Recovering from the Shock of a Relationship Breakup

Dr. Michael Acton, psychologist and relationship expert, spoke about the shock of a relationship breakup at the 2023 Mental Health Super Summit.  He suggested that a relationship breakup is like a car wreck – there is not only shock but also confusion. 

The natural and common reaction is to leap into another relationship for comfort and support.  Loss of a relationship can be very disorientating and incredibly disturbing.  People lose a sense of who they are while others in their relationship circle no longer know how to relate to them (particularly when they only knew the individual as part of a couple).    Some people in the circle choose avoidance, a few offer emotional support.

Michael likens the impact of a relationship breakup to being “lost in a dark tunnel”.  He suggests that disorientating shock occurs even for a person initiating a breakup.  The initiator can be frozen by indecision, alternating between “staying’ and “leaving”.  Indecision can then permeate every aspect of their life and especially their work environment and work tasks.

Michael provides specific advice for people in a toxic and narcissistic relationship in his book, Learning How to Leave: A Practical Guide.  The book is designed to empower sufferers of abuse from toxic relationships whether they are in an intimate relationship, a business relationship or in a family where domestic violence or coercive control exists.

Michael also maintains that grief models such as that of Elisabeth Kubler Ross are not adequate to describe the shock of a relationship breakup.  Unlike the loss of a loved one through death, a relationship breakup means that the other party still retains “agency” and can continue or initiate abuse physically, emotionally and/or financially. 

Physical violence can be threatened by well-meaning relatives of the separated partner.  The separated partner can also control mutual funds, or “take them (their former partner) to the cleaners”. One of the more emotionally exacting and potentially damaging action the separated partner can take is to withhold access to their jointly conceived children.

Michael is currently working on a book with a new model to address relationship breakups, Fork in the Road (available in 2024). 

Jelena Dokic’s relationship breakup

In a previous post, I discussed the physical abuse Jelena suffered at the hands of her father and the coercive control he exercised over her and her mother.  What was the greatest shock for Jelena was the sudden breakup of her relationship with her partner of 19 years, Tin Bilic.   In 2021, Tin, who was with his father in Croatia at the time, announced by a FaceTime call just before Christmas Day that, “We are done”.  Jelena describes the shock, pain and hurt she suffered as a result in her second memoir, Fearless: Finding the Power to Thrive

The shock of the breakup with Tin left Jelena in disbelief – she could not comprehend why the breakup occurred (no explanation was given).  There were no precursor major fights.  The shock of the relationship breakup was intensified because Tin had been “her rock” since 2002 – he stood by her at her lowest point in 2005 when she was “overweight, depressed, bankrupt and on the verge of ending her life”.

Jelena described Tin as the kindest person she had ever known (taking after his mother who had been a real support for Jelena with her kindness, respect, belief and model behaviour).  The permanent separation occurred after five months of temporary separation occasioned by Tin having to support his father who was in grief following the death of his wife Slavia in 2019.  The  uncertainty and trauma being experienced by Jelena at the time were compounded by the extended COVID lockdown in Melbourne..

Recovery from trauma: Jelena Dokic

Jelena acknowledges that she is still a “work-in-progress” following the multiple traumatic events she experienced in her life.  However, she has been able to overcome the disabling effects of trauma and has established herself in a new career as an international Tennis Commentator, author and public speaker. 

Jelena has been proactive in dealing with her trauma.  Following her relationship breakup with Tin, she sought therapy from a psychologist and he has proven to be a “lifesaver”.  Additionally, she identified a range of factors that helped her on her healing journey:

  • Supportive people – In Jelena’s early years as a junior tennis player, Lesley Bowrey was a tremendous support showing her kindness, belief and respect (while sharing a strong “work ethic”).  Tin himself and his mother, Slavia, were kindness personified and helped Jelena restore her self-belief.  Tom Woodbridge provided tireless support for her transition to author and Commentator and provided emotional support following her breakup with Tin.  Jelena frequently acknowledges the positive influence on her healing of the supportive people in her life.
  • Daily morning routine –  Jelena described the “mindful pause” that she takes for 45 minutes each morning. This routine involves stopping, savouring a cup of coffee, and admiring nature, especially the sunrises.  She learnt from Slavia to savour the “simple things in life”. 
  • Expressing gratitude – Jelena is very conscious of the research that demonstrates the healing effects of gratitude.  She writes in her gratitude journal on a weekly basis about the things in her life that she is grateful for (and re-reads the journal daily to remind herself of these blessings).  She also writes on a post-it note each week identifying three things that she is grateful for (and displays the note on her fridge as a reminder).  Jelena maintains that “practising gratitude brings calmness and joy to my mind and my life”.
  • Writing and public speaking – Jelena reiterates the healing power of storytelling and credits her storytelling in her memoirs as a major factor in her trauma recovery.  She notes in her memoirs that her storytelling in her public talks and presentations is not only healing for her but also for others who are experiencing trauma. This vicarious benefit is reinforced every time she meets people in public who have read her memoirs or listened to her talks.
  • Practising kindness – Jelena has a whole section in her Fearless memoir on “happiness, healing and kindness”.  She emphasises the power of kindness to “change lives and the world”.  Jelena acknowledges that she has had to teach herself how to be kind to others and to herself (given the family violence she experienced and the devastating impact on her self-esteem and self-love).
  • Empathy – Jelena in her generosity has used her resources and contacts to advocate for sufferers-survivors who have experienced what she has gone through – child abuse, body-shaming, family violence, social media trolling, eating disorders, and mental health issues.
  • Meditation and mindfulness – Jelena indicated that she practices meditation to achieve calmness and overcome anxiety.  Her other practices such as her “morning pause”, walking in nature, connecting to animals in a sanctuary, all contribute to her capacity to grow in mindfulness.  In many ways, Jelena puts into practice the principles for happiness and resilience promulgated by Hugh Van Cuylenburg in The Resilience Project: Finding Happiness Through Gratitude, Empathy and Mindfulness (G.E.M.).

Reflection

Jelena provides a source of inspiration for many people through her storytelling and her courage to work on her healing from trauma.  She demonstrates that as we grow in mindfulness we can shed our negative self-image, develop compassion and overcome life’s challenges.   We can learn to overcome our maladaptive responses and restore our self-image. 

The Health Story Collaborative provides the resources, encouragement and support to help you to write and share your health story.  I have found the free, monthly Creative Meetups (Writing for Expression and Healing) to be a very supportive and inspiring group who are proactive in oral and written storytelling to improve their health and overall wellbeing.  The group is non-hierarchical involving people with different levels of writing ability and a variety of health issues (including trauma-related illnesses and Long-COVID induced disabilities).

