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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Image by brian teh 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.

Deep Listening: A Lost Managerial Art

Managers report that many things act as barriers preventing them from listening effectively in the workplace.  Distractions from external sources such as endless emails, busyness at work, noise from “open office environments” and time pressures, are high on the list as impediments.  Managers also identify what can be described as internal barriers to listening – preconceptions about an individual staff member, assumptions about what the individual wants to talk about, anxiety when the speaker is sharing difficult emotions, and absorption with their own personal issues.  Managers report, too, that they tend to try to solve problems before they really know what the employee’s problem is, interrupt people to tell their own stories and have difficulty maintaining their focus on a speaker when they are perceived to be “rambling on”.

Added to these difficulties experienced by managers is what Johann Hari describes as our “lost focus” – an ongoing decline in our ability to pay attention for any length of time because of the “fire hose” of information flooding our minds through emails, social media and news broadcasts.  In his book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, he highlights our inability to stay-on-topic, be truly present and achieve flow.  Research shows that our attention span is diminishing rapidly, making it all the more difficult for managers to engage in “deep listening”.   In a recent podcast, Gloria Monk PhD drew on this research to explain “Why our attention spans are shrinking”.

The essence of deep listening

Joan Halifax, in her book, Standing at the Edge, describes deep listening as truly listening in the present moment with openness and curiosity.  She explains that this requires us “to step out of self-absorption, self-deception, distractions” and move away “from the trance of our technological devices”.  Joan maintains that deep listening involves “really hearing” someone else by listening “with body, heart, and mind”.  In her words, it also involves being able to “listen past the filters of our personal history and our memories” – it involves self-lessness.  Too often, we have to tell our stories to legitimate ourselves in the eyes of the other person.

Larissa Behrendt, in her novel After Story, has one of her characters describe deep listening as “listening with respect” – not trying to hurry the other person to finish, paying full attention without interrupting the speaker.  She reinforces the need to be “ready to listen” – “to prepare the space and listen” so that you can take in the wisdom of the speaker and the story they have to tell.  Larissa, Distinguished Professor of Indigenous Studies and Research at UTS, maintains that deep listening has its origins in the ancient cultural ways known as Winanga-Li, where “the silences are as powerful as the words”.

Deep listening for Richard Wolf, author of In Tune: Music as a Bridge to Mindfulness, occurs when we “not only hear music but feel it”.  This involves feeling the music “with your body and soul”.   For Richard, music can help the listener/musician overcome internal barriers to listening by “filtering out” distorting elements such as biases, prejudices, blind-spots and false assumptions.

Benefits of deep listening

There are many benefits from deep listening that accrue to the listener as well as the person being listened to.  I have summarised some of the key benefits that are identified in literature that I have been reading lately:

  • Facilitating the healing power of storytelling: deep listening enables a person to share their story of pain, suffering and trauma.  Annie Brewster details the way this can happen in her book, The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss.  It is because of the healing power of storytelling that Annie has established the Health Story Collaborative.  Jana Pittman, in her biography Enough: accept yourself just the way you are, highlights the destructive impact of keeping painful things bottled up – you can lose yourself.  As someone who has experienced deep pain and suffering – through three miscarriages, a marriage breakdown, media taunting and bullying, “a cervical cancer scare”, multiple injuries destroying her Olympic Dream, battling with financial difficulties and an eating disorder – Jana can readily attest to the healing power that facing her pain and sharing her story has provided her.  She maintains that running away from pain can be a “heavy burden” because “bottling it up” is like “carrying it round like a ball and chain”.   By facing her pain, embracing it and sharing it, she has found a new release to achieve even greater goals; the alternative, avoidance strategy, “leaves you with a whole lot of defensive walls and only a short ladder”.  Larissa Behrendt, in her After Story novel, has one of her characters comment that there is “strength in saying things” because “it’s like a curtain being lifted”.
  • Achieving resonance: `Ginny Whitelaw, innovator in leadership development, contends that leadership is about achieving resonance with followers, and that it is through listening that leaders capture the energy of followers and thus focus and amplify the collective energy of a team.  She explains her underlying principles, and supporting neuroscience, in her book, Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference.  Deep listening for Ginny involves getting on the “same wavelength”, instead of “talking past” the other person.  This means, in effect, that energy vibrations of the leader and follower become aligned and therefore amplified.  The sensitivity involved in such deep listening changes the listener and enables healing of the storyteller.
  • Developing empathy:  Joan Halifax contends that deep listening develops empathy, motivates compassionate action and obviates self-absorption.  She provides examples of deep listening in her book, Standing at the Edge, while recognising that empathy is an “Edge State” – that can lead to significant personal and social contributions, but potentially lead to “empathic distress”.  This latter downside of deep listening and the attendant empathic feelings can arise where a person is unable to separate themselves from the sufferer – they effectively “own” the other’s suffering.  In her book, Joan describes situations where she has experienced empathic distress, however momentarily, and offers ways to overcome this other-absorption, including her G.R.A.C.E. technique.

