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.

I am Now a Motherless Daughter: A Club i did not sign up for

My mom died recently. It’s beyond words to have such a loss happen. While a part of me knew that it would come eventually, none of us were prepared for it to be so soon and so sudden.

Having my own personal experience with loss and the grief that is tethered to it has been an awakening. I don’t love all the new insights i have found and yet they have been transformative.

For instance, i see more clearly just how scared we are of death. It is not the death itself but how to hold the feelings that come with it. It reminds us that our own end is inevitable and that feelings that are messy and raw will be attached to it.

We are left alone to grieve. On the other side of life, we celebrate birth and rebirth – we have customs and rituals for rites of passage like the birth of a new being, graduation, getting a new job. In death, while we have rituals, they are still left to do in the shadows of the day. People may come to an event and then leave us alone in the aftermath.

They say grief is a type of trauma. While not all grief is trauma, all trauma has grief: Of what didn’t get to happen. Some grief is trauma because a person may die unexpectedly, in a painful way. Too quickly.

Like my mom.

We were just starting to see each other more, after 2 years of playing it safe for her. We were just starting to talk about sleepovers for the kids, and adventures to do together. I have been doing my own inner work and healing and was planning to reach out to know more about my ancestral line, my Family Tree and all the recipes and rituals of my heritage.

Those dreams are not dashed away with her ashes. There is so much regret there, in that grief and loss.

I have never lost someone close and important to me. When i was told my mom died unexpectedly, i was leaving to pick up my sister from the airport so that we could be with my mom. We were on our way to visit her together. I don’t think i will ever forget the scream that came out of my body when i was informed of her passing. I remember collapsing on the floor and my partner’s hesitant understanding of what i had just heard.

I went into auto-pilot and feel like it’s been that way since. As the eldest daughter, one who is trained to hold others’ grief and support them, it fell on me to do that for my family. No one stepped in to help guide us and hold space for us. No one offered companionship in what was needed to be done, or how to do it.

We had to learn each step on our own.

Ways to Care for Yourself after a Death
I don’t wish that for anyone. So, i wanted to share a few observations with you now, as a possible resource for when you lose someone. Because you will – death and loss are an inevitable experience for us all.

1) Get Help
We are still figuring out what help we need. But we need help to be fed and calls to make. We need help to distract us and to hold us when we cry. Ask a friend who you know has experienced a loss who may be able to help put you in the right path. Find a friend who will provide you the support you need.

Think about reaching out to a Grief Expert. That can be a Death Doula or companion, a grief therapist or group, a Wills lawyer, or even some of the many books out there. Like this one, I’m Dead, Now What. I’m also reading Finding Meaning, and am so grateful for the work of Amy Wright Glenn, who i have trained with several times.

I’ve been taking this training with Janina Fisher and am so grateful for its timing. It’s serving as a guide for me in a way that helps me make sense of things, when so much doesn’t right now.

We are not meant to grieve alone. We are grieving the loss of someone we lived. We grieve what matters so need community to companion us as community is what helps us heal.

2) Take Time to Honour Your Loved One
My family doesn’t have any rituals for death to honour, so my sister and i found ways to do it for ourselves. We created rituals that felt right and meaningful for us.

For instance, my sister and i carefully, lovingly, and thoughtfully put together what my mom would wear when she was cremated. We also put together a care package for her journey into after-life. She did this a lot for us, so it was fitting we would pay her back and honour her this way. We collected things that were meaningful and important for her – her reading glasses and a notebook for her thoughts and ideas, a favourite book, some yarn and knitting needles, letters from us and photos of us all. We also included some crystals and lavender to help her be cared for.

While this was a big emotional task for us, it was also so cathartic to honour her this way. It gave me a place to put my feelings, and to show her the love i was not always able to display.

3) Keep Talking to Her and About Her
I think people are afraid to ask us how we are, not just because it can bring up our sad feelings, but also because it is a fear of needing to hold us in them. And yet, it is so helpful to have a space to unpack our thoughts. That is what Holding Space is – and not everyone can do it. I want people to ask me about her. I want to talk about her, even if it makes me sad. It reminds me that even though she is gone, my thoughts and memories of her are still ever present.

