Gates of Grief Work

Last fall, l I devoured the show From Scratch. It was supposed to be eye candy, and a guilty pleasure show to watch. Does this ever happen to you – when you want to read a book or watch a show to get an escape from life only to find that story exactly reflects what you’re wanting to run away from or need a break from? This happens to me a lot as a therapist, as a mom, a woman. There are times when I just want to watch a show and it ends up being about sexual violence or intimate partner violence, or something about postpartum psychosis. If you are new to my website, these are all things i support people to heal from as a therapist.

This happened also with the beautiful show From Scratch, which is based on a memoir. Spoiler alert: expect to cry and witness grieving in action as well as a helpful depiction of how people should plan for their inevitable end. The show did such a great job giving us more literacy when it comes to grief – planning for our end as well supporting others in theirs.

We can’t think our way through grief, we can only feel it. We feel it in our lungs, or in heartbreak. It feels like a messy ball of yarn that is messy, and full of knots. The only way to clean it up is to tend to it directly. It’s ever present with me when I’m going to bed. That seems to be the only time that I can sit with my mom‘s presence and not get interrupted by life. Sometimes I think I’m a glutton for punishment when I do this to myself. In fact, it’s my way of honouring my healing journey because I know that the grief work gets interrupted by life time.

Is it ironic, how honouring death gets interrupted by living in the present?

We have moved away from seeing grief as a linear step-by-step process. Instead, i love the visual reference of water and a Whirlpool of grief. Water is one of the 4 elements and it represents grief, flow, and change. As a knitter, i also love how pulling yarn also symbolizes for us a tender, messy, and at times hard process of grief work.

One thing I took from the show From Scratch and in my own learning about loss is that we need to have grief literacy and embrace the concept to “die wise”. This is the intentional practice or plan for it. We need to plan ahead and tell her loved ones how to create ceremony for it, talk about it.

To die wise is from the work of Stephen Jenkinson, and his book of the same name. I first learned of his work through Kimberly Ann Johnson when she invited him to her podcast. I introduced both of their work to my partner and we now gather together around grief work.

Stephen Jenkinson shares that unclaimed ancestors show up as ghosts, especially when there is no ritual for ancestors or ways to honour them. We need to honour endings. This is where ritual comes in. His work isn’t geared at grievers, but actually at the person dying. How do they want to be mourned, or laid to rest, for instance.

We can’t be afraid to talk about death. Our own or our loved one’s.

This is why i loved the series From Scratch. They intentionally talk about death. They plan for it. I won’t give any spoilers away and yet there is one scene at the end that will stay with me. The matriarch of the extended family has an outfit put aside for when she dies. This is what she wants to be buried in. She shows that to her daughter-in-law.

My mom did this for me. She had a note about her requests. She showed me where she put it. I always wanted to bypass the conversation, being so unready and unskilled in seeing the importance of these questions.

Grief is the price you pay for love. No matter the size or what others may deem as proportional. Martín Prechtel shares in his beautiful book The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise: “the inability that many of us have to grieve and weep properly for the dead is deeply linked with the inability to give praise for living….When you have two centuries of people who have not properly grieved the things that they have lost, the grief shows up as ghosts that inhabit their grandchildren.”

I recently took part in a 2-month long weekly grief group. It was important to me to be a participant, as a way to walk through a gate of grief. I am not on the other side of grief, but rather a more intentional apprentice of it now. That is the threshold i stepped through. The facilitator, Syanna Wand, has experienced loss herself and as a trained somatic trauma coach, i knew that a group called Held would be a great community for me.

I do a lot of holding – of my children, my partner, my clients, my community. It was so comforting to be held here weekly. To know i was a key member and not have to talk too much about it. My place of belonging was not questioned. The final session was the most impactful as we had an extended grief ritual.

The group was part-book club as each week we read parts of Francis Weller’s book: The Wild Edge of Sorrow. He does such a beautiful job breaking down various gates into grief. As not all grief is experienced with the death of a loved one, his book allows for an expansive way to bear witness to many gates.

