Saturday, 25 September 2021

Grieving to healing travel and sailing adventure

Having a routine, a job that can distract and guide you, are great elements in moving forward after a big loss. But not if your job is working as a grief and trauma counsellor. In this chaptered article I write about my sailing and travelling adventure, being taken in by a spiritual Indigenous elder and the experienced deep transformation gifted via Digby’s death anniversary while on a sailing boat. 

As time went by and less people regularly thought of me, it got harder and harder to hold the grief on my own and I knew that I had to stop offering my counselling work May of this year. I decided to head up north for the winter and follow an unexpected calling to go sailing. The sailing world was completely new to me. I had no idea how to make this happen, all I knew was that I had to leave indefinitely.

The process of deciding to give up my last anchor, my work, was unravelling me before heading off. My closest friends know what a seriously bad place I was in for a while. My mind was fighting me relentlessly. My fears often had me locked in a complete freeze where I could see no way forward or out and I was terrified to go travelling on my own. But I knew that I had to leave as I was dying inside. I had to learn to trust life again and travelling was the only way forward for me.

I simply had a small pop up tent and a tiny car – quite a challenge for someone who isn’t into camping. I lived on the smallest budget possible like a backpacker and often volunteered and improvised in exchange for camping or couch surfing spots. Without Digby's death I wouldn't have found out how much I love driving and cooking on a milk crate out of the back of my car. I learnt that I am much more capable than I ever thought possible. It was often very uncomfortable and more exhausting than working, but I knew I wasn’t done travelling and rediscovering myself yet. I was slowly beginning to listen to my intuition again, even if my mind thought that it made no sense. It was like a wild spiritual initiation ride.

For me it is not true that time heals grief or that it becomes less over time. In my experience it stays the same. But the containment around it changes. There are these heightened moments of joy and new experiences that made my container expand like never before in my life.

When travelling I had amazing experiences. Via unbelievable coincidences I became friends with an Indigenous Ningaloo Elder, who showed me powerful Indigenous Australian dreaming sites on the coast. I had magical encounters with animals, and I lived on a moored fishing charter on my own for a few days after delivering a ute for a company, I went swimming right next to a giant whale shark, I felt in heaven and overjoyed when I collected beautiful pebbles, I snorkeled and dived with turtles and swam above a barreling manta ray. I travelled 6000km alone when before Digby’s death I couldn’t even do the 350km trip up to Perth. In these new moments I didn’t feel my sadness, only utter joy and wonder. The grief was still the same, but the container then was so massive that it seemed non-existent.

But when things went wrong, the container would shrink to a small slither, then the grief would become overwhelming and huge again and being alive would feel unbearable. I have no idea where this journey is taking me, all the norms are thrown out of the window. Sometimes I give myself a hard time for not “having it together” yet and I feel ashamed. Then I remind myself that it is my job to be gentle and patient with myself, not just with my clients, and that telling the world about this shame is a way forward for all of us.

I had no idea how much Digby was holding me when he was still alive as we both lived such independent and strong lives together. He was an unusual and incredible soul. I know there have been many unfortunate circumstances that do make my loss more difficult, but that doesn’t explain my intense grief. Digby was my scaffolding, he was so stabilizing and healing for my childhood trauma. Now it is my job to learn somatically to build a new scaffolding inside myself and travelling started this process for me. My life can become bigger because of this loss. What a crazy contradiction. What a massive and sometimes cruel challenge. And I might not be able to “move on” as quickly as others may expect me to, including myself.

Initiation into a completely new world

My journey up north was a great grieving ritual. I revisited many of the places I had been to with Digby 22 years ago, while pregnant with our daughter. I was nervous heading out to places where Digby and I have had such an amazing time a lifetime ago. But I made new memories and they were adventurous and good. I visited Shelly beach in Shark Bay and sobbed, told it my story and went for a dip. In Monkey Mia where a dolphin sensing my pregnancy back then had rubbed its nose on my leg, I had the most amazing dolphin encounters; one when I had already packed up to leave and was spending some last ocean moments resting. Not one single dolphin nearby. Suddenly I heard a flying drone and just because its noise was annoying me, I sat up. In exactly that moment two dolphins swam directly in front of me, only one meter away. A mother and daughter. These are the moments when I felt that Digby was with me and sending me a sign for my daughter and I.

