The Transformative Power of Grief
Grief has been a big theme for me over the past few months, and in this week’s Heart of Thriving blog, I share two profound pieces of writing about this important topic.
The first is part of a longer piece by Buddhist writer Joan Sutherland. About how grief is healthy and transformative, when we allow ourselves to feel it fully. This has certainly been my own experience.
But there can be a tendency to try to avoid powerful feelings – to numb, to distract ourselves. If we do this, I think we miss a huge opportunity to listen to the quiet ‘nudges’ from the deepest parts of ourselves.
The second is a wonderfully moving piece written by a Hazel, a participant on my recent Heart of Thriving workshop.
Joan Sutherland says:
”Our tears become a solvent for what is unyielding within, the defenses we erect to keep from feeling the pain of life all the way through—which also keep us from feeling its beauty all the way through. The tears soften, unstick, breach, topple, and fill. They run like water under the ice, and suddenly the frozen is flowing again.
Some people fear this kind of dissolving. Will I still be me? Will I disappear or go mad? If we begin this weeping, if we open ourselves to the pain and the poignancy and the terrible, wounded beauty of life on this Earth, perhaps we won’t be able to stop, and we will drown.
We do not disappear, nor do we drown. Neither do we cry forever.
But if from time to time these tears are called from us, they’re no longer frightening; they are a small ceremony keeping us close to the world. They make us less brittle, more resilient.
The salt tears are remnants of our oceanic beginnings, and they are also the residue of the sometimes-difficult sea we cross in this life. We contain both, the timeless depths and the waves washing over the fragile raft that carries us from birth to death.
Grief is a form of love, how we go on loving in the absence of the beloved. It is the transformation of love through loss, and how we are initiated into a new world.
Like all initiations, it begins with a purification. In the case of grief this can be particularly intense, because the loss of what we love is so intense: shock, memory, sorrow, rage, regret, tenderness, depression, gratitude, guilt, fear, numbness, longing, disappointment, betrayal, relief. We are scoured by gales, the old life stripped away.
But we don’t cry forever.
Grief changes, growing from its wild beginnings into a kind of dignity.
You can find the whole article here: https://www.lionsroar.com/here-at-the-end-of-the-world/
And now meet Hazel, who was a participant on one of my recent Heart of Thriving Workshops. I love her humour, vulnerability and courage – and the way she’s such a living embodiment of grace, wisdom and dignity.
Knowing but not Seeing – Diary of a Three Principles Virgin
“I write this with love and gratitude to the amazing people I was privileged and humbled to meet at the end of Oct 2019 – especially Kimberley!
I will start by introducing myself. I am a 62 year old Brummie living and working in Yorkshire. I’ve basically been ‘up north’ for just over 40 years. I live close to my two daughters Megan and Frances. They are 25 and 24 respectively, have graduated and are finding their way in their chosen professions/lives.
I am a widow. I was separated (and eventually divorced) from the girls’ father in 2002 but was then fortunate enough to find love again in the shape of ‘my precious Big Man’ Alan – who sadly died quickly and tragically of cancer in 2015.
I have had a relatively successful and very satisfying career working in the natural environment (public sector) for nearly 40 years. I am also a Christian.
I have always been interested in self-help and self-development, and can list numerous books and courses/experiences over the decades from ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’ in the 70’s through ‘Management Development for Women’ and various other leadership courses – always in search of better understanding and ultimately well-being.
Earlier this year, I was curious, but also frustrated, as I embarked on this journey to understand myself better, and to thrive.
So where was I? Well I guess like most other people the answer to that is: ‘Mixed’.
On the one hand I am deeply grateful and content. There are and have been many blessings in my life – my fabulous family and friends (in particular the two most wondrous of God’s creations – my daughters), my genuinely exciting and humbling career and love in two big and important romantic relationships.
However there is also hurt and disappointment and grief – the most significant and recent of these being the painful loss of my precious Big Man.
At 60 I took partial retirement from my job to create some space in my life to think about ‘What now?’. I had lost Alan two years previously and, although none of us can know what is round the corner, we can and do make plans.
Suddenly the life I’d been expecting and hoping for was no more.
Alan and I had had very little time together – it was cruelly cut short by his illness and death – and as I now look towards my future it has looked scarily like a blank page.
Having had my fair share of bereavement counselling and support, I firmly believe that ‘grief is not something you work through – it is something you travel with’ (a ‘story’ I know – but one that really resonates with me).
I think my favourite metaphor is the one where Grief is like a book. You keep it – and it has a place on your bookshelf – and over the years you get to leave it there for longer periods, and it may even get a bit dusty and battered.
But every so often you take it down again – sometimes because you want to, and sometimes because it just falls on your head as you take down another book – and there it is – your grief.
But I also felt that the time was right for me to be OK with leaving it on the shelf. I was acutely conscious that I’ve been hanging on to it like a life raft – which ironically far from saving my life was at times dragging me under.
