About V. Ophelia Rigault
After the death of her mother, Ophelia tried to “fix” her grief, and was waiting to “get over her it”. Her grief became an unwanted dinner guest that wouldn’t go away. She learned how to turn her wounds into wisdom and reconnect to joy.
Ophelia is the radio host of Thank The Grief it’s Friday and TV host of Conversations with Ophelia. She has is an inspirational speaker, yoga teacher and has logged over 2000 hours as a speaker. She is a lover of peppermint tea, restorative yoga, and is a self-proclaimed scarf-aholic.
The Grieving Process:
We grieve how we live
About This Episode
Ophelia and Kathryn talk about grief, the grieving process, and how self-care and yoga can be vital parts of healing. Ophelia explains how grief is different from mental illness, and why we shouldn’t set out to necessarily “get over” our grief. She also talks about who has access to yoga, and wellness practices and how we can bring self-care to marginalized communities. Ophelia shares parts of her own story as a grief educator and yoga teacher.
All right. Ophelia welcome to the podcast.
V. Ophelia: Thank you. So great to be here.
Kathryn: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this. For the listeners who maybe don’t know a lot about who you are, do you want to take a couple of minutes and tell everyone a little bit about who you are and the type of work that you do? Maybe how you got into it?
Sure. Be my pleasure. So I describe myself as a grief educator. I am a yoga teacher, reiki master, and I do training and workshops around grief and loss. So what I do is I help people to identify where their grief is being stuck in their body and help them to understand what is and isn’t.
How I got into this work was how a lot of people got into this by going through a grief, and my grief was 11 years ago was profound when my mother died. I was looking for something to help me and it was through that journey of just trying to understand what grief is because people were telling me that I should need to get over this.
I realized that I wasn’t getting over it but I was feeling that I was doing something wrong and then I did my grief education course. It was a counseling course. And I remember this like it was yesterday. The trainer said to a group of us, we were taking an intensive four day course, and she said “You will never get over it”. And we started to bawl.
So from there, that’s my journey and I utilized yoga and reiki. Mainly I run groups and helping people to just understand grief. A lot of the work that I do is holding space and maybe for some people haven’t heard that terminology, it’s really there and being empathetic. Then sharing the tools that I have learned professionally during my training and just helping them to process that.
When your teacher said You’re never gonna get over this. Was that good news or bad news at that moment?
V. Ophelia: For me, it was great news. People were telling me “your mom is in a better place”, “She lived a good life”. My mom died at 70. “The first year is gonna be easy and things will get back to normal”. So I tell a lot of people we grief how we live. You fall on the skills that you had before the trauma, that’s naturally where we get into.
And for me, I was practicing yoga, prior to that. I had already done my Reiki. But I was already looking for holistic things because prior to my mom dying, a year before I went through a horrific divorce. That was the beginning of me looking for ways of healing myself. So I had those tools in my tool basket. But when people were telling me you’re going to get over it, I was expecting “oh a year is gonna go by and I’m going to feel like myself again”. And it didn’t happen. It just didn’t. So when she said that I was like “Oh”.
What she said after was “you will get through it”. That was the beginning of my understanding that’s what grief is. Because grief is another word for love and I love my mother a great deal. I don’t want to get over it because getting over it would mean I would forget her totally. I don’t want to forget her. Because I still have a relationship with her in the sense of I have a relationship with her memories. I share her memories. Her legacy is the lessons that she’s left me. So that brings me great joy.
So you mentioned you teach a little bit about what grief is and what grief isn’t. So I’m wondering if you could talk us through that?.
V. Ophelia: Well I think a lot of people, and I’m going to talk from my experience and when I work with individuals. A lot of people truly feel that grief is something sometimes that isn’t universal. Even though we hear that so many people have died. and we tend to experience it. Unless you have experienced a loss, you really don’t understand what grief is.
So people think that they shouldn’t cry or if you cry you are not grieving. So there’s a lot of myths around grief. “You’ll get over it”. So you will feel better, you will go back to how things were. When you press the reset button and things will be back to normal. That’s not gonna happen I’m sorry to disappoint people. In a year things will be better. If you don’t cry you’re not really grieving.
