Articles

Written by Sarah Pletts for Jillian Woods’ Diary of a House Blog in New Zealand

 

From my window, I see an occasional car. The main road beyond is busier – buses, delivery vans and a blue flashing light go past. The park opposite is green and lush. One or two pedestrians and cyclists navigate to or from the super-market, corner shop, chemist or post office. A small construction site is still growing up brick by brick, in the next street. The towers of the financial centre of the city are in the far distance.

I heard a historian speak on BBC Radio 4 when there were only a few cases of Covid-19 in the UK. He said, “In the future we will speak of ‘before’ and ‘after’ Coronavirus.” Remembering that snippet of news interview now seems like ancient history. London – recently a thriving multi-cultural city of 9 million is now quiet enough to hear the birds sing.

We have lost people, lots of them. More have died than were killed in the London Blitz. Statisticians are the new eagerly awaited storytellers. The exact figures are endlessly quoted and discussed – a messy set of deductions, additions and multiplications.

An alarming number of the dead are from black/asian/minority/ethnic backgrounds. Many key workers are in this demographic. Despite the covert racism in ‘Brexit’ divisions, some of these doctors, nurses, carers and bus drivers are now being celebrated on the more often white pages of the tabloid on-line press. Yesterday, on my Zoom call at 11am we joined a UK wide minute of silence to honour the key workers who have died so far.

Despite recent fluctuations, the roads are still more like the quiet that happens when England plays a world cup match and every ‘white van man’ was at the pub watching the game.

I went to King’s Cross in the city centre for an emergency dental appointment. Usually one of the busiest thoroughfares in London, the Euston Road was sparse with traffic. Shops in the area were shuttered as most are elsewhere. The forecourt of Kings Cross station was eerily quiet. It has been my only foray out of Hackney in weeks.

Pubs are shut, many boarded up with the prospect of staying that way for months. London’s extraordinary cultural spread of theatres, clubs, galleries, restaurants and cafés are closed. Freelance creative people and those on zero hours contracts are at home with their normally insecure incomes slashed.

Food banks exist to catch some of those who fall between the funding gaps and ‘Universal Credit’s £94 a week, (if you’re lucky enough to navigate the system). People queue at our local food bank at two metre intervals.

All of city life is now calibrated in two metre gaps. We weave along pavements – jogging, walking, cycling two metres apart. For those who are not struggling to get to essential work, in home-made mask and latex gloves on busy rush hour (reduced service) tube trains, we head to the park for daily exercise.

The last six weeks have been sunny. This is almost as unusual as the pandemic situation. Sky blue skies, un-streaked by vapour trails are recording 35% of the normal pollution levels. While those who are ill struggle for breath, the rest of us can at least breathe deeply.

Despite the high population density, London is still a very green city. Parks are bustling with people taking their hour of exercise outside. A few rebels pause to sit and enjoy the newly fresh air. Most people move with purpose. We dodge the panting breath of seemingly healthy runners. Parents use ingenuity to entertain their kids with scooters, Frisbees and balls (no team games allowed).

I can tell you what I see, but more than ever, London is full of parallel universes. I can see what is visible in my neighbourhood from the limited time I spend outside. I have an idyllic view from my privileged perch. I am one of a large household of the well. Others are not so lucky.

I know over twenty people who have had the virus, been knocked out of circulation into their beds for a week or two. Acquaintances have been hospitalised. Friends of friends have died. I am not reporting from the front line. I fear that as this time ebbs, more grief, more trauma, and more loss of hope will be visible.

I have seen our Prime Minister Boris Johnson on TV. Known for his arrogance, he ignored his own advice to avoid shaking hands and stay indoors, and caught Covid-19. Returning to our screens with dark circles around his eyes, post virus, he continues to emulate Churchill’s cadences. Many of us hope that his brush with mortality will chasten him. We hope that this time will bring opportunities to implement greener less petrochemical industry friendly policies. But, there are indications of a disturbing urge from those in power to return to ‘business as usual’.

What are the positive signs in this time of Coronavirus? I enjoy cleaner air, quieter streets, raucous bird song. I am relieved to have some time out from social busyness. Time to re-assess our food chains feels necessary. I’ve planted my first vegetables. I love quality time at home eating lovingly prepared food together with my housemates. I appreciate the gratitude that arises for the good things we still have.

We chat to friends around the world, who are now as near as those a few miles away on-line, but as unreachable in person. “What’s it like in London?” they ask. I am not necessarily a reliable witness. I can tell you what it is like in this house. I have a sense of how it is for my immediate neighbours as we chat, calling across the garden fence or from our doorsteps. I have an impression of how it seems in this neighbourhood. Although cases of domestic violence have doubled, so I know all is not well behind closed doors.

There are different attitudes to this crisis among different generations, and different social demographics. Many are under huge pressure, but with a range of causes. While isolation is often really difficult, there are also ways in which people are coming together, helping each other and showing kindness.

There seems to be a quirky British eccentricity about ways in which we are showing solidarity – Monty Python meets the Royal Family.  The 100 years old Captain Tom Moore has captured the nation’s imagination by pushing his walker up and down outside his house in aid of the NHS. Guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye, he has so far raised twenty-nine million pounds.

Children are creating pictures of rainbows to put in their windows. Then at 8pm each Thursday, we clap. Doors and window are flung open, and for a good few minutes we applaud to ‘care for the carers’. Where we live this might include banging pans, cranking a football rattle or shaking Maracas.  Curiously charming, it does raise my spirits.

Butterfly emerging symbol of changeHow to use embracing change as a Grief Tending practice

‘Embracing Change in Uncertain Times’ is designed to be read in different ways. If you have time and space, you could leave it open, meander through it, pausing to feel. This article is written in the form of a Grief Tending Practice, as a framework for embracing change, giving time and attention to grief.

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart” 
Helen Keller

Who supports me?

