It was to be the fifth weekend we had done with an outside facilitator. After Gestalt, Sexuality, Symbiosis/Separation and Birth came Death. There definitely was a sequence. Each weekend had been intense and rich and painful in different ways. I looked on this Death weekend as a nearing-the-end of the sequence, the last in this line.
I didn’t think about it too deeply, but when I did it was with a certain apprehension mixed with interest in thinking about my own death. In a way, I was out of touch with myself and I made jokes about it out of bravado. Having read “Woman on the Edge of Time” by Marge Piercy, I was very impressed by the dying of a woman described in that book and all the ritual attached to death therein. I thought I had no experience of death apart from remembering my grandparents dying. And a friend had died at an early age (he was 33). Yet somehow I didn’t feel I had any real experience of death. I discovered during this weekend that I had no experience of grieving, rather than no experience of death. Grieving……crying and sobbing and angering and fearing… were not allowed in my growing up.
So let me describe the two days and my experience of them.
DAY I: Liz Abrahams arrived at the Centre as myself and a couple of others were gathering in the kitchen. We assembled after about five minutes in the big room. Liz told us that this was her first visit to Ireland. She brought an atmosphere of gentleness to the gathering. She gave us a brief outline of the two days. We would look at early losses in our lives; then explore more recent losses and finally touch on our own deaths. There were fifteen people in the group, and it felt like we wouldn’t manage to cover it all.
Liz explained how important it is to go back to our early experience of loss. All subsequent losses are stacked on this early loss. How we express and grieve our first losses is very relevant and important to how we deal with subsequent losses.
We began with a gentle go-around in which we introduced ourselves and talked a little about our expectations for the weekend. We expressed resistance; apprehension; fear; excitement; a sense of challenge to look at death for ourselves.
To start with our early experiences, Liz asked us to break up and spend some time thinking back into our past. She prompted us a little and suggested we focus on one memory of loss. She told us to write down whatever we could remember … to describe the event, where we were, what noises, smells, clothes we could recall … anything at all. We were to go back and be our young selves and even remember what age we were. At first I resisted and didn’t concentrate very hard. However, I did eventually remember something and I wrote about it. We came back into the large group to share these memories. I didn’t expect this to happen in the large group, I thought we would break into small groups. I was taken aback and on some level I decided to hold back with my memory. I felt I could not share it with so many people.
We spent the whole of Day 1 sharing these memories. People took turns. They were expressing sorrow and grief because of a sense of abandonment or separation or sudden death of someone important to them. A lot of pain and sadness was expressed. I could see the way in which an experience like that at an early age can deeply affect a person’s life. I held back all day. I felt unsafe and unwilling to share – I was afraid to trust the group. Although I have worked in large groups consistently over the last two years, I was terrified. I had put my piece of paper away and I didn’t reach for it at all. By the end of Day 1, there were three people left and it was decided to continue the following day.
At home that evening it was difficult to mix in. I drank wine, which was probably a mistake. Later in the evening, feeling very much alone, I went for a walk. This was good and it gave me time to think. I realised that, on the one hand I didn’t HAVE to share my memory, and on the other hand I also realised that I can’t always run away from painful things.
DAY 2. I hadn’t decided whether to share or not but I felt fairly relaxed when I came in. In our opening go-around, I expressed how scared I felt. I was moved by the first person to express her memory and took my turn after that. However, I didn’t feel at all safe and I took my time, feeling unsafe and unwilling to participate. Liz was very supportive of this part of the process. This was important to the connections I later made. I had never even cried over this loss. I had never made a sound. When I had tried, I was quickly hushed. Silence, sober faces, quiet was allowed. Tears, noise, childish play was not. I learned on this second day to allow myself to cry for my loss… the loss of my grandfather.
This is what I had remembered during the first half an hour of Day 1: “I am seven years old and it is getting near to Christmas and I am thinking about my presents. No-one had said anything to me about this but they have been whispering and my father is not here and everyone is very serious. The phone rings in the evening at the bottom of the stairs. My mother answers the phone. There is someone else there as well. “Grandad Jones has died,” I think my mother says. I am sitting at the bottom of the stairs, holding on to the banister and feeling very alone and not understanding quite what’s happening. ” (This was about halfway through and I was crying very deeply. I had spent a lot of time with my grandparents and I was barely included in the news of my grandfathers death. It was very painful because it all came back to me. It had been blocked off for a long time. I was sobbing but I continued.)
“I loved him because he was large and friendly. He had a lovely warm face. He wore three-piece suits and a watch chain. He had big hands. He showed me how to sew on a button as I sat on his lap. He sewed a button on to his waistcoat. He put me on his knee in his big armchair. He didn’t mind about my birth mark. He watched my granny brushing my hair in front of the fire. He smiled at us. He was going deaf and I didn’t like it when they spoke softly so he couldn’t hear them. When I sat on his knee he used to say, “Go home, Jones” and we thought it was very funny.”
Remembering my grandfather like that allowed me to cry for my loss. I never had before because the adults around me couldn’t allow me that expression of grief. I came to be afraid of grief. This explains some of my fear of sharing in the large group. I felt very peaceful after that … having been encouraged and held in my expression of sadness and pain. Feedback from the other group members was very warm and nurturing. They appreciated my grandad with me and were glad that I had managed to break the barrier which held me back.
After this it was plain sailing! The next step we took began with a guided fantasy. We got in touch with ourselves in the present and then became our 80-year-old selves. We imagined ourselves edging towards death. We imagined how we were … emotionally and physically and mentally …who else was there, if anyone … and where we were. We were asked to imagine what advice we would give our younger selves. I felt relaxed doing this and still very much in touch with my grandparents and also with my daughter. After the fantasy, we broke into pairs and shared our fantasies. This was a warm and enriching sharing and it was also fun. I found it quite calming to think about my own death. However, I didn’t quite achieve my ideal – there’s plenty of time for that, I hope. Back in the large group, each one of us described our fantasy and the advice we were given by our elder selves.
I learned what it meant to mourn a loss. I discovered I hadn’t ever done that and that I had picked up a message that tears and open shows of grief were not acceptable. The second day ended with the group having a large hug and there was sadness and pain as well as laughter and relief.
“We treat death as if it were an aberration….Anything that reminds us of the inescapable fact that we are to die seems morbid to us. Yet without the serene acceptance of death as inexorable, we lose all the magic and wonder of life.” Dorothy Thompson.
(Helen Jones is a student psychotherapist at the Creative Counselling Centre.)