Having said that I was genuinely ‘doing really well’ (a well meant and loving phrase I heard often from friends and family that unfortunately can also sometimes sound patronising)
Encouraged by one friend I have taken up salsa – and genuinely love it. I have travelled and done many improvements to the house.
I had been talking to a very special friend of mine about my feelings, and she drew my attention to the Heart of Thriving Facebook page. I ‘liked’ the page and began to read various posts and messages with passive interest.
I realised I wanted to look further – anywhere to be honest – to understand what was going on and just to try to feel ‘better’.
So alongside visiting my bereavement counsellor again, visiting my homeopath again and getting quite interested in the healing power of crystals, I also kept a much keener eye on the Heart of Thriving Facebook page.
Then Kim offered some free coaching and eventually a free workshop later in the year.
‘Just say yes’! So I did.
I can never thank Kim enough for the time she gave me at the start of this. We had three calls where I basically just said ‘yes, but’ many, many, many times alongside sharing some of my ‘story’ as explanation.
It was helpful and did start to open my eyes – but I also had many more questions than answers. I dutifully read some of the books, watched some of the videos and recordings of zoom calls and booked my accommodation and time off from work.
Surely all would become clear over three days ‘intense’ thinking and sharing?
I travelled down to Hertfordshire the day before the workshop and settled into my pleasant, rather quaint local pub and set off for Kim’s home the following day with what I truly believed was an open mind and heart!
As I have already said, ‘doing’ workshops, even touchy-feely-type workshops is fine with me. So as the group were welcomed warmly and gracefully into Kim’s home, I felt OK.
Usual brief introductions – particularly referencing our experience of the Three Principles led to my first slight unease – only one other woman was there as a total beginner (Ingrid – I will be forever grateful you were there!!).
Now I know it isn’t a competition (and I’m genuinely not very competitive in everyday life) but I wasn’t initially entirely comfortable with exploring all this stuff as a novice numpty!
I was also very self-conscious about introducing Alan into the conversation. That experience, and where I was with my grief journey was part of the reason I was searching, part of the reason I was there – but everyone has their story and their journey and frankly, their fair share of shit (or ‘Trauma Top Trumps’ as it became known – thank you Martha!)
Anyway – I did share this, but tried very hard to frame it in different ways, and people were not surprisingly empathetic and supportive! However the bottom line is that I found the first day really, really hard!
I can honestly say that I didn’t understand most of what was being said. I mean I understood the English – they weren’t particularly difficult words – but I just didn’t get it.
As I have said, many of those there had already been through a journey with the Principles, and were quickly revelling in the delight of sharing their insights with each other.
Don’t get me wrong – they were ALL lovingly trying to share with me too – there was NO sense of exclusion – except for the one I created for myself.
Ingrid (my fellow virgin) shared some deep and emotional issues she had been having with her young adult son who had just gone to University. The group offered some thoughts – and then (panic!!) she seemed suddenly transformed!
In response to a suggestion/challenge that all of what she was feeling and doing was based on the stories she had created – you could visibly see a great weight lift from her shoulders and her eyes light up.
“Oh Yes!” she said.
“Nooo Ingrid – don’t leave me here alone!” was what I was selfishly thinking!
Ingrid’s response looked transformational and there are many, many examples of such responses in the literature and video material.
Anyway – back to Day 1. We began talking about the truth behind the human experience, and how this understanding comes in the form of insights. Literally, sights from within.
Nobody can tell you when you will have these or what they will feel like or what might trigger them (Thanks!?!) We likened them to waiting for a bus, and the associated possibility that then a couple (or more) may come along.
By now, the rest of the group were well and truly on the bus whilst I was definitely still at the bus stop – getting increasingly cold and wet and to be honest more than a little fed up.
I was already sensing failure. I was going to be the only person in the history of this stuff to leave after three days (if I lasted that long) with no insights at all.
I was upset, disappointed and to be honest slightly angry – goodness only knows who at!
That night, I went back to my hotel room and sobbed.
Luckily, I did go and eat in the restaurant later and met up with Angela, a co-participant. That really helped – or maybe it was the Pinot?
Day 2 – Well, I felt a little better! I will never know if somehow (through osmosis?) some things from the first day had actually penetrated. Or maybe it was the helpful discussion the evening before. Or a bit of both?
I sort of decided that, maybe tackling something as big as my grief was just too hard as a beginner – perhaps I could just put that in a box to one side – for now.
Maybe I should just be bringing something like – needing to increase my confidence for salsa?
As we walked towards Kim’s, Angela gently suggested that perhaps the bigger issue was exactly the one I needed to look at? We’ll see, I thought!
All I can say is that I felt different. I really didn’t ‘get it’ any more than I did the day before – but I didn’t seem to mind as much. I was less tense and anxious.
