My social media feed is filling up with images of grinning college students settling into dorm rooms. Sometimes the parents who are posting those images are in the photos and grinning too, but beneath the grins and cheery captions… well, there’s a lifetime of stories and a whole host of other stuff. I can see it in their eyes. (Let’s face it, when your child moves away, it’s hard to keep it from showing up in your eyes.)
“Whoa…that’s three sentences… and ten thousand pounds of stuff,” Michael J. Fox said in his documentary, Still, when he was reading a short passage about his relationship with his dad from his autobiography. That’s what I feel when I look at those photos… just a simple photo, a simple smile, a simple caption about how their child is starting university… and ten thousand pounds of STUFF. Yes, when your child moves away, there’s a lot of STUFF – emotional and otherwise.
Did they really grow up so quickly? Don’t I have more time with them? Can we go back to simpler days when they needed me more? Will I become less relevant in their life? Did I teach them all the things they need to become a good adult? Will they make friends here? Will they be lonely? What if they get their heart broken and I’m not around to support them? How will I spend my time when I’m no longer caring for them in my house? What if I enjoy having them out of the house – will that make me a bad parent? What’s my identity now that “parent” is taking up less space?
Oh parent… I feel you. My heart is travelling with you on this wild roller-coaster ride called parenting. Who could have known, when we first became bonded with those little people who entered our lives, just how much our hearts would become tethered to theirs? Who could have known the ways our hearts would swell with pride and devotion, the way those little people could uniquely break our hearts with their cutting words, the way we could feel such intense anger one moment and love the next, the ways we’d feel so completely unprepared, overwhelmed and uncertain about how we were raising them?
Parenting is a series of thresholds, milestones, and heartaches. It’s a gradual, incremental process of letting go, punctuated with these bigger moments when the letting go feels more and more profound (and sometimes earth-shattering) – like when we first leave them with a babysitter, they start attending school, they have their first sleepover, they go away to a week of sleepover camp, they start high school, they learn to drive, and they get their first job. And there’s the other stuff too – less tangible and sometimes more emotional – the first time they keep a secret from us, the first time they lie to cover something up, the first time they choose a friend over us, the first time they slam their bedroom door. Then, before we know it, they’re ready for that BIG threshold – the one that involves them leaving our home, for a university dorm, their own apartment, another city… whatever. It’s all an exercise in learning to let our hearts walk around outside of our bodies… and then realizing those hearts were never ours to begin with.
Sometimes when I teach about what it means to hold space, I joke that I got my PhD in holding space from being a parent. At first, you hold them close and take responsibility for meeting all their needs, and the container you hold for them is small and enclosed, protective and safe – like a bird’s nest. Then gradually, you open your hands and your heart more and more and let them grow into their autonomy and agency and you practice letting them take responsibility for the consequences of their own actions. It’s not easy, this letting go, especially when your child moves away, but it’s necessary. Individuation, according to Jung, is the process a child must undergo to become their own person – a well-functioning adult, with their own beliefs and ideals that might be separate from those of their parents and society. We let go so that they can become themselves.
(An aside… I think there’s a potential individuation process involved in parenting too, especially if there was some arrested development in our early lives and our children’s growing up brings up our own long-buried childhood stuff, but that’s a post for another day.)
What comes up again and again in the work I do, when people begin to learn about what it means to hold space, is that this practice is FAR more about us, the spaceholders, than it is about the people we hold space for. As parents, we have to hold space for OURSELVES during this important milestone so that we don’t project all of our stuff onto our children, so that we don’t pass down the woundedness and trauma we’ve inherited from our lineage, and so that they can be released more fully into their individuation with liberation and without shouldering guilt over abandoning us or fear that they’re severing family ties or letting us down.
Two years ago, my oldest and youngest daughters moved out within two weeks and I drove each of them twenty-four hours in opposite directions to their new homes in faraway cities. Not long afterwards, my middle daughter started traveling and I was mostly an empty-nester. The pandemic had given me bonus time, with all of them staying home longer than expected, but then the world started opening and suddenly they were all leaving in quick succession, and going far away. SO quickly it all happened and suddenly… I was alone. And there I was, reeling from the emotional tailspin of it all, but doing my best to hold space for myself so that my aloneness didn’t become their burden.
This summer, I’ve enjoyed the gift of a few months with two daughters back under the same roof, but next week I have to say good-bye again as one heads back to the west coast and the other heads in the opposite direction. I’m a little more prepared for it now, having survived the initial blow, but I know it will still be hard. I know my emotions will bounce all over the place for a while.
As I prepare for this next period of transition, I thought I’d share some reflections from my own experience and my understanding of what it means to hold space for our growing children and for ourselves. I hope these are supportive for when your child moves away.
1. Trust that you have taught your children as much as they need to know, and that they have the capacity to figure out the rest. This one surprised me when I helped my daughters set up their new homes far from where I’d be living. I worried about whether I’d taught them enough that they’d know how to function as independent adults. Some of it was about simple things (like getting stains out of clothes) and some of it was bigger (like building community in a new city). I cried about it in a hotel room on the long trip home, but then I had to let go and trust that they’d be okay. Two years later, I can see how well they adapted, and I have to admit that those fears were more about my own insecurities (i.e. Had I been a good enough mother?) then they were about them.
