Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon, I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the Sounds True Foundation. The goal of the Sounds True Foundation is to provide access and eliminate financial barriers to transformational education and resources, such as teachings and trainings on mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion. If you’d like to learn more and join with us in our efforts, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, my guest is Dr. Sherry Walling. Sherry is a clinical psychologist, a speaker, a podcaster, a yoga teacher, and an entrepreneur. Her life’s work is helping high-achieving people navigate painful and complex experiences. Her podcast, ZenFounder has been called a “must listen” by both Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines, and it’s been downloaded more than a million times. With Sounds True, Dr. Sherry Walling is the author of a new book. It’s called Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss. As someone who doesn’t always know how to turn to and process grief, sorrow, and loss in a deep and full way, I find Sherry to be such a helpful guide—someone who has been in this territory and has brought back jewels and wisdom for all of us. Here’s my conversation about how to go all the way into grief to find where it lands with love, with Sherry Walling.
Sherry, I’m moved by your new book, Touching Two Worlds, in which you share yourself quite vulnerably—what’s happening in your life as you’re writing the book. And by way of introduction, can you share with our listeners the events happening in your life that led up to the writing of Touching Two Worlds?
Sherry Walling: I began writing the week that my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and it became clear that it was the kind of cancer that would probably end his life. And I was writing over this two-year period, and I didn’t really write it to become a book, Tami. I was writing because I was waking up in the middle of the night and didn’t have anything to do. And I was writing when I was getting on airplanes, and I was writing when my soul needed some expression, because I was watching my father die. And then in parallel, right at the same time, my brother, who at the time was in his early 30s, really did a deep dive into his experience of depression and addiction to alcohol, and we ended up losing him a few months after we lost my dad. We lost him to suicide.
So in this couple year period, these people I loved are unraveling and all I can think of is to write. I didn’t intend it to become a book, but I wrote so much and I found myself sending little essays to people, little paragraphs, little snippets to my consulting clients, to my therapy clients, to my friends, to people in my life who were experiencing grief. And as I was doing that, I observed, like, I want to share these thoughts. I want to share these experiences. So eventually, all that writing turned into this book and turned into Touching Two Worlds.
TS: And tell me more about this notion of touching two worlds, what you mean by that.
SW: I found myself often going back and forth between deep sorrow—between getting really close to death, between the shadowy sadness of what I was experiencing—and then on the other end of the spectrum, really noticing deep joy, relishing in the excitement of watching my children grow, in my own ambition, in my own creativity, in the parts of my life that felt so very alive. So the touching two worlds idea is how to navigate back and forth between the duality that exists on the opposite spectrums of our lives.
TS: I wanted to ask you about that. And of course, we’re going to go into quite a bit more depth about grief and the loss of both your father and your brother. But before we do, I think a lot of people, and I’ll speak for myself, I know I feel this strange being in two worlds at this time in America’s history, where there’s so much loss and grief and violence. And then in my personal life, I’m actually having a lot of personal breakthroughs and inner bliss. And I’m like, these things are happening, it feels almost like in the same seconds. It’s not even like a good day/bad day. It’s like living in different worlds simultaneously. And I know you’re a clinical psychologist, so here I am tapping you on the shoulder to help us understand what it’s like to have these different experiences happening at once, seemingly at once.
SW: Seemingly at once. It’s almost my training in theology and my immersion in spirituality that might be more helpful. But have you noticed that a lot of the most recently released movies are about the metaverse, are about this sense of existing in parallel realities at once? Because I think what you’re describing is something that’s on the consciousness of a lot of people. There’s this sense of: How is it possible that we’re living in a state with so much grief and destruction? And then also that there’s a tremendous amount of gratitude that most people are also dwelling in, in a post-pandemic kind of phase where there’s a renewed sense of what it feels like to be alive and gratitude around that. We like it to be one thing. We like it to be a category. Our brains seek the simplicity of one label. And so the complicated nature of what it means to experience two emotions simultaneously is a little bit difficult on our system. But I think is a more honest appraisal of what it feels like to live in our life, to be in two states at once, two emotions at once.