It's like travelling the land was healing me, even though at times it was a painful process. Sometimes I just knew what was going to happen ahead of time and I was slowly getting back into a flow. I finally started dreaming of and feeling Digby with me more. I had moments of sheer happiness for no reason at all. My heart was slowly healing.

When driving up the coast, the energy of the landscape in the beginning changed so much that it once scared me. I listened to Digby's funeral music by Gurrumul and cried like I hadn't for a while. I asked the ancestors to accept me into their land and relaxed once I received their silent permission. 

I was in awe of the gorges near Exmouth. I went hiking through dry river beds full of big round stones, along the ridges of gaping canyons and was mesmerized by the power of these red rocks. Having canyons right next to the ocean with the expanse of the stars above was incredible. I felt so grateful for nature holding me so tightly but gently, being surrounded and infused by so much beauty, kind people and warm sunny weather. When I was driving I could cry and scream as loud as I needed to, but at the same time I strongly felt spirits holding me which was a beautiful grieving.

My mind stopped thinking and planning and I was beginning to trust the flow of life a little bit more. I went for many walks along the beach, sometimes remembering Digby's last few weeks alive and digesting the intense suffering I witnessed. I was once sobbing along the beach with my grief tumbling me upside down while collecting tiny round sand dollars, the cousins to sea urchins. I ended up with a small collection of  these "stars" and felt so grateful for being able to do my grieving journey on a beautiful beach while collecting shells as Digby and I often used to do together.

I treated myself to swimming with whale sharks. It was one of the best days ever and the holiday I needed after travelling, living out of my car and feeling quite exhausted by it. Swimming right along a whale shark and snorkeling amongst the most beautiful corals recharged my batteries. I felt exhilarated and so alive swimming next to this gigantic spotty fish. It was so nice reconnecting with my joyous and loud enthusiasm for life. I was reminded how much I love being on a boat and that the time was coming up for me to leave the land and go sailing soon.

Sailing and anniversary

And I did make it onto a sailing boat. With really good people who didn't mind that I'm pretty clueless when it comes to sailing. I loved watching the ocean move like sand dunes with little waves in the big ocean swells. I enjoyed it when I could see no land, only the fastness of the horizon with occasional whales popping up. The insignificance and smallness of me in this big body of water was a great holding comfort. Probably the only remedy available against my relentless grief and bloody stubborn resisting mind. The first 15 hours sailing I was struggling with my own mind and grief, still unable to accept that Digby is dead. In the evening I came to more acceptance. 

I may never become a sailor, but my love for the ocean grew with every hour I stared into this great expanse. I could be in company while on my lonely and at times seemingly endless grieving journey. I was humming to myself to keep seasickness and cold at bay. It was too rugged to get to the front of the boat to get warmer clothing and I later learnt that the other sailors took seasickness meds to help them get through it. We sailed for another 37 rough hours through the next day and night with the wind and swell against us. It was definitely not a luxury cruise. But it was the absolute perfect sail honoring Digby's departure. I was reliving so many of our last moments together as I stared out into the ocean, the roughness of the ocean fitted with Digby's inner battle and his resisting to go into hospice. 

I noticed I no longer feared the depth of the ocean; death has so much greater depth. When swimming with whale sharks with Digby 22 years ago not being able to see the ocean floor had terrified me, while this time I only took in the magnificence of the big quiet fish and was I part of it all. We were often over 100 meters above the seabed when sailing. On the ocean I had moments where I arrived at loving Digby unconditionally without the need for him to ever hold me again, to listen or talk to me, without him helping me to make decisions or to share responsibilities. But I had to question how long that would last before I returned to not being able to accept him leaving this earth.

I spent Digby’s death anniversary moored on the boat and had asked my friends to tune in to help me step through this gateway with their love holding me. This support makes such a damn big difference. Anniversary retracing’s can be powerful. It is nature’s way helping us unpack from another vantage point with less dissociation: A year on and we have the chance to feel more of what was previously too overwhelming. 