During the course of a number of exercises I shared the fact that my grief felt like a huge lump in the pit of my stomach, which was always there and had the ability to tighten painfully. I didn’t feel judged (I wasn’t being the day before) and at one point Lizzy in particular said the same as Angela had first thing that day – that maybe I needed to tackle that lump! Not likely thought I! Not when I am starting to feel a bit better.
Kim is outstandingly brilliant. The days are genuinely organic and flow. But you can tell that her years and years of experience doing coaching and facilitation mean that she gently and lovingly steers everyone in the group through separate journeys whilst making the whole thing feel like a joined up experience!
So when, towards the end of the second day, she suggested an individual exercise focussed on me and my grief (the lump in my stomach), I decided to go with it!
Fascinatingly I’ve reflected since that I would have run a mile if she’d suggested doing it on the first day, and it would have somehow been too late if it had waited to the third day!
So I was asked to focus on the lump – with my eyes closed (in a semi hypnotic state).
That was OK, my homeopath had asked me to do something similar with some resulting relief. However Kim then asked everyone in the Group to offer a suggestion, or a thought, or a question to me.
They were ALL amazing!
Several talked about the lump changing shape, colour, feel – from becoming a flower to becoming a different colour, to becoming something less hard edged like a cloud. Some talked about my relationship with the ‘lump’ – walking away from it and then returning, even exploding it! Lizzy mentioned peeling back to the diamond within.
All of these comments were transforming and have resonated with me since.
But the one that totally floored me was from Kevin. Kevin is an actor and comedian. He regularly brought a totally different perspective to many of the discussions and also often had us rolling with laughter.
He simply said:
“What if the lump were to laugh?”
On reflection this was actually a really brave thing to say. Here I was – the ‘grieving widow’ and he was offering laughter!
But what happened – TOTALLY unexpectedly – was that my Alan laughed.
I could hear him laughing his wonderful laugh!
When Alan and I first started to get together and friends asked me what I liked about him – I used to say ‘he makes me laugh’. He was one of those people who had many rubbish jokes that he would laugh at himself – sometimes before he got to the punchline – but him laughing would always make me laugh.
And I hadn’t heard that laugh in four and a half years – and I had missed it SO much!
I went back to the pub on my own and sat there thinking about how I now felt and what I now seemed to be understanding – or seeing – but I couldn’t really work out why or how.
Maybe a bus had finally arrived for me?
Day 3 – I felt as though I was finally was starting to get insights. And I was actually starting to really enjoy the experience. The emotional experience from the day before didn’t feel like an instant transformation – but it had exposed something, or freed something in me – as had the totality of the experience to date.
The hardness of the ‘lump’ was gone. It had less harsh edges and even the possibility of being different colours. I found that warm place. I came ‘Home’ – and I realised crucially that I’ve always known it what that felt like.
For example, I was totally ‘Home’ on 7 Feb 2015 without ever having heard of the Principles – when I married my terminally ill Big Man but was for the whole day blissfully happy and grateful. No ‘thoughts’ of anything penetrated that day.
Later on Day 3, we were invited to fill in a ‘cloud’ with things we wanted to remember or which particularly resonated with us. Even the day before when I had been feeling a bit better – I would have really struggled with this.
But now I was spoiled for choice in setting out some of the things that had finally started to resonate with me. I have the cloud – laminated – opposite my bed so I can remind myself how this felt once back in the ‘real’ world!
So after all, I left not as a failure – but feeling privileged to have spent the luxury of three days with such amazing, loving, wise people. I do feel part of a wider movement – and so connected to the whole human race.
It’s all an innocent misunderstanding. Our thoughts and stories often cloud our vision, and can seem to interfere with our innate resilience and wisdom.
I drove back to Yorkshire feeling overwhelmingly grateful, so much lighter and with a different energy.
Since the workshop, I’m seeing the truth of the Principles everywhere! In conversations with family and friends. I see this truth in the Narnia Chronicles. I see it in the ‘Force’ of Star Wars! I listened to the wonderful Stephen Fry narrating Harry Potter (another firm favourite). It was the third book – the Prisoner of Azkaban. As I listened I suddenly ‘heard’ the truth again. I realised that thought can be like a Dementor – sucking out our happiness and even our souls, but that to drive it away we need to dig for our ‘diamond’ to produce a sparkling Patronus!
So did I return from this experience a new woman?
I think I may have done! (Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I came back home to the true self that’s always been there?)
I spent the first few days noticing things in myself and others that I wouldn’t have noticed before. I’ve become much more aware.
If people ask me what I learned from the workshop, I have tended to answer that it is more about ‘unlearning’.
My newfound understanding is already making a difference for others too. My daughters, and one of my daughter’s boyfriends.
And the lump? It hasn’t disappeared – but then I wouldn’t really want it to 😉
It has changed shape, size and colour – and quite often it smiles at me!”
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