What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well

me and mom

When my mom was dying, my siblings and I gathered to be with her in her final days. None of us knew anything about supporting someone in her transition out of this life into the next, but we were pretty sure we wanted to keep her at home, so we did.

While we supported mom, we were, in turn, supported by a gifted palliative care nurse, Ann, who came every few days to care for mom and to talk to us about what we could expect in the coming days. She taught us how to inject Mom with morphine when she became restless, she offered to do the difficult tasks (like giving Mom a bath), and she gave us only as much information as we needed about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit had passed.

“Take your time,” she said. “You don’t need to call the funeral home until you’re ready. Gather the people who will want to say their final farewells. Sit with your mom as long as you need to. When you’re ready, call and they will come to pick her up.”

Ann gave us an incredible gift in those final days. Though it was an excruciating week, we knew that we were being held by someone who was only a phone call away.

In the two years since then, I’ve often thought about Ann and the important role she played in our lives. She was much more than what can fit in the title of “palliative care nurse”. She was facilitator, coach, and guide. By offering gentle, nonjudgmental support and guidance, she helped us walk one of the most difficult journeys of our lives.

The work that Ann did can be defined by a term that’s become common in some of the circles in which I work. She was holding space for us.

What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Sometimes we find ourselves holding space for people while they hold space for others. In our situation, for example, Ann was holding space for us while we held space for Mom. Though I know nothing about her support system, I suspect that there are others holding space for Ann as she does this challenging and meaningful work. It’s virtually impossible to be a strong space holder unless we have others who will hold space for us. Even the strongest leaders, coaches, nurses, etc., need to know that there are some people with whom they can be vulnerable and weak without fear of being judged.

In my own roles as teacher, facilitator, coach, mother, wife, and friend, etc., I do my best to hold space for other people in the same way that Ann modeled it for me and my siblings. It’s not always easy, because I have a very human tendency to want to fix people, give them advice, or judge them for not being further along the path than they are, but I keep trying because I know that it’s important. At the same time, there are people in my life that I trust to hold space for me.

To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc., we can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.

Holding space is not something that’s exclusive to facilitators, coaches, or palliative care nurses. It is something that ALL of us can do for each other – for our partners, children, friends, neighbours, and even strangers who strike up conversations as we’re riding the bus to work.

Here are the lessons I’ve learned from Ann and others who have held space for me.