Gates of Grief
1 All that we love we will lose
2 The places that did not receive love
3 The sorrows of the world
4 What we expected but did not receive
5 Ancestral grief

Other optional gates are Trauma; the harm I have caused to myself and others (from Sophy Banks) and Anticipatory grief – fear of what is to come (a concept of Sarah Pletts). You can read more about these gates HERE.

“Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviors of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life-force…. It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled, and riotous ways when grief takes hold of us. It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.” ~ Francis Weller

Our last group meeting, Syanna led us through a grief ritual. It was a virtual group and we met on a Thursday evening. I embraced the ritual wholeheartedly. I cried through it. I wrapped myself up and blankets. I lit my candle and had my ceremony Florida water. Syanna guided us through writing as a way of honouring our journey. I wrote this poem that I share with you now:

Needing to be Held
Warm Belly
Soft heart
Tears flowing
Sadness throughout
Then a pause comes
It tethers me to now
I hear her urge me to live my life
It makes me miss her voice and all i couldn’t say
I miss her
I miss being mothered

One of the participants shared these powerful words and they really sat with me: “I want to be alive while i’m still living.” This is my mom’s legacy – to love and live my life. Because she couldn’t and only wanted that for me. One way i have found meaning in my life now is that i am more well-versed, prepared, and comfortable to talk about, feel fully, and sit with is grief. I an an apprentice to it, surely, and it’s a role i am surrendering myself into fully. This article is one psychotherapist’s personal account with the loss of her child, and how it shaped her life, and how her work has been transformed. She shares another gate into grief – attachment grief. She walks with people through their grief journey. I am so honoured to do the same.

I have learned a lot from this experience. I don’t always want to reckon with it. I don’t want to reconcile that i’m still not ready, to be here without her. I was just starting to embrace just how much i needed her all along. I am still looking for meaning and yet, i have also found what helps me hold my grief with love and care. I am not running from it. I am companioning myself through my own experience. I have learned to sit with the feeling that comes up, and give it love and care. At times, it is solitary work. At other times, it is quite lonely. It is never easy and yet it can be quite healing. I am coming up to a year since my mom died. As i get closer to the day, the month, i can’t claim to know how i will feel. What i do know, though is that i am resourced and more resilient. I am also soft and open.

The ache is always there as soon as i turn around. It’s like an old friend, a companion waiting in the sidelines. Fuck these sad songs that show up unannounced on radio, unwanted at the worst time. They unbound me, untether me. They also let me surrender to feeling. Of love.

A Year of Grace and Grief

I had no idea at the start of the year just how much the word Grace was going to be the perfect word to hold me. Funny how that happens – the words i choose in December of the last year seem to be quite the serendipitous fit. This year was not exception. In fact, this year, i was even more aware and intentional of my word and its 4 guideposts.

Sitting here on my bed, i would like to pretend i’m excited to reflect on the year that was. But, to be honest, it’s hard to pretend that anything really special or big happened. Except that my mom died. That seems to be the only thing that happened. Recalling the year that was brings a big void to my heart and mind. I barely want to scroll through my hundreds of photos as there are a few i barely can glance over.

And yet, something that i’ve learned over these last few years is that closing a chapter needs to be done mindfully. Saying goodbye to a year also means finding the glimmers and gold moments. They are hiding there, and having gratitude is necessary to both learn from our experience and to embody the felt sense of having had it in the first place. This is where resilience and wisdom live.

So, this birthday weekend, i am pushing myself to honour this year in review journal. I hold rituals and traditions in high regard. This year is no exception.

I took a year-long program to enable me to really concentrate my therapy practice from a somatic lens. I am so happy to report that i have now completed it! Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Level 2 is a 120-hour deep dive in how somatic healing helps integrate trauma for developmental themes. This was a big part of my professional learning this year. I also took courses in Internal Family Systems and sex therapy for EFT therapists. Both really complement my training with somatics and the work i do.

