Grief/Loss/Feelings Tag

Sam Butler and David Harradine of ‘Fevered Sleep’ have devised and produced ‘This Grief Thing’.

This Grief Thing is a project that encourages people to think, talk and learn about grief.”

Their billboard caught my eye last week as I walked along Dalston Lane. They have curated a number of talks on grief themes, as well as other projects that stir people to engage with the theme.

Tony and I visited their market stall in Brick Lane where Julie, Sam and David folded T shirts and sweltered in the heat like all the other market traders. Poised for spontaneous interactions, the presence of the stall caught the eye of people walking past. As people browsed hoodies and T shirts, conversations were encouraged with the curious. I remembered my days on the Narrow Way initiating random conversations with strangers in the Hackney is Friendly project.

The market stall is full of merchandise designed to open conversations with ordinary people to normalise talking about loss. Brilliant and simple, their slogans champion a way to engage with someone who may feel ill-equipped to mourn, or to respond to someone who is grieving.

“Don’t panic if I cry,” printed on a red T-shirt particularly appealed to me. We left with “Let me be sad” badges, and some other swag. I shall wear them, ready to see what communication it provokes, hoping to spread their mission of everyday encounters that unlock the taboo around the subject of grief.

There is no stated dress code for this funeral. It is being held for an octogenarian, so perhaps formal is best. But it was a life lived well and long, so perhaps a flourish of colour to acknowledge their well-played ‘innings’.

I settle for my mother’s home-made in the 1950’s black velvet coat, and a bright shawl. The coat has no buttons – I wonder to myself whether it is because button-holes were and still are a chore to make, even with my clever sewing machine. Instead I clutch it closed over my winter dress, which conceals thermal underwear, and step into the misty morning. Today I eschew pink fur hat, dog paraphernalia and hiking boots.

Our car has stayed put on our street over winter. On opening, I discover it is cultivating a spread of green mould. Despite the cold, we drive with open windows hoping to dry out the atmosphere. We skirt around the metropolis to what seems another world, way beyond the reaches of my lockdown-beaten-bounds.

I notice fresher air, fewer people, and struggle to use the car park payment system. I perch in the cold to eat my sandwich lunch, made at breakfast time in my familiar kitchen. I regret that the carefully prepared thermos, is still sitting on the kitchen worktop.

Outside the church, selected representatives from different strands of the well-loved deceased’s life negotiate greeting. Do we bump elbows or wave? Coming together for this rite of passage without the rituals of touch adds another layer of discomfort. My expressions of warmth and care are lost beneath my mask. I try a twitching eyebrow to make connection. My words feel lame. I wince overhearing another grapple with a genuinely offered “Sorry for your loss.”

We stumble through new rituals of sanitising hands, registering our contact details for ‘Track and Trace’. Alternate pews are blocked off with red tape. We sit in isolated pods, at least a pew away from backs hunched in sorrow. The choir of three sing hums at a distance while we stay mute. An inspiring eulogy and readings are given in the traditional British manner – words regimented over emotions that sometimes crack through.

But to my delight, in lavish and beautiful gestures, the British Sign Language interpreter brings real poetry with their embodied expression of the solemn words spoken. My tears roll in response to this direct communication of all that this event means, in this time.

Outside again, rain hammers down and draws our distanced conversations to a close. I miss my usual rain-proof jacket, return to the car with hair, coat and shawl soaked. The car steams. I sense the mould perk up, quietly continuing its life cycle.

It’s late, and I’ve been crying. Tears have run down my face in waves, great sobs of joy and sadness have expelled salt water, snot, and howls. Now my face, which is swollen with features adrift, has red-ringed eyes. This is not a ‘perfect face’ selfie.

Do you know that feeling, when something just touches you, moves you with unexpected intensity? There are certain themes, which I know can evoke this response in me: equanimity in the face of injustice, false accusations of the innocent, triumph against the odds, the acceptance of animals to their fate, watching death come slowly, and coming together to make change happen.

‘My Octopus Teacher’, an extraordinary documentary about Craig Foster caught me unawares, and precipitated this flood. It’s a fascinating and brilliant exploration of the healing potential of the natural world and examines the boundaries with wild creatures.

Nina Simone’s songs can sometimes evoke this emotional reaction in me, but more often it’s a film, or story. If you’re in need of catharsis, I can also recommend ‘The March of the Penguins’ and ‘Toy Story 3’. But I don’t want to prescribe, maybe other things move you to tears.

I have a jolt of recognition as grief comes to visit. “Oh, hello again, I know you.” It feels like a small bird trapped in my chest. Anxiety sets in, with a fluttering of wings, with fear of what is to come. Speaking of it gives my heart an unexpected squeeze, which elicits tears. It feels as though the little bird is being crushed inside my chest when this happens. Thinking about the cause of my sorrow hurts, as though the little bird has smacked against the cage of my chest. If I observe closely, I notice this emotional pain can cause physical sensations along my arms to the tips of my fingers, and fill my stomach.

Then distracted, or numb, there may be a brief respite of quietude as I forget. Regaining consciousness again, the little bird takes to battering itself against confinement. I dip in and out of feelings, sometimes immersed, as though this captive air-borne creature is being held under water. Sometimes I am with a tender quality of beauty for all that is in the world, slowing down to feel gratitude alongside sadness.

I know over the coming days that this little bird will be squeezed, and bruised as grief mauls it like a predator inside my rib cage. I know too that every grief will mark me in some way, and ripen my understanding.

