On Grief and Joy: Embodied Feeling and Being Alive

I have been very quiet of late. My father passed away in April after some months in hospital, and aside from one video post, I have not wanted to be visible. After all, it is hard to talk of joy, freedom and flow through the power of dance, when my body has been a turbulent ocean of grief and sadness, and I have had to honour my truth. Aside from an expressive spontaneous dance at the recent Mind Body Spirit Show in London, and a dance in the woods which I will post on Instagram, my dances of grief have been for me.

Something very poignant happened on the night I learnt of my father’s death. I sent him Reiki, and as I sent the distant healing symbol up to the sky, I felt a distinct energetic pull from my palms. One young man who I met recently had lost two of his friends. He described how he now felt their presence all around him in a way that he did not before, in effect feeling closer to them. This is probably little solace if you have lost your nearest and dearest, but the dichotomy of the sense of loss yet feeling a closeness and presence, is something I am still attuning my body to.

My father’s service was small and perfectly formed. A traditional non-secular gathering in a chapel, with a Buddhist blessing rather than the Lord’s Prayer read by myself, the only ‘unorthodox’ part of the ceremony. What really struck me was the depth of communication between all the people who attended. They were all there because they wanted to be, rather than out of obligation, and the wake was relaxed and jovial with real heartfelt warmth and love for my father.     

This particularly touched me because we were all being authentically ourselves, whether English, immigrant Chinese or British born Chinese; there was no division or false niceties. I have always felt torn between two cultures, and rather conscious of not ticking ‘traditional’ boxes especially on my Chinese side, but times and attitudes have changed since I was growing up.

Death and Grief Ceremonies

In some countries, death and grief are very visible and great ritual is created around it. I will never forget my first trip to Varanasi in India and the burning Ghats (steps leading to the river). After meandering through some cavernous cobbled streets of the old town, I suddenly stumbled into the entrance of the river Ganges, and was confronted by the very raw and visceral experience of seeing a body burning on a funeral pyre below..

Disturbing and mesmerising at the same time, I couldn’t help but stare, (no doubt like every other first time tourist, though ‘luckily’ in this case, staring is quite acceptable in Asia, being a tourist is often an object of local curiosity..), whilst also noticing the thick smells of death and decay wafting up to my nostrils. The grief of the surrounding family was palpably calm.

In India it is a privilege to able to be cremated in Varanasi and have your ashes released into the sacred Ganges, to be relieved of the cycle of death and rebirth and to enter Nirvana. And it is not a cheap ceremony either, inaccessible to many.

In Tibet one way of death ceremony is the sacred Tibetan Sky Burial, another raw and explicit way of disposing of the body, in our sanitised western eyes. Here the body is taken to a mountain top to be cut into pieces by a burial master, before being eaten by vultures. There seem to be some different philoshophies around this practice, but certainly it is an ecological way to dispose of the body, given the belief that the body is just a vessel to house the soul, which has now departed. It is an offering back to the earth, and the soul can go directly to heaven from this open and higher place.


The effects of trauma on the brain

Whilst extreme trauma can mean that we are in constant stress, with possible longterm PTSD. [1]. long term effects of chronic stress are reversible.

Dr. Lisa Shulman, Director of the University of Maryland Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center and author of “Before and After Loss: A Neurologist’s Perspective on Loss, Grief and Our Brain” has indicated how practices involving mindfulness and relaxation such as journaling, counselling and creative pursuits are opportunities for post-traumatic growth.

These activities can allow us to explore our feelings, in a way that invites in safety and security and enable calmness to return.

“If we don’t work through the traumatic experiences that we have, they will continue to be an obstacle in our lives,” says Dr. Shulman. [2]

the Expressive Arts and Dancing through Grief

Whilst depression, a stage of grief, can often be immobilising, with its very heavy feeling of stuckness and lethargy, grief itself can have different stages with waves of emotion that consume and rack our bodies.

And this is when the Expressive Arts really do come into their own. Some of the most incredibly deep and beautiful poetry, music and performances have been birthed from deep grief and periods of sadness. In these art forms we can give full rein to our feelings and emotions without having to personally own them, or fear somehow being named and shamed by society at large. They are an outlet that is held by the process and activity, a container if you like for whatever needs to emerge.

