“I think of my life as a before and after,” says Nancy Perlson, 45. The “before” Nancy—a driven corporate meetings planner and busy mom of two boys—existed prior to Aug., 16, 1996, the day her father, Stephen Black Sr., died by suicide.
The next two years passed with Nancy under a haze of grief, shuffling between her role as caretaker for her mom and kids. During those first dark months following her dad’s death—she’s not sure when—Nancy took her first yoga class. “I had always been active. But I felt like I needed something to calm me down.”
As the emotional fog lifted, the “after” Nancy began to take shape. Though she had started yoga on a whim, she soon grew to love it. “I gave up my health club membership and became a yoga studio junkie,” Nancy says. In 1999, she became a facilitator for a support group for families affected by suicide, which she’d been attending since her father’s death. Soon after, she decided to make a deeper commitment to her work with grieving children and families. So, with the support of husband Scott and her now-teenage sons, Nancy went back to school, earning a master’s degree in social work, focusing on trauma and loss.
“The whole time I was in school, yoga was becoming more important in my own healing. It was a safe place where I could just let myself go,” Nancy says. As an intern at Willow House, a community bereavement organization on the North Shore of Chicago, Nancy began incorporating yoga into some of the activities. “I knew we had to teach people who were grieving how to breathe,” Nancy says.
Still, something was holding her back from fully sharing yoga with other people dealing with loss. “The seed had been growing in me, but I considered yoga my self-care. If I gave it away I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything left for me,” Nancy admits. Despite her doubts, Nancy forged ahead, getting certified in yoga and creating a yoga bereavement program at Healing Power Yoga in Highland Park, Ill., in early 2010.
Claire Abrahamson, 32, for one, is glad she did. Claire signed up for two sessions of Nancy’s program after losing her mother in August 2009. “The group helped me heal emotionally and physically,” Claire says. “Knowing that others can share in your pain and are in the same place as you is comforting.”
Even though it’s been almost 15 years since her dad’s death, Nancy still turns to yoga for her own comfort, to calm her mind and temper her sadness. “Grief is a process,” Nancy says. “It changes. It never goes away. It’s a lifelong journey.”