Grief — The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Transcendent

This weekend’s conference is 2012 Annual Ritual Abuse, Secretive Organizations and Mind Control Conference, August 2012 in Connecticut. Some of our goals are to help stop future occurrences of child abuse and ritual abuse, to help survivors of child abuse and ritual abuse, to name the groups that have participated in alleged illegal activities and to unite those working to stop child abuse and ritual abuse. This weekend, you will get to hear a variety of speakers talk about child abuse and ritual abuse, secretive organizations and mind control from different perspectives, showing the possible connections between them.

Please use caution while listening to this presentation.  It may be very triggering. All accusations are alleged. The conference is educational and not intended as therapy or treatment.

Janet Thomas has been in active recovery from the effects of ritual abuse for more than 25 years. Her book, “Day Breaks Over Dharamsala–A Memoir of Life Lost and Found” chronicles her personal journey. “The Battle in Seattle” an earlier book, chronicles the global struggle for justice that we are now seeing rise.  She writes and teaches writing in India and in the U.S. Her topic is: Grief — The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Transcendent

In my adult remembering life, grief first came to me in the hot summer of 1966. It arrived on the heels of its sidekick—terror—and in a split instant, the two of them took me down. It was during the day. I was out walking with another young mother and her baby. We were strolling with our children through the warm afternoon on whatever shaded streets we could find on the army base; and I woke up into nightmare. One moment I was awake to a rote and routine daily life, the next moment I was terrified of trees. In the 45 years since that sudden and irrevocable descent, I have learned how to help my terrorized children inside to wake up from their nightmare, to come in out of the cold, and join the others in the healing pool beneath the warm waterfall. It is a place fashioned after the Havasupai Falls on the edge of the Grand Canyon. A place I once went to on assignment for a travel story. A place remembered that many years later would become the first light of day for the traumatized parts of me suspended in that dark and sense-less place. The place that neither made sense nor held any sense of seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling or tasting. It is the state I found myself in on that warm New Jersey afternoon in 1966—suspended in time and in terror with no sense of my own existence. I was 21 years-old. It would be 20 more years before I began to unravel the mystery of my selves and that sense-less place. And if there was any one thing that kept me alive during that time—it was grief. And if there is any one thing that kept me going through the journey of remembering, it is grief. And if there is any one thing that made healing possible, it is grief. And if there is any one thing that keeps me restored to my life now, it is grief. Good grief.

What is good grief? This is a question I was only able to begin to understand when I began to recognize bad grief.  And the realization of bad grief came only when I began to understand ugly grief. And the good, the bad, the ugly of grief took shape in their own right only when transcendent Grief became my companion. In this talk I want to share with you my own personal journey with grief. And it is simply my own.

When grief first shattered my life, it was an inarticulate overwhelming experience. I couldn’t stop crying and I didn’t know what I was crying about. It was a completely foreign experience to the part of me that had taken over as manager of my system when I was perhaps seventeen. The capable competent one, still following orders, but independent in her own right. Confident of doing things right. This grief was a crack in the armor of that conditioning. It had its own life and it would not follow orders. Could not follow orders. It was the proverbial crack in the damn, the flooding waters that can not be contained.

I remember the square green chair in which I sat crying. Everything was army green, even the furniture. I remember, Mel, our Army physician friend from across the street pleading with me,

“What’s the matter, Janet? What happened? What’s wrong?”  I couldn’t speak. All I knew how to do was cry. I remember looking at him as though I knew a great secret, pleading for help with tears that refused to stop. Grief had entered my house. She broke in, took hold, and never left. And that’s the good news. Because at that time, my only other feeling was fear.

When I wasn’t in tears in that square green chair, I was in terror. Not ordinary fight or flight terror but a terror of eternity. Psychic terror. “For ever and ever, Amen” was looping through my mind taking my fragile fractured consciousness on a ride through timeless time. It was a horrifying loop of terror-filled eternity. “What’s wrong, Janet?” Even I knew that I could not say that that Time was wrong, that I was terrified of eternity. It was better to cry. To be held inarticulate by grief.