  1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. When we were supporting Mom in her final days, we had no experience to rely on, and yet, intuitively, we knew what was needed. We knew how to carry her shrinking body to the washroom, we knew how to sit and sing hymns to her, and we knew how to love her. We even knew when it was time to inject the medication that would help ease her pain. In a very gentle way, Ann let us know that we didn’t need to do things according to some arbitrary health care protocol – we simply needed to trust our intuition and accumulated wisdom from the many years we’d loved Mom.
  2. Give people only as much information as they can handle. Ann gave us some simple instructions and left us with a few handouts, but did not overwhelm us with far more than we could process in our tender time of grief. Too much information would have left us feeling incompetent and unworthy.
  3. Don’t take their power away. When we take decision-making power out of people’s hands, we leave them feeling useless and incompetent. There may be some times when we need to step in and make hard decisions for other people (ie. when they’re dealing with an addiction and an intervention feels like the only thing that will save them), but in almost every other case, people need the autonomy to make their own choices (even our children). Ann knew that we needed to feel empowered in making decisions on our Mom’s behalf, and so she offered support but never tried to direct or control us.
  4. Keep your own ego out of it. This is a big one. We all get caught in that trap now and then – when we begin to believe that someone else’s success is dependent on our intervention, or when we think that their failure reflects poorly on us, or when we’re convinced that whatever emotions they choose to unload on us are about us instead of them. It’s a trap I’ve occasionally found myself slipping into when I teach. I can become more concerned about my own success (Do the students like me? Do their marks reflect on my ability to teach? Etc.) than about the success of my students. But that doesn’t serve anyone – not even me. To truly support their growth, I need to keep my ego out of it and create the space where they have the opportunity to grow and learn.
  5. Make them feel safe enough to fail. When people are learning, growing, or going through grief or transition, they are bound to make some mistakes along the way. When we, as their space holders, withhold judgement and shame, we offer them the opportunity to reach inside themselves to find the courage to take risks and the resilience to keep going even when they fail. When we let them know that failure is simply a part of the journey and not the end of the world, they’ll spend less time beating themselves up for it and more time learning from their mistakes.
  6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. A wise space holder knows when to withhold guidance (ie. when it makes a person feel foolish and inadequate) and when to offer it gently (ie. when a person asks for it or is too lost to know what to ask for). Though Ann did not take our power or autonomy away, she did offer to come and give Mom baths and do some of the more challenging parts of caregiving. This was a relief to us, as we had no practice at it and didn’t want to place Mom in a position that might make her feel shame (ie. having her children see her naked). This is a careful dance that we all must do when we hold space for other people. Recognizing the areas in which they feel most vulnerable and incapable and offering the right kind of help without shaming them takes practice and humility.
  7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. When people feel that they are held in a deeper way than they are used to, they feel safe enough to allow complex emotions to surface that might normally remain hidden. Someone who is practiced at holding space knows that this can happen and will be prepared to hold it in a gentle, supportive, and nonjudgmental way. In The Circle Way, we talk about “holding the rim” for people. The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken or that they will be shamed by others in the room. Someone is always there to offer strength and courage. This is not easy work, and it is work that I continue to learn about as I host increasingly more challenging conversations. We cannot do it if we are overly emotional ourselves, if we haven’t done the hard work of looking into our own shadow, or if we don’t trust the people we are holding space for. In Ann’s case, she did this by showing up with tenderness, compassion, and confidence. If she had shown up in a way that didn’t offer us assurance that she could handle difficult situations or that she was afraid of death, we wouldn’t have been able to trust her as we did.
  8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Holding space is about respecting each person’s differences and recognizing that those differences may lead to them making choices that we would not make. Sometimes, for example, they make choices based on cultural norms that we can’t understand from within our own experience. When we hold space, we release control and we honour differences. This showed up, for example, in the way that Ann supported us in making decisions about what to do with Mom’s body after her spirit was no longer housed there. If there had been some ritual that we felt we needed to conduct before releasing her body, we were free to do that in the privacy of Mom’s home.

Holding space is not something that we can master overnight, or that can be adequately addressed in a list of tips like the ones I’ve just given. It’s a complex practice that evolves as we practice it, and it is unique to each person and each situation.

It is my intention to be a life-long learning in what it means to hold space for other people, so if you have experience that’s different than mine and want to add anything to this post, please add that in the comments or send me a message.

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This post continues to travel around the world and has been shared in many interesting places, including a Harvard Business Review article, Beyond Automation, and a Grist Magazine article, 48 hours that changed the future of the rainforest. I have done a number of radio interviews, developed workshops, and spoke at conferences on the subject. If you are interested in having me speak at your event, check out my speaking page. If you are interested in a retreat or workshop, check out the one coming up in Australia, or contact me about creating a workshop tailored to your organization’s or event’s needs.  

This article has been translated into a number of languages (by volunteers):
Portuguese
Turkish
German
Dutch
Russian
Farsi
Spanish
Italian
Romanian
Chinese (no link currently available)

Follow-up pieces about holding space:
How to hold space for yourself first
What’s the opposite of holding space?
Sometimes holding space feels like doing nothing
Sometimes you have to write on the walls: Some thoughts on holding space for other people’s personal growth
On holding space when there is an imbalance of power and privilege
Leave space for others to fill your needs
What the circle holds
An unresolved story that I don’t know how to tell
Holding liminal space (moving beyond the cliché into deeper space)

If you’re looking for a pdf version for printing and/or passing around to others, you can download it here. You’re welcome to share it, but if you want to re-publish any part of it, please contact me.

Here’s a keynote address I gave at a conference in May 2016 on the topic of holding space:

Interested in more articles like this? Join me at A Tender Space on Substack, or add your email address below. 