TS: Now, you mentioned writing Touching Two Worlds while you were on airplanes and while you were sorting through your own grieving process. And I thought it was really interesting. You say in the book that most of the book was actually written on an airplane. That there you were in whatever seat crying and writing, crying and writing. What was it about the airplane experience that facilitated the writing of Touching Two Worlds?
SW: I think, in an airplane, you have to be still. So I had to sit in my seat and I had to be buckled in and I couldn’t get up and move around, and I had to really be in my own thoughts. And of course I could have watched a movie or read a book, but I feel like none of those things were powerful enough to override the things that I was thinking about and the weight of the emotion that I was carrying. So the stillness of the airplane, I think, forced me toward writing because it was a place where all the thoughts and emotions would bubble up. They needed some expression, and writing was the one that was really available when I was forced to be still.
TS: Now I’ve heard people who have written about their own grief talk about how tremendously healing it is to do so. And I wonder if you can talk to that person who feels a bit frozen in their grief and even at the thought of starting to write about it. Isn’t quite sure through what doorway, how do I enter this?
SW: I think the description of frozen is a really lovely beginning point. Even writing about the blank page can be a starting point. There’s so much that lives inside of us that wants to come out, and I think that the idea of being frozen in reaction to grief is still a reaction. And some movement, some word, some statement, some phrase, even if it’s incomplete, doesn’t have a subject and a predicate, that that’s still some expression that can be the beginning of letting our soul’s work come out from us.
TS: Now, Sherry, just in these opening moments of you and I getting to know each other better and our audience getting to know you, I wanted to ask you more about your work in general. On your website, it says Dr. Sherry Walling helps smart people do hard things. And then in your bio it says you help high-achieving people navigate painful and complex experiences. And I thought to myself: Why this emphasis on smart, high-achieving people? And what are their special challenges, if you will?
SW: The emphasis on smart, high-achieving people, I’m going to blame on my husband. I married a tech entrepreneur with double engineering degrees who has a wonderful, warm heart, but like many of us, can feel a little bit compartmentalized. And so in my relationship with him, I have made this transition toward working much more with entrepreneurs, usually in the high-tech space, who are brilliant. They are world changers. They see what’s possible and they often have great ideas about how to build into possibility. But the challenge that many high-achieving, highly intellectual folks have is that they can overemphasize the power of their cognitive mind and may be a little bit slower to integrate the emotional self or the physical body. And that’s one of the things that I bring to my work, is this sense of reverence for the mind, but also, hey, what about the other parts? Hey, what about the rest? And that’s been a deep part of my work with entrepreneurs and high achievers.
TS: At the end of Touching Two Worlds, towards the end, you write, “As I honor the griefs that have entered my life, I’ve begun to see my work as a kind of subversive grief boot camp. Without saying it out loud,…” But of course now I’m here saying it out loud and you kind of said it out loud, because you wrote about it. OK. That was all on the side. “Without saying it out loud, I’m trying to help the movers and shakers of the world find a sense of comfort in loss, to prepare for the certainty of grief with open eyes and an emotional courage that accepts grief as the trade-off for love and ambition.” So I got really curious about this. The trade-off for love, I think, is maybe obvious to people who have loved people and lost them. The trade-off for ambition, I thought, huh, I really need to hear what Sherry has to say about that.
SW: Ambitious people want things, entrepreneurs in particular—I’ll speak to them since that’s who I primarily work with. But they create things all the time. They take risks all the time. They have lots of things that they want to build. They need people in place to build those things. And there are so many opportunities for loss along that journey. Lots of businesses fail, lots of employees leave, lots of plans don’t play out the way one wishes. And there are a million small griefs that go along with a life that is pressing into the edge of what’s possible. And I think that helping people become more comfortable or more literate with the language of grief gives vibrancy, gives life, to some of the feelings that exist there within them that they don’t necessarily have language or words with which to label them.
TS: Let’s go into that a bit. How do you help these high-achieving, ambitious people become literate? What do you mean? What’s the language that I need to start to be able to know and reference?