So those myths are what’s in our society because we do not teach people how to grieve and we do not teach people how to support reverse. Grief is very different than having a mental illness. Sometimes when people are a year, two, three years into their grief, and people are saying you’re not getting over it. “You must be mentally ill” and there are some components of depression and anxiety.
But grief is universal but it’s very unique. It’s a feeling that transforms you because it hits you on all levels that you can experience.
That’s an interesting piece that you just mentioned that you know grief is not the same as a mental illness.
V.Ophelia: No, it isn’t. Like for instance, you will feel sad you will feel depressed, and if you are living with anxiety and living with depression, that clinical diagnosis could get worse.
The idea with grief. Grief is a response to a loss. So the response is going to be a lot of people hear about the five stages of grief where you go through all these things. That’s another myth that people believe. “Well, I’ll go through these five stages of denial and anger and acceptance and I’ll be fine”. It doesn’t happen in order. There are some days, even eleven years later, I have a trigger because my mom is not here to celebrate an anniversary.
Like if I was doing this interview and my mom was alive I would tell her that I would get off the interview and start chatting with her about it. Although it doesn’t affect me as deeply as it did eleven years ago, I still have a little bit of sadness. It’s certain things, certain big moments, even little moments I can never celebrate with her. When I do big things or big events happen in my life, that wave of grief comes back.
So it’s always with me I tell people “you walk with grief every day, it becomes part of your life”. I look at it this way. If you have two people walking like a twin, grief and joy walk together. The deepest grief that I’ve known is the death of my mother but that just helps me to understand what joy is and the deepest joy that I have in my life. It has really propelled me and a lot of people who find a way to understand their grief, accept it, and bring meaning to their grief.
Most of them have said and I would say almost all of them that I’ve talked to, “I truly appreciate life now”. “I know what life means, I will live in gratitude”. For me, I really truly don’t sweat the small stuff because I’m all about appreciating the big stuff. But that grief is always in my heart and it’s always part of me., and that’s okay because I loved this woman for 40 years.
When you love someone and they have been so important to you in your life it’s okay for the rest of your life to miss them. That does not mean you can’t have a life that doesn’t mean you can have a livelihood. It doesn’t mean that you can experience joy again. That’s the myth sometimes people believe. If I grieve all the time that is going to mean that’s how much I love them and that from my perspective that’s not true.
So you mentioned that people are oftentimes not taught how to grieve and we’re not really taught how to support people who are grieving. If you’re going to talk to somebody about how to grieve, where do you even start?
V.Ophelia: When I’m working with someone. The biggest part of my role is listening. If you have someone in your life that’s grieving that’s the biggest part. You do not have to know what to do because they don’t even know what to do.
Grief affects your mind, it affects your body. There is a concept called grief brain where you forget things. You get foggy, because as I said we teach ourselves how to grieve. If I’m teaching you and if you had a grief and I would say what are some things? The biggest thing I would say Kathryn is self-care and give yourself time and be very forgiving. So those are the reminders that I tell people.
A big part of why I completed my yoga teacher training is that we can tell individuals this. But yoga brings us to the point where you are doing something physically that incorporates all of this knowledge. So as you are in a restorative pose or you’re practicing tree pose you are just focusing on that, and that’s an act of self-care. And as you do it, the grief you start to understand it and you have something to utilize to take you through.
So one of the things I tell people is to create a grief kit. Create the ways that you can self-care for yourself. Because healing from a grief is radical self-care. It propels you and it’s an opportunity for you to say “I need to put myself first”. And that’s the greatest lesson that I have found and is what I really truly focus on teaching people.
If you’re supporting your griever, the greatest lesson that you can learn from supporting a griever is empathy, not sympathy. Being there with them without expecting them to give you anything. If you find yourself saying “Well at least you had this, at least you had that”, that’s not supportive. All right, and we don’t do that in meanness. We do it because that’s what we’re taught.