September, a season in between

There’s something about September – the way it hovers in between seasons, reminding us of what we’re leaving and what is yet to come. 

September, season, between, birchI always feel a mix of emotions at this time of year.

I feel the melancholy of summer ending. I feel the sadness over school starting again (mixed with a little joy that I’ll have a quiet house again). I feel the dread of winter just around the corner.

I also feel the delight over the weather shifting and the vibrant colours showing up on the landscape.

When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I love September. It’s probably one of my favourite months. I don’t love the heat and I don’t love the cold and September is usually just right.

And yet… I don’t always let myself love it. I get caught up in the rush of trying to get the girls back to school and I get mired in that sinking feeling of winter coming and I forget to pause long enough to really appreciate the way the weather has shifted into a more gentle warmth with cooling evenings and the way the trees are adorning themselves in orange and yellow and red.

I love long walks in crunching leaves. I love campfires on cool evenings. I love the quality of light at this time of year. I love slipping on a sweater when the weather begins to cool.

Despite the melancholy it brings, I truly love September.

But… there’s something else about this time of year that I don’t love.

It’s the season when death feels close at hand.

There’s a pattern in my family. Most of the births happen in the first half of the year, and most of the deaths happen in the second. My dad, my mom, my son, my father-in-law, and most of my grandparents – they all died between August and November.

And so this time of year comes with reminders of all that I’ve lost.

And this time, September brings with it the possibility of another loss. My oldest brother, who’s been battling cancer for over a year, with multiple surgeries and lots of chemo, has been told the cancer is growing again and there may not be anything they can do. He was told he may have only months to live. (And then, a few days later, he was told they’ll probably make one last ditch effort to save him through surgery.)

When I let myself think of the possibility of losing him, desperation closes my throat and it’s suddenly painful to breathe and impossible to swallow. NO! Death can’t take another member of my family! It’s too soon! I NEED him! It’s not even two years since Mom left us. Please God NO! He’s my big brother. He’s always been a rock in the storm, a solid place to land – as dependable as the earth beneath my feet. I need something dependable in my life. He JUST. CAN’T. GO.

And then I realize… it’s just like September. If I focus only on the fact that I might lose my brother, I’ll forget to live in the now. I’ll forget to see the beauty. I’ll forget to laugh at the jokes he sends, forget to appreciate all that he’s been in my life, forget to recognize what a gift it’s been to grow up in a family so full of love, faith, humour, and wisdom.

If I rush through September, lamenting the summer that’s been and dreading the winter that’s coming, I’ll miss this month that I love so much. If I rush through my life, feeling sorry for myself over all that I’ve lost and dreading the losses yet to come, I’ll miss everything that makes my life so good and beautiful.

I don’t want to miss September. I want to be present for what’s here. Now.

Winter might be hard and long, but right now is beautiful. Right now the sun is painting the tips of the trees with gold. Right now the birds are still singing, the butterflies are still dancing, and the sun is still warming my skin. Right now I have friends who invite me to campfires in teepees and other friends who don’t mind walking through the English gardens in the rain with me. Right now I have daughters who make me laugh. Right now I have a brother walking a courageous path through cancer, who’s crazy in love with his family, and I get to be part of that big love.

Right now is all I need.

 

If you want to be more present for what’s here right now, you might like Fall Reflections: A Mindfulness Journal.

On cancer, marriage, death, and Easter

“Because we realised that the person who left us did not take the sun with them or leave darkness in their place. They simply left, and with every farewell comes a hidden hope. –  Paul Coelho

Three years ago, on Easter weekend, we found out my mom had cancer. It was a sombre Easter meal we shared at my brother’s house that Sunday. Mom did her best to be upbeat, playing with the grandchildren, making sure everyone was well fed and giving us all as much love as she could. We all tried to do the same, to pretend that everything was going to be okay and that we didn’t risk losing the only parent we had left.

We didn’t do a very good job of lying to ourselves, though. Beneath all of the smiles and the laughter was a river of worry that none of us could deny.