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

The Demeaning Power of Coercive Control

During the recent 2023 Mental Health Super Summit Dr. Richard Hill explained the concept of “coercive control”, how it manifests and its devastating effects on children and adults.  This is a form of insidious, creeping control over another by a perpetrator (usually a parent or partner) that Richard describes as “a slow whittle”.  He drew on the definition of Dr. Emma Katz, a world authority in the area, to explain that coercive control involves the progressive “controlling of somebody else’s whole life”.   It takes away their normal autonomy and sense of freedom.  The control that is exercised is “wide-ranging and persistent”.  If the controlled person resists or refuses to conform they are punished.  The net result is that the controlled person lives a constrained way of life to avoid punishment.  

In her book, Coercive Control in Children’s and Mother’s Lives, Emma explains that children and adult survivors even after they are able to break free from the perpetrator must engage in a “sustained battle for safety and recovery”.  Through her research with many victims-survivors, she has become convinced that support and “professional Interventions” are needed to facilitate healing and recovery.

Richard explained that the perpetrator of coercive control keeps the controlled person “off balance”, continuously confuses them and progressively isolates them from others (in part, so that they can’t tell others what is happening to them).  He argues that the controlled person can begin to question their own sanity (because of “gaslighting”) and loses both self-esteem and self-determination.  Even when they are able to flee, they may fear for their safety because of stalking by the perpetrator who may continue to engage in “post-separation abuse”.

Even seeking assistance from the law is fraught with risk and difficulty for victims-survivors of perpetrators of coercive control.  In her book, Women, Intimate Partner Violence and the Law, Heather Douglas (drawing on case studies) explains that perpetrators often use the law against their victims, and that victims-survivors require very high levels of “endurance, tenacity and patience” to obtain help and protection through the law.  She highlights “the failure of the legal system to provide safety for women and children” on many occasions.

Jess Hill, Richard’s daughter, in her well-researched book, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Violence, supports the view that “abuse is often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them” as victims-of domestic violence.  She suggests that instead of questioning why a woman didn’t leave her abusive partner, we should be asking, “Why did he do it?”. She offers ways forward to reduce the abuse and fear resulting from domestic violence that is so prevalent in Australian homes.

Jelena Dokic’s experience – a classic example of coercive control by a parent

In a previous post, I spoke of the physical abuse suffered by Jelena Dokic at the hands of her father, Damir Dokic.  Jelena, in her second memoir, Fearless: Finding the Power to Survive, also details what amounts to coercive control by her father – “wide-ranging and persistent control”.  Her father used physical punishment to control her behaviour (e.g. punishing her for not winning).  He restricted her access to people and attempted to isolate her.  He continuously called her demeaning names such as “cow” and “whore” and took control of her money, demanding she sign over her winnings and savings.  Her father also took all her trophies and sold them.  On one occasion, he publicly smashed a crystal runners-up trophy because Jelena did not win the tennis competition.

Jelena escaped from her family in 2002 (aged 19 years).  Despite this break away, she suffered post-separation abuse of her freedom. She was effectively stalked by her father and mother.  They would turn up unannounced at WTA events she was competing in and try to coax her to “return home”.  WTA security protected Jelena and refused entry to her father.  However, during the US Open in 2003, her mother turned up at her hotel and insisted that she sign over the family home in Florida to her father. 

In the previous post, I also described how Jelena was coached and supported by Australian tennis great Lesley Bowrey in her younger years, achieving outstanding success as a junior on the global stage.  Lesley believed in Jelena and what she could achieve and showed her respect and kindness – a stark contrast to the behaviour of her father.  However, eventually, her father insisted that she sack Lesley as her coach which shattered Jelena’s “happy world” and left her devastated. 

The continuous belittling, dismissing her achievements and pervasive control took its toll on Jelena’s mental health and she suffered from a loss of self-esteem and a feeling of “not being good enough”.  She felt trapped by her father despite being physically separated from him.  She experienced “thoughts of suicide” because she could see no way out of her traumatic situation (her “entrapment”).

Coercive Control of Jelena’s mother

Jelena and her mother, Ljiljana Dokic, were estranged because her daughter felt that her mother had failed to help and protect her against her father’s physical abuse and coercive control and the trauma she experienced.  However, in her Fearless memoir, Jelena explained that they had restored their relationship after she found it in herself to forgive her mother for her lack of protection.  She came to understand that her mother too suffered at the hands of her father.  She was also beaten into submission and suffered coercive control. 

Jelena’s father made all the key decisions impacting her mother.  He determined where they lived, controlled all the money (mainly Jelena’s winnings) and forced her to undertake unpleasant tasks against her will.  Jelena’s mother was forced to work to provide herself with some independent income. 

Reflection

In her memoir, Jelena acknowledged that she had not forgiven her father for his physical abuse and coercive control.  She had come to realise that her mother too was controlled by him and Jelena was able to find a level of forgiveness towards her mother following this realisation.

In an earlier post, I provided a reflection process for dealing with resentment and anger. It facilitates looking at what was happening for the other person in a conflict/abuse situation.  Among other things, it asks you to think about what was happening for the other person in terms of self-esteem and identity.  It also requires you to think about the pressures and stresses experienced by the other person, including their life experiences and familial influences.  As Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey suggest, an important question is, “What Happened to You?”.

By adopting the other person’s perspective, you are better able to be empathetic and find forgiveness.  Jelena was able to do this in relation to her mother, but not her father. Understanding and forgiveness may come with an appreciation of the influences that shaped her father’s life, including poverty and living in war-torn Croatia as a parent and partner, becoming a refugee in Australia and being beaten by his parents as a child.  Jelena’s hurt and pain at the hands (and mind) of her father are deep and will take a lifetime to heal.

As we grow in mindfulness, through reflection on our own life and significant formative events, we can appreciate the positive people and events in our life that helped to shape who we are and what we have achieved.  Jelena’s story, recorded in her memoirs, is a great source of inspiration for overcoming life’s challenges and appreciating what we do have.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Fearlessly Sharing Your Story: Jelena Dokic’s Exhortation

Jelena Dokic shared her story of paternal abuse in the second of her memoirs, Fearless: Finding the Power to Thrive.  Her no holds barred account is disarmingly honest but replete with positivity and gratitude. 

Jelena indicated that she first gave a glimpse of her family situation in an interview with journalist Jessica Halloran, who subsequently co-authored her two memoirs.  The first memoir, Unbreakable, told of her challenges as a refugee from Yugoslavia, her life of poverty and the brutality of her father, Damir Dokic.

The first physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her father was when she was six years old.  He slapped her hard in the face three times because she had laughed and joked with her tennis coach.  In Damir’s view, tennis was not for enjoyment but sheer hard work that had to be taken seriously.  Beyond that first abuse, she suffered continuous beatings as a teenager, especially when she lost a game.  Jelena often played with bruises all over her body.  On one occasion he beat her unconscious with a shoe.