SW: Quite simply, it’s sometimes: How does that feel? How does it feel that that happened? How does it feel that that person left? How does it feel that you have to make this transition? How does it feel that you are exiting your company? Maybe something you’ve been working toward your whole adult life and now it’s finally happening. How does it feel? It’s often a little bit more complicated than it looks from the outside. And so to help people go inside, to be explorers of their own inner world, you do that by asking questions, you do that by using language. Sometimes you do it by engaging their bodies. Where is the pain? Why are you tense? Why is it difficult to breathe? Those are gateways into this sort of inner place that’s beyond what’s directly observable.
TS: Now, let me ask you a question, Sherry. With your new book coming out, how does it feel to have poured yourself so nakedly onto the page and for people now to know so much about you and your relationship with both your father and his dying process, and your brother’s suicide? How does all that feel, to be so exposed?
SW: It does feel vulnerable. On one hand, Tami, I’m really proud of this book. It is the best that I have to offer out of these very painful experiences. It feels like it’s my truth. It feels like it’s the best of my writing ability. So I’m proud of it. I stand by it. At the same time, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. I’m scared that no one will care. I’m scared that people will be critical. I’m scared that people won’t understand it. So I definitely—it feels so different to put a heart project forward and ask everyone I know, hey, look at this. Look at this painful experience that I endured. Look at how I think about it. Look at what it did to me. It’s very scary and also I’m proud of how brave it’s required me to be.
TS: It’s beautifully written—with short chapters where you share your own inner experience and then invite the reader to do their own inner looking. It’s beautifully written, Sherry, and I’m glad you feel proud of it. You should. And the bravery that you put into it. I know I contacted a lot of feelings that were under the surface reading the book. And I appreciate that so much.
SW: That means so much coming from you as someone who is immersed in beautiful books all the time. So thank you for those kind words.
TS: Now, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about is your brother’s suicide and how you write about that. Because in terms of an area in the grief literature and a place where I think people often feel confused and don’t have language to talk about suicide. Even if you read obituaries, at times, of people who have taken their own life, it doesn’t say they took their own life. It doesn’t say. It just says so-and-so passed. And there’s this mystery and shame and judgment when it comes to suicide, and someone we know. Tell me, how did you work through your own judgment related to your brother and suicide?
SW: In some ways, I think my training was helpful here, because I’ve been talking to people about their own suicidal thoughts and experiences. I’ve been talking to bereaved survivors for my entire career. So I’m comfortable with the language of suicide and I don’t have a great deal of judgment toward my brother for dying in the way that he did. There’s so much nuance in this conversation and we can dive into it as much as you wish. But I do think that the stigma and the silence around suicide is incredibly unhelpful. It keeps grieving people isolated. It keeps us in secrecy. It keeps us from talking about mental health as the very sort of deadly illness that it can be.
It keeps us sort of minimizing the power that our own inner experiences have to bring destruction to us. So I think it’s really, really important to have very open conversations around suicide. If nothing else, the fact that the rate of suicide has increased about 30 percent in the last 20 years, according to the CDC—so there are lots of people who are touched by these stories who don’t necessarily have a lot of space to grieve openly or clearly.
TS: The stigma and the silence—how do you suggest people talk about it? How have people, friends of yours, people who know you, spoken to you about your brother’s suicide in ways that have been helpful, that have been—I’m not going to let you just be isolated in this, I know how to make contact in a useful way?
SW: My favorite thing that someone has said to me in the context of my grief around my brother was simply, “Would you like to tell me a story about Dave?” It was simply the invitation to talk about him in the fullness of who he was to me, which was as my brother, not as somebody who died by suicide. Death by suicide has a, it has a violence to it. It has an eyes-wide-open shock to it. People don’t know how to ask about it. But for the person who is bereaved by suicide, they’ve lost someone just like from any other cause. So I think in some ways, treating me as a sister who lost a brother and honoring that is more important than the suicide part of the story. In some ways, again, in talking to somebody who’s in grief, the suicide is not the most important piece of the story. It’s the loss of this loved person that is the most important piece of the story.
TS: Would you like to tell me a story about Dave? That’s a beautiful opening question. I also find it’s a little, sort of, general. Do you have other ideas too for ways that people can open a conversation that invites the person who’s passed to come into the space, for their presence to be known and acknowledged?
