Interested in learning breathwork at home? Check out my book! X

Creating a Container for Grief

I’ve always done well in chaos. At one point in my life I thrived in copious amounts of chaos and drama. I’ve done well in tornadoes and shit storms because they are familiar. What I haven’t done very well, historically speaking, is grief. The heaviness of this emotion has a tendency to take me pretty far down the rabbit hole and it’s something I tried my best to avoid for years.

My Mom carries enough grief for my entire family. You can hear it in her lungs every time she coughs. Grief comes through in her sentences that trail off into the grey areas when we start to dig into the past a little bit. It’s super messy back there and very difficult to talk about.

When I think of grief I think of my Mom living in her bed after Grandma died. The curtains drawn, crumbled up McDonald’s hamburger wrappers in piles in the trash can. A cat or two sleeping at the foot of the bed and Guiding Light on the TV set. The room was always dark, there was a thickness in the air, some from the humidity of the South and the rest from all the stuff we didn’t talk about. It was just hanging there, like an entity that needed someplace to be.

Sometimes I’d crawl in bed with her and eat hamburgers and watch TV. Other times I’d sit in my bed in the room next door, listen to records and pop Xanax until I couldn’t feel anything anymore. For so many years I thought my Mom was the only one that carried grief in her body. When I drew my first sober breath at 21 years old I recognized I had plenty of my own.

Grief isn’t usually a topic I write about because I want to focus on the light, the growth, all of the ways we are resilient and seeking redemption. I don’t want to bring you into a dark part of my past but I am going to anyway. I want to shift and in order to walk a little more free in this world I need to expose some of my story and share how it ties in with my life today.

And the truth is we are resilient. All of the dark crevices in our lives are the places where the light gets in and this is where we find our deepest well of strength and our greatest capacity to love.

I want to love myself through the mess.

I want to love myself through the crushing sadness that feels like it might last forever.

I want to love myself exactly as I am. Here. Messy. Dark. Snot faced and slightly depressed.

Okay really depressed.

I spent seven days on the couch last week grieving. One short month after going through a breakup, moving into a new place, healing some deep family wounds and narrowing the focus of my practice, my body gave out. And I made a choice to give in.

I remember saying to my Naturopath in early December, I cannot believe how great I feel and how not sick I am given everything that is going on! She tilted her head to the left and gave me that all-knowing-doctor-look, yeah, you’re getting sick as soon as you land.

And I landed.

I landed with a giant thud and it hurt like hell.

Oh, wait, this is my new life?!

Shit. This is so much more painful than I thought it would be.


And then the waves of grief began.

Coming down with three shades of the flu was exactly what my body needed to start processing the grief I’ve been experiencing in tiny flashes.

I’m a doer. I’ve been busy since I was a toddler, in fact, one of my favorite statements in my early years was, I’m busy. It’s part of my DNA, it’s embedded in my astrological chart to be doing things all of the time. So yeah, when I can’t be doing things I tend to get uncomfortable fairly quickly. This is why it’s such a big deal that I’ve been meditating for as many years as I have because it goes against everything in my nature, to be constantly fluttering about doing any number of things, reading, creating, healing, cooking, walking, writing, researching, talking, singing, working, brainstorming.

Creating A Container For Grief by Ashley Neese

When you’re busy all the time there is no room for grief. My body eventually put on the breaks and gave me a clear indication that it was safe enough to slow down now and start to lean into the heavy sadness.

Over the years I’ve read loads of books on grief, including the popular theories that there are a certain number of stages you go through during the grieving process. I’m not much for lists that tell me how to feel because I find my emotions are non-linear. What I have experienced with grief is that it comes in waves and that in any moment I can shift from feeling anger to extreme sadness to wanting to bargain with God. Acceptance hasn’t been much of a challenge for me because this past week because I was so knocked out with the flu that I had to surrender to what was happening. I had zero energy to fight or resist and that was such a blessing.

Grief has been difficult for me to share about because it always feels so heavy and loaded. I’ve taken a lot of pride in not being a person that has intense depression and all that has done is left me with even more sadness and grief. Even in my early sober days I did everything I could to not feel sad, grief or any other unpleasant emotion because they were too much. Any time I had an extreme feeling I was triggered to get high. I also felt super triggered by the grief of others. One of my greatest gifts is being incredibly empathetic and this is something I have had to learn to use rather than let it consume me.

At two and a half years in recovery I experienced my first sober breakup. I wanted to die. I couldn’t believe how intense the pain was. I was in the middle of graduating college and planning to move cross country to start graduate school in San Francisco. There was so much going on at once (seems to be a big theme in my life!) and I couldn’t handle the intense feelings.

