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 – Weekend with Liz Abrahams

Helen Jones

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.)

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