Once you’ve met death and watched it take away a member of your family, you no longer have the luxury of hanging onto the lie that “everything is going to be alright”.

Something else happened that weekend. On the two hour drive home from my brother’s house, my marriage unraveled. We had a big fight (as quietly as possible so as not to alarm the children in the back seat) and I had to speak out loud the unhappiness that was growing in me like my mom’s cancer was growing in her. It was time for drastic measures. We had to either slice out the cancer in our marriage and subject it to months of chemo (in the form of therapy) or it would die.

me and momBy now you probably know what happened to my Mom. She had surgery and months of chemo and the doctors thought they had been successful in arresting the cancer. But only three months after she’d gotten the “all-clear” (which happened a year after her diagnosis), they discovered that the cancer was still growing and was now beyond treatment. Three months later, with all of her children gathered around her, she left us to join Dad in eternity.

As for my marriage, a rather similar pattern took place. We went for months of counseling, worked on the baggage we were both carrying, learned to talk to each other  with more honesty and less anger, and thought we had the cancer licked. We were happy again.

But then the cancer came back. I realized that the anger that had infected me was growing in deeper places than I’d at first admitted to myself. A deeper excavation was necessary. And so we went under the knife again, followed by more chemo.

Our marriage is still alive. Like doctors, we are using every procedure and medicine we can think of to keep it alive. We are trying – like the Japanese artists who mend broken pots with gold so that the break becomes part of the art and history of the piece and adds to its beauty – to mend our marriage with even stronger and more beautiful material than was there when the break happened.

hand in hand b&wIt seems fitting (and perhaps somewhat ironic) that this year, at Easter, I am feeling hopeful again. There is resurrection, there is transformation, there is hope. The gold is beginning to set deep into the cracks and there is beauty emerging out of our brokenness.

In Pathfinder, I wrote about the value of getting lost, of tearing up the map, and trusting that the path will unfold in front of us as it should. That’s a lesson that I have to learn again and again. I want so badly to control the outcome, to fix the cancer in my mom (and now my brother), to find a simple solution for our marriage, or to, at the very least, feel like I’m holding a map in my hand that will show me the topography that’s up ahead. But I don’t get that. I never get that.

I have to let it go and lean further into trust.

In order for real transformation to happen (as we learn in Theory U, which is also shared in Pathfinder), we have to let go of the outcome and our desire to control it, let go of our preconceived notions, let go of the lens through which we view the world, and learn to sense into that which wants to emerge. Along the journey of letting go, we open our minds, open our hearts, and open our wills. Only once we’ve reached the bottom of the U, when what needed to die has been released, can the new thing emerge and begin to blossom.

My friend Laurie Foley was recently told that her cancer is in remission. As she explores what this means and what she is meant to learn from her long months of struggle, she is re-framing remission as re-mission. She’s wondering how this period of her life – the journey through the valley of the shadow of cancer – has changed her life’s mission and what God is asking of her now.

I wonder the same thing. If the cancer in my marriage is in remission (as I hope it is), then what is our re-mission as a couple? What is emerging for us that we couldn’t see before when we were blinded by the struggle? It is our hope that the three year dive into the bottom of the U has allowed something new and beautiful to grow out of the brokenness.

I share this story with you not for any sympathy or advice. I share it simply that you will know that you are not alone. If your marriage feels broken, if your community is falling apart, if your business is failing, take heart.

There is beauty that grows out of the brokenness. There is hope even in loss.

Yes it’s true that sometimes there is no stopping the cancer and someone or something dies. Your marriage may end, your best friend may die, you may lose your job or your home. We can’t change that, no matter how hard we try.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the end. It doesn’t mean you’re finished. It means that you’re finding yourself at the bottom of the U and someday, when you have let go and opened yourself up to some new possibility, the light will appear again and a new seed, planted into the compost of what has died, will begin to sprout.

In the Easter story, Christ had to give up his life on the cross before he was ready for his own re-mission. Only when his surrender was complete and death had taken him could he rise again and live out his calling to be fully God.