I’ve often thought about that moment when grief took me down. From more than forty years later I know the only other options were a life and mind wrapped by the subservience of mind control. Or suicide. Grief was telling me that I was not dead. It was good grief. And within this grief were the seeds of survival, mine yes, but more importantly at the time, my son’s. After about a week of uncontrollable weeping, it was the instinct to protect him that surfaced through the grief. I was realizing that if I was named crazy, they would take him away from me. So I pulled my selves together, drew a curtain around my grief, and got pregnant again to protect myself from the terror. When you are pregnant, it’s hard to roam far from the body. It was outside the body where the timeless terror lay in wait. I need another baby. We needed to be a real family. That will help. That will fix things.

Nine months later, Thomas was born. A day later, he died. Whether or not he really died is another part of my story. A part that surfaced years later when the truth took shape in my memory and circumstances took on a whole new view. But this story is about grief. And when the grief at Thomas’s death took hold, it held the majestic authority of profound and irreparable loss. I had a right to this grief. A right that could not be named crazy. I was entitled to it. It was grief I could feel without fear. Nobody could lock me up for grieving the loss of my son. But unbeknownst to me, this grief held a grace that opened the door of transcendence. I can trace every opening door to survival from the grief of losing Thomas. It was real grief about real loss and out of it grew the seeds of a self that knew it was real. A self that transcended the trauma I had experienced. A self that had survived. And what could this self be, if not transcendent? It transcended torture, medical experimentation, sense deprivation, child pornography and prostitution, ritual trauma and all the assaults of electro-shocks and mind manipulation. It transcended because it was transcendent. And it transcended through grief

This transcendent grief propelled me outside the prison I was in. Mourning my lost son, Thomas, was the beginning of mourning my lost self. A lost self that began to find its way home. My grief propelled me to volunteer at the hospital where the grieving young and injured veterans of Vietnam were struggling to make sense of their world. I could totally relate. When we returned to the west, a year after Thomas died, my grief propelled me to sign up for art classes at a community college where the professor introduced us to the San Francisco Beat poets and their work. Suddenly the language I was unable to speak became writing. I was not allowed to speak as a child. Nobody ever told me I was not allowed to write. So I began to write myself out of bondage. And that early writing, the poems that surfaced onto the page, were all about Thomas. My lost son. In one poem I wrote about how his death gave me life. And this was twenty years before I began to understand what I meant. Those poems chronicled it all and I had no idea what it all was. I was simply mining the heart of grief. Letting it have its say. And it said everything.

So grief unleashes its gifts. And its gifts are sacred. When we know grief as transcendent of our suffering we begin to know our own souls, to recognize our own spirits and to know the self as something other than defiled. This word “defiled” was said to me by a priest to whom I had confided in about my past. I was struggling to find the right word to explain to him how I felt inside—estranged, spiritually disenfranchised, empty, and other words I don’t remember. When he said the word “defiled” it was an “aha” of recognition. It described the inner shadow of shame that prevailed no matter how good I was, no matter how accomplished. Shame came first. Defilement. But defilement is destroyed by grief. Grief is sacred intervention. It goes right to the core of our humanity and breaks through all the ties that bind us to all that is dark and despairing.

I was gifted with grief. And I was gifted by it. Grief became the barometer of how much I was feeling my self in the world. How much I was here. This thing called grief is better than nothing. And I do mean nothing. To not feel, to be in the human family and to feel dead to what it means to be human, is worse than anything that grief throws our way. Because we’ve been thrown out. Our lives discounted before we had words. I know that my defilement was the water in which I swam through much of my life. And when grief surfaced, so did I. And sometimes, for only a split second at a time, I could see the shore. But it was enough to know that it was there. All Hail to Grief and to its full measure in our lives.

And now to the bad news. Inarticulate grief pretty much wrecked every romantic relationship I’ve ever had. And there were quite a few of them. The very grief that woke me up and gave me the courage enter a life outside bondage, to go back to school, to struggle through a difficult divorce, to survive, was quick to take me down when natural attraction raised its inevitable head. Attraction meant wanting. Wanting meant not having. So I mourned the loss of every relationship even before it had a chance to start. This is pretty confusing. Particularly for the potential partner who gets slammed with a wave of unrelenting grief at precisely the moment the opposite should be happening.