SW: I think in places where there’s opportunity for memory. Around the dinner table, around holidays, around, in our family, the Super Bowl. We kind of invoke those who’ve passed in those moments when we can bring them onto the table. So every holiday, every birthday, we always lay a candle for my dad and for my brother in—sort of in memoriam, in honoring that they’re not there presently, but they’re part of our story. They’re part of the event.
TS: Well, I’ll ask a personal question about this. I lost a nephew to a tragic accident who was 21. And my brother and his wife, of course still grieve tremendously over this loss of Jeremy. And on Jeremy’s death anniversary and on his birthday, when I talk to my brother on the phone, I always feel a little tongue tied. I don’t quite know what to say. I know this is such an important day for my brother and I want to emotionally connect and be there, but I don’t know what language to use. And I’m wondering if you could give me some suggestions.
SW: What memories are top of mind for you? As you remember this day, in the loss of Jeremy, what’s coming up? Are you thinking about him as a child? Are you thinking about where he would be at this point in his life had he lived? Where’s your mind going in this day today?
TS: When I think of the reasons people don’t say anything, I think that maybe one of the big reasons to someone they know who’s lost somebody is that, and that adds to the isolation, is they’re just so afraid of saying the wrong thing, something that will be some kind of trigger.
SW: Yes. And I think gentle curiosity is a nice framework from which to ask any questions or to be present. I also think it’s completely OK to say, I’m not sure what to say. I love you. I’m thinking of you. I’m with you today. You are top of mind for me every moment today. Is there anything that you would like to talk about?
TS: Now, as the mother of three children who lost their uncle in Dave’s suicide. How did you talk to them about this?
SW: This was a hard one. I have an essay in the book where I talk about the contrast in talking to my children about cancer versus the contrast in talking to my children about suicide. And in one way, cancer was easier because you can draw it on a piece of paper. This is what happened to the cells. This is how they formed a tumor and this is how they wreaked havoc in grandpa’s body, and this is what will end his body’s ability to stay alive. Because addiction, depression, it doesn’t show up in our brain scans, at least not really, not the scans we have available to us at this point. We don’t have this kind of biological, cellular understanding. And that was what was hard to talk to my kids about.
Ultimately, something very simple and honest was what we went with. To tell them first that he died. And then we waited a little while and then my husband and I sat and told them more about how he died, that he did die by suicide, and this is what that means. And I think we actually did talk a lot about the similarity between depression and cancer. That it’s a chronic illness and sometimes it wears down our brains so much that our brain and our body can no longer go on living. And that language is—it’s open-ended. But to talk to an eight year old, it’s important to give them enough detail that they feel like they know the story, but not more detail than they need. We let their questions lead.
TS: Now, I’ve heard some parents say, let’s not even talk about death at all until children reach some certain age. And I’m curious what your thoughts are about that.
SW: I think death is all around children. Watch any Disney movie. Look at any fairytale. Death is always part of the story of life. And I think that begins very early in stories that children are familiar with. It begins very early in children’s fears, and it’s pretty natural or common, I’ll say, for children to fear the death of a parent or a loved one. And that begins kind of in middle childhood. So I don’t know that we help children by not giving them language. I think it’s much more helpful to give them language, to acknowledge that death is part of life and to begin to teach them about grief when they are young, so that they are well skilled in this part of life that’s going to come up for them inevitably.
TS: Now, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, you’re very raw, vulnerable, you pour it out, you pour your tears onto the page in Touching Two Worlds. And one of the things you write about is how you were also just pouring tears out in your life during this period, in the writing of this book, with these two losses in your life and how that impacted your family. And I’m curious about that. As a mom and now, when you look back, do you think, God, I wished I’d done something differently or not? Or how do you view the whole situation as a mom?
SW: Oh, I never imagined that I would spend so much time in grief while my children were young. I never imagined that that would be such a big part of our family story, that death and illness would really take center stage in our lives for a couple of years. I guess nobody sort of, nobody plans for that. And so for me, man, there were a lot of times I was gone. I was at the hospital with my dad or visiting my brother. I was on an airplane. I was away from my children. There were a lot of times when I was physically present, but not emotionally available. When I kind of walked around like somebody who was badly sunburned, like everything hurt. I was sensitive to everything. I was maybe short-tempered and not as thoughtful with my children as I wished I could be. There were also times when I could not keep up with the logistics management of what happens when you have three young children. The library books that need to be returned, the school lunches that need to be made, all the permission slips. That got away from me.