We feel that that’s comforting and it isn’t to the griever. Sometimes I felt silenced and I couldn’t share that I was still hurting after two, three, four years because people didn’t want to hear my story anymore. They didn’t want to hear that I still miss my mom because they may be still missing their friend. People tend to want to just move on. You know I call it the casserole ladies. For the first month, my house is filled with casseroles. People are bringing casserole because you didn’t want to cook right.
After the casserole ladies left, you’re left alone. When I work with people the first thing they say is “oh my goodness you get it, you understand. And it gives people an ability to release and to be heard. That’s really how you help people with grieving, you allow them to speak.
So I’m really curious about how you bring in yoga and physical movement into this grief work that you do. Like are you working with people one on one, are you working with groups? What does that look like?
V.Ophelia: I started working with people one on one and then I went into groups. So I’m pivoting my business and mainly doing groups and workshops. But when I worked with individuals one on one it was to really look at giving them some restorative pose. Because what happens when we’re grieving is that you don’t have somebody with you when it’s 3:00 a.m. in the morning.
So I teach people “Well what are you going to do when grief hits at 3:00 a.m. and you’re bawling your eyes out and maybe you’re home alone?”, to give them some technique. So when they’re feeling their best they can practice these techniques, so when they’re feeling they’re worse they can do it.
You know some movements like scream it out, you can walk it out, move it out, go for a swim, go for a run. When you’re feeling that you need to be comforted. What are some things that you can do? How can you support yourself?
Because griefs, I know for me, and for many of my clients, it affects our physical body. There’s a lot of physical pain that happens when you have stress. It just hits your bones. I know for me, I gained a lot of weight after my mom died. It brought up a lot of triggers.
I became less active and yoga for me especially when I was doing my YTT Course really helped me to have techniques. In the sense of standing better, sitting better, more functional, and it gave me the confidence and that’s what I share with my clients when they are working with me one and one in a group. So in a group, we will do a meditation and we will do a restorative class. Giving them this information so that they can bring that into their everyday life.
They can bring it through their workplace. They can, you know, maybe when they’re in bed and just take some of these postures and just help them to calm themselves and feel that self-love. A big part of it is simple things. You can put an eye patch or your eyes or a heavy blanket on your stomach. But sometimes I overthink it because I want to give people all the tools that I want. But I’ve learned over the years it’s the simple things that people want. People really need the sense of cocooning and feeling a sense of self-love.
It’s so incredible what you’re talking about in the way that you are helping people build these tools. Plus you mentioned doing these practices, doing these self-care things when people are at their best. Also starting to use them when they’re not feeling at their best.
I would imagine that it’s probably pretty difficult to get into new self-care rituals and bringing these new practices into your life. Especially when you’re feeling at your worst, and really grieving quite a lot. So how do you help people who maybe haven’t developed those skills when they were feeling at their best? Can people still benefit from these self-care practices and really get into them?
The individuals that come to me or come to my workshops. The one thing that they have in common is that they’re feeling stuck and there’s something inside of them that says “I don’t want to be stuck, this is too much”. So they’ve reached a point where they’re no longer contemplating a change. They’re somehow questioning this feeling and this heaviness. That’s really the key because I’ve had some individuals who were referred to me and they were not ready for that change.
That’s the difference because, within grief, there comes a time that the grief can become more and more complicated and you can become stuck in that grief. Possibly because it’s too much for you or you’re not ready to make some changes. What I have found is that the individuals who have been working with me or I’ve worked with them, if I look back and we do a timeline. When they’ve had other deep sorrows and deep pain, their resiliency muscle was something that was triggered.
So they already have this natural ability that “I want to bounce back”. That’s a big key. Some individuals do not have that and it’s more difficult to give them some tools because of their resistance to the change. Because they don’t have that previous ability, not that they can’t. For those individuals what I do with them is more work on the breathing technique. Give them something really simple. Like maybe yoga, if they’ve never done yoga. That’s really too far for them.