Jelena highlighted in her memoirs the fear and physical suffering she experienced at the hands of her father.  She explained in detail how his behaviour diminished her self-esteem and intensified her sense of shame. Despite her trauma from this physical abuse, Jelena became one of the greatest Australian female tennis players, reaching the rank of number 4 in the world in singles.  She was noted for her nerve and fearlessness on court and her ability to fight back when behind in a match – a resilience born of combating her trauma.

The power of storytelling

Jelena discussed her personal battle with shame when trying to share her story.  From the interview with Jessica to her Fearless memoir, she had progressively revealed more about her life and personal challenges. In the process she has become a very strong advocate for the healing power of storytelling.  Jelena indicated that not only was she able to heal from her trauma through storytelling but she found that other people drew inspiration and healing from her personal battles and her capacity to rise above them.

Jelena used her memoirs to tell her story with increasing levels of disclosure.  She found too that her book tours and public presentations enabled her to share more about her life and how she dealt with her trauma, which often left her feeling helpless, anxious, depressed and exhausted.

Jelena has continued to do public presentations to share her story and the positive value of her storytelling  has been reinforced by the number of people who have expressed gratitude for her talks.  She strongly advocates for people to share their stories of sexual abuse and domestic violence.

In Fearless, Jelena has a section on the “the power of story” and reinforces the positive changes that can accrue from narrative therapy (offered by her psychologist).  She states that through storytelling she moved from a victim mindset to “survivor”.  Her story suggests that she became a “victor”.  Jelena continuously encourages people experiencing trauma to speak up:

I have said it many times in this book speaking up creates change, saves lives.

The healing effects of social support

In a section on “having the right people around you”, Jelena highlighted the importance of supportive people (social support) for the process of healing from trauma.  Her earliest positive experience was being coached by Australian tennis great, Lesley Bowrey, who she described as a “no-nonsense, fair, tough coach with the warmest heart”.  Jelena appreciated Lesley’s strong work ethic, a shared trait that was a source of mutual admiration. 

Lesley showed kindness and an unshakeable belief in Jelena which became a profound source of happiness for her.  While Lesley was her coach, she won the Junior US Open, reached World Number 1 Junior and won the Hoffman Cup with Mark Philippoussis

Jelena waxes lyrical about the unconditional support provided by Tod Woodbridge in her transition from tennis retirement to commentator.  He had encouraged her to write the Unbreakable memoir and mentored her “tirelessly” about the process of commentating tennis matches.

Jelena also mentioned the very positive influence of her psychologist who helped her explore the impact of her trauma on her thoughts and behaviour and to challenge false beliefs about herself.  Her psychologist supported her to progressively make changes in her life to initiate and sustain the healing process.

Reflection

The physical abuse Jelena experienced was demoralising and exhausting.  Jelena showed tremendous courage to share her story, seek social support, work with a therapist and eventually overcome her fears and loss of self-esteem.  She is now very much a role model for dealing with trauma and an encouragement to many people worldwide.

As we grow in mindfulness through our own efforts to increase our awareness of the impact of significant events in our life, we can develop deeper personal insight and the courage to take the actions necessary to achieve personal healing.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Death, Dying and Grief

The Death, Love and Wisdom Summit was offered free from 12-16 October 2023 by Lions Roar and is now offered as an paid, upgrade option.  The Summit brought together 16 key leaders and teachers in the field of caring for the dying, handling grief and facing the reality of our own death.  The offerings included lessons learned from the dying, meditations and transformative processes.  Many of the presenters are also accomplished authors in how to deal with the end-of-life transition, our own death and that of others close to us.  Keynote addresses were provided by Joan Halifax, PhD, and Frank Ostaseski, Co-Founder of the Zen Hospice Project.

A perspective on death, dying and grief based on personal experience and academic research

The Summit provided a range of perspectives on end-of-life issues and offered insights from various hospice settings and research undertaken by the presenters.   Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, a bereaved mother and tenured Professor, spoke about traumatic grief arising from an unexpected event with catastrophic consequences.  She detailed the spiritual, emotional and somatic/physical symptoms of traumatic grief.  Joanne talked about the “grief umbrella” with each spoke representing a different feeling, e.g., anxiety, regret, anger, guilt, despair, or abandonment.   She explained, too, that grief can manifest in many forms on the physical level as inflammation and inhibited immune response, breathing and sleep disruption, trembling and headaches, or unpredictable, bottomless pain. 

Having experienced the death of Cheyenne (her fourth child who was still-born) and the associated totally, debilitating traumatic grief, Joanne established the MISS (Mothers in Sympathy and Support) Foundation that provides a wide range of support for those “grieving the death, or the impending death, of a child” – offering advocacy, counselling, research, education for caregivers and resources.  This initiative was motivated by the lack of support available for her own grieving process, the lack of understanding and empathy of the medical community who viewed grief as “pathological” and what she describes as “the social constraints on grief”. 

In a YouTube interview, Bearing the Unbearable, Joanne cites research that shows that social constraints are the “greatest predictor of poor psychological and physical outcomes” of the grieving process.  These constraints are reflected in implicit and explicit messaging such as “move on”, “don’t talk about it”, “get over it” or “go back to work”.  Another aspect of negative social influence is what Joanne describes as “toxic positivity” where people are encouraged to always choose happiness or joy (rather than face the reality and pain of the challenging emotions of grief).

Selah Model of Grief

Joanne promotes the Selah model of grief – which involves “fully inhabiting grief” by “being with” our grief, surrendering to our grief and transforming our grief into compassionate action.  In her video interview, Joanne indicated that she was able to be with her grief through frequent crying and commented that her 3 year old daughter showed more grief wisdom than many medical practitioners when she said. “It’s okay to cry Mummy because babies are not supposed to die”.

Joanne likened embracing grief to the progressive undertaking of a new yoga pose – where initially you have to reduce the time spent in the pose because of the pain experienced when challenging the muscles with a new position, but persistent practice gradually builds capacity to hold the pose longer and more capably.

Human-Animal Connection in the grieving process

Based on her own grieving experience and research from her studies, Joanne also advocated for the human-animal connection as a means of healing for grieving families after seeing the effect a horse rescued from abuse had on a grieving client.  After a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Rich Gorman, who was studying the idea of “therapeutic spaces” and the mutual therapeutic effects of bringing together humans and animals, Joanne established the Selah Carefarm, which today is home to more than 50 rescued animals and also a mixed  “community” of support for grieving families and individuals who travel from all around the world to be part of the mutuality of the Carefarm.

The healing processes for grief

Joanne is the author of Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and Heartbreaking, and she maintains that where there is love, grief is inevitable in the event of the loss of a loved one.  In the book, Joanne offers a process for creating the space ‘to integrate and honour our grief”.  Her follow-up book, Grieving is Loving: Compassionate Words for Bearing the Unbearable, provides quotations from the previous book together with new prose and poems from Joanne. 