2.Give them the advice that matters most, and withhold the stuff they can figure out on their own. This is related to the first one, but it’s also about allowing our children to have their own autonomy and make their own mistakes. They need to know that we trust them and that we don’t assume they’ll be helpless without us nearby. When we try to dump too much advice on them, we run the risk of hijacking space while making them doubt their own capacity to make good choices independently. In those early days for each of my daughters as they set up their apartments and learned to navigate new cities, I had to learn to (mostly) keep my mouth shut when they chose sheets and towels, and then figured out how to navigate public transit. There was some discernment in recognizing when to stay silent and when to step in and let them know I still had their backs and I didn’t always get it right, but I tried.
3. Be mindful of what this separation might be triggering in you, and work to hold and heal it without making it your child’s burden. Are you feeling separation anxiety, or having old abandonment trauma triggered? Are you afraid of becoming irrelevant in your children’s lives? Are you afraid of losing your sense of purpose when you’re not needed as much? Are you letting your mind cycle through irrational fear of what could happen to them while you’re far away? Maybe there’s codependency in your relationship with your child and you’ve been overly enmeshed in their life? These are all very real things, and you don’t need to bury them and pretend you’re not feeling them, but it’s your responsibility to hold these things (and/or find peers or professionals to help you hold and heal them) not your children’s. Breathe deeply, dear parent, and release them with a blessing so that they don’t have to take responsibility for (or inherit) your pain.
4. Recognize that there is grief in this and find healthy ways to process your grief. I know it hurts – that’s natural. You’re grieving the end of a really important era of your life. You’re grieving the loss of that little innocent child you cherished. You’re grieving the way your role in your child’s life is changing. You’re grieving all of those meals you won’t eat together, all those movies you can’t watch, all those car rides, and all that laughter you’ll no longer hear from the living room. It’s not a death, exactly, but it can feel that way. Let yourself cry, let yourself grieve, and find friends who will hold space while you release all of those big feelings. Pour it onto your journal page or go sit by a river and let the natural world hold space for your tears. Grief is a natural part of relationships. Grief is a part of what it means to love. Go ahead and feel it. (This too shall pass.)
5.Recognize that there is also freedom in this (and let go of any guilt you feel over enjoying that freedom). There is never just one emotion involved in a major milestone like this. There might be some relief mixed in with the grief, and maybe even some joy (though those might not be the most immediate emotions to show up). You’ve done the heavy lifting of parenting a child into adulthood and now they’re not going to need you as much. When your child moves away, they’re going to find other people to lean on and your burdens will likely become lighter. You won’t need to cook as many meals or give as many rides or clean up as many stray socks. That can feel like freedom. Your life is about to open up in ways that might not have been possible when your children were more dependent on you. Feeling guilty over enjoying it isn’t going to serve anyone, so why not enjoy it? In the long run, your kids are likely going to enjoy their own freedom more (and feel less guilty about leaving you behind) if they see you enjoying yours. It’s a healthier way of nurturing a secure (and evolving) attachment bond between you.
6. Lean into liminality. There is liminal space involved in any major transition in our lives and this one is no exception. We have to let go of the old story of who we were and how we spent our days and it will take some time for the new story to emerge. There’s an identity shift when you lose some of the duties and expectations that once defined you as a parent and you might even find yourself in a full-fledged identity crisis. Lean into it, dear parent (while getting support if the crisis is significant). Things are going to be different. There’s going to be a new normal. You will eventually adjust to a new way of filling your days, a new way of being in communication with your child, a new way of welcoming them home for the holidays, and perhaps new hobbies, new friendships, and new ways of making meaning of your life. But you don’t have to figure any of that stuff out right away. Let yourself feel wobbly for awhile. Let yourself feel all the complicated back-and-forth emotions. Be tender with yourself when old wounds get triggered, when you feel lonely, when you’re full of self-doubt, or when you’re uncertain what your purpose in life should be. This is liminality, this is normal.
7. Consider planning a “gap year” for yourself. When we think of gap years, we picture high school graduates going off into the world to find themselves before entering college. But what about a gap year for new empty-nesters? When my daughters all moved out, I sold our family home (because none of them planned to move back to Winnipeg and I didn’t intend to stay in the city either) and set off on a year-long adventure. Because my work affords me the privilege of working from anywhere there’s Wi-Fi (plus I teach internationally), I had the privilege of traveling all over Europe and Central America. Now that I’m at the tail end of that year, I am immensely grateful that I had the opportunity! It wasn’t always easy, and sometimes I felt lonely, but it was a profoundly meaningful (and fun) way to explore who I am, where I want to live, and how I want to live in this next phase of my life. I got to spend the year being intentional about making choices rooted in joy, tenderness, and liberation – choices for ME and nobody else – and I feel grounded and have a new sense of confidence and self-love now. Your gap year might look nothing like mine (maybe you can’t leave your home or have no interest in travel), but there might be some way for you to experience a similar period of exploration, expansion, and joy-seeking as you figure out how you want to live, love, and make meaning. (Consider joining our Full-Bodied Life community for this time of exploration.)