That’s why i’ve come to chat with her. A give her a simple hello, or “Good morning” Mom.” Ironically, i know she wanted that more in life, so i guess i am trying to make up for that now. It helps to hold my grief in a more softer way. Seeing things that remind me of her are quite hard and yet also wonderful, as they keep me tied to her.

4) Take time for Pleasure
This may feel selfish or counter what we are told about grief. As we know that grief is tied to trauma and our nervous system, it is so important to titrate the hard feelings and stay in your Window of Tolerance. That’s why i kept my special date with my partner. I wanted to have a place to soften, and stay present in the here and now. That’s why the fresh flowers we get in ritual are so healing. They may forever be connected to the loss (i’m afraid of seeing peonies next year) and they help us see something beautiful right here right now.

So, make sure to take time to laugh a little, indulge in a gift for yourself, savour a glass of wine or chunk of chocolate. That is doing your body and healing process a favour, i promise.

5) Hold your Feelings

Just because you’re sensitive that doesn’t mean you’re not strong

The difference between holding your feelings versus holding in your feelings is where the healing starts or stops. When we keep them in, we start to feel more sorrow and suffering. That dance of feelings keeps us tethered to the loss in a way that does not honour our own place in the world. We grief what we loved. So we need to come back to feeling what was loved. It does not serve us to keep them in – we need to let ALL our feelings be felt and seen. This is the hardest part of grief – we don’t know how to hold some of these harder emotions. One place i start is to name them and see what my body needs in relation to the feeling. If i’m sad, i let the tears out. If i’m angry, i scream or dance really fast. If I’m lonely, i reach out to a friend.

If any of these tips is hard for you to put into practice, that is the place to start. I think it serves us to start to prepare for loss long before it shows up at our door. My own inner work was not enough – i had just started to tell people about my mom’s health and my worry of losing her. I wish i added the parts of what i need to care for me.

Another way that i hold my feelings is by writing. As a Narrative Therapist, i treasure this part of me. Here is what i wrote to my mom and for her when i said goodbye.

Motherless Mother: In My Own Words
My mom was so much more than my mom. And yet I think her role and identity as Mom is what shaped her life.

Her new role of grandmother was probably one of her favourite parts of who she was. And she was more than a grandmother.

She was a chemist and knew so much about herbs, plants and the science behind them as healers. Her thumbs were the greenest I’ve seen.

She’s creative – she could knit anything and had such a beautiful eye for detail in her paintings.

My mom has such a gentle soul and yet such a fierce spirit. She’s been through more than anyone needs to be in a lifetime. And yet she also fought for what she wanted. She chose to go through those adventures with an open heart.

My mom was more than just my mom and yet she’ll always be my mom. I’m so grateful for her guidance and love. I’m the mom I am because of her.

She gave her all to us so that we could live our best life. She martyred herself in how much she devoted her life to her family.

While I’m still in disbelief that she is gone, I know in my bones that she wanted to let go before she become a bother. Even in her last days, I think she was thinking of us. I also love that this was her last bit of control, choosing death over a long painful last chapter.

The woman who died was not my mom
She was a woman who needed peace in her body
My mother was magic:
She was a beautiful soul
She was complicated and strong
Brave and vulnerable
Creative and a collector
Gentle and fierce
And under it all, it was all love

I will miss my mom when
I see hummingbirds
I hear rain hit the glass windows at the cottage
I need a hug
I eat Burek and crave Ijvar and poppyseed strudel
I reach for a tissue or hard candy
I lean in to smell my peonies

I will miss her when
I put my hand out of the car and feel the breeze
i see catch the rainbows in the sky or when they dance on the floor
i am curling up with a good book
i need guidance with how to mother my children
i am planting in the garden
i am knitting
I want to tell her about something i’m proud of at work
i set the table for our gatherings

“There is a wild woman under our skin who wants nothing more than to dance until her feet are sore, sing her beautiful grief into the rafters, and offer the bottomless cup of her creativity as a way of life. And if you are able to sing from the very wound that you’ve worked so hard to hide, not only will it give meaning to your own story, but it becomes a corroborative voice for others with a similar wounding.” Toko-pa Turner

My mom is now with the wild women, the wise women that guide us. May she rest now and be my wise woman from beyond.

Thanks Mom for your love and care, your commitment and the foundation that you created for us. You are now a child of the universe and i will forever seek your guidance.