Ways to develop deep listening

There are multiple ways to develop deep listening and, like any art, “practise makes perfect”.  However, we each have our personal and historical impediments to achieving deep listening at any point in time.  Actively working to cultivate deep listening can be very beneficial for ourselves and others we interact with on a daily basis.  Several authors suggest different ways to develop deep listening (apart from consciously practising it in the present moment):

  • Sounds as an anchor in meditation: meditation often involves choosing an anchor that can enable us to re-focus once we experience distractions during meditation. While our breath is often used as an anchor, sounds can be an alternative.  Richard Wolf suggests that focusing in on the sounds of our breath along with the gap between breaths, can effectively cultivate deep listening.  We can also tune into our environment, including what he describes as the “room tone”.   Richard also encourages the development of “dual awareness” where we not only focus on the sounds of our breath but also become consciously aware of our associated bodily sensations.   
  • Music to quiet the “inner voice”: Richard maintains that playing a musical instrument or listening to music can cultivate deep listening because of the sustained concentration required.  You are effectively training yourself to tune into the music (by fully attending to the sounds) and experiencing the music emotionally and bodily. Richard argues that the concentration required quiets the self-critical inner voice and prevents contamination by our “cognitive limitations”.  He contends that music enables us to achieve an alignment of mind, body and emotion.  Richard suggests that playing an instrument for others not only develops deep listening for the musician but also provides a “stunning variety of sonic, emotional and musical elements” for a discerning audience – a catalyst for deep listening on their part.  One can readily picture a young child dancing in a totally uninhibited way to music played by a street performer who is totally absorbed in his or her art.
  • Tuning into nature: nature provides silence and unique sounds that enable us to experience our interconnectedness to everything, including people who are attempting to gain a “hearing”.  Gordon Hempton reminds us that silence in nature does not mean the absence of sounds but “an acoustic state, free of intrusions of modern, man-made noise”.  Gordon has recorded his journey as an activist for nature’s “silence” in his book, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet.  Through his work as a sound recordist and an acoustic ecologist, he has encouraged people to heighten their auditory awareness of the unique “soundtracks” that surround us in nature and to observe “the quiet between the notes” (so that we can better appreciate the value of silence and stillness).  Gordon’s crusade for silence and listening to nature is mirrored in the work of Christine Jackman, author of Turning Down the Noise: The Quiet Power of Silence in a Busy World.  In a chapter on nature, she highlights the healing power of nature and the need to tune into nature to reduce our “emotional inflammation” and regain our capacity to be quiet and listen.  Like Gordon, she contends that when we listen to nature “our listening horizon extends”.   Polar photographer, Camille Seaman, maintains that spending time in the stillness and silence of nature “dissolves the veil of separateness” and increases our understanding of, and respect for, our connectedness.
  • Adopting a “not Knowing” mindset: Joan Halifax recommends cultivating a “beginner’s mind” – the stance of “not knowing”.   She maintains that we can never really know and understand the complex mix of emotions another person is experiencing, or the precursor events at different points in their life, or the unique interplay of triggers that were the catalyst for their current psychosomatic state.  This perspective accords with the advice of Frank Ostaseski to cultivate a don’t know mind.  Robert Wilder discusses the challenges and benefits of living a “not knowing” life in his podcast, The Not-Know-It-All: The Struggle of Not Knowing.
  • Reflective practice: reflection on our communication experiences can help us to gain insight into the barriers we put in the way of deep listening.  If we are honest in our reflections, we can improve our awareness of our habituated behaviours (such as interrupting others) that act as blockages to our deep listening. I have posted a sample of questions for reflection on personal interactions in a previous post.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness by spending time observing and listening in nature, reflecting on our interactions, meditating on internal and external sounds and undertaking other mindfulness practices, we can gain awareness of our personal impediments to developing the art of deep listening.  For me, some of these impediments are a tendency to deflect the conversation when emotions become intense (on either side of the conversation), to divert the conversation to my own story or to demonstrate knowledge and experience to prop up my sense of self-worth or external credibility.

