Thoughts From The Couch – Healing through ritual

As a therapist, I incorporate and harmonise theories and interventions from a wide range of approaches that I have come across over the years. I do not believe in limiting myself to options that are fixed in a single approach as I work with a diverse group of clients and that requires me to be able to find ways of working with them on mutually acceptable terms. I believe that group and individual therapy can work well together, depending on what a client is coming to therapy for. Across time and culture, both ritual and group work have been used in many different ways as a means of accessing and containing emotions evoked by any number of experiences. I have developed both as part of my therapy practice. I have always been fascinated by rituals and see their use as helpful in therapy when clients are searching for ways of expressing thoughts or experiences that are beyond words. In addition, I am a believer in the power of group work as a way of facilitating healing and transformation in the broken moments of our lives – as well as a way of celebrating milestones and successes. As a result, I have worked with clients using both ritual and group work as a way of recognising important stages and events in their life. Rights of passage, the expressing of emotions, sharing meaningful stories and events, marking moments and experiences all held in a safe container, with a sacred presence that includes more than just client and therapist. 

I have facilitated many groups of different sizes and shapes. Group work, although daunting for many, can be immensely powerful. When we come together to tell our story and are witnessed by others, it can be profoundly cathartic and moving for all. Holding and participating in a group can act as a balm for the pain of life and be an important catalyst for the healing process. As talking therapy has many advantages and gifts, so does creating rituals. Clients speak of hearing my voice in moments outside of therapy which allows them to make different choices, receive an element of comfort and just know that although not physically present I am out there in the world rooting for them. In the same way, as a client might remember something I have said, creating a ritual contains many elements that can be reverted back to as touchstones during difficult moments or moments that hold unforgettable memories. Photographs, music, certain smells, memory boxes, places, objects and ornaments, books, clothing, jewellery are but just a few of the things that can be used in creating a ritual.

I see the creation of ritual as important as the ritual itself. It requires much thought as to its purpose and how it can be implemented. It allows the creative juices to flow as anything is possible. I see it as both exciting and faintly terrifying when asked to help create a ritual, especially those around grief and loss as I know that there will be moments where I touch my own grief. My desire to stand with my client whose lives are shaken by life stories that seem impossible to bear inspire me to move beyond my fear and take the strength and solace offered by bearing witness to the rich experience of being human.  

A while ago, I was deeply touched by the gift of trust instilled in me when a client I had been working with asked me to help create a Grief Circle to mark the death of her baby son. We had worked together on and off over a period of years, and part of her work had been around the several failed IVF attempts and miscarriages she had had.  On her fourth round of IVF, her ‘final attempt to get pregnant’, to her absolute delight, she became pregnant. As her stomach grew so did her excitement until her 20-week scan where she was told that her son had severe brain abnormalities and he almost certainly would not survive the pregnancy or if he did, he would die very soon after he was born. Her joy turned to disbelief, shock and grief as she tried to come to terms with all that the news involved. We worked closely together to prepare her for his birth and imminent death, to make things bearable. This included some small rituals such as her crocheting him a special blanket to be wrapped in as soon as he was born and writing him a letter. Her son, Noah was stillborn a month later when she was six months pregnant. 

We devoted a great deal of time in considering what the Grief Circle could look like and how she might make sense of her loss, whilst at the same time honour the memory of the son she had loved so much. What we created together was not only able to hold the beauty of the event, but the excruciating pain that was deeply moving and profound. The event was filled with all sorts of rituals that were relevant and poignant to the loss of her son. 

On hearing that I was writing a book, my client voiced that she would be “very honoured for others to learn from my experience” and so I share below some of what she wrote to me after we had created the Grief Circle and her experience of it. What we see if that a little like the ripples formed in the water when we throw a single stone in it.  – the ripples of ritual continued for a long while after the Grief Circle and as seeds are sown, we reap the beauty of new life whilst holding the loss of those who have gone before us.

“The Grief Circle you arranged for me was important in a way I think I won’t ever fully know. The impulse for it, the ritual of it, the impulse for it – every moment of it was beautiful in such a radical and full and deep way. It resonated with the deep grief within me and I felt a connection to the women in that circle in such a perfect and human and bereft and womanly way. It was wonderful that it so happened that the circle consisted of women who had never had children, women who had had young children, a woman who was pregnant, a woman who had struggled with fertility in the past, women who had both children and grandchildren and a woman who herself had lost a baby many years before. So we covered almost every state of motherhood. It was wonderful too that we held it just a couple of weeks after Noah was stillborn as I was so raw and open and in need of it.