Joanne encourages movement as part of the healing process for grief, e.g., dance, bare-foot hiking, running and yoga.  She maintains that there is a need to transform the energy of grief and this can be achieved through movement and creative outlets such as art and writing.  Joanne is a strong advocate, and daily practitioner, of meditating and expressing gratitude.  She offers more advice on How to Navigate the Path of Grief in a recent podcast interview.

Reflection

The Death, Love and Wisdom Summit provides a wide range of resources for dealing with grief.  The advice given by the experienced teachers and grief counsellors is very practical and readily implementable.

The Summit presentations reinforced the view that as we grow in mindfulness through meditation and other mindfulness practices, we can build our resilience and our compassion, and increase our ability to manage the challenging emotions and physical impairment that accompanies the grieving process.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Awakening to Collective Trauma

In the previous post I discussed healing collective trauma in the light of presentations during the Collective Trauma Summit 2023.  The discussion identified a wide range of trauma healing modalities that can be employed in helping individuals heal from trauma – whether individual, intergenerational or cultural trauma.  One of the key themes was the need to normalise collective trauma so that a global healing movement can develop and thrive.   A number of recent novels throw light on the manifestation of collective trauma in different communities. 

Novels describing collective trauma

Alli Parker, descendent of an Australian soldier and his Japanese wife, vividly describes life within Japan during the time of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) and within Australia at the time of the White Australia Policy (induced by fear of Asians).  In her book, At the Foot of the Cherry Tree, Alli describes the stresses on the relationship of her grandparents, Gordon and Cherry Parker, and their extended, exhausting efforts to have Cherry successfully settled in Australia.  The married couple experienced trenchant opposition at both ends – Japan and Australia.  In Japan, Gordon was punished by the MPs for breaking the anti-fraternisation policy of the Australian Army and was viewed as an “enemy stranger” by the Japanese community.  In Australia, Gordon and Cherry were bullied and harassed by people inheriting hatred and anger from traumatic events experienced at the hands of the Japanese during the war.

Elise Esther Hearst, author of One Day We’re All Going To Die, describes in vivid detail the life of Naomi who works at a Museum of Jewish Heritage and whose turbulent life is lived in the pervasive shadow of “the unspoken grief” of her Grandmother , a Holocaust survivor.  The impact of Naomi’s intergenerational trauma is reflected in her maladaptive behaviour, e.g.,  toxic sexual relationships, and “need to please” and not disappoint.   Naomi is enmeshed in community expectations, including the expectation that she would marry a good Jewish man (because non-Jews did not understand the trauma of the Holocaust and what Jewish families had to experience). Throughout her life, Naomi is surrounded by the “echoes of the dead and dying” as they are “in objects, in story, in her grandmother’s firm grasp”.  This leaves her wondering what is “normal” and how to behave as a “normal person”.  The novel highlights the identity crisis that can occur with intergenerational trauma.

Normalising collective trauma

During the Summit, Laura Calderon de la Barca highlighted the need to mainstream and normalise the experience of trauma and recovery and pointed to Alanis Morissette (A Summit presenter) as an example of this normalisation process.  Alanis has spoken about her “tool kit” that has assisted her in her “trauma recovery journey” and enabled her to deal with her negative inner dialogue.  Her toolkit included movement through stage performances, exposure to nature (sun and water), mindfulness practices, and writing songs.  Her personal way forward included pursuing relationships which, in turn, required her to manage the associated vulnerability. 

Awareness of collective trauma can also be developed through prominent journalists such as Helen Pick telling their story.  Helen, a British-Australian journalist who was UN Correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, shares her story of being one of the children involved in Kindertransport, removal of children from Nazi Germany to London by trains.  In her recollection, published in a Guardian article titled, My Family and Other Enemy Agents, she recounts how disorientating the experience was.  She found that the transfer to a foreign land “muddled her sense of identity” and she was externally identified, even as a child, as a “foreign alien”.  Despite being effectively “anglicised”, Helen indicated that at some level she feels “rootless”, having lost all memory of her childhood in Austria (possibly a form of dissociative amnesia).  She pointed to the documentary, Into The Arms of Strangers, as a recounting of their Kindertransport experience by a number of refugees and noted that she could relate to some aspects of their experience especially the felt need “to meld into the social fabric of their new homeland”.  Producer of the film, Deborah Oppenheimer, provides insights into tone of the film, the lessons learned and the impacts of the Kindertransport experience on the lives of the children involved.  Deborah received the Academy Award for the Best Documentary (Feature) in 2001.

Reflection

Alli Parker provided me with an insight into what life was like for Australian soldiers engaged in the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan.  My father was stationed in Japan as part of this occupation force and I had no idea how traumatic that would have been after having survived 4 years in Changi as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese.

I am finding that as I grow in mindfulness through a range of mindfulness practices that I am better able to understand and emphasize with my father despite his alcohol addiction as a result of PTSD.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Healing Collective Trauma

Thomas Hübl. intergenerational trauma expert, recently convened the Collective Trauma Summit 2023, designed to share ideas and healing processes “to inspire action to heal individual, ancestral and collective trauma”.  The Summit was conducted online from 26 September to October 4 and was attended by 100,00 people which reinforces how pervasive trauma is within the global community.  One of the goals of the Summit was to “create a global healing movement”.  Thomas is the author of Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.

Thomas and his colleagues have been conducting these trauma conferences for the past five years to raise awareness of intergenerational trauma and its impacts on individuals and communities.  Intergenerational trauma is a form of genetic inheritance of trauma experienced by descendants (typically children and grandchildren) of people who have survived catastrophic traumatic events.  The inherited trauma can be reflected in hypervigilance and a wide range of physical and psychological responses to triggers associated with the original trauma experienced by ancestors. While the person experiencing intergenerational trauma does not experience “flashbacks”, as they were not present during the initiating traumatic event, they can experience maladaptive behaviour as a result of the transmission of trauma and trauma responses by their ancestors.

When we speak of intergenerational trauma we often think of survivors of the Holocaust or the devastation of Hiroshima.  However, there are many sources of intergenerational trauma such as genocide of Native Americans and Aboriginals, institutional or familial child abuse and or neglect, domestic violence, war, colonisation, civil wars creating refugees, chronic illnesses/diseases (such as zoonotic diseases) and natural disasters (e.g., floods, wildfires, earthquakes, droughts and cyclones/hurricanes).

Developing awareness of collective trauma

Part of the focus of the Summit was to raise awareness of the “collective trauma” that resides in the global community as a result of the multiplicity of traumatic events in our world.   It means that individuals and communities are not only coping with the challenges of day-to-day living in our fast-paced world but having to deal with the residual effects of inherited trauma – the “scar tissue of collective trauma”.  One of the days of the Summit was thus devoted to “global social witnessing of world-wide uncertainty”.

