Give sorrow words.
The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.
The World as I Knew It Was Gone
When my mom died, I was flattened. The rug wasn’t pulled out from under my feet. The rug was pulled out from under my world. I entered not only grief, but traumatic grief. There are ingredients that can serve to catapult one into trauma. For myself, I identified a few.
- Who that person was and what they mean to you: I was very close with my mom. She was my everything. In addition to being my mom, she was my best friend, my spiritual partner, twin sister, and daughter all rolled into one. I laughed with her more than anyone. I shared more with her than anyone, and I could be myself with her.
- How that person died: I wasn’t prepared for what happened to my mom in twenty-three short days. In her short illness, I witnessed things no one else did.
- Whether you are at peace with how that person died: I was not at peace with how my mom died nor do I ever expect to be.
And a fourth elusive but powerful ingredient that contributed to the toxic mix of trauma was that I had no community or social network around me. There was no one to consistently stand with me or companion me or be with me in grief.
I had come to live with my mom nine years before she died, and I took on the role of watching over her full-time. We shared a home and a life together, and then suddenly she wasn’t there.
In the aftermath of her death, there was no one here to even have daily casual conversation with. “What are we having for dinner tonight? Look at the quails outside. I found a cricket and put him in the backyard. Look at the sunset! What do you want to watch on TV? Would you like to meditate now or read?” There was no one to eat with. No one to go out with. No one to witness and appreciate beauty with. No one to sing or dance or be silly and laugh with. No one to take care of, to love and feel loved by. No one to come home to anymore, no ground under my feet. My world, as I knew it, was gone.
I was alone physically, socially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In attempting to deal with this, I made myself go out every single day to a grocery store. Even if I didn’t need anything, I would walk the aisles and have casual conversation with the workers just to see other human beings. But still, I was isolated in my thoughts with no one to talk to who understood what I was going through. I could find myself in a crowd—and be alone. I could be with people I knew—and be unmoored. Like floating on a Styrofoam cube out at sea with no land in sight, loneliness was an understatement. And with this depth of aloneness, anxiety marched in.
The Act of Writing Holds Power
It was writing and my research into my ancestry that became anchors and connecting influences. Writing and research tethered me as I equally fell apart. As a young storyteller at the age of seven, the act of pen to paper gave me peace and joy. Worlds were born every time I wrote. At the ripe old age of eleven, I discovered that the page would listen to my deepest hurts and hear my every thought, shelter my every feeling, whether it was pain or delight, amusement or despair, celebration, or sorrow. I amassed collections of poetry, songs, meditations, monologues, novels, humor, books, and plays. I ended up being a teacher of journal writing. Writing for creativity, writing to bring healing and peace, writing as social action, writing to connect, to witness, and embody compassion for myself. Writing was an act of fusion and communion. Words were my way and the act of writing held power. And it was from childhood that I innately knew that grief needed a witness and some form of expression. No one taught this to me; this knowing was inborn.
That’s the way writing often starts, a disaster or a catastrophe of some sort, as happened to me… And I think that’s the basis for my continued interest in writing, because by writing I rescue myself under all sorts of conditions, whatever it may be that has upset me, then I can write and it relieves the feeling of distress.
~William Carlos Williams
I could write about sorrow like there was no tomorrow. The blank page did not scold or reprimand my grieving. The blank page did not blink, run, or turn away. It did not tell me I was doing grief wrong. The blank page did not try to diagnose, pathologize, analyze or explain grief to me. It did not try to dissuade me from grief or talk at me about the “stages of grief.” It did not fix or dismiss my grief. It did not try to make me better in any way by serving up platitudes that I should “get over” grief or that it was “time to move on.” It did not tell me that there were reasons for why things went down the way they did, or that what happened was “meant to be.” The page did not accuse me of “wallowing” or “self-pity,” words from a shame-based language that do not belong in any discussion of grief, ever. Or, in my opinion, even in our lexicon to describe anyone.
