Two days before the end, I sat on a stool next to the armchair where Mom lay. When she leaned toward me, I leaned in too, afraid I’d miss what she’d say with her disappearing voice.
“I don’t know how to do this,” she said, looking at me with eyes that were searching but unfocused. My own words worked their way past a lump in my throat. “I don’t know how to do this either,” I said. And then we just sat there and breathed together, our foreheads nearly touching as we imagined this great gaping space in front of us that neither of us knew how to navigate.
She was soon to cross over into the afterlife. I was soon to cross over into the land of motherless daughters. Neither of us had any idea how we would make the journey. Neither of us had any advice or platitudes or ways of fixing this. Neither of us could offer to go on that journey with the other. All we had was this empty space… this liminal space… where we could sit together and fix our gaze upon each other and find an anchor in each other’s eyes.
Looking back over our 46 years together, that moment was quite possibly the most honest and sacred moment we ever shared. We had no expectations of each other. We had no reason to pretend we were anyone other than exactly who we were. There was no point in acting like we had wisdom or answers the other didn’t have, and no point in clinging to old hurts or misunderstandings that had never been (and would never be) resolved. All of that was stripped away and all we had was this moment… this meeting at the intersection of who we were and who we were about to become.
All we had was the space of “I don’t know.” And in that moment, it was the most painfully beautiful place to be.
I’ve come to believe that is the most potent space we can meet people in our relationships… the space of “I don’t know”. It’s the place where we shed our expectations and pretences. It’s the place where we reveal ourselves to each other and admit that much of what we think we know is simply smoke and mirrors. It’s the place where we seek no heroes or answers, where we ask only to be anchored by each other’s presence.
It’s the place where the true work of holding space can happen.
It’s not often that we find ourselves in this space with other people. It’s not often that we are both strong enough and vulnerable enough to offer that kind of space to each other. It goes against every instinct to protect ourselves and to prove ourselves. It takes effort and courage and a whole lot of trust. For those of us who’ve been wounded, marginalized, and oppressed, it’s even more difficult than for those who walk in the world with privilege and more assurance of safety. Perhaps, in fact, it’s the kind of space that some of us only enter in our final days on earth, when we have nothing left to lose.
Imagine, though, if more of our relationships found us in such a place. Imagine if you could trust people in your life to hold you and offer you an anchor no matter how much you’ve failed them or betrayed them in the past. Imagine if you could enter more conversations with people without having to posture and protect yourself.
We may never find perfection in our quest for this kind of space, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for it more often. I like to imagine, for example, what it would be like to intentionally seek to enter that kind of space when there are people working through conflict or reconciliation. What if, for example, those of us who are settlers in this country, could drop our baggage at the door and seek to show up with our Indigenous brothers and sisters in that kind of way, admitting that we don’t know what to do and showing our willingness to seek answers from the liminal space? And what if those who govern our country – our politicians – were willing to stop their posturing in order to sit in that space with each other, people from all sides of the political spectrum admitting that they don’t know the way forward but are willing to plant seeds for the future together? And what if we could do that with our own children? Or our parents? Or our communities?
Recently, my friend Beth and I have been practicing sitting in that space together. We have some parallel stories (ie. we’ve both recently ended a 20+ year marriage and we’re raising children around the same age). Plus we’ve both had an increasing awareness of our need, as settlers in Canada, to decolonize ourselves and we’ve had a recent experience together that heightened that awareness. In addition, we’ve been navigating some challenges in a community that is close to both of our hearts. So there is a liminal space element to both of our lives lately, as we evolve in the way in which we show up in our work, our families, and our communities.
Beth and I have long conversations over Zoom, where we just talk with little expectation of outcome or even clarity. One of us will text “can we circle up?” and we’ll find time to hold space for each other in a little virtual circle on our computer screens. Often our conversations end on a similar note as we began – still confused as to a way forward. In the middle of it, though, we each find an anchor with which to ground our wobbly selves.
We are meeting in the space of “I don’t know”. As we do so, we have to regularly renew our commitment and intention to keep laying down our pretences and instincts toward self-protection. This is not a natural space to be in with another person – it takes effort and humility. We want to impress each other, to prove our value, and we want to make sure we’re safe before we fully trust each other. We have to fight those inclinations in order to offer our vulnerability in such a space. We have too many stories of betrayed trust in the past to rush into an unguarded relationship like this.
I am lucky enough to have a few other friendships on similar journeys, and each one of them takes similar commitment and practice. The space of “I don’t know” can never be taken lightly – it is a great privilege that must be fostered and nurtured before it can grow into a plant that bears fruit. But once you taste of that fruit, you find yourself craving more and more of it, and relationships without it become less and less tolerable. And when you lose it, there is a deep grief and a hard journey back to that level of trust once again.
Sometimes I find it especially challenging to enter into this space because I am, in more and more of the spaces in which I find myself, a teacher/mentor/coach/facilitator who is expected to know things. People look to me with expectation and hope that I will help them find clarity and purpose, and I don’t want to let them down. I find myself becoming guarded sometimes, wanting to prove myself and not let people see me vulnerable. And yet… often it serves my students and clients well if I am willing to enter the space of “I don’t know” with them, to be humble enough to be in the learning with them, to show up willing to be shaped by our collective experience in the liminal space. (It’s a fine line to navigate and I don’t always get it right.)
