I have written several articles and blog posts about my jiu-jitsu journey – what I have learned, what I have struggled with, and the connections I have made between my technical progression and my life in general. To me, the connections were clear. Everything that I needed to succeed in my jiu-jitsu practice could be translated off the mats and into my real life.

However, on June 5, 2017, I found myself in new territory. I received the shocking news that my brother, at the age of 33, had passed away. In an instant, my whole world was turned upside down. I was not expecting this. Nothing I had learned in the past – not my education, not my life experience, not anything – provided me with the tools to handle what I was feeling. How could they – I couldn’t even make sense of what had happened or what I was feeling.

The weight of the grief was oppressive. It sat on my chest like a ton of metal and it took all the discipline and self-control I had to just try to breathe calmly.

I so desperately wanted to make connections to what I was experiencing with what I had learned through jiu-jitsu, but there were no connections to be made. My mind was blank and my heart was hollow. I was somehow getting through each day, and my duty and love for my parents, husband, and students was what kept me going, though even then it was through short spurts of energy that were then followed by an almost catatonic-like state. I would hear sounds from the TV, but I didn’t know what they were saying. I would smile at something someone said, but the smile never translated into my gaze. It was hard. It was so very hard.

I was just not ready for anything or anyone … and that’s when the first connection hit me. It was something that Rener Gracie had once said: the right move at the wrong time is the wrong move.

The right move at the wrong time is the wrong move.

Even though I wanted to find a way to go on, to rejoin my friends, to laugh again, or to go back to class with my teammates, it wasn’t the right time. The intention was there. The merit behind the move was there. However, it wasn’t the right time. So I had to be patient with myself and give myself permission to grieve. I had to allow and accept that what I needed was space and silence, and that was ok. Trying to push myself to move in a way I wasn’t ready to was not the right move. For right now, the correct thing for me to do was to stay still.

As time has gone on, I can’t say that things have gotten easier. However, I’ve been able to manage my environment better. This reminded me of another Rener Gracie quote, “He who manages the distance, manages the damage.”

He who manages the distance, manages the damage.

The first time I stepped out of the house after my brother’s funeral, I almost collapsed. Every sound around me was amplified. Cars looked like they were all zooming by at incredible speeds or coming towards me uncontrollably. Every person around me looked suspicious. My heart would race, my head would spin, and the anxiety in leaving the house would intensify so much that I would have a panic attack. I just couldn’t be around people; I couldn’t be outside. The unpredictability of my environment was too much for me to handle. I was having trouble calming my breath and relaxing even when I was home alone; imagine how it was when you added other people …

I realized at that point that I had to manage my movement. I had to manage my distance – with other people, other situations, and other events. I needed to focus on surrounding myself with people who cared about me and made me feel calm. I needed to manage my circumstances and make sure that I did not go to places that I did not need to or that I knew would make me feel stressed or anxious. It was up to me to control what I could control.

This type of behavior did keep me quite isolated for a while, but that is exactly what I needed at the time. The damage to me – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually – was too much for me, so I managed my distance until I felt like I was able to defend myself and cope with my environment.

I did have to wonder at one point though if I was giving in to the grief too much. Was I allowing it to run my emotions and consequently my life in a way that was harmful to myself? Should I in fact stand up to myself and be a bit firmer so that I could move forward? I wasn’t sure. Part of me wanted to challenge myself and put myself out there – out in a stressful circumstance – and see how I could cope. However the other part of me wanted to remain in my safe cocoon. Ryron Gracie’s quote about remaining calm under stressful circumstances came to mind.

“Once you learn to remain calm under the stressful circumstances of a fight, you will have no trouble remaining calm under the stressful circumstances of life.” Ryron Gracie

While I was not in a stressful circumstance of a fight, I was in a stressful circumstance of life. Even though I did not see the connection before, I do believe that it was the confidence in myself that I had developed as a result of jiu-jitsu that allowed me to stay calm and diligently work through my feelings. I do believe that avoiding stressful circumstances was the right thing for me to do in the beginning.

When I was finally ready to face the outside world and I stepped outside, my worst fears came true. I crumbled. I had a complete panic attack in the middle of the mall. I found myself sobbing uncontrollably and it felt awful. I have to say, my immediate thought after that was, ‘I never want to go out again.’ However, when I had a chance to sit aback and think about it some more, I realized my worst fear had become a reality. I had been avoiding going out precisely because I was worried about having a panic attack. Even though I did crumble, when I put the pieces back together and calmed myself I realized that I had survived that stressful circumstance. I was one step closer into regaining control of my fear and anxiety. In this case, I may not have been in a physical fight with someone else, but I was definitely having a psychological fight within me. Learning how to remain calm and work through all the fighting forces helped me in the long run. I know that it is something I can tap into whenever I need to, even if it takes quite a bit of effort.

