Not many 21 year olds have to plan a funeral from start to finish. Not many 21 year olds have to plan funerals for their mothers. And not many 21 year olds must grieve a parent. Though grief such as this has characterized Sara’s life, she has worked hard to make sure that she knows peace and joy, as well.
“Sometimes it's the traumas and the bad things that seem to save you the most,” Sara said.
A West Virginia native, Sara is currently an executive assistant at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Pittsburgh with her three children. She prides herself on being the caregiver for her family and friends, holding herself steady by working to steady other people.
“I don't mind being the one that's relied on,” Sara said. “I'd rather know that I'm appreciated.”
Though Sara’s mom was on her own and hadn’t graduated high school when Sara was born, she was raised with an abundance of love and experienced a very close bond to her mother. She also grew close to her stepfather who became the only father she knew as a child.
Sara’s first major grief hurdle came in her senior year of college when her mom tragically passed away at the age of 40. Only 10 years later, her stepfather passed away, leaving Sara with more grief than most people encounter by the age of 31.
The shadow of grief and stress was still not done haunting Sara yet as the father of her oldest daughter was accused of a crime and brought to trial. Though she was not directly involved, she was pulled into this traumatic experience and all the stress involved.
As that episode unfolded, Sara also almost died giving birth to her youngest son in the spring of 2020. Shortly thereafter, her husband was diagnosed with Covid-19– the first of their family and friends to contract the illness.
Sara was left overwhelmed and scared. She was unable to leave the house to get groceries or the supplies needed to care for her husband for fear of infecting others. At this early stage of a global pandemic, a Covid diagnosis felt like the final straw.
However, her community of strong friends from her workplace helped Sara find some semblance of peace during this time.
“I had people dropping off meals and sending gift cards and dropping off groceries and thermometers, and that's when I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, my work people are my people.’ It's much more than just some coworkers,” Sara said.
Despite the love and support of wonderful friends, Sara’s pain from grief and trauma almost felt insurmountable. Each day she focused on managing only what was in front of her, that is, until her friend from college invited her to attend Rise Gatherings’ Weekend Getaway.
While initially Sara did not think much about the idea of a retreat, she grew more interested as she started browsing the workshops and classes offered. She immediately was drawn to “Grief Yoga” and thought this would speak to her own recent experiences with grief. She finally considered helping herself. At a time when Sara felt her external life and internal being were being torn apart, Rise Gatherings presented the possibility for healing.
“It was really leading up to that weekend and getting ready for the classes that I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I think this isn't just a weekend away. I think I need this, and I think I need to get something from this,’” Sara said.
From the minute Sara began the weekend, she felt connected to the event and the community of women. Her first activity was a welcoming introductory yoga class on the dock overlooking the lake and mountains.
“I'm not much of an outdoorsy person, but just being on the dock and on the water and seeing these woods, it was such an amazing place to be able to meditate and really experience the yoga,” Sara said. “I'm not not an athlete, I'm not an outdoor person, but it was just like, this is my favorite place in the world right now.”
As the weekend progressed, Sara immersed herself in the safety of other women, and she explored methods of processing the recent trauma she experienced as well as the trauma in her past.
“It was just a much needed time in my life where I needed something to help me figure out what was going on with me and to get me going in a different direction,” Sara said.
With each workshop, Sara started her healing, one layer at a time. She began to feel a calm that allowed her to reflect on her experiences.
“Peace came to my mind,” Sara said about her first workshop. “Like every time we were meditating about what we want to see for ourselves, that peace just came.”
It was during the Grief Yoga class that Sara had been anticipating that she experienced an epiphany. In this class, she gave herself permission to finally face and then let go of some of her pain. With the guidance of the class facilitator, Sara allowed herself to have a full “temper tantrum.” United with fellow women, Sara screamed and wailed and pounded the ground. With each scream and punch, she released pieces of her anguish from all that she had experienced – the deaths of her mother and step-father as well as the emotional loss of her daughter’s father. Though she had remarried and had two more children, she came to process the profound impact her daughter’s father had on her life.
“He'd been a part of my life for 20 years. And all of a sudden, this person who knew my mom before she died, came to the funeral with me, was with me for the funeral, was with me when my stepfather died, we had a child together, he knew my family history, my personal history. He was there for a lot of big moments in my life, whether they were sad or good. He was a big part of my college life. And I think that I was grieving just this loss of this person, who I thought he was,” Sara recalled.
Her confusion, stress, and grief was eating Sara’s insides, and through Grief Yoga, she was given the chance to give care not just to others, but to herself.
“I'm grieving what I thought I knew, and I'm grieving a lot of memories,” Sara said. “I'm grieving a lot of who I thought I was and how I think he shaped me through those formative years.”
Over the weekend, Sara also allowed herself to analyze her feelings about her recent traumatic birth experience. Through meditation, Sara began to understand that part of her recent angst was residual anger at her body for what she saw as failing her during the delivery.
“I don't trust my body now,” Sara said. “I go to this class, and I realize, I think I’m mad at my body. But I think I can get over it. And I think maybe I can find intimacy again.”
Rise Gatherings was a catalyst for Sara to become more in touch with herself and her body. She returned home from the Weekend Getaway changed and energized with new tools needed to move forward with her life and through her pain.
“I am thankful for Rise because it really made me realize what I needed, not only as a mother and a friend and coworker, but as a woman,” Sara said. “There's a lot of pressure, there's a lot of responsibilities, there's a lot of expectations. And [Rise] really gave me the chance to be myself and take a step back.”
Sara stepped back, so she can move forward. She now looks forward to returning to Rise Gatherings' Weekend Getaway once again this Fall, ready to dive into new workshops as she continues her journey of self-love.
Hi! I’m Abby Stern, Rise Gatherings intern! I am a sophomore at Tufts University, studying Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Political Science. I am passionate about empowering women and creating spaces where we can gather strength from one another. I am thrilled to be working with Rise Gatherings and capturing the stories of incredible, courageous, and powerful women.