8. Explore (and enjoy) your expanding identity and possibilities. Related to the last point, you have an opportunity, in this transition period, to dive into more intentional self-exploration. Maybe there are lifestyle changes you want to make. Maybe there are relationships that need to shift or new boundaries you need to adopt. Maybe it’s time to dive into that therapy you’ve been putting off. Maybe you want to travel more. Maybe you want to take up new hobbies or take a course. Maybe it’s time to sign up for that master’s degree program you always dreamed you’d get but put off when the children came. This is a moment when you get to let go of some of that old programming about what’s selfish or a waste of time or what you’re not worthy of. This is a time when you get to choose YOURSELF. Be playful with your exploration and HAVE FUN!
One day, dear parent, you will wake up in the morning and realize that something has shifted and that you’ve now become accustomed to this new normal. Despite how monumental they feel when they happen, transitions don’t last forever. You can weather this storm, just as you have weathered storms in the past. You’re not finished growing and evolving, and while growth can sometimes hurt, it can also lead us into more expansive lives. Go ahead – live a more expansive life!
P.S. If you want to learn more about how to hold space for yourself, now would be a great time to sign up for our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. It starts in October 2023, and if you sign up before September 1, you can still get last year’s prices.
There’s an older man I often encounter on the path when I go for my morning walks. We’ve become path-friends, always stopping for a brief interaction when we happen upon each other. Once, he showed me how the inside of his hat was falling apart, but “I just can’t bear to throw it away,” he said, tucking the broken bits in as he pulled the hat back onto his head. Another time he was laughing about the people he’d watched fishing unsuccessfully on the shore. “Just metres away,” he said, “the fish were leaping out of the water as if to taunt those with fishing rods.” The last time I saw him, he showed me a blurry photo he’d captured of a young eagle on a branch. “I’m glad he let me get so close,” he said, delight in his eyes. In turn, I told him about the two turtles I’d watched in a mating dance in the river a few weeks ago. “You’re so lucky!” he said. “You’re right,” I said. “I am lucky.”
At the end of last week, I wasn’t feeling quite as lucky. I’d spent too much time online and had reached that point I often get to with social media – overstimulated with the addictive quality of it, discouraged with how we’ve all become pawns caught in the hamster wheel of the attention economy, dysregulated from all the doom-scrolling, and disembodied from staring at a screen for too many hours. Add to that the self-loathing that creeps in when I recognize the state I’ve allowed myself to get to, and… well, it wasn’t pleasant.
So I did what I know is best for me when I get that way – got offline and went seeking the stillness and nervous system soothing that the natural world offers me. “Eco-regulation” is what some people call it – immersing myself in nature to bring my body and soul back into alignment and a state of calm. More simply put, I let nature remind my body how to love herself again. I drove an hour outside the city so I could walk alone on the shore at sunset with just the seagulls as company.
Monday morning, after a weekend offline, I met my path-friend on my morning walk and we stopped for one of our short chats. I walked away smiling, and suddenly realized that what I receive from every encounter I have with him is exactly why I keep returning to social media and why I haven’t abandoned it entirely. It’s those brief moments of human-to-human encounter. It’s the way we make each other smile. It’s the way we delight in each other’s blurry photos and listen to each other’s slightly boring stories. It’s humanity meeting humanity with openness and little expectation.
Social media is far from a perfect space. Like so many of our communal spaces, it gets co-opted by those who want to sell us things or manipulate our beliefs or secure our vote. Plus it’s been designed to keep us addicted because the more it has our attention, the more money can be made off the advertising put in front of us. All of that is true, but I still value the way that it allows us to encounter each other on the paths we travel down.
I am reminded of what Richard Wagamese says in one of his short pieces in Embers:
We approach our lives on different trajectories, each of us spinning in our own separate, shining orbits. What gives this life its resonance is when those trajectories cross and we become engaged with each other, for as long or as fleetingly as we do. There’s a shared energy then, and it can feel as though the whole universe is in the process of coming together. I live for those times. No one is truly ever “just passing through.” Every encounter has within it the power of enchantment, if we’re willing to look for it.
I love my path-friends, whether online or on the path by the river, but life is not complete with only those encounters. While there is meaning and joy in our brief engagement, I’m sure that I would die of connection-deprivation if that was all I ever had.
In a sense, those little moments are like fast food – they taste good, they sustain us in the moment and they give us a quick hit of energy to help us get through the day, but we burn through those empty calories pretty quickly. We need more nourishment and nutrients than that. We need the slow-cooked, lovingly prepared food of deeper conversations and more long-term relationships. We need the belongingness of community and lovingly nurtured friendships.
