A few nights ago it hit me. I hadn’t stopped and dealt with life. As I sat for my evening breathwork session I found myself suddenly rewinding and arriving back 14 months earlier. February 2019. At the time I was working in a psychedelic retreat centre in the Netherlands, holding space and teaching breathwork. It was intense, and one of the most challenging and beautiful experiences of my life to date. I was working most weekends facilitating the healing and transformation of others from around the world. I was in the right place certainly, and I was on mission. Yet life was about to throw me a curve ball.
One Friday evening after our first day of retreat I arrived back to my apartment tired but satisfied. Out of the blue I received a phone call from my Dad. He was crying and incredibly distressed. My grandmother had been taken to hospital and was in a critical condition. I immediately burst into tears on the phone. She was experiencing heart failure and having difficulty breathing. To hear that someone (even at the age of 80) so fit and healthy was in dire straights sent a shockwave through my entire being.
He was at her bedside in hospital and so I asked him to put the phone near her so I could speak with her. I heard her voice croaking and could viscerally feel her pain and terror. We spoke for a couple of minutes and I told her she would be okay. I told her I loved her… and then my Dad came back on the line. A few moments later he said, “it’s not looking good. I don’t think she’s going to make it.”
I didn’t want to believe it. I couldn’t believe it. It all seemed so absurd.
As we finished the call the reality started to sink in. This couldn’t be happening. So sudden, so surreal. One of the people I looked up to the most and had inspired my adventurous spirit was about to pass over. All without getting to say goodbye. It was unbearable.
I felt powerless, weak and childlike. What could I possibly do? Nothing. I was in Holland and she was in the UK and it was 11pm at night. There was no way of getting there in time. Tears flooded from my eyes and my body contracted with shock. I froze like a statue. My world stopped spinning and became very still. As the situation sunk in I did the only thing I could possibly think of.
I breathed on her behalf.
Finding our breath
I had no other avenue and this made sense at the time. When someone you love is dying, it’s remarkable what lengths you’ll go to help them survive. My breathwork practice at the time was sporadic and inconsistent. I was finding it difficult to find the will to focus on my own wellbeing and things had taken a slide. In that moment a switch flicked, and I was determined to breathe like my life depended on it, because hers did. As I started to breathe the tears and emotions came strongly.
I had to feel into my own deep resistance around breathing and being in my body. But for the first time in a long time, it wasn’t about me anymore. It was about my Nan and getting her through this.
It was one of the most difficult and painful experiences of my life.
I breathed and breathed, screamed, cried, had tantrums, punched the air, contracted and shook. I convulsed and sobbed and became infuriated with the futility of what I was doing. It lasted for what seemed like an eternity, washed around in a sea of emotion during the most intense storm you can ever imagine. It went on and on, for hours, until one point when I could literally feel my grandmother holding both of my hands. It was so real I can still feel it now. She was holding on and I was giving her the strength to do so. Deep down I knew that what I was doing WAS making a difference, even from hundreds of miles away. I could feel it. At some point I became calm and spent, and drifted off to a restless sleep. I had done all I could, and I could only hope that it had worked.
The next morning I woke with dread in my heart. I didn’t know what had happened overnight and I feared the worst. I called my Dad as soon as I was able. I couldn’t bear to know but I had to find out what had happened. He answered…. my stomach sank.
“She seems to have rallied today.” I was gobsmacked. He went on, “I was worried she wouldn’t make it through the night, but she’s pulled through. You know she’s a fighter.”
A wave of relief overtook my body. My effort it seemed, had paid off. Yet by no means was she out of the woods, there were other complications and she was still in critical condition. Given that she was having breathing difficulties, and my job being a breathwork coach, I knew I needed to return as soon as I could. That day I was due to facilitate our retreat participants for breathwork and ceremony. As I arrived and greeted my team I burst into tears and explained what was going on. They immediately found a replacement and I agreed that I’d fly back to the UK after giving the breathwork class which was imminent.