I felt terrible and chose to go on antidepressants for a few months just to take off the edge and because my therapist was afraid I would start using again. When I got settled in San Francisco I went off the meds and found yoga. I began to incorporate mindful movement into my life as a tool for self healing and learning to hold space for my emotional body. I fell in love with my yoga practice. I found it was better than medication and it gave me many tools for living with all of the feelings instead of constantly needing to clip the sharp edges. I learned to take care of my emotions with my breath and meditation.

Over the years my ability to fully experience grief without medication or the fear of relapse has gotten stronger. One of the most helpful practices I have developed to support my grief is to learning how to hold more space for myself while I process heavy emotions. I call this creating a container for grief. The wider I am able to make my container, the easier it becomes to experience grief and other emotions (even positive ones like joy) in the same breath. This container allows me to become more real and this has been my life’s mission: to become real.

In the past when I’ve been sick and grieving I numbed myself out with loads of TV, crappy food or distracting myself by constantly talking to people on the phone. Last week I gave myself over to the grief and even though there were some moments that got really dark and a little scary, I knew I could handle them. I had been growing my container of support and fully gave myself permission to not do anything else but grieve.

There might always be a tiny piece of me that doesn’t want to have intense feelings in front of other people because of what I witnessed growing up when I didn’t have healthy tools for coping with life. I am also open to that completely shifting and my container widening even more. What I know for sure from my own journey and supporting many women on theirs is that it’s a wise idea to leave room for the miraculous.

Anytime we stretch out our arms to give ourselves a bigger hug, magic sparks and the unbelievable occurs.

Above all, all loss is loss and nobody’s pain is greater than yours. The most wholehearted thing any of us can do is be honest about what we’re going through and love ourselves through the process as it arises. Healing cannot be rushed. Believe me, I’ve tried too many times to count. Moving mountains of grief can be a slow process but I will tell you this truth, it does get easier. It really does. And, the more open you are and the more willing you are to nourish yourself through every wave the more you will make friends with the ride.

I know I still have some work to do around grief. I also know I have the tools to get through it and an incredible community of friends and family to hold my hand when I need extra help. We’re all going to develop a relationship with grief in our lifetime. It’s up to us to make that a rich and rewarding relationship that we can use in service to the people around us.

All of our deep sadness has a purpose. It’s making us into these brave souls who have been through something tough, who have seen some darker aspects of life and are here to walk each other home.

If I can move through this, trust me, you can too.

I’ve shared my container meditation practice below. If you have ways that help you move through grief I would love to connect around this topic. Wishing you all a beautiful rest of the week and more very soon.

Lots of love,



CREATING A CONTAINER FOR GRIEF (or any emotion you are working with)

Visualize yourself in a cocoon of golden light while you are meditating. The golden light is a safe place for you to experience all of your feelings.

Breathe gently in and out through the nose and imagine the golden light expanding beyond your physical body while still keeping you safe and protected.

Make room for any and all feelings that surface during this practice and breathe deeply into your heart.

Keep this visualization going for 5 minutes and then just sit quietly in meditation until you are ready to get up.

Practice daily for 10 minutes.


Photos by Lani Trock


  • This space is such an important place to give in to, especially without guilt, shame, or “shoulds”. Thank you for this. I’m so grateful that you were able to cycle through and come out of it and had the generosity of spirit to share with us. It’s so imperative to share these moments of darkness. For all of us. Because we all experience loss and change and sadness, and if we don’t confront them and own them and include others who offer their empathy and protection, we are not true. That’s the light. Thank you for shining on! Love you so much. xoxo

    • ashley

      Hi Hope! It’s such a treat to hear from you. Thank you for being here and taking the time to write. I love what you said about confronting our feelings and including other people in the process, that is so key for healing and building community. It’s amazing how isolating grief can feel until you share about it. And you’re right, we all experience everything and I really believe our dark moments are some of the richest for growth and development. We really get to see what we’re made of, especially when we’re willing to expose it and transform it into light. Thinking of you a ton and sending lots of love your way. All my heart. xoa

  • Lizzie

    Thank you for this beautiful post! As a young child I experienced a serious trauma and now at 31 I feel like I am just starting to wrap my mind and heart around truly facing the grief. I feel that often we speak of grief as something people expirince for a short time after a painful event, when in actuality it can stay with us for our entire lives and come on so quickly, just as you described.. I’ve also found a sanctuary in yoga and mediation and will be trying yours soon. Thank you again for sharing!

