Sitting With Grief

How one yogi used meditation to cope with loss, turning her heart outward.

Molly O’Neill is a teacher at Wanderlust Hollywood. Come practice, listen, taste, learn, and gather with us at our new center.

When my father went into hospice care in April 2015—when it hit home that he was really going to die—I panicked. Six years of witnessing his exponentially declining physical and mental health in the throes of Parkinson’s disease had not, as I’d hoped, prepared me to live on this planet without him.

I needed a coping strategy.

My meditation practice has never been consistent. I’m married to my yoga mat, and I spend hours poring over sequences and anatomy textbooks, but the quiet practices have always felt a little elusive. I’d go through phases for a week or two where I would schlep myself out of bed every morning and sit for a half hour, always feeling better afterward. But a couple of days away from the cushion would easily turn into a couple of weeks.

What better time than the present, I reasoned, to dive into meditation to work through my grief? I listened to enough Buddhist podcasts and read enough Facebook posts from other yoga teachers that I thought surely I could figure out how to heal myself.

The phrase “sit with your emotions” was the first to come to mind. After years of avoiding visiting my dad or thinking about him in his illness, I figured I owed it to us both to feel deeply into my grief. So at night, alone in my apartment, I began to sit and look directly into the pain. I’d plop myself in front of my little altar, light candles and incense, and gaze at a photo of my dad. Then I’d close my eyes and begin digging through memories of him. The tears would flow and my throat would burn, but I’d force myself to keep sitting there, to keep inviting the feelings to come.

These were not easy feelings. And before long I’d end up flat on my back, completely overcome with pain, my entire body heaving with these unstoppable, primal cries. I was drowning in my grief rather than sitting with it.

I was drowning in my grief rather than sitting with it.

I’d be stuck there for an hour or more, feeling so shell-shocked afterward that I couldn’t even get up. There was some sense of relief after the purges, but mostly I felt drained and hollow. It took so much effort to peel myself off the floor that I’d usually just collapse back onto the couch and turn the TV on to fill the void.

Much in need of some guidance, I bought The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Normally I’d get a paperback to mark up, but I was so desperate to start reading that I downloaded it onto my Kindle. The meditation exercises contained within were very straightforward and should have been helpful, but the use of the word “death” on almost every page felt like a little stab wound every time I read it. I didn’t want to think about death anymore than I already was. I made it about 18 percent of the way through and haven’t picked it up since.

It seemed like these methods were actually leading me deeper into depression, so I turned to mantra. I’d learned the Mahamrityunjaya (death-conquering) Mantra in my 300-hour teacher training, and it felt appropriate for the occasion. As I chanted, I felt like a child playing with her parents’ power tools—clumsy, inept, and totally unequipped to wield the power contained in the words. But at least it felt better to do something, rather than to passively receive a beating from my wild emotions.

And then, he died. And everything changed.

I’d expected to feel a huge relief after watching him suffer for so long. But instead, there was this ominous sense of finality. All of my yogic training on impermanence and non-attachment couldn’t begin to soothe the violence of his absence.

All of my yogic training on impermanence and non-attachment couldn’t begin to soothe the violence of his absence.

When I got back home to Los Angeles, I found myself avoiding my meditation corner. I couldn’t look at the photo of my dad on the altar. Every time I thought about talking to him my throat closed up. I walled up my loss deep inside my brain and put all of my energies into teaching and practicing. When anyone asked how I was doing or expressed condolences or even hugged me, the walls broke and I lost it. I just didn’t have the faculties to deal.

For several months I didn’t even try to sit. And I don’t remember exactly what prompted me to return. But I recall hiking one day, listening to the wind move through the trees, and thinking that there must be some larger force at work in the universe, because I could not allow myself to believe that my dad’s death was truly the end of him and our bond. I’d been so saturated in my own grief that I’d forgotten the feeling of being connected to the air and the water and the pulsing heartbeats all around me.

So the next time I came back to my practice, I greeted my dad, told him I missed him, and then began to send my awareness outward rather than inward. I imagined feeling held and loved—not by a person—but by the molecules in space around me. And it worked. I came away feeling peaceful for the first time in a long time.

I’d been so saturated in my own grief that I’d forgotten the feeling of being connected to the air and the water and the pulsing heartbeats all around me.

The next time I sat, I said hi to my dad, and then began to think about the principles he embodied. The word “service” came to mind, so I meditated on that word and its meaning. Not only did it help to alleviate the immediate sense of trauma, but it allowed me to turn my focus in a positive direction. “What can I do to be more helpful?” I asked. Inspiration came quickly.

I kept repeating that strategy. I’d greet my dad, think about his qualities, and then meditate on whichever one sprung into my consciousness first. One day it was kindness. Another, steadfastness. Humility. Forgiveness. And over and over again: love.

Now as I sit and allow my mind to rest on love, I can feel the love around me. It’s in my snoring dogs and the magnolia tree waving from across the street. It’s in the kitchen where my partner and I prepare our meals. It’s in the rubber of my yoga mat and the floorboards underneath. This feeling of love in every atom gives me the reinforcement to tap into my own resources, to turn my heart outward, and share what I have to give. It’s not much, but I know it’s exactly what my dad would do.

molly-bioMolly O’Neill studied English and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching yoga at Wanderlust’s flagship studio in Hollywood, she’s hiking and camping her way around California, eating tacos, or hanging out with her two rescued pit bulls. Check out her full schedule at and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.