Good grief, welcome to the human race

Suffering and life go together, because love and loss go together, and that is life, says international speaker and grief therapist Liese Groot-Alberts. Speaking at a free one-day seminar organised by Hospice Tairawhiti, Liese promised there would be no complicated theories — just simple words about how we all relate to trauma and grief, and create connections with each other.

Suffering and life go together, because love and loss go together, and that is life, says international speaker and grief therapist Liese Groot-Alberts. Speaking at a free one-day seminar organised by Hospice Tairawhiti, Liese promised there would be no complicated theories — just simple words about how we all relate to trauma and grief, and create connections with each other.

Hope is the bridge connecting experiences of the past with the present. Hope creates the possibility to go into the future and take the next step.
International speaker and grief therapist Liese Groot-Alberts held a one-day seminar in Gisborne.

Who’s tired?” asked Liese Groot-Alberts.

Hands around the audience went up, some tentatively, some with purpose.

“I would encourage you to have a little sleep then,” Liese said to laughing from the crowd.

“I won’t be offended. Just surrender to it. If your body says you are tired, sleep.”

No one did, as for the next seven hours the audience hung on Liese’s every word. It felt like a whole day of therapy, mixed with humour, insight, real-life examples and the practical wisdom of how to deal with grief and trauma — either in your own life or as a professional entering into the grief and despair of others.

BACKGROUND — THE WOUNDED HEALER

In 1972 Liese was a young mum living in the Netherlands with her husband when she gave birth to their second child, a little boy.

The wonderful event brought great hope to their family and community. Two days after the birth, their eldest daughter, aged nearly three, died suddenly. Within 48 hours Liese had experienced the most extreme hope and despair.

Liese spoke candidly about the reaction of friends and the community — how unsure people were to respond. The usual flowers and presents for a new baby did not seem appropriate and instead what fell over the family was silence. No one seemed to know what to do or say.

It was this life experience which led Liese to learning more about the human psyche. As she explained it, “If I could be a super-duper healer and fix all of you, then maybe I would be OK too”.

She discovered this was not the case but acknowledged the important part a “wounded healer” can play in treating other people.

Out of trauma came her passion for working with people who are dealing with trauma, loss and bereavement.

CONNECTION IN THE MOST DIRE OF CIRCUMSTANCES

Over the past 30 years, Liese has travelled the world. She has worked with holocaust survivors, tsunami survivors and those with terminal illnesses.

In 2009 she worked in Samoa after a devastating tsunami killed 189 people. One family lost 14 members, “an incredible wounding”, and she remembers sitting on a mat with a mother who lost all three of her children, sometimes saying nothing.

“Words at times are only clumsy and get in the way, and at other times they are needed.”

For seven years she was part of a team in the Philippines at an infectious diseases hospital in Manila. Together with the Philippine nurses and doctors they provided care for people who had TB. Liese remembers walking into that ward and being in shock.

“The male ward had 50 beds and 100 patients, which meant everyone had to share a bed. Because it was so infectious, often family members would drop off their loved ones at the ward and leave — often there was no choice. But the people in there felt abandoned and the rate of depression was very high.”

There were two nurses to the 100 patients, the place was dirty because cleaners did not want to enter. The lack of resources meant masks could not be handed out to reduce the spread of infection. It was a dire situation with tremendous depression and despair, reflected in the eyes of those who resided there.

But one photo Liese took, with the teenager’s permission, was of a 15-year-old boy called Jason. His smile was bright, his eyes full of hope (even though he has since died of the disease). The difference in his demeanour was all down to one nurse, explained Liese.

“Jason knew that she loved him. He knew that he mattered, even if she only had two or three minutes on a shift. She gave him prayer beads and told him, ‘when I am not here I still remember you’.”

This was an example of the benefits of connection.

“Saying, ‘I have no time’, is bullshit,” said Liese frankly.

Connection only takes one moment.

“Just let people know if you only have five minutes, or half an hour, and then during that time — be present. People respond well to contracts.”

