Death/Trauma/Change Tag

‘White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism’ by Robin Diangelo, is a short book that effectively addressed my assumptions among other things, that being ‘colour blind’ or ‘celebrating blackness’ were useful; that waving my white middle class liberal flag was enough. These are toothless strategies in the face of the scale of the problem. Robin Diangelo makes explicit that “my silence is not benign because it protects and maintains the racial hierarchy and my place within it.” She unpacks the unhelpful diversionary tactics of white defensiveness. The nub of ‘white fragility’ as a concept is that the system of white supremacy is perpetuated by white people’s reluctance to talk about race, let alone take action to change the status quo. Once white bodied folk get to grips with the inevitability of our complicity with a system that essentially gives us a massive advantage, in ways we are not even aware of, then we can stop trying to defend our ‘good’ non-racist self-image, and begin the work needed to actively interrupt racism. She describes a workshop in which she asks the people of colour who were present, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?” Recently a man of color sighed and said, “It would be revolutionary.”

I am sitting knowing that I am complicit in systems of white oppression. This recognition opens up two ‘Gates of Grief’ for me. ‘The Harm I have caused myself and Others’ (Sophy Banks) and ‘Ancestral Grief’ (Francis Weller). I am still only just begining to understand the ways in which my defensiveness and my inaction perpetuate injustice. I am also holding the lines of my heritage – people who stood with the advantages of white skin; who also took part in systemic repression. I think especially of those who were linked with the church, participated in civic life or held social capital. Some worked their way up through Lancashire cotton mills to make ropes and twines of cotton and jute. I sense my guilt and shame exude their rancid odours. I place a rope and skull on a grief shrine, to remind me of the weight of the suffering of others – then, as now. This gesture seems impotent, but I offer it and bow my head. Resmaa Menakem suggests that “the first step is to acknowledge that something has to change” around the “Historical, Intergenerational, Persistent Institutional and Personal traumas” resulting from genocide, colonisation and enslavement. I recommend Resmaa Menakem’s ‘Free Racialized Trauma E Course’ as a brief introduction to white body supremacy and the impact of racialized trauma on black bodies.

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.

Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk, expert on trauma, recently said about the Global Coronavirus Crisis: “I think we are in a pre-traumatic condition, namely the conditions for psychological trauma are rife.” Whatever may be the causes, the statistics, the political and financial manoeuvres, we are experiencing a collective challenge. This will affect each of us differently on a personal level. I am mindful that for those who were already dealing with trauma or the chronic consequences of trauma, the threat of the virus and the consequences of illness, or of the lockdown itself, will add to the emotional load on the nervous system. Just as for those who are already dealing with underlying physical health conditions, the virus will add to the viral load on the immune system. London is a city that has a huge gap between rich and poor. For many there is little or no financial cushion. Old and young, frail or healthy face different threat levels. Key worker or unemployed, with inverse stresses. I don’t know how this crisis will unfold, and how many will face tragedy of one kind or another. Sometimes trauma comes with a visible wound, but often it lurks in PTSD, and other chronic conditions. During my own stay at home, I am glued to Carolyn Spring’s on-line trauma trainings. With whatever comes next, it feels as though these will provide important understanding for me to draw upon further along the curve of Covid-19’s impact.
www.carolynspring.com
www.besselvanderkolk.com

“In navigating this complex web of fact, fear, imagination and physiology, a palliative care doctor is a scientist with a hint of shaman.” Rachel Clarke is one of these scientist/shaman working with the living, who happen to be dying. In ‘Dear Life’, she manages to articulate the challenges of being a medical doctor with a big heart on the front line of end of life care. She takes us with her, on her journey to become a doctor, combined with the roles of mother and daughter. It is her warmth as a person that comes through in her writing and allows us to connect with her experience. She recognises the importance of fundamental values like kindness, listening, and as she puts it, “patient, not disease, centre stage”. She is a representative of an underfunded sector of an under-funded NHS, a pragmatic yet passionate doctor. She recognises how, “patients oblige, comply, obey; they cannot risk dissent when so much power is concentrated in medical hands.” She is a powerful advocate for “small acts of kindness, and simple touch to transcend primal fear.” She doesn’t shy away from facing issues of ‘desperation medicine’, which is a tempting treatment avenue to follow when including death in the conversation around life-limiting conditions is avoided. She is wise and understanding as she accompanies patients and their families, navigating hospice life together. “I forgot how much it hurts to love someone while losing them”, she admits. Her descriptions of the vibrant life on a hospice ward are inspiring and life affirming. She shows us what is possible in the face of difficulty. “In the absence of cure there is still love, joy, togetherness, smiles, tears, wonder, solace – all of life, only concentrated.” Her own grief unfolds through the narrative when her father is diagnosed with cancer. This becomes the lens which deepens her clinical practice and reminds us that “grief, like love, is non-negotiable”.