That story always makes me think of butterfly metamorphosis. A caterpillar must give up its caterpillar-self in the gooey mess of the chrysalis before it can emerge as a butterfly. In the same way, we have to release that which no longer serves us – let it fall broken in a heap at our feet – before we can emerge into the beauty that calls us forward.

It is my hope this Easter (whether or not the Easter story is part of your faith tradition) that you will find beauty in the brokenness, that you will recognize the value of getting lost, and that you will learn to see the light that peeks into your shadows.

And if you find yourself lost, somewhere on the journey through the U, consider joining us in the Pathfinder Circle. Your brokenness, your questions, your growth, your curiosity, and your grief will be held in a circle of grace.

On birds and dying and women’s voices

The woodpecker that visited Mom's feeder shortly after she died, photo by my sister Cynthia

In the last few months of her life, Mom spent a lot of time watching birds. I often sat and watched with her, marvelling at the variety that came to visit. We don’t have much of a history of bird-watching in our family, but we do have a history of paying attention to nature. One of the things that came up at Mom’s funeral was that whenever she went on road trips, she always hoped she’d be the first to spot wild animals. I’ve always been the same.

On one of our last visits, my sister and I spotted a large bald eagle perched in a tree not far from Mom’s house. It’s unusual to see bald eagles where we live, so it seemed an omen of sorts – perhaps bearing a message that our lives were about to change.

Two weeks ago, I brought a new bird book to Mom’s house, hoping we’d get to spend many hours leafing through the pages, trying to identify the birds that visit. Mom never looked at it. That was the day she began slipping away.

The next day, I was teaching at the university, but probably didn’t communicate much through my distraction. I kept my cell phone close, knowing I could get a call at any minute. At noon, after hearing from my brother that her health had declined quickly in the last 24 hours, my sister and I rushed out to be with her.

Before going, though, I made a quick trip to the bookstore. My friend Barbara had mentioned the book When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams, and I knew that I had to have it. It’s a collection of short pieces on voice that Williams wrote after her own mother died. I tucked it into my purse.

Mom’s health declined so quickly that day that we were certain she would not live until morning. Her strength disappeared, her voice reduced to a whisper, her mind started slipping away, and she stopped eating and drinking. My siblings (two brothers and a sister) and my mom’s husband all sat with her, comforting her, singing hymns, reading her favourite Bible passages, and praying.

She didn’t go that night. Instead, she stabilized and for the next three days, remained essentially the same. There were restless periods when we had to move her from bed to easy chair or back again (she was light enough by then that any of us could carry her), there were many times when her breathing became so difficult we were sure it couldn’t go on, and some moments her mind was more clear and she was able to communicate, but there were never any moments when we thought things were turning around. We knew that any breath could be her last.

For the rest of the week, there was always at least one or two of us at Mom’s side (along with family and friends that visited), keeping vigil, making sure she didn’t try to get out of bed on her own diminished strength, putting ice chips on her tongue when her throat was scratchy, or just holding her hand. During one of those times, when Mom was sleeping fairly peacefully in the bed, I picked up my new book and started reading.

Terry Tempest Williams’ mother told her, “I am leaving you all my journals. But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.” After her mom died, Williams found three shelves of beautiful clothbound journals. Every one of the journals was completely empty.

When Women Were Birds is Williams’ meditation on what those journals mean and what it means for a woman to have a voice. All of this is set against a backdrop of bird-watching and bird-listening. Birds, after all, never question whether or not they should sing and they never try to sing in a voice that’s not their own.

Raised in a Mormon home, where women’s voices were often silenced, Williams struggled with finding her own voice and trusting it to speak of those things she cared about. She cares deeply about the natural world and we now know her to have a clear and resonant voice on issues related to environmental abuse, but before she could become the advocate she is today, she had to go through much learning, grief, and growth.

To say that it was profound to read When Women Were Birds at my mom’s deathbed, while I witnessed Mom’s voice and spirit decline and disappear, would be an understatement. There were so many layers of significance going on for me at that time that I can hardly begin to explain what it meant.