The empty page was my friend. It lovingly listened. It could hear my broken heart and unwaveringly receive the most devastating, raw, painful, and beautiful of words and emotion. The blank page loved me unconditionally, like my mom and dad and many friends who had all gone on, too soon.
In the years after my mom died, I studied trauma and the brain. I learned that social isolation and loneliness, in and of themselves, are traumatic. And in its cycle, trauma further reinforces the belief and feeling in people that they are isolated and alone. I learned that social isolation and loneliness are as real as physical pain in the brain, lighting up the same pain centers. From a young age, I knew that the suffering and pain of grief, of isolation and loneliness, were not to be minimized. The heart can literally hurt. Thoughts can spin until you are splayed and spent, breath can catch into panic. Anxiety can storm the solar plexus like paratroopers. People can die from loneliness and grief.
You can be running through your day, looking normal and being functional, in an ongoing state of exhaustion that no one recognizes. Cognitive function and physical abilities can change and become compromised. In the lonely spaces, when there is no other to connect with, it becomes easier to loop and spin back into painful memories. It is hard to live with no happy predictor neurons, hard to have nothing to look forward to and no one to dream or engage with, no one who deeply hears you.
In the months after my mom’s death, it felt like my cells were on fire. Watching over someone is very physical. I hugged my mom every day, long heart-to-heart hugs at night. When she was gone, there was suddenly no one here and my body mourned, too. It’s like your body-heart-brain cries, reaching for twigs on a dying tree that keep breaking, only to have you fall back into the swirl of haunting traumatic memories. You may be hurling through space with nothing to hold you, no soft ground to meet you, no one to talk to, or literally hug you—and no one may even know this.
Those who are not supported in grief, and those who suffer from traumatic grief—be that a loss through death or a non-death grief—make up an invisible population in the world. The complexity and nuances of hurt are kept out of sight, hidden in hearts so as not to disturb the greater culture that wants everything to be copacetic. It becomes an additional sorrow, a secondary loss, when there is no other person to hold your experience with you.
To always have to hold your own experience, to always try to lift yourself up, to always have to be the one in your life to make all the decisions alone, to keep on keeping on, to self-inspire, to self-regulate, to always take care of everything, to witness the world alone and try to make sense of life, find meaning and purpose without any other around, without a group of people you feel you belong to or connect with, is exhausting, is depleting, is almost futile, and one of the hardest things in human life. I know this first-hand truth. It is insufferable to know that this kind of loneliness exists for so many others across our planet, and for many people who grieve. People now suddenly living life without their life partner or their child, or the person who was their person who made their world warm and round.
To Be Accompanied in Grief is Healing
Yet, to be accompanied in sorrow is healing. Connection can soothe pain and calm broken hearts. Warm loving connections can lighten the devastation of the loneliness found in grief. Because hearts are eased when suffering is shared, and our lives make better sense to us when they are held with another person. The same holds true for our joys; we gather in community to celebrate with others and life becomes sweeter in that way.
Grief must be shared to be endured
~ Kalidasa, from The Recognition of Sakuntala
You may wonder about those who love to be alone, who go off into the woods for years, like Thoreau. I believe that those who love their solitude, who cherish the aloneness of their lives for months or years at a time, unaccompanied by human companionship, do so from a point of connection. They choose that for themselves and, in that choice, they intrinsically feel connected to something. Be that nature, the land, animals, birds or trees or a hive of bees, beings of the earth and sky, or an ancestral lineage. They may have found a way to commune with the Self or something other be it in a flower, a river, the sea, or spiritual personages, Goddesses or Gods. Even a basketball named Wilson that Tom Hanks clung to in the movie, Castaway, provided support and companionship for Hank’s character.
People who make the choice for solitude either have an anchor or create an anchoring to something or to someone that they will eventually return to or who will return to them. For we are innately social creatures who need each other, who need meaningful connection.