Digby’s death anniversary was horrid, but with a happy ending. I was physically a mess after zero sleep and I had a migraine. I felt stuck on the boat moored too far away from land. For the first time since travelling I wanted to be back home. I didn't know how to get through this day and I needed help. In the evening a dear friend and somatic experiencing colleague gave me a session on the phone. I was able to cry deeply and could finally touch into a crucial incomplete moment around Digby's death that had spiritually disconnected me for the whole year and made me unable to comprehend that Digby was really dead. 

I was so busy fighting for Digby in the hospital and hospice as for both of us the souls journey is important. Worst of all I had to fight off Digby's family for months who worked against his wishes and blamed me. I never had my moment where I could attune to death itself in peace. The "death doula" in me missed out on walking Digby to the threshold of life. I got to grieve about this immense loss in my session and then renegotiated and re-lived everything in a new way. It's something I can't put into words, but I got to feel it on the anniversary day and it was a deeply sacred moment. I finally could breathe in this indescribable energy coming from above and witnessed the silver lining, Digby's soul departing gently.

While others only saw a skeleton of a man in front of them, I could see the spiritual warrior he truly was, right until the end. In my renegotiation session I got to stand as a proud warrior woman on a beach, seeing visualized the departure of my beloved man. I saw my inner circle of friends standing upright next to me with torches in our hands, painted in proud ochre colors. We were giving Digby the Viking burial he truly deserved; on a high wooden raft lay his body, my bare feet strong on the earth, the fire burning the float sent out to sea, with the stars all above. I felt so strongly connected with the earth while sending Digby off. This solid anchoring would have made such a difference for my grieving later on. 

Funerals don’t include using the earth elements to help reconnect us with the planet, hence I had to do a lot of that on my own while grieving throughout the year. My swimming, smearing clay on my body and singing/toning were attempts to repair that lost moment. On Digby's death anniversary I got to complete what needed doing back then. Time had just become a concept. I am grateful that I got to do this sacred and important repair work on the anniversary day and that being on a sailing boat truly served its purpose.

Spirit sign and taken in by aboriginal elder

A month before leaving to go travelling I was given a spirit sign when I was still full of doubts and fears about setting off into the unknown: walking to my local beach with a friend I saw this giant manta ray a meter from the shore. It stayed there the whole time I was swimming. My friend said she had never seen a manta ray in the 25 years she had lived in this area. I understood the sea creature as a sign from Digby and looked up its meaning. It was all about letting go without acting out of old emotional pain, about being emotionally free without bonds or ties; it basically meant a kind of rebirthing.

I had posted on a public Facebook page that I needed a lift from Carnarvon to Exmouth after sailing and strangely enough I mentioned in that post that I was looking forward to collecting stones on the beaches up there. An Indigenous lady called Antionette read my post and contacted me personally. She texted and warned me to be very careful, that some stones were forbidden to be taken, or it could make me very sick. She suggested to contacting Hazel. And via multiple crazy coincidences I came to Hazel's house near Coral Bay and confided about my manta ray sign. She told me that the beach right in front of her house is the only manta ray dreaming place according to her old ancestral people. Can you believe it?! This whole exhausting and exciting initiation journey brought me to her place. My travelling story came full circle and I felt like I had come home.

When I met up with Hazel a second time I showed her the stones I had already collected. As I mentioned my three separate stone collections to her, I already knew which collection had to go back. Hazel pointed at two and said: "These two are good, you can make a mandala for your husband with them." To the third one she said: "These want to go back to their place!" Luckily, I had no actual forbidden stones in my collection. I drove back into the National Park to the exact place where I had collected the stones. The whole trip I felt an incredible happiness (was it the stones joy of returning home?) and when snorkeling afterwards I almost bumped into a turtle. It felt like a thank you present and I swam for a very long time with that wise old animal. 