The culture most of us live in has conditioned us to resist the space of “I don’t know.” Especially in North America (and I suspect in Europe as well, though my experience is limited), we have attempted to eradicate all chaos and insecurity from our culture. Out of our fear of uncertainty, we turn toward authoritarian leadership that, we believe, will keep us safe and always know how to make the path clear in front of us. We want assurances and safety and so we surround ourselves with people who look like us and talk like us. We resist the risk of engaging in spaces that make us feel like we don’t know what we’re doing, and so we marginalize those people who potentially bring that kind of risk into our lives.
But we can never live fully secure lives. We can never fully eradicate chaos. Every one of us will face illness, loss, death, and political instability. It’s simply a part of life. And the more we practice becoming comfortable in the space of “I don’t know” the more resilient we’ll become and the more expansive and beautiful our lives will be.
I believe (though I am far from an expert on such matters) that there are Indigenous cultures that understand how to navigate this space much more comfortably than those of us from European decent. Having sat in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and conversations with Indigenous people here and in other parts of the world, I have witnessed this invitation to sit in the liminal space, to release our baggage and false sense of our own importance. I have heard words spoken to me in Maori, Cree, and Choctaw that explain these concepts better than any English words I know.
As I learn to decolonize myself, I am learning how to receive the wisdom they have to offer without appropriating it or pretending I know something I’ve only recently begun to explore. Inherent in many of these traditions is a deep connection with the earth, which teaches us to be patient in the fallow seasons, to trust the unfurling or dying when the seasons shift, and to surrender ourselves to the mystery of it all. In New Zealand, for example, I was recently taught about the Maori concept of “a te wa” – “when the time is right” – that teaches us patience in the discomfort of waiting. I seek to trust the wisdom of “a te wa.”
In the liminal space, we need that kind of patience. We need the ceremonies and rituals that allow us to stay present for the discomfort. We need the teachers who can model how to stay present. And we need the relationships that anchor us there.
I don’t know how to fix much of the political mess in the world. I don’t know how to eradicate poverty or racism or prejudice of any kind. I don’t know how to help a friend whose life has been deeply altered by time spent in prison. I don’t know how to ensure that women can walk in the world without fearing sexual assault. I don’t know how to parent a child with the kind of anxiety I’ve never navigated in my life. I don’t know how to repair the damage when trust has been lost in a community. I don’t know how to navigate the world as a single mom when my children begin to move out of our home. I don’t know how to hold space for a friend or family member whose lives have suddenly been threatened by gang members. I don’t know how to repair the damage that has been done by settlers in my lineage who took what wasn’t theirs to take.
There are so many things I don’t know. And I don’t want you to give me the answers. I simply want you to meet me there… in the space of “I don’t know.”
* * * * *
Note: This is similar to the content I teach in my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program. The next offering starts in June 2018.
“Wow. You’re the first psychiatrist to introduce himself to me,” I said to the man who stood in front of me with his hand outstretched. “The other two ignored me and never gave their names. I wondered if I had become invisible.” I reached out to shake his hand.
I’d been at my former husband’s bedside for a couple of days, waiting for them to move him from a bed in the emergency room to one in the psychiatric ward. I was worn out and fed up and didn’t have any energy left for niceties.
“That’s because they don’t want you to know who they are,” he said, the frustration in his voice echoing mine. “Everyone in this hospital is afraid of being held accountable for what they say and do, so they’re happiest if you forget them. Nobody wants to get sued or reprimanded for giving you bad advice, so we do only what’s necessary and no more.”
For the next twenty minutes, he unloaded his frustration on me. It was neither professional nor appropriate, given the fact that I was sitting at the bedside of a man who’d attempted suicide just days before, but it was the first time anyone in the hospital was speaking to me with any degree of authenticity or openheartedness, so I didn’t mind. With story after story, he told me of the deep disillusionment he felt, stuck in a system that made him doubt whether he was doing any good in the world. “We start out in this work because we have good hearts and we want to help people,” he said. “The system crushes that in a person. I decide to quit my job at least once a day.”
The next week in the psychiatric ward bore out the truth of what he’d said. It was a bleak environment, where staff followed the rules and did what they were told but had little heart left to provide real care for their patients.They took away my husband’s belt and shoe laces, locked the door behind him, and then mostly ignored him for the rest of the week. (I could come and go, but only when I was buzzed in.) Once a day (except on weekends), a psychiatrist would visit for about fifteen minutes a day for a brief conversation meant only to check whether the meds they’d prescribed were working, nothing more. Once, when I approached the psychiatrist assigned to him (when there was finally some consistency and not a new one every day) at the nurses’ station to ask whether there was more I could do to support my husband, he told me that our time was up and he wouldn’t talk to me. I’d have to wait until the next day.
I threatened to take my husband home or to find an alternate facility if there wasn’t more care or counselling offered to him. “If you take him home,” he said, coldly, “you do so against my advice and I will cut off his prescription.” I felt trapped. If I risked taking him home, he might have a relapse in front of our children, but if he stayed there, he might never lose that dead look in his eyes.
Desperate, I reached out to friends who worked in mental health and found a private psychologist who was willing to see my husband. I convinced the nursing staff my husband needed a “hall pass” for an afternoon (I’m not sure what excuse I made up, but I couldn’t tell the truth or I’d be accused of interfering with his care) and I snuck my husband out of the psych ward so that I could take him to see a psychologist.
That week tested every bit of strength and courage I had. During the day, I was fighting the system, serving as a fierce advocate for my husband. In the afternoons, I would drive away from the hospital weeping from the exhaustion, grief and fear of it all. Then, when I neared home, or my daughters’ school or the soccer field, I’d wipe away the tears, slip on an invisible mask, and become the supportive, strong mom my children needed. When other parents on the soccer field would ask where my husband was, I’d give some vague answer about a business trip or meetings. It wasn’t a safe enough environment for the truth. Changing the subject, I’d smile and make small talk and pretend that there was nothing more important to me in that moment than a soccer game. Then I’d drive home and feed my daughters, and when they were in bed, I’d muffle my screams and tears with my pillow. The next day, I’d do it all again.
