This post started as a simple statement and emerged 4 hours later as a lengthy exploration of three steps to take to return to wholeness. Please find time to read and respond, or at least print it out and take it with you for later. These are the truths I wish I had known 14 years ago. I hope they help you in some way.
I have experienced authentic, devastating, gut-wrenching grief twice in my life. One that spanned several years and one that spanned 18 days. In both cases, my world was shattered. And, in both cases I found my way through the struggle using the same steps.
I got to a safe place,
I got really quiet, and then
I got really honest.
Step number one- Get to a safe place.
Wait. First, ride out the storm in a lifeboat.
During my first experience of grief, what started out as a longing turned into a five year struggle to conceive my son. Over the course of those five years of infertility, and in the three years beyond that in which I experienced secondary infertility, my grief began like a drop of rain on dry ground and slowly grew into what seemed like a hundred-year flood.
For the first three years, I didn’t even realize that I had begun to tread water. During that time, I was completely unaware that I needed to find some solid footing. I didn’t know what a safe place was or that it was an option or that I needed to get there. It was all I could do to participate in my daily life as a worker, spouse and home owner. I was numb.
Then suddenly I woke up to my situation. I acknowledged and allowed my depression to be true. Really what happened was the dam broke and I could no longer deny my grief. It demanded that I pay attention to the fact that I had become a functioning zombie in my life and that I was merely pretending to participate.
Once the dam broke, I was no longer treading water, I was drowning. I realized then that I needed something solid on which to float. I needed a lifeboat.
The second wave of devastating grief took place 11 years later, after I had found my way through the struggle of infertility. On a random day in November of 2015, my dad suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm, from which he did not survive. After 18 days in the ICU, he died. No one in my family was prepared for such a sudden shock and loss. No one. My dad was a vibrant, healthy, strong, loving man filled with joy and radiant life one day. And the next day he was lying comatose in the ICU. And then he was gone.
This grief was not a slow crawling storm. It was a sudden torrential hurricane.
On that fateful day in November, after a typical routine morning, I found myself plunged into an emotional crisis of epic proportions. One in which I was suddenly running frantically to seek immediate shelter. That shelter was, it turned out, in the waiting room of Emory’s neurological ICU. For 18 days I was with my family and closest friends holed up in what felt like a fallout shelter. For those 2 and a half weeks, the world stopped while we huddled together in a lifeboat, merely surviving and making sure the others in the lifeboat survived too.
In both cases before taking a single step to work through my pain, I had to wait until the disaster was ‘over’ and I was returning to ‘normal’. I had to wait until I was standing on two feet and on something that resembled solid ground- in other words, I had to wait until I was out of a lifeboat situation.
When it was time to get to a safe place, I went outside of myself to ask for help. I looked for a way to climb into someone else’s boat, to let them steer for a minute, so that I could turn inward and try and put my psyche back into a proper order.
Seeking a safe place meant literally going somewhere safe.
Safe place #1
As I worked to accept infertility as a reality of my life and as the numbness wore off, I knew I needed help with my pain. I’m not talking here about medical help for the infertility. That was part of my journey of course, but it’s not part of this story. I needed to find a place where I could unpack my internal emotional pain; a place where I could unload the weight of my internal experience. I needed someone to witness what I was going through. My soul needed to throw-up the toxins I had ingested in an effort to remain numb (the self-hatred, the anger I turned on myself because there was no solid external target for it, the belief that God or whatever was out there in the Universe had abandoned me, the shards of my shattered religion, and the guilt, denial, and sorrow that packed together like concrete and suppressed all of my feelings down into the mud of my unconscious mind).
Once I stopped numbing out, all of that began to rise up into my consciousness and I ran for help. The pain felt too great; I knew instinctively that this reckoning was not meant to be worked through alone.
In this case, in the case of infertility, I found two safe places. One, a 5 day retreat to a spa in Arizona, where I could reacquaint myself with good feelings like joy, bliss, health, wholeness, peace and deep breathing. And the other, an infertility support group in my city, where I could begin to tell the painful parts of my story and thus reacquaint myself with feeling bad things, sadness, rage, terror, disappointment, isolation and exhaustion.
Safe place #2
When my Dad died, I had already returned to wholeness from the brokenness of infertility. I was in a program to become a certified spiritual director and had worked for several years on building up my experience as a dream expert. Because the lifeboat in this situation was relational, I found myself in an entirely new environment of grief than the one before. In this situation, I was not alone. There were others surrounding me who knew what I was going through- what we were all going through. I had others to reflect my own grief back to me and so they acted as my witnesses and that, for me, initiated the healing process even as our crises was still unfolding.