In order to be with painful feelings we need support. We need to feel safe in order to contact feelings. Grief Tending is something that is usually done with the support of a group of people. Connecting with another, taking turns to witness might be helpful, perhaps on-line if not in person. If we are not able to spend time with others during this period of restrictions, and you would like to give time to grief tending as a practice, perhaps there is someone you trust that you could check in with before and after?

Setting up a space for Grief Tending

In order to tend to your grief, it’s good to find a space where you feel safe and comfortable. I like to set up a special table with images or things that inspire me on it. You can also include objects or images that connect you to your grief. If you have a dedicated space already, is there something you would like to add to it today? I like to add something seasonal – from the garden, park or fruit bowl. Prepare anything else you need, in order to support you on a personal journey towards observing change and tending to grief.

Elements to include

Grief Tending in Community was brought to the UK from the Dagara people of Burkino Faso by Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé. My teachers Sophy Banks and Jeremy Thres have passed on some of the practices that have come from this tradition, some of which I share here. Working with water to balance fire comes from the Dagara people. In addition to lighting a candle, water is an important element to include when working with grief. We include a jug of water, and an empty bowl to pour into.

Pause and reflect

When I spend time attending to my inner experience, it helps if I stop and pause to feel into any sensations or reflections. You might choose to pause, to pour a little water, perhaps naming whatever you are feeling in acknowledgement. Staying as grounded as possible helps me to stay present during uncertainty. I regularly return to ‘Dropping into the Body’ (see below), as well as pausing to feel, and pouring water during grief tending.

Change in these uncertain times

As I write Covid-19 is sweeping the globe. But the information presented here is just one way to respond to the uncomfortable feelings of grief in relation to other circumstances. Many changes are happening now. The level of risk we face, will depend on our underlying health, our financial and food resources, our location, our relational support systems, our national governance and our luck. Giving space to feel these changes in our bodies will allow us more choice in how we respond.

It is likely that most people will be affected in some way. Many people will experience dramatic changes in their circumstances. Fear or anxiety may be present for you. You may angry, overwhelmed, or facing loss. We will each have different stresses to deal with. Many people will already have challenges in their daily lives, and Coronavirus circumstances will add to the load they carry. The pressures of homes that contain many people, compared to those living alone may be very different. Some may be overloaded by too much work, for others, not enough.

What we are coping with, how we feel and the way we express it will be different for everyone. It may be too soon to feel anything, so please approach your emotional wellbeing with care.

How we respond to changes that happen to us, that we cannot do anything about, may give us some agency in these times. I’m not talking about change as a result of the kind of unfair treatment that needs to be challenged and protested.

Meeting my needs first

First we must attend to our needs for safety and survival. Until our physical needs for shelter, water, food and safety are met, everything else is a luxury. It’s important to feel safe and supported in order to touch into uncomfortable feelings. I can feel more grounded and safe with a hot water bottle, or wrapped in a blanket.

Taking care of yourself does not mean you are selfish or uncaring. It is necessary. We must ‘put on our oxygen mask before helping someone else to put on theirs.’ Your body needs to know that you are listening to its needs. I try to keep checking in with myself. Is there anything that my body needs or that I need to do now in order to be more present?

Dropping Into the Body

I stop for a moment. Give myself a little space for reflection. Allow the ground to take my weight. Can I feel my feet on the floor? Notice the quality of my breathing. What is my body feeling like right now? Is there any pain or tension that needs the touch of my hand or my attention? Are there any sensations calling my awareness? Can I sense an emotion surfacing or bubbling underneath? Perhaps my body has a message or some feedback for me?

Gratitude

When things feel as though they are falling apart, internally or externally, it’s easy to get lost. I used to dismiss the practice of offering gratitudes as hippy nonsense, but I’ve discovered it actually helps me. When times are tough it can be really hard to think of things that I am grateful for. Identifying what we love can help us to recognise our resources. Feeling gratitude can also be a support so that we are able to dip into feelings that may be more difficult. Ask what am I grateful for? If this is a struggle, it can help to start with something really small.

A global pause

Whatever your circumstances, there is probably an element of pause in normal activity as a result of Covid-19. This may involve the sudden end of something for you, or a temporary cessation. Are you able to allow this moment of pause to happen? What happens if we stop our busyness for a moment to be with the change? How does it feel to stop for a moment? What is surfacing in this moment of stillness?

Slowing down as a resource

Slowing down is a way to help embrace change. You may have more time, but be under more pressure than previously. I am relishing spending some time in activities that support me to live at a slower pace. Perhaps being restricted to spending more time at home can encourage us to embrace a slower way of life? Are there things you enjoy that might become resources as you flow with the changes? I am looking for new opportunities opening up to cook from scratch, grow vegetables, sort my paperwork, read a book, write poetry, send a letter, mend a jumper, draw the view from my window? What do you love doing, when you give it the time, that makes you feel good?

Some may have much less time. Perhaps you are working harder, longer hours, or have to give more care and attention to those around you. In this case, is there something slow that you want to prioritise as soon as it is possible? Are you able to allow yourself a moment now to pause, within the rush?

Re-calibrating

Our ability to recalibrate, affects our success at responding to change, particularly in these uncertain times. This requires being flexible both mentally and in practical ways. What will help me to recalibrate, in order to embrace the current changes?

If some of the changes you are facing are sudden, you may be feeling a range of emotions. I have been experiencing the familiar sensation of shock. Allow yourself time to pause, to feel into how you are, to listen to your body. How are you feeling right now? Are there physical sensations? Be curious about what lies beneath the mental chatter?

Mindfulness as a resource

Anything can be a mindfulness practice. Many people choose to meditate sitting on a cushion, but this may not be what works for you. Being mindful means being present now in whatever you are doing. It might involve paying attention to the washing up, looking out of the window and noticing my breath, being ‘in the zone’ when I am doing something creative, or listening to music.