I’m not sure why this memory came back to me recently, more than seven years after it happened, but I suppose there was still some residual grief and trauma stuck in my body that needed to be held for awhile. I’m not even sure what conclusions I want to draw from it for the purpose of this post, but I’m going with it anyway, because it reminds me of so many of the reasons why I keep believing this work I do, teaching people how to hold space for each other and for themselves, is so vital. Some days I’m tempted to go sit at the doors of that hospital to try to reach out to the spouses and daughters and parents who look the most terrified and say “if this hospital hurts you, come back and sit with me awhile”. Some days I want to lobby the health department to invest in my course or one like it for everyone in the system, starting with the leaders who decide how care is given.
When these memories started to resurface, I knew that it was time to extend special care to myself, letting myself shed some of the tears that got stuck in my throat, letting myself release the anger that I stuffed down in order to be a supportive mother and wife, and going for a good massage to release what’s still in my body. One thing I know for certain is that the work that I do in the world is only as good as the care I extend to myself. Unless I give myself time for healing and rest, I can not hold space for the healing of others. (That’s what the next few weeks will be about, as I replenish myself at the end of a very full year.)
As I reflect on this story, there are a few things that it continues to teach me:
- Good people with good intentions can have their hearts shrivelled up by systems that put rules and policies and fear of reprisal above compassion and humanity. What can we do about that? I don’t know if there’s a perfect answer, but I do know that some systems need to be dismantled, overhauled or abandoned, while others need new leadership that puts humanity before profit or rules. I have had very different hospital experiences (especially when I was in the hospital for three weeks before having my stillborn baby, when I encountered remarkable compassion and care), but in that particular situation, it seemed everyone I encountered, from the security guard who yelled at me for parking in the 15 minute zone when I was desperate to get my husband into emergency to the psychiatrists and nurses in the psych ward had become jaded and unfeeling.
- We can’t hold space for people if we let our fear of accountability get in the way of doing what we feel is best. This one goes pretty deep and is multi-layered. For one thing, this fear of accountability is systemic in a patriarchal, hierarchical, consumer-driven culture that is transactional rather than relational and that focuses on punitive rather than restorative justice. When the nurses in the psych ward took away my husband’s belt and shoelaces and locked the door, they were checking off all of the right boxes on the patient intake process, but they failed to look after his real needs. When the psychiatrists wouldn’t give their names, they’d lost touch with the reason they were in a helping profession.
- Holding space is an act of culture-making – it breaks the rules of the dominant culture and moves us into a deeper way of connecting.When we stay trapped in what is acceptable in the dominant culture, we lose our sense of community and compassion and we stay stuck in what Jung refers to as the “first half of life” where we see the world as binary and bound by rules and where we focus primarily on the needs of our own egos. In the “second half of life” we undo much of what was accomplished in the first half in order to get to a deeper heart of human life. We begin to see the many shades of grey rather than just the black and white. Systems, like the mental health care system that was my source of frustration, often get stuck in “first half of life” thinking and have a notoriously difficult time evolving because of their size and unwieldiness.
- Caregiver trauma needs more attention and acknowledgement.Though friends and family were as supportive as they could be, the bulk of the emotional labour of that week and the ones that followed were on me. And yet… not a single one of the professionals we spoke to that week paid any attention to how my husband’s suicide attempt was impacting me or how it felt to have his complex emotional needs and the needs of my children (who’d almost lost their dad) resting fully on my shoulders. (The same was true fifteen years earlier, the first time my husband attempted suicide.) I was an afterthought – not even given a few minutes at the nurses’ station when I was desperate for answers. Plus I had an internalized story of how I had to be the strong one and wasn’t allowed to fall apart. I didn’t seek therapeutic support until years later – hence the trauma that still shows up in my body now and then.
- You can’t tell what a person is holding when they’re making small talk on the sidelines of a soccer field. Every day, we encounter complex people with oceans of emotions hidden just under the surface. Some of them are so well practiced at hiding it all that they hardly remember that the emotions are there. Some of them are newly raw, with just a thin veil hiding what they don’t feel safe enough to reveal. If we keep this in mind, it helps us extend grace to the person who responds with more anger than seems warranted when the barista gets his coffee order wrong, or the person who runs away at the first hint of conflict. They may not want us to hold space for them in that moment (all I wanted from the other soccer parents was that they allow me to pretend everything was okay, not that they do or say anything that would crack me open at that moment), but they DO want our grace and patience.
If you want to know more about what it means to hold space, or you want to deepen your practice so that you don’t become jaded like the healthcare professionals I encountered, consider joining the Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program that starts in January. There are only a few spots left – perhaps one of them is yours.
“It’s a long and rugged road
and we don’t now where it’s headed
But we know it’s going to get us where we’re going
And when we find what we’re looking for
we’ll drop these bags and search no more
‘Cuz it’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home
It’s going to feel like heaven when we’re home.”
– From the song Heaven When We’re Home, by the Wailin’ Jennys
Last week, I found home in Florida, and, like the song says, it felt like heaven.
No, I’m not planning to move there any time soon (I’m not sure this Canadian girl could handle the humidity), but I found home nonetheless.
