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by Renée Tillotson

I like talking about our living bones. About how they manufacture all of our red blood cells inside their marrow. About how they heal to be even stronger than before they were broken. Bones provide such a vibrant, resilient structure to our living body.

And I think it’s really important for us to sit down together – you and me – and have a little chat about how we handle the inevitability of our loved ones leaving their bodies (and bones) at the end of their lives. No doubt we’ve all observed, yet maybe not wanted to notice people around us and maybe ourselves, too, losing family members and dear friends, each in their own unique way. 

I’ve been talking with widowers, in particular. I figure I might very well find myself in that position someday – or else Cliff will unless we somehow depart together. I dread the thought of losing my beloved husband, of course. So I want to look this inevitability in the eye, evenly and fearlessly. Am I making you nervous? Come on. Be brave with me here.

Although death is not the world’s happiest subject, in talking about it together, perhaps we can shed a little light upon the parting of a dear one.

One member of our Still & Moving Center ‘ohana, Joyce Nakauchi (dressed as a demon for one of our Diwali performances), started attending our classes a few months after her husband died. Even though he had been sick for two years, Joyce says, “Nothing prepares you for losing your spouse.” I was so saddened and taken by surprise to hear of Joyce’s experiences that brought her to Still & Moving.

“After my husband died, whenever I would come up to the water cooler at work everyone would stop talking. They didn’t know what to say to me. It made me feel even more lonely. I stopped going to the yoga studio I was attending because I didn’t want them to also feel uncomfortable hearing about my husband’s death. That’s why I started coming to Still & Moving Center. Nobody here knew me.” Joyce has quite the fighting spirit that has since powered her through over 2,000 classes and events at Still & Moving!

Ugh, that still gives me a heavy feeling in the gut, thinking of a bereaved wife feeling as if she had to take care of everyone around her – instead of all of them caring for her. Having a support network is so important. When she joined Still & Moving Center, she made wonderful friends with students and teachers, such as Bruno Balestrero. However, Joyce never said a word about being a widow, until the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, by which time she knew a lot of us well enough to be able to share her loss. She even apologized for not telling us before, as if we deserved to know earlier. And by then she had finally managed to tell her fellow office workers to just TALK with her, normally, instead of treating her with kid gloves. 

That experience with Joyce instigated in me the wish for us to communicate and support one another better through bereavement. 
For some people, death is a taboo topic or is surrounded by scariness. Some friends of ours recently suffered the loss of a mother in her late 80s. When I suggested that we do a celebration of life for her at our house, their first response was that they did not want to stain our home with this sad event – this was the stigma attached to death from their backgrounds. Fortunately, they agreed to a lovely and enormously healing ceremony out on the water for the mother. 

Sadly, many parents struggle through miscarriages alone. Being supported through the grieving process is so important to healing.

Let’s do away with the practice of pretending that death doesn’t happen, or that being close to it somehow taints those of us who are living.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier letter, in my mom’s tiny village in Ohio everyone attended wakes in each other’s front parlors, with the body of the family member laid out for viewing and the neighbors all bringing food to support the grieving survivors. Nowadays, bodies are pretty much whisked out of sight by the morgues, mortuaries, and funeral parlors. We don’t have the same exposure to bodies that are no longer living that we had a generation or two ago. 

This lack of exposure to the bodies of the departed contributes to fear, I suspect.

I was just talking with our Qigong teacher, Master Jonah Chin, pictured here working with our beloved friend, the late Al Harrington. Jonah has been on a long sabbatical dealing with his father’s final bout with cancer, which his father ultimately succumbed to while Jonah was flying over on the plane to see him. Jonah describes how his father’s body was still warm but very tight when Jonah arrived at the hospital. Jonah spent a couple hours massaging his dad’s body until it at last loosened up and released. From his peripheral vision (and not when he tried to look at it directly), Jonah saw the soft light of his dad’s spirit float up and out of his bones and flesh. He misses his father acutely, yet feels as if his father’s presence is in some way always with him.

People who feel the freedom and support to talk about their loss seem to fare so much better than those who don’t. Hugs and weeping together can heal. 

Death has always been an openly accepted part of the life cycle for the family of our hula teacher Mālia Helelā. Followers of ancient Hawaiian traditions frequently call upon the guidance and support of their ancestors, the kupuna. Interestingly, the word kupuna refers to one’s elders both living and dead, without distinction. The land of the living and the land of the deceased seem to exist in close proximity. One’s ancestors are warmly invited to bless every ceremony, special occasion, or daily life event. Hawaiians in my experience usually expect a benevolent influence from their ancestors. 