Repeatedly returning my awareness to the present can help me to manage change. Rather than going over what happened or worrying about what will happen, being present can help me to function better. Being present allows us to take one manageable step at a time. I can practice being mindful any time, anywhere. It is normal to find this difficult to remember. But even a moment or two of focussing my awareness in the present can help me to create more inner space.

Feeling the changes

Changes stir up feelings. In the current pandemic you may be experiencing multiple simultaneous changes in your life. It is normal to respond to changes in the same way we respond to any loss or ending. Approach feelings very gently, especially if they are big or overwhelming. If you feel safe and supported enough, ask how am I feeling? Is my body giving me any symptoms as clues? Am I experiencing layers of different feelings? Grief includes a wide range of flavours including relief, anger, joy, fear, disconnection, shame, yearning and sadness. Old sorrows or emotions may also be touched by more current losses. It is normal to feel grief in your own unique way.

Expressing feelings

We can welcome in change by allowing our feelings to be felt, and heard rather than looking for distraction. In dealing with the uncomfortable feelings of grief, we need enough time and space to feel. What are the ways that help you to express your feelings?

Sounding

I find it helpful to articulate how I’m feeling by letting out sounds. Even when I am alone, I often speak how I am out loud, “I feel…” What happens when you drop your mouth open and gently allow sounds that long for release? Are you holding back a tone, a grumble, a sigh or a wail? Is there a song to sing which touches your heart?

Movement

Music can help me to access feelings. Nina Simone can really help me to find the spot. Movement, dancing, stretching can enable me to express my mood. What are the moves that will help you to open, that are longing to be expressed? What is the soundtrack to express what you are feeling right now?

Creativity

Writing or drawing is a way in for me too. Sometimes I pick up a pen or art materials and allow whatever is inside to flow onto the page uncensored. Take a sentence for a walk, starting here, “I long for…”

Breath

Simply spending time with your own breath can be really powerful. By allowing my jaw to loosen, breathing into the belly, and concentrating on my out breath, I can connect more with feelings.

Touch

I often find I can contact my feelings through self-massage, especially rubbing around my breast bone. Is there somewhere in your body that aches for touch?

Letting go

Change brings grief, and all the messy emotions that may come with it. Resisting change, avoiding pain can make life more difficult and for longer. Embracing change can be empowering. Facing our feelings can allow us to move through them. In order to embrace the changes, we need to be willing to let go. Moving forward involves being ready to surrender, to give up what we had before. Facing, rather than ignoring change can help us to ride the waves.

Welcoming change

Is the system disruption caused by this pandemic bringing opportunities to do and experience things differently? I am noticing new possibilities because of the changes, as well as restrictions. Are there changes that I need to make but haven’t get round to? We may be experiencing a real mix of emotions and responses.

By embracing change, we may discover opportunities for something new to come into our lives. We may discover that a change that has been imposed upon us, has benefits. By connecting with our feelings we can ‘make friends with change’.

What connects us?

The global influence of this pandemic brings both changes and reminds us that we are connected. Is this a shift that will be part of ‘The Great Turning’ as Joanna Macy calls it? This virus currently reminds me that we share the web of life. How do we look after one another in this time? What measures will help us to live fairly, despite the difference in how change lands in our lives? Can we recognise our inter-connection? Will we all come to value nature, fresh air, being able to walk freely outside more? I am aware of leaning into something greater than myself to guide me through the changes we face.

Soothing

After going inward I take time to stroke, or hug myself. Grief is hard to bear, and being witnessed helps. I need to connect with someone I trust after working with feelings. I will be especially kind to myself. Is there anything I need to complete this journey of tending to my grief? I might play some music, give my feet a salt bath, go into nature, open the window to breathe fresh air or make a cup of tea. I love to sing along to this version of the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono prayer sung by Trina Brunk.

Resources

In response to the current changes caused by Coronavirus, I am digging into my own toolbox to see what resources I have in place. What are the activities that support me? Where are the places I feel safe? What things remind me of connection? Who is there for me? This is more important in a time where we are being asked to ‘self-isolate’ or ‘social distance’. Am I finding enough outlets for self-expression with people who support me? I am finding new ways to weave threads of community on-line, in order to find more support during this period of change.

What matters most?

We all need enough food, water, shelter, health and resources to survive. Building on these, we need other things – to feel valued and able to contribute in our lives. This feels like a great time to re-evaluate my life. I am considering what are the things that matter to me most? I am pondering what is meaningful to me? Asking what do I value? I am noticing what I enjoy doing. And what gifts do I have to offer? Where and what makes me feel comfortable? Of the things I take in, what nourishes me? Who do I love?

For me, this is a great moment to cherish what matters most. When everything else is stripped away, love, relatedness and connection to the web of life can support us to embrace change.

‘Grief hygiene’

In Grief Tending we pay attention to the space after doing this practice. If I have poured water to connect to my grief, I pour it away, asking the land or sink to receive it as a blessing. Taking down any temporary special table, I might add something to my permanent one, to remind me of the things that support me. Burning sage, spraying an essential oil or cleaning the room clears the space. If something moved in me, I take a shower and change my clothes to shift into a different gear.

Moving On

If there is one thing we can be sure about, there will be more loss, and more change. Embracing change is a practice to return to again, and again. The skills of feeling and expressing grief can help us to live with uncertainty.

“What a caterpillar calls the end of the world we call a butterfly.” 
Eckhart Tolle

Links:

Join the Love and Loss mailing list or contact Sarah Pletts here
Grief Tending events on line with Sophy Banks and Jeremy Thres
Sobonfu Somé
Malidoma Somé
Joanna Macy
Helen Keller
Trina Brunk
Eckhart Tolle

Anxiety about the future

Many people feel anxiety about the future. We live with uncertainty in this age. We may be afraid of the possibility of social collapse, the breakdown of society under a pandemic. While this may be what we are focussing on right now, climate changes are still happening. More people are recognising how they feel in response to the times we are living in.

