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Bearing The Unbearable with Dr Joanne Cacciatore

On the evening of 4 May 200 bereaved parents and siblings gathered together online to hear guest speaker, bereaved mother and expert on traumatic grief, Dr Joanne Cacciatore. Dr Jo shared her reflections of bearing the unbearable, that is the grief after the death of a child. She answered questions from the audience covering a range of topics including coping with family and friends; managing complex and overwhelming emotions after child loss, including guilt and anger; coping with birthdays and other special days; and the activities that can help us as we grieve for our child.

Sangeeta Mahajan reviewed the evening for us...

"Dr Joanna Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University delivered this talk from her farm in Arizona. She is the founder of the MISS Foundation and the Selah Carefarm. Her area of expertise is traumatic death, specifically child death.

After the loss of her fourth child, Cheyenne, 27 years ago, she looked for a therapist but none met her needs. She then decided to go back to study and research grief so she could help herself and others. Her book “Bearing the Unbearable’ was published in 2017 and has received multiple glowing reviews.

Joanne started with the quote by Katherine Anne Porter,

“The past is never where you think you left it.”

She then read out a series of e-mails that illustrated the fact that grief has far-reaching effects which reverberate through history and through generations of families. A child’s death can almost always be classed as ‘traumatic’ because even when it is expected, the parents are often not prepared for it.

She emphasised that trauma can be held in the body as a panic, an anxiety or fear, dreading the world we live in. She talked about ‘grief umbrella’ to explain that grief is not one thing. Each spoke is a different feeling – anger, guilt, sadness, regret, anxiety etc.

She also gave the analogy of a room to illustrate that grief is not our enemy. In the beginning, grief occupies the entire space in a room but over time, we can open the doors and windows, we can build an extension around it and create space around it. That allows us to inhabit our grief fully by making our life bigger and expansive.

The more time we spend suppressing our grief, the more energy we waste. Society at large does not know how to support grief. Workplaces, families and religious bodies can have little understanding and tolerance of it. Grief can scare people and they may withdraw or say inappropriate things from a place of discomfort rather than compassion. If that happens, Joanna recommended good use of voice to plainly say, “that’s not my truth”. Being a practitioner of Yoga, she compared this attitude with keeping a ‘strong back and soft belly’.

Medicalisation of grief does not consider how the society interacts with those grieving and places the responsibility solely on the individuals. Grief is an emotional experience that needs full expression but often we are required to pretend we’re feeling / not feeling something to suit others. We need intentional spaces like the ones created by TCF to be able to communicate our needs. We need to be able to have rituals by which we can remember and honour our children. She quoted Richard von Weizsaecker:

‘Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.’

Our grief is sacred and holy. We can choose who deserves to share it and who not. Before taking questions, Joanna read out this poem: THE EXISTENCE OF LOVE by Marjorie Pizer –

I had thought that your death
Was a waste and destruction
A pain of grief hardly to be endured
I am only beginning to learn
That your life was a gift and a growing
And a loving left with me.
The desperation of death
Destroyed the existence of love
But the existence of death
Cannot destroy what has been given.
I am looking at your life again
Instead of your death and departing.

It was remarkable how Joanne asked the names of the deceased children whose mothers/fathers put forward the questions. She then repeated the names with love and honour. She answered questions on the feelings of impotence, anger, guilt and abandonment with great sensitivity. She shared the importance of embodied experiences such as running, yoga, chanting, dancing, drumming, bare-foot hiking and other such activities to help move our emotional energy through. We spoke briefly about ‘toxic positivity’ which is enforced by phrases like ‘Just choose joy’, which can be extremely unhelpful. Her answers came with real life examples and were found to be very helpful.

At the end, it was clear that Joanne had not only helped herself but many others with their grief through her personal growth, learning, research and practice. I left the evening with a smile on my face, a strong sense of healing and connection with all present. It was an evening well spent"

Sangeeta Mahajan - May 2021

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