by Catherine de Courcy
In December 2000, my husband, John Johnson, shot himself on our property in the mountains just outside Melbourne. Eighteen months before, my sister, a psychotherapist, had taught me how to ask for help in an emotional crisis. As a result, when John died, I already had a structure in place to help me work with everything around this.
John was a wonderful man who, despite his deep sadness and distress, left me with no trauma and no questions. He had been suffering the demons of post-traumatic stress associated with his service with the Australian army in Vietnam for eighteen months. He had tried everything that might have been right for him and, as a result of a series of events over the previous 6 weeks, neither of us was in any doubt that when he died it was his decision, and his decision only. He wanted to leave.
The morning after he died, I spoke on the phone to a spiritual advisor in Ireland with whom I had had previous contact. She gave me a big-picture view of the situation and I felt an immediate peace about the nature of his passing. Even in the worst moments of my grief, I never lost that sense of peace. Every other part of me was in turmoil. For the next three years, I ploughed through the grief process, dealing with every aspect of myself that the grief threw up. I was fortunate in that I was in a position to concentrate on looking after myself. I had no responsibilities in Australia. I had a close circle of family and friends in Australia and Ireland, and the resources to attend whatever therapy I chose.
Based on my previous chaotic experience with intense grief after my brother, Mike, died in 1984, I decided not to make any major decision about my life for two years. That was the best decision I made as it sheltered me from additional stress and gave me a definite time to focus on healing. Central to my work was to attend a psychotherapist regularly. I had begun therapy with Brenda six weeks before John died. At our first meeting, Brenda had brought me into a deep visualisation in the course of which I released entities of some sort. She had spoken about these as energies that had come in to protect me at a time when I needed them but were now no longer required. I had felt much lighter when I left that first session. Over the following three sessions, I had done a lot of similar work, focussing on early emotions, accepting them, and letting go any unnecessary protection around them. The approach was very powerful and suited me. We had moved through a lot of residual stuff that was causing chatter in my head and distracting me.
Two days after John died, I went to Brenda on the way to plan the funeral. She brought me through a visualisation, including a farewell ceremony with John as a human. Then she took me through another beautiful visualisation where John in his new form was present. This helped me to consolidate the peace I was feeling around John’s passing, and to move our relationship into a different place. For the next fifteen months I went to Brenda regularly, sometimes weekly, sometimes fortnightly. If I left it any longer, my family and friends could easily spot the difference in how I was. ‘You haven’t been to Brenda this week, have you?’ After a few months I didn’t need any prompting.
In that period, my work with Brenda had several practical impacts. I was pretty strung out, wired and jumpy, my head sometimes wanted to burst. A full day at work exhausted me so much that my whole body throbbed. But if anything rattled me during the week, I ‘parked’ it and brought it to Brenda. This was invaluable. It gave me a bit of distance from the chatter in my head, it also meant that I didn’t download too much on my close circle. I was exhausted enough by the chatter, it would have stressed me still further if I felt I was exhausting someone else as well. So I would make a note of what was bothering me and take it to the therapy session.
My body was also wired and jumpy. At times it felt like there were a thousand boxing matches going on under my skin. It was happening on a day I went to Brenda. She brought me through a breathing exercise during which I focussed on the sensations over my body. By the time I was into it, it became fascinating. The sensation was no longer the enemy to be stopped, but just something that was happening. Then it faded. It was hard to try this on my own in the early months, but the memory of this exercise with Brenda reduced the fear and irritation when that sensation did come on.
Our sessions fluctuated from dealing with whatever had occurred in the previous week to shifting some long-held beliefs and patterns. Brenda often used the Bryon Katie method of dealing with beliefs. Writing beliefs and my reaction to them, then turning them around made it easy for me to see a belief for what it was and know the impact it was having on me. I am now able to use this method without guidance. Brenda also brought me into myself using breathing techniques, sometimes with my eyes open and focussing, sometimes with my eyes closed. In this way I learnt how to listen to myself or – in Brenda’s language – to my higher self or the truth of who I am. In the condition I was in there was no way I could have done this without guidance, my head was simply too full of chatter. In fact, it was only during the third year after John died that I began to master techniques of listening properly to myself without the interference of my mind. Once Brenda brought me to a perfect place in a session. In the course of a breathing exercise, I could tell that all my chakras were open and the breath was running through my body without interference. It was a calm sensation that made me feel strong, grounded and purposeful. Then she brought me back to the world and I fractured immediately. It gave me a sense of how broken I actually was, but also a sense of where I could be if I continued to work on myself.
I supported the therapy by managing as many other aspects of my life as possible. I marked events and anniversaries very carefully. I didn’t take on board other people’s grief, anger or response to John’s death. I ate fairly well. I mostly avoided alcohol. I walked on a nearby beach, took a lot of baths, and bought an electric blanket. I closed down socially except to my close circle. I felt quite unable to be with people I didn’t know very well and it was eighteen months before I was first able to mix socially with people outside that circle. Warren, a long-standing Australian friend, was a massive support. He came over the mountain to help me the night John died, and remained in daily contact after that. He held the space around me and didn’t intervene, regardless of how my grief manifested itself. He was always available, supportive, uncritical, and curious about the process in a way that matched my own curiosity. Warren’s friendship contributed enormously to the safe environment in which I could express the full range of my grief.
As well as therapy, I also attended private yoga classes for six months, visited my homeopath regularly, went to a kinesiologist roughly every three months, reduced my regular library job to four days a week, went on good holidays, watched 1950s musicals, took Valium when my body could no longer stand the tension, and the odd sleeping pill when I wanted to treat myself to five hours of unbroken sleep. My dreams were very busy, sometimes angry, often involving some mode of transport. My body was so battered and sore from tension that my doctor had everything checked out. As I anticipated there was nothing wrong that could be cured with medical intervention.