GRIEF IS MESSY

“You feel you are fine standing in the supermarket, then you see a packet of food that was a favourite of your loved one and you want to run out of supermarket.”

Grieving is a mess, said Liese.

A popular model of grief with five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — was first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Liese worked under Elisabeth for many years and spoke very highly of her. But the model was something Dr Kubler-Ross later regretted, said Liese, as it was too prescriptive.

“You might not experience any of these stages. Do we always have to accept?”

There was no model for grief, she explained. If one was to be applied, it ran the risk of the person being moulded to fit the model but everyone’s grief was unique, said Liese.

Babies and children experience grief and it did not have to be associated with anyone dying. A broken family can embed huge loss in the heart of little ones. Finding a way to deal with loss can bring survival mechanisms to the fore.

“Everyone has in their life moments of big loss or trauma. We get messages from the outside on how to deal with it and how to feel and that is why there are so many ways we respond to loss and despair.”

Liese used an example of the far-reaching impact of grief.

“When there is a loss in life it affects everybody.”

A picture of a child’s mobile flashed onto the screen — it was a beautiful, colourful and perfectly balanced mobile of Russian dolls.

“If one doll is cut away, what happens to the mobile?” she asked.

The whole thing becomes unbalanced and this analogy was to show how our lives touch many people, and how grief can affect a whole community.

The “get me off the planet” escapism used by many, whether it was through G&T, beer, wine, pills, pot or any other means, was widely used but the question that needed to be asked was, ‘What’s going on in me because if I cannot figure that out, then I cannot connect with you anymore.

“By exposing vulnerability, people can say ‘you’re not coping’, but that’s a judgement.”

Having enough loving people around you, who can tell you when you are dumping your pain on others was a wonderful gift.

Not telling you the truth with a shotgun, she explained but with a softer, “Hey I can see something is going on right now — what’s that like?

“Remember, despair is contagious. It is hard to sit with a person who is in despair.So hold the light within yourself in places of darkness, be aware of your own past experiences of feeling hopelessness, despair and continue to heal these.”

Denial, said Liese, was one of the most amazing survival mechanisms, even though it was sometimes perceived as a “bad word”.

“If we want people to come out of denial then we better be around if they go to pieces because it is a survival mechanism to bear the unbearable.”

PRACTICAL WISDOM

Aristotle called it “phronesis” — the wisdom born of life and practical experience.

Elders are a source of practical wisdom, said Liese and then raised a point that resonated with many in the audience.

When we refer to people who are, say in their 70s and above, using the term “elderly” has a negative connotation and the person can feel put down. By replacing the word elderly in our everyday language with “elder” we show respect, and acknowledge the tremendous source of wisdom they have from having lived so long.

THE PRACTICE OF PRACTICAL WISDOM

Ability to sit with uncertainty and listen to find the essence of a particular situation

Ability to express the essence

Ability to make judgement based on goodness

Ability to realise the concepts

Ability to reflect and contemplate

Ability to foster phronesis in others

The medicine of memories. The ability to recall positive memories. Time and space travel because that moment had meaning

Having one’s individuality accepted and respected. No judgements.

THE UN-HEALABLE WOUND

“The reality is that you do not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; You will learn to live with it. You will heal and YOU WILL rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Liese explained the tremendous wounding that can occur with the death of someone who you have yearned all your life to love you.

“When they die that hope is crushed. In grieving the regrets are, ‘if only . . .’ ”

Liese said working with people who are dying continued to teach her — and one of those lessons she learned was to finish your unfinished business, and not wait till we are close to death.

LOSS — TURNING SHIT INTO FERTILISER

Hanging on by the skin of your teeth and living from one breath to the next.

“How do we recover from deep loss? How do we transform from surviving back into living? That is what grieving is about and resilience is about turning shit into fertiliser.

“The wound, like skin, heals like skin, but it is still tender. A smell can transport you right back into the middle of the ouch.

“What is part of our experience will never not become part of our experience and you can never wipe it out like it didn’t happen.”

