When Wendy Black Stern lost her 9-month-old son, Noah, she thought she’d never be happy again.
Thanks to a strong relationship with her husband, a dedicated network of loved ones, the blessing of two healthy baby girls and a background in yoga therapy, she did slowly begin to come to terms with her loss. But, through that process, she noticed a stigma associated with grief in our culture.
Driven by that realization and her sense that grief is held in both the mind and body, she started a holistic support group for parents who had lost children. The power of that sharing and sense of community was immediately obvious and, so, ultimately, she founded the Grief Support Network to offer methods for handling any and all grieving processes—from in-depth therapeutic programs to regular rituals to connections with healers and practitioners of every kind.
Here, she offers insight on what might seem impossible—turning grief into gratitude:
Live The Process: What did your life look like before it so dramatically changed?
Wendy Black Stern: Before l had Noah, I worked as a yoga teacher, group facilitator and Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist with a private practice in Boulder, Colorado. I spent a decade supporting people through yoga and mind/body exploration to learn how to be present and know and love themselves more fully. I was trained to help people create more space in their bodies in order recognize emotions, memories, old traumas, wounds, and stories. I not only supported them but also invited them to talk about what they were noticing as it was happening. Through this work, I witnessed how we hold our emotions in our bodies and the significance of being supported in a safe, loving and validating space. My training in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, founded by Michael Lee, taught me to trust in the innate inner wisdom we can access when we have a safe place to explore, express and integrate our life experiences. After I lost Noah, I turned to my yoga mat and used the tools that I had learned in my training to work through my grief. My yoga practice saved my life and gave me a strategy for feeling and moving through my emotions, which later served as the foundation for Grief Support Network’s Awakening Through Grief Yoga Therapy Program.
In addition to my professional background, I was fortunate to have a supportive community and strong relationship with my husband. I had been married for almost ten years when Noah died, and I believe that this foundation and the love and support that we had around us provided me with the resources to make something beautiful out of my pain by giving back to others. However, even though our friends showed up for us, I also quickly learned that grief is a taboo subject in this culture, which made me feel isolated and alone during the most difficult time of my life. We do not have strong role models who demonstrate how to deal with loss in a way that is healthy and empowering. I recognized the need for a healthier conversation, to teach people how to grieve in community. I started Grief Support Network with a vision of “wrapping our arms around people who are grieving and taking their hand to walk through the grief process.” From this vision, GSN’s mission has evolved to create a community that empowers people to transform through their grief and to break the stigma around loss.
Since GSN’s inception, I have come to understand that we can’t work out grief in our minds alone. Grief lives in our bodies; we have to go inside and feel our emotions in order to heal our broken hearts and grow. Five years later, I know that I would not have had the strength to teach people how to grieve in community and look within unless I had my yoga practice as a tool for my own self-exploration, healing, and transformation.
LTP: What ultimately inspired you to launch the Grief Support Network?
WBS: The vision for the Grief Support Network came out of my experience running a yoga therapy group for bereaved parents a few years after Noah died. When my daughter, Hannah, was one-and-a-half, I felt a stirring inside to get back to work and do something with my experience of loss. So, I decided to run an eight-week Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy group for bereaved parents, which included meditation, yoga, group sharing and a home practice component.
When I started the group, I had no idea how powerful it would be for me or the participants, but, as I sat in the circle with seven other parents who were all grieving, I felt how healing it was to connect. I also noticed the importance of the meditation and yoga practice to support people to tune into their bodies, increase self-awareness and to release some of the heaviness of their emotions.
The intimate community that we created was not only healing for the other parents; it was healing for my heart and planted the seed for creating something bigger. The participants started asking for referrals for practitioners in the community since I had been in the field for many years. I found that I was connected to an incredible group of healers and had a knack for matchmaking people with the right practitioners.
This was what led to the birth of the Grief Support Network. The initial vision was to create a network of practitioners for people who were grieving. My goal was to help people figure out what they needed, show them where to find it and help them pay for the services.
Ultimately, we launched GSN in May of 2012, while I was very pregnant with my third child, Layla. We started with 50 providers who offered a range of healing services including acupuncture, psychotherapy, bodywork, chiropractic, medical doctors, intuitive healers, lawyers and more. Creating the network was a beautiful learning experience. If there was an “aha moment,” I think it would be standing on the stage at Shine Restaurant with over 50 people and feeling the love and support of the community that was coming together to rally for this cause. I was aware of Noah’s spirit filling up the room with his presence and gentle smile, just nodding at me with a knowing and approving look. In that moment, I felt like something important was being born and that my purpose was to carry out Noah’s legacy.
LTP: What exactly does the Grief Support Network offer?
WBS: Grief Support Network has evolved over the years from a simple referral network to a destination for programs that guide people into their bodies and teach them how to authentically talk about and witness pain.
