Moving Through Grief

“You can’t plan grief. You can’t plan when or how or what will occur,” says Dr. Dan Allender, “But there is something that has to be a decision perhaps made well before. Will I go into these waters or will I remain on the side?”

In today’s podcast conversation, Dan and Rachael welcome Mary Ellen Owen, Counselor in Colorado Springs and Instructor and Facilitator at the Allender Center. They take a look at the process of moving through grief and moving from our heads to our hearts and bodies.

Mary Ellen shares, “If you’re just a theological head exercise, you won’t move through grief. And there is another side… there is a lightness that comes. But… only if you do this in an embodied way.” Listen as she vulnerably shares some of her personal stories about her practices of grief.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: There’s never an easy way to enter the topic that we’re going to engage. And that’s the topic of death, topic of grief, of loss. And we have had Rachael, the privilege of having Mary Ellen Owen, one of our brilliant teachers, facilitators, and maybe in the entire Allender Center, the only person who could fit the word non. What’s it, what I’m I about to say? Rachael?

Rachael: I don’t know

Dan: Mary Ellen. What am I about to say?

Mary Ellen: I do know what this, cause we did this before, the most, probably the non most obvious person to talk about grief.

Dan: Well, no, we, we’ll get there, but I’m just as a beginning in statement, if we went on the extroversion/introversion scale.

Rachael: Oh, oh, the most non-obvious introvert or…

Dan: Yes. Yes. I mean, let’s just say the Allender Center is filled with a majority of introverts, like most therapists are something of a more introvert. But Mary Ellen, you have been gifted with one of the sunniest dispositions that brings incredible happiness, engagement, joy in the way that you operate in the world. So in some ways it’s just a beginning to say, talking about grief is such a different realm that you would normally operate in. It isn’t that you’re a mere optimist, just that as an extrovert you bring light into the room and yet grief is being under a shadow, under something indeed dark, foreboding. And it’s why most of us spend a great portion of our life doing whatever dance we can do to escape having to hear that kind of music. So all that to say, welcome Mary Ellen. So good to have you with us.

Mary Ellen: Thank you. It’s so good to be back and be with both of you.

Dan: Well, just to start off, and you put as many words as you wish. You have known a great deal of loss and grief over a number of years and some recently. So just take us into, first of all, what do you know about grief and what is it that you want to, in one sense, invite us to engage regarding it?

Mary Ellen: Well first though, I think a couple people or not a couple people, quite a few people had said to me a couple years ago, oh, I heard you on the Allender podcast talking about grief. I was surprised you were the one to talk about grief. And kind of like your introduction, you wouldn’t think that about me interacting with me, but both of you know me well. So I actually think they’re very related. I think it’s very related how much there’s the, like that, and I think this is true for most of us, there’s a deep longing for something weighty. Not necessarily a deep longing for grief, but there’s something weighty that and the gravitas, the sustenance, all of that kind of stuff. I think the best doorway to that is grief. And I think leaning into grief, not just acute grief or death, the death grief or trauma grief, but the more ambiguous grief when we go looking for it. I think learning that process and learning a practice of it is what I would invite people to. And I think, I didn’t really know this, I didn’t know this until recently. A third major death in my family in three years happened really just six weeks ago. My mother died very unexpectedly. We were supposed to leave for the Caribbean actually. That’s how fast and unexpected it was. And of course you get a lot of people. And my father almost three years ago, and then a very beloved nephew eight months before, and he was young and it was a death that we would all say, this is not meant to be, this is something of darkness winning. But in the last couple weeks you get a lot of phone calls and texts of people saying, how are you? And it’s kind of maddening. I mean, you definitely want people to check in on you, but I’ve found myself being like, I’m okay. I know how to do this. I know how to let the waves come and go down under and then come back up. And I think that’s come from a practice of the, like Dan, you always say a lot that when we’re faithful to the small there, there’s something that happens in the large. And I think that’s very true with grief. I’m not afraid to dip down into those. Like the shock of death and what feels like the permanence of death because there has been a practice of grief. I think I have sought out that… Susan Kane just wrote a book called Bittersweet, and it is about this, it is about that seeking that, I can’t remember what it’s called, those D notes or something like that in music. But an invitation. I would want there to be an in from this conversation, an invitation. And I’ve learned over the years of really more thinking through this, that if you are willing to be a little odd in your grief. For example, when my mom died, she died just this past February 7th I was at, she still lived in my childhood home. And so I was back East. They lived outside of Washington DC and I just found myself needing to drop so into my body and let my body acknowledge it so it wasn’t just a head thing. And so I was in the house alone and I stood in the foyer and I called out to my mom at, like I would have, to let my body feel something that I need to feel. And I like my, so I mean that’s what I would want to come from our conversation. We can dive into that. That there are things that you can do to create a practice or ritual of death that is so necessary because if you’re just a theological head exercise, you won’t move through grief. And there is a other side. There is something when you carry the burden so deeply of death, then when you move through there, I don’t know exactly how it happens, but there is a lightness that comes. But I think only if you do this in a embodied way.

