Holding Space & Sitting with Grief

In September 2017 I (Joanne) attended a 6-hour training workshop on the topic of Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss, specifically intended for those who support women and couples during pregnancy, childbirth, postpartum, and in the aftermath of pregnancy loss and infant death. Amy Wright Glenn, founder of the Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath, and Death and a former doula and hospital chaplain, led the workshop. Amy brought with her a great deal of compassionate attention to both the ideas and case studies that we discussed and to the bodies and experiences of the 14 women in the room.

On a beautiful Saturday morning we met in the home of a workshop attendee (herself a palliative care doctor) and dove into the material. Deeply impacted by the influential work of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Amy brought our focus to three main related areas of discussion: companioning the bereaved, strengthening support networks, and the place/purpose of ritual. To me, undergirding all of this material was the issue and process of meaning-making. How, for example, does a mother make meaning of the death of her child and integrate this loss into daily life? In what ways can a parent generate a meaningful relationship with his deceased child that will help to sustain him in the coming days, weeks, and years? How does a ritual provide a physical space and/or activity to mark the ongoing influence of and attention to those who have left this world, and how do we impart such rituals with meaning? What does it mean to be a care-giver or support person? What meaningful (i.e. effective and purposeful) support structures can we build and maintain to meet and assist a bereaved person at various times during her grief journey?

For those unfamiliar with Wolfelt’s work, I encourage you to visit the website for the Center for Loss and Life Transition, an organization that he founded and directs. Wolfelt has been doing important work with those who are bereaved and with those who work with those who are mourning. The website contains many helpful resources as well as Wolfelt’s authored & co-authored books, aimed at varied audiences.

It is unfortunate – if not surprising – that, for the most part, medical discourse (and those who operate within it) continues to view grief as either some kind of illness/pathological condition to be fixed or cured OR as something to be passed through according to defined (neat & tidy) stages and timelines. Those of us who identify as bereaved know on an intimate level that grief can move in many directions at once, surging forth and quieting down, bringing up contradictory emotions, reintroducing memories or fears, circling around repeated narratives or anxieties, and so on, again and again. Many counselors and grief educators know this, of course, and it is useful to remind ourselves of those doing the vital work of challenging and changing institutional language and behaviors from within, say, medical and legal systems as well as those operating outside of such parameters.

Jizo Statues.  Jizo is a bodhisattva  who helps to shepherd children to the spirit world.

Jizo Statues. Jizo is a bodhisattva who helps to shepherd children to the spirit world.

In her book, Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore – founder of the MISS Foundation, researcher, and bereaved mother – relays stories from her work as an educator and counselor alongside accounts of her personal journey of grieving her daughter Cheyenne. As with Wolfelt’s and Glenn’s work, Cacciatore’s writing underscores the multi-dimensionality of grief and its many contours that change shape and intensity over time. Her discussion of “the practice of being with” resonates with Wolfelt’s “companioning” in terms of the bereaved accompanying (sitting, walking, talking with) her emotions & thoughts as the grief ebbs and flows. Cacciatore too believes in the power of ritual and “microritual” to help us remember and, indeed, enact our ongoing love for our loved ones who have died. One such ritual that has traveled from Japan to the United States is mizuko kuyo, which stars Jizo, a helpful bodhisattva in Japanese Mahayana Buddhism who acts as a guardian and guide for children who have died before their parents. In our workshop, we briefly reflected on how we might begin to create communal grief rituals that align with our specific populations and belief systems.

Garden of Hope & Healing  at Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg, SC. Friends of ours made a donation in Finlay's memory to Hatcher Garden, so it's a special place for us.

Garden of Hope & Healing at Hatcher Garden in Spartanburg, SC. Friends of ours made a donation in Finlay's memory to Hatcher Garden, so it's a special place for us.

Undoubtedly influenced by her work as a Zen priest, Cacciatore sees grief as an ongoing invitation to learn, to grow, and to open into a more conscious and conscientious way of living. She writes, “Those who have deeply suffered understand life in ways others cannot: they know the only way to attain authentic and lasting contentment is to turn their hearts outward in service to those who are suffering as we have suffered. I am present with life because I am present with death. I know joy and peace because I am present with grief and suffering” (176-177).

The women who took part in Amy Wright Glenn’s workshop – doulas, nurses, midwives, counselors, and facilitators – are all clearly committed to providing support and comfort to those who grieve and to those who are dying. In her own way, each is answering a call to serve. Some are mothers to living children; some (like me) parent both living and dead children; and some may have no child of her own yet she comforts or teaches like a mother. The ever-growing circle of mothers and fathers who are grieving for their children require an equally growing number of compassionate, patient, skillful, and resourceful care givers if we are – as a society – to find healthy and heartful ways of overcoming the alienation that can result from death, dying, and grieving. In actively participating in this dynamic network of love and compassion, we act as meaning-makers in holding space for healing individual sorrow and suffering as well as for processing communal and societal grief.

This is the kind of work that Inviting Abundance cares about deeply. As grieving parents and as educators, we feel the need to help those who are suffering to find ways to develop a sustaining and sustainable grief practice and to navigate obstacles to emotional wellbeing in society. 

**As of May 2019, I am now TEACHING this Holding Space for Pregnancy Loss training. Click HERE for more details.

 Related Blog Posts: Written by Will: Falling Out Of Time, Death Literacy/Death Faire, Dead Reckoning, Practicing Hope, and How 9/11 Helped Me Prepare for Life as a Grieving Father (in Still Standing Magazine); Written by Joanne: Celebrating (with) Our Dead, Creative Grief Work, Getting Hygge with Grief (in Still Standing Magazine), and Six Herbs for Grieving and Healing (on Mindfulness & Grief)