That home was in front of 175 people teaching a workshop on Holding Space through Grief and Trauma (see above photo). I taught the whole workshop, from 9 to 3:30, without any notes (other than my Powerpoint slides) – because this is my home. This is my work. This is the lifeblood that runs through my veins. The next day I taught two half-day workshops on The Circle Way and it was the same.
I know this material and these stories so well, have spoken and written about them so many times, that notes are no longer necessary. I can stand in front of 175 strangers and feel energized and a little nervous but still perfectly at home.
Some people call it a divine assignment, some people call it a calling, some call it your life’s purpose. In some Indigenous cultures, it’s referred to as your “original medicine” – the unique gift that you and only you can offer toward the healing of the world.
Whatever you call it, when you find it, you feel like you have finally come home.
Here’s what I know about finding it:
- Home is a lot more beautiful when you’ve taken a journey away from it. I spent many years doing work that didn’t feel like home, but that was all part of the quest that helped me find it. The more work I did that didn’t feel like “my work” the more clear I became about what I was looking for. A few days ago, I heard a chef on The Chef’s Table say that he’s known he’d be a chef since he was 14 years old. I’m intrigued by that kind of clarity, but that’s not the journey that was meant for me. There’s no way I could have imagined the work I do now when I was 14 – I had to take the long journey to get here.
- The quest for home will take you through “alien lands”. I couldn’t say it better than Parker Palmer does: “Most of us arrive at a sense of self and vocation only after a long journey through alien lands. But this journey bears no resemblance to the trouble-free ‘travel packages’ sold by the tourism industry. It is more akin to the ancient tradition of pilgrimage – “a transformative journey to a sacred centre” full of hardships, darkness, and peril.” There are many out there who are selling very tempting “trouble-free travel packages”, but what you’ll get from them is an empty shell of what you’re really meant to find in your life. Take the “road less traveled”. It’s risky, but it’s real.
- The path through the “darkness and peril” builds your resilience and helps you to eventually see the light. It was when I learned to surrender to the darkness and begin to see the purpose and meaning of it that I finally started to find the clarity I was seeking. I can only teach about topics like grief and trauma and the liminal space because I learned to navigate those worlds myself, and I could only learn to navigate them when I stopped resisting them. Wherever you are now, there is meaning in it and there are lessons to be learned from even the hardest moments.
- It all matters. Even those long years of doing work that didn’t feel connected to me mattered. I honed my communication skills writing speeches for politicians and government officials. I learned storytelling traveling to developing countries and telling the stories of the non-profit organization I worked for. I learned how to create enough content for a full day workshop when I was teaching courses in Writing for Public Relations at the university. It may not have been the content I wanted to speak or write about, but those were the skills I needed for what I now do.
- A true purpose includes generosity and responsibility toward others. If you live a self-absorbed life, you will be forever searching for the meaning of it. Look beyond yourself to find your purpose. “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how”. ― Viktor E. Frankl
- Many will never understand your quest or your purpose. Last week, crossing the border into the U.S., I was held up for an hour (and nearly refused entry), trying to explain my work to a confused border agent who couldn’t find an appropriate category in his big binder full of visa information. I get the same kind of confusion from lawyers, accountants, friends, family, etc. I used to think I just needed the right “elevator speech”, but no matter what I tried, there were always people who gave me confused looks. I gave up on the elevator speech and simply learned to accept that the work I’ve been called to doesn’t fit well with cocktail party small talk or border crossings.
- The right people will get it. It doesn’t take long to figure out whether a seat mate on the airplane, a participant at a workshop, or another parent on the soccer field is on a similar quest as I am on. If I speak words like “holding space” or “The Circle Way” and their eyes light up, I know we’ll be able to have a meaningful conversation. In Florida, those 175 people, who mostly support children in grief and trauma, stayed with me through every word. When that happens, it doesn’t really matter how many confused looks there were until that point.
- It will take a lot out of you and it will give a lot back. Whenever I finish doing work that really matters – like that workshop in Florida – I am both exhausted and invigorated. Though it flows with ease when I am doing the right work, it is far from easy. It’s true that I didn’t need notes up there, but that’s because I was sharing from such a deep and intimate place of my own stories of grief and trauma that notes are unnecessary. My heart was being poured out in front of 175 people. I do it out of pure love, but I know that this kind of work must be followed by a few days of rest and solitude.
- Desire is a guide even when you try to deny it. I had a lot of baggage around my desire to stand in front of a crowd of people speaking of things that were important to me. “It must be my pride that yearns for the spotlight,” I convinced myself. I needed to be more humble than that. I should be happy being in the background. But as much as I tried to deny it, it’s where I felt called to be and now, because I learned to silence those voices that told me I was wrong to want it, I can stand there and feel at home. “To have a desire in life literally means to keep your star in sight, to follow a glimmer, a beacon, a disappearing will-o’-the-wisp over the horizon into some place you cannot yet fully imagine. A deeply held desire is a star that is particularly your own, it might disappear for awhile, but when the skies clear we catch sight of it again and recognize the glimmer.” – David Whyte
- When you find it, it’s even better than you imagined it would be. I have had lots of discouraging days along this journey, lots of times when I thought I was deluding myself, and lots of times when I started looking for other work because it was all taking far too long. But now? I can hardly believe how lucky I am. I have moments of pure joy that are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Who knew that speaking on topics like grief and trauma could be so invigorating? Just as I surrendered to and learned from the darkness and the grief, I am surrendering to and learning from the light and the joy.
After the workshops were finished, I stayed in Florida a few extra days to spend some focused time creating the content for my Holding Space Coach/Facilitator Program, and once again, in my little Airbnb room close to the ocean, writing in solitude, I was home. Because my calling is not to stand in front of a room of hundreds – my calling is to teach, in whatever form it takes, this work that feeds my soul and invites me to feed other souls.
