Holding space for the unspeakable

In May of 2017, I stood in front of a large group of therapists, school counsellors, and youth workers in Broward County, Florida, teaching a full day workshop on how to hold space for grief and trauma. The next day, I taught many of the same people in two smaller groups how to hold meaningful conversations using The Circle Way.

I almost didn’t make it to Florida. The border guard didn’t understand my work and considered turning me away for not having applied for the appropriate visa. “You’re teaching GREEK?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I’ll be talking about GRIEF.” He looked at me incredulously. Would someone really fly thousands of kilometres to talk about something so depressing? Before he finally approved my entry, he spent an hour deliberating with his supervisor in a back room.

This week, just a twenty minute drive from the auditorium where I taught, seventeen people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Those very people I spent those two days with will be the ones called on to support youth, families, and community members through it. Some of them might have even been directly or indirectly impacted by the shooting. Either way, they will face what may be the hardest challenge of their lives – holding space for unspeakable tragedy in a community that no longer takes their children’s lives for granted.

workshop participants in Florida

As I sat with that thought, and remembered my time with those beautiful, good-hearted people who spend their lives doing the kind of work that baffles border guards, I wrestled with what kind of support I could offer from so far away. I can’t reasonably stand by their sides or gather them into circles to hold space for their tears and anger. I can’t sit with them when they listen to the anguish of heartbroken high school students, or help them while they support the teachers who will have to carry on after so much loss.

About the only things I can offer them are my love, my encouragement, and my words, hoping against hope that something of meaning will land when they need it most.

This then, is my encouragement for them and for anyone else who finds themselves holding space for unspeakable tragedy. These are not meant to be “thou shalt” words of wisdom, but rather they are gentle whispers to remind you of what you likely intuitively already know.

  1. Unless they’re doing harm to themselves, don’t get in the way of the emotional release. Those impacted by such horrible tragedy, will need to weep, scream, and rage at the injustice of it all. Let them. None of those emotions are “bad” or “too much”. They need to be released rather than bottled up inside. A person who doesn’t have a healthy release – who’s made to feel guilty for feeling too much – will shut up those big feelings inside and find less healthy ways to release them later. Offer them a safe space to express what they need to.
  2. Remember that trauma is a physical thing as much as it is emotional. When we block the release of that trauma – by stopping the emotions or shutting down the physical shaking that may occur – it can get stuck in the body and the person may find themselves, years from now, struggling with the debilitating impact of PTSD, addiction, etc.. Help them find healthy somatic (body-centred) ways to release and process the trauma. That may be somatic therapy, and/or it may be more simply engaging youth in physical activities that get them out of their brains and into their bodies. It may also be engaging with alternative therapy programs like equine assisted therapy or art therapy. (Some suggestions: TRE, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, by Peter A. Levine, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, by Dr. Gabor Mate, EAGALA)
  3. Don’t expect them to make too many decisions. A person’s decision making capacity is impaired in the middle of grief and trauma, and even the simplest decisions (what groceries to buy in order to feed their families) can quickly overwhelm them. If you can, simplify things by giving them fewer options (ie. “I’m picking up supper for your family. Unless I hear otherwise from you, I’ll get pizza.”).
  4. Hold onto your advice or guidance until they ask for it or until you see clear evidence that they’ll be harmed if you don’t step in. When a person is completely overwhelmed by the situation, you may need to step in to give gentle guidance, but otherwise, this is not a time for much advice or guidance. Advice might even contribute to them feeling worse than they did before, because they’ll suddenly feel like they’re not “doing grief right”.
  5. Don’t try to make sense of it for them. Eventually, their resilience may be built up by meaning-making (ie. finding a purpose in their deceased loved one’s life), but that’s their journey and it will take a lot of time for them to get there. You can be a sounding board for them while they search for the meaning, but offering them that before they’re ready for it may sound like a callous dismissal of their huge loss. Grief first, meaning later. Once they’re ready for it, ask gentle questions that will help them find their own way through to meaning. Don’t prescribe your own meaning to it. (Recommended reading: Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl)
  6. Remember to care for the caregivers (teachers, principals, custodial staff, parents, community members, etc.) as well as those most directly impacted. While they may not have been directly impacted by the trauma, they might suffer vicarious trauma from having to support those who were. Show them your support in big and little ways (ie. hosting sharing circles, bringing food to their families, giving them days off for self-care, checking in with them weeks after the tragedy, etc.).
  7. “Comfort in, dump out.” As this wise article suggests, consider who is closest to the centre of the tragedy and make them the priority for care and comfort. Then extend outward, considering who is the next closest to the tragedy, and so on. Wherever you find yourself in the concentric circles, extend comfort inward (to those closer to the tragedy than you) and do your dumping (complaining, crying, raging, etc.) outward to those less affected than you.
  8. Be prepared for the long-term impacts of the tragedy. A year from now – two, three, ten years from now – this will still reverberate in the community and especially in the school. The children in that high school may still be suffering the effects in adulthood. Be patient and extend grace to people even long after others think they “should” be over it. Check in regularly and offer them a safe space to continue to process and heal. Don’t shame them for taking longer than other people have.
  9. Help them find rituals for healing and release. There’s a good reason why it is so common for us to gather at funerals after a person’s passing and to lay flowers on a grave years after the death. These are rituals that allow us to honour a person’s memory and express our love for them. Little by little, they heal us. Be creative and supportive in helping those affected to find the rituals that work best for them. It might be to frame their soccer jersey, to memorialize them with a park bench, to plant a tree for them in the backyard, or to throw a party for their closest friends. There is no “right” way to do this.
  10. Engage in radical self-care for yourself. The emotional labour required for holding space in such intense situations is much more taxing than we often realize. Be radical in how much compassion and care you extend to yourself. In the middle of the crisis, the best you might have time for is eating healthy food and drinking lots of water, but don’t forget to do more once there is more spaciousness. Set clear boundaries to protect the time you need for replenishment and healing. Take a day off work and go to the beach. Go for reiki or a massage. Hire a housecleaner to do the tasks you haven’t had time for. Do not feel guilt for the care you extend to yourself – it is essential. And forgive yourself whenever your imperfection shows.

This may be the hardest time in your life, and there are few words that will make it any easier. But remember that you are not alone. There is love and compassion being extended to you from thousands of miles away. Ask for the help you need and don’t try to do it all alone.

With love from Canada, your friend Heather Plett


Looking for more resources on holding space? I’ve gathered a collection here. 

When is helping the wrong thing to do?

“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

“Sometimes helping is an act of violence.” That was one of many thought-provoking things Peter Block said in a talk I heard him give a few years ago.

Really?! Helping as an act of violence? How could that be possible?

The part of me that places a high value in my ability to help others didn’t want to believe it. Surely I hadn’t been conducting acts of violence in my efforts to help people. I’m a good person – how could I have inadvertently been guilty of violence?

But the more I’ve thought about it in the years since I heard it, the more I’ve realized that there is truth to it, and I have been guilty of it.

Sometimes helping is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, helping is destructive rather than constructive.

I witnessed the truth of this when I used to travel in my non-profit work. In some of the poorest communities in the world, good-hearted foreigners have tried to help and have instead done damage. In Kenya, for example, I tried to find some colourful African fabric to bring home and discovered that the market for locally made fabric has been nearly wiped out by well-meaning people who have glutted the market with used clothing from North America and Europe. Thinking they were helping by sending their hand-me-downs, they have instead killed local businesses, put people out of work, and taken away the dignity of people who want to dress in their local attire rather than adopting Western wear.

The same can be said for churches and governments that thought they were serving First Nations children by giving them access to their version of a “good education”. Out of their good intentions, residential schools emerged. Children were ripped out of their homes and harshly disciplined while educators tried to “kill the Indian in the child”. Who can argue that their version of “helping” was the wrong thing to do?

Peter Block is right – sometimes helping is an act of violence. Sometimes it does more harm than good.

“But…” you might be thinking, “I’m not destroying anyone’s culture or violating their dignity. I’m just trying to help a friend who’s in trouble. What can be wrong with that? We all need help now and then.”

Yes, it’s true – we all need help sometimes, and often it’s absolutely the right thing to do. When my Dad was killed in a farm accident, for example, my whole family was grateful beyond words for all of the help we received. It didn’t take long for the neighbours to rally round us, bring us food, look after Dad’s animals, and care for our children. I am so grateful that those people didn’t stop to ask “how can we help” but instead found a gap and stepped in to fill it.

That’s what community does and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. I wish that we could all have access to that kind of support in our darkest times.

But… that kind of unconditional help in times of need doesn’t alter the truth that helping isn’t always the right thing to do.

Imagine you’re in a conversation with a friend and she tells you that her marriage is in trouble. Because you care for this friend and her partner, your immediate response is to try to help, so you interrupt her with what you think is a great solution. “All you need is some time alone with your partner. You should plan a surprise getaway this weekend. I’ll look after the kids and you can go away – just the two of you. It will all be fine by the time you get home on Sunday night. Trust me. I did it last year and we’re more in love than ever.”

How might your friend feel in that instance? She may not know how to articulate it to you, but she will probably feel diminished and even dismissed. Instead of taking the time to really witness her pain, you have brushed it aside as insignificant and easily fixed. She’ll probably assume that you’re better than she is at knowing how to make a marriage work, and so she will question herself and her choices. While you walk away feeling good about yourself because you’re able to help, there’s a very good chance she walks away feeling shame because she’s failing at her marriage and now feels judged by you.

In that instance, what your friend really needs is not your idea of a solution, but your willingness to listen without judgement. It’s possible that she’d also appreciate a childless weekend away, but that should only be offered AFTER there has been unconditional listening, and the offer should be extended as a gift of love rather than as your idea of a solution.

As good-hearted as it may have been, your idea of a solution may very well invalidate her struggle and diminish her sense of self-worth.

What can you do the next time you have the impulse to help and don’t know for sure if it’s the right thing to do? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Did I listen deeply FIRST and let my friend know that I am holding space for her without judgement?
  2. Does my offer to help come out of my own arrogance and assumption that I know better than the person I’m helping?
  3. Will my help in any way diminish the other person’s dignity, power, or self-worth?
  4. Is this the kind of help the other person wants or is it the kind of help I think that person needs?
  5. Do we have a reciprocal relationship and would I be willing to receive the same kind of help from this person?
  6. Am I offering help in humility or judgement/pity/condescension?
  7. Am I making this about me or do I have the best interests of the other person at heart?
  8. Is my advice or offer of help a defense against my own vulnerability? (From the work of Brene Brown)
  9. Am I willing to “look at suffering without turning away” (a quote from my friend Doug Koop, a hospital spiritual health specialist), or is my need to help a way of fixing so that I don’t need to feel uncomfortable?
  10. Am I expecting something in return, or is this an unconditional gift?

If you can answer these questions and know that your help is coming out of a place of humility and unconditional love, then there’s a very good chance it will be well received and will not be an act of violence. If, on the other hand, it creates a power imbalance between you and the person receiving the help, then it may not be the right thing to do.

This is far from an exact science, and each situation will have to be evaluated independently, based on your relationship with that person and your own motives for helping. Sometimes, when there is a crisis, for example, and the person is overwhelmed or incapacitated, you’ll need to make choices that will feel like violation but are still the right thing to do.

We won’t get it right every time. Sometimes we’ll offend people and sometimes our fear of offending will mean that we’ll withhold the kind of help that is really needed and wanted. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t show up and keep trying.

When we are genuine in our humility and authentic in our love, we’ll get it right more often than not.

What silences our voices?

There are many reasons to be silent.

Violence (or the threat of violence) is one reason for silence. When cartoonists are murdered for satire and young school girls are kidnapped or murdered for daring to go to school, the risk of speaking up becomes too great for many people.

Sometimes the violence backfires and the voices become stronger – as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, now publishing three million copies when their normal print run was 60,000. Why? Because those with power and influence stepped in to show support for those whose voices were temporarily silenced. If the world had ignored that violence and millions of people – including many world leaders – hadn’t marched in the streets, would there have been the same outcome? If these twelve dead worked for a small publication in Somalia or Myanmar would we have paid as much attention? I doubt it.

Far too many times (especially when the world mostly ignores their plight, as in Nigeria) violence succeeds and fewer people speak up, fewer people are educated, and the perpetrators of the violence have control.

Violence has long been a tool for the silencing of the dissenting voice. Slaves were tortured or murdered for daring to speak up against their owners. Women were burned at the stake for daring to challenge the dominant culture. Even my own ancestors – the Mennonites – were tortured and murdered for their faith and pacifism.

Most likely every single one of us could look back through our lineage and find at least one period in time when our ancestors were subjected to violence. Some of us still live with that reality day to day.

There is no question that the fear of violence is a powerful force for keeping people silent. It still happens in families where there is abuse and in countries where they flog bloggers for speaking out.

Few of the people who read this article will be subjected to flogging or torture for what we say or write online, and yet… there are many of us who remain silent even when we feel strongly that we should speak out.

Why? Why do we remain silent when we see injustice in our workplaces? Why do we turn the other way when we see someone being bullied? Why do we hesitate to speak when we know there’s a better way to do things?

  1. silenceBecause we have a memory of violence in our bones. The more I learn about trauma the more I realize that it affects us in much more subtle and insidious ways than we understand. Some of us have experienced trauma and are easily triggered, but even if we never experienced trauma in our own lifetimes, it can be passed down to us through our DNA. Your ancestors’ trauma may still be causing fear in your own life. Witnessing the trauma of other people subjected to violence may be triggering ancient fear in all of us, causing us to remain silent.
  2. Because our brains don’t understand fear. The most ancient part of our brains – the “reptilian brain”, which hasn’t evolved since we were living in caves and discovering fire – is adapted for fight or flight. That part of our brain sees all threats as predators, and so it triggers our instinct to survive. Our lives are much different from our ancestors, and yet there’s a part of our brains that still seeks to protect us from woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers. When our fear of being rejected by a family member for speaking out feels the same as the fear of a sabre-toothed tiger, our reaction is often much stronger than it needs to be.
  3. Because those who want to keep us silent have learned more subtle ways to do so. In most of the countries where we live, it is no longer acceptable to flog bloggers, but that doesn’t mean we’re not being silenced. Women have been silenced, for example, by being taught that their ideas are silly and irrelevant. Marginalized people have been silenced by being given less access to education. Those with unconventional ideas have been “gaslighted” – gradually convinced that they are crazy for what they believe.
  4. Because we have created an “every man for himself” culture where those who speak out are often not supported for their courage. We’re all trying to thrive in this competitive environment, and so we feel threatened by other people’s success or courage. When I asked on Facebook what keeps people silent, one of the responses (from a blogger) was about the kinds of haters that show up even in what should be supportive environments. In motherhood forums, for example, people get so caught in internal battles (like whether it is better to be a working-away-from-home parent or a stay-at-home parent) that they forget that they would be much stronger in advocating for positive change in the world if they found a way to work together and support each other. It is much more difficult to speak out when we know we’ll be standing alone.
  5. Because we don’t understand power and privilege. Those who have access to both power and privilege are often surprised when others remain silent. “Why wouldn’t they just speak up?” they say, as though that were the simplest thing in the world to do. It may be a simple thing, if you have never been oppressed or silenced, but if you’ve been taught that your voice has no value because you are “a woman, an Indian, a person of colour, a lesbian, a Muslim, etc.”, then the courage it takes to speak is exponentially greater. Years and years of conditioning that convinces a person of their inherent lack of value cannot be easily undone.

Several years ago, I visited a village in the poorest part of India. Though I’d traveled in several poor regions in Bangladesh, India, and a few African countries before that, this was the most depressing place I’d ever visited. This was a makeshift village populated by the Musahar people who lived at the edges of fields where they sometimes were hired by the landowners as day labourers but otherwise had to scrounge for their food (sometimes stealing grain from rats – which was why they’d come to be known as “rat eaters”).

There was a look of deadness in the eyes of the people there – a hopelessness and sense of fatalism. Our local hosts told us that these were the most marginalized people in the whole country. They were the lowest tribe of the lowest caste and so everyone in the village had been raised to believe that they had no more value than the rats that ran through their village.

There was a school not far from the village, but we could find only one boy who attended that school. Though everyone had access to the school, none of the parents were convinced their children were worthy of it.

It was a powerful lesson in what oppression and marginalization can do to people. In other equally poor villages (in Ethiopia, for example) I’d still noticed a sense of pride in the people. The Musahar people showed no sense of pride or self-worth. Essentially, they had been “gaslighted” to believe they were worthless and could ask for no more than what they had.

The next day, my traveling companions and I took a rest day instead of visiting another village. We had enough footage for the documentary we were working on and we needed a break from what was an emotionally exhausting trip.

My colleague, however, opted to visit the second village. He came back to the hotel with a fascinating story. In the second village, a local NGO had been working with the people to educate them about their rights as citizens of India. It hadn’t taken long and these people had a very different outlook on their lives and their values. They were beginning to rally, challenging their local government representatives to give them access to the welfare programs that should have been everyone’s rights (but that people in the first village had never been told about by the corrupt politicians who took what should have been given to the villagers). On the way back to the hotel, in fact, he’d been stopped by a demonstration where the body of a man who’d died of starvation had been laid out on the street to block traffic and call attention to the plight of the Musahar people.

The people in the second village were slowly beginning to understand that they were human and had a right to dignity and survival.