Eco grief and climate anxiety are surfacing. Many people are now more aware of global injustices happening now. Climate chaos looms in many people’s awareness. Threats posed by nuclear arms and nano-technology amongst others may sit in the background of our consciousness. Researchers, psychologists, psychotherapists, teachers and parents are trying to understand more and develop helpful strategies. How can we support those who are suffering from anxiety about the future?

“If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear. 
Joanna Macy

Climate grief or eco grief

‘Grief’ is an umbrella term that may include a whole range of emotions. These include: anger, sadness, fear, release, numbness, relief, shame and overwhelm. It is a natural response to any kind of loss or change. ‘Climate Grief’ is a feeling response of ‘grief’ (which may include any of the above and more). This is because of the changes that are happening in the world. In particular, climate grief centres round the issues sparked by changes in climate and biosphere. Anxiety about the future may be in response to the pandemic here now.  Feelings may arise as a result of current systems that feed social injustices, conflict, consumerism. These are just a few local and global issues that may cause feelings of grief to come up.

Worried about climate change?

Worry may be consuming those who are seeing news items and reading reports about, extreme weather events, temperature changes and documented changes in pollution. Grief is a reasonable response to habitat loss and species extinctions to name just some of the causes. Many people are simply noticing changes in their local habitats, insect and wildlife populations. Some people may be more aware of these changes as a result of their work, because of personal research, or lived experience.

Climate Anxiety or Eco Anxiety

Anxiety is a response on the fear spectrum that may include mental, emotional and physical symptoms. Fear of what will happen in the face of climate chaos, as a consequence of things that have already happened, is a reasonable response. Anxiety in the face of climate change is not irrational.

Anticipatory anxiety

Fear of what is to come, based on current information is known as ‘anticipatory anxiety’. It may be mingled with ‘anticipatory grief’. The definition of ‘anticipatory grief’ is more usually used to describe feelings of grief in the context of the impending death of a loved one. It is not unusual to feel this in response to something in the future. Especially for something that we anticipate will be painful, difficult or challenging.

What does anxiety about the future feel like?

Any of the symptoms of anxiety or grief may be present for someone who is experiencing anxiety about the future. It may include a complex mix of feelings, and different responses at different times. For different people feelings will also vary in intensity. In addition this may depend on the emotional load they are already carrying.

For some there may be a sense of heaviness on the chest, perhaps tears are often close to the surface. For others, there may be a dull underlying anxiety, a sense of unease that is hard to locate. Some people who are fearful of what is to come may be feeling jumpy, or easily tipped into overwhelm, anger, perhaps have a racing pulse. For others there may be an unusual sense of numbness or disconnection. Depression or hopelessness may be present.

Underlying anxiety about the future may be continually present in someone’s thoughts. For some it may be only when they think about their children or grandchildren for example. Sleep patterns may be disrupted. A whole range of physical sensations may accompany any combination of emotions.

Different reactions to uncertainty

We all face uncertainty in relation to changes in our world. People have different perspectives on the future for different reasons. For some people this is because they have had different lived experiences. Many people have absorbed information from different sources. This may be because they are within certain social groups or communities. Because of personality type, character, family history, culture, political awareness, and sensitivity of perception, people receive information about the world differently.

Different trauma responses

Our ‘core wounding’ also plays a part in how we respond to the outside world. Through our personal history, we each develop coping strategies for dealing with stress. When a source of stress – perceived or unconscious – is present, our primary trauma response may be triggered. People typically react to threat with an unconscious activation of their primal responses. These responses may be greater if you have a dis-regulated nervous system.

The typical responses to threat are flight, flight, freeze and fawn (tend and befriend as it is also known). If you are feeling very angry, and you’re full of energy to stand up against injustice, ‘fight’ might be your pre-dominant response. Or are you rushing around in a busy frenzy of activity or heading for the hills? You might be in ‘flight’ mode. Perhaps you feel totally overwhelmed or aren’t able to engage with the world. Are you paralysed by indecision or apathy? If so, perhaps ‘freeze’ is your primary response. Putting your head in the sand and finding other distractions or ‘numbing out’ in addictive behaviors could be either flight/freeze or a combination.

Climate change grief is like any other form of grief

In relation to eco grief, the things we typically recognise in any form of grief may be present. This includes the well-known responses of shock, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There may be layers of emotions, or different feelings at different times. It is important to remember that just like any other grief, everyone’s make-up is different. As a consequence they will perceive and respond in different ways.

Different responses to the threat of climate chaos

Noticing your own reactions to the threat of trauma may be helpful. Observing your responses to global issues may also be illuminating. Acknowledging our feelings can help us to face our anxiety about the future. Notice if others are reacting in ways that are unlike our own responses. This can also help to reduce the shame and judgment between people who are reacting differently from one another.

For some, the preoccupation with every day life, their inner thoughts may distract them. As a consequence they may simply not register changes manifest in the outer world. Many people have been preoccupied with questions around possible system breakdown. This may seem irrelevant to those who are not registering any anxiety about the future.

Reflecting on how I feel

You may be feeling a complex mix of emotions. In trying to tease out how I feel, I notice that I am often in a ‘freeze’ state, finding it hard to access my sadness, or the energy needed for action. I am aware of much devastating environmental research, but too much information swiftly tips me into overwhelm. Anxiety about the future regularly visits me in the early hours of the morning. This often manifests as internal background noise, a low level sense of urgency and worry, that I only hear when I stop doing and pause. Typically for me, this is loudest around dawn. I try to track these responses, and notice my inner dialogue.

Nervous System Activation

For me, and I suspect for many others, news reports, or reading the latest scientific information on the climate and global news trends tend to ‘activate’ my nervous system. It triggers a response that puts my physiological system on alert. Physical symptoms may soon follow, such as fatigue or brain fog.

