MORE FULLY ALIVE – A BODY ORIENTED APPROACH TO GRIEF AND LOSS
Published in1989 in the Proceedings of the Sixth National Conference of the National Association of Loss and Grief (NALAG “From the Self-Same Well”).
This paper was written in 1989 as background to and an expansion on a workshop presented by the author (Alison Ball) at the Sixth National Conference of the National Association of Loss and Grief (NALAG). The conference was titled “From the Self-Same Well”. The workshop reflects the notion that we are our bodies and to deny full bodily expression of emotion means that we limit our aliveness and therefore our potential as human beings. This paper gives the author’s thoughts on some of the philosophy and theory that underpins Somatic Psychotherapy and the ways in which her own theory and work have been shaped by her experience working in the field of grief, loss and bereavement.
The Author (As in 1989)
Alison Ball is a certificated member of the Australian Association of Somatic Psychotherapists following five years involved in her own personal psychotherapy, three years basic training and two years of supervision. The Association was set up in 1987 and now runs its own training programmes in Melbourne and Sydney. Alison is also a qualified Primary School Teacher and has a Bachelor of Social Work with Honours from Monash University. For the past ten years, until February this year, she worked as a Social Worker while, at the same time training in Somatic Psychotherapy and setting up her private practice in Melbourne. She is a mother and a grandmother who believes that her interest in the grieving process has grown out of a ten week separation from her parents at the age of four; herself coming close to death in childhood illness and the death of her father when she was eleven years of age. Her interest in body oriented psychotherapy came out of a sense that her spontonaeity had been frozen in her body at a young age, thus limiting her work and her life.
Somatic Psychotherapy involves medium to long term therapy where the work is both verbal and physical. The Somatic Psychotherapist works verbally with the relationship between both client and therapist through the transference and aims to gradually bring to consciousness the unconscious processes of the mind and of the body. The physical work may take the form of stress exercises of the kind described by Alexander Lowen in his book called Bio-energetics (1976), or work which explores the patterns of breathing and expands the capacity to breathe more fully, and, it may also involve massage. This physical component of the work, along with verbal integration, encourages the client’s understanding and awareness of their body, it brings more aliveness to the body and develops an increased faith in their own body truth and, therefore, in themselves as unique beings whose life processes can be experienced to the full. The work with the clients can range from dealing with a lack of a sense of well-being, with somatic symptoms, loss of self esteem, with personal and relationship problems, to, at the deepest level, profound, personal transformation.
Grief in the Social Work Setting
As a Social Worker, the author worked first as an individual and family counsellor and then for four years with individuals and families who had a member or members of the family with an incurable, inherited -and degenerative illness which led inevitably to them becoming more and more dependant for perhaps ten or twenty years before an early death. In this setting the trauma of multiple loss for both the families and the individuals with the illness was daily fare. Grief, sadness and anger were ever present as clients lost their skills, their capabilities to maintain their independence and, very often their families and friends as well as their expected years of life. Also, always there, was the deadness that goes along with denial, guilt, depression, and remorse and the numbness that developed over yet another loss which, under other circumstances, would have been hard to bear.
Evident too, was the dedication of staff and many family members, the immense courage of ordinary human beings, and the touching attempts to retain the dignity of the human spirit. And, even in this distressing setting, there were the apologies for the expression of strong feelings.
Following this, the author moved to a major maternity hospital where she worked with families who had a new born baby in intensive care. These babies were always either dying, very premature, or extremely ill, perhaps asphyxiated at birth and therefore, in various degrees likely to be brain damaged and/or physically disabled. Grief under these crisis circumstances was totally raw and often the death of their baby would have been the first bereavement experienced by the young family. Staff in this unit appreciated the necessity of allowing the full expression of grief and greatly helped to facilitate the process whenever possible. But, what seemed significant to the author, was how much time was spent in ‘permission giving’ and educating families about the grieving process and in encouraging family members to allow the expression of the feelings they were experiencing. Many times, of course, families just went about their grieving in a full, healthy and healing way, needing only for staff not to stand in their way. But over and over again, family members would be apologetic for shedding a few tears. Again and again it seemed necessary to say, “It is O.K. to cry or to be angry when your baby is ill or dying”. Husbands or other family members would hold back their tears in front of the grieving mother feeling that they “had to be strong” for her sake. At the same time grieving mothers might be saying, “I wish he would just put his arm around me so that we could cry together.”
Education in Feeling
In our society it does not seem to be understood by the general population that the expression of crying or anger or any other feeling which may arise is actually the coping mechanism for one who is grieving. As William A. Miller says in his preface in reference to the title of his little book on grief … “what the casual observer often defines as ‘going to pieces’ will be the very experience that will ‘hold you together’.” (1976)
It seems to the author that the full emotional and bodily expression of grief is a rare thing to see except in the privacy of the therapy room. Clients in Somatic Psychotherapy have, generally, to be educated to gradually allow this expression. In the “normal situation” what is usually seen is that, not only the full sounds of, say sobbing, is choked back but even the full flood of tears is cut off. Very often, it seems, the bodily holding patterns are such that there is no need for a conscious stopping of tears or the sobbing or especially of anger but rather, it simply does not happen and the person would say,
“Well, this is me. This is how I am”, or, “I’m not even aware of being angry/sad/frightened/joyful…” The person is so totally identified with his or her bodily tensions that they actually cannot let go, or sometimes even be aware that they have a feeling. At best, they are often only able to let go under the most extreme circumstances or maybe, to some degree, when they are alone. Yet what a lonely thought is this … that our grief can only be expressed when alone or under extreme conditions, or even worse, that we have so deadened ourselves that we do not even know what we feel.What does it say about our society and the patterns that have been set up from childhood, and indeed babyhood? Many people will agree that they feel better for having had a “good cry”, others will know that they can feel great relief when they can speak up assertively on their own behalf rather than “hold their tongue” or withdraw in silence, but, by and large, we seem frightened to experience the fullness of our feeling, as if in doing so we endanger the lives or well being of others or of ourselves. And it is, perhaps, this last notion that holds the key and upon which light can be shed by the theories of psychotherapy (1) and somatic psychotherapy in particular.