In the coaching and personal growth world that I now find myself in, there is much said about “finding our voices”, “stepping into our power”, and “claiming our sovereignty”. Those are all important ideas, and I speak of them in my work, but I believe that there is work that we need to do before any of those things are possible. Like the Musahar people, those who have been silenced need to be taught of their own value and their own capacity for change before they can be expected to impact positive change.

First we need to take a close look at the root causes of the fear that keeps us silent before we’ll be able to change the future.

When we begin to understand power and privilege, when we find practices that help us heal our ancient trauma, when we retrain our brains so that they don’t revert to their most primal conditioning, and when we find supportive communities that will encourage us in our attempts at courage, then we are ready to step into our power and speak with our strongest voices.

Like the Musahar, we need to work on understanding our own value and then we need to work together to have our voices heard.

These are some of the thoughts on my mind as I consider offering another coaching circle based on Pathfinder and/or Lead with Your Wild Heart. If you are interested in joining such a circle, please contact me.

Also, if you are longing to understand your own fear so that you can step forward with courage, consider joining me and Desiree Adaway at Engage!

Don’t victimize the victim

“Before you file an official police report, you should know that this part can be very hard on the victim.” Those were the words of the social worker called in to council me after I’d been raped. Two police officers and my friend Terence were also in the room.

“They’ll drag you through the ringer and you’ll have to re-live the experience again and again and again. They’ll question you almost as though YOU were the person who did something wrong. Chances are, they’ll also drag your past sexual history into it, especially if they think there’s any reason to suggest you invited this upon yourself.”

She said it kindly, trying to protect me from further hurt. She wanted me to know what I was facing if they ever caught the perpetrator who’d crawled through the window and taken my innocence from me. “You have a choice,” she said. “If you don’t want to report it, and you feel it would be easier to just walk away and try to get on with your life, you can.”

It didn’t seem like much of a choice to me. Let the man who did this walk free and some day find out another young girl had lived through the two hours of hell I’d lived through? Nope. I had to do everything I could to prevent that. I reported it. He was never arrested (though they thought they might have him a year or so later and I had to try to identify him in a series of photos). I never had to live through a court procedure. He might still be out there raping girls. The thought horrifies me.

The social worker’s words have been going through my head this week as news reports of another young woman who was raped in our province has surfaced. Tragically, though the case went to court, the rapist is walking free. The judge handed down a conditional sentence and no jail time, suggesting that the woman may have invited it on herself by wearing suggestive clothing and “letting her intentions known that she wanted to party”.

I don’t know the details of the case, but according to an interview on the radio this afternoon, they were in a car with a group of other people (after hanging out at the bar) when he started groping her. She told him to stop and he didn’t. Finally she said “I’m getting out of the car to get away from you.” He got out of the car too, took her into the woods and raped her.

I have no way of judging the woman’s behaviour, but this I know… no matter WHAT she was wearing, if she said no, it meant NO. Even if she was strutting down the street naked, he had no right to force sex on her. NO RIGHT!

Once again, our system has victimized the victim. After living through the hell of a court case, getting her actions trotted out for all the world to see, living through the shame of everyone thinking she was dressed inappropriately and “asked for it”, she now has to be told that the man who did this is a free man with nothing more than a conditional sentence.

Yes, I’m angry. Violence has a way of victimizing and then re-victimizing people. Not only do people get hurt by it, but if it’s not brought to justice, the next victim remains silent, and the violence is allowed to continue. And get worse. The next time a young woman sits in a room like I did with a social worker and police officer, she’ll know that if she reports this, there’s a good chance it won’t make any difference.

It’s the same thing we see with brutal dictators like those who are finally being challenged in the Middle East. For years they perpetuate their violence and the victims remain silent because there’s a good chance things will only get worse instead of better if they report it. In some countries, young women who are raped end up being stoned or forced to marry their rapist because somehow it was THEIR fault.

Though I didn’t have to live through the court system, I know a bit about what it feels like to feel blamed. When people found out what happened, I got a lot of support, but I also heard a number of stupid questions. “Why did you have your window open?” (Because it was a furnace in my apartment and I didn’t want to suffocate. Is it wrong to sleep with my window open?) “Couldn’t you have kicked him in the groin or something?” (And risk getting even more hurt than I was? As it was, he tried to stab me with my scissors when I tried to resist – I didn’t exactly want to piss him off further.)

It’s time to stop blaming the victim. No matter what personal choices we make, none of us invite violence on ourselves.

It’s time to call violence – under ANY circumstances – wrong.

(Note: I’m happy to learn that the judge in this case is under review.)

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