So there are lots of things about this period of my life as a parent that I could sit in judgment on, or I could recognize, hey, that’s not how I wanted to show up. That’s not what I would’ve chosen. But on the other hand, I’m also grateful that I was able to be present with my kids in this stage of grief, because I think I was able to be really honest and open, and model for them how you show up for people that you love when they’re falling apart. How you talk about and express when you’re feeling a lot of pain. I mean, they’ve seen me cry way more than I ever would’ve wanted. But I think that was in many ways a deepening experience in my connection to them.
TS: Tell me more about that.
SW: They got to know me. They got to see me at my best and my worst in a way that’s a little bit more amplified than what would’ve happened had grief not entered our lives. And my kids also have this tenderness and maturity about them because of these experiences that I think will serve them well as they move on with their lives.
TS: It reminds me of a quote in the very beginning of the book from a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that you quote, “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.” It’s a very, very beautiful opening quote that you use in Touching Two Worlds.
SW: I love that poem because of the way that it does hold those dualities, the two edges of the world, kindness and sorrow. And that it’s in one that we find the other. And I think children get that.
TS: You mentioned, Sherry, at the beginning of our conversation that you began writing Touching Two Worlds not as something necessarily that was going to be a book that you published but as your own journey, your own processing of your experiences. And as I was reading the book, I had the feeling, Sherry is inviting the reader to feel the depth of pain, the depth of pain that can come with sorrow and loss. She’s saying, come on in, come on in here into these feelings. And I’m curious, that was just me, my experience reading. And I’m curious what that sounds like when you hear that.
SW: Ooh, there’s something in me that does feel a little uncomfortable. Like, ooh, here’s my pain. Come on in. But underneath my initial reaction, I think there’s truth to what you say and I think there’s actually intention in it. Because so many of the folks that I work with when they encounter their own grief, they’re almost shocked by it. It takes them down a dark, deep tunnel. And I’m hoping that by sharing a little bit of my own submersion in that world, I can—it’s like almost preparing people for what you’re going to face. Like, this is what it might feel like when you—this is what it might feel like if you encounter this kind of grief. So by showing that a little bit from my own life, preparing someone, telling them it’s going to happen. It doesn’t save them from those feelings, but I hope they’ll know a little bit about what it takes to move through those feelings, to embrace those feelings, to find their joy in the middle of those feelings.
TS: Now, a fiery part of the book, where you took a different kind of posture, was the section where you said, let me tell you what I really dislike when people say—I really dislike it when somebody responds to a grieving person and says everything happens for a reason. And of course, we’ve all heard that about all kinds of things, of losses and misfortunes and griefs that have happened in our life. Why is that so distasteful to you to hear that?
SW: In so many ways, it shuts down any kind of real grief or emotional process. It takes you to your head. It says, think it through, you’ll find an equation that makes this work. You’ll find a meaning. You’ll find a silver lining. You’ll find a point. And while there are many points of resilience that come from grief, there are positive things that can happen, the rush to conclude that good must come from bad, I find forceful, even violent, and I have a big reaction against it.
TS: You write, things don’t happen for a reason, but it’s possible to make meaning out of brokenness. Tell me more about the meaning-making process for you and how you help people make meaning without necessarily saying there’s a reason.
SW: Yes. Reason feels cognitive; meaning feels soulful or existential, feels like it taps at the core of who we are and what we value in our lives. And I think, for example, grief teaches you so much about who you love and what you love and why they matter to you. And so tapping into meaning is about listening for the places that you come alive. The places of fire that exist within you when you’re pressed, when you’re stretched, when you’re under some kind of threat. And it becomes clear that it’s like, no, I want to do this and I don’t want to do that. I want to be with this person and I don’t want to be with that person. Meaning is clarity.
TS: Now, another statement that you don’t like that we’ve all heard lots of people say is, God doesn’t give someone more than they can handle. What don’t you like about that?
