Grief Lessons

Santa Fe bedroom door

Santa Fe bedroom door

As I began to write my blog this week, the story of the break-up of my first marriage, the subject of my last blog, came tumbling out. I knew I wanted to write about grief and this was certainly about grief so I just surrendered to the process. What came up were some interesting insights — about myself and some of the life lessons that come with grief.


It was in the fall of 1984. My first husband had recently moved out of our Santa Fe apartment and I was coping as best I could. Still working, still breathing. Suddenly, I awoke one night with intense abdominal cramps. At first I thought it might be my period, but abandoned this notion when I began to vomit and the diarrhea hit. A violent purging ensued which continued into the wee hours of the morning. I remember being so disoriented at times I didn’t know whether to be on the toilet or at the sink. When everything inside was out, I collapsed into my double bed, formerly OUR BED, and slept an empty sleep.


The next morning I could barely get up, let alone navigate the stairs to the kitchen — or to the telephone, had it occurred to me to use it. I felt completely alone and helpless. I cried. Buckets. I had been holding it together, being strong, being brave. The sudden illness and helplessness cracked me open.


The bodily purging, ostensibly due to food poisoning, was, I understand now, part of my reaction to the loss. From a symbolic viewpoint, I was not able to digest the reality of my eleven-year marriage being over. At the same time, through the purging, I released it.  Grief is a time when the body and emotions are so clearly intertwined. The emotions are so heightened, they cannot be ignored; but if you do ignore them, as I tend to do, the body will bring them to the forefront in a way that demands our attention.


When my wits returned, and my strength, I realized that there were friends I could call for help. I even called one to confirm it. This act required a major readjustment in my thinking and a subtle shift in the nature of my friendships. I had never had to reach out to a friend like that before. There had always been my husband and my family. But now my husband was gone and my family was on the other side of the county. Any person who has lost a life partner will, at some point, have to address this essential social need and reach out to create a new safety net. It is important to seek help from others and to not suffer alone. One’s thinking during grief is not always reliable. Grief leads us to do strange and sometime dangerous things. Social connection is essential to one’s health, even one’s survival.


After the food poisoning, I began to lose weight. I was training for a marathon at the time, so that might have been part of it. But grief, I am sure, took it to another level. Some people react to grief with loss of energy and inability to do anything, becoming a recluse and sleeping; others get hyper-busy. That was my route. Both are ways of escaping from the incomprehensibility of the loss. You can either go off line, or become so active there is no time to think. Either gives the griever time to get some distance from the loss, to allow it to seep in.


I trained all fall and into early December, when I flew down to Phoenix to run in the Phoenix marathon. It is an easy race, if a marathon can ever be described as easy, because it is mostly down hill. I was in top physical shape at the time, better trained than for either of the two other marathons I had run. I made, however, a strategic mistake that greatly impacted what happened.


I had arranged for my husband, now living in Phoenix, to pick me up at the airport and drive me to the motel where I would spend the night before the race. On the ride we spoke of mundane things. Careful. It was so strange to know him so well and not at all. He stopped at a street-fair to pick up a present for his new sweetie. It was kitschy, not something to my taste, and I wondered at who this woman was and who he had become. Next we went to his new apartment. He showed me around then told me SHE was going to be moving in. “Huh?” When my husband had moved out of our home, we had talked about it as a “trial separation.” Some trial! “He’s no longer mine,” I reminded myself, “I have no say.” I said nothing.


I didn’t eat that night, skipping the usual carbohydrate loading of the marathon runner. I couldn’t face going out to a restaurant alone. Nor did I eat the next morning before the race. As arranged, my husband picked me up and drove me to the starting line. I could have taken the transport bus an hour earlier. It would have taken me to the start without having to see my husband again, without remembering the past — all the times we gone to other races together. When he offered me the ride, it seemed logical, more convenient . . . more cared for. Oh how the newly singly miss that care, that convenience of the other.

Sandia Relay 1984

Sandia Relay 1984

I started the race at a 7-minute-a-mile pace. It was downhill all the way– unfortunately not in the way I had hoped. It was downhill in energy, in emotion, in self-belief, and in heart. Each mile, I ran slower and slower. Mile after mile — a nightmare in slow motion, people passing me, the end farther and farther away. When I finally did straggle across the finish line, I was just happy to have it all over. My time was disappointing, slower than either of my previous marathons. But I didn’t think about that until I was back on the plane flying home. Then I beat myself up for wasting three months of training. How could I have been so stupid? Grief made me stupid!


Actually, grief was making me a little smarter. It was showing me my habit of discounting my feelings and the costs of that disregard. Grief was teaching me to be selfish, in a good way.  It was forcing me to be more respectful of my feelings. Otherwise they would get out of control.


That Christmas I went to my second Sufi Workshop, this time in New York City. I stayed at my sister’s apartment, an easy walk to the workshop space at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Greenwich Village. Although no longer training for a marathon, I now weighed in at 111 pounds. 111 pounds on a 5’8” frame. It felt quite wonderful, actually. I was light and ethereal — perfect for spiritual work. Having grown up with a mother hyper-vigilant about weight, my new detachment from food felt gloriously empowering. And power was something I seriously lacked.