I genuinely feel that those moments and the honouring of Noah together were among the most beautiful moments of my life. I felt so proud to be able to honour him, his life, his presence in the world, the potential that was gone; I also felt proud to honour the pain of the grief that is so specific to the death of a child and my touching of motherhood in such a painful way. I felt with these women the universality of motherhood and grief. I loved how we sat and listened so fiercely to the beautiful Bob Dylan, Forever Young’ (Slow Version) for him; I loved how each woman was asked to bring a poem or letter or the words of a song to read especially for Noah. I loved how you structured the time we had. I felt vulnerable and broken open but totally safe and held. I know that the fact that my own darling Mum was not alive to be there with me added to my bereftness and I felt I needed the Grief Circle to have other wise women sit with me and my grief.

You did something so very, very beautiful for me. So healing, so perfect. I wish I could put into words the enormity of it for my life and for Noah. We cried together and sang together in a way that felt tribal, primal, honouring and transformative.

Because of that Grief Circle, I did a number of other things that were ritualistic because I had known its power.  And I was able to share some elements of ritual with some of those closest to me. My husband and I had a beautiful funeral for Noah, led by an incredible celebrant. (we couldn’t have a funeral until many weeks after Noah was stillborn as we had to wait for the autopsy to be done.) it was just the three of us; she wrote a beautiful service which involved us listening to a couple of pieces of music, reading poems and drawing on some ancient rituals from different traditions. One of these was bringing oil and water as symbols. That morning, I watched my dear husband gather water from a small river near us into a lovely glass bottle, and I saw how he drew that water with such love. It had meaning for him that he could do something ritualistic, without really knowing it. The three of us stood by his tiny white coffin with the various symbols we had brought (a tiny teddy, a small statue of a mother and child given to me by a friend, some wool from the important crocheted blanket we had wrapped Noah in when he was born, the oil, the water) and spoke beautiful words. 

Some time later, we scattered Noah’s ashes at dawn at the foot of a beautiful tree on the top of an ancient and very spiritual hill. I can still feel the importance of feeling his ashes in my hands and touching the ground and the base of the tree and asking it to look after my beautiful Noah.

I then had what was almost like a Grief Circle with some close girlfriends who also had young children, who would have been Noah’s friends. I invited them to a special picnic to honour him, which was held by the tree where his ashes were scattered. It was a sunny afternoon, and we sat together, chatted, ate food as the children played. We then stood in a circle and I read Kahil Gibran’s ‘On Death’. We all cried. I had asked them all the bring headphones to listen to the piece of music we had played at the Grief Circle. Each of them walked on their own listening to the music whilst I looked after the children. I then asked each of them to write a note to Noah from them or their children for me to add to my memory box. It was incredibly special, and each said that they found it incredibly touching to be a part of.

One other ritualistic thing my husband and I did recently (as you know) was to send a card to family and friends, the women who were in the Grief Circle, and the nurses and doctors at the hospital which includes a seed packet that I had designed. This was so that Noah’s memory, wildflower seeds could be sown in places that need some flowers. I am also planning to do a small printed book for Noah called “Things You Have Known,” and in it, I will note down things Noah knew in his short life how we honoured him and how meaningful his presence has been in our lives. Babies in the womb can hear lots of sounds, and I had made sure he had heard Jane Austen, Mozart and Shakespeare, so I will include those references! And the beautiful poems and words brought by the women from the Grief Circle will be so important in this book. 

Of course, giving birth was a kind of ritual. Giving birth to a dead baby is not something I would have thought I’d ever be able to endure. But your help preparing for that possibility, meeting it as a ritual, was amazing: I was able to feel the experience fully and holding my very own baby in my arms is a moment I wouldn’t exchange for anything in the world.

In this past year, through doing these rituals, I feel I have been able to face the grief and the beauty and have been able to heal and share and feel held and strong. A dear friend recently described the amount of love we have as mothers as so strong that it was “impossible ….. unknowable”. That seemed to me to describe it perfectly. And even though I only touched motherhood so fleetingly, I felt – and continue to – feel this deep love and, through the Grief Circle so soon after Noah’s birth and the resulting rituals, I was able to express this love to my son as a mother. I had space to do so, permission to do so; my love could have a voice.

Overwhelmingly, I feel I have so much gratitude for having had the experience of having Noah. And for all the ways you helped me to heal through ritual, in particular the Grief Circle, I am so grateful to you.”

Over the years, I have been privy to many heartbreaking, breathtaking and inspiring stories shared with me by my clients. Whether sitting in a group or doing one to one therapy, I am often reminded that as much as we presume that others are not sharing a similar experience of life there is a part of each of us contained in every story I hear. Time and time again, I see, whether it be in individual therapy or sitting in a circle, how we are offered the opportunity to face our own unresolved issues. It requires courage and trust to be willing to fall into the abyss of our unshared stories and yet when caught by those around us; we can lie still in the embrace of love, validation and respect which allows us to rise no longer needing to hide the dark side of our humanness. Using ritual to mark these moments offers us something tangible to hold on to as a way of integrating the experience into our lives ……… just as we did for Noah. 

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