Dancing With the Bones: Distanced Grieving
Updated: Apr 8, 2020
This blog post is based on the content of a workshop that I offered online on April 5, 2020, called Dancing With the Bones: old skills and new practices for 'distanced grieving'. I am an end-of-life navigator, poet, burial shroud maker, and the founder of the Northeast Death Care Collaborative. I use the word navigator for my work because in addition to end-of-life doula certification I've been a funeral celebrant for over a decade and have training in chaplaincy, coaching, and conflict resolution. If you'd like to find out more about my work or you have an interest in the Phone of the Wind, please explore the rest of my website.
I'll be posting a recording of the workshop soon, and also wanted to share this encouraging and friendly session as a whole reflection, without the distraction of zoom. BE AWARE: My intended audience for this content was folks already working in end of life care. I have not provided a gentle lead in with the death stuff, we dive right in. I've left in a bit of grounding meditation in the beginning, in case this sort of thing is useful for you. ;-)
Thank you for visiting my blog, Signs of Life. In this corona virus age I offer all of my work and services for free, and also welcome donations on a pay as you can basis. There is a button at the bottom of the pages here on my website, a dollar here and there is most welcome in these times.
Also, a note about online meeting spaces. I read (some place online) an explanation for why we are all so exhausted when we get off of these virtual gatherings. It turns out that we are experiencing a cognitive dissonance between what is happening for our heads (oh look! A room full of people who I can see and talk to in real time…) and what is happening for our bodies (yes, but obviously I am not in a room full of people because none of my other sensory bells are ringing). And so we sign off of calls with an inner confusion. Awareness of this dissonance can help you to reassure your body and your mind that they are both making correct interpretations of what is so. I am sharing this because I found it to be a huge comfort to be able to tell myself, often, that it is ok not to be ok.
Yes, it is ok not to be ok. We are here to talk about distanced grieving because human beings are in crisis. There are two major looming fears I see emerging over covid deaths. One is that we will be separated from each other during active dying (whether we are the dying person or the well person) with no way to say goodbye with out risking more contagion and death. The other is that we will not be able to gather for family and community support for mourning rituals that we have been assured are important to healthy grieving. My intention is to offer a perspective on ways you can access the inner and worldly resources that will support you to show up for your people, in a grounded and calm way. (This is not a discussion about how to organize funeral rites online, there is plenty of advice available for artfully lining up those ducks.)
Let's begin with the assumption that we all share the common predicament and grace of being mortal earthlings and that under the circumstances we are doing the best we can. We each bring skills, wisdom, and craft to the work we do as end-of-life practitioners (in whatever profession) in this time of pandemic.
Welcome mortals. I am going to talk about how we will pull the wisdom to navigate these times from our roots. Thank you for making time to be here on the page with me. Thank you for taking good care of yourselves, of each other, your family and community. Thank you for being willing to prepare your heart for the sorrow that is coming, so that you can hold space for others whose hearts are breaking. Thank you for being able to bend and reach deep into root and bone and lift again, then bend and lift again, and again, because walking with death is the labor of celebrating life.
Because covid-19 robs people of air, let us honor their labor and take a moment for a few breaths. Center in your seat and bring this life giving air deep all the way to your feet, then release this breath down, into your connection with the earth. Another deep breath in, expanding into your back and your belly, then release and let it flow out and around you, and feel your connection with your place on the curve of the earth. And another breath, maybe even feeling a tingle from your feet up as the earth returns your salutation and imagine for a moment that you are a tree, with your roots deep and your trunk sturdy, and your branches reaching to the sky. And release into your own silence, asking our collective ancestors, from each of our traditions, to support us as we learn to navigate these treacherous times.
Historical context for times of plague:
Because of climate change and impending mass extinction many of us have already been grappling with a sense of global catastrophe and have been responding by gathering resources and tools to help our communities cope with change. And now the carona virus has put a new spin on loss, change, and death in ways unknown even in the lifetimes of most of our elders.
Grieving has always been a dance with distance in the stream of time. Whether we are grieving loss, change, or death we are navigating separation. And the remedy for separation is connection. With heavy restrictions on travel and the necessity of remaining six feet apart from others at least for the near future, human beings are exploring new ways of connecting, much of it technology-assisted. But there are limitations to the tech because we are hard wired for touch. Touch is how we fight, how we love, and how we comfort. Touch is how we say hello and goodbye. Here is a link to a wonderful video from our colleague Dr. Pia Interlandi in Melbourne, Australia, talking about ways we can bring distanced touch to our mourning practices.
Her point is that we have the tools and resources to learn to grieve without hugging, and we can provide compassionate practical support to express touch in creative ways that make sense to the people we are working with.