Perhaps friendship can be best plotted on a spectrum, with one end being the path-friends we encounter occasionally but might never know their names. Somewhere further down the spectrum are the coffee-shop friends – those with whom the relationship has deepened enough that we occasionally sit down together over a meal or a cup of coffee. Sometimes these are friends we only see once every few years, but their presence matters enough that we choose to set aside time for them for an exchange of stories.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had more lunch dates than I’ve had in years, and I feel deeply nourished by these coffee-shop-friendships. There is something special about re-encountering people who’ve witnessed me in different phases of my life and still delight in who I am now. There’s the former boss and mentor I haven’t seen in over twenty years – the person who helped me see I had leadership capacity before I saw it in myself – who wanted to know all about my work now. There’s the couple I traveled with in Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh when I worked in international development and with them I shared a few good laughs over wine while we reminisced about the horrible nights we spent in a creepy house surrounded by abandoned army barracks, where I ended up with over 500 bedbug bites. There’s the friend I only see every couple of years, who once flew across the country to attend my retreat, who shared with me that she is once again on a journey with cancer. There’s the young friend I met in Costa Rica who delighted with me in traveling down a rabbit hole about what it means to change our belief systems and how queerness offers a frame for expanding our understanding.
I have coffee-shop-friendships all over the world and my life is much richer for these “sometimes playful, sometimes heavy, sometimes back and forth between the two” conversations. While we’re more committed in these friendships than with our path-friends, and we usually have the contact information for these people in our phones, we hold the connection with lightness and minimal expectation, enjoying each other when we see each other but not getting too attached to an expectation of how often we need to connect or how much we meet each others’ needs.
In my work, I get to serve as a catalyst for creating space for the online version of these coffee-shop-friendships in the programs we offer at the Centre for Holding Space (like the Foundation Program or A Full-Bodied Life, where we gather on Zoom every week or two). We all come with an expectation that space will be held for our authenticity and vulnerability and so we offer ourselves wholeheartedly to the conversation. People often tell me, several years after being in my programs, that they still have regular meaningful contact with people they met in the program. Just this morning, somebody told me about the grief she experienced when our eight-month certification program ended because of how important this circle had become in her life.
Further down the spectrum from the coffee-shop friendships are the living-room-friendships. These are the friends we let into our living rooms even if we haven’t dusted and there are stray socks tucked into the couch. These friends settle into the couch, pluck out the socks and toss them in the general direction of the laundry room, and before long, hours have disappeared in meandering, soul-bearing conversations.
Living-room-friends are the ones who show up to babysit our kids, even though we haven’t asked them to, when they know we’re overwhelmed with grief after losing a parent. They’re the ones who bring a bottle of wine when the divorce papers are finally signed, or a big pot of soup when the flu knocks down every member of the household. They show up because they’re attuned to our emotional states and our times of need and we reciprocate by showing up for them.
The commitment level and risks are much greater in these friendships. Friends at this level witness our shadows but they also get a bigger dose of our light. We let ourselves be more needy with these friends, because we know that their presence in our lives is what helps us be more human and more emotionally regulated. We work out some of our insecurity and we might even heal some of our attachment wounds in friendships like this, because they’re dependable, secure, generous, and reciprocal.
Today’s lunch date is with one such friend, and I can hardly wait for her to show up. She’s been on vacation with her family, and I’m slightly annoyed that she abandoned me for so long, just as she was rightfully annoyed when I left the city last year and abandoned her. We laugh about that, though, because there is enough trust in the solidness of our relationship that neither of us ever feels truly abandoned. Even though I value therapy, I think it’s safe to say that more of my trauma healing has happened in this friendship than in any therapy relationship. We have such deep conversations that we’ve sometimes had baristas in coffee shops reveal their curiosity about what we talk about for so long.
I am a big fan of friendship and I want it to be more honoured in our culture. I wish that we would turn some of the attention that’s placed on romantic relationships onto friendships instead. I want more songs about friendships and more movies and novels. I want a section at the bookstore to be dedicated to friendship the way there’s so often one dedicated to marriages. I want us to celebrate friendships the same way we celebrate people’s engagements or weddings. Maybe we even need friendship apps to become as ubiquitous as dating apps.
ALOK talks a lot about the value of friendship and their words often stir something for me. “i want a world where friendship is appreciated as a form of romance,” they say. “i want a world where when people ask if we are seeing anyone we can list the names of all of our best friends and no one will bat an eyelid. i want monuments and holidays and certificates and ceremonies to commemorate friendship.”
We layer far too much expectation on our romantic relationships when we assume that one person will complete us and fill our needs for belonging, safety and identity. That’s far too much of a burden on one person and one relationship and it often results in codependence instead of healthy love. It’s much more realistic to get our needs met from a range of relationships, especially our friendships.
When we have a range of friendships, from path-friends to living-room-friends, our cup is filled in many ways by many people and nobody has to carry the burden of helping us be whole.
P.S. People often ask me how to find friends, and one of the suggestions I make is that they seek out spaces where like-minded and like-hearted people will show up. If you’re looking for such a place, you might find it in our Full-Bodied Life community.
