Giving Yourself Time to Grieve: Willow’s Story

“You cannot grieve only one loss.  You may have lost your beloved, but the grief brings into your awareness all the losses that have occurred in your life, past and present” – David Kessler



She looked into my eyes and said, “this is going to be it for awhile” and I somehow grasped what she meant in that moment. It echoed my own feelings in a beautiful way.  There was no where else to move to, no more dreams to fulfill, no fantasy that could take the place of this kind of knowing.  In her own words she was telling me that she had done all of that, hundreds of times over, and now she was laying down her arms, just stopping, as simple and as difficult as that was. Her commitment to work with me here, in this room, week after week and to lay the foundations of her own home, still completely broken and unknown to her, with only a vague mix of hope and desperation to keep her going, had been a symbolic act of radical healing.

In my own story, I remember that moment when I stopped searching for the one life that could contain all of my previous lives.  When I finally decided to settle in Berlin, I knew that by sticking with this place I would be giving up on my dreams of anywhere else but here.  I was ready to start my own mourning process so that I could finally move on.

Willow’s story was also one of loss. She started her therapy sessions with the kind of desperation that comes when something is really felt to be the last hope, but absolutely no model of goodness or growth to base the experience on.  Bluntly said, she had had it rough.  What brought her to me was the pain of two miscarriages back to back and a husband who gave her an ultimatum.  For weeks on end she would hold me back with suspicion and repressed anger.  She had been so badly hurt in her past that trusting was nothing that had ever brought her relief before, quite the contrary.

When she was 10 her parents had decided to move from the safety and familiarity of her small town in England to the countryside in Portugal. Listening to her speak it was clear that her parents were caught up in a dream that took little account of the realities in their decision.  Their dream was marvelous, but the reality was brutal.  Instead of simple living, food from the land, and children who knew the real value in playing outside, they met reality with a deep and painful shattering.

The reality of the provincial countryside was harsh. The language was not easily mastered, the locals were impenetrable, there were no jobs and what little savings they did have began to dwindle.  Willow remembers being bullied insatiably for the first two years as the local children found a new object of fascination and disgust, the little outsider who could not speak the language.  Coming home was not much comfort as her parents struggled to face the choice that they had made with “no money in their coats and no loving in their souls”.  She remembers crying herself to sleep at night in a cold room of the country house, listening to the dripping of a leaky roof and terrified of the night animals that could be creeping through the cracks. The cold empty country house became a metaphor for us to return to again and again.  The house was the dream but it was empty.  No one wanted to face the realities within: the cold, the loneliness, the pain.  And so it remained just a shell.

Willow soon mastered the language and found her own refuge in escape.  She spent more and more time away and learned that to get away from the empty house all she had to do was move.  It became the one thing she could always rely on.  In our first meeting she told me with pride of all the countries and cities that she had lived in.  I remember one of the first things I asked her to consider, as she was deciding to continue on this journey with me.  For a woman who’s whole existence and safety and identity had survived by moving around, how would it be for her to stay put with me, exactly as the going got tough, exactly at the point that she wanted to leave more than anything else in this world? How would it be for her to stay in Berlin long enough to find out what staying is all about?  She looked at me with fear and said that she wasn’t sure she would be able to do it but that she had to try, anyway she didn’t have any immediate plans for any trips so we could see how it went.

I must admit I was skeptical.  It wouldn’t have been the first or the last time that I would undertake a therapy only to see it broken off for this exact reason.  There often comes a point in the therapy journey, a personal crossroads if you like, where each one of us has the painful and confusing decision to make if we are going to stop and go back to what we know or if we are going to submit, often despite rage and confusion.  This is the hero’s journey, the decision to continue despite everything within us telling to stop and turn around, go back to the status quo, the way it used to be.

And then after two years, sitting in my office pregnant with her first child she looked at me and said, “Wow, I can’t believe I stayed for this long” and I could see how far we had come along that road.  This was the moment when we both realized that true healing had really begun.

* Names, places and specific details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

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