I am immensely grateful for the internet and other modern technologies that help us stay connected with each other when it is so important to stay apart. I don't know how the rest of you are managing your intake of covid-caretaker testimonials. I feel compelled to witness but also have to be careful not to overload. The other morning I spent seven minutes hugging my pillow and weeping while an overwhelmed nurse shared the depth of her sorrow over her dying patients separation from their families and the pain on all sides of this equation. Her story was a searing agony and also somehow filled with mercy as she sang to us the hymn she had just sung to a person who died in her care.
I am grateful for the technology that helps health care workers ease the agony of separated family members. And that helps me hear and witness a nurse's song, and learn about home-stitched mask-making networks, and 3-D printed feats of face shield and ventilator engineering. We'll have virtual wakes, zoom funerals, and electronic remembrance scrapbooks. Funeral rites will adapt to new platforms and it'll kinda sorta be ok. But I think that for the grieving part of all of this our practitioner tool kits are going to be stuffed full with old-school remedies and ancestral wisdom. Even though in this time of epic contagion we cannot bridge the boundary lands of liminal distance with touch, perhaps especially because we cannot touch, we need to draw from some deeper place in our humanity to help our people grieve when they cannot be in the room with their dying person, cannot share tears with loved ones, or lean into the comfort of another person's arms.
I know many of us have spent years now convincing the general public that death is not scary or catchy, that you can safely touch your loved one after death. We've been highlighting living wakes, family directed funerals, and elaborate celebrations of life. How ironic that what we are now most needed for is to show up and let people know it is still possible to have good rituals and healthy grief without any of the 'death positive' trappings.
In these early months of 2020, much of what I hear and see in any given day is outside of my previous experience. But it is not outside of human experience. Human beings have survived catastrophe from plagues many times. The Passover story celebrated this week by Jewish families around the world recalls 10 plagues. In Paris in 1348, the Black Death killed 1/3 of the population, with 800 deaths a day for a period of three months. In the Americas it is estimated that diseases carried by Europeans wiped out an estimated 56 million indigenous people before 1600, which represents about 10% of the global population at that time. [https://www.pri.org/stories/2019-01-31/european-colonization-americas-killed-10-percent-world-population-and-caused] I am not trying to bum you out, I am just pointing out that we are the descendants of survivors and somewhere in the marrow of our bones, in our DNA, we have the memory of how to survive disease, and also of how to survive a sorrow as widespread as what we are about to encounter. How ever far we travel across the miles and how ever we finesse our dance with time, I am willing to believe that we are just as capable of carrying goodness forward in time with us as we are of bearing trauma.
My intention, my hope, my goal (my seat of the pants prayer whispered to the cold starry night) is to pull the wisdom to navigate these times up from my roots, so that I am nourished, flexible, in right relationship with myself and others, and able to be generous with my time and skills. And perhaps most importantly, able to receive support. All of this so that I can bend to the work and then bend again as the need rises.
As death walkers, in whichever role we encumber ourselves, history teaches us that we will need tools and resources to navigate our own grieving in order to help others with their's. In covid-isolation I have had time to consider the support that sustains me in my work. My lifelines are the woods I live in; my strong, smart, and capable colleagues for information, resources, and camaraderie; poetry; the dog; friends who are especially gifted with dark/absurd humor; and my life-partner who sees when I need to rest and helps me find a place to perch even if we are staying six feet apart.
It is useful to give some thought to cultivating the connections that help you keep the light of your lamp steady and bright. History teaches us that we are the descendants of survivors. In Jewish tradition there is a special prayer called the Birkat Hagomel: a blessing for coming through trauma ~ and prevailing. What are the teachings your ancestral tradition offers to help you sing the gratitude songs of surviving?
What can we pull from our marrow to sustain the long arc of healthy grieving?
Oy, maybe I should ask myself easier questions. This is the question this blog entry (and workshop) was born from. I'd had a deep thinking day. I'd been gathering Personal Protective Equipment in anticipation of responding for covid-19 deaths that may take place at home in my small rural town. I ordered gloves and construction hazmat suits, techni ice, cloth masks and a face shield, supplies to have on hand in case someone dies at home and their family needs help. But these are the up front details, death presenting fresh necessity and the intense immediacy of a traumatic wave of illness and untimely loss. The long arc of grieving is a different navigation altogether. And I began to really wonder… where am I going to find the audacity to encourage people to make peace with death when a sudden and terrible death has become a universal looming threat? I took myself out the door, where it is easier to grapple with existential confusions and out of long habit, I took my question to the trees.
When I was about six years old my family lived for one year in a house on a cove on the Long Island Sound. It was a rocky shoreline, and I went wandering. I found a place where a promontory of rock leaning into the sea had trees splitting crevices in the stone, and it seemed like one thick snake of root came right up out of the water. To my six year old self it seemed obvious that the trees were all connected and talking on a root line, and that I was connected to this root line too. And I believed this so deeply that I began to talk to the trees, to carry greetings between forests. This is my earliest conscious awareness and interpretation of plant spirit medicine.