A further reflection (25 August 2023)

Reflecting on my behaviour when interrupting somenone’s conversation, I realise that sometimes I come from an “I know” position, not a “don’t know” perspective. I feel I have to explain that I have experienced (directly or indirectly) what they are talking about, read about it or heard someone else talking about it. The net effect is that I don’t reflect back the communicated emotions and divert the conversation onto my issue and away from challenging emotions. I wonder whether this habituated behaviour has resulted from my academic background (the need to be seen to know).

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Image by Monika Iris 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.

Managing Grief through Storytelling

Dr. Annie Brewster, M.D. describes the power of storytelling for healing and recovery from illness, injury or loss in her book, The Healing Power of Storytelling: Using Personal Narrative to Navigate Illness, Trauma and Loss.   She stresses the need to develop a new “narrative identity” after receiving a life-changing medical diagnosis.  Annie provides an online avenue for people to share their stories of health challenges and recovery in her Health Story Collaborative which is dedicated to enabling people to heal through the therapeutic power of storytelling and a supportive social network.

In her book, Annie highlights the need to make the storytelling authentic – not just a recounting of events but also exposure of the nature and intensity of accompanying emotions.  This means being open about our feelings even those such as resentment that we might be embarrassed about.  It is in identifying and facing our difficult feelings that we can gain release from their hold on us.  Annie stresses that it is not the medium of storytelling that matters, any form will can have a healing effect – video, audio, song, poem, letter or blog post.

Storytelling can be a powerful process for managing grief  after the loss of a partner or child.  Bruce Feiler stresses the need to change our “story narrative” when encountering such “lifequakes” – we have to change our linear mindset about life’s progression and allow for regression that can occur at any time.  In his book, Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at any Age, he offers strategies, including storytelling, to reframe and reshape our lives in the event of personal loss.  To assist this process of rebuilding, Bruce offers an online resource in the form of the Life Story Online Interview.

Nick Cave’s Story of grief

In his book, Faith, Hope and Carnage, developed through intimate interviews with Sean O’Hagan, Nick discusses his inner life – his creativity, challenges, loss, grief and guilt.  His storytelling in the book and his music provides a catalyst for healing, growth and transformation.  Nick and his wife Susie were devastated by the death of their 15 year old son, Arthur, in 2015.  He described the initial grief reaction of Susie and himself as a “kind of zombification” – “a kind of morbid worshipping of an absence”.

Nick indicated that there was a real danger in such grief reflected in “a reluctance to move beyond the trauma” – because the lost person resides there and that is where meaning is initially found.  He indicated that he experienced simultaneously being caught up in the “commonality of human suffering” and experiencing a deep sense of aloneness – a maddening and “extreme paradox”.  Nick stressed the physicality of grief describing grief as “pounding through my body with an audible roar”, accompanied by “despair bursting through the tips of my fingers”.  He also felt this “violent electricity” in the hand of his wife.  He indicated that both he and Susie were “unreachable” at the time, despite the very best intentions of other people.

Nick indicated that on the advice of a friend, he undertook a form of somatic healing.  He started the session lying down in a “euphoric” state.  Before long, he was consumed by rage and his body bucked and vibrated from the intensity of the feeling.  He observed that “you never really know what you are carrying around in you”.   Bessel van der Kolk reminds us that The Body Keeps the Score in his landmark book on “the brain and the body in the transformation of trauma”.