Robin Alfred, in his usual articulate manner, maintained that awareness of the genetic transfer of trauma can help to reverse the ill-effects of collective trauma.  He suggested that developing resonance by listening can enable people to heal through expressing themselves – getting the inside outside and achieving congruence in their lives.  Robin contended that trauma clouds our minds so that we see ourself as a micro ecosystem, rather than as part of a global, social ecosystem.  The way forward for him is for individuals and communities to plug into the massive, self-healing biosphere.  He saw “relational resonance” creating a global healing environment as people around the world became aware of “systemic/intergenerational trauma” and explored their interconnectedness for healing.  One of his own awareness practices involves exploring the lives and world of people he does not know, e.g., speaking to undercover police about their psychological distress, isolation and identity crisis.  He epitomises the “not-knowing” mindset in pursuing understanding of people who hitherto he “has put far away” from himself.

Healing from the effects of collective trauma

Trauma can have multiple effects on a person’s life and relationships.  During the Summit people told stories of their isolation and sense of aloneness, their fear and terror, their anxiety and depression and their disempowerment.  One person described her experience of trauma as ”falling into a sinkhole”.   People participating in the Summit were courageous and vulnerable in sharing their trauma and how it was playing out for them in their individual lives.   Thomas reiterated the healing power of storytelling, especially with the support of a community of people “feeling with you and suffering also”.

Throughout the Summit, presenters and participants shared multiple healing modalities that they have employed to overcome the effects of trauma and intergenerational trauma.  These modalities included:

  • Ceremony
  • Ritual
  • Calling in spirits
  • Dance
  • Joyful movement
  • Somatic Experiencing
  • Experiences of connection

Special attention was given to the arts such as music, poetry, literature, and paintings. Laura Calderon de la Barca, psychotherapist specialising in collective trauma, reinforced the power of art (e.g., poetry) to enable people to share experiences that are extremely stressful.  In her view, art creates “an unfolding of space that needs to happen” to enable “ex-pression” (moving the inside to outside).   The sharing, in whatever form it takes, creates movement towards healing.  Laura noted that writing enabled her to bring order into her own life.  She maintained that when people get engaged with the issue of collective trauma, compassionate action is created.  She encouraged us to connect much more deeply with nature and embrace our own vulnerability through movement and dance. 

Throughout the Summit, Kim Rosen read aloud poetry that spoke to the healing process, including The Song of the Man Who has Come Through by D.H. Lawrence.  She also read a number of poems for Summit participants with the music of Jamie Sieber, electronic and acoustic cellist, playing in the background.  Kim is the author of the book, Saved by A Poem: The Transformative Power of Words. 

The way forward for healing collective trauma

Thomas stressed the desire for “global social witnessing”, and the Summit was one form of this solution.  He emphasised the need for a global movement, a form of collective endeavour, that can work towards “healing the trauma between us”.  He stressed the importance of melting the permafrost of trauma by enabling traumatised people to release their feelings, building connection through data sharing and facilitating interconnectedness through growing awareness of the community of people experiencing intergenerational and cultural trauma.

Thomas spoke of our horizontal as well as our vertical responsibility.  Horizontally, our responsibility involves moving beyond our “hyper-individualised world” to respond to the pain and experience of others.  Vertically, it entails developing awareness of our ancestors and indigenous populations and their collective trauma, as well as consciousness of younger generations and their collective anxiety.  He particularly focused on the “fragmentation” of identities and communities caused by trauma and encouraged us “to refine and deepen our capacity to relate” because it is in alive relationships that we find the energy to create, new enabling structures “that are much better for the present point of evolution”.

He encouraged us to find “different ways to experience nature and each other” so that we can develop a more integrated “healing infrastructure” for collective trauma.  He suggested that we can better tap into the “self-healing” mechanism of the body through connecting with each other and sharing our stories, power and resources.   Storytelling is not only healing for the storyteller but also the listener.

Ruby Mendenhall shared her insights from the Summit and highlighted the motivation and inspiration that the experience provided.  She especially noted how sharing in community can heal trauma and loneliness.  Ruby argued that we have to become more aware of the cost and impact of unprocessed grief, especially that flowing from adverse childhood experiences.  She maintained that a lot of people feel threatened around “gender norms or race” and that we need to take up the solutions that are already present to us but somewhat underdeveloped, such as somatic healing.  Ruby stressed the urgency of educating children about adverse childhood experiences, the impact on the body and relationships and the ways to develop resilience with the aid of community.   Ruby’s vision for black women who have experienced violence in their community is enunciated in her TEDx Talk, DREAMING and Designing Spaces of Hope in a “Hidden America”, where the mnemonic, DREAM, stands for Developing Responses to Poverty through Education And Meaning. 

Reflection

I was particularly impressed with the emphasis on storytelling as a healing modality and the power of writing to facilitate healing.  I am currently researching my own memoir that I plan to write as one way to process some of the traumatic events I have experienced in my lifetime – death of a baby brother, 18 months in an orphanage, my father as a prisoner-of-war in Changi prison for three years and  absent for the first six years of my life, a serious car accident in the family car at age 12, my father suffering PTSD and becoming an aggressive alcoholic, and my divorce at age 37.

 In the past, I have been able to process much of my trauma through living in a supportive community and growing in mindfulness through meditation, prayer and the practice of silence.  I found too, that sport and especially playing tennis helped me to deal with tension and anxiety and to focus more on the present moment.

I realised through the Summit that I have had the tendency to individualise the trauma that I have experienced as a result of the traumatic events in my life.  The Summit has made me more aware of the collective nature of trauma, especially intergenerational trauma.  I am becoming more aware that I am part of the community of adult children of alcoholic parents; the community of children whose father went to war and was imprisoned and experienced physical and psychological injury; the community of children who experienced institutional neglect; the community of people who lost a sibling while growing up; and the community of people who experienced a missing parent in their early childhood.  This realisation of different trauma-related communities that I am a part of reinforces for me the concept of “collective trauma”.

I have found it useful to connect with a community of people who share my current issue of chronic injury and who are able to openly share their experience of pain and recovery mechanisms.  This community, the Health Story Collaborative, provides story sharing opportunities and mutual support for people experiencing chronic pain, disability or illness.  It reinforces the Summit’s encouragement for mutual sharing in a supportive environment – becoming a microcosm of the global healing movement addressing collective trauma.  The fundamental message is that we are not alone when experiencing trauma and its negative impacts on our quality of life and relationships.  Together, we can muster the energy and creativity to access individual and global healing.

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Image by Big_Heart from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Healing Through Creative Storytelling

I have previously written about the Health Story Collaborative created by Dr. Annie Brewster M.D.  The Collaborative provides an online platform for individuals to share their story (through any medium) about their health challenges and their road to recovery.  The stories provide healing for the storyteller and ongoing inspiration for others to overcome the challenge of ill-health in whatever form it takes.  Annie Brewster is the author of The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss.