Transcendent (adjective) [tran(t)-ˈsen-dənt]: exceeding usual limits; extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience; being beyond comprehension; a spiritual or religious state, or a condition of moving beyond physical needs and realities
Every year at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, it happens at least once – I have a transcendent experience. It usually happens at one of the smaller stages, tucked away under the trees, while I’m listening to an intimate concert with a singer-songwriter. It’s a combination of things that align to bring together this exquisite moment – the cotton-ball clouds in the gentle blue sky, the towering pine trees, the poetry and emotion woven through the lyrics, the notes of the guitar, the tenderness of a receptive audience, the sun on my face.
Suddenly, I feel my heart soften and expand in my chest as though it can simultaneously blend into and hold the entire universe. I become both expansive and small – a tiny part of a big world and also bigger than I’ve ever been. As my eyes fill with tears, I look around me and know that I am connected to everyone I see, connected to the trees around me, connected to the music, and connected to myself. I am fully embodied, fully present, and fully alive. Any anxiety or self-consciousness I held just moments before dissolves in this moment of tenderness, connectedness and expansiveness. It’s blissful and as close to perfect as any moment can be.
The moment never lasts very long – soon I land back into the ordinariness of life and my mind starts to wander – but it stays with me throughout the day, and I can bring some of it back days and even weeks after it happens. Even now, I can close my eyes and reach back into my memory to touch that moment and remember the way I felt when it happened.
In his study of awe, Dacher Keltner gathered stories from people in 26 countries and distilled the stories into what he calls the “eight wonders of life”. People find awe, he says, in moral beauty (people’s kindness, courage, and ability to overcome obstacles), nature, collective movement, music, visual design, spirituality, big ideas, and the beginning of life and its end. Perhaps that’s why there is such a strong likelihood that it will happen for me during my annual pilgrimage to the folk festival – because that moment always combines so many of the things on the list.
Awe, Keltner says, is transformative. “It’s hard to find something that is better for your body and mind than experiencing a bit of awe. Studies where people look up into the trees or take in vast views or think about somebody who is morally inspiring find that brief experiences of awe calm the stress response and make a person feel more connected and less lonely. Awe has been seen to reduce depression, reduce PTSD symptoms in veterans, and is also good for cardiovascular health and the immune system.” (Listen to Dacher Keltner talk about awe on this podcast.)
In studying the science of awe, Keltner’s team found that there’s a certain kind of tear that happens during an experience of awe (like the tears that always fill my eyes when I have my transcendent moment at the folk fest) that’s produced by the lacrimal gland which is activated by the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system. Instead of activating fight or flight physiology, it activates calmness and connection. In other words, awe soothes and calms our bodies and gives us that feeling of oneness that I always feel with other members of the audience.
This past year, while I was traveling, I was lucky enough to have many experiences of awe, like when I swam in cenotes in Mexico, or took a train into the snow-covered Alps in Switzerland. I know that those moments helped to heal and transform me. I feel more at peace, more grounded, more in touch with myself, and more able to live with the liminality of life. I know that I am less reactive, less activated by the wounds that were once easily triggered, and less burdened by stress.
Of course it’s not only the awe moments that changed me (I’ve also been doing a lot of somatic and therapeutic healing work over the years), but I have no doubt that they mattered. I have now become much more intentional about seeking out awe moments, so that I can tap into some of what I experience while sitting under the trees listening to music at the festival. As Keltner teaches, I find ways of experiencing “everyday awe” by bringing more of the eight wonders into my life as regularly as I can. This morning I experienced awe watching a swarm of ants on the sidewalk.
It can seem frivolous, in a world that feels more and more chaotic and unjust every moment, in which political divides and climate change are becoming more and more palpable in our everyday lives, to go out in search of awe, and yet I believe that this is a crucial part of what makes us able to cope with and respond to the many challenges in our lives. Awe makes us more resilient and more grounded in the wobbliness of liminality. It connects us with each other, ourselves and the earth. It is the opposite of frivolous – it is essential.
Awe is one of the things we’ll be talking about in A Full-Bodied Life. We’ll also talk about embodiment, empowerment, liberation, love, joy, and connection. I am looking forward to the conversations we’ll have and I hope you join us!
I had good intensions of writing something light-hearted this week, in celebration of the beginning of summer and the launch of my new program, A Full-Bodied Life. The first lesson in that program is about embracing joy, so it seemed fitting to write something joyful. But then something hard happened, and those plans were set aside because it felt more important to write about this. Sometimes, that’s just the way life is. Sometimes the hard gets mixed in with the happy (which is all part of what I teach in A Full-Bodied Life). Maybe next week I’ll be back with something light-hearted.
A few days ago, my day took a complete detour from where I expected it to go. On my morning walk, I came across a young woman getting up off the ground with her bike near the river’s edge. She was stumbling and I thought she’d fallen off her bike. I stopped to ask if she was okay and needed help.
She wasn’t okay, she told me. She’d been trying to end her own life.
I said I was sorry to hear that and asked her if there was someone I could call to be with her. She told me her mom was in the hospital in a coma, her grandma lived far away, and there was nobody else around who cared for her.