After the funeral, it was time for me to climb out of the lifeboat and return to my life. The numbness in this situation was not self-imposed, the numbness was provided by the environment- a waiting room and a cushion of loved ones who filtered out external worries and troubles so I could be present for the immediate pain at hand. Once we left the waiting room and the loving crowd dissipated, the pain hit me unfiltered, with its full impact.
During infertility, I spent a few years dealing with the full impact of pain before getting myself to a safe place (step 1) but when my dad died, I had begun an intensive two-year spiritual direction training program a year prior. So, luckily, only two months after my father’s funeral, I was required to attend one of the 5-day intensives to continue my training. And 3 months after that, I attended the last 5-day intensive in the program and graduated with my spiritual direction certification. So, I was whisked away twice within six months of tragedy to a safe place.
My safe place, which again was a literal physical space, was the Kanuga retreat center in Hendersonville, NC for the Haden Institute’s 5-day spiritual direction intensive.
For 5 whole days and 4 nights, I was surrounded by some of the kindest, wisest and most authentically spiritual people I’ve ever met. These spiritual directors created a safe place for me again to unpack my pain and attempt to tend to the disorder, chaos and emotional turmoil in my psyche. They bore witness to the story of my experience of pain.
Getting to a safe place sometimes takes years, other times it can be immediate. I have experienced both and I can tell you that the length of time it takes to get to a safe place doesn’t matter so much once you get there. All of the suffering that I went through in those lifeboat moments turned out to be just a part of the story.
Step number two- Get really quiet.
When chaos sets in and I jump into a lifeboat, my mind body and spirit are all on high alert. I am on triage duty which means that I am not really thinking much, I am just tending to the chaos of immediate concerns that are all quite suddenly screaming for my attention.
As I climb out of the lifeboat, the shock and numbness begins to wear off. That’s when physical and emotional pains begin to show up and I seek out a safe place to be where I can tend to the residual internal stress.
Responding to external chaos in a lifeboat is relatively easy. It is direct and clear and even though it might be hard because of the immediacy of all of the needs, it is very easy to respond once I choose which one to address first.
The internal chaos, however is a bit different. Instead of screaming from outside where I can look directly at something real, internal chaos presses and prods me from inside where I must close my eyes and ears and listen differently.
In his book, The Rule of St. Benedict which instructs monks on the specifics of living a monastic life, St. Benedict tells his readers to “Listen with the ear of the heart”. That is the purpose of getting really quiet. I needed to shut out the outside world in order to focus inwardly where all is dark and where my external senses (my eyes, ears, nose and fingers) are of no use. The psyche demands an entirely different set of sensory tools, like the ear of the heart.
Getting real quiet is challenging on two levels.
Level 1- outside
Getting quiet requires shutting out the outside world. I must close my eyes, plug my ears, rest my hands and relax my body. I need to disengage from my environment. We, as a species, are not wired to do this. We are meant to move and be in relationship with the outside world. We are driven to go, do, immerse, engage with, enjoy, create, communicate, and more. We are created to participate in the world. Getting quiet, then means, intentionally resisting our natural urges to move out into the space around us. It is hard and sometimes feels like I am wrestling myself into submission.
Level 2- inside
But managing to wrestle myself into stillness from the outside world is only half of the battle. Even after I successfully disengage from the external reality, I am not quiet. I have to deepen my resolve for silence. I have to double-down on that intention to be still so that it permeates the inside, too. The outside world offers ways to retreat- physical places that can act as buffers between me and everything else- quiet corners, libraries, spas, mountain-top vistas, caves, home altars, churches, animal sanctuaries, cruises, island getaways and more.
The inside world also offers resources, too but one is alone in the journey to find them. We can help each other, as I am attempting to do here, but the physical act of experiencing internal stillness cannot be done for you. And so level two means bravely tending to your own interior space and trying out various methods for stillness, alone.
What I mean by getting “really” quiet
In my experience getting really quiet has never been about a landing place. I have not been able to capture or hold onto quietness for very long, ever.
The “really” in really quiet means that I do my part by practicing the craft of moving towards silence externally and internally; and then I trust that the indwelling Holiness in me (some call it inner Divinity, others Universe, others God, and still others Spirit) will meet me there.
In the first retreat I ever took, I spent 5 days at a resort reacquainting myself with joy, bliss and peace. The external quiet of the Arizona oasis, set the stage for me to begin to see what would happen if I turned inward. At first it was just as chaotic as the external world I left behind. I hated it in there and I didn’t really want to visit that internal space for very long. I just pretended to be quiet, but really I swam laps, took walks outside, sipped tea by the fire while being in awe of the animal spirits I found all around me. I was fooling my soul into thinking I had quieted my mind. Or so I thought.