Conceding to this vulnerability was something that I do not think I could have done in the past. In fact, I know that I would have been much harder on myself and much stricter about pushing past and possibly ignoring my grief. Now, however, I was able to clearly recognize that I was going to need space and time to heal. It was okay for me to step back for some time. It was okay for me to ‘tap out.’ By tapping out I was not giving up. I was just taking a moment to step back, pause, and evaluate my circumstance before moving forward.

“When I tap, it means I’ve accepted the technique, learned the lesson and look to apply the experience next time I step on the mat. I never give up.” Ryron Gracie

My grief over losing my brother, still incredibly strong even two months on, made me realize how incredibly consuming and devastating loss can be. It really is inexplicable as it is not just sadness or sorrow. It is emptiness. It is anguish. It is heartbreak. It is all those things among so many other thoughts, feelings, and emotions that weave in and out of my mind and heart each day. However, despite the loss still feeling so raw, I have realized that acknowledging the space I need and allowing myself to ‘tap out’ to regroup and just breathe was the best thing I could do for myself. It allowed me to maintain perspective and analyze what I was going through. It allowed me to technically deconstruct my emotions and objectively look for a way to move forward. It is not an easy or straightforward lesson. In fact, I have often found myself entangled once again in the tentacles of the public sphere only to tap out and step back in order to regroup, learn, and continue. As Rener said, “If you train worst case scenarios consistently, they will no longer be worst case scenarios.”

While I have gone through a lot of trial and error in terms of interacting with the public again (both familiar and foreign faces), when it came to trying to find some meaning to my life, it was teaching that saved me. Rener Gracie’s statement about teaching really resonated with me: “When your purpose and your occupation is giving confidence to people, teaching self-defense, giving empowerment, teaching a positive lifestyle to other people, you tend to emit that yourself because you want to live what you preach and you want to preach what you live, and I’m just trying to do my best.”

grateful to my teachers and mentors – Ryron and Rener Gracie

The biggest blessing for me was teaching private Women Empowered and Combatives lessons. I had my own training space at home and a group of enthusiastic, amazing women who were learning under me. They saved me. The curriculum saved me. No matter how dark and oppressive a cloud I was under, the moment I opened the training room door to welcome my students, that cloud would disappear. In its place would be 100% energy, enthusiasm, and excitement. It was like a breath of fresh air. Empowering these women reminded me how to empower myself. Seeing each student walk away from our training sessions standing a little taller, smiling a bit brighter, and moving with more confidence was so incredibly rewarding. While I may not have been ready to join my teammates on the mats and train myself, teaching others saved me. I was reminded that I still had purpose, that I still could make a difference in someone’s life, that I still mattered.

me and some of my amazing students

After my brother died, I felt myself slipping into depression. While I did want to acknowledge and appreciate my feelings, I did not want to completely drown in hopelessness and sorrow. However, trying to find anything to smile about, hope for, or even live for felt pointless. I never imagined my life without my brother – but that was now my reality. Teaching helped remind me that I still had a purpose … and that despite the incredible anguish, my life was still worth living … and as a parallel, I was still worth defending.

“Self-defense is not just a set of techniques; it’s a state of mind, and it begins with the belief that you are worth defending.” Rorion Gracie

This has been the biggest shift in my mentality and it rang true even now – I (my feelings, my emotions, my needs) was worth defending. While I may not have been using physical jiu-jitsu techniques to defend myself, I realize now that I have definitely been using practical jiu-jitsu concepts to protect myself in a variety of ways. They have allowed me to continue moving forward and working towards the life I wanted to live and the kind of purpose I wanted to fulfill.

thank you for your teachings Grand Master Rorion

Aside from jiu-jitsu, writing has been a major outlet for me and has helped me process a lot of my thoughts and emotions. I really was so forlorn in the beginning as I felt that jiu-jitsu – the practice that I believe in so much, that I love so much, that has such a huge presence in my life – could not help me. I am so happy that through my writing as a way to sort out my feelings I was able to find these connections. Being able to see how what I have learned translates beyond the techniques is incredibly invaluable. It reminds me that all the jiu-jitsu principles and philosophies I learn have a greater purpose than being able to execute a perfect armlock or choke. It also reminds me that the concept of self-defense is not just a physical act but it is a mental, emotional, and spiritual action too. It has allowed me to appreciate how Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is not just a physical practice, but it is also a complete way of life.