By Dina Bell-Laroche
In his poignant essay on the deep sadness he experienced after the death of his cherished wife Joy Davidman, author C.S. Lewis acknowledged that he was surprised to find that death felt so much like fear. It is this line that inspired me to write this blog.
Death need not be something to fear. Death, like birth, can be something beautiful, appreciated, and honoured. Alas, in our loss-phobic society, the notion of accepting our death and the death of those we love feels like a chasm too wide to contemplate crossing … unless of course, we have a bridge. Consider this blog as a bridge to hold death and loss differently. I am inviting you to not see death as the opposite of life, but rather to stay open to the idea that death is the opposite of being born. Living is what we do in between.
As we get ready to hunker down this holiday season, possibly without our loved ones, this blog is an invitation to reflect on this past year with our eyes wide open. Now is not the time to avert our gaze as poet Danna Faulds speaks of in her beautiful poem Allow. Now is the time to be present to the grief that continues to entrench itself in the hearts of athletes, coaches, administrators, and volunteers. The uncertainty of "what will be" means that our best-laid plans - and there are many - may not come to fruition. As a community, we are better than most at setting a course for the future and working tirelessly towards our goals. As adaptable as we are, however, in our tirelessness we are mistaking denial for courage, and ignoring the call to explore our grief from a place of wonder and acceptance.
Since COVID struck, I have hosted dozens of Courageous Conversations and Grief Cafes, both in and outside of sport, as part of my commitment to foster more grief and loss literacy. One thing I believe to be true is that by avoiding that which we fear, and by not expressing it, we allow our fear to grow into something more than it needs to be. It is perhaps counterintuitive for us to examine our losses from a place of curiosity, humility and wonder. This form of reflection might sound something like this … what is this loss here to teach me? In what ways am I holding this loss in my body? What is it about this loss that has me feeling so … (fill in the blank)? What internal judgment am I holding about my response to this loss?
What if, instead of working tirelessly towards our goals, we accepted that grief is the natural response to a severed attachment? For the sport community, the attachment to the Paralympic and Olympic cycle is real and true. The postponement of the Games and the ongoing uncertainty of whether they will be held is contributing to layer upon layer of unexpressed sadness and for some, deep grief. I have a theory that we, in sport, tend to cope with grief as ‘the way of the stoic mountain climber’. This way of experiencing our grief might sound something like this. “As long as I keep focused on the peak, then I will know how to climb grief mountain.” This form of coping can be useful at times. We can rely on our muscles of determination to stay focused on our goals. However, athletes know that if they only rely on one muscle group or over-use it, they are at risk of becoming injured.
So what might be a more holistic (natural) way of coping or metabolizing our grief?
In discussions with sport leaders and people who I have companioned through their grief journeys, there is a different way to honour our losses … one that might require even more courage and resilience. In my thanatology studies, I am learning about how trauma gets stored in our bodies and limits our capacity to fully experience life. When trauma has not been addressed, it creates a tangled web of meaning that makes the mourning process complicated. If left unaddressed, this way of holding our trauma and grief hardens into a system of beliefs that shape our identity, making it comfortable to see grief and loss as something to be avoided – like nasty weather on our climb. What if we saw the weather as an opportunity to hunker down, stand still, and pause? This might require an entirely new set of muscles or equipment, wouldn’t it? We might need a new way of exploring the hidden gifts that accompany our experiences of loss.
A new way of being with grief and loss might beckon ‘the way of the accepting miner.’ Miners are comfortable exploring these hidden caves, as they know that the most beautiful gems are discovered when we descend into darkness. This internal exploration requires a slowing down so that we can catch our breath, become present to our experiences, and allow our eyes to adjust to the darker environment. Some of the questions that miners are invited to hold might include: “How will I know that this gem is worth the effort? What assumptions am I holding about the cave? What fears are preventing me from descending into her depths? What resources do I need to feel more secure as I shine a light into the darkness?”
If the pandemic serves no other purpose, let it serve us in sport. Canadians tend to be people who embrace new ideas and on the world scale, we tend to dominate in the emerging sport category. What if we were to lead the way with a newer narrative around how we might hold the experience of grief and loss?
I offer that for this to happen, we will need to shift our way of thinking, feeling, and living towards a more balanced expression … one that embraces wholeness over partiality and emotional intelligence over a singular acceptance of what might be the rational thing to do. Death and loss are anything but rational. Perhaps that is why C.S. Lewis penned his reflections under a pseudonym, naming his wife H throughout his book. It saddens me that he muted his voice for fear that society would fail to receive his truth.
Sadly, we haven’t really explored the hidden depths of our suffering for fear that it might engulf us. Would it surprise you to learn that those of us that study death and loss all come to a place of joy as we hold being alive and living as something sacred and impermanent? Nothing compels us to live life more awake and aware than acknowledging that our time on this earth is finite…as we accept our own mortality, we become laser-focused on living a life of purpose and meaning.
My invitation to readers is to move into the holiday season from a place of openness to what is arising within you. There is a growing chorus from around the globe that is pleading for all of us to wake up. From front line workers who experience death and dying on a daily basis, to those being called to speak truth to power, let this moment in time not go to waste. Let us honour those that have died by committing to a more holistic way of living, which includes expressing our grief when we experience a loss.
What follows is a practice to help support you in building your minor muscles … muscles that not only will support you in fulfilling your objectives but are also designed to help you find meaning and purpose in what it means to being here, human.
To mine your work in this area, you will need a journal and a pen, an open and curious heart, and any comfort items that you want to bring with you along your descent. I invite you to find a quiet place to practice and to use a form of meditation that will support you in becoming present before descending. This quality of presence is often cultivated through deep breathing. Please note that I have lots of resources that might be of additional support to you. If you find yourself lost in your cave and want to explore this with a compassionate and experienced guide, you can find me at email@example.com or DBL@sportlaw.ca.
The practice is called “Petals & Pebbles”. To better understand the losses we have accumulated throughout our life span, please engage in this practice with an open mind and heart, paying attention to the wisdom of your body.