Nick’s son died while he was recording a new album, Skeleton Tree, with his Bad Seeds band members. Nick found it extremely difficult to tour to promote the album but a friend, New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik, offered to produce a documentary along with release of the album.  The documentary, One More Time with Feeling, enabled Nick to tell his story of the trauma and grief he experienced on the death of his son.  On release of the album, the Guardian described it as “a masterpiece of love and devastation” and it debuted at #1 on the Australian Aria charts.

Over time, “fragments of light” were experienced by Susie and Nick amongst the incredible darkness of grief.  They were gradually able to see that people cared and that in this care and kindness lay recovery.  The healing influence of social support was brought home to Nick when he undertook his Skeleton Tree Tour in January 2017.  Nick indicated that he was depleted, exhausted and depressed before the tour and some of his band members were experiencing personal challenges too.   Collectively, they started the tour with “trepidation” because of their lack of energy while consumed by sadness.  However, Nick found that performing his songs (and story) on stage was “restorative” because of the “force field of the audience’s concern and awareness and love”.  Storytelling through the power of his songs became a source of healing and a way to manage his grief.

Nick indicated that  the “lifequake” of his son’s death brought home to him that suffering is the gateway to deep personal change, transition and transformation.    Suffering, especially grief, forces you to redefine yourself and to seek out a new meaning for your life and adopt a new perspective on what is important.

Compassionate action through grief

Grief can energise individuals to take compassionate action, e.g. the legislative reform actions for backpackers initiated by Rosie Ayliffe on the murder of her 21 year old daughter – a story told in her book, Far From Home.  Likewise, Nick was motivated to establish a website, Red Hand Files in 2018 where his fans could ask questions and seek answers from him.  The website transformed from a “Q & A” type activity to what Nick describes as an “exercise in communal vulnerability and transparency” and a “life-changing, soul-enriching exercise in commonality and togetherness”.  People who write to Nick via the website are able to share their stories and seek his comments and reassurance.  He readily participates in this mutual story telling and story-sharing.

Grief can flow from many types of losses.  It may be that a child loses their way and their personality through illicit drug use or end up in prison as a result of some criminal activity.  It may be, too, that a son or daughter chooses to change gender roles.  A recent post on the Red Hand Files highlights the associated sense of loss and grief of a parent when this occurs.  Nick’s sensitive response to this story highlights his understanding of loss and grief.  He talks of a parent’s sense of a loss of control and ,even worse, “a profound understanding that we never had control of them [our children] in the first place”.   Nick suggested that the greatest sacrifice a parent can make is to “let go”.  He appreciated that the parent and their offspring were able to find a “common bond” in his songs and readily agreed to the request to play O Children in Minnesota, dedicated to “Claude” as the newly named offspring.

Reflection

Storytelling can take many forms and lead to healing from grief – sharing the story adds another dimension in that it enables others to heal also. Nick talks about his songs being “a force” that “can make people better” or help them in some other way.  Storytelling involves transparency, personal disclosure and risk but the returns are health, healing and recovery.

As we grow in mindfulness and self-awareness, we can embrace our new reality after a loss and restore our sense of beauty and goodness in the world. 

There are many resources to help us deal with grief and trauma.  One of these is Dr. Bonnie Badenoch’s online course, Trauma and the Embodied Brain.

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Image by un-perfekt 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 website and resources to support the blog.

Managing Transitions with Mindfulness

In a previous post I explored the use of storytelling as a way to manage life transitions.  In this post I want to discuss a story of personal transition shared by Peggy Farah, mindfulness teacher and licensed physiotherapist.   Peggy was interviewed by Jon Waal on his Life Through Transitions podcast (Episode 48).  Her focus in the interview is tuning into your body using mindfulness as a way to manage life transitions.  She initially started her more than 20 years working with emotional and mental health by supporting children and youth who were dealing with grief, loss or critical illness – all extreme life transitions that are described by Bruce Feiler as “lifequakes”. 

