Let’s talk about Death…(and grief)

I’d like to talk about death, and the effects of grief.

It may seem unrelated to permaculture, in some ways, but when I am involved in permaculture training sessions, talking with transition workers, or my participation at the more recent workshops I attended facilitated by Charles Eisenstein the subject of death, grief and loss keeps coming up.

Let’s face it we are going through a grieving process, all that we had known and felt safe in is falling apart, added to by the daily news of the destruction our planet. All of this comes around to a death, of sorts.

Which is also short for a new beginning, a new way and a period of transition and loss. Charles Eisenstein calls it a space between stories. A birthing process. We are dealing with loss on a regular basis. Loss of identity as individuals (the ego), cultures, planet stability and our natural resources.

How we are as individuals is a reflection of how the planet is holding up. We are fractured, grieving, in pain and struggling to imagine a better and more beautiful world. It’s hard to have hope in times of despair.

So let’s talk about death. This is sometimes a taboo subject, but once you have faced it personally (through near death experience) or through losing someone close to you whom you have loved, or if you are someone who is affected by the daily pain we feel when we hear of the destruction to the planet, then you have probably faced the fear and got some of the emotions out on the table.

I’m no expert on death, or grief. I haven’t had a near death experience but I have lost several people who are very close to me.

My brother died when he was fifteen. I was twenty eight. What followed was a period of devastation, shock, pain, unreality, confusion, broken hearts, impotence, fear and sometimes there were glimmers of light, grace or clarity. It was the worst time in my life, my family were devastated and raw, on every level. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost someone close to me (my grandparents had died when I was a teenager) but it was the first time I’d lost someone who was so young and vibrant, so full of life, with so many potential experiences still to live and give. It seemed unfair, random and cruel.

In the last few years I have lost two very close friends, soul mates, who were fourty six and fourty seven respectively. Each time I am faced with grief and loss something new is born in me, as well as something lost.

Our civilization is still relatively young, vibrant, so full of life, with so many experiences still to be lived and an abundance of love still to give. It seems unfair, almost random and cruel when we think of how things are at this present moment in history.

People talk about grief in stages as if it can be categorised and gone through effortlessly and prescriptively. I think this is bollocks. Grief is turbulent, erratic, unpredictable, scary, sometimes torturous, surreal, raw, intense and it erupts when you least expect it. There is no rhyme or reason when you are grieving. Moments of despair can creep up on you when you are in the midst of something seemingly unrelated. And moments of clarity, light and love shine like beacons in the midst of chaos. Holding on to those moments and insights is a challenge.

The biggest cliche around grief and death is that Time Heals. In my experience time isn’t the healer and in fact can be torturous.

What heals is LOVE

Love unconditionally; in all your moments of rage, tears, rawness, hysterics, confusion and vulnerability. Only LOVE can heal us, in my humble opinion. Without LOVE we are up shit creek without a paddle. Steering a boat we didn’t chose to be on, navigating the wild waves and oncoming traffic, on a journey we’d have preferred not to have been given a ticket for.

LOVE heals. But that doesn’t mean we can just easily rise above the pain and move on as if nothing has happened. we need to face our pain, live it, express it and be held in that pain, lovingly.

I do believe that we continue, and so as such there is no death. I also believe that we are always connected and that we are all one. I believe in the healing power of love, but sometimes we just have to grieve. Knowing that we go on (or believing that)is a different matter than missing someone’s physical presence, the relationship and bond you had with the person, the loneliness, the fractured family. That knowing can help, but there is a time for acknowledging brokenness and our deep sense of fragility.

Death hurts. Loss is painful. Confusion causes instability and fear.

Let’s talk about death.

I read every book I could on grief. Most of them left me cold and like a failure. If I wasn’t going through the stages or the process correctly I felt like I couldn’t even grieve properly. Which only added to my distress at times. I went to counselors, therapists, any one I thought could heal me or mend me. This also added to my pain, talking about and intellectualising pain and grief, while someone practices empathy is a whole other ball game

Talking works and helps us to express our emotions, but usually it works best when we are talking with someone who can identify with our pain, in a real and raw sense. I never found that with any counselor. My experiences were of cliched answers and a jolly pat on the back telling me that time would heal me.

Time will allow all sorts of feelings, reactions, realisations, understandings, insights and pain to show up, but it will not heal. Time by itself and of itself is an illusion and can be torture. But time passing with real love and strong relationships, with those who matter and who allow you to communicate with honesty about your feelings, has a powerful healing effect.

I’d like to write about my experience of grief, through the lens of some of David Holmgrens’ permaculture principles.

Observe and Interact

This for me was essential. Observing my own emotions, being sensitive to them. Closely monitoring what triggered pain, what helped me, who helped me (in how they listened to me) and being in touch with my grief. It was important for me to observe all the nuances, the patterns, the rhythms and interact fully with them. If I put off interacting with my feelings they just emerged even more prominently later, sometimes in situations where I didn’t feel supported or able to express myself.

Observing others and gauging when someone was about to say something glib and flippant, so I could get myself out of the situation (I was too sensitive to be strong in the face of glibness)

Observing the world around me – keeping on turning and going about it it’s business like nothing major had happened (this is painful and unreal)and also observing and interacting with people who could support me, who had felt grief and loss and who could hold me lovingly.

