Yoga and Grief

How Yoga Helps People Cope with Sorrow…

Jessica Riser

Yoga allows you to probe your grief — to enter the pain, not run from it, and to emerge somehow more whole and free — by focusing on your immediate physical and emotional experience.

We are honored that one of our Ravens, Jessica Riser, has been willing to share how her yoga practice has served her after the loss of her infant son, William Michael. As part of her healing process, Jessica asked us to personalize a Symbols of Remembrance yoga mat with William’s name. It has been an honor to help Jessica and others in any small way we can.

Q: Can you tell us a little about the journey you’ve been on for the last 8 months?

A: My second-born son, William Michael, was born by emergency Caesarean at 33 weeks on 7/21/18, and was very sick. He passed away on August 8th, after 18 days in the NICU at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The only time I was able to hold William was while he died in my arms. Since then, I have felt like an absolute shell. I am a shadow of the woman I was before, though I try my hardest continue to mother our 3-½-year-old son, Henry, to the best of my abilities despite my deep grief. I am unable to work; as a therapist and social worker, I am a Crisis Clinician in our local Emergency Department, but I cannot treat patients in crisis when I am in a crisis of my own. I have been in therapy multiple hours each week, and have gone onto and come off of 5 different psychotropic medications (which, ultimately, were all taken on a daily basis). My sleep, appetite, and daily functions have all suffered. I feel most days like I’m barely getting by, though I know it doesn’t look like that to outsiders.

I feel most days like I’m barely getting by, though I know it doesn’t look like that to outsiders.

Q: How has yoga been a part of this journey?

Yoga Mat

A: The first Sunday after William died, when I was finally home from Johns Hopkins, I was invited to a pop-up Yogamour class at Flying Dog Brewery here in Frederick, Maryland. I’d gone to this class before I was pregnant with William, and one of my best friends and her family were going to be there, so I thought, “Why not? At least there will be beer!” Boy, was that a poor choice. Being told to breathe was excruciating, because my baby wasn’t breathing. Every move I made, every stretch or pose I tried, was just a reminder that my body was alive, and that his was ashes. It was too much. So I swore off yoga. In working with one of my therapists, I was slowly guided to the idea that moving my body might help me get out of my head a little bit. I did a few gym classes (BodyPump, BodyCombat), but found that they were too high-energy and that the endorphin crash was not worth the preceding high. So my therapist suggested yoga. And I was SO. RESISTANT. I didn’t try again until a retreat I attended in Ohio with Return to Zero. The first morning we were there we did a gentle yoga practice. During shavasana, I had my first experience of William since his passing. Clear as day, I could see (in my mind’s eye — I was in shavasana after all) and could literally FEEL him laying in the crook of my right arm while I was laying on my mat. I had puddles of tears on either side of my head when we were done. AND I WAS ABSOLUTELY HOOKED. Yoga was forever changed for me, and I came home and did some Glo.com classes for a month or two at home. Then in February 2019 I joined my favorite local studio here in Frederick, Sol Yoga. I’ve been going 5+ days each week, and I haven’t looked back.

Clear as day, I could see (in my mind’s eye — I was in shavasana after all) and could literally FEEL him laying in the crook of my right arm while I was laying on my mat. I had puddles of tears on either side of my head when we were done.

Q: Has your yoga practice had an effect on your grief and healing?

A: I feel so much more at peace when I’m doing yoga. My mind quiets, and really the only time that I feel William or have little visits from him is when I’m practicing (typically during shavasana). Being in my body and out of my head helps me feel more balanced when I’m with Henry, or my husband Travis, or with other family or friends. I feel a bit more focused, like the “grief brain” fog subsides a bit. Yoga gives just enough endorphins that there really isn’t a crash — and I’ve been doing mostly gentle/restorative/yin/for stress classes, since I’m not striving right now for that “work out” feel. Relaxation and stress reduction are exactly what I need, and because I came off of 5 psychotropic medications, having a physical outlet for anxiety and depression has been completely key.

William Michael

Q: Having William’s name on your mat — what does that mean to you?

A: So often, I feel completely alone in my suffering. So often, I feel like there’s no way for the world to get what I’m going through (not that I would wish this pain on my worst enemy)… William’s life was so short, and oftentimes the whole experience doesn’t feel real. He was yanked from my body in a drastic surgery, and was kept alive on life support for his 18 days. Hearing his name, seeing it on my mat… makes it all feel more real, even as painful as that is. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting in a pose and I’ll see William’s name, and tears will start pouring from my eyes. Sometimes, if I’m in crocodile or half-frog, I’ll catch a glimpse of the letters and I’ll smile. And my mat holds it all. All the pain, the suffering… and all the joy. William was here. He matters, and I do everything I can to honor him — including yoga, because it’s the best thing I can do to take care of myself.

Hearing his name, seeing it on my mat… makes it all feel more real, even as painful as that is. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting in a pose and I’ll see William’s name, and tears will start pouring from my eyes. Sometimes, if I’m in crocodile or half-frog, I’ll catch a glimpse of the letters and I’ll smile. And my mat holds it all. All the pain, the suffering… and all the joy.

Q: What is the best way for others to support grieving families and honor the children they’ve lost?

A: People need to set aside their expectations regarding what grief looks like. Each experience is so unique, so individual… and each experience can absolutely change on a dime. When William died, I didn’t want anyone out in the world to talk to me about him. I didn’t want to be triggered, or have to come up with things to say. But about 3 months later, all that changed. I wanted to be acknowledged. I wanted people to say his name, to ask about him. We have been so fortunate to have a support network who answers our calls and offers help without question. Folks who still, nearly 10 months in, bring us meals each week, watch Henry for us, text and call on Wednesdays or Saturdays or the 8th or the 21st of the month. Every day has significance when you’re living this hell. Being seen and heard and acknowledged without feeling like someone is trying to fix the unfixable… THAT is support. Sitting quietly with a grieving person speaks volumes more than unsolicited advice or the age-old “have you tried (insert unhelpful judgey thing)?” Grief is the one thing that we will all experience in one form or fashion. Every one of us will die at some point. Talking more about how we feel when awful things happen, and not sweeping things under the rug, will make a big difference in the long run. We heal in community. We heal in relationship. Let’s be here for each other.

Sitting quietly with a grieving person speaks volumes more than unsolicited advice or the age-old “have you tried (insert unhelpful judgey thing)?”

Jessica Riser

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: I’m so thankful for Joleen, Darin, Hannah, and everyone else at Big Raven for making my yoga journey that much more possible and comfortable. You all are absolutely incredible and I couldn’t be happier with my mat <3

Healing Resources: Books

Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart, by Stephen Levine. The author of the classic, Who Dies? An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying returns with sage advice on dealing with unresolved grief through self-acceptance.

Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss, by Sameet M. Kumar. Psychotherapist and Buddhist practitioner Kumar aims to “help you grieve by using mindfulness as your guide and emotional and spiritual resilience as your goals.”


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