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Grief & Health

Updated: Nov 3, 2023

A few weeks ago, I experienced loss for the first time in my life. Before my pup passed, I knew of loss and grief, but I didn't know it in the way knowledge comes from experience. Once you go through something -- a difficult diagnosis, the pain from a torn ACL, the loss of a loved one -- experience gives you a deeper understanding. I still don't understand grief and loss fully, but as someone who is obsessed with health, I want to share my experience with you. Maybe my words can bring you guidance -- or solace -- for a time when you experience loss. When going through the grieving process, it's important to be gentle with yourself.

Before I begin, I am not a grief counselor, nor am I any kind of expert in the field. My health coaching education did not include anything on grief or loss, and I haven't even read much on the topic. Grief affects everyone personally and uniquely. This is my story.

I had my pup for nearly 18 years (17 years, 11 months, and 2 weeks), so I like to round up to 18 years. I do not have kids -- Mr. Scruffy Pierre became my kid. I have a partner now, but for most of our life together, it was just the two of us, going on adventures. He followed me everywhere -- if I had to wake in the middle of the night to use the restroom, he woke up and accompanied me. If I was cleaning my house, he was in every room with me. If I was cooking dinner in the kitchen, he'd lie down a few feet away and watch me. And when his arthritis prevented him from going up and down the stairs, I carried him with me. He was, quite literally, by my side for the last 18 years.

As all dog owners know who have gone through this before, there is an emptiness in the house -- a void that hurts especially when you come home -- and an emptiness in the heart. A piece is missing. I thought the phrase "a piece of your heart is missing" was a metaphor. Now, I realize, it's literal. It literally feels like a piece is missing.

The most important lesson I learned came the very first week after we said goodbye. I always thought I'd need a bunch of distractions, that I'd need to busy myself with friends or family or work so as not to think about the loss. But as soon as we said goodbye, being around people or distracting my mind was the last thing I wanted. I didn't want distractions. I wanted to feel the grief.

Distractions from grief are not healthy, in my opinion. Why? Because the grief is still there, it's just being suppressed. When we suppress emotions, they become embedded in our cells -- much research today reveals the unhealthy nature of emotional suppression. (Check out this article from Psychology Today.) If you're experiencing grief, don't feel like you have to be social. People who care about you will reach out to talk, but don't feel like you have to -- and for those who are reaching out, don't take it personally if the person grieving doesn't want to see you.

The Jewish tradition for grieving a loved one made so much sense to me. For the first week after burial: do not smile, do not laugh, do not watch a funny movie, do not attend social events. I think the protocol is worded in this manner not to be authoritative, but to give permission not to engage, permission to grieve.

The second lesson I learned was in regards to nutrition. While something like stress can cause us to overeat or eat sweet treats, deep sadness suppresses the appetite. I wasn't hungry and I didn't feel like eating, but I knew I had to. I made juices with protein powder and soups and broths with olive oil or MCT oil added in for fat. Drinking my meals was more doable than eating.

The third lesson I learned was in regards to my energy level. Grief makes you so tired -- two months later, and I am still really tired. I didn't feel like doing high intensity cardio, but I was feeling called to go on long, slow hikes at sunset. These hikes were meditative and good for my soul. I had no agenda, no route planned. I just walked until I felt like coming home.

Strength training was the last thing I felt like doing, but I had committed myself to 365 consecutive days of core exercise for 10 minutes a day. Habit kept me going for a while -- but after a while, even habit will dissipate if there is no willpower.

My willpower had left with my energy levels. I tried so hard to will myself to complete the task. I tried to convince myself that I was helping others; I tried to convince myself that it was good for my back health. But I found myself saying, "What's the point?" and that's a very dangerous question. This is where grief crosses the line into "unhealthy grief" territory.

I knew this, and I knew I had to do something to shift my mindset. Pierre was all I wanted to think about, so I decided to dedicate my core practice to him. I mean, why not? Yogis dedicate their yoga practice, meditation gurus dedicate their meditation practice, why not dedicate my core practice to my puppy? After all, he was always with me -- my exercise buddy. It was a fitting tribute.

Friends, that was the secret. The struggle was gone. In its place came enthusiasm -- or, something like enthusiasm. I start the sequence with a little prayer to my puppy. I announce, out loud, that I'm dedicating my practice to him, and then I complete my core sequence. I do it first thing in the morning, right after brushing my teeth. I like to think that he's right by my side, like he always was when I did my exercises.

Am I back to "normal"? No, I don't think so. Maybe I'll never get back to the level of enthusiasm I had before Pierre passed, and I think that's ok. This process has changed me, and I'm still grieving. I'm still having difficulty laughing, and I'm still not feeling up for large social events where I have to smile a lot. And I think that's ok.

While I'm still not up for a lot of IG personal training stuff, I have started documenting my 365 Core Journey. The tone of my IG and videos will be fundamentally different from what it was -- fewer exclamation marks, softer music, less intense exercises. Just one step in front of the other.

Grief is unique. Many people told me, "You should [do this]" and "It will be good for you to [do this]" and I'm proud to say I didn't listen to anyone. When going through the grieving process, maybe the healthiest approach is to listen to what your heart is telling you to do. Give yourself permission. After all, it's the heart -- not the mind or body -- that grieves.

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Maura Derr
Maura Derr
Oct 24, 2023

Sending love, Laura Leigh. I know Pierre had the biggest piece of your heart. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through. This was a beautifully written article!

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