Creative Meetups

One of the programs offered by the Health Story Collaborative is Creative Meetups that are designed to cultivate “writing for expression and connection”.  They are based on the firm belief that artistic expression of a person’s story can help them “find hope and healing”.  These free workshops are offered every second Wednesday via the Zoom platform – they only require prior registration through the website.

The Creative Meetups are currently facilitated by Annie Robinson, who has completed a Masters in Narrative Medicine and is a qualified meditation, mindfulness and yoga teacher. In her private practice, Annie helps health professionals, including nurses and doctors, by training them in wellbeing, reflection and resilience.  She also assists individuals in various life transitions and is co-curator of the podcast for health professionals, Thriving in Scrubs

My experience of a Creative Meetup

I recently participated in my first Creative Meetup – initially with some uncertainty, not knowing what would be involved and how vulnerable I would feel.  The Meetup facilitated by Annie had about 12 participants, both male and female.  The process usually involves Annie providing some form of stimulus for reflection followed by a period for individual creative writing that can take any form a participant desires, e.g., a poem, picture, narrative or dot points.

Annie explained at the outset that she was departing from her usual practice of having two participants read out a piece of writing, e.g. a poem, that can act as a stimulus to reflection.  On this occasion, she shared an abstract painting that featured a number of colours with a pattern that suggested “reflection” to me.

Our Meetup process involved an initial two minute writing task where we reflected on what the painting meant for us as individuals, there being “no right answer”.  This was followed by a brief sharing by some people who wished to share with the larger group.  We were then assigned the task of taking a sentence from our earlier reflection and expanding on this over a period of 20 minutes of individual creative writing (with no restrictions on form or length).

When we had completed our creative writing, Annie placed us into Zoom “rooms” of three or four people to share at another level.  Participants were encouraged to share only what they felt comfortable sharing with no pressure for full disclosure.  The small group environment enabled rapid rapport building and a degree of openness that was disarmingly honest (destroying any erroneous first impressions that may have been formed). 

As one participant commented in the larger group, there was a common bond amongst participants in that we were all dealing with a health challenge (however varied in nature and complexity) and were seeking healing through writing and sharing.  Reg Revans, the Father of Action Learning, would describe us as “Comrades in Adversity” (or as others put it, “Comrades in Opportunity”).

The environment created through the Creative Writeup process was one of trust that facilitated openness and vulnerability by participants.   There was a shared sense of journeying towards healing with the aid of the understanding, empathy and mutual support offered by fellow participants.  Annie’s low-key facilitation style and active listening modelled appropriate behaviour for participants.

I was blown away in the small group by the creative writing that was shared.  In one case, this involved a poem that expressed the meaning for the participant of each of the colours in the painting – an insightful and revealing piece of writing that we asked the storyteller to read a second time because it was so rich.  Another involved an allegorical story that was emotive and self-disclosing and left us all feeling loving kindness towards the person who shared so vulnerably. 

One of the features of the small group was the way that one person’s shared reflection stimulated reflection by another person and achieved a deeper level of self-disclosure.  Participants could relate to some aspect of a shared situation, response or recovery approach.  We were each able to learn from the storytelling.

Reflection

During the small group sharing, I was able to share with others how expressing gratitude for what I am able to have and do was a recovery mechanism for me following my diagnosis of multi-level spinal degeneration.  It also empowered me to seek alternative medical assistance in the form of an exercise physiologist who helped me return to tennis when my doctors told me that I would never play again.

The painting that Annie shared reminded me of the art of reflection – having spent most of my working life in studying, teaching and practicing action learning.  Reflection underpinned the way I played tennis, conducted workshops, managed people and interacted with others.

More recently, through reflection,  I came to understand that one of my personal barriers to active listening was my need to come from an “I know” perspective rather than what Frank Ostaseski  recommends as a “don’t know mind”.  The “don’t know” approach is foundational to action learning, so my listening behaviour was not congruent with what I espoused about action learning.  Reg Revans reminds us that, ”If you think you fully understand something, you are not only going to get yourself in trouble but others as well.”  Reg encourages us to “ask fresh questions” and to develop “questioning insight”.   He frequently quoted Isaac Newton’s comment about studying some interesting shells and pebbles in his lifetime “whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me”.

At the time, I attributed this personal barrier to active listening to my many years as an academic.  I realised, too, that the “I know” perspective accounts in part why I had so much resistance when trying to introduce action learning into my university.  It also explains why in the first year of an action learning program that I was facilitating in another university, the hierarchy insisted on removing “become a learning organisation” from the vision statement for the program (they re-inserted it after their experience of the first year of the program and its outcomes).   

As I grow in mindfulness through reflection and activities such as the Creative Meetups, I am better able to develop resilience to deal with life’s challenges, gain increased self-awareness and cultivate deep listening to enrich my relationships.

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Image by Peter H from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Changing How We Deal with Emotions

Hilary Jacobs Kendel, psychotherapist, author and activist, contends that we learn many things in school that we never use but do not learn about emotions that affect every aspect of our daily lives.  She strongly advocates for education about emotions though her videos, blog posts, presentations, interviews, newspaper articles and clinical practice.  Hilary is the author of  It’s Not Always About Depression:  Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions and Rediscover Your Authentic Self.

The Change Triangle®

Hilary educates people about emotions and how to change the way we deal with them through what she calls the Change Triangle®.  This is a visual representation in the form of an inverted triangle of the different types of emotions we all experience.  At the base are what Hilary calls the core emotions that are calls to action designed to help us negotiate our environment.  To the right at the top are inhibiting emotions which impede us experiencing core emotions in their true form.  These, in turn, often lead us to adopt defenses which we employ to avoid being aware of, or experiencing, our feelings.  

Hilary acknowledges that her own understanding of emotions was developed through attending a presentation by Dr. Diana Fosha, Director and Founder of Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP)™ which is a treatment model adopted by Hilary that was developed to help adults experiencing difficulties as a result of childhood attachment trauma and abuse.  This transformational model focuses on healing and flourishing despite the experience of emotional suffering and draws heavily on neuroscience, brain plasticity and research on mother-infant development.  Diana advocates strongly for a healing approach (transformation) instead of the traditional psychotherapy approach of a focus on pathology.  In this respect, she addresses the question What Happened to You?, not What’s Wrong With You? – a healing approach also adopted in the book by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry.  Diana wrote the Forward for Hilary’s book.

Core Emotions

Core emotions have been identified as early as Charles Darwin and their impact on the brain is now able to be identified through brain imaging.  Hilary identifies the core emotions as fear, joy, anger, excitement, sadness, sexual excitement and disgust. These emotions are beyond conscious control as they are triggered by our everyday experience and serve as a survival mechanism, activating our flight or fight response, our approach or avoidance stance.  Where real danger exists, this can be life-saving.  Fear, for example, can make us aware of a real, impending danger, e.g., a house fire.  However, through trauma and adverse childhood experiences, the core emotions can be triggered by seemingly harmless activities or events, such as conscious breathing, a smell or a sound.  The core emotions “ready our body for action” as they appear with a lot of biological energy – ready for activation. 

