Article by Carmella B’Hahn
Loss and grief have honed me into who I am today: strong in spirit and deeply content as well as vulnerable at times. I am now a grief counsellor and an author and I write about the power of connecting with what lies beneath the surface, beyond our persona, our stories and our ego.
In February 1992 my five-year-old my son, Benjaya, who was one of the first babies to be born in water in England in 1986, slipped down a riverbank and drowned, shattering my reality in an instant. I had been immersed in the personal transformation movement for 15 years at that point, and yet this meeting with loss became my most profound teacher.
Can we see death as an initiation?
I was, of course, shocked to the core by my son’s death but I was also shocked to find myself so alone in my attitude to his passing. Together with the awful agony, as if it resided in the same space, I felt an awe-filled wonder at the great mystery of death, and deep gratitude for this life-changing event that was causing me to feel more alive, more compassionate and more fully human. I experienced my deep pain as an initiation – an opportunity to gain resilience and self-awareness.
Does grief have a time-line?
I realized that the literature on grieving, which places it on a time-line, with prescribed steps to be taken before coming back to normal functioning, was at odds with my experience. My grieving was more like a spiral on which I revisited the same anniversaries, memories and even weather patterns that would cause me to physically and emotionally relive the loss. Each turn of the spiral carried a little less intensity than the tighter twist of the year before, but loving support was needed for a long time – way past the time when my caring supporters had returned to their normal lives.
What heals us?
‘Time will heal’ is often heard by the bereaved. Is it true? Well, lots of time has passed for me and I do feel healed, but I am sure that it was not time that did it. Of course, many things contribute to healing, but the most obvious difference between me and clients I see who are still in deep emotional pain decades after their loved one’s death is this: They remain ‘time travelling’ into the past and future and I have ceased to do so.
I believe that there is a healthy grief; pure feeling that rises like a volcano and breaks us open to a very deep place. It needs to be expressed, bubbles up in the now and will pass through if allowed out. My observation is that the pain of natural grief is often magnified by the bereaved when they travel into the past and future. For example, when someone dies, there is a tendency to go over and over the past, worrying about what could have been done better, getting stuck on the death itself, with ‘what ifs’ and regrets causing untold emotion. There are also all the stories about the potential future of the departed. Grief is triggered by every expectation, thwarted wish, and hope for a future that could have been but isn’t.
My healing balm has been learning to gently bring myself back to what’s relevant now and focussing on my present relationship with my son. Whatever our beliefs about afterlife, we can choose to gather inspiring imprints left by our loved one’s life and use this legacy to feed our present. Perhaps stepping into the now heals everything quicker than the march of time.
The gifts of breaking open
The deeply conditioned response of our society to pain, trauma and death is that it is ‘bad’ and to be avoided at all costs. My son’s death was reported and seen as, ‘A tragic waste’ rather than five years well-lived to the full. I had a craving to speak of his gifts and the beauty of being broken open (without negating the pain) and this craving turned into my first book Benjaya’s Gifts.
Years later, curious to confirm my theory that those who suffer most have the greatest opportunity to wake up from automatic pilot and discover their innate resilience, I sought others who had experienced trauma and broken through rather than broken down. I was blessed to find and interview some extraordinary people from all walks of life, ethnic backgrounds and religious/spiritual persuasions who have not only survived but thrived through traumatic loss. I documented their wisdom and created a blueprint for healing from adversity. This became my second book, Mourning Has Broken: Learning from the Wisdom of Adversity.
Carmella B’Hahn is a grief counsellor, communications coach and author living in an eco-community she co-founded in Totnes, Devon. Read more/purchase books: www.heartofrelating.com