Grief Part Three: How do I integrate Grief anyway?By Emma Pearson
December 6, 2023
6th May 2017
For the past three days I have been in Belgirate on Lago Maggiore doing Part One of the Advanced Programme of Systemic Constellations with Francesco Pimpinelli. The training has been about ways of working systemically with aspects of ourselves – patterns of behaviour, inner conflicts, shameful attributes, unacknowledged powers, character traits, inner judges and inner critics, strengths and more. It’s been that exquisite blend of intellectual learning, personal and professional skill stretch and inevitable discomfort, and then delightful glee as something makes sense in a way I can use for myself or with my clients. It’s added extra threads, colour and texture to the already beautiful tapestry of psychological theories and principles, tools and processes, and systemic lenses that I draw on in my professional practice with individuals, teams and organisations. And as I have come to learn, personal development comes before professional application.
Mike died 4 weeks ago today. My grief is still so new. Recent, strange. A stranger. Like a homeless person that’s chosen to camp outside the front door. I invite the stranger to leave, but so far not so willing. So, daily I learn something about my newly-developing patterns of living with my new life partner, whose name is Grief.
In these past few days at the programme I have explored the idea – no – the feeling of bringing my grief into me, no longer viewing it as something outside me, alongside me. That can be boxed up and tied with a neat little bow, and carted around with me, opened up and checked on from time to time. But rather something that I really embrace and integrate into me, into every cell of my being, renewing, changing, living and breathing everywhere. Not a part that becomes a solid or identifiable “thing”, but a living, shifting energy, flowing throughout my physical system. I haven’t managed this yet – it’s still just an idea, but one I want to try out. It feels healthier for me. Many people talk about grief being a fellow traveller along the road of life, but for me that conjures up the image of grief as a separate entity – perhaps a constant companion, but still separate. I think for me a healthier relationship with Grief will be one where I still have Adult Emma with the conductor’s baton, creating some kind of composition of a life with many instruments, voices and movements, with shifting tempi and moods.
What might embracing and integrating Grief look like? If Grief is to fully enter me and live within me, it can’t be something that will fester, that becomes solid and stolid. Instead I have an image of a bush or similar, made up of millions of tiny floaty roses, with stems that can prick and hurt and make me bleed, but that is ultimately precious and beautiful. Sometimes in season, sometimes not. Sometimes blossoming, sometimes flowerless. Sometimes all dried up, and sometimes fresh. Always there, living within me, taking root. Integrated. Flourishing. Bringing a promise that it will make me even more beautiful and whole as a human being. Breathing valuable qualities, life and beauty into how I live my life. My new life. The one that continues despite the crevasse in the path that’s so sudden, deep and wide. This would be an unusual home for a rose bush. Not a natural environment. There would be some learning, frustration and mutual adjustment along the way. But it might just work to our collective benefit. No clue as yet how to do this work.
Lovely as they sound, I don’t necessarily wish for the floaty roses because they feel foreign, and anyway, I’d much rather have Mike. Mike was like a whole flipping orchard of trees, breathing and purifying the air around, nurturing, contributing, feeding, flourishing, adding to the ecosystem much more broadly than my floaty rose bush ever could. But the trees and fruit from the orchard are out of sight. So I need a replacement until I fully accept that the orchard has gone for good, at least in its physical form.
I still cannot accept fully, in my being, that Mike is not here. I am incapable of believing it other than intellectually. I feel so far from whatever proper acceptance will be like. I know that full acceptance will also be felt throughout my system, in my heart and other organs, blood, bones and cells. But for now my level of acknowledgement is triggered into action, frequently and unpredictably, at moments throughout the day and night. It’s a throwing up of question marks and exclamation marks. Popping in my mind, going off like champagne corks, and unsettling me, upsetting my fragile balance.