Besides the ‘official’ training i took, i am a constant learner. I read close to 50 books – that’s 1 a week, wow! It was a mix of fiction for fun, work books, and non-fiction for my own personal growth. Here are some of my favourites:
* Motherhood: Facing and Finding Yourself by Lisa Marchiano
* The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller
* Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home by Toko-Pa Turner
* The Inheritance of Orquidea Divina by Zoraida Cordova
* Daughters of the Deer by Danielle Daniel
* Journey through Trauma: A Trail Guide through the 5-Phase Cycle of Repeated Trauma by Gretchen Smeltzer

Another thing i did was finally take a beginner’s pottery class. It was a lesson of grace: i was humbled by the process and my beginner’s mind. I took it as a gift to myself, to play with creating something from nothing. I don’t plan on making this into a work venture, but rather to hold in reverence the creative part of who i am.

I finally met a mentor in real life. How exciting! I got to attend an intimate gathering of celebrating Kimberly Ann Johnson’s book that she co-wrote with Stephen Jenkinson. My socially awkward fan-girl Part showed up with me – i was convinced she wouldn’t know who i was and i had a deep wish she would. Guess what – she did! Grace reminded me that it’s okay to show up anyways, and to do something that requires exquisite risk because the reward is worth it. Another thing i did was finally take a beginner’s pottery class. It was a lesson of grace: i was humbled by the process and my beginner’s mind. I took it as a gift to myself, to play with creating something from nothing. I don’t plan on making this into a work venture, but rather to hold in reverence the creative part of who i am.

I loved being able to be in this shared community, as another word for me this year was Community CONNECTION. Connection was another guiding post for grace. For instance, i decided to not wait anymore to start my first Group Supervision in my private practice. I have been hoping to offer it for months. The first meeting was magical. Working as a sole practice therapist definitely has its benefits. But as a social creature who values learning and sharing with others, i am so grateful that people signed up to share space – we are not meant to do this alone!

I took a wonderful dance class called 5 Rhythms. It was lead by Layah Jane and i will definitely sign up again. She lead us through 5 very different feelings/rhythms of chaos, flow, staccato, lyrical and stillness. I loved moving by myself, intuitively responding to the music, and also other dancers’ energies. I missed this communal sensation, what is known as shared rhythm.

In the Summer, we went on our first family trip in two years. I took my family to our Florida home in the heat of July. I grew up spending summers there, and the Florida sun was just what we needed to reconnect, play and rest. We swam daily (more than once a day!), we kayaked in mangroves, we collected shells: We had an embodied experience of rest and AWE – just what the summer needs. It was a pleasure-filled trip.

I treated my family to tickets to shows and events that have not been possible before. Both because of Covid, but also because it caused too much financial strain in the past. This year, i realized i don’t want to wait anymore to live me life and a year-long study of grace is all about this. So we saw Cirque de Soleil, the Cursed Child broadway show, and just this past weekend, i saw Rupi Kaur perform her amazing poems on stage. All of these gifts, decadent treats were awe-filled, community-based and new experiences for me. Each captured that felt sense of wonder and awe for us, witnessing artists in their elements.

Fall means RITUAL for me. Again, i didn’t know just how fitting this word would be when i picked it last year. What changed was that the rituals were more for grief work and internal ways to hold my self.

This year was about trying new things, and getting myself back out in the world. I have gone to a few sound baths. A part of me was really drawn to them because i loved the idea of being in silence, without speaking, but just taking in the ethereal sounds of the instruments. I was able to stay present with them and go deeper.

I hosted my friends with some witchy crafts. We made spell jars and did a Cutting the Cord ceremony. We shared meals together and sat together in parks. This is soul medicine – spending time with people who see me for who i am, and help me feel like i belong no matter what is the same or different between us.

I also was so humbled to attend a Living Funeral with Brooke of Length of a Candle. I spoke a bit more of my experience HERE. It was a cathartic and deep experience for me, one that allowed me soul to be fed and also a practice of grace for me like no other. It was an exercise in giving my messy, vulnerable feelings grace to be present.

