HealthMental Health


Circus for the broken heart: Movement helping people deal with grief

Dr. Sherry Walling hosts workshops that combine her skills as a clinical psychologist and an amatuer circus artist.
Posted at 9:53 PM, Mar 02, 2023

Flying through the air, eyes locked on that trapeze, has become part of a weekly routine for Dr. Sherry Walling.

She wears more hats than most as a clinical psychologist, an author and an amateur circus artist. 

"I giggle a little bit when I introduce myself because it's an unexpected place that I find myself in my life," Walling said.

Grief led Walling to the circus.

"In the past five years or so, I personally have experienced really significant loss. So, I lost my dad to cancer and my brother to suicide and we had a little girl in our family for four years who we thought would be a part of our forever family," Walling said.

Despite being a clinical psychologist, trained to help people adjust their thoughts and feelings, her own experiences reminded her of how integral the body is to mental health and wellbeing.

"When your body experiences a significant shock or trauma or emotional reaction, it clenches, and it holds and so there is a lot of body movement in circus that's sort of the opposite of that," Walling said. "I don't have the bandwidth to think about grief, to be in pain, or to be distracted by anything else. I am just thinking about what's happening in that very moment. For someone who is in turmoil or grief or trauma, that's a huge gift."

She learned how to find happiness in her worst of times, while simultaneously working through the pain.

"Living in sadness, illness, death, grief, and also living in joy, creativity, playfulness, friendship," Walling said.

The realization has led to helping others and starting Circus for the Brokenhearted.

Grief isn't a linear process and it's why Kim Witczak is taking part in Walling's workshop two decades after her husband died by suicide. 

"I will never forget the call that kind of anchored grief in my body," she said. "All of my sudden my dad calls and is like, 'It's bad. It's bad. He's dead,' and I'm like, 'What?'" Witczak said. "As someone whose been in this now for 20 years, you can still have other relationships, but things will bring you back. It ebbs and it flows. It is a lifelong process."

Using new muscles in her body and shifting her mental focus has allowed 20 years of trauma to start healing in new ways.

"When you're doing something physical you're moving it you're seeing it, and you realize that life really is all of that. Life is grief, life is happiness, it's sad, it's joy, it's all of it," Witczak said. 

"We don't really have a gym for our brains or for our emotional life but circus has sort of become that for me," Walling said.

Whether it's circus, dance, yoga, or even pottery or painting, Walling says people should open up their mind and body to unlock new ways of processing grief.

"The best thing that I have to offer is in my own self, is the very lived reality of holding both grief and joy in the same place," Walling said.

A man sits with his head in his hands.

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