“I’m not a teacher: only a fellow traveler of whom you asked the way. I pointed ahead – ahead of myself as well as you.” – George Bernard Shaw
I hope that you find it too – the place that calls you, the work that whispers to you in your quietest moments. I hope that your own long journey is worth it and that you relish the joy that and healing that can come when you find home.
* * * *
If you need some inspiration, here are a few books that inspired me along the way:
– Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation – by Parker Palmer
– Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity – by David Whyte
– Flow: The Psychology of Ultimate Experience – by Mihaly Csiksgentmihalyi
– Man’s Search for Meaning – by Viktor E. Frankl
– Body of Work: Finding the Thread that Ties Your Story Together, by Pam Slim
– Making a Living Without a Job: Winning Ways for Creating Work you Love – by Barbara Winter
* * * *
One of my upcoming retreats might also help you find it:
1. Openhearted Writing Circle, June 11 – a day retreat in Winnipeg, Manitoba. There is still space available.
2. Nourish: A retreat for your body, mind, and spirit. Together with my friend and yoga teacher Joy, I’ll be co-hosting a holistic retreat in Manitoba, August 18-20.
3. Holding Space for Yourself, Oct. 12-15 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
4. Holding Space for Others, Oct. 18-22 at Welcome to the BIG House, Queensland, Australia
5. Space for an Open Heart, Oct. 27-29 at Kawai Purapura, Auckland, New Zealand
Handmade clothes my son’s body was dressed in after he was born.
If it hadn’t been for doctors’ errors, I would have a sixteen-year-old son.
Halfway through my third pregnancy, I could sense that something was wrong. My body didn’t feel right. “I feel like I have to re-adjust my hips every time I stand up to avoid the baby dropping from between my legs,” I said to my doctor when I called her. “Something feels too loose down there.”
She sent me to the hospital where an intern taped monitors to my stomach and I lay waiting for the prognosis. “Everything looks normal,” said the intern. “The baby is moving well and the heartbeat is strong. I’ve consulted with your doctor and we’ve decided that there is not enough of an indication of a problem to do an internal exam. At this point in the pregnancy, the risks of that kind of invasiveness don’t seem worth it.”
That was the first mistake. They should have checked my cervix.
A week later, I booked some time off work and visited another hospital for a routine, mid-pregnancy ultrasound. The moment the technician turned the screen away from me, I knew something was wrong. The sudden subdued tone in her voice confirmed my suspicion. An hour later, after an awkward call with my doctor, leaning over the receptionist’s desk and trying not to cry, I was on my way back to the hospital where they would now address the problem that had been missed the week before.
My cervix was open. The signals that my body had sent me were accurate – I WAS too loose down there. I was already four centimetres dilated – four months too soon.
After a variety of doctors visited and asked me the same series of questions over and over again, I finally found myself at a third hospital where I was placed into the hands of the only specialist in the city who had the skill to deal with my problem. That evening, Dr. M. spent nearly two hours explaining the situation to my husband and me.
I had an incompetent cervix. Though it had held firmly through my first two pregnancies, like a rubber band that has lost its elasticity, it no longer had the strength to hold itself closed for the nine months it was required to hold a baby in place. Nobody had an explanation – apparently it just happens sometimes. Because it had been open for awhile, the amniotic sac was bulging out of the gap, which is why I’d been feeling the discomfort a week earlier.
The next morning, after a fitful night that included a panic attack after I listened to the frantic sounds of another mother down the hall giving birth to a dead baby, I was wheeled into the surgical theatre where I was to undergo a cerclage. Like the drawstring of a purse, the doctor would stitch a strong thread through my cervix and then pull it closed, simultaneously pushing the amniotic sac back behind the barrier.
After I was prepped for surgery, Dr. M. entered the room with a young intern. It was a teaching hospital, so I was getting used to students following the teacher around. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. Instead of Dr. M., it was the young intern who picked up the needle and stepped between my legs.
Dr. M. read the concern on my face. “Often it’s actually better to have the more experienced doctor watching and guiding rather than doing the stitching,” he reassured me. “It will be okay. She’ll do a fine job.”
That was the second mistake. Minutes later, the faces of both the intern and Dr. M. told me something had gone horribly wrong. “Pull it out,” said Dr. M. “We have to abandon surgery.”
The amniotic sac had been pierced by the needle she was using for the cerclage. My water was now broken. My baby was no longer protected. I would probably go into labour soon and deliver a baby too tiny to survive.
To the surprise of all of the doctors, I didn’t go into labour right away. In fact, hours stretched into days, and the baby seemed to be thriving despite the lack of amniotic fluid or protection from the outside world. Dr. M. watched vigilantly, doing two ultrasounds a day to make sure all of the baby’s organs were functioning properly.
After the failed surgery, I had another fitful night in which I wrestled with the demons that wanted to convince me to point the blame at the doctors. “It’s their fault,” they shrieked in my ear as I fought through the anxiety. “If they had checked you a week ago, or if Dr. M. had done the surgery, you wouldn’t be in this situation, expecting your baby to die at any moment.”
But there was another voice – a quieter voice – underneath the anger and fear. This voice said “You have a choice to make. Blame the doctors and let the bitterness control you, or let it go and choose a more peaceful way through this.” By morning, I had made a choice. I would let it go. Bitterness wouldn’t do me or my baby any good. I wanted to choose life.