TRAUMATIC GRIEF

Characterised by being sudden and unexpected. When bad news is broken to you there is a sense that life was going in one direction and now it is not.

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event.

Liese honoured the first responders, police, ambulance and fire, who could be at traumatic events but were able to split off during them to do what they had to do.

THE POWER OF THREE

“Three breaths do magic things to bring us back into the present moment. Hopefully we all have time for three breaths, no breathing techniques, just simple breaths.

Who’s tired?” asked Liese Groot-Alberts.

Hands around the audience went up, some tentatively, some with purpose.

“I would encourage you to have a little sleep then,” Liese said to laughing from the crowd.

“I won’t be offended. Just surrender to it. If your body says you are tired, sleep.”

No one did, as for the next seven hours the audience hung on Liese’s every word. It felt like a whole day of therapy, mixed with humour, insight, real-life examples and the practical wisdom of how to deal with grief and trauma — either in your own life or as a professional entering into the grief and despair of others.

BACKGROUND — THE WOUNDED HEALER

In 1972 Liese was a young mum living in the Netherlands with her husband when she gave birth to their second child, a little boy.

The wonderful event brought great hope to their family and community. Two days after the birth, their eldest daughter, aged nearly three, died suddenly. Within 48 hours Liese had experienced the most extreme hope and despair.

Liese spoke candidly about the reaction of friends and the community — how unsure people were to respond. The usual flowers and presents for a new baby did not seem appropriate and instead what fell over the family was silence. No one seemed to know what to do or say.

It was this life experience which led Liese to learning more about the human psyche. As she explained it, “If I could be a super-duper healer and fix all of you, then maybe I would be OK too”.

She discovered this was not the case but acknowledged the important part a “wounded healer” can play in treating other people.

Out of trauma came her passion for working with people who are dealing with trauma, loss and bereavement.

CONNECTION IN THE MOST DIRE OF CIRCUMSTANCES

Over the past 30 years, Liese has travelled the world. She has worked with holocaust survivors, tsunami survivors and those with terminal illnesses.

In 2009 she worked in Samoa after a devastating tsunami killed 189 people. One family lost 14 members, “an incredible wounding”, and she remembers sitting on a mat with a mother who lost all three of her children, sometimes saying nothing.

“Words at times are only clumsy and get in the way, and at other times they are needed.”

For seven years she was part of a team in the Philippines at an infectious diseases hospital in Manila. Together with the Philippine nurses and doctors they provided care for people who had TB. Liese remembers walking into that ward and being in shock.

“The male ward had 50 beds and 100 patients, which meant everyone had to share a bed. Because it was so infectious, often family members would drop off their loved ones at the ward and leave — often there was no choice. But the people in there felt abandoned and the rate of depression was very high.”

There were two nurses to the 100 patients, the place was dirty because cleaners did not want to enter. The lack of resources meant masks could not be handed out to reduce the spread of infection. It was a dire situation with tremendous depression and despair, reflected in the eyes of those who resided there.

But one photo Liese took, with the teenager’s permission, was of a 15-year-old boy called Jason. His smile was bright, his eyes full of hope (even though he has since died of the disease). The difference in his demeanour was all down to one nurse, explained Liese.

“Jason knew that she loved him. He knew that he mattered, even if she only had two or three minutes on a shift. She gave him prayer beads and told him, ‘when I am not here I still remember you’.”

This was an example of the benefits of connection.

“Saying, ‘I have no time’, is bullshit,” said Liese frankly.

Connection only takes one moment.

“Just let people know if you only have five minutes, or half an hour, and then during that time — be present. People respond well to contracts.”

GRIEF IS MESSY

“You feel you are fine standing in the supermarket, then you see a packet of food that was a favourite of your loved one and you want to run out of supermarket.”

Grieving is a mess, said Liese.

A popular model of grief with five stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — was first introduced by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Liese worked under Elisabeth for many years and spoke very highly of her. But the model was something Dr Kubler-Ross later regretted, said Liese, as it was too prescriptive.

“You might not experience any of these stages. Do we always have to accept?”

