if I wasn’t constantly happy or trying to be every second of the day) has been essential to connecting with infertility’s mind blowing emotions and my grieving process.
Yin yoga is one good way to develop a mindfulness practice, the poses are appropriate precursors to meditation, and with some simple Buddhist philosophies woven in by my teacher, I was hooked. I noticed most of the content was contrary to that which I believed and had been taught by my elders, but yet it felt so right. Nothing like appealing to my rebellious side….please give me MORE!!
Learning the difference between thoughts and feelings
It was through this practice I started to become aware of the difference between my thoughts and feelings (better late than never!), that acknowledging and tending to emotions generally allows them to move through us in a healthy way and that whadaya know? When we open ourselves to our own pain, we open ourselves to everything, so joy and all the other good stuff, when it’s ready to surface, also becomes more vivid (though this can take a few years).
The person who used to call herself “the head” had somehow, by the third year of my grieving process post fertility treatments, worked herself into a place where I would feel before I would think, making the best attempt I could to honor my feelings and the important information they bear. Whodathunkit?
Like any psychologically sound contemplative practice, the function of Yin Yoga wasn’t to “fix” my grief but rather to offer portals through which I could facilitate it.
And don’t worry, I’m not one to go all rainbows, unicorns and chocolate bunnies on people, especially when the messages and inferences we get from the outside world do not usually support our grief journey. It’s definitely not all smooth sailing from here. In the short run, feeling is harder than not feeling. And to be emotionally healthy, one must go against much of what we’ve been taught, and the ways in which other people who haven’t had their views challenged tend to think.
So how are you?
There were times in my grieving process that were all encompassing, where I could do nothing else but cry or sit and stare at the wall. (I never stopped showering though, so chalk one up for that)! Picture how this might transfer into a conversation:
“So, how are you?”
“Thanks for asking. I was recently so overcome with a wave of grief, I just had to sit and stare at the wall for a few days so that I could feel and process. How’s things by you?”
I probably don’t need to tell you, there aren’t too many high fives, way to goes or acknowledgements of courage being doled out for such acts of steadfast fortitude. The typically western behaviors of attempting to fix, pathologizing that which is innately human and emotional aversion don’t pair well with what one needs to move through life altering traumatic loss.
Whenever I hear things like, “She’s doing wonderfully, she hasn’t let this affect her” or “She’s really keeping it together, I’m so proud of her” I always raise an eyebrow. While these states are usually not healthy long term for the person who suffered the loss, they sure make it more pleasant for any bystanders involved.
The importance of connection
In grief not only does one have to open themselves up and become extremely vulnerable, riding waves they cannot either predict or control, we more often than not are forced to do it in the face of fear and misinformation distributed by those who haven’t been through it themselves.
Abidance, unfortunately, seems to have become quite the lost art. But yet, time and time again the importance of human connection has been proven to be an essential component to healing from loss, so it is natural to try and seek it. And there ARE people out there with open hearts and a healthy connection to their own pain who can companion your process, though it often takes some searching, trial and error to find them.
So it’s no mystery to me why people are prone to averting their own grief. We currently live in a culture that rewards us for emotional numbness and disconnection. I often wonder what will become of us a species if we continue to turn away from such a key component of ourselves.
While I do feel I’m coming through this as whole as I possibly could have, and I feel more connected to myself than ever, this is all much more about survival than it is about perfection. Being present with and honoring my feelings is a practice, and practices aren’t fool proof. I’m human, I can still be plagued for months by that which I fail to recognize or understand. And in spite of all my efforts I did come out of this with PTSD that is slowly healing, which is quite normal for those of us who endured repeated failed fertility treatments (and for people who have my particular biochemical imbalances).
For however well we try to tend to ourselves, most traumatized grievers suffer from loss overload. Given the perpetual nature of infertility’s claws, we often come from or are perhaps still in circumstances that cyclically give one person more than they can process at any given time. All the more reason, I feel, to care for ourselves the best we can. I partner that with the hope that one day society will start giving us the acknowledgement and care we need and deserve too.
We need to open ourselves to grief
Grief is something we need to open ourselves to but not force. In the first year post-treatment especially, I felt my heart, energetically, opening and closing a lot. I think this was my system’s natural way of dosing my new reality. Had I taken all of the pain on at once, it no doubt would have killed me.
Grief is a healthy necessity. In the end, there is no shame in connecting with an intelligent, sacred part of yourself and allowing your whole being an attempt at processing the unfathomable. In this there is only honor, courage and love.
You can read more of Sarah’s blogs HERE
Reflections on ‘reflections’
I really resonate with Sarah’s story and there are so many similarities between our stories. I also reluctantly gave in to feeling and then found solace on the yin yoga mat.
And her final paragraph is so very moving don’t you think?
I wrote about my grief journey here.
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