Grief keeps coming up for and coming for me. It has, honestly, been a part of my experience moving to Senegal and starting a new life here. In part, I imagine, because in spite of how much work I do here, there is much more room for me to be still, to see what I would probably be able to ignore and avoid in the States.
Today, this morning, I see grief clearly again; she pops up in the week following what makes two years since I lost my grandmother. In a FB memory from two years ago in what was a repost back then by my friend Deborah.
On February 16, 2018 I wrote: “In the last year, I have learned the depth and scope of grief. Mine. Yours. Ours. Let’s try harder to show up for it, for others. And, let’s be honest about it. Let’s stop hiding it. Suppressing it. Ignoring it. Pretending that losing a job, losing a love, losing a love one, losing what you always thought was true and for real is gone, no longer. That grief, it is with you, in your spirit and body. It is real, it lasts, it hurts. Just show up. Call. Send a card. Yes, doing so isn’t comfortable, but it is one antidote to the loneliness and isolation that feeds the dystopian existence so many us are in.”
Since that FB screech, I’ve tried to be more congruent by being intentional about calling my friends who have lost someone they love. And, checking on them.
At the same time, I think, or how I feel about grief, my sense about grief and loss is bit more real. Just recently, after revisiting her work in order to write about the healing-centered leadership development work we are doing here in Senegal, I recognized that Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (which I got from Deborah) is actually about grief, specifically our collective grief, which spans years, decades, centuries. Grief, that I know now, we have managed to navigate around in order, we believe, to survive, to keep moving and to keep grinding.
But understanding grief intellectually for the collective is not enough; it is a form of detachment for me. I can tell you about our collective grief and pain and demand that you recognize that it matters. But, what is really real is acknowledging the fact that my own grief and pain is real and recognizing where grief sits and holds space in my life. And, in my body.
After my first year in Senegal when I came home for my annual fall visit in 2017, grief lingered and loomed around me. The weepy, heavy, sad kinda of grief. But, I ignored it for the most part though. At that point, Eddy and I had had a miscarriage, the first Diasporic Soul Leadership Development booking we thought we had wasn’t materializing, and how I saw our existence, our new life in my head, had not quite aligned with our day-to-day reality. I was grieving, experiencing loss but I really didn’t even know it or understand it really. I was in pain. I was hurting. But, I was running. Going home to North Carolina, Cincinnati and Washington, DC was my way of trying to navigate the hurt. But it didn’t quite work, in spite of all the love my family and friends and former colleagues showed me. In part because I had not yet decided to consciously sit with and feel my grief. To accept that I was sad and devastated by what I felt like I had lost. Death and what was no longer.
As I ran from meeting to meeting and place to place that fall trying to ignore and suppress my grief; grief kept coming for me. She showed up at Duke Divinity School when I went to a women’s event with Deborah and the speaker introduced me to the idea of keening and keeners. She reappeared as I walked the library stacks at the North Durham Regional Library down the street from my sister’s house (where I was printing materials for all the running and working I continued to do). There, she had me find I a book on grief and yoga that I never otherwise would have known about. The book was helpful because it gave me some clarity about how grief acts, how she moves, what she does not only to our spirit but where she hides in our bodies, creating more pain that we often feel physically. That made sense to me; I was familiar with the idea that the body keeps the score from my yoga and somatics trainings in Cincinnati.
And, now grief is back, coming for me again. This time with a vengeance. The yoga book resurfaced in the last two weeks for me – reminding me again that grief cannot be avoided. But, that is me thinking about grief, using my mind, my head, being a practitioner, but not actually dealing with it in a way that will help me heal and restore my sense of overall well-being.
My maternal grandma died on February 10, 2018. For about two weeks or so now, I have been in great pain. Pain that I think I now understand and to believe is somehow connected to my grief. I am having problems with my ears. I had the same problem in the fall of 2017. I recall my sister Sarah and my friend Michelle trying to get me help to address the fluid in my left ear once I arrived in the states. I remember seeing a doctor here in Senegal first for what was an excruciatingly painful ear infection before I left. Pain that immediately followed the pain of my miscarriage.
My ears, actually just the left one, are bothering me again. I woke up with it throbbing with pain this morning. And, I have a cough I can’t shake. One that I had when I first got back here to Senegal in November that returned about a week or so ago. My friend Borso who lost her mom this summer also has a cough, what she understands to be a grief cough.
If you asked, I’d would insist that my grief is not all consuming. Yet, I realize now that in some ways it is. I am not sad or constantly feeling the need to cry. In fact, I am at the place where I speak with and engage my grandmother and other ancestors regularly, specifically at my ancestral altar, which includes a corner church pew I found not long after my grandmother passed away. I could say so much more about this space I hold for her and my ancestors and how having it brings me peace.
Yet, somehow grief is manifesting in my body, in my ear. And, on the left side of my body where I have been experiencing excruciating pain, particularly in my shoulder and jaw. Pain that I first experienced this past fall during my annual visit to NC and Ohio.
This grief, I think, is in part tied to the collective, specifically the space I hold for others.
But, on a more personal level, if am an honest, the pain, the grief is deeply tied to fear – fear of impending losses. My friends and classmates are losing their parents. Phife Dogg of the Tribe Called Quest is dead. Grandma Jackie is gone. I have had two cousins who have died in the time I’ve been in Senegal, one who was younger than me.