I always dreamed of being accepted by wise Indigenous elders. Hazel and I just deeply connected and felt like each other's sisters; we talked a lot about spirits, death and healing (she has lost her son and older siblings). I enjoyed talking about experiencing spirits so; Digby had the gift of seeing spirits and I so missed talking with someone about that. 

I was the only person camping next to Hazel's house. She is a very important elder in Ningaloo on a huge station. And in Coral Bay you can swim with manta rays! Hazel gave me a manta ray brooch she had bought a month ago. She said she had no idea why she was made to buy it at the time, but understands now it was for me as I was meant to come to her place. It gave us both goose bumps.  

Hazel and her husband showed me the coastal dreaming places. We visited turtle, squid, octopus and nursery dreaming in an old rusty ute doing the most adventurous 4WD. I could strongly feel the energy of some places. Hazel then told me that what I was feeling aligned with Indigenous understanding of the land. I even did some of my somatic work with Hazel sitting on the beach. And when that session finished I sang with my singing bowl and a whole family of manta rays came to the shore and we watched them for ages in the thumping sea. I still don't quite know why I had to meet Hazel, but everything along the way felt like it had prepared me for this. Including living with my working class man for 22 years. 

When finishing my travels, I wrote “I am scared of going back home again where everything will remind me that Digby is dead while up here everything around me reminds me that he is very much alive. I am scared of returning home where some of my old grief will remind me of my huge loss, while up north everything reminds me of my huge gain. I'm scared of people down south meeting me and not remembering that I am still grieving and that I still need their support, their visits, their calls, their food, their love.” 

And coming home was indeed hard. I was greeted by plumbing and mold issues in my home and had to camp outside in the freezing cold for almost two weeks, which made me question where I live completely. I felt frozen and completely lost, once again I didn’t want to be on this planet, stopped trusting life, and instead started overeating and numbing myself by watching endless YouTube videos. I felt a lot of shame over it all, but it settled after another anniversary had passed: mine and Digby’s birthdays, only two days apart. And I continue to have really scary dark and lonely days, but I know that my whole nervous system is unravelling and building a new structure from the inside out which will require a lot of time - more than on some days I want to give myself.

My work is changing and I feel and see a lot more energetically, some of the counselling sessions simply blow me away. I love my work in a totally new way. But I don’t book many clients as my inner processing still needs a lot of space.  The secret will be to give myself space without needing to know what to do next. Instead of “supposed to do” I will hopefully just notice myself without any pressure.  I am learning to trust that I will be able to sustain myself as I work less, trust that life will guide me as I was guided all along these last three months travelling up north, not knowing where I will end up or what my future will hold.


Barbara Schmidt

Counselling Somatic

Trauma and nervous system recovery


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  1. holy cow... what an incredible adventure, Barbara!

    i am blown away by your courage and refreshingly raw honesty.

    healing is such hard and yet rewarding work, especially when you want to push yourself to another level of discomfort/comfort to attain some form of equilibrium or peace.

    your journey filled me with such love and compassion that i simply wanted to channel it directly to you. i felt i understood and knew some of your tears, like i had experienced them myself and truly felt how your heartached; tearing and repairing.
    it was like being right there beside you, gaining the knowledge and experience.

    it always amazes me how relateable pain is, irregardless of the cause. there is this level of knowing, of perceptibility. i guess that is what true reflection is. you can look into the mirror of another and see yourself reflected back and realise there is not much that really separates us. we are part of a greater whole and we all belong together.

    your analogy of the expanding and contracting "container" was intriguing and had me contemplating the likeness it pertained to the ribcage, of breathing. breathing in deeply, even though it can hurt at times, you have to take that next breath, in spite of the pain, to survive it or we simply fall away. how breathing is reflective of our state of being; whether it be ragged,shallow and desperate or deep, reassuring and life-affirming.

    simply saying "thank you for sharing" just doesn't convey how inspiring and heart-rending your journey is, the power it has to impact on a very personable level. sincerely and wholeheartedly though, Barbara... thank you ever so much for sharing, it gave meaning more that i can convey.


    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to reply Jane! Means a lot to me. Made me feel warm inside reading your words. Thank you!