Ever since, I've felt connected to trees. They are my teachers. I imagine them hooked up together like a bank of batteries that store energy reserves and if I ask politely I can draw on this tree-juice when I am in need. Botanists now tell us that trees are connected by root networks and do indeed talk and even sing to each other. I am willing to believe that sometimes they sing to me, not in an anthropomorphic way, but I find insight in how trees grow and hold themselves in the world.
(I am not making this up, here is a link to a TED talk about tree communication) https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other
So, I went outside and asked the trees, 'If human beings have suffered this way before then what wisdom can a death walker pull from her marrow to sustain the long arc of healthy grieving?' And I felt the trees lean in. It was windy, there was definitely leaning going on. In late March in New England the sap is rising. Trees are pulling water and food from their roots up through the living skin of their trunks and all the way out to the tips where leaf buds are thinking it could be Spring. The tippy-twigs at the top of the crown are a reflection of the tendril-roots down under. These are 70 foot oaks, hundred foot white pines, wide beeches, and hemlocks it takes two sets of arms to circle. Time has passed for them, and I am puny.
Somehow with all the sorrow at my heels it feels ok to be puny.
The trees 'said', reach down deep, and then deeper into your roots, and pull the sap up into your trunk. Then bend again and pull, and again, till you feel your trunk is full. Then send the sap rising into your limbs until it finds the buds at the tips. And then, while you wait for the sun, keep bending and rising, make yourself strong because there will be more work to be done. Let the people you are helping find shelter in your branches, let them be nourished by the sap that rises, and offer a perch where they can find solace. But don't do the work for them, let them learn to bend for themselves so their own trunks get strong.
This is what I hear from the trees. And if it is just a poet with a rich imagination tilting her ear and listening to the trees sing while the forest dances in the wind, it is still good advice. Growing to be a tall oak is a long dance with time. Human beings will need a long dance with time to grieve the losses we are about to experience, are already experiencing. And if we're honest, we're each afraid of our own self becoming a random data point in the covid death toll stats. It's grim.
Which takes me back to my child's eye origin story about the root coming out of the sea through the rock into the tree. If all earthlings (not just human) are connected to the root line, then the root is connected to the tree of life. As we dance with distance and navigate the stream of time we can look for the ways we are connected with the people we love. Death, like all the absences we grieve, changes these connections but does not dissolve them.
One of my children was very anxious about school, about losing connection with me when they were there. “What if I really need a hug?” they worried. I said, “All the hugs we share are in your middle, you carry them with you all the time and you can wrap your arms around yourself and feel them when you need to. Just think of me and squeeze yourself tight.” Wrapping ourselves in a memory of being comforted doesn't always work. But it does sometimes. It is a lesson in reaching inside yourself for what you need, a way to offer self-comforting practice for the resilience of people who are suffering because they are isolated from their dying and grieving loved ones. I think the trees are showing me the same thing right now. That I have inside myself the understanding that human beings have endured this kind of great sorrow before, we are not the first. This tells me that there is not something new we need to carry us through this. There is not a missing piece.
Pragmatically, as death workers we can:
be present with client's fears and trauma
be generous with our practical skills
show by doing ~ when we can't give or get a hug, hug ourself
remember ~ a memory of support reinforces the core love that nurtures us
celebrate relationships/try to see the whole tree (it has a village of lives it sustains, ants, lichens, birds, squirrels, and frogs... to name a few)
offer ways to express touch without touching (see link above for Dr. Pia Interlandi's video)
Which brings us to the next question:
How do we recharge our own batteries when we are being called so relentlessly to death?
As an experienced Celebrant, composure in emotionally charged moments is one of my super powers. Usually. I once began weeping at a graveside burial service for a stillborn child. It was the rawest November day, the mother and father sat in chairs near the grave. Her mom came too. It was the loneliest burial I have ever attended. I made it through, embarrassed by the tears streaming down my face. Afterwards I sat in my car, still crying for the baby, for this family, for all the sorrows fallen on the frozen ground in the family plot. I understood why I felt so sad, that was usual, but losing my composure was not usual at all. Death had been visiting my personal life. I had my own bushel of sorrows to carry and stillbirth is a very specific flavor of tragedy, it all spilled over.
Death can be relentless. Death will be relentless in the months and maybe, at times, in the years to come. It is ok if now and then we are undone by all the sorrow. We will build a bit of callous to manage our work in the age of Covid-19. This is a healthy response to injury. The dance will be to let the callous build on our shoulders, elbows and knees, and not in our hearts.
