The other day, when I was clearing out the bins, a coffee packet slipped onto the floor. It was an ugly packet for the cheapest ground coffee and at the sight of it, I began to cry. I love coffee and the coffee I love best in the world is the hand-picked wild coffee of the Ethiopian Zege Forest which, until recently, I bought green and roasted in a frying pan. I instantly
berated myself for getting upset about something so trivial.
Do you recognise this pattern? Immediate self-recrimination after an emotional outburst, especially when its cause is so inconsequential. ‘Pull yourself together’ was the admonition that sprung to mind as I gathered up the rubbish. Within our cultural framework, we are accustomed to consider being strong a normal response to grief, especially being strong for others. Although I wasn’t, in the first instance, thinking of my tears as grief, I was holding myself to a version of ‘be strong for others’. I didn’t want the children to find me falling apart over a bin bag! And, I still had their breakfast to prepare and a meditation class to host and a long list of other tasks.
Later, however, in a quiet moment, I reflected on the coffee-packet-tears. We’ve been saying ‘pull yourself together’ since the seventeenth century but it probably alludes to an even older concept, that emotional duress causes the soul to separate from the body thereby requiring us to pull ourselves together. Whether the etymology is accurate or not, the idea of reintegrating body and soul is emotionally richer than the ‘be strong’ hue the phrase has taken on more recently. Reintegration speaks to me of wholeness and authenticity.
Before the rubbish, I’d done the washing up and noticed a little blemish on a plastic plate. Again, something so inconsequential that the twinge of sadness that arose was immediately squashed. I had too many jobs to do, to get sentimental over an old plate – especially a plastic one! After all, I’m not into plastic anymore. This is reasonable and logical, but the heart isn’t logical. The heart saw the picture on the plate – Mother Ethiopia, a painting by Afework Tekle – and my soul raced back to The Habesha Restaurant on Bole Road in Addis Ababa and the memory of convivial meals with friends, strong coffee, heady incense, a snippet of overheard conversation between Afework and his companion, my lovely eight month old daughter, in and out of the kitchen on the hip of a waitress, so I could eat in peace. I hold these memories gently. The separation, the court case, the injustice and fear, the danger of returning to a country that wasn’t a signatory of the Hague Convention – the gruelling list of circumstances that one-by-one extinguished the life I had had then.
The green coffee beans and the ritual of roasting them have been my way of integrating my Ethiopian days with the life I have now. Only there’s been a domino effect and the devastating outcome of the separation and court case has led to a series of recent losses, years down the line, some of them financial. This means finances are too tight for my raw coffee beans just now, hence the cheap coffee.
I notice, that as I allow these memories to arise and the complex emotions that accompany them, I can forgive myself the tearful response to the coffee packet that fell from the bin. When pulling myself together doesn’t involve repressing difficult feelings in order to be strong, I’m able to discover the rainbow of feelings I have and bear witness to the web of interconnected memories. This is more akin to the older idea of reconnecting the fragmented and shattered parts of the heart or soul with the body. It offers me a more authentic response to the feelings of grief that surface in response to commonplace events. It also enables me to integrate my values of gratitude and loving kindness into my experience of grief. I’m grateful that I can still drink coffee and I send loving kindness to the people close to me who are experiencing hardship, to the people in my neighbourhood who are experiencing hardship, to the people in Ethiopia who are experiencing hardship. Humility and connection arise instead of the shame, isolation and victimhood to which a repressive response to grief gives rise.
Honouring these momentary expressions of grief in response to humdrum events is part of our healing from the pain of loss. We can pull ourselves together mindfully, gently gathering the fragments of our heart. The heart is not the same as it was before the experience of loss, but it can be whole again.