Strategies to help with anxiety about the future

Grief tending in community, which may include practices from Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects’, and the practice of ‘Deep Adaptation’ are designed to help process feelings, and can be excellent resources in coping with climate change. I recommend ways of working that help us to face our anxiety about the future, in an environment that encourages us to build resources, express feelings and connect with love. These are some of the things I have learned and witnessed from co-facilitating groups on this theme.

Coping with climate change

I regularly co-facilitate grief tending sessions called ‘Feeling Nature’. These experiential workshops are designed to offer time for gentle exploration for those who are affected by climate anxiety and grief. We offer a session that includes some simple embodiment practices, making a connection with nature, making contact with our feeling selves, being part of a supportive group, and some expression of feelings. These are strategies that I have found helpful in order to face anxiety about the future.

Embodiment

Time to slow down, to ground and rest the body, to focus on being present is helpful. Focusing on the sensations present in the body, can aid us to stay connected, rather than disconnect in panic. Being present helps us to co-ordinate mind, heart and body. As a consequence, this enables us to act more effectively. Mindfulness practices can be a great resource. These work particularly well when they include leaning back (rather than sitting up actively unsupported), assisting our Parasympathetic Nervous System to go into restore, rest and digest mode.

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”
Joanna Macy

Getting in touch with feelings

Through dropping more into an awareness of the physical body, in a space that is ‘held by others, hyper vigilance which may be present, might be dialed down. We aim to build trust through creating a nervous-system-aware and friendly environment. We try to introduce a conceptual framework that allows participants to recognise and name feelings that they may be familiar with. Through doing this sensitively, we hope to soften the reactions of shame that often accompanies expression of feelings. People feel shame around what they feel and what they don’t feel, amongst other things. We hope to give permission for a huge range of authentic expressions of emotion.

Connecting with nature

Many people spend little time each day outside in fresh air, under the elements, among plants and wildlife. Being surrounded by nature, whether walking in the park, digging in an allotment or feeling rain on your face can be a really helpful way to soothe the nervous system, to allow time for resting and digesting. We regularly hold events in the city, so try to find small ways to bring nature into the spaces we hold – by placing elements on a shrine or visualising places where nature is a resource, for example. Spending time in nature can be simple and restorative. Although for some, being in nature can add an additional layer of grief – because there are fewer insects, less birds, blossom or snow out of season. While nature can be an excellent resource, increasingly it is helpful to connect with like-minded others in order to co-regulate nervous systems.

Connecting with people

Connecting with other people helps us to validate ourselves, and our experience both in person and on-line. Being with people in ‘brave spaces’, where we can be vulnerable is affirming. So that we can be witnessed and heard, it is important to find communities where our authentic expression of truth is welcomed. Ideally we will be able to express ourselves without being shamed for our feelings or beliefs. Heart-felt communication can help us to ‘co-regulate’ our nervous system with others. This can enable us better to return from a state of activation, and is one way to build resilience. The witnessing presence of a supportive group, whether chosen family, long term or temporary community, can change our relationship with our anxiety for the future.

Cognitive Dissonance

There is often a gap between what people say, and what we sense is true. When my feelings, picked up from the information I am sensing from the world, don’t match what I am told, it creates an uncomfortable mismatch. This gap between perception and what I am being led to believe is called ‘cognitive dissonance’. News reports, politicians, parents, teachers, and friends, especially on social media, may be saying things that do not match with my internal felt messages of what I am hearing from them. However, when my internal perceptions match with information I am hearing, there can be a sense of relief, and shared outlook. This confirms my intuition, and is supportive, rather than dismissive of my feelings. This can be an important element in coping with climate change, especially in regard to having a shared reality of the world around us.

Grief Rituals

Grief rituals can allow us to connect with something greater than ourselves, and to the mystery of life. This might include grief tending in community rituals and rituals from Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects’. Despite our different identities, words may  connect us through our humanity, in grief rituals.

The premise of ‘Deep Adaptation’ is that climate-collapse is likely, and changes are necessary if we are to face it together. Jem Bendell’s work recommends we address Relinquishment, Restoration, Reconciliation and Resilience in response, both in our own lives and beyond. ‘Relinquishment’, the first of these includes coming to terms with our own mortality. We can use the tools of grief work and mourning to begin the work of Deep Adaptation. This may include taking part in grief rituals.

In facing the future, practices that enable us to develop gratitude, presence, connection and love will build our personal resources. These help us to develop both emotional intelligence and cultural resilience.

“Love for this life is greater than fear”

Building personal resilience will help to buffer our fear of the unknown. It is important to build our personal resources. What do you love doing? What connects you to something greater than yourself? Where do you love to be? Who do you love? Expressing gratitude can help us find connection with love. Finding our delight for life in the present will resource us. Growing our gratitude will help us to live in spite of anxiety for the future. In the words of Joanna Macy, “love for this life is greater than fear.

The personal steps we can take include connecting ourselves to our bodies, our feelings, to nature, to our delight in the present. In order to re-frame the narrative of the industrial growth economy, we must listen deeply to one another. Finding our shared humanity to find our interdependence is necessary for building our resilience so that we may act now and with love.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 
James Baldwin

Links

See our article ‘What is Grief Tending?’
Joanna Macy
Deep Adaptation

Francis Weller’s Gates of Grief

In his book ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’, Francis Weller explores 5 Gates of Grief. I return to these regularly as starting points to feel into my current inner landscape. I find the territory of grief endlessly fascinating, and am inspired by Francis Weller’s approach. He offers the Gates of Grief as a way to recognise and understand different kinds of loss.

“Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close.”
Francis Weller

Gates of Grief

1 All that we love we will lose (Francis Weller)
2 The places that did not receive love (Francis Weller)
3 The sorrows of the world (Francis Weller)
4 What we expected but did not receive (Francis Weller)
5 Ancestral grief (Francis Weller)
Optional extra Gates of Grief which I find helpful to explore:
6 Trauma (Francis Weller’s optional gate)
7 The harm I have caused to myself and others (Sophy Banks)
8 Anticipatory grief – fear of what is to come (Sarah Pletts)

 

Gates to grief as starting points

I refer to Francis Weller’s 5 Gates of Grief, plus an optional one. In addition to these, I use one from my teacher Sophy Banks. I also include one that we use in our own workshops. Francis Weller’s Gates of Grief offers a map, one way to identify and acknowledge the challenges and opportunities that change may bring. They are intended as starting points, as ways in to feelings. There are many possible sources of grief and myriad emotional responses to each of them. Using these gateways as a framework, I share some of my own journey with grief. I wanted to reveal a spectrum of ordinary grief from my everyday existence.

What does grief feel like?

Every grief is different. Every life will include suffering and loss. We will each respond to these challenges in our own way. How we feel and experience each loss or change will be different. Grief is not a competition. Every loss is significant. In this article I try to answer the question ‘what does grief feel like?’ from my own experience. Most people will experience changes that are described by the Gates of Grief in their lives.

1 All that we love we will lose (Francis Weller)

The first Gate of Grief reminds us that change is universal.

I was twenty-three, had just started working, and my father died suddenly. I was totally unprepared. Reaching for chocolate and alcohol, they sedated me through the initial shock. I was too embarrassed to make a fuss, to go and see his body. My mother didn’t cry, so I didn’t feel that I had permission to. At his funeral I finally let tears come, noisily. A well-meaning friend of the family shushed me up, just when my feelings had begun to flow at last. I remember the surreal quality of trying to continue living normally in spite of this grief. It felt as though there was a pane of glass between me and everyone else. Sharp pains often literally stabbed my chest. I kept thinking I was having a heart attack. Observing these new sensations, I felt bewildered. My whole torso ached as though it was bruised.

The whole experience turned my life upside down. I started to re-assess everything I thought I knew. Deaths before my fathers’, had happened before I was born, or were hidden from my view. In a dramatic life review, this brush with mortality inspired changes in my diet, lifestyle, work, home and belief system.

A Life Long Fascination

At age 9 I found a dead shrew, which I discussed with my mother. “Why did it have to die?” I asked, and she wrote a poem. My father sometimes buried caskets of ashes in the churchyard, “Where do you put the bodies?” I asked, assuming they contained just the heads. Clearly, death was something that I considered, even as a child.

Looking at death, becoming more familiar with the process has become something that is an ongoing enquiry for me. Intimacy with dying inspires me to live more whole-heartedly. Ever since the death of my father, I have tried to find opportunities to spend time witnessing the process of dying, and learning how to grieve well. In the three decades since he died, I have spent time with family and friends who have died, including my mother. For me, being in the proximity of a good death feels a great honour.

With every loss, I still feel the familiar squeeze of my heart, but it can also be an opening into profound communion and love. With each subsequent death since that first big one, I have been aware that there can be a cumulative effect. Relationships have ended in heartbreak. (I ranted and raged, I ripped up carpets, broke furniture, cried myself to sleep, and moped). I have been through sudden losses of health, (which left me in a permanent state of listless depression) and the chronic decline of ageing (with cruel loss of memory, libido and my glasses). Some of the deaths I have been able to feel most acutely have been beloved pets. Each loss has opened my heart.

2 The places that did not receive love (Francis Weller)

With the second Gate we identify places that may have been neglected or rejected.

My everyday childhood wounding felt like a chronic “benign neglect” (as Chris Riddell calls it). Although I was loved, I longed to be touched, to be held more. As the child of someone with a mental health condition, I often felt a sense of ‘proximal separation’. This is a situation where you may be near to someone, but they are not attuned to your needs.

“A child can also feel emotional distress when their parent is physically present but emotionally unavailable. Even adults know that kind of pain when someone important to us is bodily present but psychologically absent. This is the state the seminal researcher and psychologist Allan Schore has called ‘proximal separation’.”
Gabor Maté ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’

I grew up hungry for my parents’ attention. This left me feeling angry, confused, hyper-vigilant and needy. As an adult I have unravelled many layers of this onion of grief through therapy, and by learning to parent my neglected inner child.

My upbringing also gave me a confused picture of sexuality. I finally came to know and understand my sexual desires in my forties, when I came out as bisexual. This brought an incredible sense of relief and expansiveness, but it also left me feeling immensely sad for the part of me which had been hidden, clothed in shame, unrecognised and uncelebrated for many years. I howled and wailed when I was able to own this, in the company of those who could hold me while I grieved.

3 The sorrows of the world (Francis Weller)

The third Gate is where we feel for global causes of suffering.

The sorrows of the world often feel so huge that they are hard to contemplate at all. I try to connect with the injustices I see on the news, and worse, the ones which have dropped out of the news but continue to cause harm. But it’s hard to identify with the abstract. When I’m in the park, I try to notice warning signs of unwelcome changes. Keeping my eyes open, I observe dwindling insects, and flooded paths.

Local as well as global signs of injustice can be spotted. I try to meet the eyes of street dwellers, exchange greetings. A burning sensation accompanies my anger at the poverty that co-exists with the wealth of this city. Feeling solidarity, I know too many people who struggle with perilous work, insecure finances, disabilities, health issues, depression and anxiety. I try to grow my compassion. Recognising abuse when I see it, to sense my own blind spots is important. Keeping engaged, to keep feeling the world’s sorrows is for me a way to develop compassion.

4 What we expected but did not receive (Francis Weller)

With the fourth Gate, we face our disappointments and loss of dreams.

I didn’t receive the welcome I expected when I was born. I spent three days in an incubator before I met my parents. This is a small but crucial part of my pre-verbal blueprint.