Dan: Well, first of all, I’d love for you to talk about the word waves because I think that is something that is so universally true. That grief does not have a kind of constancy, that oftentimes our body just cannot hold the level of grief we feel. And so there’s a certain period of relief that it’s not as bad as it was an hour ago, and then the utterly unexpected moment the wave hit you. I’ve literally been in places where the waves were fairly predictable, but then a wave that’s about a third larger or how 200% larger hits you, and it’s so unexpected that it’s hard to actually even know how to metabolize that experience. So what have been the waves and what have you learned in those waves?

Mary Ellen: First of all, I think that that grief can and does come in waves is so merciful. I think it is the kindness of the Spirit that it does come in waves. I’ve noticed for me that real, really moving into death-grief, three very acute ones in the last three years. The first one was my nephew. And I noticed that the waves would come when I was in so worse, I was somewhere rather trapped, like in the grocery store. You have to go in the grocery store and you can’t be like, oh, I’ll just come back later because I’m starting to cry. You, you’re just in the grocery store and there’s just this mundane thing of buying groceries that lets waves come because you’re not really thinking and you just have to be ready to be like, I’m trapped in the grocery store right now. There’s probably a reason it’s coming right now, whatever I’m thinking about. But to give ourselves permission just to walk down the chip aisle and cry is really okay. I think that’s one of those odd things. And then sometimes you have to bring the waves. When I was in my childhood home, when I was standing in the shock waves of my mother’s death, I thought, oh my gosh, their house. We have to pack up this house and put on the market. And that is my home base on the east coast because I live in Colorado. Most of my family lives on the east coast. And so I did not necessarily plan this out, but I did plan to be in the house alone for a few days. And they have this sun porch in their house that is the best part of their house. And the best conversations have happened there. The worst conversations have happened there. I purposely stayed there from three in the afternoon to nine, 10 o’clock as the sun completely shifted over it. And I just sat there with memories and I, that’s when I was like, I’m opening, I am opening the gates for the waves to come right now and I’m journaling. And I even stood up and swayed and kind of danced my thank yous to the, at first it was to the room. I ended up writing a little thank you note to the room, but then it’s speaking it out loud. So I think waves come and I think there’s times when you just have to open the door and say, I’m ready to sit in this. But I would always, always say, don’t apologize for them and let tears run on your cheeks. Sometimes it is the most tenderizing lovely feeling. I know that’s a weird thing to say. My mom’s service, I remember I have five siblings, so there’s a lot of moving pieces to this service, and I planned it. My sister and I found a file in my mom’s office that said it was her funeral. We thought it was a file with her funeral. And it said, we were like, oh, thank God she planned this out already. But all it said about her funeral was my husband, obviously, she hadn’t updated it. And my daughter, Mary Ellen will plan the service. And I’m like, oh, okay. So there’s a lot of moving pieces to it. But I texted a few friends and I said to my husband, I was like, what I just really want is for my body to come down into what I need to feel. And I was so grateful for the uncomplicated tears that just kept flowing and flowing. And I think at the beginning of all things, I would invite people to know their story about their tears. Know, what’s your history with crying, even the actual thing of crying like mine, my tears are hard, hard, hard fought for tears. Tears. They didn’t always flow so easily. But I sat at my mom’s funeral that I had planned, so there was no surprises or anything, and I just cried. They just flowed. One of my sisters gave a eulogy, one of my nieces gave a eulogy. And I just wanted the tenderness of the grief and not to be afraid of that and not to be distracted so it wouldn’t come.

