Cheryl was a beautiful young woman, 29 years old. She came into our clinic for support after the death of her father. They had been very close and he had died suddenly due to a complication post-surgery. He was older but had been in good health. His death was a shock to Cheryl. There was no funeral, just a memorial service. Her parents had moved recently, so there were not many folks in attendance at the service.
They had been very close and he had died suddenly due to a complication post-surgery.
Cheryl had been having trouble sleeping and eating. She had lost weight, and while she was not complaining about the weight loss, she was feeling fatigue and having some trouble organizing and completing tasks. She would weep when talking about her father. She felt that sometimes she would prefer to just “go to bed and not get up” because “I just miss him so much.”
Certainly a feeling of sadness and a depressed mood are part of the grieving process. We use the word "bereavement" to describe the sadness we feel when someone dies. The term "bereave" means to deprive and make desolate. In this desolation, there is space, or emptiness. This space is where we actively grieve or express the feelings that are attached to our relationships with the people we have lost in our lives. This is true for many types of loss, not just death.
What often compounds the stress of grief is that there is no set time period for grieving. Many ancient cultures and religions have rituals that offer a structure to move through grief. For example, in the Jewish tradition, the family of the deceased sits shiva (seven days of prayers and other practices), often followed byshloshim (reciting daily prayers for 30 days to a year). In the Eastern Orthodox Church, there is an initial 40 days of grieving after the death of a family member; many in the family wear black and recite prayers, or Panikhidas. There is then a special Mass or memorial services at set intervals: three days, nine days, forty days, six months, twelve months, and for the next three to seven years to help the family “remember” and honor the person who died. Today, many of us lack this type of structure for the grieving process. Sure, some companies offer a few days of “bereavement leave,” but our modern culture as a whole seems to offer little other support.
And in Cheryl's case, she felt very alone. She said that her father had "held her in his heart," and she now felt alone in the world—like she was living "on the dark side of the moon.” She was married and had children, and she felt her family was understanding and compassionate. But she said that there was a part of her that was known only to her dad. When I asked her to identify what “part of her” she could only share with her dad, she explained that she was unable to describe it; it was more of a way she felt he understood her.
I explained that the ayurvedic view on death is based in the understanding or belief that death of the body is not death of the soul.
I explained that the ayurvedic view on death is based in the understanding or belief that death of the body is not death of the soul. That each one of us has the opportunity to grieve, to feel deeply, and to reclaim the love that the person who died had for us. This offers us a chance to fill our own hearts with self-love. Once we can do this, we can feel closer to loved ones who have died; we may even have a sense that they are now, in fact, always with us!
Cheryl and I worked together for a year. Cheryl began to use a dinacharya, or daily routine, to help her self-organize and give her an anchor in the morning and evening with nurturing and cleansing self-care. I asked her to use a medicated sesame oil for her abyhanga, or self-massage. I used two herbs in the oil,ashwaghanda and bala, each useful to support the nervous system in times of grief, and to help cultivate stability, warmth, and strength.
To build her agni, or digestive fire, so that she could better “digest” her life and grief, we shifted her meals so that the largest was lunch at midday. I asked her to try to include all six tastes in every meal: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, astringent, and bitter. According to ayurveda, the use of these six tastes aids in digestive regulation and nourishes the dhatus (tissues).
Cheryl enjoyed yoga, so we set up a restorative practice to support her ojas (deep vitality), pacify her vata dosha, and offer sattvic energy (clarity, harmony) to her mind. I asked her to start a bhastrika and nadi shodhanam pranayama practice every morning for a month. Cheryl said that after these practices, she began to feel some relief. The two pranayama practices were what Cheryl described as having the the greatest effect on her energy. When energy (what we in ayurveda and yoga call prana) is moving in the proper direction, we feel a greater ease and steadiness in our bodies and our thoughts.
In addition to the yoga and lifestyle practices, we met each week so that Cheryl could talk about her dad. She shared many stories with me, and I recorded them in a special notebook. I asked her to write a poem after each session. To start the session, she would share the poem from our session before.
The most important part of her healing story was that Cheryl was willing to come to sessions.
When we started working together, Cheryl was traumatized and depressed. Her bereavement had lingered and was disrupting her daily life. She came to treatment to work on “reclaiming herself” and to reconnect with her internal sense of joy. The way out of depression for Cheryl seemed to be a mix of time, gentle support, intentional space to share her feelings (without any action beyond sharing), and some external containment: journaling, poetry, daily routine, warm moist foods eaten when agni was stoked, breathwork, abyhanga (self-massage), and restorative yoga. But the most important part of her healing story was that Cheryl was willing to come to sessions. Over the year, she began to feel “more integrated and steady.” This was the goal of her treatment plan: to be able to move out of grief, with her love for her father and his love for her supporting her with every breath.
Sometimes we need to take that journey, passing through the "dark side of the moon"—the darkness of grief—in order that we may finally return home to our self, and bask in the sweet glow of the moon.