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Processing my Daughter's Death

by Richard Dawson

by Richard Dawson

In recent months I have been introduced to the activity of Focusing. This has been a gift for me, for I have been wanting help in relation to coming to terms with the death of my nineteen-year-old daughter Fyfa, on 30 October 2019. She was flattened by a concrete truck while doing what she loved, namely, cycling. This article, giving attention to Focusing, is written primarily for the purpose of processing Fyfa’s death. I hope this processing can be put to good use in, among other places, a restorative justice conference.

Some months after Fyfa’s death, a friend mentioned her and asked me, “How do you feel?” From memory, that was the first time someone had asked me that or a similar question, and I had little idea how to answer, and I felt at a loss and a bit inadequate, unable to respond to a simple question. (I did feel moved that he cared.) I had felt flickering moments of grief, and a lot of blank nothingness. Currently (I write this paragraph in Oct. 2021), part of me wonders if 'I’ (another part) am heartless and unfeeling. Part of me knows this is not true, but is surely wounded by that other part. (A wound upon the other wound of Fyfa’s death.) I would love to know how to prod a valuable inner conversation. Part of me suspects another part is afraid of being overwhelmed by the reality of Fyfa's death. I hope that by doing Focusing a sequence of questions will emerge that can start my many selves off on a healing process. I wrote to Focusing teacher and guide Ann Weiser Cornell, telling her that situation as I have just told it, asking her for a “tip”, in the form of a sequence of questions. She wrote back and expressed, among other feelings, concern that given that the “horrific” event happened “just two years ago”, “I suspect you are still in shock.” This possibility had not occurred to me. I was reassured when she said, “I don’t think there is any reason to doubt that you are already on a healing journey.” Phew! A sigh of relief emerged. Ann then said this: “I suspect that in you somewhere there is a very wounded animal crawled into a cave.” This metaphor struck a chord within. I’m not sure “where”. I would need to check this out, tuning in to the “felt sense”. Ann went on to say:

This is not just about what to do, it is about the self-love and self-compassion with which to do it. But perhaps just hearing the metaphor of the wounded animal in the cave has already started a process of trust in your body’s wisdom.

The word “trust” struck another chord within. It felt reassuring. When I reread the message later, I wondered if I lacked the qualities of “self-love” and “self-compassion” worthy of the names. What did these terms mean? The word “com-passion” at a dictionary level means “to endure” something with another person, to put ourselves inside the skin of another, to feel their pain as if it were our own. This makes “self-compassion” … well, um, … fascinating. How does one become more self-compassionate? Some kind of self-listening will be central here.

Just before I contacted Ann, I contacted a Focusing guide, Rachel Hendron. I talked about my feeling of blankness, or my lack of apparent grieving, and my desire to know more about it. We started to talk about the word “curiosity” in relation to the blankness that I have felt. I sensed that the word needed some richness. I said that the present curiosity was an assertive character. The blank part of me was intimidated by this assertiveness. Rachel tried out the word “bossy”, and yes, this seemed to fit. “Aha!” This “bossy curiosity” sits in contrast to a “gentle and wise curiosity” (another “Aha!”), which had a large part in the writing of my book Justice as Attunement. While it might seem good to be interested in the blankness, it would be important not to be “in its face” (Rachel’s fitting words again). Yes! The Blank needs to trust the gentle curiosity -- and it does not trust it yet. An image emerged of the “bossy curiosity”: he is an interrogating self (like an aggressive lawyer), who is wanting to “bash the door down” (Rachel’s fitting words).

I asked: Might I do well to say hello to Blank? Is saying hello going to scare off Blank? Which self within me has asked those last two questions? I can feel my wise, gentle and curious self at work and play. Part of me feels that Blank is just as good as anyone else within me, and is worthy of being heard. Blank is necessary to help my feelings emerge. I had a good sigh of relief in saying those good things about Blank. Part of me suspects that Blank feels noticed or heard. That same part senses that some self-attunement is happening, in the form of harmonizing. Wow!! I have tears welling up in me. I am excited!!

I could tell I am on to something good with this Focusing. Talking with Rachel was like being caught up in a very powerful dream. There were many “Aha!” moments. She had listened to me so well, sometimes finding the right words.

