What happens in our physiology when we don’t attend to grief? Our mind / feeling / bodies have a natural response to the many painful things that life brings. It might be to express any of the feelings we call painful – not only sorrow but also anger, fear, helplessness, despair and more.
When I read of human cultures who honoured this as central to the human experience I’m struck by the possibility that grief would be given priority – perhaps unless a major emergency was happening requiring immediate action. There might be elders or healers to call in and hold a ceremony; perhaps the whole village might pause and join in. In the Dagara people of Burkina Faso as many of you know there would also be regular, maybe weekly, grief tending rituals, giving a place where the day to day griefs of life could be noticed and released.
How is it in our modern culture? Perhaps a period of compassionate leave. What happens in that time? Often people find themselves isolated, as others continue with their occupations. Who calls in ceremony, who shows up? I’m struck that even at funerals or memorial services there is often a wish “not to break down” and people may feel their tears are not appropriate or welcomed.
It takes significant physical and emotional energy to internally manage the holding back of pain that wants to be expressed. Instead of stopping to feel, to fall down in grief, in modern culture many have to push on, overriding this natural impulse.
I see this as a driven, stressed sympathetic nervous system response. If there was relaxation the tears or rage or fear would start to arise. So there is tension in the body to hold that in, followed by active mobilisation to drive forward. In the end this constant production of the stress hormone cortisol causes damage, for example to the adrenal and immune systems, leading to chronic fatigue and other long term conditions that may take years to recover from.
I believe this is one of the central causes of burnout, using life energy to repress the natural expression of grief. Along with the repression comes the belief “My feelings are not important. There is no one here for me when I need them.” I see that this contributes to another well researched aspect of burnout, a loss of meaning and motivation, leading to cynicism and depression. If there is no one there to hold me when I need it, life starts to feel empty and cold. And then, how can I go on giving to others?
There is always a signal when the human body is going out of balance. It might be physical – headaches, tiredness, insomnia, illness; it might be emotional – irritation, feeling upset, feeling numb; it might be mental – racing thoughts or negativity. Or many other signals, which may combine, often reinforcing each other.
There are many models of burnout but few that I’ve come across point to this essential pattern:
There is pain but I/we ignore it and carry on as if it was not there.
We can see this pattern at every level of scale in our society. I do it to myself. Organisational culture does it – emotions, especially vulnerability, is usually not welcomed as part of a work identity. There may be workplace counselling schemes or other support; the sense I have is still that it is taken care of outside the workplace, so that the work space is not taken up with this unprofessional behaviour.
At another level of scale, it is visible in the huge systems of harm that modern societies endure with very little response. One example is that the levels of sexual abuse of children – roughly one in four girls and one in seven boys – is about the same as when I was coming into adulthood, nearly 40 years ago. This cuts across social dividers like class and ethnicity. How is it that for decades so few are responding to this huge swathe of suffering that exists within so many children’s lives?
This pattern is also seen in the slowness of response to signals of planetary harm – from species extinctions to resource depletion to wildfires to the climate emergency.
I want to acknowledge that there are also ways in which many do move towards pain, and hold and heal it; the NHS is a fantastic example of a national move to create a system of accessible healing for physical pain and sickness. People who support and teach inner work, conflict resolution, who offer support to disaster areas, those recovering from trauma and abuse, and there are many, many more.
I also want to acknowledge that while my white, middle class culture was very sparse in its ability to look towards, or collectively process pain, other cultures do have ceremonies or rituals for this. I have heard people share that in their Muslim community there are gatherings to honour, celebrate and mourn when someone dies which may last several days. At the centre of Buddhism is an inquiry into the causes of suffering. So there are social technologies still alive in the modern world where pain is explored, tended and heard.
What could help to change this pattern of ignoring pain where it prevails? From the work I’ve done in grief tending spaces I see that there are several things that help with this. We often refer to the “Banks of the river”, creating conditions where pain can be expressed in a safe-enough way. Here are a few:
- Holding – emotional safety and loving warmth that is strong enough to meet the pain and stay with it. This could be one other – a friend or counsellor; it could be a self help group or workshop; it could be a gathering of friends.
- Having a shared intention, clear agreements and boundaries will help create safety during and after any sharing of vulnerability
- Qualities that pull us towards life – beauty, song, our love for live, willingness to face what is painful for the sake of others, especially future generations.
- A form or shape so there is a way in, a structure or process that holds the expression, and a way back.
- Understandings of the landscape of grief, including trauma, so that when feelings arise that appear overwhelming, terrifying or destructive, we can make meaning of them, instead of being taken over by them.
I see that there is a micro-pattern here as well. In life-affirming cultures there might be simple practices woven into everyday habits that embody these practices. Welcoming each other with appreciation; giving gratitude to what is supportive or beautiful. Singing together, which supports the parasympathetic nervous system and releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, creating a sense of connection. Having down time, just to notice what is here – walking, sitting, reflecting with others, digesting the day, doing nothing but listening. Acknowledging that we depend on each other and the living web of life for our existence. When we often notice what is good in life it is easier to give space to painful things that might make us pull away.
I offer these insights that I have found helpful in working with burnout, especially in these times. Some are super busy, and on the front line of dealing with sickness and death; many are dealing with illness and bereavement without even the usual forms of physical presence, loving touch, being with the dying and dead. Many are with our own sense of bewilderment, loss, uncertainty; and with the suffering of others – children unable to be with friends and playmates; the extra impact experienced by those who are poor, black, with underlying health conditions, and more.
Many who come on grief tending workshops speak afterwards about feeling energised, more spacious and present. Life force energy is freed up from holding in what wants to flow naturally.
There is also a strengthening that can happen from being the witness or support to others’ pain. Holding a space for grief with others can remind us that, together, we can create enough holding for really intense experiences – suicide of a loved one; the death of a child; the experience of social violence through poverty, racism, sexual assault; and more, and more.
For me this is a huge part of what Grief tending is about; I don’t offer it just to help individuals feel better. I am comm itted toit because I want to change a system that continues to cause harm on a global industrial scale because it mostly cannot feel the pain it is causing. This is the definition of a psychopathic system. It is a system destined for burnout, conflict and collapse. These workshops are tiny drops in a big ocean.
My prayer in these times is that we find ways to come together to feel what is here.
I’m offering small grief workshops, a tiny drop in the ocean. I’m so grateful that there are more and more people offering grief spaces in different formats, and that people are reaching out to connect and make spaces for pain.
I hope you find the space that you need, to let whatever is arising for you move through, be witnessed, and help to keep us connected when so much is keeping us apart. Connected to self, to the beyond human world, and to each other.
We are offering a Grief Tending Deep Dive for those carrying a lot of unexpressed grief on 27 – 28th February 2021. See the Events page for details
If you are interested to learn more about holding spaces for grief you may want to look at the Apprenticing to Grief programme we are offering on line this March – May
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