Because in that place, where all I could do was pretend to be getting quiet on the inside, I had sudden and profound moments of grace which interrupted my internal chaos with absolute stillness.
These glimpses of peace hadn’t come from me, but it had come through me and I realized that it was not of my ‘doing’. I hadn’t done anything to deserve this inner peace- I was faking inner peace! And that’s when I began to understand that maybe I could trust that some part of me that was connected to something like Divinity.
The depth of silence met me where I was when I got as quiet as I could get, even though I hadn’t gotten very quiet.
Since that time, I have had years of practice experimenting with internal silence so that now I can go much deeper in my own stillness. I feel ‘accomplished’ as a contemplative but I know from experience that none of that matters. As long as I get as quiet as is possible for me in the moment, there is the opportunity for absolute quietness to settle over, in and through me.
I think that some people get just to the edge of that moment but turn around for fear of what they sense is an overwhelming presence rising up to meet them.
Step number three- Get really honest.
Integrating a painful experience hurts. Naturally, when we experience pain, we instinctively try to avoid it. That’s basic survival. Pain means we are disadvantaged or weakened and are therefore vulnerable in the dog-eat-dog world of nature. And if survival is the thing we fight the most for in life, then when we experience pain, we are going to work desperately to escape from it.
But when you are in a safe place, and you move towards silence, honesty- brutal honesty- joins you on the path and sometimes, pain is part of that honesty. When the pain comes, you realize that you’ve already chosen to be there so you embrace it instead of trying to escape it.
The first thing I had to get honest about, years ago when I was on retreat from infertility, was that infertility was a thing I was really going through. Now, that seemed ridiculously over simplified even then because I was six years into my journey. I had experienced five years of desolate infertility, followed by infertility treatments and the birth of my son, followed by another year and a half of secondary infertility. It was definitely a thing that was happening in my life.
But, as soon as I got to a safe place and got really quiet, the first truth that surfaced was that I had on some level been living in denial that any of it was really happening to me. I realized, at 34 years old, that I was still trying to start a family as if I was 26 and newly married. On that retreat, in response to this newly recognized painful truth, I wrote a goodbye letter to my 26-year old self and invited my friend who was on retreat with me to join me at the rock garden where I read the letter out loud and buried it under a beautiful stack of stones.
The pain was not all-consuming like I had anticipated it would be. It definitely hurt badly and it still hurts to revisit the wound, but it was not all-consuming. It actually freed up some of the energy I had been using to suppress that pain so that I was free to spend that energy on other things- like enjoying a quiet walk on the retreat grounds and laughing in wonder when I realized that the creaking sound I was hearing was coming from the long heavy branches of the tree I was beneath as they bent and swayed in the wind. I had no idea that trees made wood noises like a settling house.
Getting honest is, in some ways the easiest thing I did to overcome my struggles. OK, maybe easiest is the wrong word. What I think I mean is that getting honest was the quickest one of the three steps I took. Getting to a safe place took years in one case and weeks in another. Getting really quiet is an ongoing practice that I am still not really sure I can do. But,
when I do the work to get to a safe place and align with the intention to get quiet, honesty just happens in the void.
People talk about listening to God, or hearing your inner voice of wisdom as if it is a companion who shows up in person and says words you can understand. And I’ll give you that sometimes, on rare occasions that is how deep honesty and wisdom comes.
But, what I have discovered is that my deep truths arise to meet me in the form of sudden inner clarity or in the form of synchronistic events (synchronicity is when an internal idea or image suddenly shows up in your external reality) or in the form of dreams.
Sudden inner clarity feels like running through the woods and suddenly coming to a chasm or cliff’s edge. It stops me in my tracks out of nowhere and shows me a depth of knowledge, inspiration or insight I didn’t know I was looking for.
Synchronistic events feel like gifts of sign posts marking my long spiritual journey through life. They come into view and make me laugh with relief.
But dreams! Dreams are like me in a different form- they are made up of me and my raw materials.
My nighttime dreams show me exactly where I am. They have always told me the truth, even before I knew how to parse them out. Throughout my years of infertility, I played with my dreams as if they were little crystal balls that could predict a different outcome for my life. I wasn’t hearing their honesty in the way they were presenting them. I was imposing my own desires for a different life onto them and trying to read them through my own lens. Nonetheless, they were telling me hard truths.
As I playfully, almost teasingly, worked my dreams for the interpretation I wanted, they remained by my side as a silent witness to my reality. They remained an independent reflection of what I was experiencing in life.