SW: I grew up in an evangelical community and I got that one a lot. Because I grew up with a, my mom has MS, she was diagnosed a few years after I was born. And so I grew up with a parent who was visibly disabled and people would often say things like that to me. Like, she’s had so much to bear because she’s so strong. God’s trusting her with more than her share of burdens. And all of that just felt really incongruent with who I understood God to be in my understanding, as a child coming from an evangelical community.
But I do think that it—however you identify a God, if you do it all—it makes God into this kind of being that just doles out suffering according to how strong you are. And I don’t think it’s true. It just doesn’t resonate at any part of my being or anything that I’ve seen about how God, whoever that may be, exists. I also think it’s a weird throwback to the just-world hypothesis. The good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people. These basic assumptions that we all walk around with and it doesn’t serve anyone.
TS: I wanted to talk with you more about the just-world hypothesis and how you write about that, because I thought it was so interesting. And you’re writing about it from the perspective of someone who says, look, my father died at 65. What a loss. He was young. We didn’t expect it. We didn’t see it coming. It just came. Sudden diagnosis. My brother killed himself. What kind of world is this?
And you say that we can rewrite these ideas and you give us this example, I thought it was really brilliant, from the world is benevolent to the world can be benevolent, but it’s not guaranteed to be fair. We can go on with this, because I thought it was just so interesting. So tell me how you entered this process of looking at the just-world ideas that you held and then how you rewrote them to be true for you.
SW: I mean, this is my training as a trauma psychologist, is understanding how traumatic events change our worldview or change the assumptions with which we see the world. So I’m really drawing from the work of Ronnie Janoff-Bulman here in her book, Shattered Assumptions. And it’s been really pivotal to who I am as a psychologist, but I really relished in it as I was trying to make sense of what had happened to me and to my family. And identifying that all of us, just to kind of get out of bed in the morning, operate under this general assumption that the world is benevolent. That there’s no evil force out there trying to undo you. There’s generally goodness in the world.
But when you encounter a set of experiences that seem so bad, so malevolent, so coming from this experience of undoing, you need a new way to think about it and a new way to categorize the world. And to be able to hold “the world isn’t fair” and also “the world can be good” together in one thought, in one belief system, feels much more balanced. It’s sort of an observation of what we are experiencing in that duality we talked about earlier. The world can be in chaos and also there can be beautiful moments and safe, lovely places at the same time.
TS: It sounds like what you’re offering to people is this idea that we can look at what our assumptions are. If something happens in our life that shatters those assumptions, that changes it, that it’s important to be able to not just be like, OK, I’m lost. Whatever. That was bullshit. Now I don’t know where I am. But to actually take the time to say, what is true even with this event happening? Accommodating this event.
SW: Yes. What part of my way of seeing the world can grow and stretch to include this new experience that I’ve had?
TS: Another one of the assumptions that you rewrite, “the world is meaningful,” and then you write “the world is often meaningful, but sometimes meaning can elude us in the moment.” I thought that was very helpful too for someone who might be experiencing a loss that makes them feel like everything’s meaningless at the moment.
SW: Being able to sit in meaninglessness without losing a basic belief in meaning, it’s a little bit tricky to do. But I think to have a worldview that says, no, at my core I believe that life is meaningful. I don’t see it right now. I can’t grasp it right now, but I believe that eventually I will.
TS: Can you share more about how your worldview has changed after these two losses that you went through and what you draw on now, if you will, as your faith, as you’re grounding now?
SW: I think a very personal answer to that question is that I came into these experiences seeing myself as someone who was very capable of taking care of others, of being helpful, of being of service. I mean, that’s been my whole role in my family and my whole vocation as a psychologist, is to meet people in their dark places and help them not feel quite so dark. And I’m now on the other side of an experience of completely failing at that. I wasn’t able to save my dad or brother, and of course I wasn’t. But I now, I guess, I’ve really had to wrestle, especially with the loss of my brother, with the limits of my own power to be helpful and to be loving, with the limits of my own ability to make a difference.
And now that I’m on the other side of that, there’s some ease in not feeling responsible to do that. In not feeling responsible to try to right this ship that was sinking and not feeling responsible to try to help and to save him, but in accepting that his life was unfolding the way that it was unfolding. And so on the other side of me seeing myself as someone who is powerful to be helpful and make a difference, is me seeing myself as someone who is capable of acceptance and capable of observing and loving, but not necessarily needing to intervene. So that’s been an identity shift for me.