Today, in addition to our growing provider network, GSN offers two core programs and several community resources with holistic support for individuals and families going through any kind of and phase of loss. Our signature offering, GSN’s Awakening Through Grief Yoga Therapy Program, is a comprehensive nine-month program. Through this journey from grief to gratitude, participants learn to be a witness for themselves and each other, cultivating greater compassion, self-awareness, vulnerability and authentic connection. As the group explores the relationship between their thoughts, emotions, spirituality and physical bodies, their grief serves as a catalyst for personal growth and transformation. Through yoga, meditation, and somatic exploration, participants learn to observe where they are holding their grief in their bodies and to witness the sensations, thoughts, and feelings that they are experiencing without judgment. With the understanding that we have to feel our grief in order to heal it, the program strives to teach participants how to be present with themselves, even when it is painful, and to receive the wisdom that can only come from within.
GSN’s second core program is our It Takes a Village: Meal Delivery Program, which will launch in June. This program has been in my heart from the beginning and is designed to offer support for the newly bereaved within the first year after a loss. Our goal is to support people’s basic needs so that they can tend to their grief rather than having to push the feelings away in order to function. The program was dreamed up on a hike in the mountains with my best friend, Jessica Emich, the co-owner of Shine Restaurant and Gathering Place. We discussed the essential role that food plays in nurturing people. With support from Jessica and Christine, the owner of Fresh Thymes, I started to see it could work. In addition to bringing delicious meals made with love, the program gives GSN the opportunity to train volunteers on how to hold space for people who are grieving.
The program will launch with a six-month meal delivery pilot program, with five participating businesses committed to donating meals, and a small army of volunteers trained to deliver and offer a compassionate ear. Our intention is to expand to include other basic need services, including childcare, housecleaning, grocery shopping, spa services and so much more.
In addition to our programs, GSN also offers resources like quarterly grief rituals informed by renowned West African spiritual leaders, Sobonfu and Maledoma, with drumming and chanting to “clear the pipes.”
In a nutshell, people in need of support can expect a safe space where they can show up exactly as they are. It is okay to be messy, sad, angry or whatever. We work to empower each other to not only get through our grief but to transform and create more joy and gratitude in our lives.
LTP: What rituals or practices help you keep your head above water, aside from taking part in your organizations’ offerings?
WBS: This is such a great question. I have learned over the years that—with two kids and a non-profit organization to run—my self-care practices are essential and non-negotiable in my daily life. My meditation practice has been one of the greatest teachers, showing me where I am each day and helping me to evolve GSN’s yoga therapy program based on new insights. I aim to arrive at my cushion at 6:30 am and practice for 20 minutes, and I notice a big difference in my ability to show up as my best self when I do it. In addition, I schedule a two-hour block each morning, right after I drop my kids at school, to exercise and tend to my personal support system. For me, this means taking a hike up Sanitas with mate tea or a yoga class with my two best friends.
In addition, my family life serves as an important balance for the intense nature of sitting with people on a daily basis who are grieving. My husband and daughters bring so much lightness to my world and our weekends have become precious time to play together, laugh together, snowboard and ski, hike, garden and just be together. Music also plays a significant role in my household and time out dancing with my husband provides a much-needed release for me and a connection to my joy and my light. All of these practices, combined with eating a clean and healthy diet, help me to feel strong and in love with my life.
Lastly, I want to share a ritual that I practiced when I was in acute grief, the year following the loss of my son. One of the fears that people have when their grief is overwhelming is that, if they fully feel the pain they may become swallowed up by the darkness and never come back out of it. I personally felt a push/pull relationship with my yoga practice at first because I was terrified by the depth of feeling. Fortunately, my wise cousin, Irene, shared this strategy with me: Set a timer and make a commitment to show up on your mat. It didn’t matter what I did once I arrived there. I knew that if I let myself go in deep and feel the emotions fully that, when the timer went off, I could come back out and shift my attention to something mundane to distract myself. Some days I would sit on my mat quietly and cry, some days I would move my body vigorously through yoga and some days I would lay on my mat and throw an epic tantrum, pounding my fists into the ground and screaming at God for doing this to me. Whatever I was feeling could be expressed here.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
WBS: Happiness for me has to do with feeling free and comfortable in my body and having space in my life to connect deeply with my husband, children, extended family and close community of friends. My husband is my soulmate and our time together raising our beautiful daughters, Hannah and Layla, brings me more joy than anything else I know.
I love spending time outdoors in nature and, after having lived for ten years in the mountains west of Boulder, I feel the most at home when I am close to the earth with the sun on my face.
Again, music has helped me to heal my grief. It is a consistent presence in my home and the background for so much personal growth, healing, and happiness.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
WBS: For me, to “Live the Process,” means to stay connected to myself and to practice what I preach by committing to my self-care, tending to my grief, spending time with my community and being open to learning from others. It is work sometimes to stay checked in. In these moments, I am reminded to explore the new layers that my grief continuously offers me to learn from and integrate into my life. I believe that grief is a powerful catalyst for personal growth: When we lose someone that we love, our heart literally breaks open—and grows bigger if we let it.
Noah is my greatest teacher. He taught me to love while he was here; and taught me the great power of the human heart to heal, transform and grow in his passing. It is an honor to share his legacy and his teachings of compassion, unconditional love, acceptance and humor with the world.