Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grief Work

We don't know what life will bring, so it is what we bring to life that matters.
Patricia Campbell Carlson

It was really interesting to observe the reactions I got when I told people that I was going to a Bereavement Skills Training Course. They ran the full gamut from genuine interest to feigned interest to horror to concern. Most people didn't really know what to make of my decision to attend a four-day training at the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Colorado last week. I think many were worried about why I would want to do this. Wouldn't it be too difficult for me? Wouldn't it dredge up painful memories of Matthew? And while I can certainly appreciate their concern, I'm here to say not only did I survive, but it ended up being one of the most worthwhile trainings I've ever participated in.

Dr. Alan Wolfeldt is renowned in the field of grief and bereavement and has devoted his professional life to working with people in various stages of grief.  His main premise is that of "companioning the mourner." By this he means being with and present to another person's pain and not trying to take it away. It's about walking alongside the mourner, not leading them. It's about acknowledging and listening with the heart, not trying to direct their pain to an easier place. It's not about "fixing" someone.  All of this makes such innate sense to me, and yet so much of this is not the direction that our culture is headed towards. In fact, Dr. Wolfeldt said more than once that we in America live in a perceived "deathless society." Of course we don't. But unlike our grandparents' generation where death was more visible on a day-to-day basis, death nowadays is remote; it's behind closed doors.

Still with me? I realize that this may seem like a dark and foreboding topic, but I can promise you that I walked out of this course both educated and rejuvenated.  Doesn't it make sense that if we deny or inhibit our emotions our pain lasts longer? After a significant loss we can easily lose our joie de vivre--our reason for living.  It's only natural that when we lose someone we love our divine spark feels muted. The easiness that we once inhabited our lives gives way to an all-encompassing heaviness. But rather than subverting or denying these feelings of loss, we need to mourn well so that we can go on and live our lives well. We need to acknowledge the loss and subsequent pain, not evade it.

I learned so much that it's hard to know what I want to say in this blog post. I imagine that I'll be writing in the coming months about many different aspects of what transpired in those four days. But I'll tell you something that I've thought about often this past week, and that is how we started on the first day. There were 36 of us gathered to glean what we could from Alan Wolfeldt. Thirty-six people who were interested in learning more about the mysterious body of knowledge surrounding grief and loss. It was a mix of social workers, nurses, clergy, hospice employees and volunteers. Before beginning, Dr. Wolfeldt asked us to tell the story of why we were there, as well as share a significant loss in our lives. We took three and a half hours to hear everyone's stories. This was not a quick check-in, but instead a thoughtful exercise that ultimately resulted in creating a sacred space that lasted the week. We listened as one-by-one people shared what we soon came to realize were our love stories. It was amazing. For me, it was the chance to talk about Matthew and this new journey that I find myself on. There were both tears and laughter as people opened up their hearts to strangers. There were two other bereaved moms in the group, and of course there was a natural bond between the three of us. But what soon became evident was that everyone has a story (or two) of loss, for that's what being human is all about.

Three years ago I wouldn't have imagined myself on this path. Three years ago I was writing a little blog about children's books, as well as working on my own children's book. But as we all know, life often takes you in a different direction than the one you start out on. And now I find myself on my own grief journey with a worldview that has been dramatically changed by life's circumstances. My heart has been broken open and I find myself drawn to the world of the mourner. I find that I am able to sit with people who are in a dark place and listen to their stories of loss and love. I'll end with a C.S. Lewis quote that Dr. Wolfeldt shared with us that resonated with me:  "Grief is like a long, winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape." 


  1. I am thrilled to hear that you went to this training and I know that you are and will continue to make a difference in the lives of grieving adults as you offer them companionship on their journey through the long, winding valley. You are a blessing to the world.

    1. Thanks to YOU, Juliana for introducing me to Dr. Wolfeldt. I'll be going to future trainings (perhaps you can come too!)

  2. Robin,

    Once again, I am moved by your ability to write straight from your heart, by your courage in facing the tough realities of life with grace, by your openhearted invitation for others to join you—and yes, so many others—in openly sharing lessons of grief and gratitude. Not only is Dr. Wolfeldt a wonderful teacher; so are you!

    You're well aware of how we use poetry in our Courage & Renewal retreats. Your writing today brought to mind the second line from the poem (below) by Gunilla Norris titled "Paradox."

    It is a paradox that experiencing pain
    releases pain.

    What I've learned from my own experiences of loss over the years is that some people have a gift for being present to pain—their own and/or that of others—in such a way that the poet's words are felt to be deeply true. It's a gift of calm and true presence, as you say, in which we restrain our cultural compulsions to rush in and "fix" another person or situation, instead trusting that the grieving person has inner resources upon which to draw. The paradox of our silent witness-bearing is that my saying little or nothing, we may offer the most precious gift of all: a kind of silent and loving companionship while their own resourcefulness is discovered.

    You trust and embody this gift, Robin. And for that, I'm deeply grateful!

    In friendship,



    It is a paradox that we encounter so much internal noise
    when we first try to sit in silence.

    It is a paradox that experiencing pain
    releases pain.

    It is a paradox that keeping still can lead us
    so fully into life and being.

    Our minds do not like paradox.
    We want things to be clear, so we can maintain our illusions of safety.
    Certainty breeds tremendous smugness.

    We each possess a deeper level of being, however,
    which loves paradox.
    It knows that summer is already growing like a seed
    in the depth of winter.
    It knows that the moment we are born,
    we begin to die.
    It knows that all of life shimmers in shades of becoming—
    that shadow and light are always together,
    the visible mingled with the invisible.

    When we sit in stillness we are profoundly active.
    Keeping silent, we can hear the roar of existence.
    Through our willingness to be the one we are,
    we become one with everything.

    —Gunilla Norris

    1. Thank you Rick for those kind words. Plus, while I think I've seen that Gunilla Norris poem before, I definitely see it differently now. Thank you!

  3. That's awesome that you went to this training, Robin! I admire you so much.

  4. Robin, thank you for letting us know about this training. That sounds like something I'd be interested in doing someday.

    1. It was really quite amazing, Anna. I hope you will consider it someday.

  5. Yes, this is a "deathless society." In fantasy, of course. Because death is a fact yet every time someone dies, we're shocked. We're not supposed to talk about it. The other day, in conversation with my mom, I said, "When Philip died..." she said, "Can't you say he passed??" It's been 16 months since he died and I am devastated. And more drawn to death, to understand something; what, I'm not sure yet. I've just finished hospice training, and many people thought I was nuts. Of course I'm not nuts - I'm grieving and trying to deal and the more we live the more we see death.

    1. So true, about the more we live the more we see death. I am so sorry for your loss.

  6. Dear Robin,

    Your journey brings hope to small miracle that. I love you. --M

  7. Thank you Margaret. Love you too!!