TS: Yes. That makes sense. And it sounds like there’s a huge piece of acceptance in that as well, acceptance of limitation.
SW: Yes. And we all, I think, encounter those limitations in ourselves at various times in our lives. But I, as we’ve talked about, I’ve built my life around being a resource to high-functioning, high-performing people—people relying on me. And I’m honored to step into those spaces when I’m invited. But I now have a much clearer picture of my limits and of the responsibility that each of us individually have in the echo chambers of our own souls to find our own sense of meaning and motivation to stay in our lives. No one else can do that for us.
TS: Now, one of the things you write about in Touching Two Worlds that I thought was very helpful—and it comes from your work with people who have suffered traumatic loss—is a way that you work with people to help them with that moment of learning about the loss, that shock and how they can go back inside, internally, and fill themselves with grace and compassion and love in that space to, if you will. And I don’t know if this is quite the language that you would use, but it is working through the trauma in some way. And I wonder if you could share more about that. And if we have someone listening who still has the kind of fear of the phone ringing or something like that, what they could do to help themselves.
SW: Yes. The context of this came from my experience of receiving the phone call. Those phone-call moments where the other end of the line is a sheriff or a police officer. In this case, it was my mother saying Dave is dead. Dave died. And even in my body, as I say that out loud to you, I feel like the tightening of tears. But in the moment when I experienced it, my whole body just went into this sort of shock. And people who’ve been on the receiving end of those phone calls know this feeling. It sort of implants in your cells, and it can kind of trap your cells in this state of shock. And one of the things that I’ve found to be helpful is, in retrospect, sort of after that moment of shock is over and you’ve hung up the phone and gotten in the car or done what you need to do, but to return to that moment when the shock was at its highest intensity. And in a kind of meditative process, put yourself back in that state, but also infuse the moment with a sense of comfort, of calm. Almost if you could envelop your own self in a hug in that moment. But to fill that moment with as much comfort and consolation as possible. So that that version of you, that version of you that existed in that place and time and in that moment, has some assurance from the present version of you that the shock won’t last forever. That there’s another side of the story. That there’s another piece of the story where you can look back on these events with some calm, with some grace.
TS: Having done that exercise now yourself, can you tell me what the output is? I mean, how has it changed when you now think of getting that phone call from your mother about Dave?
SW: I don’t remember it with fear. I remember it with tenderness. So it’s like I’m looking back on the movie of myself receiving the phone call. And instead of it being a horror film where there’s high-pitched violin screeching and everybody’s going to wonder what’s going to happen. I look back at it with a different soundtrack and the soundtrack is calmer and more peaceful. And I look at that version of myself in that moment with, oh, this tenderness. Oh, she’s lost her brother. Oh, how painful. How much I extend my care and concern.
And it’s a weird thing I’m talking about and I can fully appreciate it. But I think my psychologist brothers and sisters will recognize what I’m doing in trying to overlay a new emotion to an old memory. Because the old memory is infused with such overwhelming emotion, but sometimes the overwhelming emotion is too connected to the memory and it kind of floods the system. So if we can kind of time travel a little bit, go back in time to the old memory and give it a new emotional quality, then we can reflect on the totality of our lives, all of these important moments that have happened, all of these phone-call moments, and it’s not so very painful to travel backwards.
TS: It’s very helpful. Thank you. Now in reading Touching Two Worlds, as I said, you’re welcoming people into the landscape of grief. And I’m curious now, with a little bit of time passing, do you see grief as a journey we go through and we come out the other side like, oh, that journey’s in the past? Or is it something that’s always with you, but at a different volume than it was during the time when you were writing the book? Or how do you see it?