Inhibiting Emotions

Hilary identifies three emotions that she describes as “inhibiting emotions” – anxiety, shame and guilt.  These emotions often arise from the “shoulds” “and “should-not” messaging that we are all exposed to, especially in our childhood.  Deborah Feldman illustrates this very well in her book, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic RootsShe talks of the shame she felt in reading books written in English rather than Yiddish (because of the constant paternal messaging) and the guilt she experienced eating cakes when she felt hungry from the very restrictive traditional diet.  Hilary explains that “shame” is designed to inhibit out impulses and ensure conformity to the norms of our reference group – e.g., family, community or religion.  She differentiates healthy shame from toxic shame – the former brings us safety through inclusion, protection and support.  The latter generates a toxic environment in that it is built on negative self-talk that reinforces negative beliefs about oneself generated by bullying (online or offline), abuse, neglect or alcoholic parents.  Hilary explains that the road to healing is employing the Change Triangle® to unearth the core emotions that lie underneath the shame.   She provides a roadmap through her blog post, 5 Ways to Work the Change Triangle as a Beginner, and offers multiple examples of this transformation process in operation within her book, It’s Not Always About Depression.

Defenses

Hilary explains that defenses are a form of emotional protection in that they are multiple ways “we all avoid painful, uncomfortable or conflicting emotions”.  She identifies the more common ways to avoid emotions in one of her blog posts, including sarcasm, superior conceit, constant apologizing, procrastination, eating disorders and addiction.  She describes some of the more surface level defenses as moving away, rolling your eyes or judging others.  Defenses can be healthy and serve our needs in particular situations such as in a professional environment.  However, unhealthy defenses prevent us from experiencing either inhibiting or core emotions and effectively lead to disconnection from our authentic self.  We hide away from the pain of our deepest feelings by finding a way to deflect them.

In a New York Times Article, It’s Not Always Depression, Sometimes its Shame, Hilary describes her AEDP therapeutic work with a client named Brain.  He had presented with what appeared to be chronic depression and had failed to respond to multiple forms of therapy and medication.  He appeared to be in a comatose state – unable to connect, express his feelings or communicate effectively.  His defenses, in the form of withdrawal enabled him to protect himself form the pain of “emotional aloneness” and toxic shame – induced by a lack of emotional bonding from his parents. His father was preoccupied with earning a living and his mother drank to excess – resulting in “emotional neglect” for Brian.

Hilary employed a range of techniques over the four years of her therapeutic intervention, including throwing cushions to Brian just to engage him in some way.  In his second year of treatment,  he learned to name his emotions, validate them and “safely connect to the emotion he felt in his body”.  On the conclusion of his therapy Brian “felt alive again”,  developed more friends, undertook meaningful work and learned to assert his needs.  In the process, he dissipated the toxic shame he had been experiencing.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness we gain increased self-awareness and are better able to identify our triggers, our habituated defenses, the inhibiting emotions and our underlying core emotions (often, there is more than one at play).  We can also learn to access our emotions through our bodily sensations – a major focus of Hilary’s approach.

In her video presentation of the Change Triangle® to a group, Hilary begins with a meditation – participants are asked to close their eyes, become grounded, get in touch with their breath, and undertake a body scan.  The first part of the scan focuses in on a place in the body where we can feel calm and warmth.  The second part of the scan involves identifying a place of tension or pain in the body.  This is followed by a process of breathing into that place and imagining that we are able to move it aside even for a little bit to locate the emotion that is under there, “pushing up for experiencing and validation”.

As Bessel van der Kolk maintains, The Body Keeps the Score.  In this book, he explains the role of the brain and body in the transformation of trauma.  As Hilary points out, through her Change Triangle®, healing and transformation ultimately lead us to our Authentic Self which enables us to achieve clarity, calm, courage, creativity, compassion and connectedness.

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Image by Ronald Plett from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Dealing with Guilt and Shame on the Death of a Son or Daughter

In the previous post, I wrote about how storytelling helped Tiffany Barton deal with grief and loss on the suicide death of her son, Cosmo.  She talked about her letter and poem, Young Death, that Nick Cave published in his book, Faith, Hope & Carnage.  She expressed gratitude that Nick’s wife, Susie Cave (née Bick), allowed him to share her “guilt and shame” in his book because it helped Tiffany “so much to know I wasn’t alone”.  Tiffany also stated that in sharing her own story publicly in the Weekend Magazine, she felt “some relief from pain” and “some forgiveness”.  Her experience and that of Nick reinforces the wisdom of Annie Brewster in her book, The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss.

Forgiveness: Release from guilt and shame

The latter part of Nick’s book is devoted to forgiveness and the idea of making amends.   He indicated that he and Susie were “looking the wrong way at the wrong time”.   He suggested that everything they do now is designed “to seek forgiveness by making amends”.   Tiffany related to that statement and indicated that her public storytelling was designed to help anyone else who is also wrestling “with guilt, shame and self-loathing” as a result of the suicide death of their son or daughter. Nick devotes a whole chapter (chapter 15) of his book to the theme of “Absolution”.

Nick found recording the Skelton Tree album in Brighton particularly challenging as he had to drive each day past the cliffs were his son Arthur died and past the Church where he was buried.  Even moving to Paris to finish the recordings did not assuage his sadness or sense of guilt.  What did effectively provide some form of “exoneration” and inner peace was the Andrew Dominik’s documentary, One More Time with Feeling.  The documentary captures the final recording sessions of Skeleton Tree by Nick and his band, The Bad Seeds, following the death of his son.  It also incorporates Nick’s reflections and those of his wife, Susie.   Nick explains that the documentary seemed like it did something for Arthur – “bring him back into the world”.   It served as a form of release for his own sense of helplessness and guilt and enabled him to experience “a kind of peace, an internal silence and calmness”, even when driving past the cliffs where Arthur died.

Finding forgiveness in working with clay

Nick found his way to forgiveness not only through his music but also through working with clay and developing figurines “in the Staffordshire style”.  He became obsessed with this project pursuing it intensely because he was totally absorbed by it and experienced flow through the deep concentration involved.  Nick found the process therapeutic, permeating his dreams and consuming much of his time when he was awake.  He indicated that part of the attraction of working with clay was that the process was “something very direct and elemental”.   Nick found that the medium “felt liberating, also very healing”.

Sean O’Hagan, Nick’s interviewer for the Faith, Hope & Carnage book, was intrigued by Nick’s compulsion with the clay figurines and asked about the portrayal of the epic journey involved, a seeming allegory.  Nick responded that the figurines were not intended to be directly about Arthur but, in the final analysis, had something to do with his death – there is a gesture of atonement involved in the final sculpture that is titled “Devil’s Forgiveness”.  When asked directly whether the figurine epic is “an allegory about forgiveness”, Nick found it difficult to articulate exactly what the figurines meant.  However, despite himself, the figurines, and the story they portrayed,  spoke to him “directly and explicitly”.   He found that the “plain and explicit nature” of the figurines related to him “the larger and unambiguous meaning of his predicament”.

