By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
Before my daughter died, I didn’t understand that grief was a physical sensation.
I knew what it meant to “feel sad,” but I had never grieved like this before. This was a whole-body experience. This was a constant headache, chronic tension from clenching my teeth and tightening my jaw. My body ached all over—even after I recovered from the physicality of labor, my muscles continued to feel sore. My shoulders and back hunched, a form of ineffective protection. My neck and shoulders were always tense and my legs felt tired.
I wasn’t being active. It was like my muscles were exhausted from the physical effort it took to keep from falling apart emotionally.
I also felt removed from my body. In my last months of pregnancy, I’d delighted in my taut, round baby belly. Now, my postpartum body felt unrecognizable. I had a stomach that still looked second-trimester pregnant, but no baby to show for it. My entire body looked and felt different, like a strange shell I had to keep on over all the raw pain that was underneath. Everything hurt.
Emotional pain and physical discomfort blurred together.
For a long time, I felt like my body deserved to be hurting. I was so angry that it had failed my daughter. I was so ashamed that instead of growing a healthy baby, my body had allowed her to die inside me without warning. I had spent months trying to take the best care of my body, eating nutritious foods, taking prenatal vitamins, wearing sensible shoes, all to prepare my body for the miracle of pregnancy and childbirth. But I couldn’t prevent disaster.
I felt like my body had betrayed me.
I resisted exercise long after the six-week recommendation from my doctor. Grief zapped all my energy. I wanted to do nothing but curl up under a pile of blankets on my couch. My dog demanded walks outside, and I went, grudgingly. I would have been content to let my muscles atrophy.
Except, I wanted to have another baby. I knew this early on, as terrifying as the prospect was. I’d loved Eliza so much and I wanted a chance to love like that again, a chance to parent a living child. I knew that I would need to start taking care of this body, forgiving it for what I couldn’t control, and finding a way to move forward. I just wasn’t sure how.
After months of limited activity, I decided to start slow. I bought a Groupon for a restorative yoga class.
On Sunday evenings, I carried my mat into class and the instructor provided bolsters, pillows, and blankets so that we could breathe in yoga poses while the props fully supported our bodies. The room smelled of lavender. All we had to do was lie in the pose and focus on breathing. This was torture.
It was like I had to learn how to breathe all over again.
I discovered that for months I had been taking only shallow breaths, like you do right before you start to cry. I felt like I was drowning in my grief, and I was breathing like it, too. Now I was being asked to take deep breaths, down into my stomach. I couldn’t even remember how to breathe that way.
Every exhale was a shuddering sob that I tried to keep silent.
There was no way I could clear my head as the instructor suggested. My mind circled endlessly on one subject: Eliza. Even when I focused on my breath, all I could think about was my daughter. So, I quit fighting it. Restorative yoga was a time that I focused on her and tried to take deep breaths, and that was all. It felt like the most I could manage. When you’re grieving intensely, just breathing is hard.
Sometimes I would lie on my yoga mat in a room full of strangers and be glad that the lights were so dim they couldn’t see the tears sliding down my face.
Sometimes it felt like a waste of my time.
Other times, it felt like prayer.
Always, I left feeling a little lighter.
After a while, I started doing yoga at home, too. I’d turn on Yoga with Adriene on YouTube and I’d follow her simple practices. I’ve never been flexible or athletic, and my muscles felt stiff and weak, the physical effect of pregnancy and collapse of grief that came after. So I started slow, just working on controlling my breath and pairing it with movement.
It happens every time, but on the days that I managed to get into the flow, I ended the routine feeling stronger and calmer than when I had begun.
Adriene is a famous YouTube yoga instructor for good reason—she’s adorable and she’s funny and she makes you feel like somehow she’s talking directly to you. She talks about loving your body, about feeling grateful for it. I resisted this message. I could feel my jaw tightening instantly, my shoulders tensing at the mere idea that I should be grateful for a body that hadn’t kept my baby alive.
I had resisted feeling good for a long time because I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I had not wanted to let my body have the pleasure of stretching and working and relaxing because I felt guilty.
But somewhere between a long exhale and another downward dog, I realized that blaming my body for what had happened wasn’t going to get me anywhere. If I wanted to try this pregnancy thing again, I needed to feel whole and healthy. I needed to take breaths that would nurture me and another baby. I needed to be grateful that my body might give me another chance.
Yoga did not make me feel like I loved my body, but it made me feel connected to it again. It made me appreciate what my body and I had been through and what we were capable of. I may never achieve some of the most difficult poses, but I became more flexible. I became stronger. I learned how to breathe again.
My body stopped hurting even though my heart still ached.
Tragedy had knocked me sideways and the whole world was painful. Yoga taught me that it would be easier to move forward if I took a deep breath and stood up straight. I had to clear my head and stretch myself—physically and mentally—so that I could take the next step. And I discovered that I could move forward into a healthier place—both physically and mentally—without leaving my daughter behind.