Friday, 27 November 2020

Grieving needs a village - a personal grief journey

Grief is transformative and can be a heart opening rollercoaster passage. Today I am sharing my deeply personal and raw journey here. It’s nice to finish this long awaited newsletter after a very touching deep session with a client on the phone followed by the most nurturing evening stroll. I am so grateful for the beauty around me and am in awe of the moments where I am enjoying life with all my senses in a completely fresh and new way.

I hope that one day soon we all can do death and grief better. We need to, if we want to do life better as a society.

I took time out to grieve after my husband’s death this year and stumbled into the biggest free fall of my life. For four months I did not know if I would find my way back, I seemed caught in a nightmare and there was nothing I could do to change that.

My husband Digby was sick for 16 months and when he died he left an excruciating huge hole. A part of me died with him and I had to fight hard to find myself again. He was a very special person, deeply embodied, with inspiring working class ethics, very creative and smart, unbeknownst to many also deeply spiritual. We had this incredible deep connection and it felt like we were one on a soul level. He held me so beautifully for 22 years, he was my rock, he had my back like no one ever did before in my life and his unconditional love was an incredible gift. We were great teachers to each other right till the end and I feel humbled by it.

The grief that hit me after his death hit me hard. So hard that I was on my knees, screaming. Primal, incredibly loud sounds were coming out of my mouth. I heard these new sounds with surprise, watched them with curiosity as they expressed themselves like nothing I had ever heard before. It felt unbearable and cruel at times and yet I just had to let it rip through me. To let grief go through us is something I have been teaching my clients in the last 30 years of my counselling work. But this time it was bigger than anything I had ever experienced before and I wondered how on earth people grieve who don’t have these skills or the support to get through it. I would allow the huge waves to take me– this was the part I could do, sometimes with the support of colleagues and friends, but it wasn’t the hard part of my grieving journey.

What I had not anticipated was the spiritual disconnection that happened with my man’s death. I was stripped completely bare, so vulnerable that I could barely leave my block of land as a never before known strange rawness and anxiety would make my whole being feel completely exposed and defenseless. I was without a skin and had to ask for food deliveries and cooked meals. I would force food into myself but it felt like eating cardboard. Only when someone was there to share a meal with me, could I eat huge plates full and my taste buds would rejoice in the gifted dinner.

In lots of ways I was unprepared for my husband’s death despite his sickness. Digby needed every ounce of his strength to stay alive and wouldn’t talk about death with me, so I had to grieve 16 months on my own. It was a very lonely grieving whilst still holding hope like a fragile bird. And in the last month I actually thought that Digby would live. He kept saying with conviction that he was sure he was not dying. I asked him often if he was delusional and begged him to talk about death or to teach me things around the block of land in case he would die. But he insisted that he knew with every fiber of this being that he was going to live. He was such a grounded person, that I felt I had to trust his judgment. But he was wrong. He died in my arms.

The second I realized that he had passed away peacefully I strangely only felt joy. I was proud that he was able to let go so easily instead of holding on to life when it was his time to go. I felt his joy as he left his body and could sense and see his essence in the room as a big round blue ball. I held him all night after his passing, sang to him the song "Over the rainbow", talked to him, sand some more and cried. I was awake with him all night. And all the next morning when his body went cold I no longer wanted to be close to his physique. his body was all of a sudden an empty shell. It didn't carry his energy, I no longer wanted to bring his body home as previously planned. I felt Digby's spirit everywhere and again his joy helped me accept his death. On the way home I thought to myself, that I would be able to ride the waved of grief with "ease" as my man was still so strongly with me in spirit.

The following days I organized his funeral and on three days we had an empty coffin at our home. Friends and neighbours would pop in to paint symbols onto the coffin in honor of my husband (our daughter painted the whole lid) while I mostly lay on a mattress in the living room surrounded by people and food. This creative painting felt like such an important ritual and brought everyone together. Grief would rip through me and shock me to the core in its intensity, I could hardly walk as all my muscles were tired from shaking so much, but I still felt held and carried hope.