Beneath Peggy’s competence as a therapist was a private struggle with “body image” – she was disgusted with her body (despite dieting) and had a “difficult relationship with food”.  It was as if she disowned her body and continuously retreated into her thoughts, becoming lost in cognitive processes – avoiding having to confront her challenging relationship with her body.  It was during her Masters study of Psychotherapy and Spirituality that she was able to use mindfulness to “reclaim her body”.

As part of her postgraduate studies, Peggy had explored the concept of “presence” and discovered the merits of Eastern religions, especially Buddhism.  She was also introduced to the numerous documented benefits of mindfulness which she describes as “deep noticing” in a way that is non-judgmental.  This opened up the possibility of overcoming her own negative self-evaluation and time spent in her “monkey brain” – in Buddhist philosophy, the concept of “monkey mind” relates to restlessness, disorder and lack of control.

Mindfulness to manage transitions

From her reading, Peggy came to understand that mindfulness could provide her with an “emotional breather”, could actually enable her to “press pause” in her debilitating negative thinking pattern.   She decided to re-focus her Masters thesis on herself undertaking a heuristic study (where she was both the researcher and subject of her research).  Her aim was to apply the principles of mindfulness and presence to her negative relationship with her own body and food so that she could gain “self-acceptance” – a fundamental outcome of mindfulness.

Interestingly, Peggy’s route to mindfulness was through her body – being present in the moment through her body (our body is always in the moment, in the “here and now” – it’s our minds that persist in exploring the past or the future).  She was able to become grounded by focusing on her feet on the floor, her body on the chair, and getting in touch with the physical sensations of her body (a process that involves a “body scan”).  She adopted “mindful eating” practices – the opposite to her previous behaviour.  She expanded her mindfulness practices to daily observation and journalling and engaging in “micro-practices”.   She became aware that the more you practise mindfulness, the more often “spontaneous mindfulness’ occurs in your daily life – you suddenly feel more present in everyday events, such as when observing a flower or leaf.

As she continued her mindfulness practise and her Master’s research on what was happening for her, she began to experience the documented benefits of mindfulness – increased joy and compassion, greater awareness (of self, others and nature), and “deepened relationships”.   She changed from being a “wound-up” Type A senior manager caught up in endless daily tasks to someone who became “anchored in the moment”.   She was able to spontaneously appreciate the shape and beauty of a leaf, to achieve real “presence” when doing yoga, and be really present to her family at the dinner table.   Previously, yoga became a catalyst for negative  self-comparison – comparing her body to that of others participating in practice on the mat.

Penny graduated with her Master’s degree in 2012 and it was not long after this achievement that she moved into her private psychotherapy practice, where, among other services she shares her own experience and learning to enable clients to heal their relationship with their body and food (thus overcoming “emotional and binge eating, chronic dieting, negative body image”).  Peggy also offers anyone a free 12-session, self-help course that she describes as the Deeper Cravings Path™ – a path to achieving a “true connection with your body and develop a peaceful relationship with food”.

Reflection

Peggy has achieved a number of significant life transitions including moving from a person who disowned her own body (despite externally recognised therapeutic competence) to “body reclamation” and self-acceptance; from an overworked and highly stressed senior manager to a calming influence in her private practice helping others achieve creative life transitions.  Peggy now sees her body as “an avenue to return to myself”.  She is living evidence of the transformative effect of mindfulness practice.

Peggy asserts that her achievements to date do not mean that she no longer encounters personal challenges or that she will be free from “lifequakes” in the future.  What it does mean is that she now has the ability to drop into her body when feeling stressed and to take an “emotional breather” and “press pause” in her negative thinking pattern.  Her interviewer, Jon De Waal, reminds us that “every thought we have carries an emotional charge”.  Thus mindfulness practice by suspending or reducing our thinking provides us with a refuge from life’s challenges.

In my current life transition from a competent and active tennis player to a person in rehabilitation for spinal degeneration, I can take inspiration from Peggy’s journey and storytelling.  As I grow in mindfulness, I can experience gratitude for the many positives in my life, persist in the process of rehabilitation and creatively develop a new identity and life story

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Image by smellypumpy 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.