    • ashley

      Hi Lizzie,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. My relationship with grief has changed over the years and it’s something that I will continue develop throughout my life. Often times we feel the sadness around an event and the grief lingers. The most important thing is to give ourselves lots of space to feel into it and find practices that support that. I am happy to learn you have found a home in yoga and meditation too, such potent tools! Wishing you a beautiful weekend and thanks again for being here. xoa

  • Hi Ashley, Thank you for this post! For more than 30 years I also was a doer, busy every day, never took a day off. When sad things happened, I cried a little “in between”. For living that way, my body kinda shot down twice already. The first time was in my early 30s, the second time a few years ago. After the first time I took 8 month off from work to have more time for myself. It was scary and surprising but also freeing and a big relief to experience all these hidden emotions that now had time and space to show up. I really made tabula rasa with my entire life. Seems like these months weren’t enough for all topics, so I probably needed another breakdown. I was very frustrated to experience that second one, ’cause I thought I already knew it all. Unfortunately I could only afford to take a few days off – which I used to learn how to meditate, cry, and grief. It sure was a lot of energy that wanted to leave my body and it sure was no fun for anyone around me too. But I learned a lot from that second experience: I just need time for any emotion that wants to come up. I always try to make room for joy and happiness, so following the yin and yang principle of life, all the “negative” feelings like grief and anger need their space too. In the end, they are actually as good as the “positive” ones, ’cause even if you feel exhausted, they leave you with a clear and calm state of mind. Like the saying, after the rain comes sun again. So I wish you a lot of sun this coming spring! :-)

    • ashley

      Hello dear Corina,
      It is always wonderful to hear from you. I love what you wrote about needing time for emotions to surface, that is so important. We have to make room for all of the emotions, yin and yang just like you said. And you’re right, in the end we’re always clear when we process through our feelings and take care of ourselves during the process. I love hearing more about your experiences and journey. Thank you for sharing them with us. Sending love and a giant hug to you. xoa

  • hannah-phoebe

    I loved this piece thank you so much for opening up – it’s important to face the shadow side and brave to do it publicly. I will definitely be trying this meditation.
    I was wondering whether you ever grieved your addictions after you gave them up? After all, we develop addictions because they are the best way we now how to cope in that moment. Our soul seeks comfort and protecting and when it encounters something that offers that it latches on in the naive belief it has found the truth and is caring for you and ensuring self-preservation. So losing that is a devastatingly deep grief. Not only losing the coping mechanism but also the illusion that all life’s problems can be solved with one solution, a certain naïveté. Not to mention the ‘grief’ of losing one’s ego-self into the greater commonality (if that makes any sense)
    Thanks for sharing xx

    • Hannah-Phoebe

      Since leaving this comment I’ve been thinking about whether I even want to cast off/loose and grieve this way of thinking/living or whether I need to do the (seemingly) opposite and actually draw it in, accept and integrate it into myself and just learn to work with it and channel it differently. Less of a losing-grieving process and more of a maturation-loss of innocence. In which case it may still make sense to do some grieving for that simplistic naïveté (it’s not really either/or is it)

    • ashley

      Hello! Thank you so much for taking the time to share and being willing to do the work. I am so inspired by what you write and how you are moving through your life. I love your second comment as well about drawing the grief in and making it part of your life and learning to channel it in a different way. I love witnessing your process here and getting glimpses of how you took in the piece and are bringing it to life in your own words. It’s really beautiful. Thinking of you and sending love. xoa

  • Ashley, sending you much love as you grieve and heal. Sorry you’re going through a tough time, but no surprise you’re going though it with wisdom, depth and honesty. You’re amazing, lady!

    • ashley

      Hi Erin! It is always so wonderful to hear from you. Thank you for the love and support. Been thinking of you a bunch and there is a chance I’ll be up in Oakland in April! Will let you know as soon as it’s confirmed. Would love to spend some time together. Big hugs. xoa

  • Hi, Ashley – what a beautiful post. Thanks for sharing and being so open about your journey (as always). You touched on some really important concepts and common misconceptions about grief and mourning (e.g., the linear process of “stages”), and I just thought I would share a resource that can shift that perspective and offer some additional suggestions for healing. In my work as a grief counselor at Hospice, we ground a lot of our practice in the work of Alan Wolfelt, and specifically, his book, Companioning the Bereaved. His work is focused on grief following the death of a loved one, but I think there are correlates to other types of loss, as well. I highly recommend it. Best wishes, and love to you as you move through this time. xo

    • ashley

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment Cindy. It is really lovely to hear from you and I appreciate your experience. I cannot wait to check out the book, it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I will get it this weekend. Thank you again for sharing your wisdom and resources on this topic. It will be of use to many. Thinking of you and wishing you a beautiful 2016. Lots of love. xoa

  • Catherine

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s good to talk about this. Grief has layers upon layers upon layers. It is how our hearts honor the love we miss. Sending you lots of love and light, and enormous hugs. xoxoxoo

    • ashley

      Thank you for being here Catherine. I really appreciate your thoughtful insight. Grief is such an important topic. Wishing you a beautiful weekend. xoa

Leave a Comment

Site Design Marbury
Photography Anaïs & Dax
Development Alchemy + Aim