Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Excerpts from my "Good Grief" paper

Over the course of this semester I thought that working the grief process would bring a neat and tidy, even linear, conclusion. I would weave a fluid thread from beginning to end; I would be comforted, resolved. But I discovered that the only thing solid about grief is that there is nothing solid at all – “Nothing makes sense in grief… it is raging fire or smoldering ashes… neither linear nor logical. Grief is alchemy.” (Fidel-Rice, 2002, p. 171) This was less of an excavation, a dramatic discovery, than an exploration. I had to feel my way around in the dark. I had to wander. Roaming through the elements of alchemy, my dreams, with music, writing and working with images, my journey was mystical and soulful. My eyes were opened and light shed itself on what had been concealed.

I had a dream, I was falling. The dream was pure black, completely dark, all around me, except I could see my body. I whispered to myself, “just let go, let go.” I felt the instant downward pull of gravity, and felt relief of disappearing backward.

As I rode through our class books, it felt like my soul began to bleed in all the ways it needed. I spent weekends in a cocoon, writing, and the interaction with the keyboard and my emotions was incredibly soothing, like a call and response (and a container for my grieving). And during this period, incredibly vivid dreams came to me. “The dreams of the bereaved frequently parallel the mourning process and often reflect the particular task of mourning that the grieving person is struggling with.” (Worden, 2004, p. 171)

I had a dream, I was walking in the park. It was in San Francisco, a park with many homeless. There was human shit everywhere. This is disgusting, I thought. It made my stomach turn.

To assist in exploring where I was stuck in the shit – the “bowels of suffering” (Fidel-Rice, p. 1), I set aside time to perform a ritual by drawing in my art journal. “Drawings are less susceptible to… defensive distortions than talking. The drawings helps facilitate feelings, identify conflicts that the mourner may be unaware of, heighten awareness of what the person lost, and identify where the person is in the mourning process.” (Worden, p. 106) I stood back and gazed at my drawing, noticing the watery ocean blue colors and the absence of color below my heart. I had drawn fat tears, then scribbled heavily over them with black crayons, and wrote “Daddy.” Below my torso grew a shell shaped spiral, with a dark red burst at the center. Taken together, it was clear how “images are important for the healing process.” (Fidel-Rice, p. 201)

After some time passed I was able to look at my drawing again (this time with a therapist), and she called the swirl a “trauma vortex” (referencing Peter Levine’s work). I continued gazing at this vortex, feeling swallowed and unsteady. “Dante's circles of hell remind me of my own vortexes of hell… my grief process reflects a lack of psychic order, despair, and terror.” (Fidel-Rice, p. 85). Looking into this whirlpool was like poking my finger into a hornet’s nest; doing so would release other “too hot to touch” sexual experiences that followed later in my life. Everything seemed tied together, so if I unraveled one wound, I would unravel another. Isabelle Allende describes what happens with suppressed grief: “Imagine trying to hold a beach ball down under water, eventually it must explode to the surface.” Putting those words on paper released the pressure of that sting, like a gasket blowing; a relief in some ways.

I had a dream that a door had been left open, to a bedroom in a summer vacation cottage. It had become filled with many bees, so I ran outside and turned on the porch light to lure them out. At last, the room empty seemed empty, so I entered and shut the door to the porch. Suddenly I was stung, on the delicate skin of my ribs under my arm. At first, it was a prick, then it burned so terribly, so deep.

I wandered into the concept of time, lost in the abstract world of then and now. “The past is not what has happened and is over; moments in time have a vertical depth and are drawn together by an affinity of mood and image.” (Romanyshyn, 1999, p. 104) I experienced how the grieving process operates on a different timeline; the time of the soul. “For the soul, moments in time are not arranged on a horizontal line, like beads on a string… a magnetic or gravitational pull… dissolves the linear quality of time.” (Romanyshyn, p. 104)

Evoking these memories of my past meant I would have to travel and criss-cross along those beads on a string; every loss touched another. “The present is in the past and the other way around. I am always here, always there.” (Rosner, p. 232) This reminded me of playing the guitar, you can strum just one string, but to play a chord, to make a harmony, you must stroke all of them at once. I surrendered to wandering what felt like a complex web. “The spider’s work [connects] the work of our souls. We, like the noiseless, patient spider launch filaments out of ourselves…the gossamer threads of meaning we fling catch hold somewhere and, for a moment, secure us in place.” (Romanyshyn, p. 113)

I had a dream, a male neighbor was approaching our yard and was going to deadbolt our fence shut. Later, we discovered three young girls hidden in the back of his SUV, clearly abducted. We saved them!

