Since college, I’ve been the one to avoid if you don’t want to have a serious conversation while drinking. (Back then, I was terrified to go there without a few drinks.)
I’ve never been satisfied with surface-level conversations. I don’t watch much TV, and I couldn’t care less which celebrities are boning. I want to know what makes you tick, and I’ll tell you my life story if you’ll tell me yours.
So I’ll do anything to connect deeply where I can. Last week, that meant a grief retreat at Kripalu with Modern Loss.
I still miss my mom, and I’ll carry my loss with me forever, but my grief is at bay for now, after a rough trip there through choppy waters. Then why would I go talk about death for a week?
Rebecca, the founder of Modern Loss, and I have been email buddies for awhile, and I had her on my podcast a few months ago. “I think this would be really good for you,” she told me, and she eventually brought me on as her assistant, giving me a free pass and housing for the retreat to sweeten the deal.
My name is Theodora, and I am the queen of jumping into things, not always thinking them through. (I’m trying really hard not to do that with a major life decision I’m mulling over.) After telling Rebecca yes, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. When I told my cousin I was nervous about the retreat, she asked if I thought I would regress emotionally. “YUP,” I told her. I’ve just been feeling stable the past few months, and I was terrified of jeopardizing that status I’d fought so hard for.
When I told my therapist this, she asked what I was hoping to get out of the retreat. “I don’t know,” I told her.
It turns out that all that hard-ass work I’ve been doing in therapy prepared me to handle this just fine. While I’ll admit I was slightly envious over others’ emotional breakthroughsâ€”and worried I was doing the retreat “wrong”â€”I got exactly what I needed it from it.
And that’s communityâ€”which I think I knew deep down when my therapist asked what I wanted out of it. All I ever wantâ€”and want for othersâ€”is to not be alone. I’ve attended grief-related events since my mom died, but I had a tough time holding space for others’ grief. It brought me down, and triggered me deeply, sometimes leading me to dark thoughts.
But I was in the right place last week to hold that space for others, and it made me feel a lot less alone to spend time with others who were deeply affected by the loss of a loved one. I’m grateful that I didn’t go there looking to be saved, which I might have felt had I gone earlier than this.
This wasn’t some “grief expert” talking head retreat. There were three types of sessions: writing, Open Space and sound healing. (Without going into a ton of detail about Open Space, basically, participants convene small groups to talk about one topic they all agree to discuss.) I participated in Open Space discussions on suicide; money and loss; feeling neglected by the living; and grief and mental illness. (You know, lots of light topics.)
The best part, though, (and one of the biggest reasons I went) , was the writing component. It was led by Emily Rapp Black, an incredibly gifted and prolific writer. (Read her Still Point of the Turning Worldâ€”a devastatingly beautiful book about love and losing her son to a terminal illness.) We worked on learning how to turn our losses into art, and she taught us about how to write a strong essay. (I will totally admit that in all the essays I’ve written in the past few years, I’ve kind of winged it, combining my journalism training with some sort of intuition on how to structure an essay.)
And the dream come true: I got to chat with Emily about my book idea. At lunch one day, before I got to sit down with her, I told her a story that’s part of the book idea. “That would be such a great book!” she said. And when we finally did get to sit down, she helped me refine the idea to a point beyond where I’d previously been stuck. I’m still a little lost on my narrative arc, and how I want to structure the book, but she told me there’s no magic sauce to thatâ€”I just need to get my ass in the chair and write through it.
I attended this retreat to get some writing advice and some R&R in western Mass, but I left with new friends, a fire under my ass for my book idea and pride in the hard emotional work I’ve done. There’s still a lot for me to process, and I’m being incredibly gentle with myself and working on the self-care these next few days as these big feelings inevitably come up from this past week.