Or I might say, not even mention, tadasana or it’s mountain pose. I might simply say “you know when you’re standing? How about standing like this” and then I’m not telling them that it’s yoga. I’m just talking about it more in gentle and everyday language and giving them some breathing techniques that they can have. So the individuals who want the deep change or want the understanding, I work with them that way.
Really the key is what’s the level that this person is willing to change? What’s the level that they’re willing to transform this grief and understand how it works? When it really comes to healing, I am the facilitator and I bring information to the individuals. But are they going to use that information or not?
Some of them don’t because they’re not ready. Some people feel if I start to heal that means I didn’t love that person enough. They might feel betrayal. That they are betraying their loved one by actually being happy. This makes some people stay there, and that’s OK for them, that works for them.
I’ll share a story and my client has always given me permission, I’m not going to reveal her name, but to share her story. This client, her son died by suicide. It was her only child and she was referred to me and came to my program. There was so much guilt with her. So we’ve been working with her one on one and coming to a lot of different groups.
So about two years, I was doing something for the community and she showed. We were chatting at the end and I knew I had the time and that’s just another point for people. If you’re asking people who are grieving how they’re doing, have some time to allow them to speak. So she trusted me and I said: “How are you doing?”. And she looked to me and took a breath and said: “Ophelia you know what I’m doing OK and I’ve accepted that it’s OK to just want to be OK”.
I said, “well that’s really great!”. So for her, she came to a level because she’s learned that she has a safe place with the groups that I run to talk about her child. She has learned that her colleagues at work and her family are not betraying her, being mean, because she can’t speak to them to the level that she would like to about missing her child. It’s that they just don’t have the training or the understanding and they’re being triggered.
So she’s come along way. She has a toolbox of what to do when she’s feeling deeply sad. She says “I’m doing OK and I realize that I’m going to feel sad for the rest of my life but it’s OK because I am feeling happy that he was in my life”. That to me was profound. That was very profound and it’s OK for her to feel that this level of where I’m feeling is OK for me to be like this for the rest of my life.
So these skills that you’re working with and you’re teaching people these self-care practices and maybe even some of these could be considered like wellness practices. Who has the most access to these types of whether their classes or sessions and where do you see a lack of access? Then how does that affect people from different communities and maybe marginalized communities being able to grieve?
V.Ophelia: So when I was doing my yoga teacher training I have a bachelor’s on an anti-racism theory and practice and being a social worker, so that’s always in my mind. But when I started to look at yoga more as a personal practice since university I have been doing yoga on and off.
But when I started to look at it as being a teacher, I started to look at it more from the point of view of access. Thinking to myself, I as a black woman, as a black large woman, I have privilege that I have this access. But I also don’t see a lot of people like myself at that point. I had to go and then purposely find people on Instagram that looked like me.
And I think if you put yoga in Google you traditionally find a white female. So you really don’t have to go far to find people that look like a white female. It was grief for me in a way because you think yoga is so spiritual, everybody is equal, but it’s no different than any other institution.
When someone’s grieving there is a layer of that pain but then comes an intersection of race, the intersection of gender, the intersection of lower-income, and just access. For instance, when I wanted to do yoga and teach yoga I partnered with my local Canadian Mental Health Society and my sexual assault center society and I did classes through that.
That’s how that group of people were able to access it. For one thing, sometimes yoga spaces are not accessible to people with disabilities. They’re not accessible to people who are in lower incomes because there’s just not a yoga studio in their area. Then financially it’s not accessible.
So add that on that I’ve lost my mom but now I’m living in a lower-income and I’m dealing with I can’t pay my rent. I’m dealing with I can’t feed my children and all those other things. There’s not a place or tools that I have to now help with self-care. For me, I grew up in low-income housing in Toronto and I didn’t have that access or that knowledge. So even in that sense if you were growing up in a community where you’re not seeing this then you can even pass this on to your community.
What I have found is that as I was doing my work and doing my training over the years more and more of my clients were white females. I was following Layla Saad he and she does a lot of work on white privilege and I was just following her and I thought if I want to walk the walk and talk the talk I have to change what I do in order to make my work more accessible.