Rachael: It’s like what you’re describing it, it feels like a paradox because there’s something I hear in you as you’re talking about grief that feels like such an honoring of life. So that paradox, that there’s something of tears actually bearing witness to life in places of death, that this is not what we’re meant. That’s not what is meant to be, but is what is. And I just think about there’s something really holy about that. I mean, mostly we’re two images are coming to mind. I’ve talked about this in the podcast, so it’s not like a, but I was assaulted in a dating experience in my early thirties, and the period of recovery took a couple of years of just numbness. And I knew that was going to be the case because I know enough about trauma that I understood. But I remember one Valentine’s day, two years after that of vowing off dating, having no feelings of desire whatsoever, sitting in a big fluffy robe and actually longing and aching for companionship and feeling tears come down my cheeks. And there was something that felt like a baptism of those, that the salt on the fact that I had enough of an ache and longing for companionship, that the lover in me was not dead, but was alive even though it hurt. It was something I remember just feeling like, oh, thank God, I’m alive. And I think about when I’ve had tears for those, I’ve lost acute grief, that there’s something of a testifying, that they were alive, that they were alive and we shared something. And so to me, I’m just, I don’t know in a different way. I probably in this particular season, I’m more like Mary Ellen, what can you tell us what about when you are filled with bitterness and rage because you need to grieve and that in some ways you’re not going to be able to get to the grief without getting into your body, but also without giving expression to the wide range of emotions that might be blocking you from grief. Do you have experiences or practices where there’s been a block to grief, but you can’t just willpower it away?

Mary Ellen: Absolutely.

Dan: Wait, and, just to add that look, some of grief includes being angry.

Mary Ellen: Oh, absolutely.

Dan: And some of grief, I think even that notion that you said Mary Ellen, that there’s this grace that the waves have a certain trough and sometimes the trough begins in the loss and then continues on for a significant season. As we talk, one of the things that was difficult after my mother’s death was there was sadness, but not much. And I had some dear friends, almost incensed, why are you not grieving more? And part of the answer is because my mother died years before in terms of Alzheimer’s. Yeah, there was much more relief that there really was a sense she is now well, and I lost her years before then. So the grief was over such a long and at times unendurable process that the fact I felt relief seemed to offend people who felt like you should be grieving. Your failure to grieve is and to be able to hold, look, this is not just idiosyncratic. It’s going to depend on the person, the time, the season, and the uniqueness of what grief calls each of us too.

Mary Ellen: Absolutely. Well, I actually think that’s a great category to say as the waves of intensity come, there’s different waves, there’s anger waves, there’s relief waves, there’s just sorrow, waves and that. No, and people don’t talk about that. My 80-something-year-old parents dying, there’s a lot of gratitude and that they went fast. I didn’t have that long loss like you did. Or my uncle, my aunt walked through a 10-year dementia decline with her husband, and my dad died on a surgical table, really. My mom died literally on a Wednesday. Her blood work showed that her cancer is back. We were supposed to go on a vacation on Saturday. She died, not the next Tuesday, the fall. But it was that fast. It was, and she’s still… but there’s this anger in the blind siding. But now if we talk about my nephew who was only 23 and labored for that child over his life, that’s a very, very different grief than the blindsiding of my parents. And also I think what’s huge, huge in the release and the able to bless my parents’ deaths is I didn’t leave a lot on the table with them. And so where the relationship is and where there has been healing, I had parents, oddly, I mean when my dad was 75, he read Body Keeps the Score and he’s like, I have anger trapped in my body. I’m like, no kidding dad. But that kind of dad. And then he actually did an intensive with one of our beloved colleagues. So the relationship is going to, I think, determine a lot of your grief and a lot of the work that you’ve done prior to who you’ve lost.