Nick explained that the theme running through each of the sculptures, and the underlining story, is “the need to be forgiven” which he maintains is at the centre of his life and that of Susie and, as such, acts as a “motivating force”.   Nick stated that the Faith, Hope & Carnage book, his live performances, albums (Skeleton Tree, Carnage and Ghosteen), The Red Hand Files, and his In Conversations events, are all asking for absolution – “to be released from my own personal culpability”.  He also maintained that all the work that they do – he (with his creative works) and Susie (with her “ghost-like dresses”) are asking for forgiveness and saying that they are sorry for what happened to Arthur.  In his own words, Nick asserts, “There is not a song or word or a stitch that is not asking for forgiveness”.

Reflection

It is not possible to fathom the depth of grief and feelings of guilt and shame experienced by a parent on the death of a son or daughter.  Grief expresses itself in unique ways – for some it is totally consuming and takes over their life.  For others, it seems to be a passing feeling that becomes buried before it can become an all-consuming pain.  Some retreat into isolation , others “party on” while attempting to “drown their sorrows”.

The road to self-forgiveness and absolution is a long and winding road, and often a tortuous path.  It is highly individualised as reflected in Nick’s figurine epic and Susie’s dress designs.  Each person has to find their own way through the darkness of grief, guilt and shame.  For Nick and Susie, the road to release was paved with creativity – but never dissolving the underlying sadness.

Nick mentioned that meditating enabled him to access his better, sympathetic self.  In contrast, when he stopped meditating, his life tended “to slip back into chaos, low level depression and anger”.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, we can progressively deal with our challenging feelings of grief, guilt and shame and find a way to support others through empathy and compassionate action, whatever unique form that takes.  Through his pain, Nick reminds us to savour the “the precious nature of things” and the world at large.

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Image by Sergio Cerrato – Italia from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site and the resources to support the blog.

Dealing with Loss and Grief

Previously I have written about the power of storytelling to manage grief.  I drew on the writing of Dr. Annie Brewster and Nick Cave.  Annie published her groundbreaking book, The Healing Power of Storytelling, to share her own story and that of others who have experienced loss, trauma or serious chronic illness.

In his book, Faith, Hope & Carnage, Nick demonstrates how his storytelling through his writing, documentary and his creative endeavours (songwriting, recording and performing) provided him with growth and transformation and enabled him to manage his grief with the loss of his 15 year old son, Arthur. 

Even before his son’s death, Nick felt a strong need for social connection and so he created the website, Red Hand Files, to give his fans an avenue to communicate with him by asking questions of him.  The resultant Red Hand Files moved from a superficial exchange re his songs and their origins to a deeply personal storytelling exchange that Nick described as an “exercise in communal vulnerability and transparency”. 

Nick maintains that that through the Red Hand Files his past debilitating filters ‘have been dismantled over time” and wonder and awe have been restored in his life.  He indicates that the experience of the Red Hand Files, involving mutual storytelling, has enabled him to slowly develop self-awareness and transparency by “prising” him open – moving him to progressively disclose himself and the depth of his feelings.  He asserts that the process of such mutual vulnerability caused him to change as a person, songwriter and performer.

Nick’s interviewer for his book, Sean O’Hagan, comments that the letters people wrote to Nick as part of the Red Hand Files were very powerful in transforming people’s lives and served to fulfill their need for connection “by articulating their particular story for somebody else to hear”.  The online files enabled people to reach out and find a way to voice their own grief.  Tiffany Barton’s story is an illustration of the power of such sharing through storytelling.

Tiffany Barton’s story of loss and grief

Tiffany recently shared her story of loss and grief, and her healing interaction with Nick, in her story, “Into My Arms”, in The Weekend Australian Magazine, June 10-11 (pp.15-19).  Tiffany lost her 22 year old, gifted son, Cosmo, through suicide.  It is only after his death that she began to realise that Cosmo showed signs of being on the autism spectrum.   For example, he had a phenomenal memory, being able to recite the 230 digits of Pi.  He was also readily able to memorise Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn when learning music and performing.

Cosmo had a totally absorbing passion for the fortepiano, an instrument like a piano but based on instruments developed before 1930 (and differing from the modern piano in tone, touch and appearance).  Cosmo was mesmerized by the fortepiano often talking passionately about its history, mechanics and technique and developing a unique skill in tuning the instrument.  His passion led him to study the fortepiano at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) where he hoped to eventually complete a PhD.  His last performance on the fortepiano was described by Tiffany as “a stunning final concert at WAAPA”.  Cosmo suffered terribly from sclerosis which led him to seek relief from a drug purchased online, that ultimately led to his death.

In her article, Tiffany describes her grief as being “like a mosquito smashed on the window of a ten-tonne truck”.  She drew on Nick’s words to describe the “vastness” of grief, reducing us to “trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence”.   Tiffany became aware of Nick’s writings on grief through his Red Hand Files and was particularly moved by his “Letter to Cynthia” that he turned into a song.  She wrote a poem “young death” about the night Cosmo died which helped her “purge some of the trauma and change” she carried.

Tiffany reached out to Nick by writing a letter to him and including her poem. Nick was incredibly moved by Tiffany’s courage and clarity in articulating her grief and asked her permission to publish her letter and poem in his Faith, Hope & Carnage book (which he duly did).  He also asked her to record them for his audiobook.

Nick subsequently contacted Tiffany and spoke in his usual “patient” and “loving” way.  Besides checking-in on her welfare, he inquired about her meditation practice.  She explained that she uses meditation to communicate with Cosmo.  In her discussion with Nick she spoke of Cosmo’s drug use and the impact of intergenerational trauma on her family.  Tiffany explained that Nick’s ability to articulate his “grief, loss, love, art and spiritual awakening” in his book soothed her and “offered her respite from her horror”.

Reflection

Nick found that there was “freedom in grief” and indicated that the words of Kris Kristofferson song, Bobby McGee, resonated with him – “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”.  Nick came to reconcile with the reality of the human condition and the “acute jeopardy of life”.    He strongly urges us to appreciate all aspects of our life and savour “the time we have together in this world”.

It’s in facing our challenging emotions that we can break free of their hold over us and realise true freedom.  Storytelling and sharing with others can open us up to the depths of our feelings and release us from the hold of our own expectations and those of others.  As we grow in mindfulness through openness, curiosity and non-judgmental attention, we can deepen our self-awareness and develop the courage to share our story of loss and grief for our own healing and transformation. 

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Image by Lars Barstad from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group, and the resources to support the blog.