Holding a Space for Grief

Many recent tragic events made me polish up these thoughts and press the publish button. There is a lovely and timely piece on grief here that you may find interesting.

There are many grief counselors and facilitators with more skills and expertise than me to discuss how groups can hold and deal with the trauma that accompanies social change work. I’m not the best at feelings, but I know enough to know that our community is not made of unfeeling automatons. Grief and trauma are almost always taking up a few seats in our meeting spaces.

My modest goals around the subject lately start with just naming the fact that we’re holding trauma. I want to acknowledge that this work is hard, and the world we are trying to change can be a hard place to live.

Generally groups ask me to work with their group because they are trying to create workplans and strategy to move forward, but the grief and trauma we hold can create a wall that is pretty hard to get past if not acknowledged and given the space it deserves.

Diagnosing this is one thing, moving forward through grief in sustainable, strategic ways is much more difficult. I am very interested in strategies other facilitators use, but here are some short thoughts and one very simple thing that I do sometimes.

If you are working with new leaders, they may be dealing with that new, raw and dizzying rabbit hole effect, as you learn about how one injustice after another is connected, and the largeness of the global problems, or the smallness of countless individual indignities and injustices of people you love. This shift in worldview is disorienting; you might feel like stranger seeing your life and community for the first time.

If you are working with experienced leaders, then you have that grief of all the heavy work that has come before, and the burnout and hopelessness that we might be dragging along – or sometimes guilt for the walls we have built around our grief and all the other things we come up with to feel guilty over.

With that in mind, I practiced this simple naming of our grief at a recent conference. There was a lunchtime panel where speakers told powerful stories of the effects of fossil fuels on their community, leaving most of the room in tears. The participants then went into their next session on campaign planning.

I could feel the grief in the space and the weariness and overwhelmed feelings in the room. As I said, I’m not a grief counselor and don’t pretend to be. But I took a second to name the grief in the space, “Those speakers were powerful. Many of us cried and we’re holding a collective sorrow in our bodies. This is hard. These problems are huge. The injustice should be unthinkable, but it’s happening all the time. But sharing truth is powerful, and being together in this room and honoring these stories and struggles makes us even more powerful.”

I then said that for me, one of the best ways to honor the truth and trauma that our communities face is to create smart strategy that organizes people and builds power to win campaigns. We took a moment of silence to honor the sharing and exhausting work that we have been doing, and the work before us.

We then did some stretches (“Reach up for your goals, reach across for your allies, and reach down for your roots”) to move our bodies and release some of that grief we hold in our muscles and guts.

And then we moved into the scheduled agenda of our campaign planning conversations.

Just this naming of the grief in the room and giving a moment of silence for folks to hold their grief and sit with it took about 3 minutes, but I felt a powerful shift in the room and a much higher concentration.

There are more serious collective traumas groups experience than sharing powerful stories, such as the death of a member of the group, the effects of police brutality, or losing a hard-fought campaign – and we usually don’t spend enough time on healing ourselves after these events.

I am interested in other ways that folks deal with grief and move groups forward to honor our traumas while claiming our power as a community – particularly when the focus of the meeting is to accomplish a task, train on a new skill, create a workplan, etc.

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