The Power of Empathy & The Power of the Page
So, what happens when you are physically alone after your loved one leaves Earth? Or what happens when you are grieving a non-death loss? We mourn. Compassionate mourning is a human need. And while people may show up to be with us, to grieve with us and care for us in the immediate aftermath, sometimes their ability to stick around and understand the depth of our grief, over a long period of time, is short-lived. Life moves quickly on for most.
Six months after my dad died, I remember watching the world spin by, wondering what happened. Everyone was running and hurrying on in life. Meanwhile, my world stopped, and no one knew how much I missed my dad. One day in my NYC apartment, I received a call from a friend who had not lost a parent yet. She asked me how I was doing. I talked on about something, when she interrupted me and said, “No, I mean how are you with your dad and his passing. How are you really doing?” Her sensitive question and willingness to listen was a gift on that day and one I have always remembered.
Such empathy may hold a clue for a way to be heard and to feel safe again when you are floating unmoored. Not the empathy of excessively feeling another person’s feelings in your own body, and thereby exhausting yourself in what some people call compassion-fatigue. But in the words of neuroscientist educator and researcher, Sarah Peyton, an empathy that “is coming into a place where we have a deep and sweet wondering about other people’s feelings and needs. Which is both sweet and calming for each person, the person receiving and the one offering to create a resonant field for another.”
That is what my friend did for me on that day when she asked about how I was doing with my dad. She was truly interested, sweetly wondering, and willing to listen. To have a loving empathic friend is a treasure. But when the people we consistently feel safe with, and can be transparent with, are no longer around, the burden of such loneliness is an additional sorrow and loss.
This is where writing came to my rescue, and it can come to your rescue, too. What writing provides is a witnessing space. If I were to anthropomorphize the page and make it living with breath, I would say that it leans towards me with recognition. It respects my needs to unburden my heart. It honors my need to mourn. It is the loving and unconditional container that can hear anything and accept everything. Words on a blank page rise to meet me and love me no matter what. It is a sacred space where I can let the words rip. It is where my emotional truth, in that moment, can safely pour out of me, sometimes with hot tears falling or expletives flying from the pen. And then after the emptying, comes a quieting. It is as if an invisible balm washes over me. My truth, for that moment, has been felt, has been told, and there is a sigh of relief that says it is done. I have witnessed myself, and I am able to move into the next moment a bit calmer than the moment before.
It was long ago that The Voice of Compassion first came to me. It is a voice that I have taught others to listen for and to write from. It is the voice that will accompany you to provide a safe space for delicate communion—without effort. A communion that includes self-recognition and self-appreciation, and a sense of belonging to what is peaceful and calming in your own cells. Which may, ironically, come through storming your truth onto the page.
Accurately describing and naming how you are, with full precision and full expression of what you feel, helps you to reclaim yourself, to know what is true for you. For the nervous system relaxes and relishes in being seen, it relaxes in its own truth-telling moment. The Voice of Compassion knows this.
To fall and be lifted into the presence of this Voice is like having a light be brought into a dark passageway. Where you can, once again, see the steps, the ground, and the sky all at the same time. This voice will hold your hand and help you begin to trust the next moment of your life with less restriction in your literal physical body, and in the body of your thoughts. Being fully seen and known through your own Self is a loving act. This seeing can touch and holds one’s own sorrows with the greatest of sensitivity and kindness. It is like having a warm breeze blowing over the body in which you are revived.
When I listen for this Voice of Compassion, I literally begin to hear and feel my own breath. I feel my own skin, and then my breath, skin, and body become comforting companions. Compassion or something “other” stirs and sits next to me and loves me with all my feelings that may ravage. This other is completely with me. With me. It is not in front of me or behind me. It stands with me, is not separate or apart from me. There is no condemnation. No fixing. No trying. There is nothing “I have to do or be.” And then it is as if I hear the voice of my mother, the voice of my father, the voices of doves resting on the fence, the sound of the rose wafting its scent. I hear the Voice of Compassion speaking with uncommon wisdom. As a child, I invited animal friends into my heart. I invited people who suffered like me into my heart. I invited the whole world into my heart. These invitations from the Voice of Compassion were not issued because misery loves company but because in that heart space, where others sat with me and where we felt similarly, in either our sorrow and pain or our joy and celebration, in that heart space we belonged to each other.
