Holistic Practices for Grief
Kathryn Drury Wagner speaks with trauma expert Kathryn Templeton on how to move from immobilization into balance and harmony.
No emotion bends us in half like grief does. But in normal times, we can at least take turns grieving. We have rituals, and someone can hold us, and someone else can bring the lasagna, or come to sit shiva, or attend the funeral. With a pandemic, those rituals have been interrupted. On top of that, there’s been a wave of collective grief unlike anything most of us have ever witnessed.
There have been the literal deaths caused by illness, which may include people we know. There have also been deaths by the thousands of people we don’t know, but whose pictures we still see and whose loss we still mourn—the grandmas and doctors and Broadway stars. We are, after all, all connected. And then there are the metaphorical deaths: graduations, proms, sports seasons. The weddings pushed back, book tours halted, trips forfeited. The people we want to go see, unseen. And that’s if we’re lucky and have avoided losing a job or losing a loved one.
“To some degree, what is happening in the United States and in the world right now, we’re experiencing this ambiguous loss. There’s no scaffold, no structure on how to process anything,” says Kathryn Templeton, a New Haven, Connecticut-based psychotherapist who specializes in clinical trauma. She also uses a holistic, wraparound support method to help her clients, combining her experiences as an ayurvedic practitioner (she is the director of ayurveda for the Himalayan Institute and an ambassador for Banyan Botanicals), a master teacher of drama therapy, and a certified yoga teacher.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE LOSS
Let’s face it. You are likely experiencing trauma as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the very least, “there’s the death of how life was,” observes Templeton. “Because it’s not going to come back. It’s like 9/11. We couldn’t go back to how life had been before 9/11. We couldn’t say goodbye to our loved ones at the airport gate anymore. People who aren’t old enough to remember how it was before don’t know that it was ever different, but it was.”
Culture does adapt and change, Templeton assures us, and one of the ways it changes is through trauma and grief. Still, it’s important to acknowledge the grief. “We have to first allow ourselves to identify with the feelings of grief before we can get to the gifts that can result from the change,” she says.
Grief puts you in a place of stagnation, Templeton says, and the goal is to shift, where possible, toward a place of ease, balance, light, and harmony. Yoga, meditation, being in nature, your religious practice if you have one, ayurveda, or a blend of many modalities can help.
“As a trauma therapist, the hour I spend with clients is useful, but what about the rest of the time? I always tell my clients—and I tell my adult children too—you have to create anchors in your day, morning, and evening, and also in the middle of the day, to help you self-regulate,” she says. Some of these anchors Templeton suggests include:
SUN SALUTATIONS. “When you are moving the limbs in a dynamic way, getting the tops of the feet activated, the tips of the fingers activated, all of this really reduces stagnation,” says Templeton. Squatting yoga poses and using the Mula Bandha, or root lock, is also helpful during grief. “In your yoga poses, maybe just do two or three in the morning and in the evening.”
UJJAYI BREATH. Use this warming breath to move energy inward and upward, and then release. “You are creating your own low drumbeat with your breath,” observes Templeton.
DRY BRUSHING. “This supports our nervous system with gentle sensory stimulation,” she explains. “Everything kind of wakes up, the Nadi, the Prana system in the body, the enlivenment of the body, the circulating system of the body.”
ABHYANGA. This is a self-massage with warm—not too hot—oil. Apply it using long strokes on long bones and round strokes on round areas like knees and elbows. “It acts as a swaddle to your body, plumping up the first few layers of the dermis, and is wonderful to tone the nervous system, and to cool and calm the mind,” Templeton says.
MAKE SPACE FOR GRIEF
The actions you take during grief are critical. “It’s normal to feel immobilized,” Templeton says. “It’s really important in grief work to normalize our feelings.” For example, you may be dealing with homeschooling or a digital learning experience you had not signed up for in life. Maybe you really miss working in your office or are struggling to rebalance your relationships in these different circumstances.
“You may find that you swing from anxiety and compulsivity to immobilization. That is normal,” says Templeton. “Don’t feel bad about it. Don’t get judgmental. I would be more concerned if you weren’t having some of those swings.” One of the best ways out of grief is to feel it. “We have to go through that feeling state,” she says. “You have to make some space and time to have those feelings.”