The Courage Required to Look Grief in the Face

By Emma Pearson

April 17, 2024

Photo by Sarah Treanor (

9th March 2020

I have just come back from a fascinating two-day workshop on Transformative Facilitation. It’s about enabling, engendering, indeed even provoking moments of deep insight and reflection that can lead to fundamental change in how a person sees themselves and the world around them, leading to different, more creative choices. Highly relevant for anyone seeking to be “more of themselves, on purpose”. I believe I use these skills pretty well in 1-1 coaching. My interest was in how to do more of this, safely, in group settings. I certainly came away with new insights, ideas and intentions.

At one stage, for whatever reason that is not important here, one of the participants was in the “hot seat” and was invited to look around at each of us in turn (13 others), to make eye contact in a deliberate way, and for him and all of us to “notice what we notice”. It’s physical and emotional work to be looked at in that way, let alone 13 people in turn.

Much can be made of an exercise of this kind, but the direction this went in was for the hot seat chappy to be asked “Who do you feel most defended against?” Again, lots of ways this question can go, but to my surprise, the chap looked at me and singled me out. My immediate response was, “Really? Seriously? Me? Moi?”  My second response, not so long after was, “Oh yes – I suppose so. That figures”.

Just a few years ago, I would have been 100% or more certain that I would not be the person someone would feel most “defended against”. The question “who do you feel most attracted to”, or “who do you feel most connected with” was not asked, but honestly, if it had been, I might have expected (hoped?) that that would have been me.

So how do I reconcile that I feel that I could be “the one” that someone, a relative stranger, might feel most attracted to/connected with, and then learn that actually, of another 13 people in the room, I was the one he felt most defended against?

The purpose of the exercise was not so much to unpack it all for the man in the hot seat, and whether true or not, he claimed not to know why he’d felt defended against me. He’d just felt his heart and chest tighten, and his throat dry up, and figured that that meant something.

As I processed the experience for myself later on, which was an experience for me too, inevitably, I came to the realisation that, “Duh! Of course he’s defended against me. He knows part of my story. He knows about some of the deaths. The very recent ones. The very hard ones.  Remember Emma, you’re everyone’s worst nightmare. People (some people) look at you and feel they might catch death from you. Or grief. Or worse.” (For reasons that perhaps only I understand, I feel that Grief is a fate worse than Death).

Now I don’t know if this is what was going on for Mr. Hot Seat. But I do know that I was able to make peace with my experience of the incident very quickly.

I don’t feel cursed.

I don’t feel like everyone’s worst nightmare. Even if I am.

I don’t think that my life is a nightmare. Even though it’s bloody hard and painful.

No, I don’t feel cursed. I sometimes even feel blessed.

After all, look at what I have. And look at what I have had.

Love and more love.

Stonkingly good health.

Friends and family.

Alive kids.

A place to live in a beautiful part of the world. With four proper seasons.

I also know enough about projection to know that most likely, my story above, my interpretation of events, is just my imagination run amok.

I don’t take any of it personally. It just is.

And, it does take courage to look a grieving person in the face. Immense courage. To hold the gaze. To not skim past. To not pretend not to see. And not to have your heart pound with fear and your throat tighten. With fear or anxiety.

I am grateful for this man’s courage. For holding my gaze for as long as he did.

It’s quite a rare experience, and a precious gift.

About Emma Pearson

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