So what I did is purposely partnered with organizations that are working with marginalized communities and racialized communities to bring this wellness program to them. Traditionally it’s not in their communities, they might not even be thinking “that’s not me I don’t see myself in yoga and if I do I can’t afford it”.
Yeah, so do you think enough of that is happening right now? Like people like you are bringing your work into different places and you know providing access to people who, for whatever reason, don’t have access. Do you see there’s still quite a lot of room for improvement with that?
V.Ophelia: Oh yeah. I think that I mean I don’t have a percentage but I mean I live in Eastern Ontario and there’s so much work to be done because we’re living in a society more and more that sees things polarized.
We’re living in a society where it seems like racial tension around the world is increasing. So as all of these things are going, if you are not practicing self-care, and some communities they might not historically have an idea what self-care looks like. Right. Because they may be dealing with trauma all the time. So when you’re living in trauma all the time you’re just thinking about survival. We’re not thinking of recovery. So sometimes the work is about educating that you can have self-care.
Especially for the people who are on the front line, like the social workers and the activists. It’s about introducing self-care to them because they really need a place to recover so they can go on with the fight. There’s a lot of work in my opinion that still needs to be done and the work won’t be done until I think racism is done. There was always going to be work if there’s poverty if there’s homelessness if there are people that are in long waiting lines for mental health programs and things are being cut.
For me, I dealt with all of those things but the privilege for me is that I had the income the knowledge the education the access to my peers that I could take this training. I thought “wow” privilege is so complicated. I need to share the privilege that I have of being a black woman with those who do not have and to educate people. There’s a lot of work to be done. I think if you have the ability to bring your training to these groups see if that’s something that you were able to do.
Yeah. It’s so important. So do you mean when you say you have the ability to bring your training to these groups you should do that? Is that so that there will be just more people teaching these practices whether it’s yoga or grief education or whatever type of self-care that it is and then more people will see themselves represented.
V.Ophelia: Yeah. And I think it’s about if you’re a racialized yoga teacher and you want to bring that to your community. Great. But if you are a teacher that identifies as being white and you want to bring that to the community or you own a studio, there are so many ways that you can make this more accessible. So I think it starts with knowledge. Let’s say you own a yoga studio and I know a lot of things are closed down but let’s say a traditional yoga studio.
I own a yoga studio. Ask yourself the question, and if you can’t get honest answers ask people in your class like do a survey and see what are some of the ways that your place isn’t accessible. I know yoga is a business but how are some ways that you can offer some accessible classes. Is your building accessible? Can people come in if they are in a wheelchair?
Like start with those things. If your class is your class do you have a way that people can you know do maybe karma yoga? Is a way that people can volunteer and do some other things to access your class? Can you partner with a local women’s shelter and maybe your wife, if you’re doing light duty and training other people.
Can they do sort of like a mini placement with them? Sort of look at how you can be creative and how can yoga studios and yoga teachers be part of the community because that’s what I really think when you look at all the limbs of yoga.
Yoga is not just about getting on your mat and getting off of it. Yoga is it’s about compassion and taking care of our community and taking care of others. So how can you do that? I really believe that there is a lot of opportunities out there. It’s about asking questions. It’s about connecting and looking at what’s in your area and maybe doing some research and seeing. Because there are a lot of opportunities.
So I’m wondering, you’ve mentioned grief and loss and maybe losing a loved one and you’ve shared a little bit of your personal story about losing your mother and I feel like there’s a grief happening right now in the world. You know there’s a lot going on right now. There’s a pandemic, there’s a Black Lives Matter’s movement. This is a global thing. This is not just where we live. I’m wondering if that grief, like how is that or is that different than the grief of something like losing a family member?
V.Ophelia: There are differences in the sense that society recognizes I’ve lost my mom I’ve lost my dad I’ve lost a child and that’s something that we can see, we can understand because I’ve seen my mother lose her mother. Right.