There was no model for grief, she explained. If one was to be applied, it ran the risk of the person being moulded to fit the model but everyone’s grief was unique, said Liese.

Babies and children experience grief and it did not have to be associated with anyone dying. A broken family can embed huge loss in the heart of little ones. Finding a way to deal with loss can bring survival mechanisms to the fore.

“Everyone has in their life moments of big loss or trauma. We get messages from the outside on how to deal with it and how to feel and that is why there are so many ways we respond to loss and despair.”

Liese used an example of the far-reaching impact of grief.

“When there is a loss in life it affects everybody.”

A picture of a child’s mobile flashed onto the screen — it was a beautiful, colourful and perfectly balanced mobile of Russian dolls.

“If one doll is cut away, what happens to the mobile?” she asked.

The whole thing becomes unbalanced and this analogy was to show how our lives touch many people, and how grief can affect a whole community.

The “get me off the planet” escapism used by many, whether it was through G&T, beer, wine, pills, pot or any other means, was widely used but the question that needed to be asked was, ‘What’s going on in me because if I cannot figure that out, then I cannot connect with you anymore.

“By exposing vulnerability, people can say ‘you’re not coping’, but that’s a judgement.”

Having enough loving people around you, who can tell you when you are dumping your pain on others was a wonderful gift.

Not telling you the truth with a shotgun, she explained but with a softer, “Hey I can see something is going on right now — what’s that like?

“Remember, despair is contagious. It is hard to sit with a person who is in despair.So hold the light within yourself in places of darkness, be aware of your own past experiences of feeling hopelessness, despair and continue to heal these.”

Denial, said Liese, was one of the most amazing survival mechanisms, even though it was sometimes perceived as a “bad word”.

“If we want people to come out of denial then we better be around if they go to pieces because it is a survival mechanism to bear the unbearable.”

PRACTICAL WISDOM

Aristotle called it “phronesis” — the wisdom born of life and practical experience.

Elders are a source of practical wisdom, said Liese and then raised a point that resonated with many in the audience.

When we refer to people who are, say in their 70s and above, using the term “elderly” has a negative connotation and the person can feel put down. By replacing the word elderly in our everyday language with “elder” we show respect, and acknowledge the tremendous source of wisdom they have from having lived so long.

THE PRACTICE OF PRACTICAL WISDOM

Ability to sit with uncertainty and listen to find the essence of a particular situation

Ability to express the essence

Ability to make judgement based on goodness

Ability to realise the concepts

Ability to reflect and contemplate

Ability to foster phronesis in others

The medicine of memories. The ability to recall positive memories. Time and space travel because that moment had meaning

Having one’s individuality accepted and respected. No judgements.

THE UN-HEALABLE WOUND

“The reality is that you do not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; You will learn to live with it. You will heal and YOU WILL rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.” — Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Liese explained the tremendous wounding that can occur with the death of someone who you have yearned all your life to love you.

“When they die that hope is crushed. In grieving the regrets are, ‘if only . . .’ ”

Liese said working with people who are dying continued to teach her — and one of those lessons she learned was to finish your unfinished business, and not wait till we are close to death.

LOSS — TURNING SHIT INTO FERTILISER

Hanging on by the skin of your teeth and living from one breath to the next.

“How do we recover from deep loss? How do we transform from surviving back into living? That is what grieving is about and resilience is about turning shit into fertiliser.

“The wound, like skin, heals like skin, but it is still tender. A smell can transport you right back into the middle of the ouch.

“What is part of our experience will never not become part of our experience and you can never wipe it out like it didn’t happen.”

TRAUMATIC GRIEF

Characterised by being sudden and unexpected. When bad news is broken to you there is a sense that life was going in one direction and now it is not.

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the psyche that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event.

Liese honoured the first responders, police, ambulance and fire, who could be at traumatic events but were able to split off during them to do what they had to do.

THE POWER OF THREE

“Three breaths do magic things to bring us back into the present moment. Hopefully we all have time for three breaths, no breathing techniques, just simple breaths.

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