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

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

I am a ‘thanotourist’, as in thano meaning death. (‘Thanatos’ is the Greek god of non-violent deaths.) I am interested in places associated with death. I want to know more about funerary customs, in order to recognise the old ways, and find new ways that might serve us better. In Vietnam, I see the highly decorative boxes of grave goods that can be purchased, to accompany the dead. These symbolic artefacts are offered at funerals for the deceased to take to the next life. Decorative boxes include paper clothes, shiny accessories – shoes, watches, necklaces and glasses. The people who are left behind do their best to offer respect and auspicious gifts for the grave. Here, a culture with many customs and superstitions around the dead meshes with Communist Party tradition. Hence the former leader, Ho Chi Minh lies in state while party members and tourists pay their respects. His body, embalmed rests waxen in a highly polished mausoleum on a high dais, which sits on a sunken floor. Guards with twinkling bayonets stand frozen below, eyes ahead. I file past on a raised walkway, listening to the pin sharp silence of this heightened ritual.

The American war in Vietnam has a complex and dark history. It began in 1954 as a war for independence with the French, after a brutal period of French colonial rule. It ended in 1976. Robert Macnamara, former US Defence Secretary at the time, later wrote, “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” For me, trying to understand something of the consequences of foreign powers drawing borders and funding factions teaches us both the importance of recognising what has happened, but also to see how it continues to cast global shadows in the present. The intelligence/counter intelligence and propaganda techniques of that time pre-figure our era of ‘fake news’ and political marketeering. Seeing Ken Burns 10 Part documentary series ‘The Vietnam War’ and reading John Pilger’s ‘Heroes’, then seeing the documentary photographs in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), combine to build a picture of the era for me. However, it is meeting real people whose relatives were killed on one side or the other; and meeting people whose disabilities are a direct result of the use of ‘Agent Orange’ shock, but connect me to the real after effects. There are still areas where land mines or chemical residues cause serious harm. We visit the area, which was marked the ‘DMZ’ between designated North and South Vietnam. This was officially the De Militarized Zone, but known locally as the VMZ or Very Militarized Zone. Near by we bend down to enter long narrow tunnels in the clay soil, where local villages took shelter from bombing raids. We try to feel our way into imagining the terror, hunger and confusion experienced at the time. We feel the hard metal of iconic tanks left behind, inhumane in purpose.

 

In ‘From Here to Eternity’, Caitlin Doughty, American mortician, “travels the world to find the good death.” From her experience running a funeral home in California, she says, “We have fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to proximity, intimacy and ritual around death.” She is a passionate advocate for more connected, healing processes around contemporary funerary rituals. Her aim is, “to reclaim meaning and tradition in our communities.” In search of alternatives, she visits Belize where the question (posed by Luciano, local death attendant), “Hey, what do you want when you die?” is a part of every day conversation. She witnesses a spectrum from the more esoteric practices of mummification and living alongside the dead bodies of family members in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, to the low environmental impact experiments in ‘recomposition’ in North Carolina, USA. In beginners Spanish, I learned the question, “Donde son las momias?” At the time I wondered when I might need to use it. In this book, I discover several places where mummification is practiced and this phrase might come in handy. Doughty explores cultures that offer “tasks beyond the lonely, interminable silences” after the death of a child for example. Looking for inspiration to the community open pyre in Crestone Colorado and the ‘Dias de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) tradition in Mexico, she finds customs that could be adapted as an antidote to a western secular ‘denial of death’. She is an entertaining and forthright travelling companion who isn’t afraid to shine a light into what might be considered taboo.