When Grief and Healing Dance Together
I remember when my sweet son Mattie died and I began connecting to a couple of support groups, reading books, and wondering “How will I keep living?”
To be honest some of the voices talking about “healing” made me angry.
I was so deep in pain that the idea of feeling alive again seemed impossible; yet, there was part of me that was still struck by the honest vulnerability of those sharing their journey and whispering, even sometimes SHOUTING words of hope and healing.
I wanted to believe them, and at the same time, I didn’t want to believe them because in those first weeks, months, and even years of grieving, I think I believed that if I allowed healing in, I would, in some way, minimize the impact of Mattie’s life on mine. Take a deep breath, if this is you. If you hesitate to consider healing and growing because it makes you angry to think you could, just breathe for a moment.
That’s right, now, take a deep breath in and acknowledge your feelings, exhale and let go. Inhale again, deeply fill your lungs, and just imagine with me for a moment that there might be hope, that there might be a place where healing and grief enter the stage of your life and dance together. Exhale and release anxiety, and allow yourself to enter my story.
My son Mattie was born on October 20, 2010. He entered our family through adoption; we knew he would be born with Down syndrome. What we did not know is that he would spend the first year of his life in the PICU, having two open heart surgeries, a tracheostomy, and multiple other small surgeries.
We juggled life, loved our family, and somehow managed to spread ourselves wide. Mattie would come home to a room full of medical supplies and equipment, as well as the typical things the fill a one year old’s bedroom. It became a natural part of my day to bag oxygen into my son’s trach when he was in distress and then next moment settle in for story time.
In addition to the first year in the hospital, we would spend another 300 days in and out of the hospital with sickness.
Mattie would die and be brought back several times in his life. Trauma became part of our existence as a family.
It was during that season, the winter of 2013, that Mattie would have 6 hospital stays, each one very traumatic. When he was finally well and home, getting better every day, and my body shut down and I experience a scary burn out. It was a wake up call to me that taking care of myself was no longer something I could ignore. I knew that I couldn’t keep pouring out and pouring out while completely neglect myself.
It was Mattie’s life that inspired me to transform my health and make self-care part of my life.
He taught me to breathe through the most difficult circumstances, and he showed me that life can be lived fully and with joy in spite of challenges. The words “Don’t Forget to Breathe” were tattooed on my forearm as a daily reminder of this.
So I did it, I changed the way I fed and cared for my body, I made time for things that nourished me: body, mind and spirit. And with Mattie cheering me on I healed. I would work out in his bedroom a lot, and he would watch and give out deep belly laughs. He was my little coach.
The next 13 months, were bliss. Mattie was improving and growing stronger daily, and so was I. His death on August 21, 2014, was sudden and unexpected, at a time when he was healthier than he had ever been. Grief entered my life, an unwelcome guest and a constant companion. One day life felt so good and perfect, and the next day I wondered how I could possibly keep breathing.
My story is important because I want to talk to you now about how grief has changed me, transformed me, and caused me to grow. I want to share with you about that dance between grief and healing.
The idea that this dance even was possibly was slowly dropped into my heart by those who were ahead of me on this path. I would meet people like Paula Stephens who had the nerve to call her website “Crazy Good Grief.” (Not gonna lie, that title made me mad!) She has recently written a book “From Grief to Growth”, where she shares how she went from hiding in the shadow of her son’s death to living in the sunshine of his life.
I would also meet Anna Whiston-Donaldson whose book “Rare Bird” would be a balm to my soul those first painful months. Her story helped me feel “known” in my grief, gave me permission to live my own story, and also challenged me to have the courage to believe I could heal. Tom Zuba, author of “Permission to Mourn”, challenged me to the core of my being.
He inspired me to allow grief to become my teacher and sparked a believe in me that true healing and growth was possible if I chose to write it into my story.
It was Tom who taught me to use present tense language when talking about my son. It was Tom who reminded me that I had not “lost a child,” my child had died, but his spirit is every present. And I chose, I chose to heal.
