Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being;
it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.
When someone we love dies and we feel suffering, it does not mean that something is
wrong. Going into the wilderness of the soul with another human being is anchored in
walking with them through spiritual distress without thinking we have to have them
attain “resolution” or “recovery.”
Being in the wilderness relates to being in a liminal space. “Limina” is the Latin
word for threshold, the space betwixt and between. Liminal space is that spiritual
place where most people hate to be, but where the experience of grief leads them.
This is often where the griever’s worldview-the set of beliefs about how the world
functions and what place they as individuals occupy therein-comes into question.
Putting one’s shattered worldview back together paradoxically requires companions
that do not think their helping role is to fix or give answers or explanations.
There is no technique, no formula, no prescription for the wilderness experience.
A critical part of being present to someone in the wilderness of the soul is to
be open to states of not knowing the outcome or trying to force the outcome. Most
North Americans have trouble trusting in this process and feel an instinctive need
to get the mourner out of the wilderness, or, at the very least, to try to move them
to the left or the right. We have become a people who demand answers, explanations
and expect fast and efficient resolutions.
The Ambiguity of Loss
We don’t like pain, sadness, anxiety, ambiguity, loss of control-all normal symptoms
of the wilderness of grief. We want to experience light before we encounter darkness.
If we as caregivers cannot be still in the presence of these care-eliciting symptoms,
we will be tempted to explain or treat them away. After all, we falsely think that any
explanation is better than being in liminal space. A sense of control is better than
the terrible “cloud of unknowing.” Yet, the opposite of control is actually participation-in
this context, participation in the work of mourning while one is “under reconstruction.”
The challenge for many caregivers is to stay on the threshold of the wilderness without
consciously or unconsciously demanding or projecting a desire for resolution. In other
words, there is a tendency to be attached to outcome, not open to outcome. Obviously,
the instinct to move the mourner away from pain and suffering is rooted in the desire
to stay distant from one’s own pain.
Sadly, many people, caregivers and lay public alike, have come to regard grief as
an enemy. Brokenness is not something we choose to invite in. Instead of honoring the
wise words of Joseph Addison, who once said “I will indulge my sorrows, and give way
to all the pangs and fury of despair,” our contemporary mantra seems to be more aligned
with the words of the Bobby McFerrin song: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”
The No Place That Is Grief
In contrast, ancient cultures seemed to understand the value of being in the wilderness
as a part of any kind of major transition in life’s journey. They often invited themselves
into the wilderness through experiences such as spending 40 days in the desert, climbing
to the mountaintops, and taking solo journeys into the ocean. Whatever the underlying set
of beliefs, to get where he was eventually going the journeyer first had to experience going
to nowhere, to release himself from who and what he had been. In the “no place” of the
wilderness he could begin building a new person and place again.
This resonates with my experience of companioning people in life transitions. It seems
we cannot integrate loss into our lives until we embrace the fear and sometimes raw terror
of going to this “no place” wilderness and descending into it on our way through it. Then
and only then do we begin to notice that something begins to slowly shift as we open our
hearts to the pain of grief.
Of course, there are powerful forces that invite mourners to do otherwise. We are told
to “keep busy,” “carry on” and “find someone to meet.” Following these mourning-avoidant
scripts, the griever may try to retrace her steps back to a time or place that feels familiar,
a place to find one’s “old self”-but that old self is gone forever. Now, being temporarily
lost in the wilderness of grief is that familiar place. Slowly, over time and with gentle
companions, the mourner can search for renewed meaning and discover a new self.