SW: I think the language of volume resonates. This book was written in a very raw time of my life. And even as I look back at it now, I don’t quite feel the same way that I did about certain things as I did when I wrote about them. And so I don’t think that grief—grief doesn’t stay the same. We don’t sort of go to the land of grief and live there forever, but it has a different emotional quality or volume, as you say, where it goes up and down and undulates throughout life. So today I can speak quite calmly and beautifully about my brother without it hurting me too much. Tomorrow might be a different story. And that’s some of the unpredictability of grief. So I’m sort of here in the land of grief where I now am, vulnerable to grief entering my conscious emotional state at any time, and I don’t think that will ever change. I think I will always have those moments where grief feels more acute, because this is the stage or the phase, the state of my life now.
TS: It’s interesting, because I think previously, maybe a couple decades ago, I would hear people talk about closure, and it’s important that your grief has closure. And that seems like that’s not accepted right now in the world of psychology in the same way that it was 20 years ago. Now people are like, don’t talk to me about closure. You’re pushing something on me. This is a part of my love and it will always be here. So I wonder how you see that. When you hear the word closure, do you just think of giving someone the finger, or what comes up for you?
SW: I did have a conversation yesterday with somebody who was telling me about going to a seminar with a hypnotherapist and the hypnotherapist invited someone to come up and participate in the seminar. And the focus of the intervention was all around grief. And the person who was recounting this to me said their grief was healed in like an hour. Like they’d gone from heartache around the loss of this person to feeling peaceful about the fact that that person had been in this life at all. It was this quick transformation.
And I started thinking like, if there is an intervention that I could do in an hour that would take my grief away, would I do it? And I think it gets at a lot of questions here. Like, what are we talking about when we talk about grief? Are we talking about an emotional reaction? Are we talking about love? Are we talking about all these layers of different feelings that go into our relationships? So my thought about the seminar was like, that sounds like a robot. That sounds like we can switch emotional states quite easily and it doesn’t have this sense of fluidity or flow that I think is part of the kind of mystery and beauty of the human experience. You asked me though about closure and being on the other side, the ending of things.
And it’s just not one thing. At one point I had this very open grief around a sense of guilt related to my brother’s death. I think that is closed now. I think I’ve had some healing in that piece of it. So that’s one element of grief. Will I always think of my dad on Thanksgiving? Yes. Is that an element of grief that will probably stay open? Yes. So I think it’s just not as simple as open or closed. There are definitely parts of the experience that I want to heal from and be on the other side of, and there are definitely parts of this experience that I will hold onto for my whole life, because they’re precious.
TS: Tell me about those parts, the parts that you’ll hold onto.
SW: And this is where grief lands with love, the grief that is the reminder. What it felt like for me to be present at my dad’s death and to kind of walk him up to the gate, and to hold his hand and hold him and say goodbye and send him on his way, wherever he went—that was one of the most sacred and important experiences of my life. I take no joy in him dying, but the honor of being with him for that moment and in the days leading up to that, I will hold onto that tightly. It has the same sort of sacredness of the moments that I birthed my children. This only happens a few times in life and you’re present at these edge states. Talk about insights from the edge. And I will honor that experience forever and I never want to forget what it felt like to be there in that moment.
TS: And then finally, Sherry, I asked you earlier in our conversation what it was like for you to have Touching Two Worlds come out to the public. What do you hope the reader will get from the book? What’s your hope for the reader?
SW: My hope is that the reader who is wrestling with pain will feel less alone, will maybe have a few ideas about how to engage with their grief and pain in ways they hadn’t thought about before. I hope also though that people will laugh a little bit.
TS: There’s some funny parts. There’s some laugh-out-loud parts—
SW: There’s some funny parts.
TS: —and very irreverent in various sections, right in the middle of a deep grief story. You’ll definitely have the reader fall off their chair with a laugh.
SW: So I want to normalize that that’s all part of it. It’s funny. It’s sacred. It’s sad. It’s beautiful. So jump on into the whole mess of what it means to be human, especially human in grief.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Sherry Walling. Sherry is the author of the new book, Touching Two Worlds: A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss, a beautiful book filled with short chapters. So helpful. So comforting. So illuminating. Thank you so much, Sherry.
SW: Thanks so much for having me, Tami.
TS: Thanks for being with us. Thanks for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at resources.SoundsTrue.com\podcast. That’s resources.SoundsTrue.com\podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app, and if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I absolutely love getting your feedback and being connected. Sounds True: waking up the world.