Mālia didn’t hesitate to publicly announce her father’s death on her social media. Mālia and her mom, Mary Bird, were flooded on every side by sympathy and well-wishing, with tributes from Manu Bird’s co-workers and students who had gotten so much from his teaching at the community college. When I asked Mary how she is getting through this difficult time, she answered, “With faith, and with extended family support. They hold me up.” That support evidenced itself in the joyous yet poignant celebration of his life that we held about four months after his departure.

One big everyday puka (hole or gap) for Mary has been not having someone to shop and prepare meals for. She feels grateful that she’s made her small, three-bedroom house available to extended family members to live in for so many years. Her sparkly hanai’d (adopted) great-granddaughter fills the house with bright chatter, and Mary enjoys the company of one of Mālia’s hula school members who moved into the Birds’ home many years ago, half the time with her five kids in tow. I always worried that Mary might be WAY overextending herself squeezing all those people under her roof, yet look at the company she now has!

Everyone who is somehow coping without collapsing under widowhood talks about the importance of keeping busy and having a sense of purpose.

Seamus Denny, a long-time student who has experienced a great sense of community at Still & Moving Center, confided in me that he has actually never gotten over the loss of his wife Virginia over 40 years ago. His daughter was only 7 at the time, and the responsibility of taking care of her on his own maintained his equilibrium and kept him from drinking. a rare tear wells up as he talks to me about his wife so many decades later. He only gets a glimpse of her by spending time with his daughter, who sweetly reminds Seamus of her mother. Yet he bravely goes through his daily life with a bright smile and a kind word to all of us along his path. He’s the “stay active for health” sort of widower, which is what gets him through.

Cynthia Murata survives widowhood in her own unsinkable way. When Cynthia lost her husband out of the blue long years ago, she was devastated. Developing terrible health and balance problems, she was only able to walk by holding onto the walls. Cynthia emerged from that dark space by engaging herself in tai chi, taking classes and then private lessons with our wonderful first tai chi teacher Jerry Punzal, and assiduously practicing on her own daily. While she and I took tai chi together, Cynthia was always open about being a widow. Eventually, when his other duties took Jerry away from Still & Moving Center, Cynthia surprised herself by filling in and becoming a teacher in her own right. 

That full engagement in a healthy daily practice has held Cynthia in good stead. When she suffered a stroke a year and a half ago, and the physical therapist came to help her learn to walk again, she realized: ‘These exercises are very similar to what I do in tai chi.’ And so, she taught herself to walk again. She also taught herself to speak again – even though living alone – by reading the phone book aloud. Now 80 years old, she’s still living at home with frequent visits by her kids and grandkids. She loves getting calls from her former students.

Cynthia reports never feeling depressed. “Why should I feel depressed? I wake up every morning and think of all the wonderful things in my life. How could I feel depressed when I have so much that I’m thankful for?”

Joyce Nakauchi informs me – from the books and grief counselors that Hospice provided, as well as from her personal experience – “Grief is not linear. Everybody grieves in their own way. You never know when it will hit.” It’s been 8 years since her husband died, and she still struggles with memory triggers. She says, “After losing a spouse, you have the choice to go to sleep and not get out of bed or to get up, go back to work, and move on with your life.”  Joyce chose to move forward. 

Jaye Devendra and Rosa Harrington – pictured here with their husbands Titus and Al at one of our events a few years ago – are two of many other members of the Still & Moving community who have lost their well-loved spouses. Like Mary, they each invited us to their husbands’ celebrations of life.

Instead of either nothing or a traditional, mournful funeral, these celebrations of life seem to be a wonderful new tradition, helping the survivors find closure and also learn many unknown ways that their loved one positively impacted others’ lives. Just the invitation to bring humor into such a ceremony, with attendees fondly remembering together a funny quirk or joke made by the departed, adds a touch of lightness and approachability to an understandably heavy part of the life cycle. At such celebrations, we can gain a new appreciation for an unknown attribute of a person we thought we knew so well.

I am grateful to all these wonderful members of the Still & Moving ‘ohana (family) for talking with me about how they’ve struggled through their loss of a loved one. Mahalo to you all for shedding your light along this part of the path, which each of us in the human family eventually walk upon. While I continue to dance in my living bones, I never entirely forget that death is not that far away, especially with elderly parents and a very active husband who is not exactly “risk adverse”. Whenever the time may come, I’m going to ask you for all the help I can get – just saying!

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)