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Moving Your Body for Traumatic Grief

Yoga, acting, and other body movement work can be good for grief, especially griefs that stem from traumatic experiences. Some deaths—like those that come from accidents, homicide, and suicide—can be traumatic, for example. According to Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, a noted thanatologist, any death of a child at any age and from any circumstances is traumatic. Traumatic grief tends to live in our bodies, says Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. Body movement can be helpful for grief that has elements of trauma in it; body movement enables us to live in the present while moving our bodies, bringing us out of the trauma and back into our daily lives.

What is trauma? It is exposure to actual or threatened death, severe injury, or sexual violence in one or more of the following ways:

  • Directly experiencing the traumatic event.

  • Witnessing, in person, the event as it occurred to others.

  • Learning that the traumatic event happened to a close family member or friend.

  • Experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (i.e., law enforcement officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse or media constantly replaying those details).

While trauma is a word that is used far too loosely, which dilutes the concept, trauma can have major ramifications for the bereaved. It can cause our minds to get stuck in the past event, replaying it repeatedly.

Why are yoga and other body movement good for traumatic griefs? Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explains that when we experience trauma, including traumatic deaths that lead to grief, we can exist in our minds, ruminating about, replaying, and feeling the experience so intently that we have difficulty being present (or mindful) of this day rather than the past. Trauma can lodge itself in our bodies and make us feel stuck in tenseness, illness, or fear. We need a way to get ourselves out of the past—even temporarily—and into the present. Moving our bodies in different ways can help move our minds.

Body movements like yoga, martial arts (e.g., Tai Chi, Qigong, Taekwondo), dancing, improvisational theatre, comedy, and acting in community theatre can get us moving our bodies and using our minds creatively in the present. Mindful movement can help us express grief in ways that other modalities, like talking, might miss. Overall, body movement strategies help us feel different in our bodies, leading to the realization that our bodies (wherein the trauma resides) can feel differently. Our bodies don’t have to retain the memories of the trauma and grief, allowing our to let some pain out, let some peace in, and feel fully alive again—open to the possibilities of hope and joy.

If you feel stuck in grief, try yoga, which is my current favorite. A yoga class or a private teacher can help you find the breathing, active yang (effortful) movement, gentle yin (easeful) movement, and meditation strategies that best suit your body and where you are with grief. I’ve used yoga for my own grief and have encouraged some of my clients to engage in yoga to clear their minds and use their bodies expressively. Another form of yoga developed especially for grief is called GriefYoga®, a mild form of yoga that people of any age or physical ability can adapt to their own needs. This expressive practice focuses on breath, movement, and meditation through five grief-focused areas: awareness, expression, connection, surrender, and evolution.

Sorrow can cause us to want to turn inward, especially when grief is influenced by trauma. Movement strategies can help us turn what’s inside us into a healing outward expression of the grief. These strategies can allow us both to release some grief emotions and retrain our bodies in how to live in the present while honoring our grief. How about giving such movement a try?

© 2023 Beth L. Hewett

Adapted from: Hewett, Beth L. Grief on the Road to Emmaus: A Monastic Approach to Journeying with the Bereaved, Liturgical Press, 2023.


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