The next day, Dr. M. came to see me and at the end of our visit, he paused for a moment. “The intern would like to come see you. She feels horrible about what happened and would like a chance to apologize. Will you see her?”
I took a deep breath. Was I ready to see her?
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll see her.”
A few hours later, she walked into the room. Her eyes filled with tears as she blurted out an awkward apology.
“I know you were doing your best,” I said, “and you made a mistake. I don’t hold that against you. Don’t let this ruin your career as a doctor. Learn from it and keep doing better.”
For much of the next three weeks in the hospital, I felt surprisingly peaceful. I started a gratitude journal and I had many long, luxurious conversations with the friends and family that came to visit. I joked with people who commented on my peaceful appearance that my hospital stay felt a little like being in an ashram – a retreat space away from my busy life that gave me time to reflect on the meaning of my life.
At the end of those three weeks, though, my peaceful state met the crashing waves of despair. I went downstairs for my morning ultrasound visit and discovered that my baby had died during the night. A few hours later, I had to go through the excruciating pain of labour and delivery, knowing the outcome was a dead baby. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done.
As I prepared to go home from the hospital, my breasts filling with milk my son would never drink, I checked in with myself about the choice I’d made three weeks earlier. Now that my baby was dead, could I still forgive the doctors for their mistakes? The stakes were higher – could I make the choice again? Yes, I decided that I could. Choosing not to let go would be to choose bitterness and hatred. I wanted to choose peace and forgiveness. I made that choice again and again in the coming months as the waves of grief came.
This week, I’ve been reading Wilma Derksen’s new book, The Way of Letting Go, about her thirty-two year journey to forgiveness after her thirteen-year-old daughter’s murder. The term forgive, she says, derives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant,’ as in ‘to give up.’ Forgiveness is the process of letting go. It “isn’t a miracle drug to mend all broken relationships but a process that demands patience, creativity, and faith.”
I’ve known about Wilma since the story of her daughter Candace’s disappearance erupted in the media, five months after I graduated from high school (in 1984). Seven weeks after the disappearance, Candace’s body was found in a shed just a few blocks from her home.
A few years ago, I heard Wilma give a TEDx talk about forgiveness. What stood out about that talk was that, during the trial of the man accused of murdering Candace, Wilma realized that she could not hold both love and justice in her heart in equal measure. Though she longed for justice for Candace’s sake, for the sake of the family that was still with her, she chose love.
After hearing her speak, I reached out to Wilma and we have since become friends. Last year, while she was working on the book, she invited me to lunch to explore the idea of me being a guest speaker at a class she was teaching about forgiveness. Over lunch, she told me about how she had, after more than thirty years of processing her own forgiveness over the murder of her daughter, come to a somewhat different conclusion about forgiveness than what we’d both been taught in our religious upbringing. As she says in the book, it’s a long journey of letting go and making the choice, again and again, to choose love and life, just as I’d done in the hospital. It’s not about denying that you feel anger and hatred or that you want justice, but it’s a conscious choice not to let those things control you.
Toward the end of our lunch date, I decided to share something with Wilma that I’d hesitated to bring up earlier in the conversation – that my marriage had recently ended. I was reluctant to talk about it for two reasons: 1. I didn’t want it to dominate the conversation, especially when the focus was on her course and her work, and 2. since she was an “expert” on forgiveness and I knew her to be a religious person, I was afraid of what she might think of me for having failed at marriage. (I still carried some old shame about the sin of divorce.)
Wilma’s response caught me by surprise. Not only was she compassionate and non-judgemental, but she offered a simple reframing of a story I shared that helped me see even more clearly why the ending of my marriage had become necessary. She held space for me in the beautiful way that only someone who has walked through pain and has learned not to judge herself for her reaction to it can do.
I realized, in that moment, that I had placed Wilma on an impossible pedestal. For more than thirty years, I’d seen the media’s version of this somewhat saintly Christian woman who had some kind of super-human capacity to forgive the most egregious crime against her and her family. But the truth was much more complicated and nuanced (and, in my mind, appealing) than that. She was, just as I was, a very human woman who’d been nearly drowned in intense pain, anger, and fear, and yet she kept swimming back up to the surface in search of the light.
Forgiveness, for her, was not a pie-in-the-sky utopian ideal that meant she could live in peace and harmony with all who’d wronged her. Instead, it was a daily – sometimes hourly – decision to let go of fear, grief, ego, happy endings, guilt, blame, rage, closure, and self-pity.
I didn’t get to raise my son Matthew, but because, like Wilma, I chose forgiveness instead of bitterness, his short life transformed mine and his legacy is present in all of the work I now do. That three week period in the hospital with him was not only a retreat, it was a reconfiguring, sending my life in a whole new direction that lead me to where I am now.
At the end of the book, Wilma admits that her concept and experience of forgiveness are still changing and evolving. I’m with her on that. Life will keep giving us more chances to learn.
Sometimes grief comes like a runaway truck. You can see it careening down the highway toward you, but you don’t have enough time to get out of the way before it flattens you.
Sometimes it’s a slow moving train, and you’re stuck at the crossing, impatiently waiting for it to pass so that you can get on with your life.
Sometimes grief is a stealth bomber, dropping missiles from the sky and leaving you with an unfamiliar and sinister landscape that you don’t know how to navigate.
This Christmas, grief came to me like a sailboat – not disruptive or forceful, but with a strong enough wake to rearrange the pebbles on the shore.
It came in the dark while I was driving down the highway, on the way home from a full day of Christmas merriment at my brother’s house. It came on the same road where, six years earlier, I told my husband that, unless something changed, I couldn’t stay in the marriage any longer. It came while my daughters were peacefully sleeping in the van behind me. I was glad for the cover of darkness to hide the tears streaming down my face.
