On the eleventh day of September, 2001, I awoke to a crisp northern New York state morning, the best of blue skies and an audible fall crunch in the air. I am New York City-born, so I remember those fall days well. I was in Rochester, N.Y., to present my work on the “somatic aspects” of grief. It was 9:01 a.m. as I stood in front of my class
It was my first presentation representing the University of Arizona and I was in front of 75 health care professionals. I began to introduce myself and the contents of my Degriefing seminar when a participant’s beeper sounded. In the audience there were clergy, nurses, rape crisis counselors, Red Cross staff, bereavement counselors, adoption counselors, neo-natal nurses, school administrators, hospice nurses and volunteers. All had come to get continuing education credits and hoped what I had to teach might actually be valuable, pragmatic and integrateable information.
A woman with shoulder-length brown hair and glasses who had received the page, rose and left the room. This prompted me to respectfully request participants shut off their electronic devices unless it was absolutely necessary to maintain contact with the outside world. Everyone in the room who could comply with the request did so.
At 9:07 a.m. when the woman returned, she headed not to her seat but to the front of the room. She stood between me and the audience. She looked into my eyes, captivating my attention, covering my lavaliere microphone on my lapel. She became my whole view. “The World Trade Center has been hit by a plane and it is on fire.” She shook her head slowly. I felt the fear radiating from her being; her eyes wide, her body stiff, her breath shallow. “Is this a joke?” I asked.
Fixated, she held my gaze and said emphatically, “no.” I realized her eyes were wet with tears.
I felt the energy float upward in my body; I became light-headed, I felt a bit detached from my feet, my skin was clammy, my throat tightened and my breath got shallow and rapid.
My body was registering the traumatic effect of the information. I recognized the absurdity of the moment. I was there to teach a seminar on the somatic aspect of grief. My Degriefing presentation – full of charts, graphs, statistics, techniques, notes and stories of case studies – was prepared to dazzle them with my holistic approach to transforming grief. “Grief is the most available resource for personal transformation” was to be my next sentence. I was there to teach recognition, languaging and transformation of this emotional entity called grief.
Was I being existentially challenged to “walk my talk” after going into shock myself? The first telltale sign of the impact of grievous information started to overtake me. I teach that the somatic reaction of the physical body is a gift that instinctively protects the individual from the awesome impact of horrific, unthinkable and unfathomable information. It acts as a primary coping mechanism. “Not now,” I begged my mind. “I am here to be clear-headed to teach.” But it was actually happening to me, the teacher. My Degriefing premise that “the mind has a body and the body has a mind” was coming to be. I couldn’t prevent the shock. I had to work with it and through it.
I was so prepared to teach; but teach the qualities of shock, while being in shock? My mind raced. I knew my only option was to be emotionally real and vulnerable and acknowledge we’re all in this together. I began to use the techniques on my self, exactly those I was there to teach. In that moment, I was them.
The brown-haired woman still stood in front of me, frozen in time. Over her shoulders, I looked out at the crowd. Their awareness was heightened as they paid close attention to this unusual scene. I thanked her and asked her to take her seat.
As the seminar leader, it was my responsibility to inform the group about this occurrence. Thankfully, my techniques were second nature for me due to years of grief counseling. I instinctively and intentionally felt my feet on the ground, lifted my breastbone, unclenched my hands, softened my belly, inhaled slowly through my nostrils and attempted to open my tight throat.
“Please give me your full and undivided attention,” I asked of the crowd. “I have something to tell you that is not easy to say, and certainly not easy to hear. Please take a deep breath, and continue to do so as I speak. Please put your feet squarely on the floor, feeling your spine against the back of your chair. Open your hands and unclench your jaws.
“I have just been informed that a plane has hit the World Trade Center tower in Manhattan, and it is said to be on fire. At this moment that is all we know.” My sister, dealing with metastacized breast cancer, has taught me to be responsible to her, not for her. I put that into play at that moment with the group.
