When you find it (on finding home in an auditorium in Florida)

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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
  10. 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

Forgiveness and the death of my son

Matthew's clothes

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.

IMG_8303This 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.

On grief, longing, and intimacy

longing

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.

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When you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing

img_6319

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. 

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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.) 

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Tips for helping the bereaved

Mom & Dad's engagement

Mom & Dad’s engagement

Long before I ever heard the term “holding space“, I was paying attention to my early understanding of the concept. In fact, thirteen years ago, before blogs were popular and before social media arrived, I had my first “mini-viral” article about supporting people in grief. 

I dug back into my archives to find the article I wrote after my dad died, about how you can help people who’ve lost a loved one. It’s a more practical guide than what I wrote after Mom died, but it’s still helpful. This article was published in the Winnipeg Free Press, and I heard from people years later that they’d clipped it out of the paper, made copies, and passed it around to friends and colleagues. 

How can I help? Tips for helping the bereaved.
Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press

It was the longest ride of my life – those 2 hours between the time I got the phone call that Dad had been killed in a farm accident and the time my sister and I arrived at the farm.  Two hours of excruciating pain, hating the truth, and wishing we could be at Mom’s side more quickly.  Two hours of desperate hope that someone who loved her might be there to support Mom as she faced the darkest hours of her life.

The pain didn’t end when we reached the farmhouse, but it eased a little when we saw the roomful of people who had gathered to be at Mom’s side.  Cecile, Mom’s dearest friend, met us at the door.  Julie, my childhood best friend, sat supporting Mom on the couch.  Others were there – Wilbert and Mernie – some of Mom and Dad’s closest friends, Michael – the pastor from their church, neighbours I didn’t recognize.  They’d all heard the horrible news, dropped whatever they were doing, and rushed to the place they knew they were needed most.  There was nothing they could do to bring Dad back, but they knew they had to show up.

And then, as the family started to arrive, and those in the house knew Mom had the support she needed, they quietly began to disperse, wordlessly acknowledging our need for time alone to be the splintered family we had become.

Over the next several weeks, with almost uncanny timing, neighbours, friends and relatives showed up at the yard offering what they could to help us cope.  They brought food and water, they fed Dad’s animals, they cared for our children, they helped with funeral arrangements – they showed up when we needed them and disappeared when they were in the way.  In the middle of my hurt, I learned lessons in community, in kindness, in acts of service, and in “paying it forward”.

These lessons will serve as reminders for me the next time a friend loses a loved one.  Here’s what I learned:

  1. Show up – You may worry that you’ll get in the way, or that too many other people will be around and your presence won’t mean anything, but that’s rarely the case.  Every person who showed up on our parents’ yard was appreciated because his or her presence bore evidence to the emotional support we so desperately needed at that time.  Don’t overstay your welcome, and don’t get in the way of family moments, but show up and demonstrate that your friend is important to you.  And don’t forget to keep showing up – weeks and months after the fact, when everyone else has forgotten and the bereaved feels most alone.  If miles or circumstances separate you, at least make phone calls or send e-mails whenever you can.
  2. Find a need and fill it – It was amazing to me what needs people found to fill – needs we often didn’t know we had until they were filled.  One person brought a tank of water to fill Mom’s cistern, because he knew, with a houseful of people, we would run out of water.  Another person offered a camper for the family members who would be coming from a distance.  Try not to ask “how can I help”, because the family has so much on their mind they probably won’t have an easy answerjust find something to do and do it.
  3. Think of the unusual items the family may need – Some people seemed to know just what we’d need to help organize the funeral and play host to lots of visitors.  One of our most-used items was a notebook a neighbour brought – she knew we’d need to take lots of notes as we planned the funeral and made crucial decisions and she thought it would be a good idea to keep it all in one place.  Another person brought paper plates, paper cups, and napkins to feed all the extra people coming to the farm.
  4. Remember the children – Some people were very good at knowing what our young children would need and when.  The night of the viewing, friends showed up with colouring books and crafts to keep the children entertained while we mourned.  Children can feel very lost, confused and overlooked when the adults closest to them are emotionally distraught most of the time.  If there are children involved, offer to take them to the park or some other neutral/enjoyable place for awhile.  Taking them away, even for a short period of time, gives them a break from the emotional atmosphere and gives their parents a much-needed break.
  5. Consider giving money – My dad died without life insurance, leaving the family with unexpected bills to pay.  Funerals cost a lot of money, and most people don’t have a lot of disposable income to prepare them for something like this.  Several people, most of whom had gone through a similar event, brought cheques and envelopes full of cash.  My mom was touched beyond words.  One of her friends sacrificed the money she’d been saving for a digital camera because she felt Mom’s needs were more significant than her own.
  6. Bring food – One thing that really impressed our family was the variety of food people thought to bring – casseroles, fruit baskets, meat platters, desserts, treats for the kids, crackers, cheese platters, chocolates, etc.  If you bring casseroles, use disposable containers that don’t have to be returned.  Think about bringing healthy snackfood for people to munch on when they’re too busy or too distraught to eat a decent meal. Consider showing up at a mealtime with everything ready to be served (eg. sandwich fixings at lunch time, a hot meal for supper complete with a salad and loaf of bread).  It’s a huge relief not to have to worry about what you’ll feed the family when your mind is far from food.  One of my friends called a week or two after the funeral and said not to fix supper – she was having it catered.
  7. Talk about the deceased, and LISTEN – After Dad died, I clung to every memory of him, every picture he was in, and every story I heard.  I wanted to soak it all up and remember it forever.  Tell the family what you remember of the person – share stores of kind things the deceased did for you in his or her lifetime, or a special time you had together.  Listen to their stories and acknowledge their need to work through their grief.
  8. If nothing else, send a card – You may think that cards are overlooked and unimportant, but quite the opposite is true.  If it’s the least you can do, it’s still better than doing nothing.  My Mom got hundreds of cards, and now, weeks later, she still pours over them, getting comfort from the fact that so many people are thinking of her and praying for her.  Try to say something personal in the card – perhaps a favourite memory of the person who died, or a quote or scripture verse that helped you through a similar time.  My mom was moved to tears by a letter my cousin wrote about his favourite memory of my Dad.
  9. Consider the roles/needs that are no longer being filled by the deceased – If the deceased ran a business, or had some duties that were unique to him or her, try to find ways to fill those needs so the family’s burdens will be eased.  One of Dad’s friends showed up faithfully to feed the farm animals.  Another friend came to help organize an auction sale when he heard that Mom wouldn’t stay on the farm.  Perhaps the family has business associates or board members that need to be notified.  Perhaps you were involved in an area of the person’s life that gives you unique information (eg. a business partner, a colleague on a committee, etc.) – figure out how your information or skills could be used at this time.  Try not to pester the family with too many questions – just do what needs to be done and let the family know they don’t have to worry about it.
  10. If you have unique information about the death or surrounding circumstances, share it – One of my Mom’s greatest comforts was the knowledge that Dad was not alone when he died.  A nurse and her husband (a pastor) saw the accident and were the first on the scene.  They worked to save Dad’s life, and they prayed with him until the ambulance arrived.  When Mom arrived on the scene, they prayed with her too.  These people were strangers to us, but a few days after the accident, they stopped on the farm to meet Mom and share details of Dad’s final minutes – including his last words.  This information and their compassion have become very meaningful to the whole family and we are forever grateful to them for taking the time to visit us.
  11. Personalize floral arrangements or memorial gifts – My Dad’s sisters put a lot of thought into the bouquet they brought for the funeral.  Because they knew Dad had great respect for the earth and for his animals, and preferred natural things to commercial ones, they chose flowers that represented him.  The focal point was a farm hat, and the pièce de resistance was a branch where 7 plastic sheep perched – representing his love for sheep and his 7 grandchildren.  Their floral arrangement, and another one made almost entirely of wildflowers for on top of the coffin, will always stand out in our memory.
  12. Pray – Within hours of dad’s passing, prayer chains spread out through friends, relatives, churches, and extended contacts – spanning the globe.  My mom is convinced much of her strength was derived from these prayers.  If you are a person of faith, offer prayers and support for the family and friends.  Let them know of their place in your prayers – the knowledge that people are praying for you can be as powerful as the prayers themselves.
  13. Cry – One of the most significant things you can do is also the simplest – let them know you hurt too and that their loss is shared.  Don’t feel that you have to be stoic around your friends all of the time – if the tears well up in your eyes, let them overflow.  Crying with a friend can be one of the greatest demonstrations of compassion and support.

There is no perfect way to help a friend in the middle of grief, and often you will second guess your choice of words or actions.  There is also no antidote for grief – it’s something the bereaved family will have to grapple with day after day.  However, the effort you make to support your friends will go a long way toward helping them cope in their darkest hours.

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