Catch & store energy

If you ever need to catch and store energy it is in the moment of grief and loss. Grief drains you, causes you to lose sleep, sometimes you forget to feed yourself, it leads you to feel less sociable and so more isolated. I was like a cat when I was grieving (still am to some extent) I slept when I needed to, I stopped when I felt I couldn’t go on, I recharged my batteries by going for long walks, being in silence, allowing others to touch me.

I caught all the moments of light and love and stored them in a safe spot in my heart for when the darkness descended.

Obtain a yield

Ah, this is a difficult one, but none the less, even if it is hard to see it or feel it, there are many yields to be had from experiencing grief. For a start you really find out who your real friends are, the ones who will sit with you in silence, honour your pain, bring you pots of soup, hold your hand when you are a blubbering mess. Hold on to those friends, if they can support you in grief they will offer you many yields for years to come.

Death creates a birth of a new way of seeing and experiencing the world. It brings us closer to the essence of what life is about, it splits us open, leaves scars, but something inside you grows from the wreckage.I find my openness to discuss death and sit with people in pain has been a gift (yield) I’m not scared of it anymore but I can share it and feel it for others.

Apply self-regulation & accept feedback

I needed to apply a lot of self-regulation in terms of my rage & my cyniscm. I wanted to project my fear, anger and impotence out and onto others. It took me a huge amount of self-regulation at times not to criticize others for what I felt was their lack of sensitivity. The very thing I was judging others for (insensitivity, lack of openness, the ‘not getting it’) was what I had to protect myself from, and acknowledge that I was contributing to.

My good friends gave me lovely feedback and I was able to listen to them (most of the time) My isolation caused me to feel alone, separate and vulnerable which had a tendency to express itself in ways which left others feeling the same. I was angry. Anger creates more anger. I needed to accept feedback that this anger wouldn’t help me.

Integrate rather than segregate

For me it was really important to integrate rather than segregate my feelings. If not we can compartmentalise areas of our life, split off the emotions from the thoughts. Grief for me brought up moments of listening to my head, my heart and my hands. Grief felt better being integrated into my very being, touching me at the deepest level. Grief for me was something that needed to be lived with and nurtured in a holistic way. If I couldn’t integrate my own pain, I would forever be projecting it out, and on to others.

Peer support is also something which I found nourishing. If not we can end up more separated, and lonely, again causing a mirror image in how others will treat us.

Integrating the anger and letting it come through me was healing. If I tried to segregate any part of my feelings, reactions and responses then I felt I was denying them expression, and if I denied that expression in myself I was probably denying it ‘outside’

Use small and slow solutions

This is so important when we are grieving and in pain. Every small step seems monumentous, getting through ‘firsts’ of everything; Birthdays, anniversaries, visiting a place which holds meaning to you. For me the biggest steps were the smallest actions. Every small action, word and step I took towards love healed me in ways I’d never imagined.

Slow solutions, slow walks, slow time, slow motion, slow conversations, slow food, slow days and slow love helped me immensely. Whenever I put pressure on myself to go fast, to miss something out, to not acknowledge my feelings then I felt I went backward. Slow and steady create huge and life changing experiences.

Use and value edges and the marginal

When something in our lives cause us huge amounts of pain, loneliness and fear, we often feel ‘on the edge’ I walked the tightrope, peering over the edge and into the abyss several times. Not wanting to create more suffering for my family held me from causing myself harm. It was valuable to go to the edge, it was painful, but through the pain so much liberation and freedom showed up.

Feeling sensitive and in pain can make us feel we are on the margins of life, when others seem to be going about their business as if nothing has happened. We never really know what is going on with other people, being in the margins you find so many other people who are there already. Feeling marginalised makes us stronger, more insightful, hopefully more empathetic and free from the constraints of feeling compartmentalised. That is a joy.

Use and value diversity

I spoke to anyone I could who was prepared to listen to me and allow me to express my grief. I wanted to discuss death, our mortality, life, our journey and I was prepared to do that with anyone who was brave enough to be there to talk about it. I valued the diversity of the bonds and relationships I made through my grief.

Creatively use and respond to change

When I felt at my most vulnerable, angry, despairing and lost it was hard to creatively use and respond to change, but I found this process happened naturally and organically. It happened like that because I didn’t repress feelings, I didn’t tip toe around grief, I sought out people who could hold my grief and I lived with it. I had to become creative if I didn’t want to become a victim. I had to respond to change because everything had changed and to deny that would have been futile. I moved in to the grief to creatively allow myself to come through it.

Death, ultimately is about life, you can’t have one without the other. And just as life can be messy, painful,chaotic, wild and joyous so can death.

I’d like to talk about death. I think it’s healthy. I think when we embrace death and destruction we can move into more life.

Recently I decided to allow my ‘angry activist’ to die a death. I was literally sick of being angry, being defensive, raising my voice in dissent, creating defensiveness in others and adding to the problem I was supposedly trying to fix!! But that doesn’t mean I will allow the birth of someone with blinkers on, who thinks the world is all rosy. I hope to integrate the death and destruction into my being, as it is part of me, and I am part of it.


I plan to compile a book of people’s experiences of death, a real account, all the nitty-gritty, intimate details of death. I think such a book would help us on our journey to heal the grief on our planet. If you are interested in contributing and sharing your experiences then please get in touch with me via the contact box below.

Tracey Hay
Jan 2014