A Lesson in Grief
There was a wave that surged and swept through the crowd and reactions were quite varied. Some started to yell, “Oh no!” Others moaned, even more began to cry. One woman had a profound resurgence of grief, a STUG as we call it, which in “grief lingo” is a Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief, also known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She started to emote, both crying and shrieking about the bombing of London in WWII. “I know what bombs sound like, I can feel the earth shaking, I hear the noise,” she yelled while covering her ears. “I know they will continue to bomb and attack until all the buildings are down.” She was grief-stricken and in catharsis. A nearby friend rushed to her side to comfort her. Others anxiously exclaimed concern for family members, husbands, wives, children, nieces, nephews, neighbors and others who lived and worked in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.
Cell phones echoed, beepers started going off in a cacophony of disharmony and anxiety, and the group began exhibiting the “many faces of grief.” Some were activated and vocal, others wept silently, some shook, others stared frozen and blank-faced in horror. A few ran out to the phones and to the television in the lobby of the hotel. Most just sat there in shock looking to me for explanation, calm and order.
At that moment I exuded a strong sense of crowd control and deepened my voice. I explained we were safe and we could use this outrageous event to name the feelings, identify the shock and grief, and pragmatically prepare for the unknown that was next. As John Lennon said, “Life happens while we are making other plans.”
As a group, we breathed together and the energy in the room calmed a bit. Somehow I knew I could do what I had agreed to do, and honor my educational agreement with this distraught audience. What had started out to be an academic forum had suddenly turned into crisis counseling for 75.
I told the group I was prepared to model “crisis counseling behavior” by leading them in a grounding process I call “compassionate listening.” This partner exercise works to strengthen listening through focus, by observing breath patterns and habitual tendencies (to unconsciously nod, agree or disagree, or verbally comment) while sitting in silence, consciously breathing, facing one another. The listener “holds space” for their partner to speak uninterrupted, expressing whatever needs to be spoken and released. Then, at the designated time, the roles switch. One speaks, the other “holds space” with eye contact, creating presence and connection through breath.
I asked the audience to use what was happening in the room as part of the learning process. “What are you feeling” I asked them. “Tell me, call it out.”
Heart to Heart
Anger, disbelief, tight stomachs, fear, pain in their backs, nervousness, anxiousness, hysteria, pain from headaches, deep sobbing, as well as shaking and screaming just to name a few of the many normal grief reactions. I had them turn their chairs toward one another in pairs. “Eye to eye, face to face, heart to heart, sit in front of your partner.” I used my Tibetan bowl to start and end each segment. Thankfully, I had stocked the room with many boxes of tissues.
We did the exercise and then somewhat calmer, the group took a break. Some went to the public phones, some used their own, others headed to the lavatories while others gravitated to the lobby to join the crowd of gawkers in front of the television, coming back more stimulated than when they left. After a 10-minute break, I told the room we would decide together what to do with the rest of the day.
It was the group’s choice – continue with the seminar format or disband and receive a refund from the University of Arizona.
With an uncanny and integrated sense of synchronicity, I felt clear and capable of leading them through this day with mentally focused intention, breath awareness and devotion, and by naming and not denying my feelings. I was there to serve, but they had to recognize that if they were to stay, we would use the energy of the tragedy to deepen what we had originally agreed to accomplish. They raised their hands in unison. They wanted to continue with the seminar. They said they couldn’t imagine being in a more appropriate place than in a Degriefing seminar.
The day’s events dictated that a new format be spontaneously allowed. I explained that this day of teaching and holding space for them during a crisis, meant they would be ready to use their own reactions and feelings – as both the practitioners and the clients. We would use the raw emotion related to the moment to transform their feelings of the experience for their own healing and empowerment. They could practice on themselves to test out the authenticity of the Degriefing process.
We had just experienced a collective pain in the gut; as such, we felt the weight of the world was on our shoulders, and we were exhausted and nauseated with fear and anxiety. Our vision had been clouded, and we felt heartache. We languaged the bodily feelings provoked by this grievous event, combined with all the other griefs we each carried with us.