Not sure what to do next, I asked what her name was and whether she’d consider continuing my walk with me. (I’ll call her Debbie for the purposes of this story, though that’s not her real name.) Debbie agreed to walk with me and I learned about her hard life on the streets. She is HIV positive. It was the anniversary of the miscarriage of a baby boy she really wanted. She’s two years aged out of the foster care system that she was placed in because her mom tried to sell her for drugs when she was ten. She has lost several siblings to drug-related deaths.
I found Debbie at the edge of the Red River, not far from the place where Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from the water. She told me that the day before, she’d ridden her bike out to Brady Road landfill site, intending to end her life there, but she couldn’t get in. The landfill site is where Linda Mary Beardy’s body was found back in April. I don’t know whether either of those things have significance for where or how she was planning to end her life, but I couldn’t overlook the connection.
She didn’t want me to call 911 or take her to a hospital because she doesn’t have a history of being treated kindly by people in the medical system in our city. “I have PTSD from it,” she said. I honoured her request and instead made a couple of calls to try to find someone with a vehicle who could help me get her to somewhere safe. In the end, my daughter Julie met us with my car.
Debbie was barefoot, and it was Julie who first clued in to the fact that her first need might be for a pair of shoes. We didn’t have any at our house that would fit her, so I drove her to a thrift store to buy her a pair. Then I bought her breakfast, and then took her to a social services agency where she said she had access to mental health support. We spent about two hours together, chatting about our families. I told her that I, too, had lost a baby boy that I really wanted. I asked her if she liked music. “Taylor Swift?” I asked “Or Harry Styles?” She smiled and nodded vigorously and I turned on one of my daughter’s playlists.
I don’t know whether anything I did for Debbie was the “right” thing. I don’t know whether she found a way to carry out her plan later in the day (or tomorrow, or the next day). I don’t know whether she’ll find a place in the world where people treat her with the kind of dignity that she has been offered so little of in her life. To be honest, I don’t feel a lot of hope on her behalf, so I didn’t walk away feeling like I’d done anything heroic in helping her choose not to die that morning. Life has been unbelievably cruel to this young woman and I don’t know how she can hold as much pain in her body as she does.
I saw the way people looked at her when she walked into the thrift store barefoot, and I don’t disbelieve anything she said about the ways that people in health care and social services have mistreated her. My heart feels broken on her behalf. This lovely young woman, whose face broke into a grin when I offered to buy her second-hand shoes (“They’re New Balance!”, she bragged to the support worker later, before I left her), who wanted to know all about my life too when I asked about hers, who gave me the best hug before I left… she deserves so much better than the world has offered her.
No, I don’t know if anything I did was right, but if nothing else, I wanted her to experience a little kindness on a day when she was grieving her dead son (just as I once grieved mine). She deserves at least that.
A couple of days later, there is much about this experience that is still alive in my heart and my body. This is not my first experience with someone who wanted to end their own life. Just down the road from where I met Debbie is the hospital where I rushed my former husband the second time he tried to die. He was also there the first time, fifteen years earlier. There’s a hill outside the hospital where I cried some of the most hopeless tears of my life. I know something about how much people can be failed by the medical and mental health systems because I’ve seen it up close and personal.
There are more stories. There were other times I sat in other emergency rooms in this city with other people close to me who could see no reason for carrying on their lives. Some of those stories can still flood my body with anxiety over the memory of them.
When I shared this story on social media a few days ago, some people asked for more, and I could sense in their questions some desire to know what to do should they ever find themselves in that position. I can’t claim any suicide prevention expertise (and don’t, to be honest, entirely resonate with the terminology of “suicide prevention”), but I can share some of what feels true for me now, having lived some version of this story multiple times. Know this… I share these things partly because, in the past, I have done completely the opposite and later wished I could go back and change things.
1. Don’t deny or gaslight anything they share with you about how hard their life is. The pain is real. Treat it like it’s real and don’t belittle them for having a moment when it feels like too much to manage.
2. Don’t try to sugar-coat how good their life might be if they choose to hang on a little longer. Don’t even pretend that you know that they are better off alive than dead. You don’t know that and there’s no point in lying about it.
3. Place their dignity and autonomy at the centre. They get to make their own choices and you are not in control of what they choose. You might not like what they choose, but it’s their life and their choice.
4. Offer them kindness, presence, and listening. Ask them questions that honour their humanity and let them know that, if nothing else, in this moment they are being seen.
5. Consider it simply as one moment and one choice in that moment. Maybe they can choose not to die in this moment. Maybe they can hang on for one more moment. Maybe they can go for a walk with you and you can chat about your families for awhile and that is enough for this moment. The rest of their lives is beyond the scope of your conversation.
6. Be brave enough to open your heart to them, at least a little (if/when appropriate). You’ve found them in a vulnerable position, and they will likely be sensitive to judgement. Let them know that you are as human as they are and your life is full of imperfections too.
7. Shut down your inclination to try to be a hero. You are not the star of this show. Do what you can, and, if possible, try to get them to somewhere safe where support is available to them, but keep your ego in check and don’t try to fix their life. It’s not yours to fix.