While reading Ann’s The Power of Focusing (1996), I found myself rereading James Boyd White’s book The Gospel as Conversation (2013), which is described in the Foreword as “an exercise in the participatory imagination, placing us in the utterly human context of people who met Jesus, the utterly human context that is the crucible of spiritual transformation.” I was particularly drawn to a passage in a sermon on the death (and resurrection) of Jesus that mentioned how the disciples “grieved brokenheartedly” for him. The words “grieved brokenheartedly” struck a big chord within me. I said a resounding “YES!”: those words fit me in connection to my feelings for Fyfa’s death. “I am not heartless but brokenhearted!” During some more Focusing, these questions arose: What does it feel like to be brokenhearted like the disciples? And what is the feeling for me now? I got an image of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11. The planes entering those towers resemble the news of Fyfa’s death. I believe I received a huge shock/trauma but was not conscious of the shock/trauma. I can imagine future Focusing dealing with that shock/trauma.

I took the image of “brokenhearted” to another session with Focusing guide Rachel. We talked about the image of the Twin Towers. I began to feel my whole body trembling. I imagined what it was like in the lower floors when the planes struck: an earthquake. I connected this to hearing the news of Fyfa’s death. I was dazed and confused. Rachel suggested that grief sometimes does not know time, and it can wait until we are ready. My body trembling in the present time was part of the shock I experienced from the news of her death. Rachel mentioned that the trembling could come in waves, and it makes sense to be scared of them if they are big. I recalled the Christchurch earthquakes and how I enjoyed the smaller shakes that caused no physical harm -- it felt like being attuned to nature. Some tremors were, um … joyful! I began trembling again, and this felt joyful. The session itself was starting off joyfully. Rachel wondered if with Focusing we were going to some dark places with a light, and with lightness. YES! Rachel wondered if the source of the trembling was my heart, the heartbroken heart. YES! I breathed a sigh of relief! Part of me sensed that the heart was relieved that it had been heard by “me”. Rachel wondered how the rest of my body was feeling. I could feel an ease in the tension in my shoulders and stomach and neck. I felt, …. Calmer. Yes! Rachel asked what this calm was like for me. Like the feeling during a good massage! I said to Rachel that our conversation was like a massage, without physical touch. But her words and gentle questions were touching me, my heartbroken being. The words were healing words. This session and several after it felt like healing processes.

I can now sense that my brokenheartedness -- my dis-integration -- calls for self-love and self-compassion, as Ann suggested in her email. If the various selves within can all be heard at different points of time, then there may be hope of an harmonic self-attunement, in which we learn to draw out and love our many selves. We might do well to try to internalize “gentle attention” with the hope of coming to learn to draw out and love our many selves.

For me, the activity of Focusing offers an experience of a wholehearted love that I had not known before. Oh, how I wish and wish and wish I could have a chance to offer Fyfa the experience of this kind of wholehearted love. I can hear Fyfa now: “Shit happens, Dad!” She so kindly said those words to me when I was blaming myself -- beating myself up -- for the painful breakup between myself and her mother. I will do well to internalise Fyfa’s kindness.

Meanwhile, I have some pressing questions. How am I to respond to the construction company, Downer and McConnell Dowell, responsible for inadequate safety measures in place at the construction site where Fyfa died? How do I feel now? It is time for more Focusing! I have not thought much about my feelings towards the company, and I imagine this is because I have been in a kind of shock since the death. If I start to attune to what my brokenheartedness means, might I become angry -- an overwhelming anger?

I am anticipating meeting company officials at a restorative justice conference. I imagine that this could possibly be a healing process. Here I am reminded of the remarkable story of Emma Woods, who met with the person responsible for her four-year-old son’s death (Sunday Star, Nov. 7, 2010). She took to heart the view that, among other matters, anyone could make “a foolish or careless mistake that could have had potentially devastating consequences.” And she met (in a restorative justice setting) the person (and his family) concerned in her case in order to “get first-hand experience” of them. The outcome was deeply moving. This gave a rich meaning to the end of young Nayan’s life. (For a discussion of the Woods case in a wonderful book on restorative justice, see the final chapter in Christopher D. Marshall’s, Compassionate Justice (2012).) Having been a facilitator in restorative justice meetings for several years, I have witnessed the potential richness and fruit of such meetings. Let me quote from the final paragraph of Marshall’s book:

Restorative justice is not, strictly speaking, a doctrine of forgiveness, since forgiveness is a voluntary affair of the heart, not a predetermined facet of a formalized process. But by placing the healing of hurts, the renewal of relationships, and the re-creation of community at the center of its agenda, restorative justice paves the way for forgiveness to occur. And when, by grace, it does occur, the ship of justice reaches homeport.

I hope that, with “grace”, justice worthy of the name can be done in Fyfa’s case, and give rich meaning to the end of her life.