I felt frozen solid as I spun through all these memories, but there were no tears, as “grief is cold—frozen at times.” (Fidel-Rice, p. 171) How I ached to release the healing waters (alchemical solutio) of emotion, "the big thaw.” (Fidel-Rice, p. 15) The icy theme caught my attention again and again in my readings. “The Ice Age had returned. [She] managed to break free, of the frozen water. I got caught in the ice.” (Rosner, p. 25) It was the dead of winter, and “the [ugly] duckling had to swim about in the water to keep it from freezing. His legs moved so slowly that the ice crept closer and closer. When the morning light broke, he was caught fast. (Pinkey, 1999, p. 19) Peter Levine describes how this freeze relates to trauma, “trauma symptoms form in a spiraling process and at the core is the immobility or freezing response.” (Levine, 1997, p. 99) I couldn’t stop listening to the haunting, watery, songs of Florence & the Machine:

Time it took us, to where the water was / That’s what the water gave me / Lay me down / Let the only sound / Be the overflow / Pockets full of stones (Welch and White, 2011, track 3)

Holy water cannot help you now / And no rivers and no lakes can put the fire out (Welch and Epworth, 2011, track 8)

When my stepfather left, like the Ugly Duckling, the possibility of pain from future rejection was too big, so I left emotionally. I learned how to turn off. “Here is what I knew how to do: how to get away, how to save myself by taking flight, by vanishing.” (Rosner,p. 2) When I was 12, I began spending hours wandering around the shopping mall. I was alone, I was numb- a walking ghost with unfinished business and a hole in my heart. This all could have been exacerbated as my Ego tendency (as Type Four on the Enneagram – a personality typing system) to experience an inner hopelessness which is rooted in feeling separate from others. The experience is feeling “like a boat loosed from its moorings… cut off and set adrift. There is a poignant inner sense of disconnection and estrangement from others but, more important, from the depths within.” (Maitri, 2000, p. 138)

And so I made another date with my art collage, ripping, tearing, cutting and gluing. The images were very dark and haunting. They reflect my utter and almost irrational despair of being trapped, imprisoned. There were browns of the earth, alchemical coagulatio peeking from underneath, and solutio, pockets of water in tunnels and caves. And all the eyes! The eyes of the hawk, the primate, the dark man, and the most potent eyes- the woman with a double set of eyes, blurred vision. I kept asking myself, Helen, what do you not want to see? The darkness has protected me from “a feeling of being cast away, and an inconsolable and insatiable longing… for the connection that has been lost. There is a feeling of scarcity, a sense of deprivation, an inner poverty.” (Maitri, p. 139) And these eyes in the drawing were the penetrating gaze of my soul, so fiercely present that I could not take my eyes off this drawing. They were saying to me, you are not bad or deficient, evil or poisonous. You belong to me.

I took a meditation course that teaches the principles similar to the Native American practice of lying on the earth, recognizing that “gravity is stronger than we are. [We could] embrace our intimate connection with gravity and transform its force into a source of nourishment and support.” (Johnson, 2000, p. 51). I began to distinguish the difference between the heaviness of the earth and heaviness of depression. Awareness of coagulatio helped sustain me through the dark times, going outside simply to lay my body on the grass. “What do you call it when the mud is like a waterfall? We have a name for the moment that is the darkest time of the night, the moment before it begins to become morning. It also means hope. (Rosner,p. 72) I feel possibility and lightness about what is next in my career, to release myself from the prison of the “relentless external longing for fulfillment…the [search] for the perfect thing that will bring contentment.” (Maitri, p.141)

I had a dream, of a dark grey backpack. It was on the floor in a storage unit and had been there a long, long time. It was covered in the kind of dust which has accumulated for years. I was aware of some kind of sticky food, like raspberry jam, which had been left in there and was likely molding. For some reason instead of picking it up, I kicked at the backpack and was startled by movement inside. Some kind of rodent broke free and ran away.

I kept being called to add something back into my first drawing, in the blank white space behind the little girl. The first image I added was of a woman rising out of the waves of the ocean, reaching down into the back of my heart; the healing waters. She came to visit me in song: “Fractured moonlight on the sea / And it's breaking over me / And the arms of the ocean are carrying me / Never let me go / But the arms of the ocean delivered me.” (Welch, and Epworth, 2011, Track 4) The second image I added was all greenery; “Green… is the explosive exfoliation of all life, the omnipresence of renewal and rebirth… older than the frequency of our conscious minds… the ice around my heart was melting away, warmed by the sun and the fierce, deep fire of green.” (Johnson, p. 56) Adding these two images completed the cycle of this drawing. Now when I look at it, I feel the love of a mother tending to my heart, and the warm of the sun whispering to me. It is saying keep growing, I will nourish you. I have gone into the storage and retrieved my dusty past and freed the creature living there.