Like a crime scene, the victims of accident or predator sometimes lie in my path. I imagine each feather marked with an exhibit number, a chalk line around the body. The path that meets the road is closed off one day this week, with real police tape. “There has been a shooting,” word passes between dog walkers. Accident or not, a tragedy will probably be playing out in two households, as a consequence.

On this theme, there are a couple of gems available to hear on BBC Radio 4, which unfold some of the consequences for everyone involved after a crime has been committed. ‘This Thing of Darkness’ is a 8 part drama, written by Anita Vettesse and Eileen Horne. It follows a forensic psychiatrist’s conversations with an accused man, and members of his family, in an attempt to unravel what happened. Told from the psychiatrist’s point of view, it reveals her thought processes as she listens for glimmers of truth among the facts. It also includes characters inside a therapy group process within a prison. It allows us to see the nuanced and complex causes of what happened, and the feelings of everyone touched by the incident.

‘The Punch’ is a 5 part documentary series following the impact after one young man was convicted of manslaughter, for killing another with a single punch. We hear about the impact of the death both on the person convicted, and the family of the victim. It gives an inspiring insight into the process of restorative justice. The outcome of the meetings between the convicted, and the parents of the victim is remarkable, but does not diminish the morass of difficult feelings on both sides.

“Grief and joy balance each other like the two wings of a bird,” says Sophy, making wings with her arms, then folding her hands together, palm to palm. She acknowledges Jeremy Thres for the analogy, which came from Martin Prechtel, who learned it from the Tsujitsil people of Guatamala. She holds each grief tending ceremony with natural, grounded lightness of touch. At each event she invites me to assist on, I feel grateful for the honour. Under her wing, I am stretching mine. Pendulating between the wings of grief and joy, the group dips into both. This is how we deepen together, risk being vulnerable, discover unexpected moments of pleasure. I tumble into the beauty of the altar I have assembled to guide my journey. It is a portal into the mystery of this process. Rumi’s words share the metaphor to express the experience perfectly: “Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.
Sophy Banks holds on-line grief tending events, and I may be on the team.

Part of me died when I came home to find tree surgeons chopping off the top of the old sycamore that was here before me, and has watched over us the last twenty-two years. Part of me died when I noticed how long it took for me to recognise the violence of this pollarding. Part of me died when my neighbourly yet assertive questions were aggressively dismissed by the burly lumberjacks wielding chainsaw. Part of me died when I knocked on the neighbour’s door – just along the street, and didn’t recognise their faces. Part of me died when the owner offered reasonable explanations and an after-the-fact mumbled apology. Part of me died when the shaking stopped and I breathed again; and I stood in our garden to see the remaining brutal hand of stumps. Part of me died when I imagine the territory of squirrels, birds, mice, foxes, cats and all the other creatures and insects that lived in or under the shade of this tree, cut down in its prime mid growth season. Part of me died when I realised this is a microcosm of the cutting down of trees for the benefit of faceless owners around the world, to suit their needs, while others watch disconnected or feeling helpless. Part of me died to know that I am complicit in this system. Part of me died to know the butchery of our times.
Written from a ‘writing shuttle’ inspired by Natalie Goldberg.

Children's anxiety about pandemicMy neighbour Etta Cater (aged 7) was reading ‘What’s Worrying You’ by Molly Potter. Etta showed me the book. “The page that I find very useful is called ‘What’s Under the Bed’”. She noticed that there wasn’t a page on Pandemics. So, with her Mum’s encouragement, she was inspired to draw one. I have been writing my own article to address grief in these times, but I think Etta’s nailed it. She names some of the feelings we might be experiencing. “You might feel bored, scared, sad, like it will never end, worried or upset.” It’s really helpful for people to know that feeling these things is normal “when you’re on lock down”. These are just some of the feelings that come up with loss, change or anxiety. Etta also knows that it really helps to chat to someone when something is bothering you. She is aware that people might be living in places with different access to space to play in. She also reminds us, “remember it won’t last forever”. Her top tips are, “if you have a garden, play with your family.” Or if you don’t, “play a board game”. Thanks Etta for reminding me that parents and children everywhere are trying to cope with different ways of life.


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

The novel’s title quotes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘On Receiving an Account That His Only Sister’s Death Was Inevitable’. Miriam Toews writes this poignant and unflinching tale based on the autobiographical details of her own family life. She writes with humour that sounds almost flippant about their family dynamics and troubles. She captures the senses of paradox that comes when dealing with difficult circumstances that co-exist with the common rituals of everyday life. Hence when a family member is sick, there can be a heightened intimacy, and yet provisions must still be bought, meals cooked, and cars repaired. There is a sense of melodrama in the unfolding story. She brings dark humour to the tragic circumstances her central protagonists find themselves in. “Now I couldn’t think or write. My fingers hated me. I was afraid that when I went to sleep I’d wake to find them wrapped around my throat.” Two sisters grow up in a family already carrying sorrow. One sister longs to end her life, the other, lives with anxiety and responsibility of care, which this creates. My own mother had a strong death urge, so I identified with the care-taking narrator, and the tension, which a preoccupation with suicide places within their relationship. Through descriptions of domestic details, and the unfolding narrative, I empathised with the complexity that comes from loving someone for whom depression is so bleak that annihilation is preferable; and how that desire affects everyone around them. Miriam Toews treads lightly around what might be considered a taboo theme. She describes all their ‘puny sorrows’ with grace and tenderness.