Rachael: Can I go back to my question that got…

Mary Ellen: Yeah. But I want to go back to what you said about there’s something that’s honoring life in tears. I was like, if we don’t take a holy pause there that there is something that feels so un-numb and alive in grief, even in the midst of grief. A lot of times I would say it comes a little bit after where you’re like, not maybe in the moment, but sometimes in the moment. But I love what you said about that. I love Dan, you you’ve said for years of the closer you live to tears as always living very close to tears, very close to laughter. And there is something that they’re deeply connected. Jill, who’s our other colleague, she and I were talking maybe two months ago, a as if the revelation we’re like, oh my gosh, what if Psalm 30 when it says, you’ve turned my morning into dancing is literal, what if what? And we’re saying that, gosh, it’s just now dawning on this where I’m sure people have known that as literal for a long time. But there is a relationship of something coming to life in and through…

Rachael: Mary Oliver has that poem. We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time these two have housed as they are in the same body. And there’s something of what I hear you saying, I think probably my question is coming out of a place of, because I agree grief and Mary Ellen, you’ve always, you’ve taught me this, that grief, lament, anger is a part of grief, that kind of righteous anger. And that’s a different kind of life to say, hey, that this is wrong or meant for something more. Or when you talk about your nephew that it feels like a thievery and a stealing. And so I am in agreement there. I think probably maybe what I’m wanting to see, what you would have to say personally, but also for our listeners, and if it just feels too hard to talk about because it’s not the season you’re in, that’s okay too. But you mentioned ambiguous grief, so maybe the loss of a friendship or a loss that feels like a death, but almost feels like you don’t get to grieve the death. And I’m wondering about what you would say to people as a practice, because where I’m at is I feel like there’s been a lot of ambiguous loss in this past season. And I’m sure many people feel that as there has been explicit loss, right? And so I find that because it’s where ambiguous, I can stay in a kind of bitterness that the loss happened in a way to protect myself from actually entering the grief because the grief feels like it’s going to take me under. And so could you speak a little bit to, are there ways you, you’ve experienced that or as you’re working with people or those practices of grief that you talk about that could maybe give entrance, permission, to enter those waters and know that we don’t actually, that relief that you speak about that again, another paradox. It feels like this is going to be the end of me. The tears will be too much, but the anger is also a parasite.

Mary Ellen: But I think a lot of grief, especially the ambiguous grief starts. But wait, what else? I think not only there’s that looming feeling of it’s going to take me under, but I think it’s, it’s also it’s going to exhaust me. There’s a labor and there is a cost of leaning in intentionally, especially when you know, could probably get away with not. And I would say, first of all, if we don’t start heeding the slow down and get off our phones and get out of our distracted lives and listen to our bodies, we’re all, it’s the end of us. Our bodies will let us know. If you just slow down enough and hand write… with your hand with a pen or a pencil or a big black angry magic marker, angry words or red hot words, your body will let you know. Even just a practice of how do I feel? Look up feelings, words on the feeling charts, anything like that. And pick some words to be like, or when you just have that angsty feeling or you’re angry all the time, likely there is something that your body is trying to move through. I would say I was just talking to a good friend or texting, cause I’m not at home, about, there’s something trapped in my body and I’m like, yeah, what’s going on? What’s, what have you been swimming in? And even just the beginnings of conversations with people who are really good feedback or are like, oh, that sounds like, and the legitimacy. I think we just need to like look each other in the eyes and be like, I bless you to beat your trash can with a bat and say whatever needs to come out or your recycle bin, something that’s not going to shatter all over. But if you do break plates, let me tell you, there is some good release in there too. But they don’t, I mean, they’re gone after you do that. I think the first and foremost thing is always slow down. We don’t, and get off your phones and be like, where’s my body? What are my habits? What happens if I walk? What if happens if I walk fast? I think those things are checking in with your body and having categories. Like you said, Rachael, there’s just some weird loss. I’m, when my nephew died, I am this odd category, the aunt, I’m not his mother, I’m not his his sibling. I’m not his grandmother. I was the aunt, but I was the aunt. Invested in his life. But there’s an ambiguous category of loss. Like, oh, you lost your nephew. Oh, that’s sad. And I’m like, no, no, no. This is my nephew who, and I don’t have any biological children of my own. And so those nephews and nieces, but

Rachael: They are your babies.

Mary Ellen: They are my babies. And I think a conversation with your own body of what is going on, I think changing simple, simple practices of if you’re angsty, get on the floor and rock or sway or move your hips while you’re in child’s pose. And she just be like, what, what, what? Your body will tell you. And I think to start there and to be able to bless sorrow and anger and let them be doorways to each other really necessary.