“The attic had become a place of passage, and the dust, which had settled on these things, was a farewell message which these things that had lingered with me were leaving behind. Dust and fury share the same parentage. I imagined dust to be the furious breath of things. Maybe dust was even a promise that I was not alone, that I was not abandoned, perhaps a promise that I did belong to something other and larger than myself.” (Romanyshyn, p. 38-39)

I have found comfort in disclosing these losses to the reader, like “interactive 3rd field… stirring the collective unconscious – the key work or word is interactive,” which happens between the therapist and client. (Fidel-Rice, p. 185) This field is happening right now, as my story is being read by you, witnessed. But another kind of field emerged during this grief period, and I could not deny what was happening in my external world. The physical world began reflecting or intensifying my internal experience. The world was communing with me, speaking to me in the same way that “reveries offer something closer to a poetics of the elemental forces of life… the natural forces of the soul, something divine or holy.” (Romanyshyn, p. 580)

I planted a new kind of flowering perennial in the spring, and by summer my patio was swarming with bees. Sitting on my patio, in the final afternoon of editing this paper, one wasp in particular would not stop stalking me! My cat became abnormally vocal, following me around and constantly pawing to go out; I began to project how lonely he must be. And, terribly, as I descended into the darkest part of my grief, twelve movie-goers were murdered violently in the mass shooting at the Dark Knight movie. And I couldn’t escape the red hotness from my drawing with the record-breaking heat of this summer– and then our state literally caught fire. I was incredibly agitated from the heat, and irrational anger kept exploding unexpectedly. “In a way which makes no logical sense, I felt something within me grow beyond the boundaries of my embodied self… something other, like a wind, a spirit, the soul of myself expanding.” (Romanysyn, p. 146) And most magical, after a long day of writing, about 50 dragonflies swarmed my patio – I had never seen anything like it. Dragonfly “medicine” is about the breaking of illusions, especially those illusions that prevent growth and maturity. Dragonfly is the bringer of visions of power.

Just days ago, I woke up at 3am, but instead of a dream, I felt anger. I felt deep hurt. Suddenly I realized the heat, the fire, the burn – that was anger. And this old ancient hurt, it rose from its ashes.


Grieving this loss was more about “visiting” the loss and allocating space in time to do so, rather completing something in a linear way. As I shined the flashlight around the darkness, I did not conquer or finish anything, I simply wandered aimlessly. I came to understand that “with alchemy in grief therapy, this is a weaving process… it is important to listen for symbols, images, dreams, songs…” (Field-Rice, p. 199) These drawings and images in my journal helped carry me through, but did not force a narrow process, unlike typical “tasks” and “stages” of many grief therapy paradigms.

I liken this grief period to working with fascia, the connective tissue system of the body which surrounds all the muscles, tissues and organs of the body. The fascia is the holder of our history, both the elasticity and the constrictions from physical and emotional trauma. Myofascial release is a technique that therapists use to effectively release any part of the body that is frozen or painful from the abnormal grip of constricted fascia.

“A key to the success of myofascial release treatments is to keep the pressure and stretch extremely mild. Muscle tissue responds to a relatively firm stretch, but this is not the case with fascia. It has been shown that under a small amount of pressure (applied by a therapist's hands) fascia will soften and begin to release when the pressure is sustained over time.” (Barnes, 1988)

It has been the gentleness of pressure, through soulful and conscious grief tending, which has released some of the compression that was bottled-up for so many years.

This process showed me how important it is to allot a period of time to spend with one’s soul, and that grief therapy will never erase the loss. Like in the film, Gift of Grief, our losses are not something we get over, they are something we learn to live with. Do “we hold on to the places we passed through, or leave some of ourselves behind in them? Accumulation, or erosion, or some of both?” (Rosner, p. 235) The ultimate expression of the Enneagram Type Four is to feel centered in myself, I have to been in contact with my source. “Being is the Source out of which all individual souls arise. We do not experience ourselves as rooted in Being and arising out of It, but rather as Being itself. We are not connected to Being – we are Being.” Part of me is still waiting at that glass, but now I can see my reflection looking back at me. I had abandoned that little girl, and had lost connection with myself. Now I have put away the longing to re-connect with her, and see my “Soul Child… her purity, luminosity, and inherent brilliancy… and will transform into a shining sense of inner completeness, perfect, and elegance.” (Maitri, p. 261) I followed the string of beads, the spider’s web, the threads, and found that, like the Ugly Duckling, she was not flawed. The swan knew it was worth having gone through all the suffering and loneliness to realize that, in fact, she belonged to herself, and was worthy and beautiful beyond measure.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Yay! From my professor:

    As synchronicity would have it, I sat with 6 papers from the grief therapy class before the wedding and am sitting with the rest now. I just finished your paper so your email with your completed collage ....your final ritual picture was impeccable timing!!!!!! Thank you for sending your final ritual picture as I so appreciate your process even more!!!!! Your paper!!!! Oh my gosh....you did a brilliantly beautiful process with alchemy and your dreams and the ugly duckling story and weaved them beautifully! So few students use alchemy!!!!! I have a plethora of comments......thank you, thank you for allowing me to witness your soul's grief story.