In 2013, I was accepted to a retreat called, Healing Yourself is Healing the World, where everyone involved would get to spend a week with Thich Nhat Hanh and his Nuns at his Monastery, Magnolia Grove. There was an application for this retreat and if you were accepted, you were assigned a cottage with a few roommates and a group to be a part of for the week.
I was assigned the Grief Group led by Sister Dang Nghiem and attended our first group meeting on night one. Our leader, Sister Dang, had experienced significant personal losses as a child growing up in Vietnam and led a sharing group on that first night. One lady had lost her husband of over 20 years, because he left to pursue another woman. Another person had lost their son at a young age due to an accident. The stories were excruciating and painful and there was an intense feeling that night that I did not really understand or appreciate.
“Excuse me ” I said to the Nuns who were seated at the Retreat Information Table, “I think you all put me in the wrong group. You see, I am in the Grief Group and I do not have grief, perhaps there is another group for me?”
They grinned, put their hands together, nodded and put their heads together to find my paperwork. “You are in the correct group, but if you want to try another one, go to that one----->” as they pointed to a nearby group of much cheerier people.
I joined up with the other group the next evening, introduced myself and said I was happy to be out of the Grief Group. Their stories were much more palatable but something was missing. This group did not feel right, especially after being told by the Nuns that the Grief Group was chosen for me. I left this group at break time and went back to the Grief Group, confessed my absence and feelings that I did not belong there but also my guilt for leaving. The group had a laugh and said they were glad I was there for comic relief, apparently they had had another evening of tragic story telling. We agreed that since I was mostly absent from grief, I could just listen.
We spent days talking and meditating. I continued to listen to the stories of my group about the horrific losses they had endured and saw the group respond with listening and understanding. At one point Thich Naht Hahn led us through a meditation where we reflected on our Inner Child and the suffering that our Inner Child has experienced. You could hear weeping throughout the Monastery. I suffered though the grief of others while we were at the retreat because I was unwilling, at that time, to understand my own grief.
I went home to my perfect house, my Daughter and Husband after the retreat. Well as you may have suspected, some serious shit was about to hit the fan in my world…
In 2014, my Grandfather died and this ripped my extended family apart
In 2015, I lost my marriage and dream house
In 2016, I lost a close friend to a Heroine overdose and my daughter moved 6 hours away for college
in 2017, I lost a friendship of 10 years
Each of these situations broke my heart and grief became a familiar companion. Grief steals our words, and causes us to isolate and scan the world for danger. We are not the funnest humans to be around. Without support, grief is horrible and unmanageable but with support, the gifts of the universe become apparent to us. It is during grief where our true friends and our own inner strength emerges, and other less supportive relationships fall away, allowing us to deepen connections that really matter.
Support was that weird feeling that I first came familiar with in the Grief Group. Grief in our society is convenient to ignore, and there are a million remedies to suffering. As a nation, we have a "pull yourselves up by the bootstraps" mentality where independence and strength is valued. Needing, wanting or receiving support feels weird, it feels like we are doing something wrong at first.
I am here to let you know that by avoiding grief, suffering, and reaching out, you are missing the silver lining of the shit storm. I had a roadmap for surviving grief thanks to the Brave Souls who shared their stories with me at Magnolia Grove. The road map includes sharing your story and allowing others to support you and forging through the feeling that it is weird. Support feels like reaching out and having someone catch you, but a little fear happens before the catch occurs. Support feels like "oh shit" and then “its going to be okay” “your not alone” and “me too” or maybe even “this is intense, but I will be here to listen.” It feels like not being abandoned, but instead feeling treasured and heard for the suffering you have experienced.
There is a concept in Japan called Kintsugi, where a broken vessel is made more beautiful when it is repaired with precious metal. It can be considered the art of precious scars. Not only is another artisan needed for the repair, an accidental breakage is also necessary, yet the final product is more beautiful and appreciated than the unbroken vessel.
My heart is better now but it feels more. I am more open and I know my tribe can support me if it gets too tough. I feel grateful and these are the sparkly silver linings of grief. The world is set up to help us suffer, our tribe is there to help us tranform that suffering into beauty and strength. So i encourage you to listen to stories of others grief and when it is your turn, share your own story.
Written by Jessica Shea, LCSW
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