I was split open by grief this year. My mom died suddenly after a short battle with cancer. It followed a long line of other health ailments, and yet it still baffles me that she died. She wasn’t supposed to die this year. We were just starting to heal our relationship to a more full place, and the threat of Covid was lightening up so we were just starting to spend quality time together. I’m so glad she got to have one last meal at my place in April. I was able to host my parents, and show them that they matter to me.

Grace has guided me through my grief. It made me more gracious to folks who haven’t experienced a loss like this. I was disappointed to not be held and cared for as i needed to be. It gave me permission to let this feeling happen and then to ask for what i needed. This grace period then enabled me to be an active student of grief work, and even more grief literate. I share about my reflections HERE. It allowed me to be humble and curious in the process. It made me more gracious to myself, by allowing me to slow down and really tune into what i needed in any given moment. It guided me to see what was present as well as where i might need to turn for support. Most of all, grace is an active practise of self-love and compassion – it taught me that when i aligned my behaviour and action with what my capacity is, then i am not overriding my nervous system. Grace is graceful, loving, and soul nourishing. It is gracious, life-giving and soul work at its best.

It is also connected to repair work, for when i make mistakes. Because i made some; we all do. When i over-reacted to my kids’ or got angry at a mistake i made, or when no one checks in me. Grace is there, letting me know that we are all human, and therefore all trying our best. Sometimes that best is at my 100% most regulated. When i’m running on fumes or my bucket is empty, my best is from a 20% capacity level. That’s okay too. That is when popcorn for dinner is perfect, when going to bed at 9PM and the kitchen is a mess. Grace shows up and reminds me that tomorrow is going to be better.

Speaking of capacity levels and soul work, i have been re-reading the transformative book Women who Run With the Wolves this year. I pulled it out as an intentional way to hold my practice of grace and re-wilding journey. One excerpt from it has stayed with me:

“When a woman is too long gone from home, she is less and less ale to propel herself forward in life. Instead of pulling in the harness of her choice, she’s dangling from one. She is so cross-eyed with tiredness she trudges right on past the place fo help and comfort. The dead litter is comprised of ideas, chores, and demands that don’t work, have no life, and bring no life to her. Such a woman becomes pale yet contentious, more and more uncompromising, yet scattered. Her fuse burns shorter and shorter. Popular culture calls this “burnout” – but is more than that. It’s hambre del alma, the starving soul. Then, there is only one recourse, finally the woman nows has to – not might, maybe, sort of but must – return to home.”

Sitting here, on this final days of 2022, the word that holds me in my year-long dance with grace is EASE. I am giving myself permission to take the easy way, not to cop out but rather to not override what i have capacity for. To honour just what i need and to not get pulled into toxic productivity. This above quote, written at least 30 years ago, is a reminder that hustle culture, burn-out and externalizing our worthiness have been pulling at us for too long.

Let us take back our life, to live it with grace, love, awe and ease. This is the lesson my mom taught me, let this be her legacy.

How to Companion Someone who is Grieving

Birth, life, death….the 3 inevitable stages of life and yet the dying part is kept in the shadows of our collective experience. While we know it’s coming, we are so afraid of dying – our own death and of loved ones. So many people don’t know what to do when someone they know loses someone. We are not sure what to do as we may be afraid that thinking about their beloved makes them sad. I can assure you, they are already sad – being alone in it is much worse.

Where are the casseroles that everyone gets in movies?

I think people are hoping that i have moved on and don’t need to check in. For the most part, i am moving on because i have to. But that doesn’t mean i don’t want people to ask me how i am. I can be okay and still sad. And my sadness is proportional to the new grief i am experiencing.

I’ve also noticed that people assume that since time has given space to the newness of the loss that they don’t have to ask me how i am. I still only just lost my mom. It’s still the only news that is consuming me. It doesn’t matter that i am a therapist and trained to support others with their grief. I am a human who has experiencing a significant, life-changing loss. I need care as well. We all do.

When i reflect on these last 3 months, i have noticed both what i needed and what i didn’t get. I can’t help but keep track of what disappointed me. I think that’s the learner in me, the human experience researcher. The biggest learning is that i want people to acknowledge the loss of my mom. The biggest hurt is when people (who definitely know) and have not said anything to me in person. Not saying anything hurts way more than just saying “how are you doing these days.”