Somatic Psychotherapy springs from the teaching of Wilhelm Reich who was the first psychoanalyst to take into account the “bodily armouring”. (1972) Put simply, if, in growing up in your family or in mine it was not acceptable for you to display your anger, or perhaps to speak up, reach out in love by touching, or, say, to cry in sadness or express your fear then, NOT to do these things which are natural to do, requires that you, the child, restrict your breathing and to tense muscles in particular ways in order to stop yourself. Over time, as this is done over and over again, the ways of breathing become fixed and the tensions in the musculature become chronic. This is what Reich called the ‘armouring’.
Our ‘education’ in feeling, in our society, is, in fact, more often an education in how NOT to feel. We have deadened our bodies, clamped down on our tenderness, our joy and our despair, denied our grief or split off from our fear and our anger. We have done this because, as babies and children we have feared that if we felt these feelings and particularly if we expressed these feelings, then we ourselves or our parents would have been overwhelmed; or, in expressing our misery or our joy, we may have been ignored, ridiculed, humiliated or even physically chastised. By conforming, of course, life becomes more predictable and the child gains more control over his/her external world. And, as we grow up, we ourselves become our own conscious and unconscious monitors, because, by now this limited self has become ‘me’.
The Problem and the Price
So why should we worry about all this? It is true that we cannot have people around ’emoting’ everywhere, expressing their feelings without due concern for the well being and comfort of other people. Tears in the boardroom are mostly out of place and unrestrained violent expression of anger is totally unacceptable. But such extreme expression is not suggested and such possibilities are wrongly mooted as yet further evidence for the need for repression and suppression of legitimate feeling.
We pay a price, as human beings, for our suppression of feeling. Alexander Lowen says “(Your body) is your way of being in the world… a dead body has no mind, it has lost its spirit and its soul has departed… The more alive your body is the more you are in the world.” (1976, p.54). Not only are our minds preoccupied with the need to be in control at the expense of being and feeling more alive but we mould ourselves into rigid models of “conformity and acceptability”.(2) And often we pay the price in physical or psychological symptoms of illness, or we go about dull and depressed. Some further complicate their lives by taking to drugs of one sort or another to help keep the feelings in check. Some withdraw so they never really involve themselves fully with anybody or anything; others look to material possessions to give them the sense of worth they do not feel within themselves, while still other people look to other people to make life worth living for them. We often just exist, carrying around our fear of life and of our own life force.
More Fully Alive
But we have within each one of us the capacity for change and for growth. What we once decided, we can ‘undecide’. The path is not easy. It took us many years to become the person we now are and even when we make the intellectual commitment to discover our true selves, our fears built into our bodily structure, will hold us back. And we will find all manner of reasons, both conscious and unconscious, why we need to hang onto our familiar patterns of being in the world; to suppress our life force; our own biological process. But the journey is worth while because it is a journey of life; to feel the ever changing dark depths of our being and experience to the full, our joy and our passion for being and belonging.
A new loss, a new grief or the resurgence of an old grief provides us with a special opportunity. We are devastated by the loss and our tendency is to believe that the period during which we experience our grief is all negative; and, in fact, our lives are often dramatically affected in a way which we would prefer not to experience at all. But, nevertheless there is a great opportunity, if we can make the most of this time by allowing ourselves to use the unwanted experience as providing a ‘way in’ to our deeper selves.
For most of our lives, our inner selves are protected by the mechanisms we have developed in our bodies and our minds to survive in the world; we hide our sensibilities and our vulnerabilities, even from ourselves. But, when we experience a loss and in the rawness of our grief, our inner, more hidden selves are far more accessible and, if we will allow ourselves to feel and to fully experience and express whatever the emotions are that we feel, then, perhaps we can begin to undo some of our old patterns. We may first have to express the fear we have about experiencing these feelings but if we can let go of the tension in our bodies, we liberate the energy that has been used to hold the feelings in or down. This energy is then freed to bring us new life and vitality and in this way our grief can grow into a celebration of life.
Lowen, Alexander. Bio-energetics, Penguin, 1976.
Miller, William A. When Going to Pieces Holds You Together, Augsburg Publishing House, 1976.
Reich, Wilhelm. Character Analysis, 1972 Simon & Schuster, Touchstone N.Y.
1. This paper is about Somatic Psychotherapy but the author wishes also to acknowledge the importance of and refer readers to the writing of Melanie Klein.
2. Biodynamic Therapy Brochure published 1987. (Unavailable in 2003)