Rachael: That’s a good word.

Dan: We recently lost a dear friend about a week ago, and one of the things that Becky did, we were not home, arrived back home a few days after the death and she got out of our photo albums, 20 some pictures, and she put them before me. And I felt at the instant she had put a copperhead into my lap. And the sense of both fury and revulsion and just as you have put it, so well, stay with your body and don’t critique it for what you’re experiencing. But within a brief period of being able to honor in the sense of this is so horrible to actually see my friend’s face knowing that that face is no longer on the earth. And then it took a long time to hold a photo and to weep and put it down and then to pick up another and to weep. But because the photos were in the context of really a delightful time, it was this intersection between such laughter and then such tears. So the fact that grief, not always, I don’t want to imply it, but grief often bears this intersection with anger. I could have killed him for not taking care of his body yet such a good man. And to hold grief, sorrow, anger, laughter… I would say, even though I’ve worked with people for decades and different levels of profound grief, when you go through it, there’s a sense in which you’re crazy. You are somewhat crazy. But the ability to hold that as not just normative, but actually part of the process to be able to be hit by one wave and then as you put it, so well, another wave and then another wave. But the key is you can get out of the water but essentially don’t leave the beach. You can sit if the waves have become too much. And there were just moments where, for me, the grief, especially in the first 48 hours where we would begin to have a conversation and I would end up not being able to stand and that process,

Mary Ellen: Yeah

Dan: It’s such a gift. It is everything I would not wish. And yet the sense of I will love this man. I cannot wait to see him again. I will not lose the friendship even if it can’t be engaged as it once was. So I think there is a growing sense of defiance needed to be able to say, I will not let my heart turn hard. I will not end this process. The process will come to something of a completion at some point. But I suspect a decade from now, there will be a song, there will be a visual, there will be a comment that brings this dear friend back. And I don’t expect a decade from now to be any less attuned to this loss than I feel today. It’ll be different. But there will always be that sense of we are not meant to end. We are simply not meant to end.

Mary Ellen: Dan, what struck me so much is when you said there were, especially in those 48 hours where I could not stand just to pause there. And for you like that you’re weeping and there is a sense of you could have pulled up and moved on, but something in you went to the floor that that’s what I’m talking about. And your body slash your heart and soul have what it needed. There’s something, and I think that it’s so defiant to grieve. It’s so defiant because we would be insane to grieve without at least a modicum of the comforter will come somehow, some way. And I would like the comforter to find me on the floor because then the comforter can get me up. But I think that same pause that I said with Rachael, there’s something of the weeping will last longer if you hit the floor and that is actually better for you.

Dan: Yeah, it was in the context which Becky and I and dear friends Steve and Lisa Call, were doing a marriage intensive with eight couples that had flown in. And it, it’s the sense of it’s, it’s not bad timing. There is no good timing for death. So the reality of being in one sense at three in the morning, weeping on the floor and then going to do what my dear friend who’s no longer on the earth would want me to do, which is to go and the best way I can put my foot on the neck of evil and to create on behalf of others and myself something beautiful. So the disparity between, it’s not I have obligations, I got to do this. More, it’s a reflection of our friendship. Therefore, the grief does not need to be hidden. It may simply need to be kept ready to be reopened when the moments are best. So again, I wish for people listening to hear at least one core theme. You can’t plan, you can’t plan grief, you can’t plan when or how or what will occur. But there is something that has to be a decision perhaps made well before. Will I go into these waters or will I remain on the side? And I read as a young married couple, Becky and I read this book called A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken. And in it fascinating relationship he and his wife had with C.S. Lewis. And that’s what the book is centrally about. But literally it’s a death story, a love story of his wife dying. And he held every piece of her clothing before he allowed it to be taken away. And I remember that image of holding every piece of her clothing as something in me, even at that age went hell, no, I cannot do that. Cannot do that, won’t do that yet. That is an emblem, almost an icon of you have to not indulge death. You have to create a place for death to be faced deeply from the very guts to be able to let what feels trapped be released in a way in which you can continue to grieve, but also open the door to life.

