Walking together: a Safe Ritual

Ultimately, the aim of the walks is to change attitudes around grief and grieving, so we can simply be with each other’s grief, to create more space for the act of grief to contribute to well being.

As Sobonfu states, “There is a price in not expressing one’s grief”.  It can lead to blame, shame and depression.

What needs to be grieved …? It could be the thing you cannot stop thinking about … a conflict, a death, worry about losing a job. Or it could be a dull ache suggesting that something is missing, you may not know what until you look a bit deeper.

Grief is a time out of time. It’s a mystery. Much like depression, it’s not expansion, it’s contraction, looking backwards, inwards. It’s not conquering other worlds, it’s getting to know your own.

On safety and boundaries:

Everyone who comes on the walk will have different needs and edges around safe boundaries. When I invite you all at the beginning to notice where your comfort zone is, these words will be heard in as many different ways as there are people on the walk.   In our culture, we don’t always have teachers and parents inviting us to notice where our limits are. Notice yours. Don’t blindly cross them in your sharing of your story, and don’t let them hold you back unnecessarily so you miss out on connection. Connection is all about risk-taking, stepping into the unknown. It’s important that we do this safely so our connections are sustainable; so that we build community.  There are things that you definitely won’t want to talk about, so listen to that guiding voice inside you, which is cultivating the limits of what is do-able for you. Listen to your own space. The walks will encourage mutuality and connection to others, although staying silence and in your own space is equally encouraged if that’s what you need. If you are up for connection, you need to be ok to listen to other people’s input. If you are going through an intense time, due to bereavement, diagnosis of illness, extreme stress, you might not have the space to listen to others, but rather need time for yourself.

Your story:

This is what I learnt from Kathleen O’Hara, Psychotherapist, who has experienced the trauma of the murder of her son.  This is useful for stories of loss that are particularly traumatic.

  • You need to find a way to tell your story, if you don’t tell your story, you don’t learn how to contain the energy it carries. It will rub up against you all your life.
  • Learn how to tailor the story into 2 or 3 sentences which you can put up as a fence when you don’t yet have trust in the person you are talking to. These 2 or 3 sentences function as a fence which says “Don’t come any closer unless I invite you in”. It’s a protection.
  • Most people in society don’t know how to be with grief and can say things that make it worse. As Kathleen put it, you need to learn how to tell your story without retraumatizing yourself. As the deeper you get into your story, the more painful, bewildering or confusing it is and most people aren’t equipped to deal with this.
  • Some of our stories are heavier than others but relative to ourselves, our story weighs heavily. As part of telling your story, therapy, counselling and support groups can all help. If therapy is needed, Kathleen recommends therapy by trauma specialists or bereavement counsellors who know about PTSD. (She said that some symptoms of PTSD are: insomnia, overwhelming guilt, intrusive thoughts, fearful reactions to daily life (eg fear when the phone rings at an unusual time).

When you pair up with someone to walk around the park, state briefly what happened, what you have lost, how you feel, some memories or associations with the person or thing. You can’t do this wrong, the space is yours. I invite you to speak slowly and mindfully, taking a breath between each thing you say.

On listening to the Story:

Brief guidelines for listening

    • Try to avoid ‘fixing’ a problem, making suggestions or giving advice. Being strategic doesn’t allow a space for grief. Listening with warmth does.
    • Don’t take the topic and run off with it. If your walking partner has lost a job and this happened recently to a friend of yours. Don’t say “Oh yes, that happened to a friend of mine” and then proceed to tell that story. Stay with the person you are with now.
    • Don’t ask too many questions (to direct the other person or, if you are naturally very curious, to satisfy this impulse in you). If your partner isn’t talking much, that’s ok, give them space; don’t think that because there’s a silence, someone needs to fill it.
    • When we hear stories of grief and loss, we are moved. We do have a need for expression after being moved. You could say something like “I really hear how upset you are with this. How much you long for some companionship (or acceptance … or equality …) This will help to keep the attention on your walking partner and his/her grief.

When you pair up with someone to hear their story, be prepared to be more silent than you possibly normally are in a regular conversation. Give the other person lots of space to explore what they have to share.  Every person has the wisdom to solve their own problems. When an individual is facing a difficult situation or important decision, the best way to help the person is to listen to them enough so they can uncover their own wisdom.

This is a useful reminder of the reason why stories need to be told. “When someone is telling you their story over and over, they are trying to figure something out. There has to be a missing piece or they too would be bored. Rather than rolling your eyes and saying ‘There she goes again,’ ask questions about parts that don’t connect. Be the witness and even the guide. Look for what they want to know. What different angle do you see if from? Ask what the doctor thought or what her husband would say now. What if the shoe had been on the other foot? There is a great invitation for dual exploration that we often miss in the midst of grief.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross On death and dying

Blame and self-blame:

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has the following thoughts on this subject. “In response to loss or tragedy, we often ask ourselves “How could something have gone this wrong?” Notice how in a ‘blame culture’, we are always looking for someone to blame. Obviously, tragedy and violence is an indictment of our society and many things need to change. However, blame and guilt can be used to distract ourselves from the pain of our loss. It is much easier to get involved in the ‘whys’ and the ‘what ifs’ than it is to sit with the fact that we have lost something or someone forever.  The truth is that life is risky and dangerous. Your sorrow is the inevitable result of circumstances beyond your control.” I would add that proactively working for social change can be a useful way to channel the pain of loss that benefits everyone, and I’m curious if this can only effectively come from a place of acceptance of the pain, and not from one of blame.  In my experience, blame and self-blame is actually part of the process of acceptance after a tragedy. We need to pass through it as rigorous self-examination in the face of a tragedy can be beneficial, to see what lessons can be learnt. A person going through this kind of self-examination needs careful and compassionate support.

Ritual:

The walks are a kind of ritual. I see ritual as a useful way of working with larger groups. Some of the old rituals don’t work anymore in our society and we need to invent new ones. Intention and choice is really important. We all need choice about what rituals we participate in. We need to know what the purpose is and what function it serves.  All rituals have a ‘threshold’ which is something you step over to become part. It may be a bit awkward and it may feel new and slightly uncomfortable. This step is the step from being a bystander into being engaged. Ritual can be one way of dealing with the effects of trauma. Everyone has some kind of trauma. What Ritual can do is to ‘wake up’ or remind you of the trauma and offer you healing from it.  What we need to do is to be willing to remember what we have loved.

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