Trust me on this one.

I first learned of the terms ‘companion’ and ‘holding space’ from Amy Wright Glenn, who credits Alan Wolfelt for this. I love how these terms really do capture what is needed when someone is grieving. With that in mind, here are some of my take-aways:


1) Sit with Them as They Grieve
We are not meant to carry these feelings alone. We need to know that someone is holding us. Don’t be hesitant to reach out. People who are grieving don’t always want to do it alone. In fact, as grief is based on the loss of a relationship, it is relationships that help heal. This is what it means to ‘hold space’ and companion someone.

Ask them stories about their loved one; tell them stories about your own experience (of loss, or if you knew the person); help titrate the hard feelings with stories about everyday life. Be there with them as they cry.

There is no right way to grieve. Don’t assume they’re doing okay just because time has moved on or that they are presenting as okay. There can be a cognitive dissonance when it comes to being okay. Don’t ask “how are you,“ try instead with saying “I was thinking of you.”

Being able to laugh is as important as being able to cry.

Being able to talk about it is as important as taking a break from thinking about it.

Don’t try to keep joys apart from tragedy or pain. Let them co-exist and forge ahead with feelings of joy and heartache – choose the beauty over the rain. Their sadness is a testament that what they are grieving is important to them. This may be hard for you to relate to if you haven’t experienced this type of loss. Instead think of your own meaningful relationships, or the one that they have lost. This is a reflection of what was meaningful and special to them and it is not longer.

“The way i see it, if something makes you sad when it ends, it must have been pretty wonderful when it was happening.” William to Rebecca, This is Us

2) Hug and Hold Them
Hugs are a catalyst of helping people to release the feelings of sadness. They also help grievers feel less alone. They truly help people feel comforted.

Other things that are similar to hugs are flowers, books, playlists, ready-made food, cards, donations in their name, and send texts to check in.

Social support should include rest and comfort, a break from the grief so that we can titrate feelings.

“We are all just carrying each other home” Ram Das
Not saying anything at, especially the first time you see them after the loss, is definitely the WRONG thing to do

3) Companion Them
While the concepts of companioning someone and holding space for them are interconnected, the subtle shift is in the action. When we hold space, that means we are staying with them in their moment of sorrow; when we are companioning them, we are on the journey with them to heal and are more active in the path.

Martín Prechtel writes poignantly on grief work in his book from The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise:

“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is, in itself, the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”
Invite them to events and activities. Don’t take it personally if they say no. Keep inviting and offering. Help them to re-enter world. Give them time and help by reminding what they love to do and can do now.

Remember their loved one’s name and when they died. Dates like this really matter.

In my last journal article, i shared this: “we are not meant to grieve alone. We are grieving the loss of someone we loved. We grieve what matters so need community to companion us as community is what helps us heal.”

4) Check in Often
Don’t just check in once, do it repeatedly; Put together a meal train and have a team so you can take turns.

A lot of us may assume that there’s someone else who’s doing this for the person who’s grieving. In our society right now, chances are there isn’t that person or village. Don’t assume others are doing it already – assume that it’s helpful to reach out. Just show up.

5) Take Time to Learn about Death
Because it is an inevitable part of life, we need to better prepare for its end. Think about what you would need, when you are faced with a loss. One of the things that has touched me the most is when friends and acquaintances alike have reached out with a resource that helped them in their grief. If you are looking for helpful books and resources, here are a few:

*Being Here, Human; a program for grief literacy
*Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers by Hope Edelman
*Julia Samuel, Grief Works
*David Kessler Finding Meaning: The 6th Stage of Grief
*It’s Okay that You’re Not Okay – the title says it all!
Orphan Wisdom
Pema Chodron’s words have been an ever-present companion
*Amy Wright Glenn’s book Holding Space: On Loving, Dying and Letting Go as well as her work at The Institute of the Study of Birth Breath Death
*Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser