On grief, trauma and the importance of support

drops on spider web

In Devon I feel particularly blessed that there are several people holding grief spaces in different ways, and that we meet occasionally to share experiences. Many are listed on our website so you can find your way to other offerings. It’s been rich to come together and ask questions – this month we asked “what are we learning?” which generated a wide ranging sharing. About the times we are living in.. about the need for our own support, and spaces for our own grief tending .. about the nature of grief and trauma, and the importance of support or resources for people coming to do grief work, so there is holding also when the grief tending space comes to an end.

I notice how much I am in awe of this work and the power of it. It feels like potent medicine, a great energy that can heal – and that can also be disturbing. I’m so grateful that I’m co-facilitating with Jeremy much of the time, and that we’re supported in Devon by a team who have been holding this work for several years now. And that there are others who step forward into support roles when I’m not working in Devon. I’m very grateful to those who did the Apprenticing to Grief journey, and I’m hopeful that we can support each other to increase the availability of this work, held with integrity and depth.

Why are grief and trauma so linked? Part of the explanation for me is that trauma is not just an overwhelming experience. It is also the failure of the “holding field”  – the absense of parents, elders, community members, loving arms and skilled healers after the experience happens. The reason trauma gets frozen is that we aren’t held with the necessary qualities to release or shake it out – as Peter Levine* observed gazelles doing in the wild. So trauma has two layers, the original shocking, violent or overwhelming event, and then the absence of holding. I personally believe that we are wired up to expect this holding, and it relates strongly to the gateway “What we expected on arrival and did not receive”.

We expected there would be healers available to us to restore us to health when we were wounded. We expected elders who knew what to do when someone was hurt and frozen and needed help to heal. We expected loving arms to pull us back, strong arms to protect us against violence or abuse, to intervene with systems of persecution or  exploitation. The disappointment that this wasn’t in place becomes inseparable from the original event, and often there are layers and layers of pain at the continuing failure of the holding loving field to help me be restored to health in a culture that dismisses pain, especially emotional, and barely recognises even the worst trauma symptoms for what they are.

It seems to me that our understandings about trauma are shifting very rapidly – it’s a fairly new understanding that we work most effectively with trauma when we strengthen a place of resource, and then move from that to touch the trauma, and then come back. The journey of healing is of repeated movements between resources and trauma. If we start to feel overwhelmed it’s best to stop, reconnect with resources and then go gently forward. Repeating experiences of overwhelm is not helpful.

I’ve been reflecting on the many ways this is built into the workshop. We ask participants to connect with support before and after. We start with gratitude, naming and calling in our support, building the banks of the river. We name our individual resources and make time for them again and again – song, nature, beauty, being heard, connecting with the beyond human, the support shrine. In the ritual we make the journey from a place of movement, aliveness, music, the circle, human company, out to the shrine where we let our grief surface and express. Sometimes we have a support person behind us, or the option of that. We can touch in to another shrine for support as well. And then come back – to the song, company, perhaps a warm welcome into human arms if that’s wanted. After the ritual – food, gentle integration, and reminding ourselves again of what can support us as we return to our lives.

One of the movements that I love about the grief tending ceremony is that we move geese in skybetween being witnessed or supported in our own release, and then become the holding for others. I see how naturally this happens for most of us, and my experience is that it’s a strengthening shift. I’m not just on the floor with my own grief. I’m also a resource for others. And then I can be back at the grief shrine fully embodying my own despair or rage or numbness or whatever else. A bit like the way geese take it in turns to support and be supported, leading the way.

This flow between feeling resourced and releasing pain is a very different method to what I learnt as a therapist – only 20 years ago – of big catharsis. Peter Levine has been one of the key explorers of this landscape that I know, bringing forward Somatic Experiencing work as a combination of embodied and talking therapy. Trauma Release Exercises or TRE is another method that builds on Levine’s work. Other ways to work directly with trauma include EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing)’  I’ve used EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – tapping). There are probably many more that I don’t know about. and someone recently suggested authentic movement.

Part of the wisdom, and perhaps humility, that I know I need, is that Grief Tending workshops can only support part of the journey of healing. Perhaps if we lived – like Sobonfu and Malidoma did – in a village where there are strong rituals every week, where there are healers present who know how to deal with extreme reactions or traumatised states – then the grief ritual would be able to contain more. In this culture where we are still learning, where we don’t have expansive time to stay in ritual space as long as needed, where the “village” is a temporary thing, I feel clear that anyone who is touching trauma in the workshops needs to put in place one to one trauma work of some sort. The bad news of course is how unaffordable  that is for many. The good news might be that it’s much much quicker work than it was back when I trained.

So we’re serious when we want to know about what support is in place for all participants before and after the workshop. The more we have in place the deeper we can dive. And without enough of it grief work can be precarious, opening up places of hurt which there isn’t the capacity to hold after. It’s important to respect the part of our psyche which keeps strong feelings out of awareness when we’re not resourced enough to feel them – a useful strategy. And to recognise that to heal we need to build webs of support where we are held, and hold each other again and again.

Thanks to all the members of the Grief Tending mycelium.

GT drops on hazel web

Author: sophybanks

living in south west England