So it’s something familiar. We understand when someone dies you have the right to grieve. There’s some grief that’s kind of disenfranchised that people don’t think of. There’s cultural grief. I am from this community and I don’t fit into this community. So for me, I was born in Trinidad, I came up to Canada, and sometimes we don’t even realize that we’re grieving. I didn’t like being here because I didn’t see people that looked like me. Everybody else to me in my eyes was white and you were odd.
So there is this sadness and some Indigenous people speak about this. I’ve grown up with my Indigenous community and how I dealt with my family, how we speak, how we feel with our community is different. Now I’m outside of that there’s a grief. Also with the pandemic, the layers of that are compounded because there is now this social grief.
I can’t hug my relatives. There’s the weight of every time I wash my hands every time I have to put on a mask. We are feeling unsafe. So now we’re dealing with the grief of safety. I don’t feel safe in the world. Every time I turn around you know millions of people have died around the world. I feel insecure. If you layer that on to when “now my mother has died I can’t even go to visit her in the hospital”. “I’m in another country I can’t fly to visit my uncle who has died because there are flight restrictions”.
So there are all these layers of grief that sometimes we’re not recognizing because it’s so new and it’s so different. We’ve never had to live through that before. And for some people, it has increased their inability to not cope. We are seeing more and more statistically there’s an increase in mental health. There is an increase in domestic violence. There is an increase in poverty in the sense of children going hungry.
So this pandemic what it’s doing it’s hitting our most vulnerable populations which tends to be racialized and low-income people and people who are older. People who are black and brown, indigenous, that have always been more vulnerable in our community. Now it’s just highlighted and now I have to deal. All of that has been going on for hundreds of years and now I have to deal with the pandemic.
Right. So it’s a type of grief or maybe like a layering of grief that probably most people haven’t been exposed to before.
V.Ophelia: Exactly. So I say that how I see grief is exactly how you said, it’s layers right. It’s a layer of I’ve lost my mom, I’ve gone through a divorce, I got laid off from my job. My pet has died. My best friend and I are not speaking. There are different types of grief right.
Then you layer that all on with pandemic and you are still coping with all of these things. But now your regular coping techniques, like going to work for some people was coping. Going to a yoga studio was coping. But now all those things are taking away and you’re like “oh what am I going to do?”. So the pandemic has definitely highlighted for some. It was “I can’t cope with this”. And for some after a while, they found they went back to the things that they were using to cope before.
So this has definitely made things I think worse for some people. Yeah, it has definitely made it worse for some people.
What do you think people can be doing right now to support themselves and also if they have the bandwidth for it like support others?
V.Ophelia: So one of the main things, I think, is getting back to self-care. Really knowing what you can and cannot do. It’s OK if you’re saying you know “I’m just learning to take care of myself right now”. The capacity that I have is just for me, and that is OK. If you do have some bandwidth and some energy for others start small.
But it really starts with you. It really is important especially during this time. Find some time to work on your self-care and that can look very different. Yes, it can be yoga. But it could be going for a run. It could be going for a swim. It could be waking up early. You know, find the time where you can allow that pain to come into your life. Understand it a little bit and say OK I understand this a little bit and move through it with some techniques that you have learned.
Once you have done that and you are able to say “I’m in a good place”, you can take that lesson to, if you want to go big and you have the skills, you can run a group. But it can be really small. You can share that with somebody else who is grieving. Maybe start with your friend maybe start with a family member because people tend to be going through similar things they might not understand it. So if you learned some lessons share it with some people in your circle.
Amazing. Well, Ophelia thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today about grief and if people want to find out more about your work or go on your Web site or follow you on Instagram or something like that. Where should they go to see those things?
V.Ophelia: So they can follow me on Instagram @opheliarigault. They can go to Facebook and my Facebook page is my name. The best way to do that is just going to Facebook and find me and they can send me a direct message or go to my Web site www.vopheliarigault.com. So it’s all in my name. Just put my name in google you find me.
Kathryn: Amazing and we’ll put those links in our show notes as well in case people need them all in one spot. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
V.Ophelia: Thank you for having me.