I have often been curious about my interest in the landscape of loss. I suspect that in some ways grief feels really familiar, as though it is the water that I swim in. Before I was born, my older sibling-to-be was stillborn. After me another sibling came stillborn. I grew up with a sense of unintended aloneness.

Once I had grown up and found a solid relationship to explore, I caught a disease, which led to ME (CFS). My thirties, which I had assumed would be filled with rewarding work, fulfilling creative projects and having children, were spent being ill. In retrospect this was an incredible journey, during which I travelled deep into all the parts of me, which needed healing. Mourning the loss of all the things, which I hadn’t done, hadn’t been, and the biological children which I hadn’t had. This was necessary as I gradually worked on returning to health. I did a ritual to end the ambiguity of possible future motherhood, an early private grief ritual. It helped me to let go, and choose a different future for myself.

5 Ancestral grief (Francis Weller)

The fifth Gate helps us to recognise the pain that we carry for those who came before us.

I was a quirky and curious child. My instincts propelled me, with a good nose for the truth. Asking impertinent questions led me to open all the closets to see if there were skeletons inside. As I grew older, I became more conscious of the things that weren’t spoken in my family. I have grown more familiar with my ancestors’ stories, doing research to find out more. With illumination, it feels as though their undigested pain, grief and suffering causes less of an unconscious undertow in my life now. I chat to them, light candles and make offerings, knowing that they did their best, sometimes against the odds.

Family Constellations has been a helpful way to recognise patterns that I carried for others. Now I feel supported by some of my ancestors.

6 Trauma (Francis Weller’s optional gate)

The sixth Gate is where extremes of shock and brutality might lie.

I recognise that I have so far been extremely lucky. There have been traumatic moments, but not huge wounds. I have weathered small operations and accidents. I became seriously ill abroad, had emergency surgery, but recovered feeling predominantly relieved, rather than traumatised. When shocks happen, I can fall into a state of collapse. I am learning to recognise and recover when this happens. I try to count my blessings.

7 The harm I have caused to myself and others (Sophy Banks)

This extra Gate allows us to identify what makes us feel regret or guilt.

I regret things I’ve said and done to others out of stupidity, ignorance and selfishness. How I have trodden heavily on the earth, when I intended to step lightly. Speaking too often with judgement, and more frequently thinking that I was right or better than… Will the friends and lovers I have betrayed forgive me? My courage failed, when I might have said more, done more or stood up to injustice.

There were too many acts of self-betrayal. I said ‘yes’, but my body needed me to say ‘no’. I try to be kind to myself now, even when I make mistakes. I’m learning to let go of things more easily. I’m still getting things wrong often, but I try to say sorry, to learn and to befriend my shame and guilt.

8 Anticipatory grief (Sarah Pletts)

In these times of change, this final Gate represents the fear of what is to come.

I have been close enough to death myself not to fear it too much. It was a useful rehearsal. It is the death of those I love, who love me, that I fear more. I don’t know what will come, but I try to keep an awareness of the change that is inevitable so that I can face it bravely. Sometimes I feel swamped by fear of the unknown. When that happens, I try to feel connected to the ground and the stars, and to connect through love with others.

Learning to mourn well

I am an ‘apprentice to grief’. We all arrive with different strengths and weaknesses. Our losses and the way we respond to them will be different. The more I love, the more there is to let go of, to grieve. There have been times when I couldn’t find my tears, and others when I poured everything out in great laments. Trauma has cleared from my body in shakes, sweats, tingles and silent shivers. Sometimes tears of sadness have come unexpectedly, and often I enjoy a good weep over a sad film. I have been gradually learning to mourn well.

Grief tending has been a way for me to channel my sorrow. It has helped me to excavate what lies below the surface, to weigh my sorrow, and give it enough space and attention. We often use these Gates of Grief as doorways to stir feelings in Grief Tending sessions. If they resonate with you, use the Gates of Grief to see what they bring to the surface for you.  For further reading, see ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’ by Francis Weller.

Links

Francis Weller, Sophy Banks, Rose Jiggens Family Constellations, Dr. Gabor Maté

Learning how to feel

In dealing with grief, first we must learn how to feel our pain. Next, learning how to express our feelings is helpful. This takes practice, and may need support. In order to express your feelings you need to risk feeling vulnerable. In western industrialised society many have lost the skill of grieving well. Learning how to express your feelings is important when dealing with grief. The supportive environment of a grief tending group can help, in order to cope with loss.

“In the village, there is the belief that when anyone passes, no matter what their place in the community, something valuable to everyone is lost. Every death affects every person. Everyone grieves together. One thing that is often overlooked in the West is the importance of collective grief. When a death is not grieved by the whole community together, it leaves the individuals who were closest to the deceased shattered and alone. They end up without a path back to the life of the group.”
Sobonfu E Somé from ‘Falling Out of Grace’

Cultural resilience

We need to reclaim our feeling selves in order to come to terms with the difficulties we face as individuals and as members of a society. People in a healthy culture are connected to nature, to cycles of life and death and to each other. Through dysfunctional class, gender and educational norms, for many people it has been a coping strategy to learn how to hide your feelings. However, expressing feelings is a healthy way to start dealing with grief. Repressing our feelings can make them grow unmanageable and distort. Acknowledging loss enables us to become more whole physically, mentally and emotionally. Rather than avoid pain, when we allow it space it changes our relationship with it. Moving through our feelings helps us to deal with loss. 

What is grief tending?

Essentially, ‘grief tending’ is giving time and space to tend to our grief in a group setting. It is a skill that can be learned to help when coping with grief. Being witnessed by a group can be powerful. Being part of a supportive group that comes together to do this work can be life affirming. Grief Tending may take place in an existing community of people, a group of people who come together temporarily to share this experience, or a group who meet regularly for an ongoing grief tending practice. In mainstream western society, dealing with grief is generally shared with a one-to-one counsellor at best, and at worst hidden away in private, solitary spaces.