One evening, about halfway through the ten-day workshop, Adnan, our teacher, played a recording of one of his talks on fasting. We had been chanting for about forty-five minutes prior to this tape and were all very high. The idea of fasting ignited me. I could do this. Oh, I could so easily do this! I mentioned my plan to a more experienced Sufi student. He looked at me curiously and then suggested that I consult the teacher. Up I went to Adnan and said, somewhat shyly, “I’m thinking about fasting.” He gave me a long hard stare and then said, “Don’t fast.” I interpreted this as: You are already there. YOU don’t need to fast. That felt good. So I didn’t fast. I was a good student, used to following directions. But I was tempted. Each time I ate something, I thought, “I could easily go without.”


A small part of my mind was in observer mode, probably the result of the Sufi workshop. An insight arose inside. Suddenly, I understood the seductive and most dangerous aspect of anorexia. Low weight suppresses the natural appetite and also gives an amazing almost euphoric feeling of empowerment. Probably it’s chemical. Certainly our cultural adoration of thinness plays into the mix. I felt a kinship to all those anorexic teenage girls who felt so out of control in their lives that not eating became their last line of resistance. It’s a slippery slope, an internal feedback loop that, if left unchecked, will eventually kill you. That was not what I want. I started to eat again with the intention of gaining weight.


A few months later and a few pounds heavier, I did go on a fast. I was not trying to kill myself. But I was certainly drawn to the edges of experience. Perhaps it came from a desire to escape the grief through a more intense sensation. Have you ever noticed that you can’t really feel two pains at the same time? If you have a toothache and you stub your toe, for a while the toothache goes away. I once read about a mountain climber who said he climbed in order to quiet the demons inside. The demands of the trek required such intense survival focus there was no room for negative thoughts.


The first thing I discovered about fasting is that it is not compatible with running. No fuel = no energy. I could not keep up with my runner buddies. The second thing I discovered is that it’s really difficult to stay warm when you have no body fat.


The weekend of my fast I decided to go to a spiritual retreat at the Hanuman Temple in TaosSteven and Andrea Levine — famous experts on conscious dying, who were completely unknown to me at the time — were giving the workshop. I was going because I had an important decision to make about a job I had been offered as a counselor at a mental hospital. It would involve moving to another town, away from my friends. The institutional feel of the hospital seemed ghastly. Also it would mean not going to Sufi camp in summer, something I had been looking forward to since the Christmas workshop. In the past I would discuss such big decisions with my husband. Now it was all up to me. I thought the weekend retreat would help me get clear. Logic dictated I take the job. It would advance my career and was good money. I had been out of a job for several months. But the Sufi work had begun to change me and I was starting to listen to my heart.


The first night in Taos I was ok, since I had just started my fast. By the second night I was having trouble staying warm. It was March and still pretty frosty at night with snow on the ground. I had learned from a previous experience that when I get to a certain chill level, no amount of blanketing would help. I needed to bring the body temperature back up artificially. So I got up from my sleeping bag and took a long hot shower. After about fifteen minutes, my core temperature had risen enough that I was able to sleep. At dawn, I was cold again. I got up quietly so as not disturb the other sleepers and went into the empty temple room. It was peaceful and serene in there with a huge statue of Hanuman, the monkey god, beaming down on me. I sat and breathed, in and out, listening to the delicate sounds of the waking morning. Soon I was clear that I would not take the hospital job — a job I had struggled three months to land. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. My body recoiled at the idea. No. I would stay in Santa Fe, get a temp job and go to summer camp. That was as far ahead as I could think. The weekend workshop, all about compassion, had fulfilled its promise.


Later that day, we were instructed in an eating meditation. Each of us was given a single raisin to slowly and mindfully eat. I can’t begin to describe the impact of that raisin on my tongue — a tongue that had not tasted food in three days. After exploring the wrinkled texture for a few moments, I slowly bit in. Sweetness engulfed my mouth in a cascade of flavor. As I slowly began to chew, a soft stickiness spread throughout my mouth, catching on the surface of my teeth, and giving my tongue delightful moments of renewed sensation as it dislodged the clinging fragments. Fasting had made eating new and rich.



Sept 1984

Sept 1984

Grief has some similarities with fasting. Everything seems more intense and at the same time less real. It is as though you are observing reality from a different dimension or plane. You feel more sensitive, more vulnerable; and you feel a need to protect yourself from overstimulation. If you can get past the judgment about how awful it feels, the discomforts and the desires for something else, if you can stop thinking about how great it was before and how empty it is now and may be in the future, if you can just allow and observe and experience everything, from moment to moment — there can be amazing, mind-blowing revelations. You can discover a whole new landscape, new feeling, and new life inside and out.

Grief is a hero’s journey. Like Orpheus, you go into the underworld, into the shadow and the dark, to retrieve what is lost. You think it is the person who has died or gone away, but in reality it is yourself.




Secrets of Life and Death


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it: Grief Transformation Coach Michelle Peticolas, Ph.D. helps people transform their grief with a holistic approach to mind, body and spirit that heals trauma, reframes past attachments and releases limiting beliefs while uncovering a true life purpose and direction. If you’re ready to shift into a whole new way of being with death and loss, a new way of living your life, get Michelle’s complimentary guide, Essentials for Grieving Well at


  1. […] This is especially important when we are under stress or coping with a significant loss. In my blog Grief Lessons, I described how I lost my appetite after my first husband left me in 1984. Loss of appetite is not […]

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