So then, what is the particular trickster physics of keeping a generous heart open and our own batteries charged when death is all around? I'm going to go out on a limb with a radical suggestion: If you come undone because there is too much in your basket and it starts to over flow, the remedy is rest. Not a little nap. A real rest. A few days in retreat even. Recharge because your health also matters. Arrange your practice so you have a little back up. Build in a bit of redundancy so someone else can bring the ice or explain how to safely sanitize, or teach about touch at a distance. I pretend you may have the luxury of 2 days to yourself to recharge, but even if all you get is ten minutes...Be nobody for ten minutes! and breathe. Here is a short list of recharging ideas I keep in my handy tool kit.
sing (safely distanced from others at least 12 feet because of risk from/to others from song spit) but sing! Good for the lungs and heart and the ART
be willing to not know and even to know nothing - trust someone else will know
it's ok to be undone
rest and rest some more, then rise again
chocolate (for real)
Food for thought: What is going into your recharge toolkit?
How will we support our clients and families to access their own strength and resilience?
Self care seems like a trite construct under the circumstances of a global pandemic, where health care workers and first and last responders are risking their lives and separated from their own families for safety. As end of life practitioners and helpers, we cannot expect to do our work as if this is a normal amount of death-sorrow to contend with. And yet, our care for our selves will do so much to show the folks we work with that there is a way to survive this aching loss. Bend, reach deep, breathe, and rise. Then bend again. I have three basic rules of thumb to support people learning to live with grieving. Covid does not change this:
rest and nutrition
let go of woulda, should, and coulda – no amount of rethinking changes the outcome
a little goes a long way - a little gratitude, a little outrage, a little humor
Number three is important: A short answer even if the question is big. A brief nap. A slight change of scenery. A minor shift of perspective. A hairline crack that still lets the light in. Some help from a friend - but not too much. An appreciation for the small blessing of enough.
If your client calls on the phone and is bereft because they could not hold a dying loved one, do for them what you might do for yourself. Listen first, then help them center in their chair and wiggle their toes so they can feel the earth holding them up. Help them find their breath. Help them imagine giving caring touch to their loved one, help them say what needs to be said. Let this be slow. It is not too late to send the comfort of touch. Be willing not to know the answers - be their companion in the liminal boundary lands. And by the gentle presence of your open heart, witness the keening song of abiding love that pandemic survivors will sing for their dead as we bend and lift again into living.
And please, remember to give your people the reassurance that they do not have to carry all of the 'grieving luggage' all of the time. We are allowed to set some or all of this burden down for a while. It will still be there when we are ready to lift it again. Maybe it will be repacked, a little lighter. Because the only way out is through. And if we end-of-life care practitioners understand this, then the folks in our care will too.
I want to share a poem about what I learned when grieving cracked me open and I had no map for understanding.
seen a thing (a reflection on being a hospital chaplain) I have seen a thing that I don't know how to tell about love so vast that it is able to let go pain so raw that it causes the air to crack and bend I have seen and can not ever unsee heard and can not un-hear walked in and can not step out but only through because all this is necessary I have been a place that I don't know how to tell about stood looking through the door that stays ajar even when we have forgotten it's place in space and time once in the deep of it I heard silence and was surprised by a beauty so unexpected that it bent me double till my hands found the earth bent me double and humble to the bone I have seen a thing been a place walked a road been bent low then lifted up again singing
(seen a thing is one of the poems in the collection 'Old Bones & True Stories,'
by Dina Stander  available on Amazon)
In conclusion, all grieving is an experience of separation from someone or some thing that we love. This loving does not leave us when our person dies. Just as their love for us abides in our hearts, being connected with them resides in our memory. Love and memory are good tools for your kit. So are your ears, your heart, and your common sense. Distanced grieving is just grief with a different story to tell. We can still lean in to our work, and keep ourselves, our family, and our clients safe. I hope this has been helpful! Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are working with people in end-of-life and want to talk more about how to support clients who are grieving loss and death in isolation because of covid-19.
And, since I've come out of the closet here about my long-term relationship with trees I want to share this slideshow with you. I take a lot of pictures of trees, and the sky, and water. I made a litte video to end the workshop with and will put it here for you.
Thanks to David Massengill for writing this lovely song, To Climb a Tree.
Here is more of me talking about grief work and supporting the people we work with to 'be here now'. These are two clips from my workshop Creativity & Grieving at the National Home Funeral Alliance conference in October 2019. Immensely grateful to Lee Webster and Amy Cunningham for getting me out to Minnesota.
Thank you for visiting my blog, Signs of Life. In this pandemic corona virus age I offer all of my work and services for free, and also welcome donations on a pay as you can basis. There is a 'donate' button at the bottom of the pages here on my website, a dollar here and there is most welcome in these times.