I was a week away from my due date. I was enormous and uncomfortable as I stood barefoot on the deserted beach. I had survived the past year. Barely. Grief and sadness swirled in me like aurora borealis. Birth demands hope. You have to be an optimist to bring new life into the world.
As I scanned the horizon, my heart heavier than the heft of my unborn son, a whale leapt out of the water, twisted in an air-dance before it disappeared again. I gasped. I have seen many whales breach, but none so completely.
It launched again. And again. Each time, my gasps turned to whoops, and then to laughter. I looked around as people do in the presence of large sea creatures, to say, ‘Check out that crazy backflipping whale!’ but I was alone on that beach, the only witness.
Eighteen years have passed, but the magic of that moment remains unabbreviated in my psyche.
When that whale soared in defiance of gravity, I swear, I felt chosen: to be the eye that sees the tree fall in the forest, so that it can be said, ‘it made a sound.’
Sometimes when we’re unravelling, all it takes is an instant like this to rewire us and bring us back. It’s not every day that we’ll find ourselves the only onlooker to an uncommon sighting in Nature such as this. But there is an equivalent witnessing process we can each draw on whenever we need it. And it happens through writing.
When we put words on the page, two mystical processes are activated. Firstly, we take up our position, no longer as a victim of our lives, but as an attentive survivor. It requires of us new and brave eyes because if no-one else has seen our grief we may have begun to ‘unsee’ it too. When asked ‘how are you?” we may have taught ourselves to say, ‘I’m fine, really,’ and ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ We may have become sanitation experts of our experiences, with easy, manicured responses to some of our most profound suffering.
There is danger in this wilful un-witnessing. In his beautiful book The Smell of Rain on Dust, Martin Prechtel writes, ‘It is a terrible source of grief not to be able to grieve.’ When we do not tend to ourselves in this deeply present manner, we tolerate illness, loneliness and invisibility. It’s exhausting not to feel the truth of our experiences.
Writing reverses all that. When we write, we volunteer to be the eye that sees. Heartache and loss – which perhaps has felt unshareable – is reshaped. And I would go so far as to say that even if no-one ever reads our words, we have by our own action declared, ‘My life is worth bearing witness to.’ That alone, is deeply healing.
Author, writing mentor, retreat leader. I’m an internationally bestselling author of nine books, inspirational speaker and writing mentor. I’ve had books published in just about every genre- fiction, non-fiction, self-help, memoir – by some of the top publishing houses in the world. My books have sold over 650 000 copies and have been translated in a range of languages. Two of my books have been #1 Amazon bestsellers, and at one point the German edition of Secret Mothers’ Business outsold Harry Potter- crazy, right?
Secondly, in writing, we summon our own hidden wildlife – it’s always there, just beneath the surface, the way the whales exist in the ocean long before we catch them playing in full sight. As we stitch language to emotion, we invite meaningful, creative conversations with ourselves about what it means to be alive. I believe this is what Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist meant when he said, ‘You have to learn to recognize your own depth.’
We may even fall back in love with ourselves when we receive – as we always do – a sign (the emotional equivalent of a breaching whale) that something powerful and beyond imagination survives within us. I have seen many people come back from the dead through their writing.
So how do we create an environment for this witnessing to flourish?
Martin Prechtel suggests we go down to the ocean to grieve, but never alone. Always with a ‘designated non-griever.’ Someone who ‘knows how to listen’ and who will not try to ‘cure you.’ The role of this person is to witness your grief, and to make sure you don’t drown. Someone to keep you safe, but not restrained.
As a writing mentor, I have started to think of myself as the equivalent of a ‘designated non-griever,’ someone who can remain compassionate and unflinching as people explore the desolations and wounds that have made them who they are.
The Shona tribe of Zimbabwe respond to the greeting ‘Are you well?’ with, ‘I am well if you are well.’
These words are my invitation to anyone who wants to awaken through their writing. It’s been my dream to create an online community where people who have until now, felt alone in their suffering, can feel like they belong.
We have a shared responsibility to bear witness to one another’s grief, lest, as Cheryl Strayed reminds us, ‘the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live – well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.’
Storytelling is how we share this load with others and as a culture, carry one another forward. In telling our stories we put a call out in the universe, ‘Is anyone there?’ When our story touches another, who calls back, ‘I am here, if you are here,’ it’s as if for a brief moment a whale dances and hope leaps back at us, wildly and unjustifiably.
And we remember who we are and why we are here.