The alarm failed to go off; instead I rose gently with the words ‘stay in the feelings’ ringing in my head.  I dreamt that I was  counselling someone who has had a bereavement. I felt disconnected and unsure I was helping this person. This was confirmed when they shared that they felt I had left them in their grief.  I recalled feeling sad that my client had not felt my presence, and as I apologised I found myself crying intensely and uncontrollably. Then I awoke. I knew I needed to write it out, this was a message from my subconscious that I needed to attend to.

Upon reflection I realised that I could not stay with my client’s grief because I was not acknowledging my own, I have shut the windows and the doors, trying to contain my grief. But grief isn’t tidy, it doesn’t stay put, it is messy and it spills out everywhere.  It shows up in compulsive behaviour as we bury ourselves in work, substances, gaming, alcohol, sex, television – anything to distract from feeling. It shows up in our attachments, maybe we ”don’t do relationships”  because on a deep level, we fear and even expect, abandonment or we cling on to someone even though the relationship harms us – as anything is “better than being alone”.

Right now grief feels ubiquitous, social media feeds are scattered with stories of loss. Lives taken abruptly and traumatically – loved ones are left trying to make sense of the senseless.  Denied the comfort of collective loss, the soothing sensation of a hug, their hungry hands reach out seeking something, anything, akin to touch. It is lonely out there. There are others who are isolating alone (or feeling lonely in company) who find themselves missing, mourning, a loved one now lost to life’s many ends. It is lonely in here too.

I recently attended an online performance on loneliness by Travis Alabanza and their housemate Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley as part of an audience challenged to sit in loneliness with the artists. It was an intensively powerful experience, both deeply beautiful and very painful. Tears flowed. Despite the physical distance, we shared a collective grief. Somehow it seemed loneliness was so much easier to bear in company.

Grief isn’t just the body in the casket; it is the missed opportunities, the years we lost to depression, to addiction, to being afraid to be ourselves, to staying when we wanted to leave, for leaving when we wanted to stay. And it is anticipatory grief when we know a loss is coming and it becomes too much to bear.

As counsellors, empathy is something we need to utilize to do our job; we put ourselves “in another’s shoes”. But what if those shoes are a little too similar to our own? What if they fit so well it feels like  ours? And what if those shoes are the ones we had flung to the back of the cupboard, never wanting to see them again as the pain they gave us was just too much.

To sit with another human in grief is one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences. It is that rare point where everything is stripped away and all we are left with in the moment is our common humanity. We feel deeply, and deeply together. We may call this ‘relational depth’, intimacy or connection, and it is the most humbling of experiences.

The challenge though is that it is very hard to feel another’s pain when it taps into our own unresolved grief. We may fear being overwhelmed by our own sadness. This can lead us to denying our own grief (usually subconsciously) and emotionally distancing from the other person. We may disassociate in a bid to ward of uncomfortable feelings.  This can look like being distracted or the appearance of being present through offering advice or techniques. This can feel like abandonment to the person in grief.  It can be invalidating and may also bring up feelings of shame around expressing emotion and seeking support.

What would it look like to face our fear and stay in the feelings? To sit in quietness with someone? To not just hear the words but to feel them?

How are you feeling right now? Where does it hurt?

It is important to acknowledge and tend to our own grief through giving ourselves patience, time and understanding, through externalising our feelings via activities such as journaling, making art, screaming/crying along to a song or sad film, or talking to a counsellor or trusted friend. Before we can do anything with our grief though we must first acknowledge it – where does it show up in your life?

We now know we don’t just “get over” someone or something significant.  Various grief models show us instead that we build a life around loss; we get bad days and we get better days. Like an ailing plant given the right conditions we gently grow out and towards the light.

”Staying in my feelings” as I write this, I see the only way out is through. None of us gets to escape grief, and in grief there is growth, meaningful growth – if only we can face and bear the pain. This is not an easy task but it is an essential one. There is  the argument that we can get through anything if we don’t feel alone. Right now grief is collective and there is solace to be found in others.


Image Credit
By alec thenomad Licensed under Creative Commons