What does the process involve?

The process usually involves a grief ritual where feelings may be expressed with or without words, framed by other activities. It may include words, but it is not solely a talking based practice. There is an arc of experience. At the beginning of the process the facilitators aim to build trust between group members. We call this ‘building the banks’. Then there is some exploration of the participants’ emotional landscape or ‘stirring’. At this point the group shifts into ritual space, where deeper expression may happen. Finally a period of integration or ‘soothing’ allows participants to shift gradually back to every day mode.

What’s the point of grief tending?

The aim is not to heal or fix grief. However, grief tending can be both healing and therapeutic. Grief tending is a practice where processing feelings can happen. During a session, there will be exercises that encourage participants to connect to positive resources, as well as gentle exploration into more uncomfortable feelings. It can also be a valuable tool in building resilient culture.

Grief tending is not an alternative to ongoing one-to-one therapy to deal with grief. These two ways of working complement each other. We encourage seeking one-to-one support in order to find continued support after a group session if necessary, especially if deep-seated emotions have been touched.

What is the benefit of grief tending?

In a relatively short time, grief tending can help someone to:

Deal with grief
Process feelings
Lighten their emotional load
Give access to joy and laughter
Bring connection with others
Surface buried emotions
Aid the process of clearing trauma
Bring a sense of perspective
Reveal the size and weight of grief
Expose numbness or disconnection
Open more to love
Connect with the cycle of life

Who is grief tending for?

Grief tending is for anyone dealing with grief and loss. This practice allows any loss to be felt and mourned. Every loss is meaningful. Many are familiar with responses such as shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance following the death of a loved one. However, there is often less awareness of the difficulties that may accompany other kinds of change. A range of complex feelings can accompany any loss or ending.

What happens in a grief tending ritual?

There are different variations of grief rituals. The exact grief tending ceremony being offered will depend on the practitioner, the space where it is taking place, the time available and the number of people who are taking part. When we offer grief tending sessions, we try to find the most appropriate event format for the situation. We bring our own creativity, experience and strengths into each session. Alongside grief rituals, there will be a mix of embodied exercises that may include movement and relaxation.

Grieving with others may sound strange

Grieving with others may sound strange, but it can help to cope with loss. We encourage everyone to be themselves in a grief tending session. You will not have to do anything you don’t want to do in one of our workshops. We encourage participants to take care of their needs within the session. In a grief tending session you work with whatever issues come up for you. Supportive community can be hard to find. You will usually experience both being emotionally held by others, and being a part of that holding circle in a grief tending ritual. It may sound weird, but expressing feelings can be a relief. Participants are often surprised that it can also be fun. Building the connection between group members can normalise grief, and help to recognise the common feeling of shame around what they do or don’t feel.

In the eye of the storm?

Grief tending is not a first response method of help. If you are very recently bereaved, in the first throws of deep grief, this is probably not the time to work with grief tending. If your mental health is unstable, it is also unsuitable. Please seek advice from a health care professional if necessary.

Grief tending can be an excellent way of processing feelings. If you have been holding on to grief from the past it may be helpful. Perhaps you feel that you have got stuck in grief, and long to move through it. Working with grief in community can be a great tool if you want to explore a variety of themes, or just have a vague sense that grief may be lurking.  If you are working with a therapist, grief tending can also help to surface material to explore more deeply in therapy.

Processing feelings is important

A wide range of feelings may be ready for expression. By identifying what may be present and how to express this, we learn skills that develop emotional intelligence. There is a growing awareness in therapeutic circles that processing grief is an important part of wellbeing. This may include complex grief or undigested emotions from the past. Grief tending as a tool for dealing with loss, also helps in building resilient culture.

Where does grief tending come from?

A number of different influences and teachings have come together in grief tending. Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé of the Dagara people originally brought rituals from Dano Village, in Burkina Faso to Europe and America. This included a traditional form of grief ceremony. Sobonfu Somé (who died in 2017) trained Maeve Gavin in grief tending in community. Our teachers Sophy Banks and Jeremy Thres worked with Maeve Gavin (who died in 2018).

Francis Weller (‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’), Martin Prechtel (who was adopted by the Tzutujil people of Guatemala), and Joanna Macy (‘The Work that Reconnects’), are practitioners whose teachings and writings influence the work of many practitioners working with grief in community.

Bringing together ancient and modern

Grief tending brings together wisdom from both ancient and modern threads. Improved understanding around shame and trauma in clinical settings, mean that techniques are also developing for clearing and recovering from it. Experts in this field include Peter Levine, Stephen Porges, Carolyn Spring and Pete Walker. In grief tending we use ‘titration’, to touch in and out gently to grief.  This is a trauma informed way to work with grief.

Is grief tending spiritual?

While some of the roots of grief tending may come from communities with shared spiritual practices, grief tending is non-denominational. Different practitioners will have their own flavour and personal belief systems. While participants of all faiths and none are welcome, the practice may include shrines, ceremonies, the elements, nature, and an awareness of something that is greater than us.

Finding a practitioner

Our own work takes inspiration from our teachers and the writings of many others alongside all that we have gleaned from our own creative and family lives.
If you want to find out more about the grief tending sessions we hold look here.

If you are looking for a practitioner, trust your gut instinct to find a person or practice that is appropriate for you in your current situation. Ask questions to find out more about their approach to dealing with grief.
Find some other UK practitioners here.

You can find some reviews of books on dealing with grief on our blog here.
Other sources of information and inspiration are on our links page here.

“We are designed to receive touch, to hear sounds and words entering our ears that soothe and comfort. We are shaped for closeness and for intimacy with our surroundings. Our profound feelings of lacking something are not reflection of personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect.”
Francis Weller