At times of such great sorrow we exponentially experience our own grief. We have an epidemic of grief, in fact. Children shooting children, breast cancer, AIDS and now terrorism on our own soil – we are rich in grief. For me, grief comes from the loss of my husband, Mark Greenberg, who died at the Living/Dying Project in Santa Fe, N.M. at age 36, after exploring the nature of both his healing into life and healing into death.
The point is, we all have our own burdens. If we choose to deny or ignore our grief, or fail to convert or transform it, we are missing a cultural opportunity to enrich and enlighten our social existence. We possess it as the most available national emotional commodity to exchange through conversion. We have a stockpile of it – we could all be rich in social authenticity. Our wealth of unresolved grief tarnishes our true sense of oneness. The “Degriefing” reclamation project proclaims our right to feel whole.
I knew one thing: I had been sent to Rochester that day to deliver. I held space for the group by getting out of the way. When a woman in the group stood up to thank me for taking the “bull by the horns,” she asked me how I was managing to do what I was doing. “Wasn’t I affected by what happened? What about my feelings?”
I responded that I trusted myself to deal with my personal issues once the seminar was finished. For the time being, while I was responsible to the group, I just noted my thoughts and fears and stayed focused on the task at hand, which was just what I was asking them to do. I was modeling the behavior I was teaching. (I refer to this concept as somatic “deep ecology,” a phrase borrowed from Joanna Macy, author of World as Lover, World as Self.)
At times of critical incident, one’s individual grief is compounded and exponentially magnified. It is often referred to as complicated grief. I was asking them to learn and practice what I was there to teach, and thankfully what I was able to do.
So What is Grief?
I define grief as a mental and emotional experience, usually triggered by a traumatic loss that has physiological correlates associated with deep pain.
For instance, we are all familiar with the term “heartache.” It is commonly accepted that if a person experiences a traumatic emotional event (such as the loss of a lover or the death of a family member), this mental and emotional state often results in a definite physical sensation. We can feel the grief in a specific part of our body. Our insides actually hurt. Because our culture does not deal with the grieving individual effectively, I believe such grief can create long-lasting physical imbalances in the human body.
Degriefing is the process of recognizing mental and physical pain which accompanies grief and treating it with a combination of somatic therapies. I believe certain types of physical therapies (from conventional therapeutic exercise to more unconventional healing techniques) can be used to unlock and remove grief from an individual’s body, and thereby heal not only physical symptoms, but mental and emotional wounds, as well.
I also believe once an individual realizes the amount of grief he or she is exposed to, and is repressing, ignoring and carrying, that individual can build new behavior patterns that will help them with the rest of their lives. Grief, unfortunately, cannot be avoided.
While conventional therapies may be effective, they usually do not begin to address the physical imbalances induced by a traumatic loss or great sorrow. The individual’s mental state might be temporarily lifted, but the physical state often remains unchanged. Therefore, complete healing can be illusive.
However, I have found by treating the body with specific somatic therapies, as well as working with the mind, a person’s mental and emotional state usually improves permanently. The term “somatic/psychic” would most accurately describe the Degriefing techniques I employ, as the emphasis is on the body, and its innate messages received from the body/mind.
If you’ve ever practiced yoga, you probably have experienced an altered mental and emotional state following a session of postures, breathing and relaxation. The Degriefing process works similarly, and specifically targets those parts of the body which store grief in an attempt to release it and thereby allow a long-lasting harmony in the mind and the body.
Getting the person to respond and listen to their body’s needs is one of my goals. Unfortunately, most people tend to think of their mind and body as separate entities, and this only complicates the healing process. My contention is that grief is like traffic – it just doesn’t quit. When we enter into the Degriefing process, it is intended to create more space to allow grief to flow through us and not get stuck in areas which are “sludgy” with held grief. I believe the mind has a body and the body has a mind. Degriefing does in fact address that sense of being. Grief is a fact of life – it’s our relationship to it that we look at in the Degriefing work.
