A vial containing our tears : reflections on grief and grieving

There is a beautiful psalm or bible passage that I cannot remember the reference to which says that God counts and collects each one of our tears.  In a culture which so often denigrates grief it is important for us to know that our sorrow is not unimportant or in vain.  The implication is so often that we need to ‘be over it’, not carry it forward or just make sure we don’t make others too uncomfortable around us, because it can be hard for those who have not dealt with or are familiar to a grieving process to understand how essential the shedding of tears is.

I watched a movie a few weeks ago about a painful loss called The Shack and in it Sam Worthington plays an adult child of an alcoholic and abusive Dad who ends up losing his youngest daughter to a violent crime.   The movie is about his quest to come to terms with the anger, pain, sadness and resentment he holds towards a God who he feels ‘has forsaken him’ in allowing such a terrible thing to happen.  He ends up being transported to a cottage where he lives for a time with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and in one scene the Asian singer/actress who plays the later part holds up a vial that is full of his tears.   

This image speaks to me of ‘holding’ and containment which are two things we can really struggle with if we are not surrounded by those who assist us and support us to grieve.   I know in my own life that after my father died and my partner abandoned me I went overseas with much unresolved grief.  I acted it out over the next 8 years of my active addiction and my recovery was a journey to find my way back to it in order to understand, feel and release it.  (I am not going to say to ‘heal’ it because in a sense I think its a central mistake of our culture that grief is an illness that need to be cured or fixed somehow.)  Its a sad indictment of our modern society that in past years there has been a move to have grief included as a mental illness in the bible of psychiatry The DSM.   

Grief that is unresolved can indeed make us mentally and emotionally unwell.  To my mind it can be the huge unspoken ‘monster’ that lives at the basis of addictions and anger and the rage of acting out of terrorism and other means of reclaiming a sense of power and control within situations where we are actually overpowered.  Grief itself is feared by many because it is like a tidal wave in a way.  We can try to run from it or defend against it, but in my experience it always then finds some kind of way to knock us over sideways.  Far better not to see it as a monster but as a rejected energy that wants us to turn towards, surrender and acknowledge it.  

Being able to accept that grief is there and that we are powerless to a degree is the first step.  We can use different forms of containment.  For me dancing and writing and walking help to move the grief through my body, the freeze state of some traumas and traumatic injuries can be all about frozen grief that brings a critical event to us which externalises its intense charge in some form and then leaves us knocked over, frozen paralysed or powerless. 

And if we look to the ancestral epigenetic component we can see how this stored charge of grief and anxiety can be passed on from generation to generation.  When I start to get into compulsive cleaning I am aware of how much grief and a sense of powerlessness fuelled my Mum’s own manic cleaning binges.  And I got badly injured myself when she was in the midst of some of them.   I have injured myself so many times or broken things either gardening or cleaning that these days I am much more mindful in the midst of such activities, stopping and breathing and centring myself as much as I can.

I do believe that like most emotions grief is a kind of visitor to us, as in the poem by Rumi.  If we welcome the visitation of grief and take some steps to give it a place, then just possibly we will not be as compulsively ‘run’ over by it (or over run by it) and in time we as we integrate it, it will deepen and enrich us in the process.  

And what is most important is to know that grief has a purpose and its presence in our lives or heart is a sign that something had great value to and was cherished deeply by us or longed for.  It has come time to understand that value or experience or let that something or someone go and so there will be a shedding if we are to move forward.  Such losses and griefs will always be with us and remain forever a vital part of our soul on our ongoing journey through life.

Free to feel sorrow

I am a big fan of embracing and accepting my emotions these days.  I consider them tides now that rise and fall and are like waves that would like us to ride them into what every shore they are breaking.  And even though it can feel exhausting to be hollowed our or broken open by grief like I was yesterday, I am so grateful now for my body’s ability to surrender to that tide rather than resist it’s natural flow.

I was thinking today of how braced my body became over years.  One of the consequences of not opening up to our feelings is that we hold our breath. We may have been taught to do this by a parent or other social conditioning, we may have been threatened if we were angry or felt sad with a punishment and so we had to freeze, or suck it up, or we may have tried to fight or fly away and been stopped, like when my Mum pulled my arm out of my socket when I was only three as I was trying to get away from her.

Yesterday at the crematorium as they played the song You’ll Never Walk Alone I really felt my abandonment wound triggered.   Gerry was far from alone in his cancer journey, Carmel listed in her eulogy all the things done for them.   I thought of my own breast cancer surgery where I had little in the way of support, a mere skeleton, but that is far from the only time I walked alone in my own life, especially after my father’s death in 1985.  This is not meant to be a post about self pity, only an attempt to say I had it really tough for so many years and validating that and feeling it is painful.  It is admitting to a truth.  I was not part of a close knit loving family like Carmel and Jerry and it’s been very hard.

Anyway surrendering to my feelings felt good yesterday even if quite uncomfortable at times.  It is not easy for many of us if we were never validated in the past.  But I truly do believe the fastest way to freedom is to feel our feelings and make sense of them, emotions are nothing less than energy in motion and energy wants to move out and through, having to bury it all inside has terrible consequences for us.  Embracing and feeling our grief is not automatic and complicated grief that is buried can be left undealt with for years with the result losses pile upon losses.  This is what I experienced as my sobriety unfolded with each funeral of a male friend or father of a friend, which would tap into all the pain over the loss of my Dad and his hurtful treatment of me over years as well as his stumbling attempts at kindness.  All these feelings were was buried for so many years in my addiction and probably my fear around males generated difficult reactions too the threatened intimacy between us.  These feelings can be a a potent cocktail when associated losses are being triggered in us from the unconscious.

When we grieve I believe we have to deal with feelings of powerlessness.  When someone we love dies or something is taken it shows we are not in control.  If we fight against the process we can end up blocked in my experience, far better to let ourselves surrender to what needs to move through us, reshape and change us.

Shedding

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You shed these tears

With layers of years

As the pool of sorrow around you grows

There in that ocean where you swim

Flotsam and jetsam

And a million other things

Lap around you

As the water swells and you find yourself

Buffeted about

Tidal pull back to the past

Fills your heart with such unrequited longing

For the arms that never held you

Until the death nell

Refrains of songs

Bring intimations of the past

The big house he built

Looking for security

Chasing god know what dream

That ended in ruin

And as the explosions came

Everything detonated

Leaving only wreckage

And now you are

Shattered into a thousand shards

This is not only wreckage

As mosaic pieces begin cluster

You sort through all the precious things she left

With a heavy heart

As tears swell

And your head remembers the explosions

Of spring and summer

At times the grief feels too large to contain

But then there is the part of you that sees and knows

It is not the whole of you

She is in the room with you now

Holding all the younger selves

That struggled so hard to grow

And as the deep cries rock you

You realise without a doubt

That you are shedding

But also integrating

What everyone in ignorance

Said you needed to leave behind

Oh God why don’t they know

The past will never fully leave you

Only release its powerful hold

In time and with grieving

As your pain becomes the very thing

You bend willingly to accept

And surrender to

Because you finally forgive

Knowing the cost

Of holding on too tight

Will only lead to death

(Remember that this place into which you are dissolving

is a place of intense creativity. Of creation itself.)

Melissa LaFlamme

A grief deeper than I can name

A grief deeper than I can express or name is bursting out of me lately.  After years of working through my anger and frustration and disappointment with my parents I am seeing and feeling a much deeper reality that lay beyond my own needs, wishes, hopes and dreams.  I am fully experiencing the truth that my parents did the best they could with what they knew and I am feeling even more deeper grief for the lost children in them that had to go on in such harsh conditions.  I am even feeling the same for my much older brother and followers of this blog for some time will know of the conflicts I had with him just prior to my Mum’s death in December last year.

He is America for six weeks at the moment at the house he owns over there.  My cousin asked me on Friday, why don’t you go over.  Simple answer.  Never been invited but then my brother would not.  When I asked him how he is spending his time now his wife went back home he told me he goes for three hour long walks and about the deer that come into his garden then and leave their pooh.  I had a dream the other night I was in a cave and there was deer pooh everywhere and I had bare feet but where ever I trod I could not escape the pooh which was then ankle deep.  I understand that this is actually a dream about grief and about the messy uncontrollable world of emotions that my family found so problematic and me too with my descent into addiction from a very young age.

My brother was 39 when my father died and they worked together for years.  Mum would tear up when she told me of how she went into their office one day in the year after Dad died and my brother was sitting there wearing his cardigan. This is a man whose own wife never once told him she loves him and told my mother after Dad died she needed to toughen up and ‘stand on her own two feet!’ What the fuck else did my Mum do for most of her childhood?  Anyway leaving aside my sister in law who is incredibly severe and scary I feel for my brother so much and realise what is hidden under the words he does not say.

I’m feeling for my Mum and Dad too and I feel them over in the land of the passed with so much love in their hearts for me.  I feel them as they guided me to Scott who also lost his Dad a year before me at 21.  Don’t ask me how I know this, I just do.

I just came home from the veggie markets crying listening to one of my most favourite songs If You Wait by London Grammar.  This song is so evocative and it blows my emotions wide open.  At times the grief I feel feels too large for my body and I wonder if what I carry is not only personal but ancestral for I feel the connection to my maternal great great grandfather so deeply at times.  He entered an institution for alcoholism later in life, never having been able to grieve for the mother he lost at 12 years old (the same age my father lost his father!).   I think of how each of my sisters and were also left by men and of how now I have been trying to help someone get out of a life and death situation overseas where war is just about to be declared so we can come together and start a new life.  And how terrified I am that he will be killed before we can finally meet.

I am also aware we are deep in the final shedding time prior to the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Leo on 11th August.  It falls  smack bang on my North Node In Leo.   So much is coming to light from deep within my own shadow and unconscious as well as that of the family.   I know I can bear whatever happens but lately I feel so many echoes around me. Echoes within echoes within echoes resounding along a long corridor of time.   I am in the antechamber awaiting a new birth, what ever comes to pass.

How the inner critic hinders grieving (and anger)

Buried

The greatest hindrance to effective grieving is typically the inner critic.  When the critic is especially toxic, grieving may be counter productive and contraindicated in early recovery.  Those who were repeatedly pathologised and punished for emoting in childhood may experience grieving as exacerbating their flashbacks rather than relieving them.

I have worked with numerous survivors whose tears immediately triggered them into toxic shame.  Their own potentially soothing tears elicited terrible self attacks.  “I’m so pathetic! No wonder nobody can stand me!”  “God, I’m so unlovable when I snivel like this!” “I f@ckup then make myself more of a loser by whining about it!”  “What good is crying for yourself – it only makes you weaker!”

This later response is particularly ironic, for once grieving is protected from the critic, nothing can restore a person’s inner strength and coping capacity like a good cry.  I have defused active suicidality on dozens of occasions by simply eliciting the suffering person’s tears.

Angering can also immediately trigger the survivor into toxic shame.   This is often true of instances when there is only an angry thought or fantasy.  Dysfunctional parents, typically reserve their worst punishments for a child’s anger.  This then traps the child’s anger inside.

In the dysfunctional family however, the traumatising parent soon eradicates the child’s capacity to emote.  The child becomes afraid and ashamed of her own tears and anger.  Tears get shut off and anger gets trapped inside and is eventually turned against the self as self attack, self hate, self disgust and self rejection.  Self hate is the most grievous reenactment of parental abandonment…

Over time anger becomes fuel for the critic.. creating an increasingly dangerous internal environment. Anything the survivor says, thinks, feels, imagines or wishes for is subjected to an intimidating inner attack.

When we greet our own tears with self acceptance, crying awakens our developmentally arrested instinct of self compassion.  Once we establish self compassion through consistent and repeated practice, it becomes the cornerstone of an increasing self esteem.  When an attitude of self compassion becomes habitual, it can instantly antidote the self abandonment that so characterises a flashback.

(copywrite) Pete Walker : extracts from : Complex PTSD : From Surviving to Thriving

Two triggers

I noticed today two triggers that propelled me into flashback mode.  Doing some cleaning and tidying up today I hit my head and was immediately in flashback and my system and hormonal/neurotransmitter responses were being activating, flooding my brain and gut.  I lay down on the floor and gently head my head and said to myself “You are having a flashback,  you feel scared but you are safe”, I then connected on breathing as I practiced self soothing, I did what an earlier body harmony therapist taught me.  Looked around the room, connected to something pretty and safe in present time,  an embroidered cushion and eventually I was able to stand up and self calm.  Part of my PTSD trauma is that I crashed on a pushbike after doing a cranio sacral session to deal with my near death accident at age 17 and was flung over the handlebars, cutting my head open on an iron foundary  This occured close to the first anniversary of my husband returning to the UK and telling me he was going to leave me.  I also had another accident (more minor) on the second annivesary in 2006 and at that stage I did not know what flashbacks were.  I was living totally isolated and alone at the South Coast.

The second trigger prompted sadness over something my friend, was asking me about yesterday concering my ex husband. I shared with her my sorrow over a pregnancy I decided to terminate when I was only 6 months sober from active alcohol addiciton in 1994 and only 8 months married.   I made that decision from my own fear of not being able to be a good enough mother and I know it hurt my ex husband as after he left me he quickly got involved with someone new who gave him a child and told my mother before he told me.  (Mind you they both bonded over refusal to allow me my therapy to deal with a traumatic neglectful past.)

Today this sadness about children was trigger as when Jasper my dog and I go on one of my favourite walks we pass by a child’s play centre and the kids are behind the fence and often they run down and call out to us saying things like : “look, doggie!!!”  So today we went over and then I helped them by throwing back about 6 plastic spades that had been thrown over the fence near to where Jasper and I were standing.   After I left the children behind this huge wave of sadness came upon me and I started to cry and feel so guilty with thoughts like “its no wonder your husband left you”, “you were just a hopeless alcoholic” despite the fact that by that stage I was working as hard as I could on my recovery.  Anyway we kept walking as I cried to the oval where we threw the ball around and then walked back to sit in our favourite spot by the swings on a bench under the tree and by that stage I had moved through the trigger.

Its good to be able to share about these things, about the sadness I will always carry not only for the 5 children I could not bring to term but also for the inner child in me who never really got to become a proper grown up.  My therapist often says that due to the traumas that befell me between age 17 and 23 I never got to properly leave home.  She uses the expression “it was like you were flung out of a cannon”… I was also drowning my shame and false sense of inadequacy in booze and drugs from 23 to 31 when so many other expereinces of emotional abandonment and isolation kept replaying.  The final two abandonments were my husband and then last partner leaving me while telling me I was damaged goods, something it has been hard to get out from under.  But today I can say I think I am making progress. Realising a flashback is a reminder of being so small, powerless and helpless THEN… but not necessarily NOW is so important.  As Pete Walker points out some of us who become passive or co-dependent have our fight and flight responses disabled and we have a lot of work to do to beat the inner critic who beats us up or comes at us from others who know fuck all about our real inner history.  Learning to fight off and not succumb as much to the flashbacks and to make sense of them is so so important to recovery.   It really really is.

Stormy, stormy, stormy skies and a forest fire

If you want

Well this post has been kicking around in my drafts folder for well over a  year now.  I was unsure whether to post it.  I am having a clearing out of these old banked up post at the moment (with Saturn and Jupiter now both retrograde), this one was a reflection on sadness and anger using the metaphors of stormy skies and forest fires:

We’ve had a week of storms and it never fails to impress me how often weather mirrors my mood.  Is it that nature is echoing the deep internal space I find myself in?  Is it that my inner life is resonating with the elements and nature?  It pleases me to think so and to realise that both may be true.

I love these lovely dark afternoons after the storm has passed.  You hear the distant thunder roll and rumble as it passes on for its next destination leaving behind a deepening green that is fecund and full of positive ions leeched into the surrounding vegetation.  What a harsh summer had made so dried out, dusty and barren has been transformed into something soft and plumped out.  This can be how it feels for the soul once it breaks open to the sadnesses held inside for so long that then falls down like rain making the soul that was once parched, full and hydrated, no longer so desiccated.

There is a completeness, filling up and satisfaction that comes as you realise that truths that you hid from have been revealed in a way which would not have been possible before the onset of the tears.  It may have been years that you held the truth of these things inside your heart but with the tears they are made apparent.

Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes in her myth of the Handless Maiden the tears soften the soul and keep the predator at bay.  When the Devil comes to take the daughter of a miller for his own he cannot take her due to the fact she cries.  I think of people I know who have allowed their souls to be hardened in resentment, who had put up defences against hurt and healing, who never would wish to be made vulnerable by tears.  But I also think of the times that tears for me have hidden anger within them and then the shedding of the tears bought no relief as the real revelation had not yet been made.

Deepening the metaphor of the storm and thinking how I am still witnessing the outplaying chorus of thunder around me this afternoon of the thunderous moods of my mother that would come upon her.  We knew to brace and lock down in preparation for the fury of a cleaning session which would be undertaken with a lazer beam intensity that could not be interfered with and would brook rage if it was.

I think of my own thundering around the house at times when anger that has rumbled around inside me for days and rattled the cages of my being and then burst out upon the dog.  Poor little Jasper scarpering outside to the refuge of the garage, looking at me with real pain in his deep brown spaniel eyes and my tears and regret that follow as I see an old pattern repeating.  Poor little darling is having to weather the storm that the landscape of my porous soul absorbed only to replay later.  Jasper is now me and I have become my mother and only realise it later after he fury and the storm has passed.

Anger that is channelled in a constructive direction can enliven what was once unenergised and barren but should it become a roaring forest fire that decimates everything, much is lost and its true value was obscured while old historic anger lay claim to our soul.  We may live to regret deeply words and actions that cut away good with the bad or we may awake freed from a parasitic attachment that did not serve us well if what needed to be cut away from was part of a necessary shedding.

These for me are some reflections on the metaphor of storms and feelings.

Really really gone

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When the one you love has gone

There is no longer a spirit at home in that body

Hands have grown cold

And the heart that used to beat love’s blood

Is deathly still and silent

As the lifeless corpse greets us

Or is hidden in a box

Shielding from us

Such a stark and painful reality

Blocking the full onslaught of our grieving

And if you think about it

Is not our grief

Just another kind of shedding?

From the cold body

Spirit has taken wing

Flown off to nether regions

Like breath that is surrendered

Becomes the air

And wind

And rain

Around us

Last night

I felt your spirit in the thunderstorm

That brought relief after weeks of dry heat

In a dessicated place

The deep hole left by your absence

Slowly filled

Becoming a pool of tears

This is where I sit now

As images and memories of you

Rise from the depth of it

To the surface

My heart opens wider

To encompass painful realities

Of how sometimes

Life with you hurt

And I realise

You are really really gone

And yet too

As long as my heart beats

And my eyes see

Even inwardly in imagination

Your essence still

Lives on

Sadness for the lost child

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I think it is a real sign of growth when we can weep for the child in us who never got to fully live, who often had to be buried or hidden deep inside or who was forced to don a disguise of coats of shame or soot and ashes to survive the invalidating, unfacilitating environment of childhood.  Images of this soot covered slave or servant child appear in the book Leaving My Father’s House by therapist Marion Woodman.  In it, along side stories from several of her client’s lives and psychological recovery stories, she shares a psychological interpretation of the fairy tale of Allerleirauh a young girl who running in flight from her family becomes a servant girl to the King, cooking in his kitchen a number of different soups.

In time in the course of this fairytale she attracts the King’s attention and dons three different dresses, the final one being made of Stars.  This is an allusion to how in the course of our psychological work to recover the child covered in soot and ashes we also reclaim and begin to fully live and express our inner radiance and being, that sense of true self that just could not live in our family of origin, was buried, covered in neglect or shame or nearly destroyed over time by internalised, killing voices.

I know that when I feel and shed tears for the years of living covered in soot and ash I have expereince ever since I was a young adolsecence at times I have felt like I could not possibly cry to the depths of it.  However, over time, the undeniable emotional truth becomes very apparent and real – all that we lost, all the ways in which we suffered and were dismisse, all the anger we felt but were not allowed to express.  With the tears shed in grieving we are, in some way, washing away the soot and emerging clearer and cleaner.   We cannot make up for those lost years, ever. But we can emerge into our true radiance if we just trust that we have depths of goldenness and star stuff inside just longing to burst forth, to ‘be’, to express in this life.

When we can fully feel it all through, and that includes our terror, rage, sadness, shame and anger, we will feel buried inside all of those feelings the truth of our spirit which longed over all those years for our recognition, realisation and championing.  We must feel all of these feelings most fully in a body that may have been neglected or filled with shame, for are these not also feelings which will lead us to realise the inner love that our body and soul longs for: a feeling of the fully conscious feminine deep inside of us both man and woman, girl and boy.   The suffering we buried in our body is felt and released as we nurture the spirit, soul child we know ourselves to be most fully from within.

Conscious femininity is living the redeemed body of Eve, regardless of the gender of the human being.  This body is conscious of itself as an intelligent instrument, a living system that actively participates in the divine unfoldment of planetary life.  While finding the harmony of its own natural laws of being, it is at the same time finding the harmony with all forms of life on Earth… Conscious flesh knows that its function (when fully awakened) is the consciousness of this Earth.

We are not separate from the Earth and our inner child knows this, as does our vital lived spirit.  We must do all we can to fully express this truest part of our being.

(Quote taken from : Redeeming Eve’s Body by Mary Hamilton : in Leaving My Father’s House : A Journey Toward Conscious Femininity, by Marion Woodman)

To be part of a loving family

Having my nephew and his daughter here for these past days (two now) has been so lovely.  Today I cried a lot (silently) about how lonely and hard the disconnection we suffered due to my sister’s trauma and Dad’s death was.  When I hugged my little grand niece this morning and she looked at me with so much love in her soft brown eyes, my heart just swelled.  I remembered how it felt to be so small, open, soft and vulnerable but also strong and wise, yet confused by all the adults around me.   I was aware I did not want to pass any of my sadness onto her as it is my sadness to hold and carry, not hers to feel or heal for me.   I felt how lovely it was last night to share a meal all together in my little cottage with my dog Jasper under the table bathing in the connection and love wagging his tail.   I know in two days they will be leaving and I will miss them so much but I will have these good memories to sustain me.  Today my nephew and I talked of past things and I found out some things I didn’t know.   I will always be so grateful for these moments of reconnection.   There has been so much aloneness and disconnection my life and a lot of fear around reconnecting.  I need to keep remembering the fear is about past loss.   Loss I will never be able to change, but that loss does not need to be the final word.   At least for now.