Prayer was a very important tool in my work. I hadn’t a clue how to pray. The prayer books I picked up were unappealing. I even bought The complete idiot’s guide to prayer. That gave me one invaluable bit of support. It quoted a Rabbi as saying that God gives extra attention to looking after the broken-hearted. So many things happened in the years after John died that gave me an undeniable sense that I was being looked after by powers way beyond what we can see. Coincidence could certainly not account for all of the gifts I received.
I used The Book of Runes as prayers. At night I would pick a rune or two and use the short passages as inspiration to keep going. These three years were very hard and the work was wearisome and tiring. At times I really didn’t want to go on, so anything that gave me encouragement and a nudge was welcome. It was only after a while that the ‘prayerful’ nature of the runes became apparent. The work of Carolyn Myss also gave me support. I used the following line from Anatomy of the spirit when someone upset me: ‘I’ll find a reason for thanking the person/event for what they said/did, or what happened.’ On several occasions, a serious upset followed by a tortuous exploration as to why I should thank the person or event actually gave me a major shove to the next level of the grief process. It was then easy to say thank you with genuine feeling!
In March 2002, fifteen months after John died, Brenda left Melbourne. I moved to another therapist. She was a very nice, gentle woman. We did some work using the Bryon Katie method; she said she got enormous value out of our sessions. It was like chatting to a friend. We had tea, sessions went on longer than the hour, and then I wasn’t sure what to pay her. I sat and listened as she told me I was marvellous, but I really wanted to scream at her that I was a basket-case inside. Yet I couldn’t, I didn’t want to upset her. It all became strangely unsettling. I postponed sessions, and left gaps of up to four or five weeks between appointments. There just didn’t seem to be any reason to go. It all began to feel a bit hopeless and I could feel my energy drain.
During this time, now nearly two years after John died, I went through a terrible period trying to find the John I had loved, married and had terrific fun with before our last eighteen months together when his post-traumatic stress had kicked in so badly. I couldn’t see him or hear him, and photos didn’t help. My body seized up, the tension was compounded by colds and stomach ailments. I took three weeks off work during which I wrote about sixty thousand words in a stream of consciousness describing our last eighteen months together. I worked chronologically through the decisions I had made in response to John’s mood swings, his suicidal behaviour, his deep sadness and his physical illnesses. I wrote about my own anger, frustration, sadness, worry, concern and hope during this period. I ended the account at the moment he died. The process of writing had an immediate and positive impact on me, something definitely shifted and I have since felt no need to go back over that period.
But for all of that, I knew I was quite a mess. The chatter was now as bad as it had ever been, my therapist wasn’t helping and I was determined not to bother my close circle of friends with my stuff. While it was very clear to me that I needed another therapist, it took a conversation with my sister to give me the strength to break away from the second therapist and approach Cath, a Transpersonal Psychotherapist and colleague of Brenda. She asked me to write my goals. I was very specific: I wanted to achieve alignment of my mind, body, spirit and emotions. This made sense to Cath. She explained her contract and discussed the clear boundaries of the sessions. We began working in January 2003 and continued solidly on a weekly basis for nine months until I left Australia. I felt a great sense of relief and purpose, I was back on track and the future seemed possible.
Cath used a variety of psychotherapeutic techniques including the Gestalt empty-chair method, visualisations, breathing and body-work. She also drew up a detailed astrological chart using the principles of Spiritual Astrology. This, as I understood it, had a strong emphasis on my higher purpose in life, my soul’s destiny. Cath also explored my family tree specifically to identify what behaviours or responses I may have picked up from previous generations. As the stories emerged, responses – or perhaps energies – that didn’t belong to me but which I had adopted became remarkably clear. As with all similar work with Brenda and Cath, I thanked and blessed these energies for having been with me for so long and let them go. Occasionally at sessions with Cath, I had to deal with events from the previous week, but mostly we used the techniques to dismantle old blockages. This helped me shift into a much greater degree of self-awareness.
The impact of my work with Cath was rapid and intense. My body went into a cleansing process, forcing me to stop eating meat. I found it easy to incorporate a spiritual dimension in my life that was practical, calming and often surprisingly effective. Emotions that I had no idea were lurking came screaming out, unchecked by my mind. And my mind was now getting a break from having to manage and control my life. Feelings of being fractured faded, and sometimes feelings of wholeness and strength came through strongly. To my joy I could now browse through my photo albums of life with John and respond to all of the loving emotions reflected in them.
When I finished with Cath and left Australia, I had absorbed techniques that I have continued to use without guidance. Occasionally I attend a session with the Irish spiritual advisor who helps me to hear my higher self far more clearly than I can do so by myself. But the tough stuff requiring heavy-duty therapy is done. It is now up to me to maintain my balance and look out for other ways to develop. I feel enormously privileged to have had the opportunity to look after myself with therapeutic guidance for such an extended period of time.
Catherine de Courcy is a writer, historian and researcher who has written nine books, including two Australian desert travel books with her husband, John Johnson.
Galli, M. and Bell, J. (1999) The complete idiot’s guide to prayer. Indianapolis: Alpha books.
Katie, B. and Mitchell, S. (2002) Loving what is: four questions that can change your life. New York: Harmony.
The Book of Runes (1993) (commentary by R. Blum). Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Myss, C. (1996) Anatomy of the spirit: the seven stages of power and healing. New York: Harmony.
Spiller, J. and McCoy, K. (1988) Spiritual astrology. New York: Simon and Schuster.