Even at that point I ‘carried on’ with my work and pushed my emotions aside. It turns out that has been a theme in my life and a help and a hindrance at the same time, as I’ll come to explain. After holding it together and delivering a powerful session, I flew back to the UK and went straight to the hospital. When I entered the room I found my Nan hunched over and withered, wearing an oxygen mask and gasping for breath. It broke my heart. Such a powerful woman reduced to a fragile shadow of her eccentric bold healthy self. It was difficult to take in. She raised her head and spoke, telling me that she was glad I came and that she couldn’t breathe.
It took every fibre of my being to hold back the tears and stay grounded and centred. I wasn’t doing it for me, I was doing it for her. I knew if I was upset and panicked, it would negatively affect her.
As I sat with her I put my hand on her abdomen and told her it was ok. That she was able to breathe. It might be a bit difficult but you’re breathing OK, just focus on my hand and it will happen automatically. I said some affirmations and comforting words. After that we sat together, just breathing in silence. A little while later she shared that she felt a lot calmer.
After an hour or so the visiting hours ended and I left, giving her a kiss and telling her I loved her before I did. I told her I’ll see you tomorrow, but I wasn’t totally convinced I would.
The diagnosis was still not good, heart failure was the main component and it wasn’t clear what the outcome would be. I slept uneasy that night, but with hope that she had rallied and would hopefully remain on a positive trajectory.
The following day we went to the hospital again. She was sleepy and not feeling so good again. We sat and breathed together and I held her hand. After a while I swapped so other family members could come and visit. I headed to the cafe for an hour or so and then went to check again. My dad told me that she was sleeping finally (she hadn’t slept for 5 days) and so i went in to say goodbye for the day and kissed her on the head. She looked calm and peaceful. That was the very last time I saw her.
A couple of hours later my Dad called….and I already knew. The doctors said that she had entered into a coma and passed away shortly after we left. I was beyond devastated and overcome with numbness and overwhelm simultaneously.
Fifteen minutes later I was due to run a training call with ten people and it didn’t even cross my mind to cancel. After pulling myself together I ran the two hour call, explaining tearfully at the beginning what had happened, and then carried on as much ‘business as usual’ as I could. After I finished one of my best friends sat on the phone in silence with me while I cried and cried. It was all I could do as words were meaningless.
Riding the rollercoaster
My emotions were up and down for days. It was intensely painful, but I also knew that she was in a good place. I would hear her comforting words as if she was still here in the physical and it would reassure me to know she was okay, and reunited with her beloved mother. In some ways it was a blessing that she passed so fast, because if you knew her, you’d know she would have hated to lose her faculties or health. She was a tour de force to the last.
After a difficult few days it seemed the universe wasn’t done with me yet.
The following day my other grandmother had a seizure. I was staying with her and I was woken up by my aunt. After the ambulance arrived we headed to the hospital. I spent hours there, calming my Nan down. She wasn’t lucid and her mind and thoughts were all over the place.
She wanted to get off the bed but was hooked up to machines. I kept repeating what was happening and reassuring her. It went on for most of the day. Little did I realise that my time spent at the retreat centre had prepared me for this situation - to support my own family member in an altered state of consciousness whilst everyone else around me was in meltdown. It seems that life has strange ways of preparing you for the next challenge…
After what seemed like an eternity (and was probably more like 7 hours) she began returning to a normal state. It wasn’t the first or last time this type of event would happen, but after such an intense preceding few days I was exhausted.
Carrying on as normal
A few days later things were back to ‘normal’ and I returned to Holland. I did what I’d learned to do with pain and grief, which is to keep busy and get on with life. The following weekend I had another retreat. A week or two after that I was due to be facilitating a retreat in Costa Rica and the dates coincided with my Nans funeral.