Dreams presented hard truths to me whether I paid attention to them or not; you see, dreams do not consult your ego before showing you what they want to show you. That’s part of the reason we are afraid of them- they do not let us be in control of the story line.
Let me share an example of a dream I had during one particularly isolating time period several years ago. During our first few years of trying to conceive, when I had not yet considered that my husband might be going through his own trauma from our situation, I felt hurt that he wasn’t sharing in my emotional response to our situation.
I had a dream that we were coming back home from a date night when we noticed that our front door was opened. We realized that the house had been broken into but didn’t know if the thieves were still inside. We decided that he would go in first and check out our house to make sure it was safe. As he entered the house, at first it seemed safe, so I came in behind him. But in a bedroom a very young teenage boy, who had been left behind by the others, jumped out from behind the bed and shot my husband directly in the chest. Suddenly, I was in the driver’s seat of the car and we were speeding towards the hospital. I was talking very calmly to him letting him know which hospital we were going to and that everything was going to be alright. And as I looked over at him, I knew he was not going to survive. I also knew not to tell him that but to keep talking to him in a soothing tone and to tell him that everything was going to be fine. That he was going to be fine. Then I woke up.
At the time, I was obviously concerned about the dream, but I didn’t know what to make of it- or maybe I wasn’t willing to consider what it was telling me. I was still in my own lifeboat doing my best to numb out and function. At the same time, I was interested in dreams and what they had to tell me.
In my desperation to find some solid ground, I had turned to my dreams and was pretending I knew what they meant. When I couldn’t make sense of my external world which was supposed to be orderly and purposeful, I was fascinated at the promise that my dreams which were disorderly and illogical might have some strange order and purpose all their own. So I was dabbling in dream work. (A practice I fully support for others who are on the interior journey- because it ultimately taught me to have faith in, listen to and rely on myself.) Anyway, at the time I wanted to know the meaning of this dream but it was a deeper, harder truth than I was ready to know.
So I looked and looked until I found an interpretation that was acceptable- I decided that since death is part of a cycle and is followed by re-birth, that it must mean that my husband’s current way of being, stoic and in my view unwilling to share in my emotional response, had to die before he could be reborn to my way of doing things. In other words, I decided that he needed to wake up to the fact that I was handling our situation right and he was wrong.
Later, once I began to get really honest with myself, I was able to see that the dream was really giving me a personal parable- teaching me how to see that he, too had been deeply almost fatally wounded by our infertility and that I had an opportunity to tend to his woundedness with the loving instincts of a mother that I was desperate to share with someone.
See, dreams don’t lie about our situations in life. They don’t make linear sense, usually, but they do make some sense, creative sense. They present our internal chaos in story form. They give us something tangible to work with once we are in a place where we can bravely face those truths.
Just like silence that can meet us where we are, dreams are beside us on our journey, reflecting us back to ourselves – when we are ready to look.
And also just like silence or more specifically, just like the second level of stillness that is internal, we are alone in our work. Dreams dwell within us each individually. Yes, there are universal patterns and there are plenty of resources to help you learn to work with your dreams. But the experience of the dream itself and the inner work of recognizing its meaning can only be done by the dreamer.
My dreams are from me and they are for me and so I alone must do the work to decipher them.
But don’t let that make you feel isolated. Because much like having my friend with me on retreat and much like attending an infertility support group once a week, the journey of dream work is meant to be shared. And there are places set up for sharing the journey of dreams.
One place is a dream group, which is a gathering of fellow dreamers who meet periodically to share dreams and to share in the practice of deciphering their meaning. Another place is in session with a therapist, psychologist or spiritual director. You can look for professionals who list dream work as their special area of interest or expertise. There are organizations and conferences set up to celebrate dream work and disseminate information about how dreams are used in fields like science, psychology, faith and art.
Finally, there are spiritual companions in the form of your own inner circle of friends and family. Sharing dreams with someone who knows you well is one of the greatest ways to strengthen a friendship. I shared dreams with my sister for a long time before I knew what I was doing with dream work. Over coffee or wine we would explore the layers of connections and depths of meaning. We still laugh and cry together over our dreams.
My point is dreams are a trustworthy source for inner work. They have been by your side every step of your journey since you began to form words until this present moment. When you are ready to work through whatever you are struggling with in this moment, they will meet you where you are. You don’t have to be a prolific dreamer, you don’t even have a recent dream to work with. You can take any dream you recall (from yesterday or years ago) and you can play with unpacking it’s layers of depth and symbolism for your life. Recording, retelling, and working with your dreams is it’s own version of you telling your stories. And telling your stories, getting honest when you are safe and ready, is how you begin to heal.