I remember going to the opening of the first play I wrote, “Heads and Tails.” It was 1979. My sweetie was with me. He was supportive and loving. I sobbed through the play. I sobbed even harder when it was over. I could not stop sobbing. He was bewildered. There was no bad news. Unbeknownst to him, and to me, that was the trigger to the unrelenting grief. Everything that was happening was taboo. Having a sweetie, writing a play, having a play produced in a respected theatre, my voice on display, throwing its weight around with authority. Wow. Who knew I was defying the very ground of my non-existence. Since birth, I was conditioned not to speak, not to be, not to know. Grief cracked open the path to freedom. It paved the way for me to speak, to be, to know. And it confused everybody. Including me.

This rocky road of relationships littered the landscape of my life for years. It was, in fact, the reason I got myself into therapy. I wanted a successful relationship. I had no idea that that was the least of my problems. It was between Christmas and New Years in 1986 when I realized I needed help. I’d written more plays, had more loves, and inarticulate grief accompanied every breath of connection and accomplishment. There was no getting away from it. Then I bumped into my own sexual passion and all hell broke loose. Displaced grief, bad grief, took on a whole new meaning.

The first year in my therapist’s office was awash in tears. All I did was cry. And I had no idea why. The year of tears was precarious and sometimes I was in his office three times a week (at his emergency rate of $15/hr). Grieving was saving my life again. And it wasn’t about men. Even I could see that. The memories surfaced through grief. “Where are you, Janet?” He would ask. And I would surprise myself with an answer. “What’s happening?” And the answer was a question: “Why isn’t anybody helping me?” In 1986, I had no context for the unfolding of my history. My adult vocabulary did not know ritual abuse, cult abuse, mind control and programming. My child vocabulary did not know rape, isolation, the arts of hatred and evil. It was body memories and agonies that came first. The only language I had was tears. Without them, my speechlessness would be complete.

My therapist was 30 and I was 40 when we started working together. He was early in his career; but he was wise. Years later, I realized that what I trusted about him was his spirit. His presence—waiting, watching and not flinching from the outburst that I was—session after session after session. The grief didn’t stop. He never stopped being there. If there is one thing that I know for sure about healing, it’s that grieving gets you there. And there is no short-cut. For whatever reasons—be they his caution, wisdom, knowledge or stupefaction—he witnessed my grief respectfully and empathetically, without trying to “fix” it; and somewhere inside, after a year of feeling witnessed, I began to trust him. It was over a year into therapy when the memories started to take shape and form and could not be denied. Still he was quiet. Still he witnessed. It was organized abuse, my adult mind started to realize. It was medical. There were doctors and nurses and ambulances with dark windows, and a place I was sent that was neither home nor school, and things being done to someone—to me.  In a desperate search for understanding, I went to the Seattle Public Library. There were no computers back then. I went to the card file and looked up “organized child abuse in England” and met the words “ritual abuse” for the first time. I took them into his office that afternoon. His eyes filled with tears. He took a small post-it note from his appointment book. “Suspect cult abuse with Janet. Should I tell her?” I was the topic of his weekly meeting with colleagues. Bit by bit, over the years, I was able to begin to comprehend my life. To find out why grief was the ground of my being.

Twenty-five years later, I am still in therapeutic relationship with him. But when grief rises now, I know why. I ask who? I invite the grief-stricken parts of me into the warm waterfall pools of healing, to play, to meet their companions, to come in out of the cold. Sometimes it’s the simple adult grief of recognizing all that has been lost. Innocence. Normalcy. The great depths of life on the surface. Lost. The place where love and bonding and family are common nature. Lost. Those things will never be my lot in life. Even when they are. At other times, it is the grief-stricken lost and lonely ones. They have no idea they have a place to belong. And as he says, their restoration to the inner family can happen instantaneously. The wake up from their suspended nightmare into this dream we call life.