To be honest, anticipating the loss of my parents and elder aunts and uncles is profoundly unsettling for me. My mom is having surgery in March. She says that it is nothing. But, I see her. I see my dad. I see them aging. Greying. Moving Slower. Struggling more. My father had a heart attack during my first year here. So, it is no surprise that I am worried about them. And, I am bothered that I am here not able to be there for the surgery or her recovery. Or to sit with my dad or my mom while she recovers.
I recognize that having my sister Dara here in Senegal with her parents and witnessing what I imagine I look and sound like with my own parents makes me anxious, fretful and fearful about looms off in the distance. Their visit solidified those feelings of dread because I could see Dara in many ways that I can’t quite fully see myself as the oldest daughter of aging parents.
In fact, I attribute some part of my physical pain to this – fear of loss and anxiety about my mother’s surgery and the well-being of my parents and others who I love. A concern that I know played out as I watched my beloved mentors negotiating aging during their visit. Of course, they are fine. But, no one ever talks about aging. What it feels like. What it moves like. How it makes the ones around you feel.
I am trying to make peace with it. The fear. The loss. The grief.
Some of it is older grief that has not been adequately or sufficiently acknowledged. Grief over David’s accident in 2011. Something shifted for David, Yasmine and other members of our extended family in late 2019 that made it clear to me that I, like others in our family, had not fully processed what happened and how deeply it hurt us. That we had not fully grieved or felt the pain of the loss so that we could have fully been present for him along the way and now.
Grief over ending my stint at Central State University where I was deeply deeply invested in Black students. Grief over leaving the life I knew in the States. Walks with Carol. My other friends, particularly those I made in the DMV. Trips to Findlay Market with Eddy. The clerks who I knew by name at Starbucks, Kroger and Macys. The trips to Bojangles, Target and Belks with my sister and my mom. Sleeping on the coach and waking up to the sounds of my nephews Jaxon and Brody at David’s house. Seeing and hearing Grandma Jackie arrive with light in her eyes, love in her heart and chicken pot pie in her hands. Sitting in the coffee shop or riding shot gun in my Daddy’s van while he tells me stories about his life or the most recent AA meeting he attended. Losing my dog Lady after we left for Senegal. No longer living on our tree-lined street in Cincinnati with warm, friendly neighbors. Trees like the ones I loved in North Carolina, DC and Ohio. Winter with snow days, warm fires and wool sweaters. Fall with walks around the lake at Winton Woods and the sound of the marching band practicing on campus at sunset. The fact that my grandmother’s cake box sits on my ancestral altar not in her kitchen where she would place a pound cake she made for me on my birthday.
No, my grief isn’t quite weepy now. In my head, I would say it no longer looms large. But, I now realize I have not fully acknowledged or recognized it in a way that includes my body, my heart and my spirit. Writing about it, I hope, will help because it means I am telling myself the truth, acknowledging a truth I have avoided and hid behind more than a few masks, truth that I have run from. I don’t have to feel much if I am not ever still. I am embracing the stillness frankly because my pain forces me to. I do not have much choice. My body won’t let me do anything else. And, she is kicking my ass right now. And, I am tired of the pain. Exhausted, really. And, kinda scared.
Yet, as Donna Eden notes in Energy Medicine, I am in some way “ashamed to be in pain.” I “have a nagging suspicion that [I] am psychologically feeble, morally inferior or otherwise ‘damaged goods.’ ” Yeah, so like Eden says, I have been “compelled to get rid of the feeling, [to] immediately reach for . . . painkillers.” I don’t want to disrupt anything for anyone or cause them discomfort. Or be a burden. As Antonio Sauys explains in Yoga for Grief Relief: Simple Practices for Transforming Your Grieving Mind and Body, I exist in cultures “that do not openly acknowledge grief.” And, I am one of those people who has consistently refused to fully appreciate that our losses, big or small, planned or unplanned, major or minor “accumulate in our bodies” even as we trivialize them and feel ashamed, which interferes with our ability to process our grief.
But, at this point, I have “do” something, something “constructive” with the physical pain I am in. And, while I practice and teach yoga (asana, pranayama and nidra) and I am just beginning to explore how to do “energy work” on my own, I do know that bearing witness to the pain and the loss and grief that are causing it is part of my healing, part of my releasing and letting go. And, so too is being still and restoring my connection to the spirit, to the divine, to the life force – – breathing – – instead of pushing past and working on top of and around the pain.
I am grateful to Dara and her parents for ultimately forcing me to finally deal with my pain instead pushing past it. And, Eddy for his patience, tenderness and attentiveness as I grapple with it physically and as I try to make sense of it with words.
And, Deborah and my sister Sarah who have in particular held space for my grief over the last few years. Deborah has consistently asked me, directly, how are you Phyllis, how is your spirit. Because if we are being truly honest and open and vulnerable and transparent, even the big leaps, the big moves mean leaving something behind – – things, places and people who you love. No matter how much you love the new place and the new people. I am grateful to everyone who allows me to experience joy and grief simultaneously without pushing me out of either place or insisting that I rally because that is what looks ‘right’ or what it means to be strong. And, for being tender, patient, reassuring, affirming, compassionate, loving and kind.