In that healing space, invisible friends from across the lands, people and beings I have not ever met recognized each other’s heart. In our togetherness, we soothed each other’s pain. We rested, nurtured, and rose together again. The page, when no one else is around, becomes a vehicle and bridge for belonging. And in belonging to one’s own Self, there is a kind of homecoming where creativity is enlivened. Where the largeness of us and the largeness of others can be explored in an expansive spaciousness. Words scrawled on a page act as both feather and wand. It is a holy space where the heart’s anguish can find resonance. It is where anguish can fly and be set free to later find peace. That’s how powerful writing can be.
Our Magical Brains
Expressing the Complexity of Our Grief is Healing
While I like to think of words that heal as weaving an almost magical, mystical, and alchemical power infused with vibrational notes which invites connection that is curative, uplifting, and creative, there is also neuroscience as to why this is so. The following is a simplification, but it may give you some insights into our magical mysterious brains!
The amygdala is a region of the brain that has diverse functions. One of its known functions lies in its ability to recognize threats in the environment. This recognition serves to initiate a fight-or-flight or an alarmed aloneness response in reaction to the threat. When these nervous system states stay static and remain, trauma is alive in us. Be that from a past event or a present-day loneliness, the amygdala is then running the show.
When trauma and emotion remain unprocessed, and not put in a context that makes sense to us, it remains unaccompanied. It’s like free floating anxiety. The content floats inside of us with nothing to anchor, hold, resonate with it, or keep it warm. That floating content, without any love to warm it up, plays havoc in our lives. It can create intrusive memories and thoughts that seem to come out of the blue. The word that is often used is that we feel triggered. In the amygdala, the memory remains as an ever-present real threat, even though it may have occurred decades ago.
Part of healing involves moving memory from its storage in the amygdala to storage in the hippocampus. In the hippocampus, memories are time-stamped, and then enabled to find a resting place in our brains, and in our lives. The memory remains retrievable and accessible without the splayed effect that occurs when it is unprocessed. When memories remain unprocessed, they can impair lives and intrude on us at any moment without warning, thus making us feel more fractured and less functional.
One way this movement of memory can occur is through it being fully seen and resonated with. The act of naming and identifying what is with warmth and love, with unconditional acceptance and gentle curiosity is another super-power. Imagine feeling scared and there is no one to tell, no one to share your fear with. You are alone hiding in the closet, which makes it even scarier. Now imagine a loving person opens the door and comes to sit with you in the closet. You get to tell them how frightened you are. Imagine they meet you and your fear with a warm hug. Imagine they say, “Tell me more. Tell me everything. I am here with you, and I hear you deeply and clearly. I won’t go away. I see you and will listen and stay with you through all of this.”
In the safe refuge of being met, in someone receiving you, coupled with your freedom to share all that has happened, you begin to relax. You are not alone anymore with your thoughts and memories or story. The movement of memory from the amygdala into the hippocampus occurs when you share and tell your story—and when it is met with loving care and sweet acceptance. You feel seen and validated, appreciated, and understood. When memory moves to the hippocampus, it is less likely to create havoc in your daily life. This movement into the verbal place of recognition changes the brain.
Writing is one way in which you can give sorrow words. It can assist the time stamping of memory. By identifying what you think and how you feel, in naming how you are, in finding words for your emotions, you witness and find warmth for yourself, which has the capacity to calm anxiety. While this has been my personal lifelong experience and teachings, I never knew why it worked. I just knew it did.