8. Find other people who can help, if possible, but be prepared to stand up for the person’s right to their autonomy and dignity. Some people will be inclined toward judgement and/or trying to control the situation, and you might serve the hurting person the most by being an advocate for their right to be treated kindly.
9. Pay attention to how you’re being triggered by what’s happening and do your best to soothe yourself so that your own fears, grief, anxiety, trauma, etc. are not projected onto the situation. For the moment that this person needs you, try to make it about them, and then make sure you look after yourself later.
10. When the moment is over, give your body and heart heaps of tenderness and soothing (and reach out to others to talk about it if you need to) so that the trauma of that moment doesn’t settle into you. If the person chooses to end their life regardless of what you did or said, don’t take that on – you did the best you could and they made their own choice. Don’t be afraid to get professional help to figure out how to deal with what happened.
Friends, I hope you’re never faced with such a situation, but if you are, I hope that you will trust that whatever kindness you are able to offer is enough. And don’t forget to extend that kindness to yourself as well.
“Liminal space is an inner state and sometimes an outer situation where we can begin to think and act in new ways. It is where we are betwixt and between, having left one room or stage of life but not yet entered the next. We usually enter liminal space when our former way of being is challenged or changed—perhaps when we lose a job or a loved one, during illness, at the birth of a child, or a major relocation. It is a graced time, but often does not feel ‘graced’ in any way. In such space, we are not certain or in control.” – Richard Rohr
The first time I came across the concept of liminal space (I believe it was in the book Falling Upward, by Richard Rohr), I felt an instant connection to the concept. Liminality helped to explain so much of my life at the time. I’d let go of some of the stories of my past and was stepping into the unknown, not yet knowing what lay on the other side. I was leaving things that felt relatively firm and familiar – marriage, career, church, etc. – assuming I’d find something that felt similarly firm and familiar on the other side once I’d gotten through the wobbliness of the liminal space in between.
Readers of my book, The Art of Holding Space, will know that I use the metaphor of the chrysalis to explain the concept of liminal space. A caterpillar leaves the life she has known, surrenders to the gooey mess of the chrysalis, and waits to become something new, not really knowing that the butterfly life is in her future but trusting the process nonetheless.
That metaphor made a lot of sense to me then, when I was releasing old stories and trusting that there would be an “other side”. But now… well, my understanding of liminality continues to evolve and I’m no longer as attached to that metaphor as I once was. I think it tells only part of the story of liminality and it’s time for the next iteration.
Last summer, after my children had moved away, I sold my house and intentionally thrust myself into liminal space, becoming a digital nomad in Europe and Central America, not knowing for certain what would be the “butterfly” version of the “end” of my journey. I thought at some point, I’d have an epiphany about where I wanted to live for the next part of my life and what my life would be like. Just like in the past, when I left my marriage, church, and career, I assumed I’d find something that felt firm and familiar on the other side. In the meantime, I spent time exploring different places and paying attention to what the “soft animal of my body” loves.
What I didn’t anticipate, when I set out on my liminal quest, is that the greatest value in the experience would have nothing to do with the butterfly life on the other side, but everything to do with liminality itself.
In other words, liminality is THE WHOLE POINT. Liminality isn’t just the process, it’s the new destination. I wasn’t preparing myself for an end point, I was becoming more liminal.
What I’m beginning to understand, on a deeper level, is that ALL OF LIFE is liminal and the best we can do is learn to accept the liminality and become more adapted to it. Instead of telling ourselves “this wobbliness is temporary and there will be something stable, familiar, and predictable on the other side”, we are better off finding stability within ourselves so that the instability of liminality does not cause as much disruption and struggle in our lives.
This has probably always been true, on some level, but it is especially true in this moment in history when things like climate change, a pandemic, and increasing political unrest are causing almost daily disruptions in our lives and will likely do more and more so in the future. Our lives are wobbly and unpredictable. We can’t find solid ground on which to land. So, what’s the alternative? Learning to adapt to liminality.
When I started to examine the metaphor I’ve been using for liminality, I realized that even while embracing the concept wholeheartedly, I was still attached to a linear, binary view, where there is a “here” and a “there”, an “old story” and a “new story”. That doesn’t feel sufficient anymore. Perhaps a better metaphor, one that I’ve explored in the last few months as I’ve spent a lot of time by the ocean, is the shoreline, where you can be standing on dry land in one moment, and up to your knees in water the next. It is neither land nor sea, but both/and. Liminality is a place of flux, where you are always becoming and releasing, evolving and adapting.
Not only does an expanded understanding of liminality help us make sense of a world that feels unstable and unpredictable, it can also help us evolve our thinking in areas where we tend to get stuck in binary thinking. Take gender, for example. If we learn to become liminal thinkers, we no longer need to see all people divided into two clear genders, male and female. We can accept that there is, in fact, a broad spectrum of genders and to try to fit people into boxes is to deny them of their full humanity.