Mary Ellen: And you just know when he’s holding every piece of her clothing, that it is such an embodied essential. Cause, you know, he had to be also in inhaling the scent, feeling the texture. His whole body is involved in the same way. Even though we are talking last weekend when you’re three in the morning on the floor, I would imagine the madness and the labor of that. But today you would what just days later, say there’s something so alive about your weeping and so alive about the loss. There’s something so alive about loss of someone that you love that you wouldn’t trade that 3:00 AM scene for anything. That’s a strange gratitude to me. And yet I, I’m, I wouldn’t trade those nights. I wouldn’t. I literally said goodbye to my childhood home as my brother is coming to get me. And he didn’t know that I was crying and I turned around. He is like, oh. And he realized what I was doing, but I, it was so painful and I would not trade how there’s a gratitude where I’m like, oh God, so much of my heart has been restored. You’ve given me that heart of flesh that I can move into this kind of pain and care. I care about it. There is a gift there.

Dan: And so important to have friends who may not be able to feel all that we know in that loss, but have the ability to hold something of our sorrow as sacred. And that gift, Rachael, I spoke with you soon after my friend’s death and your eyes and voice was all I needed at that moment to be able to say, I can step into the labor that we have because I have been read and something, even if it’s not equivalent, something of the suffering. And so, you know people who cannot bear grief by their efforts to help you rid it. And those are often well-meaning people that you need to avoid at almost life cost. You need people who can sit Shiva with you and who don’t need to offer any kind of false cheap consolation, but simply know how it is that I ache, that you ache. And I also know there will be a day these tears will also turn to laughter. And I can hold both with you without critiquing. I find people critiquing my grief. And I think it’s out of so much fear that if I enter the grief that I have, I will never find a way bo back up out of that reservoir of sorrow. And it’s not true.

Mary Ellen: It’s not true. I don’t think I’ve ever had a client that did not say that. I like your avoid, Dan, of the people who can’t remember when my dad died almost three years ago, two and a half years ago. My granddaughter at that point was four, and she’s sitting next to me on the couch and we’re not talking about my dad. She doesn’t really fully understand death at this point. And she said to me out of the blue, she said, do you miss your dad? And I said, I do. I miss that I can’t talk to him and just call him anymore. And all she did was just lean her head on my shoulder. She didn’t say anything. She just knew. And she’s a talker. And then she talks, she’s very good at talking, but she just leaned her head on my shoulder and went really quiet. And I was like, oh my gosh, this child knows how to grieve already.

Dan: Well, before we end…

Mary Ellen: Wait. With your point of if you’re like, you can find people to sit Shiva with you, that’s so good. And you can find pieces of art and you can find music, and you can find things to mark. And that Honor, honor, honor, I love this Shiva.

Dan: Well, and I am think, as I’ve said before, I think I am one of the richest human beings on the earth. I get to do the service in a week and I get to bring what I’m good at words to a process of describing a deeply complex and contradictory man who was so kind and so brusque and so insecure and so bold and so broken and so beautiful. And the idea that we get to create in the face of death. I am rich with the privilege of being able to do his eulogy. But there is always something that we need to write, whether it’s ever published, of course it’s minor, but we need to create in the face of death, whether it’s art or in my case a eulogy, there is something again that must stand against death with the promise that the resurrection is true. And that always gives us that stance of being able to say, death does not, will never get the final word. And the final word is always some taste of that creative movement to make use of our sorrow and our suffering to create something more of beauty on behalf of others. And I can say again and again, dear friend Mary Ellen Owen, you create beauty.

Mary Ellen: That’s such a compliment… or whatever, it’s more than a compliment.

Rachael: Just receive it. Just take it in.

Mary Ellen: Well, it’s like reach, death doesn’t get the final word. You know how when everyone’s talking about grief, they always talk about Revelation 21:4, about, I’ll wipe all your tears, but the verse before the three when he goes, I heard a loud voice from the throne. And it’s like, this is the end of all death. All death ends in life. And it’s like I heard a loud voice from the throne. It says, look like, look, God is coming. He, to make his dwelling place with his people, that’s the life it ends in. And all death is going to end with this proclamation. I love that verse. I used to really love verse four the most, but I love verse three right now. It’s like, yeah, yeah. Now I’m done.

Dan: I say to you both. Thank you. Thank you.

Mary Ellen: Thank you. Thank you.