I celebrated a birthday at the weekend. Not a ‘big’ one, but big enough…it felt big because of the process and transition I feel I am in post retreat. There is something distinctly ‘mid-life’ about this transition. I speak with many clients about their experiences of reaching mid-life; the nature of it like climbing up a mountain in the first half of life only to get to the top and realise the view isn’t what they expected. I shared this metaphor with a friend at the weekend and he said “yep, its all downhill from here on in”. Is this mid-life? Am I halfway through? What does downhill mean? It gets easier? Or is that a reference to the final finish line?
I’ve shared in recent weeks how I have connected to a sense of ‘loss’, or more accurately a fear of loss. In coming back from retreat and re-connecting with friends and family, I have been hearing news of separating relationships, diagnoses of cancer, loss of jobs and deaths of loved ones. The very stuff of ‘life’. I carry these in my heart while I sit and listen to similar narratives from my clients. Spring is in the air, normally a time I connect with life, with renewal…but things feel differently this year. A little darker, a little more shadow. Yet there is a sense that this period of shadow is incredibly powerful and profound; a potential for growth and ultimately healing.
A couple of weeks ago, a client handed me a piece of paper with reference to a BBC piece on “Why grief is not something you have to get over”. It describes how after the death of a loved one, grief is the normal reaction (despite how we receive messages to “move on”). I appreciate documentary pieces like this, as they go a long way to helping people understand, normalise and individualise the pain of loss. No linear 5 stage process, no timescale to adhere to. Rather, an unfolding at the rate it needs to be. I have learned a lot by sitting with bereaved clients: a type of patience that can only come from listening with an open heart and appreciation that this fate befalls us all. As we sit together, the client and I inevitably come to understand the grief isn’t just the loss of the loved one but rather mourning the life they would have had, or wanted to have if that person have been alive. Grief, an intense sorrow in reaction to loss. A normal reaction to loss.
I’ve been questioning if a fear of loss is normal too. I can understand on a species level its important we don’t want to die and we don’t want others to die. And in mid-life, awareness of the ‘downhill’ can lead to ‘waking up’ to our lives: that time is limited and we want to make something of this short and precious physical incarnation. Yet at times death awareness can be paralysing and debilitating.
My parents, like many, tried to protect me from death and loss when I was young. Well meaning…yet perhaps not preparatory for life ahead; and explaining why I can feel overwhelmed and my living dictated to by my attempts to keep everyone and everything safe and intact. I don’t know what grief feels like; I have never had to dip deep in to those feelings of pain and sorrow. However, I know they are there, somewhere. And that knowing can become a dread, the nameless dread.
If we are protected from death we don’t learn how to grieve, and this get’s driven out of awareness and in to the shadow. Living alongside people going through incredibly deep experiences of loss right now, I am getting the opportunity to connect to that shadow: to realise how my fear of loss is related to a fear of grief. I’m realising how often I switch excitement for anxiety: excitement equals ‘getting my hopes up’ and sets me up for a big fall if things, events or people let me down. A recent example was how anxious I got before moving to my dream home last summer. Anxiety prepares me for the worst, even if as an adult I am now realising how much energy goes in to long-term and chronic anxiety (probably a lot more than acute experiencing of loss?). At times, its as if I spend my life holding my breath.
As I write above, this period of exploring a shadow I never knew was there (the very definition of the shadow after all) feels incredibly powerful and whilst not easy, I am appreciative of how life is revealing an opportunity to illuminate hidden aspects of my experience. We are often told in therapeutic training that we get the clients we need; and on a more personal level, being in relationships with people who are facing the challenges of loss is allowing me to offer companionship and in return receive great teachings. Truly humbling.
We can often ask “why me, why now?”. The alchemy, the timing – bringing together all of this at a time when we are ready; when we have the capacity to digest experiences that were too much to bite off and chew when we were younger. For me personally, my meditation practice has been enormously supportive. I am developing my capacity to abide with and toleratre the (often painful) feelings that come up. More than that, I can offer space and compassion to those arising feelings, allowing them to connect me to my being human.