I find myself forever surprised that Mike has died. That he won’t be waiting with a delicious glass of wine for me in his hand as I arrive home late tonight. Sometimes I allow the shock of the reminder to be fully felt, but mostly I don’t. Sometimes I simply raise an eye-brow in surprise. “Oh – that’s right – I forgot – he’s died”. Then I am surprised that I have forgotten. How could I forget? Surely I’d be shocked at my holey brain. But no shock at my forgetfulness. Nor guilt. Just a feeling of being rather dense, slow that it’s taking so long for me to “get it”. I shake my head as a cat shakes off residual rain. Quick, efficient. It cannot be.
Is this the fogginess that people talk about following the death of a loved one? I think it’s different. I don’t feel foggy mentally. Sure – less concentrated, definitely accomplishing far less during a 24 hour period than some months ago. But I consider that I am going about things with pretty good focus and clarity, genuinely enjoying, appreciating much of my day-to-day. I have always loved being alive, all the sensations that come with daily life. Even Mike’s death hasn’t changed that. I can still get engrossed in things that I love – and there is much, such as these few days away. Travelling to a favourite country, and learning with fellow-professionals who naturally provide that safe container for personal exploration (some might call it navel gazing). A recent short run that took me into sun, rain, wind and hail one after the other, whipped up giggles in me at being able to live in this precious corner of the world. But my forgetfulness about the “true fact” that Mike has died – that is my fogginess. A “Duh!” wrapped in plastic bubblewrap.
Then something makes me remember Mike not as a recently deceased person who jolts into my mind with startling frequency – but Mike as an alive man, flesh and blood, someone I shared almost everything with. Insights, a thought, an idea, a scene, a conversation, a new wine, a tasty dish, a dream, an article, book or interview – anything routine and day-to-day. His twinkling eyes, his voice, words, accent and intonation, laugh, smell, skin texture, silky hair, sexy legs and bum, his full presence is suddenly there in front of me. “I must tell Mike about this later”, I say to myself. And instantly a sparkle of anticipated joy is quenched. Cartoon-style question marks and exclamation marks pop around in front of my eyes, and a dark raincloud settles over my heart. With it a heavy weight pulls down my energy, strength drains from my arms, and breathing speeds up. A few quick sharp intakes of breath remind me that I need to breathe. So I do that for a few breaths. And remember. Before trying to re-centre so that I can come back to something resembling a somewhat functioning adult.
One piece of work this week involved me working with two people, neither of whom had any idea of what I was choosing to explore. In my mind, one of them was to represent an “Exiled” part of me – a part I don’t let out much for fear of it taking over. Grief. The other person represented a “Firefighter” – on emergency duty, saving the day over and over, in case Grief gets the upper hand. Distraction, busyness, Facebook… whatever.
I positioned these two representatives according to where they seem to be in my life at the moment. And I could hardly stand it. I said some scripted words to each of these representatives, and they started crying crying crying. As did I. The three of us crying, all disconnected from one another – me knowing fully why, and them having no idea what was causing their tears. After some time and my words to them, they repositioned themselves as they intuited, taking up new positions in relation to me. They were together, joined at the hip, looking me straight up and down, sobbing, clearly asking to be a part of me. Integrated. Together, with me, in my being. The crying continued until we fully acknowledged each other’s presence and could settle. Apart from my scripted words, no other words were shared. Even in the debrief I didn’t share the roles I had given them in my mind – just the learnings and insights I was taking away. Beautiful. Heavy. Unsettling. Stirring. Empowering.
That was just one exercise of many these few days. There were more, but this is the one that feels most precious right now. Whose teachings I will try to apply. Moment by moment. Going gently. With nurturing for Adult Emma. And knowing that my day to day is not spent around nourishing fellow coaches, but other real people with their own kaleidoscope of personality parts – owned and not.
I have some gorgeous friends who are walking beside me as I explore this, and find a new language and strategies for daily living. People who know that I am an Emma who will always have Grief living in her – providing rich guidance for living a fully-lived life. Not asking me to move on, but trusting that I will move forward. Thank you for honouring me, Mike, and part of his rich legacy, Grief.