Jola – artist, author and survivor of bereavement by suicide – recently took part in our Living with Loss Retreat in Shropshire. Here she writes some of her impressions. (Extracted from a longer article, and shared with permission – thank you Jola.)
Permission to weep…
I’ve arrived for a 4-day retreat at Cloverley Hall, an old manor house set amidst miles of glorious green Shropshire countryside. The silence here is truly quiet. After my first night I’ve woken to a deep thick mist, a lone treeless oak just visible through my window. I’m here with 12 other participants, all living with loss.
Run by Abi, who leads retreats on this theme regularly. She introduced herself on our first afternoon, with a surprisingly calm and joyful manner. I knew before meeting her that she had lost both of her children, the second one to suicide. I am in awe of the strength of her spirit, having wondered how on earth did she survive such awful bereavement. As she said herself, she almost didn’t. After her daughter’s suicide she felt her own life had ended.
Occasionally in life I see ‘little miracles’ occur, and here is one of them. Someone who has risen from the darkest depths to stand with us, and many others like us, offering a new lease of life.
Several in the group are recently bereaved. (4 months- 2 years). The extraordinary thing about being on a grief retreat (I’ve been on others led by different people), is the ‘permission to weep’. Society generally finds tears uncomfortable, either rushing to help or turning away in dismay. Being with others who are living with loss is like a gentle soulful embrace – no need to rush to the assistance of one who has burst into tears, just a silent compassionate acknowledgement that we’ve been there; like the mist outside my window, it will clear, but for now, we can’t see beyond it.
Abi reminds us regularly that each person’s grief is unique, there’s no judgement in how ‘bad’ the loss is, or how ‘well’ we’re dealing with it. This is so very important because of the judgement many of us encounter outside – the typical “are you still grieving?” or “havn’t you got over it yet?”.
I now realise this is more of a course than a retreat. An educational retreat. And I’m very impressed. It’s a deeply insightful look into grief. It’s compassionate without sentimentality. It’s hard work, we do several exercises, with small group discussion.
One of the exercises; make two lists; What or who makes me feel better in my grief? And; What or who makes me feel worse? Such a straightforward question, very much ‘in the moment’, yet so significant.
Took a refreshing walk after lunch down the country lane, ‘breathing in’ the beauty of the gentle green surroundings. By now we’ve begun to know each other a little. Amazing how quickly a sense of trust is generated between people who have nothing in common other than grief.
The day ended with our evening session of music, poetry, readings of our choice. I introduced my bit, by reading out my Reflections on my book and my last exhibition. It tells how writing and making art was my way of engaging in mourning the loss of my sister. The main point being to create something out of the chaos. By producing something beautiful out of the pain of loss. It took me many years of working with ‘active grief’, this being my second major loss by suicide.
Abi’s planned sessions invite us to learn about the grief process, to locate our place within it, and to look at the broader picture of how society/we deal with grief such as methods of remembrance. Amidst all this we’ve had free time – walks, tried the swimming pool, played table-tennis or had a nap.
The Christian content has been undoubtedly present. I was a bit hesitant about this (being a slightly lapsed Catholic) but Abi’s approach, deeply spiritual, is also very liberating.
In the evening the candle-lighting ceremony of remembrance was utterly beautiful. Deeply moving, tissues at the ready, the power of music, song, the candles symbolically lighting up our individual dark places of sorrow. The Christian elements added a sense of hope and courage. Abi, John, and Theresa held the intense space, making it feel really safe to feel strong emotion.
Being with others has helped me engage with humour, surprisingly. …. How much we laughed was a delightful surprise; going to the pub or the shops, or a spa. Playing ping-pong was great fun. Somehow the playfulness and humour broke through this veil of pain which was clearly very present for some.
Though my grief was from many years ago, there are issues which need attention. Even having studied bereavement as part of my own writing, I feel it’s never too late to learn, and the learning is so special amongst people standing on common ground.
About the author of this article
Having experienced many losses in my life, the most difficult were being bereaved by suicide, I have used all my art, writing and poetry as creative means to cope. I have run several art and/or writing workshops, and have been involved with the SoBS charity in leading a retreat. I am available to give talks about grief and creativity, with readings from my book, leading into discussion/workshop. Please email me for details; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jola’s book is Carry A Whisper; Mourning a suicide, finding a language for loss, and a searching for ‘healing’.