When I first started therapy, my therapist was way ahead of me in his understanding of ritual abuse and its impacts on a life. As the years have gone by he has become an expert, not only in the impacts of ritual abuse, but in the inner workings of mind control—and how to free the mind from its destructive loops of conditioning.  His therapeutic techniques changed accordingly. This old dog had to learn a few new tricks. Nameless grief was no longer so accepted. He has, in fact, occasionally mourned the intensity of the grieving that I experienced in those early years of therapy. He says that these days it is seen as re-traumatizing. But I’m not so sure. If grief hadn’t paved my way, I might not have a broken open heart. And if I didn’t have a broken open heart, I couldn’t share in the broken openness of life that is our birthright. Grieving what has been lost in life is a way of honoring life. But there are critical distinctions, and what I learn from him now is how to recognize who inside is grieving and why. How to rescue them but not blend with them. How to get them to safety. How to welcome them home. These techniques have become my new survival kit. I have had to learn that grief has its place but it is not all there is. It is not the ground of my being. It is a flower bed in the garden. It blooms. It sheds. It grows bare. I tend to it carefully.

So if good grief saves our lives, transcendent grief saves our souls, bad grief wrecks our love life, what does ugly grief do? This is the hardest part of grief for me to address. Because it manifests as rage. And there is nothing uglier. My own rage has manifested in epic proportion—whether at a person, a situation, an organization, an institution, or a perceived personal injustice, betrayal or violation. Being unable to rage against the perpetrators in my childhood left me with an endless inarticulate rage. Rage that was born out of inarticulate grief. If I could have grieved and been comforted, rage would not have simmered in my soul just waiting for its chance to explode in self-righteous release. I’ve channeled some of the rage creatively—my book “Battle in Seattle” is a rage against global injustice; my plays took on issues of injustice; my activist life has its seeds in my rage. But it has also taken its terrible toll, particularly on those I love, to whom I am terrified of expressing my grief, of being vulnerable. Rage has been easier. And more deadly.

I worked on this in therapy too. I call it the year of yellow pages. Expressing rage was as difficult for me to get to as grief was easy. But when it came, it was explosive. I’d take a big, fat telephone book complete with yellow pages—remember them? And I’d start swinging it against the brick wall in my therapist’s office. The swing would take on Olympian proportions and I would massacre the yellow pages against that wall. And then collapse into deeper and deeper waves of grief.

There is an important distinction to make here. Rage is not anger. Anger can be healthy and expressed in healthy ways. There is no healthy rage. If it doesn’t take a toll on others, it takes it toll inside. Shame about rage is real shame. Deserved shame. And because I didn’t know how to express anger, my rage was a shock, an aberrant bit of behavior that made people go, “Huh.  That was weird. Where did that come from?” I was scary. Sometimes I still am. And I’ve scared people. And when they would tell me that they were scared, I would get outraged all over again. “Who me, scary? What a joke.”

We don’t always realize the power of what it is that has helped us survive. How warped it can be within the common fabric of “ordinary life.” How scary it can be to others. My social interactions swung between quiet passivity and niceness to inarticulate grief and rage. Very little middle ground, which is where most of the world operates. So I hid out in my writing—which requires solitude and isolation. If I get it out in writing, I don’t have to take it out on everyone else.

It was inner, undifferentiated, appalled and appalling rage that initiated my books, The Battle in Seattle and Day Breaks Over Dharamsala. Any exploitation of power—within home, playground or global politics—presents me with an exploding heart of rage. Transforming this into compassion is an ongoing wrestling match; it wrestles with me and I wrestle with it. The only thing I can do is write it out. Both books were written after the fact, after the unique epiphanies that marked themselves as truth. Day Breaks was started in rage at the loss of innocence that comes with childhood abuse. Battle in Seattle was started in rage at a mainstream media that refused to see the truth and beauty on the streets of WTO Seattle. And in doing so, the media perpetrated the corporate lies and perversions that we are only now beginning to reckon with around the globe through the Occupy Movement—more than 12 years after WTO Seattle, I might add. Rage motivated the books, but the writing could only be done through love, through compassion, and through grief.

So grief is complex. When I looked up its meaning I am told it is Middle English, from Old French, grever, to burden. Grief burdens us with the truth. And the truth encompasses the agony and the ecstasy, the sacred and the defiled, the good, the bad, the ugly and the transcendent. When we honor our grief, when we understand it, accept it, celebrate it, and know it intimately, we know the universe—inside and out.