Grief can be stored in the body, although sometimes we grieve and it passes through us in a relatively short period of time. For instance, when we expect the death of an elderly individual, the sadness is more easily tolerated, and our body and mind accept the loss relatively easily. That can be called “simple, uncomplicated grief.”
However, in today’s society, we experience many types of loss and sorrow that are not dealt with effectively. From childhood through adulthood, we experience many traumatic events which leave permanent, physical scars or imbalances. That’s called complicated, unresolved grief, which I believe can reside in the muscles, fascia and tissues of the body. I have found through emotional release during massage that clients have gotten in touch with memories long dismissed, repressed or forgotten.
We commonly blame these physical ailments on stress or old age, when in fact it could very well be an accumulation of unresolved grief and related problems which are stuck in our bodies. I have found that for myself there is a direct correlation between my availability to be there to work with someone else’s grief release work and how free-flowing or blocked I feel in relation to my own grief.
For example, how many times does society tell us not to cry or display our emotions. We all know this stoic behavior is unnatural. We all feel better when we cry. The release is physical. There are real biochemical changes that happen when we cry. However, if we do not experience a release, the body will remember the event. Storing grief is both taxing and unhealthy.
Recently, even modern Western science has discovered that seemingly non-physical constructs such as memory, intuition and emotion have physical correlates. They don’t know how these things are recorded, but they are starting to acknowledge that the body can retain mental experiences. When grief is recorded in our bodies and retained, the individual suffers. That’s why Degriefing is an effective, exponential technique that is based on combining compassionate touch and communication.
Integration With Bodywork
Depending on the client’s beliefs and the setting in which they are being treated, I use a wide range of therapies. All are centered around compassionate touch, communication and body awareness. For a person with strict Western beliefs who is being treated in a hospital, I may recommend conventional physical therapies combined with massage and compassionate touch therapy. Often these clients are not aware of the body’s energy fields and would scoff at non-traditional healing techniques. However, aerobic exercise alone is not usually sufficient to achieve long-lasting results as it doesn’t change the body’s pattern of storing emotional states. A more focused approach is required. Health care professionals can learn how to combine fresh and dynamically effective treatments to their presently existing routines.
Many individuals I have treated respond well to professional bodywork, which often opens energy channels and chakras. A variety of therapeutic massage techniques, such as Swedish, Shiatsu, lymphatic massage, polarity and reiki can effectively be combined. There are many modalities that combine extremely well for this work and create a truly exponential effect.
Massage, primarily intended to induce relaxation, is also powerful for stress reduction and is tremendously beneficial for the maintenance of well-being. The goal of the Degriefing process is to actually unlock blockages which have developed in our bodies and shift the systems to a more harmonious state. Therefore the therapeutic intention held by the therapist and the client together can be the hidden key. This usually requires focused work by a trained physical practitioner, as well as a skillful “talk” therapist or a venue such as a support group.
For clients open to more esoteric therapies, the list of combinable approaches is long. I would recommend a combination of acupuncture, dance therapy, deep massage, compassionate touch therapy and vibration therapy. I often use tuning forks and Tibetan bowls in my work. I’ve used auditory treatments and even long distance healing. These treatments are equally effective as they can help restore the body’s natural balance.
By Lyn Prashant, founder of the Degriefing a Process, completed JFK University’s Graduate Psychology Grief Certification Program and has a private therapeutic bodywork, yoga and grief counseling practice in Marin County, Calif. She teaches the Somatic Aspects of Grief class at U.C. Berkeley Extension, co-coordinates the U.C.Berkeley symposium “Changing Paradigms of Loss and Grief,” and teaches “Degriefing for Bodyworkers” at Alive and Well Institute of Conscious Bodywork. Her forthcoming book is titled The New Art of Degriefing: Transforming Grief Using Body/Mind Therapies for Health-care professionals, counselors, clergy, caregivers and bodyworkers. For information call 415/457-2272, view www.degriefing.com, or e-mail email@example.com.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork, December/January 2002. Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
Portions of this article were excerpted from AHP Perspective Magazine, May/June 1997.