Out of nowhere, an overwhelming sorrow burst from my chest. My once relaxed mouth was now pursed, hoping to prevent the deep sobs threatening their escape.
Just moments before, I was laying flat on the floor, eyes closed, arms at my side, palms upward and open, with my stomach and back muscles relaxed. I felt a sense of deep calm and surrender in this final yoga pose.
My first ever yoga class in Maui was a step toward fulfilling my aspiration to be more present, mindful, and serene in “life after corporate America.” Instead, I experienced wracking emotional pain and intense physical shock waves. What I did not know then is that it is not uncommon to release unexpressed emotions stored and held in our bodies during a yoga session.
My new-found yoga practice had acted as a pressure release valve; moved to the fully open position. The emotion that I had been holding in was a profound sense of grief from the loss of my sister. I, the first born of nine siblings, had lost my second-born sister the month before. At the time of her death I remember thinking I could handle it if I could just make it to our winter escape in Hawaii, miles away away from the raw grief of my mother, siblings and nephew. The enormity of our shared grief was simply more than I could bear.
As I reflect back on the experience in yoga class that day, it reminds me of a roller coaster ride I took as a girl. As the car ascended to the top of the tracks, I tightened my stomach muscles to avoid the sensation of falling. For some reason as we climbed the second peak, just before the drop, I relaxed my muscles. I remember the frightening sense of a loss of control.
The loss I felt during my class was so much more than one of control. It was the irreplaceable loss of a person whose bones, flesh, and heart had traveled with me through our childhoods. My siblings and I lost our very identity as a close knit tribe of nine. One of my sisters had once likened us to a strong chain with nine interconnecting links. Now a link was forever gone.
I will never forget a conversation I had with Pastor Marina on Madeline Island. After the death of her sister I had offered my condolences for her great loss. As was typical of this wise and caring woman, she asked me about the loss of my sister. She asked, “What was her name and what is your story of her?”
So now, seven January’s since her death, I will answer those powerful questions hoping to inspire you to speak the name of your loved one and tell your story of him or her.
Her name was Jeanne Marie Corrigan Shields and she was my sister. My story of Jeanne begins with the trait that most defined her to me: compassion for the underdog. Whether it be a bird with a broken wing or a person with a broken body, mind or heart, Jeanne, with her tender care, would seek to lessen suffering. Our younger siblings knew well who to go to for comfort if they were scolded by our parents. Her care for the broken was never more evident than when she worked with patients in an Alzheimer’s unit. One patient’s family, noting her thoughtful care, sent her a note calling her an angel. I think they actually believed she was. Sometimes I did too.
Other times I was under no such illusions as to her cherubic nature. I have many memories of her daring, teasing and taunting me. Jeanne was known for her wicked humor and pranks. Well into our teens, there was a commercial for Nine Lives cat food featuring a droll cat named Morris. Jeanne could incapacitate me with laughter as she perfectly imitated the cat quips and made up some original ones of her own.
Two sisters could not have been more opposite; she with her dark hair and me a blond, her body an apple, mine a pear; she a quiet introvert, me an outspoken extrovert. Yet for all of these opposites, like two halves that perfectly fit, we snuggled under the covers in our shared childhood bed, held hands and explored woods and farmlands on our grandparents farm, and told one another our deepest secrets.
Even though we were grounded in the surety of our love for one another, I can’t escape the regret over lost opportunities to show care and compassion for her, versus the judgment I sometimes felt at her reliance on medicating to ease extreme physical pain.
My sister taught me many things in her life and through her passing taught me that death serves as a magnifying glass, amplifying a loved one’s significance. Well loved traits suddenly stand out in high definition, random memories come into clear focus, and missed opportunities to show love dampen the spirit.
I do not write to exercise my grief; time and prayer have dulled its sharp edges. I write with the purest desire that, like me, you may learn to revel in the sheer beauty of the memories that come to you like random gifts; that the shining traits of your lost loved one inspires you to be your better self, and finally, that you are able to forgive yourself for missed opportunities to show perfect love.
So, what is his or her name? What is your story together?
A CALL TO ACTION
Bearing Witness to Pain
- Author and spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson writes about the idea that unprocessed pain expresses itself somewhere. Are there signals in your body, mind, or behavior that indicate you may be holding in or holding onto unprocessed pain over loss?
- Reflect on what those signals are telling you and journal or share with a confidante, the unprocessed pain behind the signals that you are experiencing.
- What are ways you can show self-love to open yourself to a measure of healing?
Giving Voice to Significance
- Journal, speak aloud to yourself, and/or share with someone who cares enough to listen:
- What was your loved ones’ name?
- What is your story of him or her?
Healing by Intention
- Rituals – After losing her mother Juliet, my niece, Melissa, while still a young mother herself, created a beautiful ritual to celebrate Juliet’s birthday every year with her husband and four children. Their family tradition includes making a cake and telling stories of Lola (the Filipino word for grandmother). What rituals can you create to continue to show the love and regard you hold for your loved one?
- Creative Forces – What creative mediums might you consider to invite healing into your life (e.g.painting, dance, quilting, writing)?
- Memories – Take a moment to savor the memories of your loved one, that come to you. What are creative ways to documents those memories to further savor them?
- Books – Read Jeannie Seeley-Smith’s book, “Nine Friends: In Time of Loss”. This compelling story introduces nine friends who enter our lives as we anguish over the loss of someone or something we love. Welcome as I did, the comfort, understanding, and healing that comes from reading this book.
- Artifacts – Think about artifacts that may serve as a physical reminder of the love you keep in your heart for the one you have lost. As for me, I have a tile painting of an acorn. The artist was my sister Jeanne and the acorn represents a childhood caper we shared. It is one of my most precious possessions.
- Acknowledge regrets you have about what you might have done more of, less of, or differently with your loved one.
- Consider the empathy, love and compassion you have shown others in your life. Then ask yourself; what would it look like to show yourself the same empathy, love and compassion in this situation?
- Reflect on what you learned from your regrets, and think about how you will apply that learning in the future.