I see grief as divine intervention. I actually see almost everything as divine intervention in my life because I wasn’t supposed to have a life. And I do. And I have a spiritual life, a practice. It encompasses Buddhism and Christianity, with which I’ve had to struggle to become friends. Defiled Christianity was my childhood. I hated Christianity and when His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked thousands of us, many years ago, at a big gathering in Seattle, why we wanted to be Buddhists, and what was wrong with our own religions, the questions stayed with me until 15 years ago when I met the priest who understood defilement. He invited me to understand that the heart of Christianity was the heart of suffering. So over the years, I made friends with parts of Christianity—the Celtic parts—in which we find Original Blessing and partnership with Nature and the Divine Feminine. I made friends with Jesus one Easter when I did vigil with Mary in our little church on the island where I live. I’d lost a son. I sat with her through the witnessing of the Crucifixion. The agony of a child’s death—in full view—in full measure of cruelty. I can be friends with Mary. I can love the radical, impassioned Jesus. The patriarchy is another story.

In Buddhism, which miraculously entered my life more than 40 years ago, I found first of all, a map to the mind. The philosophy of existence. When I look back I see that nothing could have helped someone who felt no existence more than reading about existence. Buddhism excited my Inner Guides—the Big Boys. They love words like “ontological existence,” “the meaning of emptiness”, “the duality of being and not being.” They are very heady with themselves. Resigned about this earthly struggle. They don’t do dishes.

In Buddhism, I found the Four Noble Truths spoken by the Buddha:
Knowing the Truth of Suffering
Knowing the Cause of Suffering
Knowing the End of Suffering
Knowing the Path Out of Suffering

I’d like to read a brief passage from “IN THE LAP OF THE BUDDHA” by Gavin Harrison. He was born in South Africa, has a Buddhist center in Hawaii, and is a survivor of abuse that started in his infancy. His book reaches beyond the intellectual expertise of so many books about Buddhism. He illuminates, trough his experience, the truth of the Buddha’s words, life is both suffering and the end of suffering. All you have to do is go all the way through suffering.

“The Buddha’s words are not just a dusty prescription for a distant people who have been dead for more than two thousand years. They are fully valid and meaningful today. Basically, he said that if we engage the suffering, understand it, and open to it, we simultaneously unleash the healing powers of our great heart. What seemed onerous and insoluble before becomes workable in our openness to the truth of things. And far from being a gloomy, depressing, and negative process, this opening of the heart is liberating, joyful, and positive. It is the great human adventure. Hermann Hesse wrote:  “You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation, and that is called loving, Well, then, love our suffering, do not resist it, do not flee from it. Give yourself to it. It is only your aversion that hurts, nothing else.

As the heart opens to suffering, compassion flowers and inner conflicts begin to diminish. Events may not be as we would have wished them to be, but as we accept them, we see the beauty of nature shining through what before were regarded as the difficulties of our lives. An open heart is capable of working with any experience without contraction or aversion….”
….We open choicelessly, to what is positive and joyous as much as to the suffering that we find. Meeting each moment without resistance, we discover unexpected beauty in our hearts, minds, and bodies, and in the world around us.”

So Buddhism embraces suffering. Yet at the heart of Buddhism are the words, O Mani Padme Hum. The Jewel at the Heart of the Lotus. The perfect flower has, at its perfect heart, the perfect jewel. And that goes for all of us. In our hearts is the jewel of perfection.

The great paradox of healing is that we have to suffer to get there. And when we do, the healing takes on new dimensions and new suffering. It is a great spiral of suffering that leads to a great spiral of liberation from suffering. Realizing that I would never wake-up one day “recovered” was shattering. But only then was I able to turn to the parts of me that had always been healed. To begin to know my suffering selves as noble, to come out from under the shame. Only when I realized that I would never be “recovered” did I truly begin to recover.  Only when grief found its right place in my life, did it begin to stop running my life.