Alok, one of the wisest teachers on this topic that I know of, said in this short video clip, “It’s not just that the binary reduces the complexity of the world, but that it forces us into oppositional thinking. We’re taught that there is one side and another side, but I think non-binary thinking allows us to hold harmony where other people see dissonance, to be able to say we can be both/and. We can experience incredible grief and sorrow and joy inside of that. We can feel so certain about something and still incorporate doubt. And that’s, I think, what we need now in this world more than ever – to reject parsing the world into dichotomies, like here or there or like us or them. They hold us back from a more intimate and honest encounter with how the world is already both/and.”
How, then, do we become more liminal? How do we adapt to the shoreline, accepting that we will live in that place indefinitely rather than assuming eventually the land will be stable again? I’ve given that a lot of thought, and instead of attempting to answer that question in this blog post, I’ve created a new course and a community where we can have conversations to explore it together. We are very near to launching that program (it should be available next week) and I look forward to exploring these questions with you
Today, I’m back in the messy part of the story. I’m slightly agitated, slightly grumpy, and slightly guarded. I’m doing my best to interact with people in a way that is as kind as I can muster. I’m pulling back into my introverted tendencies and I’m trying not to be pissed off that some things are not going the way I’d hoped.
No, nothing has entirely fallen apart. I’m just moving through some of those emotions that tend to come up after a week of intense work, hosting a retreat with lots of complexity, and having to be extroverted for a longer period than is normal for me. Plus my eight-year-old computer may have met its “planned obsolescence” death point and I wasn’t planning to replace it while on this trip (but need a laptop to do my work). Hence the grumpiness and annoyance.
Since the retreat drew to a close a few days ago, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be an unfinished story. Today, as I deal with these emotions and this messiness, I am reminded that I am smack-dab in the middle of an unfinished story.
As an author, educator, and retreat facilitator, I sometimes feel the pressure to be living a more complete story – to have things more figured out and less messy, to be living with more serenity and less grumpiness. I sense that people want me to serve as a model for them of what it means to be spiritually grounded, enlightened and “complete” so that they can hope to be that way some day themselves.
The trouble is that, though I have done a lot of healing and growth work, there is still much to do and I am messily human. Each bit of healing and liberation work I do seems to peel back another layer that I hadn’t been prepared to witness before. I go deeper and deeper, and yet there seems to be no bottom to the depths I need to excavate.
At the retreat last week, I used the story of The Girl in the Velcro Dress to help us explore the layers of things that we carry around, layers that need to be explored, healed, released, and/or deconstructed. During each session, I shared a short part of the story related to whatever content we were discussing. As a visual aid for the story, I held up a dress I’d cut out of Velcro that was covered in pieces representing the weight of expectations, trauma, conditioning, oppression, etc. that the girl was carrying (see image). After the third session, I started peeling pieces off the dress during each session, inviting participants to similarly liberate themselves from whatever burdens they bore.
At the beginning of the last session, I held up the Velcro dress that still had a few pieces stuck to it and said “You may think I’m going to end the story now by removing these last few pieces. That’s not going to happen, though. I don’t believe that in real life, we wrap up stories the way that fairy tales are wrapped up. In real life, we stay messy and incomplete. Instead of setting unrealistic expectations, we learn to accept the messiness and let go of any expectations of perfection. No, the girl kept working on the pieces on the dress and I expect she’ll be doing that until she dies. But now she has some tools and resources and she knows how to be tender with herself in the process.”
What’s most important in this work of liberation and tenderness is not that we liberate ourselves of EVERYTHING we carry on our metaphorical Velcro clothing, but that we liberate ourselves as much as we can from the unhealthy rules and expectations of the systems (family systems, belief systems, cultural systems, hierarchical systems, etc.) that placed those burdens on us in the first place. (Recognizing, of course, that while we live in an imperfect world where unhealthy systems like capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy continue on, there will always be new attempts to put things on our Velcro clothing.)
Some of those “rules” are things like perfectionism, performance measurement, and purity – all rooted in systems (especially capitalism) that delude us into thinking we should strive for perfection, that we should punish ourselves for falling short, and that we should hold stories with happy endings as our highest ideal (just as we did when we were children watching Disney movies).
So… no, I’m not a finished story. I still get grumpy, withdrawn and/or irritated (especially after doing big work) and sometimes I take that out on people I care about. Sometimes my old trauma gets triggered and I make mistakes I regret afterwards.
HOWEVER… I have learned to be more tender with my imperfections. I have learned to hold space for myself when those imperfections send me into self-criticism and I have figured out how to surround myself with people who hold space for me with tenderness and without judgment in those times. I have learned how to set healthy boundaries so that I can look after my needs after big work without letting too many people down. And I have learned to soothe the reactivity in me when I fear my fumbling and my boundaries will result in my safety and belonging being jeopardized.
Perhaps most importantly, I continue (in my fumbling way) to liberate myself from the expectation of perfection, and liberate myself from carrying around other people’s judgement.
And now, after writing this on my phone because my laptop isn’t working, I’m going to have a nap. Because, as Tricia Hersey (of The Nap Ministry) teaches, rest is resistance from the grind culture that capitalism left attached to my Velcro dress.