"Therapists can study the science of grief until it is coming out of their ears, but they can ultimately only promise you a theory."
This past Monday I was to attend what would be the final Death Cafe in West Hampstead hosted by Josefine Speyer.
Josefine is a UKCP registered psychotherapist and the co-founder of the Natural Death Centre (NDC). Her husband who co-founded the NDC with her, was to die in a car accident in 2001.
Josefine set up the West Hampstead Death Cafe back when it was still a seed taking root in the UK, if I am not mistaken it was one of the first. It was for this reason, Josefine's skills and experience that I was to attend all those years ago (Josefine was to remind me that it had been six years).
Since that time I have experienced many more deaths, I have hosted many death cafes, set them up and delivered talks, workshops and coached on bereavement. I have no doubt that if it was not for attending the West Hampstead Death cafe back in 2013 with my Death buddy Liz Wong, things would have turned out very differently.
This final Death Cafe started as all do. Setting the agreement for the event and setting the tone. There were some powerful stories and experiences that were shared. For many, the emotion of their grief was still strong. Some had managed to work with their grief, others were still struggling deeply. What amazed me in all these cases was the power of the human spirit and I was honoured to be in the presence of such vulnerability and strength.
After my sharing my experiences, one of the attendees remarked, "I'm amazed. You've been through a lot, what amazes me is how did you cope?"
I paused. It had never occurred to me before that what I had done was amazing, or in fact that not coping was an option. It got me thinking. How did I cope?
This is what I have learned.
I allowed myself to fall apart. I didn't put on a "brave face" . If I needed to cry I cried. If I needed to scream, I'd find somewhere and let it out the cage. If I needed to hit something or break something I did just that, as long as I didn't hurt myself or others I gave myself permission to do whatever I needed to to get through it.
I had a tight support network. It wasn't massive. Just a select few. Each person served a different role, as it is unreasonable for me to expect one person to be all things. Some just made sure I had eaten, take me out to eat or prepare food for me. Others new the importance of displacing that emotional energy and check in on me to make sure I was still staying active and we'd go train.
I had select friends and family members who I could have deep and meaningful conversations with, and others who I were fun time friends - because even in grief it's important to smile and recognise that you can still be happy. These people were just there to make sure I had a good time.
This doesn't mean I didn't struggle. It doesn't mean that sometimes my life and relationships weren't messy. It doesn't mean that I didn't lose the plot. If I told you that it would be a lie. But what it did mean was that I set myself up for the best fighting chance.
I'm also a firm believer that you are never given anything that you can't handle in life - but how and if you handle it is down to you.
As I said at the Death Cafe
Time does not heal. It's more what you do with that time that matters."
Josefine was quick to point out to those in attendance, "The unprocessed stuff stays in the fridge."
The danger is that if you do not pro-actively deal with your bereavement (whatever that may look like for you) that what stays in the fridge is likely to go rotten - and no one wants that. It may very well be a short term strategy, but not a long term solution.
The death of the West Hamptead Death Cafe was tinged with sadness at the loss of such sacred space for healing that Josefine had created, but also feelings of gratitude for having bore witness to the start and the end of it, and the knowledge that Josefine will continue to do invaluable work around Death and Bereavement with the NDC and her Death Salons.
I'm not sure that I agree with Rio Ferdinand on this point, (to be clear he does advocate getting help from a suitable professional) but I do get his sentiment. The death of someone is like a scar that you carry, it heals, but the skin is never the same.
Now a doctor or nurse may be able to stitch you up and tell you how to take care of the wound to minimalize the scar tissue, but unless they've been deeply cut themselves they'll never truly understand what you are going through, and even if they have, they can only ever get a glimpse of your experience.
This is what it is to grieve.