Nov 20, 2019
For episode 21 of Speak From the Body, I decided I’d record a solo episode. When I first thought about creating a podcast, I meant to have a mix of conversations with experts and then one with just me from time to time.
Today I’d like to talk about loss.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the experiences that connect us as human beings. The things that go beyond the everyday “I’m fine, how are you” level of interaction. I’m not a fan of small talk, and am much more interested in the deep and meaningful conversations about what really matters and gives our lives meaning.
Loss is a topic that I’ve studied over the years. Noone gets to experience life without some form of loss.
It comes in the form of bereavement, or breakup.
Fertility issues, miscarriage.
Redundancy. Loss of identity. A move to a new country.
When we experience challenges such as heartbreak or loss, our bodies rarely get the space to process what has happened.
We might rush ourselves to ‘get on with it’ and think we have bounced back before we have. Or we might ignore what has happened because it’s just too painful to address it.
Even though I have a deep respect for talking therapies, there are some things that are beyond words.
Trauma is held in the body. You can’t just talk your way out of it. The mind and body are not really separated, yet we see a talking therapist for the head and a body practitioner for our physical selves. When things are held in the body and not released, they become an emotional scar, where layers of tension build up around it. This blocks the life force. It can show up as deep tiredness or feeling like life isn’t in flow.
I’ve frequently experienced in clinic when someone has come in for treatment to a sore neck or back, but I am drawn to a deeper held tension, that feels as if it’s the real thing to work on. When something is held in the body, we are held back from expressing our most true and vital self.
I grew up in an extended family, which meant that at different times of my life, I had my grandmothers, a grandfather, elderly uncle and cousins living with us. Over the years, we had 4 deaths in our household.
I was 14 my grandmother died. It was 13 days before a close family wedding. In our culture, you don’t have a celebration less than 2 weeks after a sad occasion, but in this situation everything was organised and we decided to go ahead with it. I used to share a room with my Grandmother, and after she died, I experienced terrible insomnia. I’d line up piles of books by my bedside to read in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t explain to anyone what was affecting me, and the only way I could find comfort was to give up and go to the safety of my mum and dad’s bed in the middle of the night.
When I first became an osteopath I treated many elderly people (very different from my practice now where I rarely see anyone over 65). Once, an elderly man came in for a session with an excruciating pain by his shoulder-blade. The pain was etched on his face and he couldn’t eat or sleep or move because of this pain. It was a real challenge to treat him. I was recently qualified and didn’t know how to help him lie comfortably or how to be gentle enough so that I didn’t hurt him.
It was the first time I treated him, but I’d met him before as he would always be with his wife when she came for treatment. I asked after his wife. She was such a jolly, warm lady, the kind that lifted your spirits when you were flagging on a hectic day. He let out a sound that was a mangled, primal scream/ cry. He told me that she had died. Totally out of the blue.
I have no idea how long they had been together but couples from that era tended to marry young and lead long, fruitful decades. He literally carried the pain of his broken heart. And being someone from that generation, it wasn’t natural to talk about his feelings, but his body was speaking volumes. I still feel an ache when I think of the intensity of his sorrow. It was such a lesson in how the body tells our stories. And how as a practitioner, it’s not about the fancy bells-and-whistle techniques but really about holding compassionate space so that the body can find its own breath.
Nearly 18 years ago I had a cough that was so aggressive that I was sick on a daily basis. At the time I worked in a small office at a publishing company and had to run down 2 flights of stairs to throw up in the loo. It became such a normal thing for me to cough and cough and run downstairs and throw up. I can’t remember what else I tried but I eventually ended up at a low-cost homeopathic clinic near my work. In the consultation, she asked about recent events. A loved one had died out of the blue. She linked the cough to my grief and shock and treated me with an intense dose of arnica. The cough eased and what’s interesting is that I still get a similar cough in March each year, nearly 18 later.
Elephants are my favourite animal. I love their nobility, their sensitivity and their sense of community. There’s a powerful story of elephants and grief.
If you haven’t already read it, there’s a book I love called The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. It’s the true story of a conservationist, and how he forms a beautiful relationship with a herd of wild elephants who were once violent and traumatised. Over time Anthony managed to calm the elephants and get to know them.
When he died, two herds of elephants made their way in slow procession for 12 hours until they reached the house of Lawrence, the man who had saved their lives.
They came to say goodbye to the man they loved, who had saved them from being killed. What’s incredible is that they hadn’t been by the house in over 18 months, but they just knew to come and say goodbye.
Grief can show up as holding of shock in the diaphragm/ solar plexus and caving in of the sternum and chest, the area of the heart centre, that relates to the heavy heart that people talk about. It can show up in the upper back , the area that I liken to the messy cupboard where we chuck stuff without looking, so that it becomes disordered and chaotic.
In zero balancing, the energy in the body is evaluated rather than diagnosed (which I describe as a more non-judgemental way of listening with the hands). There’s a particular feeling of grief energy that can be felt in the upper ribs, especially around the heart and lungs. It feels dull and empty, with a lack of spring, like a balloon that’s had the air sucked out of it.
It’s not possible to go through life without having some kind of loss. It’s part of the human experience and yet it can still be taboo, or not talked about.
Sometimes it’s too much to talk about or make sense of, but the body can find ways to express the sense of loss.
For anyone experiencing loss and grief, I don’t think there’s any one way to move through it.
I’d like to read a letter to the singer Nick Cave and his reply.
Cynthia writes to Nick Cave
I have experienced the death of my father, my sister, and my first love in the past few years and feel that I have some communication with them, mostly through dreams. They are helping me. Are you and Susie feeling that your son Arthur is with you and communicating in some way?
This is a very beautiful question and I am grateful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.
I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.
With love, Nick.
I run a workshop twice a year called Moving Through Loss, where we use gentle breath work, body-led movement and guided relaxation. If you’d like to come to a safe space to feel and move through loss, feel free to get in touch and come along.