“There are times in life when the firmament of our being seems to collapse, taking all the light with it, swallowing all colour and sound into a silent scream of darkness. It rarely looks that way from the inside, but these are always times of profound transformation and recalibration — the darkness is not terminal but primordial; in it, a new self is being born, not with a Big Bang but with a whisper. Our task, then, is only to listen. What we hear becomes new light.” (Maria Popova)
Several people in my life have had grievous losses and tragic experiences in the past month or so. Each of us is grappling with the ongoing psychological ripples and, at points, crashing waves, that these events have brought. It’s like a sudden emotional hurricane tearing through the fragile fabric of one’s being, what’s left is a trail of devastation and the anguish of bringing a different post-hurricane, order and sense of being to one’s life.
I’ve been scrambling around looking for pointers, support, information and resources that might be helpful in my interactions with these people, and for myself experiencing some of the impacts of their situations. Beyond the standard organisations and agencies that support, I’ve come across three things which offer different, useful ways of thinking.
Generative solidarity: an email newsletter from the On Being project caught my eye. It talks about solidarity – mutual aid, natural kinship, pleasurable sociality, moral feeling, swarm intelligence, communal mourning, entanglement with other beings. Solidarity is one of the chapters in James Bridle’s book Ways of Being and Krista Tippet, quotes from the chapter: “Solidarity is a product of imagination as well as action, because a practice of care for one another in the present consists in resisting the desire to plan, produce and solve. Those are the imperatives of corporate and technological thinking, which bind us to oppositional world views and binary choices. Active, practical care resists certitude and conclusions … It is the result of encounters, not assumptions (p. 280).”
Practicing care for people in deep emotional distress is hard. The (my) temptation is to offer them advice or to make assumptions/draw conclusions about either the situation or how they are feeling. It’s another temptation to reassure them, to discount what they are saying, or respond in platitudes.
This is where I like the concept of ‘generative solidarity’ – something that enables being with others in companionship, listening attentively to their perspectives and together generating new insights and welcomed outcomes that help work with the events and experiences.
Shoulding: Listening to a person repeatedly saying, “I should have …” as they urge the clock to rewind and in a Sliding Doors world enable them to rework a different outcome, is a common characteristic of grief, self-blame, guilt and the other feelings people have when they are reliving and reviewing death, losses and tragedies that they have been involved in.
My feeling is that the ‘should haves’ are the product of hindsight. They’re no use now. It’s not possible to rewind time and start over. But maybe listening and responding with empathy to the ‘should haves’ is something to learn how to do. As I was wondering about ‘should haves’ a poem, Self-Care, popped into my inbox via Poetry Unbound. It’s got the wonderful lines in it:
‘Have you finally stopped
shoulding all over yourself?’
which I think I will pin to my fridge door. I am certainly not immune to ‘shoulding’ myself and the poem offers questions around the value of ‘should’. I explored this a bit further and came across an article “What could’ve, would’ve, might’ve been: Understanding regret and why we cannot avoid it”.
The article talks of the shoulding as a form of regret: “One of the worst manifestations of regret is when it is relentless — forcing people to replay and rehash details of what happened in the past over and over again, which can cause chronic stress and symptoms of anxiety and clinical depression. Amy Summerville, a professor of psychology at the Miami University of Ohio, United States, refers to this as rumination — a bovine digestion term for chewing cud. “Rumination is having thoughts spring unwanted to mind and we’re chewing them over without actually getting anything new out of them, they’re just repeatedly, intrusively, becoming part of our mental landscape.” I turned to the transcript of this NPR talk.
Discussed in the talk, in relation to regrets, was the suggestion that in ‘should have, could have’, situation people may be ‘taking on more responsibility than was actually warranted… Talking about a specific case, Summerville made the point that “[in this example, the person] was probably imagining that there’s more that could have happened differently. It’s certainly the case as well that people often tend to focus a lot on their own actions about negative events. And it’s important to think about the fact that you’re just one agent in a much bigger framework … that there are lots of other pieces with the potential to play out differently.”
Self-care: The hurricane/maelstrom/collapse of the firmament of our being requires (demands?) self-care, though this is sometime hard for the person in grief to recognise. My meanderings led me to a wonderful Self Care for the Exhausted and Overwhelmed with resources and observations from people – Sharon Salzberg, Jason Reynolds, John O’Donahue and others – on their experiences of life. They talked of what they have learned through these experiences and what has brought them understanding and meaning through difficult and traumatic times. None of these people are offering a ‘how to’, simply telling of how it was for them, but all bring insights of value to others.
The second self-care package is on Self-Care for the Care Givers. The people, I mentioned at the start, have each been care-givers in their grievous losses and tragic experiences. Some have sought help in their paths through, while others have been determined to find their way unaided. Thinking of people in grief and tragedy, the desire is to ‘make things better’ for them. This is not possible. One of the telling suggestions made by Dr Rachel Naomi Ramen is that for people in turmoil, the most useful approach is “to find them where they have become lost in the dark, and sit with them; and to know that just by sitting with them, eventually they will find what they need in order to move forward.” She goes on to say, “Sometimes what appears to be a catastrophe, over time, becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life.”
Maybe generative solidarity is just sitting alongside someone, acknowledging the ‘shoulding’ but not condoning it, and being there for them in silent, companionable ways without offering advice or solutions, as a form of self-care for them and for the carer.
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