I chose to open my heart to growth, finally believing that taking those steps would not DIMINISH my son’s spirit but it would MAGNIFY my connection to him and all that he came to teach me.
And it has. Grief has created in me a more compassionate, more intuitive, more kind soul. Grief has allowed a depth of strength and courage to rise in me than I have ever know. My son’s spirit changed me during his life, and it has transformed me more deeply even now, in death. And grief has impacted the way I love and serve the world, through my work as a writer and coach. I’ve always been a teacher. I have taught in schools, as an adoption educator and coach, and I continue to teach now in my work as a writer and wellness coach.
One of most challenging impacts of grief for me was that feeling of being depleted of the things that I had considered my strengths: organization, memory, ability to communicate with others, and even the will to work.
Some of those impacts where incredibly challenging. I still struggle with remembering people’s names, sometimes realizing that I started a task and got so distracted that I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. My brain sometimes just pauses. I also faced some physical set backs, including two surgeries that impacted my ability to maintain the same level of fitness, and I struggled with this because one of my primary coping skills was lifting weights at the gym. I was supposed to be the model of strength and wellness in my work, yet I felt utterly broken. Depression set in heavier than ever, and I knew I had to choose again to dig down deep and heal.
As I began to attend to healing through meditation, affirmation, yoga, and returning to the gym, my body, mind and spirit finally began to work in harmony. I knew that I had to heal all three in order for lasting transformation in my life. As my work in meditation and affirmation began to have an impact, my internal dialogue began to change.
As I allowed myself to slow down and become present during yoga and mediation, I found a place of acknowledging my emotions and allowing healing to enter. Once my mind and spirit were working for me not against me, my body began to also respond to healing itself. And because of this, my work as a wellness coach has also transformed into a much more compassionate, deeper level of coaching that is full of empathy, vulnerability, and encouragement. I have personally had to learn the balance of “push hard, rest.”
This means trusting my intuitively nurturing-self to know when rest is needed and when it’s time to get up and do the healing thing that is in front of me to do. It is from that place of experience and knowing, that I am now leading. This journey, this dance has made me a better coach and has given me a deeper passion to help others heal and grow.
I don’t love that my son died, I am not grateful that I have experienced the death of a child; I am grateful that I allowed space for healing and growth to open in my life.
I like the woman that I am becoming. She is incredibly courageous, she is passionate about loving and serving others, and she does her work with the kind of love and strength that comes from a place of doing the hard work for herself.
So here I am, and I’ve become one of those hope-givers that used to make me mad. And I’m inviting you to a dance, the beautiful dance between healing and grieving. These dance partners hold each other, and they sway in and out of the song of my life with gentle tenderness. There are days when grief takes the lead and I know that it is time to allow myself to lean into that all familiar rhythm of deep sadness. But as I move across the dance floor, write this story, walk this journey, the dance of healing takes the leads more and more frequently, and I rest into the arms of hope, fully accepting the strong embrace, knowing that I am healing.
So this is your invitation to dance. If you need someone to lead you to the dance floor, it would be my honor to be that person.
You are invited to join me and dozens of other brave women on August 1st as I lead a beautiful dance called “Just Breathe.” This is a 4 week program that runs each month and is designed to help women just like you reach deep within and discover their own wholeness, strength, and worth. This is not a one size fits all program- the experiences in this group area as unique as each woman who says “yes” to nurturing herself in this way. The program is simple and easy to follow, offers connection and accountability, and promises to offer an opportunity to look at far more than just the number on the scale as you endeavor to create a life-style of freedom, vitality and strength. Together we will dance into wholeness and gain strength (body, mind and spirit), discover the beauty of who YOU are, and learning the value of loving and caring for yourself in meaningful, intentional ways. To learn more or to enroll, please visit my website The Healing Breath.
My hand is extended, let’s dance.