This changed on the fourth day after his passing when a huge double rainbow was right over our block of land. The biggest rainbow I had ever seen, with colors of an intensity coming towards me, which I found almost scary. My daughter and a close friend where there at the time and we all felt it was a sign from Digby. What I didn’t know at the time was that this was his parting gift. His spirit left this dimension with the fading of the rainbow.                                                                                                                        And with it my whole world collapsed. My believe system tumbled and I no longer had a scaffolding to hold me on this earth.

In the beginning this new grief was still doable as I felt propelled to sort things out and to clean like never before in my life. I had so much energy in my system despite a huge lack of sleep. My body had naturally switched to movement, the best antidote to depression and collapse. And the cleaning up helped me to process all that I had witnessed during Digby’s sickness. I howled when the grief would take me, but if I was only weeping I would take myself for a walk and would then naturally end up working physically hard on the block: chain sawing, stacking hundreds of pavers, clearing out sheds and the garage, cleaning and scrubbing the whole house, sorting out clothes and paper work. I honestly worked in these first three weeks more than I ever did in 3 years put together and it had a natural easy flow to it. Physical work and movement helped me step forward and start creating a new space for the life on my own. For the first week I slept at a neighbor’s place as being at home had too many painful reminders of dreams not met, I would only come home during the day to clean the space and make things mine. This was such an important process and going away a lot helped me titrate the grief experience and give me breaks from it. But as I worked my tired body so hard and couldn’t digest enough food, my weight was dropping off me too quickly. And people all of a sudden stopped popping in regularly and food deliveries became scarce.

There came a time when I no longer was in this natural flow to work around block and house and I knew I needed a break. I went up to Fremantle to friends and learnt to eat again, I rested, I rode the bike along the beach and practiced going into shops. I felt a big shift after my return home, but I was not pulled to work on the block any more and when this regular movement stopped a great depression fell over me. I no longer could feel my husband around me and this loss stripped me bare of everything. All of a sudden huge parts of my life where all gone at once: the incredible special rock and soul of my life had left, and I was no longer able to do my counselling work which had been such a big part and passion in my life, but worst of all: my spiritual believe system had completely crashed.

My longing to leave this planet and to follow my soul mate was huge. Suicide was not an option. On many levels I knew that I still had a good life ahead of me once the worst of the grieving journey was over. I somehow had to find a way to reconnect to this planet again.

I used to love looking at the stars, it would always give me the greatest comfort. But all of a sudden I found it confusing and vacant looking into the infinite cosmos. I was no longer at home on this planet and the endlessness of the stars had become meaningless and empty to me. I experienced this as a huge loss. Nothing was holding me any longer.

Again I wondered how people do grieve. There is nothing in our culture that supports a grieving person, no rituals, no cultural guidance and people around you often don’t know how to support you. In the olden days a grieving person would wear black for a year to remind everyone in their circle that they were grieving and still needing support. In our culture we have a funeral and this is pretty much the end of it. But grief needs a village, it cannot be done well on your own and for me the practical help, visits, sleep overs away from home, phone calls and shared meals meant the world to me. How do people grief who can’t allow their sadness to surface, who can’t ask for support, say no to the wrong support and make sure they ask the right people? Grieving requires so many skills like the ability to set boundaries, knowing your needs from the inside out, saying no, reaching out and asking for help, the ability to be vulnerable and to make new friends. I guess it is a crash course for most people, an initiation to a new life. But I do think as a culture we need to learn to do death and grieving better and I hope that one day I can write a book about all I have learnt. I would love to hear from other cultures who have a much clearer understanding of doing death and grief. I thought I could do death, I accompanied so many grieving people in my work, I never had a problem talking about death and I have lost someone who meant the world to me before, but Digby’s passing is something that makes me question death and its finality in a very new way.

I guess my situation was also a bit extreme as I found myself without the stability and structure of a job for months, I was without my family of origin who lives on another continent, no possibility to fly home for a while because of Covid and then some other negative unsupportive outside issues I don’t want to mention here. Death really does bring out the best and the worst in people. On top of this I have a huge block of land that had been too much for my husband and myself at times. I had to learn how to start petrol water pumps and manage our off grid set up and l was often left with a constant feeling of overwhelm mixed with the most immense grief.