I’ve given this grief business a lot of thought over the years and this past April I had an “aha” of realization that was critical to my understanding. I was in northern India attending a three-day teaching with a British woman of a certain age—mine I think—who went to India when she was 19, met her Tibetan Buddhist teacher, took vows and began a life of Buddhist study and meditation practice which included 12 years in a cave in the Himalayas. Being in her presence is like being in an endless cave of glittering insights, jewels of knowledge, humor and compassion. She is erudite, humble, loving and she suffers no fools. Somewhere in the midst of those three days I suddenly “got” that grief was good but allegiance to grief was really really, really bad. And that I had shaped a life that was based on allegiance to grief. This was a big and difficult realization. It still is. There are far more useful things to pledge allegiance to, love, for instance; joy, for another instance; even pledging allegiance to the country is more useful than pledging allegiance to grief.

So grief can be good, bad, ugly and transcendent. But it does not deserve our undying allegiance. It does not deserve to come first. Love does. Hope does. Faith does. Our chosen friends and families do. Our creative passions do. Our healing does. Our longing for “normal” does. Our dog does. Our earth does. Our solitude does. All the things that bring light, love and connection deserve our undying allegiance. When grief opens me to these things, I welcome it with wide open arms. When it shapes my world and my responses to my world, I say “no.” I love you grief, but not that much. You have your place, grief, but you are not everything there is. You exist within beauty, within compassion, within love and you are always within reach. But you are not everything there is.

These are complex issues we are all dealing with — the depth, the meanings, the implications, the triumphs and the tragedies of our grief. It is monumental. And we are the monuments to it. Our survival is born out of grief that warrants the most tender respect and witnessing. Grief that needs babysitting. Grief that needs to be sent to its room. And grief that holds the power of humanity in its heart. This grief connects us to the grief of the world, to the grief that is rising out of our ravaged planet and its peoples. When we turn outward with our transcendent grief we have the whole world in our hands.

Our individual suffering begins to lose its power over us when it becomes conscious. Then we spend our lives healing from the trauma and learning from the healing. Our collective challenge on this planet is to become conscious of the suffering—really conscious, on-our-knees conscious, broken-open heart conscious, despairingly conscious, no-looking-back conscious, kick-ass conscious of what is happening to our sacred home, our sacred children and our sacred brothers and sisters everywhere. But our “have-a-nice-day” culture has seeped so destructively into a “buy-a-better-day” mind-set, that real grief and heart-break are perceived as un-cool, inappropriate, tawdry and suspect. Survivors of childhood trauma know about the spiritual intervention that comes with helpless, wailing heartbreak. They know how Love works as it comes out of the hidden places and washes our souls and spirits clean and sparkling, like a new day. And it’s always a new day—there’s the miracle. We are riding on miracles with every breath. When we wake up to the depth of our loss, we wake up to the ecstatic gift of being alive. And there’s the great and holy paradox. When we become kin with our own individual struggle, we are able to feel kinship with the struggles of others, and this collective consciousness begins to ask “why” and “how” did it get this bad. And when we start asking these questions collectively, we find the courage to know the answers and to stop the exploitation of ourselves, and of others.

Plowing through the grief of heartbreak and despair and humiliation brings us face-to-face with our divinity. Who knew? When I think of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and his ability to radiate compassion in the face of annihilating tragedy, I am awed and incredulous. Yet this is the template of our times. We live in a Dark Age, an Age of Abuse and a Culture of Denial. Within this maelstrom of annihilation we are called to rise up in love and compassion for ourselves and for the entire world. What a calling! What a magnificent challenge! What a triumph of the Divine. Anyone working through the life-long after-effects of child abuse knows this wrestling match all too intimately. It is the shape of life. Those who survive to adulthood, who survive to love and be loved, are the unspoken warriors of Divine Light. I believe this with my whole heart. They have won the greatest battle within and their living legacy is Truth. The Truth, no matter how dire and defiling, has set them free. Knowing grief, and all its manifestations, is part of this Truth. And so is entering the deeper heart of shattering compassion and realization. Those in our shared history who do this—His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, and the millions, perhaps billions of survivors of war, famine and abuse who rise in compassion out of their grief, day in and day out, are the brilliant guiding lights of this dark age.

Grief is our connective tissue. It connects us to each other, to those who love us, to our ability to love others, to all our wonderful—and sometimes not so wonderful but wondrously necessary—parts inside, to the world outside our personal doorstep, to the earth, to the universe and to the divine. And most of all, it is the connective tissue to the self, sacred and silent within us.