This is what I love about dance and movement, where we can fully express our inner most stories without restraint. Our process is our art, and there are no rules around how it should look or be.

Nothing can diminish the pain and intensity of the gamut of emotions that can arise from grief; the disbelief, the anger, the despair, the pain and isolation, If we are feeling stuck or frozen, by moving our bodies we can slowly allow our bodies to thaw. And in doing so, as we start to move our bodies we can allow our emotions to take a shape and form. When we dance, our brain waves drop from busy beta state to a slower alpha state, which allows in creativity. These brain waves are also when we can start to daydream, or consciously practice mindfulness or meditation.


a Celebration of Life

In some cultures such as in many African, Native American, Balinese or Mexican societies there are extended mourning periods that can also be expressed through music and dance, the celebration of life. Last autumn I attended the most beautiful ‘untraditional’ ceremony for a friend who has sadly passed away. It was held in a very big yurt in a gorgeous spot by the river, with music and celebration, and not a speck of black was worn by attendees. This celebration of a person’s life, and of life itself is such a heart warming validation on these occasions.

When we start to dance, our movements change shape and form, and our emotions slowly and correspondingly start to shift, revealing new perspectives and deeper layers. By going into and through our grief we can emerge into a different place, and music can be a powerful catalyst to assist in this healing process.

When we go deep into our own dance, the beauty of it is that we are intrinsically a part of this creation. Our bodily selves are fully immersed to become and create this art. And when we improvise or move spontaneously, new stories and emotions, that were hidden or kept under wraps can also reveal themselves.

Over time (and it can be in a relatively small amount of time, in comparison to talk therapies), we can begin to shift and transform. For example research at Harvard University has shown that in just two minutes of intentional body posture, our body chemistry and feelings can be affected.[3] We can drop everything to enter into another way of being, another dimension, we can allow our spirit and life force to emerge, dropping the dense energy of our thoughts.


the Expressive Arts

We all experience grief in some way in our lives, and it can be a full bodied emotion, which is why it lends itself to the expressive arts and dance so well. Incidentally I despair of the lack of funding for drama and dance in the education system. Have you noticed that these are coincidentally, or not, ‘embodied’ practices, as opposed to the traditional and very cerebral 3 ‘R’s of reading, writing and ‘rithmtic.…?

Where is the place of dance and drama in school curriculum planning? Oh the irony of how we rush to buy tickets before they sell out for popular shows and entertainment, for our leisure time activities.

How about a Creativity room in the workplace, where you can enter and engage in some expressive arts of your choosing, perhaps with headphones so that you can escape the stresses in your normal day. And even better a private soundproof room where you can enter to release or vent your feelings, fears, frustration, in fact why not install a punchbag with boxing gloves in their too?

In my own grief, my dance has not always been big and explosive. At times it has been very small and contained. In this time my body has been my listener, my companion and my friend. And I can change my mood, my emotion and feelings in the space of an hour or less. Of course there will be more to excavate, more layers of grief still to reveal themselves, as I have spoken to and realised how many of us lose a parent, often at a young age.

Now a new phase is emerging, where I am ready to be visible again. I know that I have a purpose to give service on this earth, and to be one of the bridges between east and west, the ancient and the modern, the science and the sacred, and to honour the courage of my father when he took the plunge to come to England from Hong Kong on a long boat journey in his 20’s to seek a better life.

If I can help you think, feel and live more deeply, then I am on the right path. Just as every life and good story has a beginning, middle and ending, so my father has transitioned with ending his story on the earthly plane, but in doing is propelling me to more brand-new beginnings. I will be offering new workshops and challenges soon, so please subscribe to stay updated.

As I finish this piece, I leave you with these questions….

Did this article trigger anything for you?

What are your feelings and experiences of grief?

How have you dealt with those experiences

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments...


Helene

Contact:

https://www.niiodance.com/supp...

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Notes

1. Traumatic stress: effects on the brain

J. Douglas Bremner, MD*

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/

2 https://www.americanbrainfoundation.org/how-tragedy-affects-the-brain/

3. ‘ I love me’, Dr David R Hamilton, Hay House 2015.