Managing Life Transitions through Storytelling

Many writers and podcasters highlight the challenges involved in life transitions.  Some focus on specific transitions such as aging, menopause for women, or transitions precipitated by organisational change.  Their discussions frequently highlight the need to reframe specific transitions such as aging or job loss as periods of growth and creativity rather than decline – this means changing our mindset and our narrative about these transitional periods.  As William and Susan Bridges point out in their book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, many people become stuck in the “endings” phase of transitions because they focus solely on what is being lost, rather than appreciating the potentiality of “new beginnings”.

Bruce Feiler, in his TED Talk©, The Secret to Mastering Life’s Transitions, contends that one of the core problems people have in managing life’s transitions is that they have a linear mindset, a perception that life is always “onwards and upwards” with a predictable forward-moving pattern – schooling, job, home purchase, marriage, and children, and career promotion.  We are thus ill-prepared for “setbacks” or deviations that occur through job loss, ill-health, loss of a partner, or physical disability.  Bruce, who was diagnosed with cancer when he was a new father of twin girls, suggests that when we are “side-tracked” or things go “offtrack”, we can feel as though we are “living life out of order” – living a life that is totally unexpected.  In his TED Talk© and his book, Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at any Age, Bruce maintains that life is a series of “disruptors” and some of these are “lifequakes” that involve massive change and demand managing the transition to a new state. 

The role of storytelling in managing life transitions

Bruce, along with many other writers, podcasters and public speakers, offers tips for managing life transitions that we encounter.  He maintains that a key to transition is to explore our “life story” – this is the narrative we create about our own life. The solution to mastering transitions is often in our own narrative – false assumptions, self-deceits, delusions or denials (e.g. “it can’t happen to me”!).  Bruce maintains that a life transition, especially a “lifequake”, is an invitation to “revisit, rewrite and retell our life story”.  He offers a catalyst for this process through his Life Story Online Interview which provides an interactive form for reflection on, and  recording of, our personal narrative.  Bruce’s insights on life transitions have been gained through his own life experiences as well as through over 1,000 interviews with people about their life story.

Jon DeWaal, in his TED Talk©, Two Factors that Make or Break Every Messy Life Transition, stresses the need, when exploring our life story and the associated narrative, to adopt two practices to ensure that the exploration leads to a constructive outcome.  Firstly, he contends that we need to be honest with ourselves – to own up to our own part in contributing to our side track or offtrack experience.  This requires deep reflection, total honesty, self-awareness and avoidance of the tendency to blame others rather than look at ourselves.  Associated with this is what he calls “community support” – not the gentle, warm kind that confirms our invalid self-assessment, but the kind that offers “supportive challenge” which makes us confront our weaknesses, unfounded assumptions or persistent mistakes/oversight.  Jon is a learning facilitator and life transition guide at Liminal Space – a team of transition experts who can help us grow and thrive through difficult transitions.  Jon is also the creator of the podcast, Life Through Transitions, drawing ideas and inspiration from interviewees who have been able to make life’s “formative transitions” into opportunities for personal transformation.

Dr. Annie Brewster, MD, and journalist Rachel Zimmerman, in their book, The Healing Power of Storytelling, focus on the personal narrative as a way to “navigate illness, trauma and loss”.  Annie shares her own life experiences and transitions and, together with her co-author, offers specific guidance in the process of using storytelling for healing.  She is also the founder of the Healing Story Collaborative which provides shared stories and resources through a collaborative blog – processes that are open to anyone to engage with personal storytelling for the purpose of healing.

Reflection

We are continuously controlled by the narrative in our head and this is particularly true in times of significant life transitions.  We can become embroiled in negative self-stories, get stuck in the endings phase or be blind to the creative options open to us in a life transition.  We need to break this destructive cycle especially when confronted with what Bruce describes as a “lifequake”.

Using reflective storytelling, meditation and other related practices enables us to grow in mindfulness and can help us to increase our self-awareness and insight, to have the courage to move beyond our “comfort zone” and to creatively explore options to manage difficult life transitions and move forward to a new personal identity and reality.

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Image by Cristhian Adame 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.