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Individual stands in thoughtful pose in front of pole.

Poling and Grief

Editors Note: Jess started working on this blog entry over a month ago. It was completed before she learned of the tragic incident following a local DC-area competition. She offers her deepest condolences to everyone processing that loss. Perhaps her thoughts and experiences, shared below, can help others.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how grief impacts my poling practice. Life happens to everyone, and polers are no different. But our physically demanding practice, whether as a teacher, performer, student, or all of the above, requires an awareness of how emotions impact everything from sleep to strength to our ability to focus. We all manage our daily ups and downs as they happen, but in my experience grief is something else. Meaner. Sneakier.

It’s a bit like the few times I’ve tried surfng. On Waikiki Beach, where the water is warm and about as choppy as a bathtub, and the boards are roughly the size of airplane wings, I can eventually stand up, get my balance, and look like I’m in control. But throw me in the deep water with the big waves and an undertow, and I could actually drown.

I lost my Dad to cancer six years ago. He eventually needed to move in with my family, and I paused my teaching during those last few weeks, when his needs were the most acute. But I went right back to work after he passed. My students were surprised to see me at the studio so soon, but I desperately needed those few hours of focusing on something outside myself. At the time, it also helped to be away from the house, where I found myself saying “Hi, Dad” as I felt his presence move past me. The studio was a refuge. The physicality of poling was a way out of my head, and of moving all that emotion through my body.

Three years later, my Mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her decline was steep and fast. What’s weird to me now is that I can’t remember how long I stopped teaching for, or what it felt like to start again. When I look back, all I can fnd is a spot that hurts so much I can’t breathe when I press on it. My grief was compounded, greater than the sum of its parts. At the time I told myself “at least I’m keeping my shit together in front of my students,” then blurted out contextless fears to any colleague who walked too close to me. Four months later, I few to a pole competition that I’d signed up for before Mom got sick, feeling like I was floating outside my body. I came in last, and rage-cried all the way home.

And now, as I write this, it’s been six weeks since my dog Lucy passed away. I know some people will bristle at including a pet in the same category as my parents, but the fact is that snuggling with her helped me through their deaths, my pregnancy, Covid lockdown, and so much more. My son’s frst word was “doggie.” Lucy was a member of my family.

I forced myself to keep going because that’s what I do. And because I had another freaking pole competition – this time, just 10 days after she died. I told myself that just finishing my piece would be enough. My performance felt good but scored poorly. Then, with my one distraction no longer available, I fell apart.

The thought of starting pole classes again was completely different this time. I’m still training at home, and I’ve never done a virtual class without her. I’m in the room where she sat next to me for over three years. Almost every pole video of mine has her in it. The first time I laid on the floor for conditioning exercises and there wasn’t a furry face in mine, I sobbed. I gave myself permission to cancel a class for the first time ever, just because I couldn’t find the strength that day. Going to teach at the studio is slightly better, but its still hard to escape the intrusive thoughts.

I’m still working my way through this latest storm. As I rack up this experience that I’d rather not have, the only thing that’s clear is that each loss is as different as the relationship that’s been severed. So I’m muddling through it, doing my best – which sometimes feels not very good. And I’m sharing my story because I know I’m not alone. I do know there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. All we can do is take the best care of ourselves that we can. Feel all our feelings. Reach out for support when we need it. Find solace where its available – including on the pole. It will be there, whenever the time is right.

Jessica Hopper
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