My mom lived most of her life without trusting her own voice. Always insecure, she believed she had little of value to say. She was always quite certain that there were smarter people than her who should be listened to, and so she believed her voice meant little. It didn’t help that she was raised in a religious tradition that didn’t encourage women to speak, or that she married two men who were both more confident or sure of their own opinions than she was. What she failed to recognize was the fact that her “voice” came through loud and clear in the great love she offered people. She didn’t need to speak to be a healer of wounded souls.

To be honest, there’s always been some disconnect with my Mom when it comes to trusting my own voice. Though I never doubted that she loved me and was proud of me, she didn’t really understand what I felt I needed to speak of in the world. When I was writing plays, she came to watch, but usually said “it was good, but I didn’t really understand what was going on.” The same can be said for my published articles and blog posts. She always claimed that she was “too stupid to understand”.

In recent years, while I’ve been growing my body of work, I’ve had a hard time sharing what I do with my Mom. Some things – like the teaching I do at the university – was fairly easy for her to grasp, but other things just didn’t make sense to her. For one thing, she remained committed to a Christian tradition that frowned upon women in leadership, so when I started teaching women how to lead with more courage, creativity and wild-heartedness, it didn’t really fit with her paradigms. Nor did it make sense to her that I would seek a feminine divine or a feminine way of looking at spirituality.

Reading the book at Mom’s bedside left me somewhat conflicted.

On the one hand, I mourned the fact that Mom had been trapped by a lack of self-esteem and a religion that kept her voice silent. On the other hand, I honoured the fact that Mom always lived her life rooted in a deep love for other people.

On the one hand, I was disappointed that I’d never been able to fully share the importance of my work with my Mom. On the other hand, I’ve been taught by her to use my God-given gifts to make the world a better place.

On the one hand, my Mom was never able to fully validate or appreciate my writing or teaching. On the other hand, she’d raised me with so much love that I have the confidence I need to keep doing it without external validation.

On the one hand, I wished I could tell her about the work I’m doing for Lead with your Wild Heart and how I believe it will be life-changing for me and the women who participate. On the other hand, I knew that just sitting there and being present in the grief, without trying too hard to make it something it isn’t, was going to leave me with profound lessons that will enrich my teaching for years to come. And I knew that some of my wild-heartedness had been learned by watching her.

There have been times, in the last year and a half since Mom received her cancer diagnosis, that I’ve felt sure that I’d need to resolve some issues with my Mom. I thought I’d need to have a few more heart-to-heart talks with her before she died, finally helping her to understand where my views are different from hers and why I feel called to do this work that I do. But then, in recent months, that began to soften. I no longer felt the need for resolution. Instead, I simply felt the need to be there, to sit with her and enjoy her presence and bask in her love in those final months.

In the last week of her life, we didn’t do much talking. There was much that had been left unsaid. But that was okay. I didn’t need her to understand me. I didn’t need her to validate my choices. I simply needed to trust that she loves me and that she always has.

Once, when Mom was sitting in her big easy chair, she turned to me as if to communicate something. I leaned in to hear her whisper, but she didn’t speak. Instead she put her hand on my head and held it there while she looked deeply into my eyes, like a priest offering a blessing. My eyes filled with tears.

Another time she became restless and I thought she wanted to be moved, so I bent my head and prepared to pick her up. Instead, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed the top of my head several times, and then she smiled. I smiled back.

By Thursday, I was pretty sure she was slipping away. Her eyes had become more distant and she spent less and less time in the plane of reality that the rest of us remained in. By then, we were ready to let her go. I went home that night for the first time, hoping to get a few more hours of sleep. Around three, when my brother Dwight and sister Cynthia were sitting with her, she became suddenly more clear and happy than she’d been in a long time. “I made it!” she said. “I’m here!” When Dwight asked if she was in heaven, she said “yes!” And then it seemed like she was being introduced to people who’d passed before her.

