Could a ‘grief retreat’ help me get over the loss of a loved-one?

June 29, 2021
Anna Pasternak: ‘Anyone who has been through such a loss will understand that time isn’t always the healer you are told it will be’ CREDIT: Jay Williams
Fiona Arrigo and Nici Harrison run the residential retreat CREDIT: Jay Williams

Her mother died nine years ago, but Anna Pasternak says the pain is as raw as it ever was – so she decided to try a residential course

One of the unifying effects of Covid is that we have all felt degrees of grief. As we have grappled with losses of loved ones, jobs and relationships – let alone our former freedoms – grief has become a tangible aftershock to the pandemic. New research by Cardiff University and the University of Bristol has highlighted the distress that people have felt seeking support after the death of a loved one – 51 per cent experienced “severe vulnerability in their grief”. They also reported that those seeking help either faced long waiting lists or were deemed ineligible for grief support.

In his mental health series with Oprah Winfrey, The Me You Can’t See,  Prince Harry spoke of being unable to “process” his mother’s death. He was “in shock” at Princess Diana’s funeral, he said. “Like I was outside of my body”. A few years earlier, he admitted to Bryony Gordon that, after his mother was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, he spent nearly two decades “not thinking” about her death before eventually getting help after a period of “total chaos”. This week, together with his brother, he will unveil the statue of their mother on what would have been her 60th birthday.

Although my mother died nine years ago from a sudden stroke, grief has been my constant dark companion. Anyone who has been through such a loss will understand that time isn’t always the healer you are told it will be. Six months after my mother died, our vicar suggested that I go to a local grief group. After meeting the bereaved woman who ran the group, where I sobbed and railed, she concluded that I was in “too much grief to join the group”. I looked at her, incredulous. Apparently, my grief was “too raw” and “might upset the other members of the group”.

My own giant-sized hole of grief has hardly shrunk since. So I was intrigued then to hear about the idea of a grief retreat. The Grief Space & Arrigo Programme has come out of the pandemic and the recognition that we are grieving on a collective level. Recognising that grief is still a taboo in society, its aim is to support the grieving process. To show us that grief isn’t a failure of personality. A shame I have experienced myself asking myself why aren’t I over my grief? What’s wrong with me?

It is run by psychotherapist Fiona Arrigo, who has spent the last 40 years creating residential therapeutic programmes, and Nici Harrison, founder of online resource the Grief Space. I arrived for my five day stay in a glorious manor house in Somerset and was introduced to my support group made up of eight women aged from our twenties to fifties with a range of careers from a City exec to an NHS care worker.

n the opening session, Fiona stressed that: “There is no hierarchy to grief. Everybody’s grief is relevant.” She warned that, by sharing our stories, we would be “activating and triggering each other to come to deeper layers of our grief”. That was certainly true. Yet as each of us bravely listened to each other’s harrowing stories of death, destruction, loss, betrayal, obliterated hope and abuse, a tender respect emerged between us. The loss of a career dream was treated with as much consideration as a husband who had drowned.

Nici Harrison, whose mother died by suicide after lengthy depression, described her way of approaching sorrow as “grief tending”. Society, she said, has a tendency to want to try and fix grief, to make it better. “But grief cannot be made better. It needs to be seen, acknowledged and witnessed, which is why grief group work is so important.” The antithesis of a stiff upper lip approach, Fiona and Nici are adamant that burying one’s grief is detrimental to wellbeing. “If we do not grieve, it can get stuck in our bodies as disease. Grief is healthy if it is moving. It’s like a river and it needs to flow but with strong boundaries. Problems arise when it becomes frozen and we become numb.”

The daily rhythm of the retreat was a mix of group sharing, where we were encouraged to “speak from the heart not the head”. I found myself spilling personal losses and secrets that I wasn’t aware were weighing on me. We also did breathing exercises and yoga to help dislodge the stress in our bodies. “The mind will not heal without the body,” cautioned Fiona. Coherent breathing, a technique where you breath in for six and out for six for 10 or 20 minutes, helps restore the nervous system, while trauma release exercises, a form of autonomic body shaking to discharge adrenalin and cortisol, were subtly powerful.

According to Julia Samuel, psychotherapist and author of Grief Works, 15 per cent of all psychological difficulties come from unresolved grief. During our retreat, we journaled, rested, shared in a group and spent time alone including having one day of silence. After the overwhelm of this year, this was a godsend. The most empowering message that Fiona and Nici imparted was that deep within grief is the potential to feel more connected to life.

In my bleakest moments of bereavement and missing my mother, I had felt half-dead but I now see how healthy grief could be transformative. The heart’s capacity to love and hold sorrow simultaneously is uplifting. “By rejecting your grief, you are narrowing the bandwidth of your existence,” warned Fiona. “The more we can release tears, the more the joy comes.” Both highly intuitive, Fiona and Nici created a space where we felt safe enough to let go. By the end, I felt more resilient to loss. My constant fear of my father dying and re-triggering my extreme grief over my mother’s death now feels manageable.

This retreat is expensive at £1,800 but this is five star grief rehab. It felt like a decade of therapy in five days, but the alchemical shift was tangible. As Oscar Wilde said: “Where there is sorrow, there is Holy ground.” Grief tending connected me to the deepest part of myself. We need to find more ways to express grief in our society as only then can we accommodate heartbreak and loss so that our trauma does not define us.