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Oceana explores the expression of grief through the body

By Oceana Sawyer, End of Life Doula

As an End of Life Doula, Oceana Sawyer provides supportive care and a compassionate presence to people and their loved ones during times of illness and the dying process. However, not so long ago, during her own personal loss of loved ones, she experienced genuine curiosity about her own grief process. Through her unique sensual perspective she explores new ways to use the expression of grief through the body.

My many years as a sensualist have provided me a unique perspective on physical (bodily) pleasure as an innately healing force. For our purposes here, I am defining physical pleasure as finding expression of emotion through the body. For me, the expression of emotion through the body is not only an effective way to metabolize the energy of my emotions; it can also feel really, really good. Like a long run after a stressful day at work, for instance, or putting on your favorite jam and dancing ferociously after sitting through an intense Zoom call. Moving heavy, stagnant energy through one’s body can be a relief at the most visceral level.

When I discovered last year that my mother, whom I loved dearly, was going to die within a few months, I felt profound grief (more specifically known as anticipatory grief). Through the lens of my work as a death doula, however, and within the context of a supportive community and my unique sensual perspective, I experienced genuine curiosity about my grief process. I knew that her dying, and her subsequent death, could be a profound spiritual opening — if I was willing to surrender to the big, complicated emotions that encompassed my grief: emotions like sadness. Fear. Anger. And even love. And I knew that the degree of surrender I sought would be most possible via my own physicality; or rather, via my own capacity to feel and process with my senses: in other words, my own sensuality.

It was natural, then, for me to find information about and expression of my grief through my body. Swimming, sensual pleasure, walks in nature, culinary adventures, acupuncture, bodywork, and music were all sources of healing. I also worked with an online grief therapist for the periods I felt ready to go deeper.

The confluence of all these factors — my commitment to consciously opening to all of my experience; my sensual approach to the process; the support from my community and husband; and a bit of therapy — enabled me to experience my grief as a spacious, natural, and raw entity that wanted, in the most genuine and purest sense, to be felt.

And I did feel it. As a result, I perceived a sense of sweetness almost, a benevolence, I had not before known. In the midst and at the bottom of even my pulpiest moments, it surrounded me like a warm blanket. I couldn’t help but come from that place with the people with whom I interacted. The first few weeks of my mother’s death were a whirlwind of activity; yet I experienced them in slow motion, a kind of time out of time, that allowed me to slow down enough to truly be with my loved ones and my own experience.

Then the coronavirus exploded onto the scene, quickly followed by the ignition of a racial awakening/reckoning. Both of these physically impactful and horrific circumstances further expanded and deepened the experience of grief in my world. Meditation and gentle forms of yoga soothed me, as well as books, podcasts, and body-centered workshops.

Though the onslaught of emotion brought on by the twin tidal waves of COVID-19 and the violence against black bodies was at times as overwhelming for me as it was for so many, I felt largely anchored. Even in the aftermath of my mother’s death, I could feel this anchoring. Big emotions — outrage and helplessness and terror — swept through me, yes. But I was present to them. I was with them with all of my body, all of my energy. And so, much of the time, instead of feeling drowned by my tears and internal (and external) screams: I was able to ride them. Surf them.

This sensation of being with difficult emotions, I came to realize, truly is the body at its holiest. At its realest. At its truest. And, thus, at its most pleasured. For pleasure as I’m defining it doesn’t exclude pain. Rather, true pleasure is the conscious, felt integration of every emotion through the body — and those emotions very much include the large, difficult, and most painful ones — the ones we most want to push away.

And here’s the beauty of that integration: the more pain you are able to truly, consciously feel and integrate through the body; the more pleasure, the more awe, the more glory, you are able to truly, consciously feel and integrate through the body as well.

My recent experiences with grief have led me to a rather stunning conclusion: that body-centered death care encompassing pleasure can increase one’s capacity for personal expansion. It’s an idea that is redefining my work as a death doula.

The concepts of the body, feeling, pleasure, and death — and large, unwieldy, and inconvenient emotions — don’t go together in our society. We isolate them from each other. But I believe we do so to our detriment. I also believe, though, that if we take a more holistic, open, and less fearful approach to death; and if we are bold enough to reimagine what the death experience, and what grief and outrage and even fear can look like: then we have the capacity to truly expand our human potential for spiritual elevation. And we can do so right here, right now, in our very own humble — and very holy — bodies.

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