There is a unique grief that becomes part of your narrative when you’ve lost both parents and the partner you thought you’d spend the rest of your life with. It feels untethered – like there is nobody holding you to the ground anymore and you have to figure out how to do your own holding. It comes with a unique loneliness – a feeling of separateness – when you’ve lost those relationships at the first level of intimacy and the best that you now have is second-level intimacy. Those people care that you’re there and they love you dearly, but their eyes won’t light up when you walk into the room, and their hand won’t reach out to touch yours in a way that says either “you are my child” or “you are my beloved”.
I’d just spent the day with the people I adore (my siblings and their families), and my van was full of three girls whose love lights up my life, and yet I felt an undeniable sense of loneliness.
It was not unhealthy, this loneliness, nor was it even particularly painful. When it came, I felt no desire to banish it or even to resolve it in any hurry. There is no gaping hole in the centre of my heart; there is only a gentle gap that offers possibility for more fullness in the future.
I simply felt the longing in the loneliness and let it keep me company as I drove.
Longing is not something to be banished or feared. Longing is a friend, a messenger that points us in the direction of our hearts. Like a treasure map, it gives us clues that help us figure out where to dig.
Longing is what helps us make connections – with ourselves, with each other, with the sacred, and with the earth. We are meant for connection, to be in relationships that help us thrive and grow. If we didn’t ever feel longing, we would never seek each other out. We would live in isolation, never building communities, never taking the kinds of risks that result in intimacy, passion and aliveness.
Longing and love go hand in hand. Love grows in the world when we respond to our longing and reach out in connection and community.
My longing pointed me toward intimacy, touch, and deep soul connection.
There are many beautiful connections in my life, and for that I am grateful. But there’s a level of intimacy – both physical and emotional – that’s missing, and that is what my longing asks me to open my heart to.
There are other clues on this treasure map as well – clues that tell me that, in order to find the treasure of intimacy, more excavation will be required. I will need to continue to clear out the emotional clutter – old stories and attachments – that don’t serve me anymore. I will need to continue to heal the wounded parts of me that fear the deep vulnerability that comes with intimacy. I will need to soften the parts of me that keep me guarded and protected.
This past year has included a lot of excavation, a lot of decluttering, and a lot of dismantling of old stories. Now, at the end of it, I feel ready to sit with the empty spaces in my heart – the longing and hunger that comes when the old has been removed and the new has not yet come to fill its place. I feel ready to sit at the centre of the labyrinth – emptied of what I needed to release on the journey inward and ready to receive what has yet to arrive.
With this writing, I am suddenly aware of what my word for 2017 will be. My longing pointed the way to it.
My word for 2017 is intimacy.
What about you? Do you feel a deep longing right now? An ache in your heart that won’t go away? If so, what is it trying to teach you, what connection is it telling you to seek out?
Don’t chase it away and don’t fear it. Let it enter you, let it teach you, and let it point you toward the treasure you have yet to uncover.
If you’re interested in exploring your own longing and want to pick a word for 2017, A Soulful Year may be a useful resource.
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.
My baby died before I got to hold him in my arms. I’d been in the hospital for three weeks, trying to save my third pregnancy, but then one morning I went downstairs for my twice-daily ultrasound and found out he had died while I slept. Then came the horrible and unavoidable realization… I had to give birth to him. For three hours I laboured, knowing that at the end of it, instead of a baby suckling at my breast, I would hold death in my arms. That’s the hardest kind of liminal space I’ve ever been through – excruciating pain on top of excruciating grief.
Yes, it was hard, but it was also one of the most tender, beautiful, grace-filled experiences of my life. It changed me profoundly, and set me on the path I am on now. That was the beginning of my journey to understanding the painful beauty of grief, the value of the liminal space, and the essence of what it means to hold space for another person.
When Matthew was born, the nurses in the hospital handled it beautifully. They dressed him in tiny blue overalls and wrapped him in a yellow blanket, lovingly hand-made by volunteers. They took photos of him for us to take home, made prints of his hands and feet for a special birth/death certificate, and then brought him to my room so that we could spend the evening with him. I asked one of the nurses later how they’d known just the right things to do, and she told me that they used to be frustrated because they didn’t know how to support grieving parents, but then had all been sent to a workshop that gave them some tools that changed the experience for the parents and for them.
That evening, our family and close friends gathered in my hospital room to support us and to hold the baby that they had been waiting to welcome.
Now, nearly sixteen years later, I don’t remember a single thing that was said in that hospital room, but I remember one thing. I remember the presence of the people who mattered. I remember that they came, I remember that they gazed lovingly into the face of my tiny baby, and I remember that they cried with me. I have a mental picture in my mind of the way they loved – not just me, but my lifeless son. That love and that presence was everything. I’m sure it was hard for some of them to come, knowing what they were facing, but they came because it mattered.
This past week, I’ve been in a couple of conversations with people who were concerned that they might do or say the wrong thing in response to someone’s hard story. “What if I offend them? What if they think I’m trying to fix them? What if they think I’m insensitive? What if I’m guilty of emotional colonization?” Some of these people admitted that they sometimes avoid showing up for people in grief or struggle because they simply don’t have a clue how to support them.
There are lots of “wrong” things to do in the face of grief – fixing, judging, projecting, or deflecting. Holding someone else’s pain is not easy work.