I expect that if I’d needed to, I could have cancelled my trip. But a part of me didn’t want to. I wanted to run away and not have to come to terms with my grandmothers death. If I didn’t face it then it wasn’t real. And after all my work was also important and I couldn’t cancel. Decision made. My family understood the situation. Off I went to Costa Rica. The day of my Nan’s funeral came in the middle of the retreat and I did a little ritual on the beach (her all time favourite place) with sage. Every time I smell it burning I think of her. I said my goodbyes and closed the ritual. I sent some messages to my family back home and returned to ‘normal’.
But in all honesty it wasn’t normal. With everything that had happened my system had been overwhelmed and got totally blocked up. I packed up my pain and grief, compartmentalised it and forgot about it. I moved on. Every now and again I’d remember she was gone. During meditation and breathwork I’d sometimes feel someone holding my hand. I knew intuitively it was her. Like a reassurance I was on the right path.
Fast forward to a year or so later…
A few nights ago in my breathing session it all came flooding into my awareness - I was transported back and shown everything that I’d done. I realised how I’d packed everything away and hadn’t allowed myself to deal with life. A tidal wave of grief flooded over me and consumed me. I cried and cried until my face hurt. She was there holding my hands, I could feel it. As the tears rolled down my cheeks I knew it was time to feel and release the pain. Something I’d been avoiding for over a year. I finally allowed myself to experience the depth of my sadness and breathed into it. As I did I could feel the wall that I’d built around my heart, and with each breath it was like a brick was being removed.
My heart had been buried alive and suspended in time, and had blocked part of me from living. I came to see how closed, guarded and disconnected that tender part of me had become and how I kept the world at a distance so I wouldn’t get hurt. Because part of me rationalised that if you never love, then you can never lose. Don’t get attached or let something fully in, because you’ll end up getting burnt. It’s safer to keep your distance and not go too deep. Bury and avoid your pain and it will go away. Keep busy and just get on with it, don’t look back and you’ll be fine. Life had indeed given me some of those experiences and I developed a very good memory and subconscious response to protect myself.
Understanding the pain
Yet in the midst of my deep discomfort I found myself rightfully asking: Is that really how I want to live my life? Withholding my full self and floating above the complex human experience? Detached, numb and with a fortress built around my heart? To my mind this made perfect sense, yet my soul knew it’s wasn’t the answer.
In the book The Places That Scare You - Pema Chodron thoughtful asks:
“Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”
It’s incredible how such a simple question cuts deeply to the heart of the matter, but here’s what I came to understand:
Whether you like it or not, pain IS part of the human experience. Grief is the very proof that you did indeed love, and at a very deep level.
It makes sense that humans rationalise our emotions in order to avoid hurt. Yet if you never allow yourself to love, are you really experiencing the full spectrum of existence? Or are it just skimming the surface of life, in fear and anticipation of loss before it even happens? Keeping closed and guarded against some unknown eventuality that’s unlikely to materialise.
Is that really LIVING or just existing? Living? Existing? What will it be?
I decided I’m here to live, and to the best of my abilities at that. It might be the only life I get so I’m going to make the most of it. Why would I choose otherwise? I’ll be dammed if my fear mind is going to get the better of me.
Furthermore, Pena explains the second aspect of bodhicitta (awakening mind) as “our ability to keep our hearts and minds open to suffering without shutting down.”
This is what I believe our experience is here to teach us and it is the path of a true warrior. To keep opening ourselves and loving MORE, even through painful experiences. Much of our early life and ancestral trauma keeps us stuck here, yet the only way out is through.
I realised that I don’t teach breathwork because I’m an expert at it, far from it. It’s because I need to be reminded regularly that my feelings matter and they need to flow freely for me to stay healthy and sane. Whenever my mind leads me off the path, my breath continues to show me the way home.
Living in the colour of life
The infinite breadth of human emotion is what living is about. If contrast didn’t exist then I believe the world would be a very bland place.
Feeling my grief and sadness has begun to open my heart once more. With each breath the colour of life is returning and I feel softer and less guarded. Taking the time to allow my emotions to exist, be witnessed and freed, has in turn created more beauty in my life.
After a long slumber my heart is coming back to life. Perhaps it’s time for yours too?
Breathe the change you wish to see in the world.