Psychologist James Pennebaker’s studies showed when people record their deepest thoughts and feelings, their overall mental and physical health improves. He called it “expressive writing.” I still longed to understand the neuroscience to support the efficacy of this practice. The studies of neuroscientist researcher, Matthew Lieberman, shows that when we find words for our emotions and put emotions to our words it reduces the emotional reactivity in the pathways to the amygdala, the part of the brain where anxiety hangs out. Affect labeling is now the term given to putting emotion to words. I finally found scientific evidence for what I knew from the inside out. Sweeping things under the rug doesn’t work for human hearts, bodies, and brains. The more we hide our sorrows, the deeper they go. And while it is easier for the world to accept a simple lie than a complex truth—the words of Alexis de Tocqueville—expressing the complexity of our grief and loneliness is healing. A kind of healing that will even lower inflammation in the body’s many systems.
Writing Invigorates Creativity & Restores Peace
In addition to writing for catharsis and healing, my clients naturally reinvigorated their creativity. So-called “blocks” dissolved, and mountains of creative energy rose. With a little direction and guidance, writing acts as a clearing house to not only clarify what we think and feel but it can sift through our experiences to create new ideas for poems, plays, books, and pathways for our dreams that can serve our lives and the lives of others.
I remember one woman in a class sharing about a difficult breakup. She wanted to write about her experience, and she also didn’t want to write about it. She was torn, afraid it would re-entangle her in the strong waves of emotions. I don’t suggest anyone ever write about anything except what they want to write about. I simply create safe space for people to explore whatever is in their hearts to explore. On her own, she decided to write about the men in her life, and then she read aloud what she wrote. The recitation of her words was poetry. She wrote about what occurred and how she felt. She fully gave witness to herself, naming, seeing, and lifting, her sharing was a balm for all present. This woman, who thought she wasn’t creative, walked away from class knowing and experiencing her creative well-being, and her own power as intact. Which, in that moment, became the seat for her own healing, as well.
Writing also uses both sides of our brain in such a way that it can hold paradox. We can both function and elicit wonder at the same time. We can experience an acceptance that is wide enough to include that there may be some things we may not ever accept. We may come to know a peace that knows there are things in life or in this world that we may not ever find peace with—and that that is okay. Writing doesn’t mean all the loose ends are tied up and packed away. But it is a way to process our life experiences, release emotion, witness, appreciate, and love oneself, loose-ends and all. It is one way in which we can endeavor to make sense of what has no sense. By finding and composing our own creative narrative for our lives. Resonant with our heart with our bodies more relaxed, we then restore a new peace to our cells.
Words on a Page are the Holy Resting Space
Give Sorrow Wings and Words
Writing has always offered me a sacred container. It’s where I can pour out everything I observe, feel, and think. Writing thousands of pages after my dad died, and again since my mom died, the tapping on the keyboard is music to my ears. The pen in hand gliding across the page sets up a reliable rhythm for my body to engage in. Words spilling out are my exhalation. Words that seep back in are my inhalation. With mystical words from the realm of remembrance, I imagine my loved ones living in a land of peace and love. With that kind of writing and imaginistic power, a healing balm settles over and calm me.
However, Shakespeare’s axiom to “Give sorrow words” does not have to mean literal words for you. Words may mean paint on canvas, tending flowers in the yard to watch them grow, the language of dance, a poem or a song, a walk and conversation among the trees, working on a home or rebuilding the engine of your car. The ways are many in which we can engage life to be witnessed and seen without another human around. And while it is not a substitute for having one’s closest intimates nearby or for having celebrations in community, not a replacement for hugs or hearing the voice of another or hearing your own voice in conversation with your beloved, sometimes it is all we have.
Someone once told me that when there is no ground under your feet, that is when you begin to fly. While I may not always be flying, through words on a page I lift-off a little more. In words I find a holy resting place, the in-between space. Where body, heart and brain, ether and air, and the soundless sound of love stir. I invite those I’ve loved and lost to come in close to find me, to greet me through the power of the pen. It’s where I sing, dance, and create to give sorrow words and to give sorrow wings to fly.
Elizabeth Welles is a writer, storyteller, speaker, artist, teacher, healer and guide. To learn more about her work, coaching, courses and workshops, visit www.ElizabethWelles.com
Some of the neuroscience referenced in this article is influenced by the research of educator Sarah Peyton.