In her raw and beautiful new book, Love Warrior, Glennon Melton Doyle talks about how hard it was to share the story of her husband’s infidelity and their resulting marriage breakdown. There are six kinds of people who responded.
- The Shover is the one who “listens with nervousness and then hurriedly explains that ‘everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘it’s darkest before the dawn,’ or ‘God has a plan for you.’”
- The Comparer is the person “nods while ‘listening’, as if my pain confirms something she already knows. When I finish she clucks her tongue, shakes her head, and respond with her own story.”
- The Fixer “is certain that my situation is a question and she knows the answer. All I need is her resources and wisdom and I’ll be able to fix everything.”
- The Reporter “seems far too curious about the details of the shattering… She is not receiving my story, she is collecting it. I learn later that she passes on the breaking news almost immediately, usually with a worry or prayer disclaimer.”
- The Victims are the people who “write to say they’ve hear my news secondhand and they are hurt I haven’t told them personally. They thought we were closer than that.
- And finally, there are “the God Reps. They believe they know what God wants for me and they ‘feel led’ by God to ‘share.’”
These are all people who may mean well, but are afraid to hold space. They are afraid to be in a position where they might not know the answer and will have to be uncomfortable for awhile. Wrapped up in their response is not their concern for the other person but their concern for their own ego, their own comfort, and their own pride.
It’s easy to look at a list like that and think “Well, no matter what I do, I’ll probably do the wrong thing so I might as well not try.” But that’s a cop-out. If the person living through the hard story is worth anything to you, then you have to at least show up and try.
From my many experiences being the recipient of support when I walked through hard stories, this is my simple suggestion for what to do:
Be fully present.
Don’t worry so much about what you’ll say. Yes, you might say the wrong thing, but if the friendship is solid enough, the person will forgive you for your blunder. If you don’t even show up, on the other hand, that forgiveness will be harder to come by.
So show up. Be there in whatever way you can and in whatever way the relationship merits – a phone call, a visit, a text message.
Just be there, even if you falter, stumble, or make mistakes. And when you’re there, be FULLY present. Pay attention to what the person is sharing with you and what they may be asking of you. Don’t just listen well enough so that you can formulate your response, listen well enough that you risk being altered by the story. Dare to enter into the grit of the story with them. Ask the kind of questions that show interest and compassion rather than judgement or a desire to fix. Risk making yourself uncomfortable. Take a chance that the story will take you so far out of your comfort zone that you won’t have a clue how to respond.
And when you are fully present, your intuition will begin to whisper in your ear about the right things to do or say. You’ll hear the longing in your friend’s voice, for example, and you’ll find a way to show up for that longing. In the nuances of their story, and in the whisperings they’ll be able to utter because they see in you someone they can trust, you’ll recognize the little gifts that they’ll be able to receive.
It is only when you dare to be uncomfortable that you can hold liminal space for another person.
This is not easy work and it’s not simple. It’s gritty and a little dangerous. It asks a lot of us and it takes us into hard places. But it’s worth it and it’s really, really important.
There’s a term for the kind of thing that people do when they’re trying to fix you, rush you to a resolution, or pressure you to have positive thoughts rather than fully experiencing the grief. It’s called “spiritual bypassing”, a term coined by John Welwood. “I noticed a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks,” he says. “When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an “occupational hazard” of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
When we’re too uncomfortable to hold space for another person’s pain, we push them into this kind of spiritual bypassing, not because we believe it’s best for them, but because anything else is too uncomfortable for us. But spiritual bypassing only stuffs the wound further down so that it pops up later in addiction, rage, unhealthy behaviour, and physical or mental illness.
Instead of pushing people to bypass the pain, we have to slow down, dare to be uncomfortable, and allow the person to find their own path through.
There’s a good chance that the person doesn’t want your perfect response – they want your PRESENCE. They want to know that they are supported. They want a container in which they can safely break apart. They want to know you won’t abandon them. They want to know that you will listen. They want to know that they are worth enough to you that you’ll give up your own comfort to be in the trenches with them.
Your faltering attempts at being present are better than your perfect absence.
My memory of that evening in the hospital room with my son Matthew is full of redemption and beauty and grace because it was full of people who love me. None of them knew the right things to say in the face of my pain, but they were there. They listened to me share my birthing story, even though there was no resolution, and they looked into the face of my son even though they couldn’t fix him.
Nothing was more important to me than that.
A note about what’s coming…
A new online writing course… If you want to write to heal, to grow, or to change the world, consider joining me for Open Heart, Moving Pen, October 1-21, 2016.
An emerging coaching/facilitation program… As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently writing a book about what it means to hold space. While writing the first three chapters, I began to dream about what else might grow out of this work and I came up with a beautiful idea that I’m very excited about. I’ll be creating a “liminal space coaching/facilitation program” that will provide training for anyone who wants to deepen their work in holding liminal space. When I started dreaming of this, I realized that I’ve been creating the tools for such a program for several years now – Mandala Discovery, The Spiral Path, Pathfinder, 50 Questions, and Openhearted Writing. Participants of the coaching/facilitation program (which will begin in early 2017) will have access to all of these tools to use in their own work, whether that’s as coaches, facilitators, pastors, spiritual directors, hospice workers, or teachers.
If the coaching/facilitation program interests you, you might want to get a head start in working through one or more of those programs so that you’ve done some of the foundational work first. The more personal work you’ve done in holding space for yourself first, the more effective you’ll be in the work. (Participants in any of those courses will be given a discount on the registration cost of the coaching/facilitation program.)
Interested in more articles like this? Add your name to my email list and you’ll receive a free ebook, A Path to Connection and my bi-weekly reflections.