People suggested I should go back to work, but I felt it was unethical to use my clients to give me stability when I was lacking it from the inside out. I had to find that place in myself first and at times it felt like I was locked in a nightmare with no way out. In retrospective I feel humbled by these difficult circumstances. This intense grieving and the difficult conditions surrounding it gave me a lot of insight into what grieving people can experience. I lean best if I experience things myself and well, I sure did experience a bit.

I went on my own search and listened to an Indian mystic who spoke of wind, fire, water and earth cleansing rituals to help after the passing of a loved one. In my desperation I remembered Tim Win, the iceman who had developed a special breathing technique and who would swim in ice water after his wife’s suicide. So I started swimming in our dam in the middle of winter. It was freezing, but every time I swam I could feel myself a bit better. I would try to swim in the dam or ocean and shower and have a bath 5 times or more a day. To reconnect myself to this planet I used the help of the earth elements. I would rub clay from the dam all over my body and soak up the sun before jumping into the cold water. It felt odd, strange and unfamiliar doing this, but I was desperate enough and I felt called to do it and it helped. Hot baths were like a womb holding me and in between I’d run up to the dam and swim. I collected and chain sawed wood around the block and lit fires and would let the smoke go through me. I found that singing and toning helped tremendously when anxiety and grief where drowning me. Overtone and throat singing to the humming of my shower fan supported me when I didn’t know what else to do.

With every swim and mud ritual I felt a teeny bit better. It was a very gradual process. On bad days I would swim a lot, on very bad days that brought me to my knees I had to force myself to go for a walk at least in the afternoon and would always end up going for a swim as well then.

In Somatic Experiencing I learnt the importance of going back to incomplete places of trauma with support and with the exact right resources. One day on the phone to one of my many supportive SE colleagues and friends I had an image of my husband’s death pop up. I went back to this memory to renegotiate a small thing that was missing for me, this then took me to the image of the rainbow over our block and I realized that this was the stumbling block that had tied me firmly into nowhere land. When people would tell me, that of course I was grieving and sometimes feeling depressed as it only had been 2 months since Digby died, I still knew that something wasn’t quite right within me. There was more than “just” this huge grief. Something was keeping me locked up and trapped, something was not letting me move forward and kept me stuck and tied to the past.

If a memory has not been healed, it is like strings holding us prisoner to this past unfinished moment. These seemingly unbreakable ties can be healed with the right support and uniquely created resources. For me it was imagining a group of women huddled all around me, holding me very tight and speaking clearly to me, that this was the moment my husband’s spirit would leave this dimension and that afterwards I would not be able to feel him as I had previously known. In my imagination I was kicking and screaming in pain, throwing myself on the floor whilst these archetypal women would hold me with allowing gentleness. A huge tantrum and grief were ripping through me both at the same time. It was so important that someone explained to me what was going to happen and that I could respond to it with all my body while being held. Feeling this holding and support while also experiencing this big discharge, released my trapped spirit.

The next day I felt a door had opened and that I had turned a corner. I would be able to return to work again when ready. My counselling practice and some form of normality was no longer completely out of my reach. There was no rush to return to work and I still had some bad days and will have this unbearable grief for a very long time, but work was now within my scope. A week after this counselling session I felt called to contact my clients. I have been experiencing so much new joy counselling them again and am doing so with ease.

My deepest thank you and gratitude goes out to the people who supported me in this special and sacred grieving time and for the friends who are still there with me today. Thank you for your believing in me when I doubted myself and for listening to my experiences when I couldn’t listen to anyone else. I will need your ongoing support, you popping in for a chat, a walk and shared food.

Grieving needs a village and I am grateful I had at least glimpses of it.

Barbara Schmidt

Counselling Somatic

Trauma and nervous system recovery

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1 comment:

  1. That was so moving and helpful to read Barbara. It helped me to better understand your journey and what you have been through. You have instinctively allowed your greif be expressed and have shone a light on it for all of us. Much Love Beck xx