But through this time of turmoil, the discomfort and mystery of being in the wilderness
is meant to be. In reality, it is actually a kind of “purification phase”-it is just one
phase of the journey that will very slowly change into something else. The important thing
is to learn to honor and respect this process and to lean into it despite the instinct to
No, it is not comfortable to be betwixt and between-to be helpless, out of control,
depressed, anxious, and to not know. Again, if we look to other cultures we discover that
in parts of Africa, a person who is in a place of not knowing is considered to be in a place
of “walking the land of gray clouds.” During times of uncertainty and not knowing, it is
considered inappropriate, even foolish, to take action. In fact, it is considered an act of
wisdom to wait and trust the process. The opposite of trusting the process is trying to
control the uncontrollable-obviously an impossible task when it involves experiences of grief
Detachment and Grief
Central to not being attached to outcome is the concept of detachment. The majority of
Westerners think of “detachment” as a lack of warmth and caring. Yet, linguistically, the
word detachment is often defined as “the capacity to come deeply from an objective place.”
Considered from this perspective, detachment can be seen as not trying to control what you
can’t control. In part, it is “going with the symptom.” It is observing what the soul is
teaching about the depth of feeling and not trying to change it. You stay present to what
is without thinking you need to change it or take it away. You observe the soul; you don’t
mask or try to do away with symptoms of soul work. All this time, you stay patient and
recognize that going through grief is more necessary than going around it or moving beyond it.
When you are detached, you are still very much present to the deep soul work that is
taking place. This is about not getting pulled in to feeling responsible for taking away
the pain of the loss. Actually, you care deeply in a way that allows you to be totally
present to what is there rather than what you wish was there. You could consider this a
homeopathic response of going with what is presented as opposed to against it. You are
open to outcome, not attached to outcome! Or, as the Zen statement observes in a lovely
way, “Spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself.” The companion is able to acknowledge
that less effort is sometimes better.
New Models of Grief Care
This orientation to caring is in contrast to modern psychological approaches that tend
toward a more rational and logical understanding of matters of the heart. Modern psychology
invites people to identify a problem and fix it. “Managed care” is just that-managed care.
Very few models exist wherein we see the value of soul and symptoms of distress that need to
be reflected on, observed, and respected.
We need soul-based models of caring that demonstrate the sensitivity of the heart. We
need models that allow mourners to stay open to the mystery as they encounter the wilderness
of their grief. We need models that respect that we don’t have to understand and control
everything that surrounds us. In fact, perhaps it is in “standing under” the mysterious
experience of death that provides us with a unique perspective. We are not above or bigger
than death. Maybe only after discovering the liminal space of the wilderness, in which we
do not “understand,” can we patiently discover renewed meaning and purpose in our continued
Surrendering To Grief
In my experience, “understanding” comes when we as companions help the grievers surrender:
surrender any need to compare their grief (it’s not a competition); surrender any self-critical
judgments (self-compassion is a critical ingredient to integrating loss into life); and
surrender any need to completely understand (we never do because mystery is something to
be pondered, not explained).
The grief that touches our souls has its own voice and should not be compromised by a need
for comparison, judgment, or even complete understanding. Actually, surrendering to the
unknowable wilderness of grief is a courageous choice, an act of faith, a trust in God and
in oneself. The grieving person can only hold this mystery in her heart and surround herself
with compassionate, non-judgmental companions. My hope is that that is YOU-the reader of
For transformation of grief to unfold, you have to surrender to the experience. Trying to
stay in control by denying, inhibiting or converting grief can result in what Kierkegaard
termed “unconscious despair.” Doing the soul work of grief demands going into and through
suffering and integrating it in ways that help unite you with your fellow strugglers and
the greater community of people.
John Keats observed in Shakespeare what he called a “negative capability”â€¦ “the capacity
to be in mystery and doubt without any irritable searching after fact and reason.” I have
discovered that one way to survive the wilderness experience is to remember that you are
doing the hard work of mourning even when you may seem to be doing nothing. And even when
the mourner feels like he is making the slowest of progress and edging out of the deep
wilderness, there will be times when he will feel like he is backtracking and being ravaged
by the forces around him. This, too, is the nature of grief. Complete mastery of a wilderness
experience is not possible. Just as we cannot control the winds and storms and the beasts
in nature, we can never have total dominion over our grief. However, as the griever experiences
the wilderness, he both needs and deserves caring companions along the way.