We are delighted to share this blog post written by Holding Space Master Practitioner, Nam Pham, one of the primary teachers in our How to Hold Space Foundation Program. Nam lives in Viet Nam and has worked with us at the Centre since its inception. We are so grateful for his curiosity about Holding Space and his deep, embodied reflections on the topic. Consider learning with him and the rest of our international community this year in the How to Hold Space Foundation Program!
Holding space for grief is a practice of community
By Nam Pham
Listen to Nam read the post:
I noticed his shoulder shaking hard from the news. My dear friend confessed to me, “My grandma passed away.” He asked me to give him a hug. “That was such a courageous and kind thing to ask at this moment,” I thought. I noticed how he held on to me, the sensation of grief came like waves through our bodies. I couldn’t help but hug him tightly. There was nothing that could be said that could relieve this moment.
Loss is inevitable. Grief is inevitable, too. But we find it so hard to face grief. Some of us find it too strong to know how to let it out and…not to disturb others. Some of us find ourselves isolated by our own grief.
We sat down again on the nearby chairs. He sobbed with his head down, fumbling through the words: “My dad asked me if I could return home… I was torn…” I noticed my heart squeezed, saddened by the possibility that he might need to return home in the middle of our community retreat. “I…wanted to stay. I wanted to hold this grief in community, let myself be seen.” There was a profound sense of clarity through his words at this point.
I held his hand tightly. I wanted to let him know I supported his decision wholeheartedly. “This grief can be really painful at times. It can hurt a lot. I cannot show you how to get over it, and I cannot do it for you, either. But I want to be here, walking with you in this part of the journey.” Those were the only words I could utter. Grief always has its way to humble humanity. In the face of it, there is nothing to do but witness.
“In the check-out circle tonight, I want to announce to everyone about my grandma’s passing. I hope you can support me on that.”
Right in front of me was a person full of dignity and trust in the community and in our container for him. Holding space for him right now, I felt like I was the one receiving a gift.
“I want to do a short ritual where I tie a black garment around my left arm to mark my grandma’s passing. I will continue to wear this throughout the entire retreat.” (In Việt Nam, wearing a black garment or any other type of black token signifies to people that someone’s family member has passed away.)
That evening where personal grief was announced and invited into the collective presence of community, it was unforgettable. Later, I learned from another member that it was an emotional struggle to witness my friend’s grief. It took an intense few minutes for my friend to utter the first few words about his grandma’s passing. He stumbled throughout, at times grabbing my shoulder so he could sit up straight. In my mind, I struggled with whether I should help him, whether I should say it for him, whether I should just lessen the pain… But in my heart, there was this calm voice: “Be brave, trust him, trust his struggle and trust what he has to do”.
There are three profound and magical things I learned from this collective experience of grief:
- When grief is voiced instead of silenced, witnessed instead of fixed, embraced instead of avoided, a community learns to be with each other in a wholesome way:
That night, my friend’s grief got mirrored in everyone else’s presence. We came face to face with the reality of loss and uncertainty that are always present in our lives. We also discovered a different way of being together:
– We learned to practice witnessing the dignity of a person going through grief by not rushing into help but letting ourselves feel and “be with”.
– We didn’t see grief as something broken, it was something to be honored. In this process, Love was revealed to us when my friend recounted the caring and warm gift of presence he had always received from his grandmother.
- The grieving process is an expression of human diversity, especially when done in community:
“How do you want people to accompany you in this journey? What feels like the support you might need? People want to give support, but you have a say in asking for the right kind,” I suggested to him before the community members convened. Reflecting on my own grief, need for support came in a haze while grieving: sometimes I knew exactly what I needed, sometimes I didn’t. One important thing I learned is that we should never assume what support is “correct” – instead, we ask, show up, observe, and offer our hearts.
This is where I discovered the different ways each person wanted to show support. There are no “correct ways”, and there is no single correct way! My friend kindly asked people to talk to him and be around him as usual, but if people didn’t know what to do, just let him be by himself.
Since then, people showed up in individual and collective ways to offer support:
– Some of us invited him to a round of Dances of Universal Peace (a spiritual practice that combines singing and dancing to the sacred phrases of different religions – definition by Wikipedia).
– Some of us gathered for a morning prayer and meditation to assist my friend’s grandmother’s soul to peacefully pass onto the next Life (this is a Buddhist practice).
– Hugs, silent companions, hearty meals, singing, circles, walks into nature…yes!
– Others also gathered in small groups to process their own grief. Stories surfaced, hearts opened, healing took place unexpectedly.
- This is where I discovered kinship:
I came to appreciate even more deeply “Holding Space” as an essential practice of community. Holding Space is an arena where humans embrace their full spectrum of experience, especially the most discomforting ones that often get swept under the rug.
With an emotion like grief, I learned that it is Life’s invitation to meet with an individual’s most obvious limitation – in grief, a human cannot help longing for togetherness with community in its broadest sense. Like another friend of mine once said: I talked to the trees and leaves and the insects because they are my friends, too. Grief shows us that when our hearts are open, we are always held by the human community, the Nature community, and the great Mystery! None of this can be divided, squared out, or cut to our liking – kinship is all.
This is where I also learned to put down my armor and lean in. This is where I let myself be humbled by others and surprised by the magnitude of human resilience when people really care for each other. This is another great gift I received from my dear friend, my brother: his demonstration of asking to be cared for.
care is a not a luxury.
like herbs, like flowers, like seeds, like fruits.
we care and receive care
in myriads of ways
we could dream of.
we know how to care and receive care,
like Life knows how to care and receive care.
Note: The main character in this post has given his consent for online publication, his review of person details and his wholehearted support for the message conveyed through this writing.