At 4:00, they called me and woke my brother Brad. I rushed to her house, hopeful that a deer wouldn’t jump out at me on the dark highway. Instead, a ghostly bird fluttered through my headlights. By the time I got there, she’d already died. She stopped breathing for a few minutes, but when Cynthia said “oh Mom – you were supposed to wait until Heather got here!” she started up again. When I arrived, she was breathing but in a coma. There was no more life in her eyes. I sat with her for a few hours, and then as morning came, her breath became more and more fluid-filled. At 8:26, she finally stopped.

Shortly after that, a woodpecker came to Mom’s feeder and Cynthia snapped the photo at the top of this page. A few days later, the day we buried Mom next to Dad in the small town where we grew up, Cynthia spotted another bald eagle.

This week, I am back at work, writing more lessons for Lead with your Wild Heart. No, it’s not something my Mom understood, but that’s okay. I know that I have her blessing to use my gifts and share my voice, and this is what I am called to do.

Like a bird, I will go on singing, and the grief in my voice will only make it richer.

“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was the simple understanding that to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.” – Terry Tempest Williams

When Dad comes back to me

It was the last place on earth I expected to see my dad.

The middle of Union Station in downtown Toronto in the middle of morning rush hour was about as far from Dad’s reality as any place on earth. Yet there he was, looking lost and confused, and yet oh so gentle.

No, it wasn’t my real dad. He’s been dead for nearly nine years. And yet… it was one of those moments when he felt nearly as close to me as he did when he was alive.

The flesh and blood man standing in front of me didn’t look much like my dad, but there was something in his eyes that first caught my attention. Add to that the fact that he looked like he still had farm soil under his fingernails and was completely confused by the mass chaos that is a downtown train station in a major metropolis, and I was captivated. “Do you know where I catch X train?” he asked of several passersby, only to be shrugged off. I wanted to help him, but I had no idea where to catch my train, let alone his.

Eventually, I found my way to my platform, and he found his nearby. I sat down on a bench to wait, and he put a coin into the pay phone to call the daughter who was waiting for him.

“I hate the city,” he said, without bitterness or anger. “There are so many people rushing around and nobody will stop to help a poor guy out.” I smiled. Suddenly I had a flashback to the time when my dad took a bus trip from Manitoba to Alberta, with his tin lunch box, coffee thermos, and eight cents in his pocket. People probably laughed at the farm hick on the bus, but he didn’t care – for him it was an adventure, and years later he still told the story of the young mom on the bus whose child he’d held when travel crankiness set it.

“I love you,” I heard the man say at the end of his call, in a voice so gentle, it clashed with the din all around me. “See you soon.”

At that moment he stopped being the stranger lost in the train station and became my dad.

I started to weep. It felt like I’d had a message from the grave. Oh how I wanted to hear those words from the real live lips of my dad. “I love you. See you soon.”

For the next hour, as I rode to the meeting at my client’s office, the tears kept welling up in my eyes. Nine years he’s been gone, and it’s been many months since I wept for him. The pain doesn’t throb very often any more. He comes up less and less in conversation and when I think of him, it feels more like tenderness and less like jagged, agonizing pain.

But sometimes the jagged pain comes back. Sometimes it creeps up on me out of nowhere and…. BAM! I’m lost in a puddle of grief again, right there on a platform in Union station.

He’s still here. He still has a presence in my life. He still shapes who I’m becoming.

Grief doesn’t follow a timeline. We don’t get to go through stages and reach a finish line. We don’t follow any rules and we certainly don’t get closure.

What we get is a new story to carry with us. A story that’s heavy and complex and beautiful and ugly and painful and joyful – all kinds of complicated things wrapped up together in one unique package.

I’m glad I still carry the story of my dad with me. I’m glad the essence of him can still show up unannounced in the most unexpected places.

I’m glad I’ve known enough love in my life to know what grief feels like.

I’m also glad that there are people who are doing important work in teaching us about and guiding us through grief, like my friends Cath and Kara. We need wise, compassionate people who give us space for grief, remind us of the complexity of it, and don’t judge us for the fact that nine years after a loss we can still be found weeping on a train platform.

Grief is just part of the journey.

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