Creating Harmony

Monday December 10, 2012

I unplugged over the weekend.

I jumped in the car to my destination retreat to Harmony Hill on Hood Canal in Union WA. Less than an hour drive from my home, it took me a much needed distance from my work, my electronics and my own head.

I went with intention. I went so I could be an “ordinary” widow, exploring my personal grief that is the pain of losing a spouse. I went to be nourished and to nourish myself. I was. I went to crack open my heart so I can find what is within. I did. I went to discover for myself what I could not learn until I arrived. I found. I went to challenge the changes in my mental, physical, emotional and spiritual being. So it was.

It was hard. And it was easy.

It was really difficult to leave my work as a grief coach and support community leader behind. The brain side of me. The analytical side. The how to apply what I learn side of me. The observer. The planner. The creative. The one step removed. The behind the scenes person.

It was easy because I’ve been in the know that I must get to the heart of my loss, in particular my grief for Dave as my husband. I’ve lived with the intuitive side needing expression. Writing is still an intellectual exercise no matter what feelings I pour out. I went to Harmony Hill so I could feel. To retreat. To feel deeply. To understand heart-felt loss. (Oops. Understand is thinking!)

Harmony Hill

I was introduced to Harmony Hill almost three years back in my work while promoting the Storybooks for Healing® curriculum. At the time it was a seed planted in me more than my planting a seed with them. I had an instant love for the place, the people, the concept, the mission. I smile now as I write. I recognized Harmony Hill as a location of feeling for me, that spot where my intellect is allowed to rest. I knew then I was stepping on sacred ground — whatever that means; it’s another feeling thing. The mission at Harmony Hill is to “transform the lives of those affected by cancer and to inspire healthy living for all.” Dave and I knew cancer. I couldn’t help but resonate from the inside out.

Harmony Hill was not a place that Dave would ever go to. He and I did attend some support groups together throughout the various cancers and medical procedures early on. Mostly we forged our away through together. And that seemed right. Apparently it worked OK for us. The timing for Dave wasn’t ever going to be right for us to attend Harmony Hill together. But of course I did find we were there as a couple over the weekend, even if his presence was only symbolically represented.

Preparing for My Journey

Mentally preparing for the emotional part of my trip into grief and loss was predictable for me. After all, I can recite the outline of support messages in many ways. I made the reservation with the intention of opening my heart. I was seeking the experience for whatever it might bring.

My recognized challenge to myself lay more in the physical realm. The personal legacy of this last two years as a caregiver has left me aged (which I note is also a mental state too). The stress of care created pressure that literally made holes in some bones in my head. The result was symptoms of an underlying rare and weird inner ear disorder broke open leaving my balance, vision and hearing out of sync. Surgery has helped tremendously but residual and new symptoms have been the trade-off. In addition, climbing stairs over most of a year to carry meals to Dave who was holed up in the bedroom eroded my hip bones. My coping mechanism of exercise was compromised and perhaps even contributed to the wear and tear on my body.

I don’t like this. If there is a spark of anger in my grief this is the trigger (OK, this is my anger). These ailments are the threat to my current and future quality of life, my ambitions, and activity. I don’t know if I actually have control or not over my health. This is the sharp edge of my sword to hold. (How do I get a handle on this?) How unfair to give so much to others and not leave enough for myself.

Harmony Hill has steep terrain. It is dark early in the day. Gravel paths and rain. I have to climb this hill. The hill of my grief. The hill of a changed body.

The healing ways of meditation and yoga could be very helpful. But the potential to be sensory overload or even initiate damaging physical head pressure is possible. Would it all shut me down? Can I find balance in these practices? I was going to find out.

On the Road

I do love a road trip. I like driving. I like navigating. I like playing the tunes. Loud. I like the sense of adventure for both going and returning. I like the presence. I often like the singularness of the drive. Getting there is as much of the event as being there. Wherever, whatever.

Getting on the road is one of my new physical challenges. Or can be. If it is getting dark, and the rain and windshield wipers are moving, it can make me nauseous. The road can appear to slip and slide visually causing more anxiety than danger. If my brain gets too much information to process the tasks of moving, seeing and hearing all at the same time, I can hit overload – fast. For the most part I do not have too much difficulty. I don’t go very far. I have created what I consider checks and balances on myself. But to send myself out for three days with lots of physical and emotional activity was scary. I’ve given the wheel over a lot. That’s an “old person” thing to do in my mind. It threatens my independence and identity.

I am ready to reinstate my personal driver’s license. My trip to Harmony Hill was my test.

The week before, I drove the 30 miles to Tacoma for a new pair of pajamas. I might be sharing a room, so this mission would be a step out to prove to myself I can function just fine to drive and shop and return on my own. I knew it, but I had to prove it. Plus, I would be comforted wrapped in new cloth.

The day before the retreat, our group facilitator called. Tears of relief spilled over in anticipation of going to be myself in my own grief. In the following seconds after hanging up the phone, a call came in for Dave. He is deceased I had to explain.

The Mo(u)rning

On Friday morning I tried to not work. But I checked in a couple of places anyway. I had to stop myself because I can get happily immersed. When I get into my electronic zone, I block out otherness.

My Kindle and the cell phone were the only plug-ins I took with me. I resisted the urge to bring the laptop, even if I wanted to write. I packed up two spiral notebooks, one with my first journal and history from the day of diagnosis, the other with sparsely filled miscellany when handwriting seems to be the better path for thoughts. I packed minimal makeup but didn’t bother wearing any on the way out (nor during the weekend). I was going with myself exposed.

I threw extra clothes in the back seat of the car for I’m not sure what. I kept the oversized comfy clothes in the bag.

“Unplug,” I told myself.

I headed towards Shelton on Highway 101. And three minutes down the road I passed our old house. OMG, I hadn’t considered this. Up on the hill across from Mud Bay. Our first home. Leah’s childhood home. Hodgkins Disease. Earthquake. Ice storms. Holidays. Pooh sticks. Buckaroo. Lucky dog. Neighbors. Love. A million more ghosts burst out through tears.

It is not the same house we lived in for 13 years, as it was rebuilt due to damage from the Nisqually ‘Quake shortly after we moved out. Only the foundation’s footprint was kept. What’s it look like now? I’m driving. It is tucked behind another house. Quick, see if I can get a glimpse from the stream side, because in Winter the trees didn’t completely hide the side yard. What else is up there? What’s changed? What’s the same? I can’t allow my attention to look around. I am driving. Do I circle around? Do I stop? No. Time.

I passed this section of highway so very quickly. It snuck up and disappeared. It was the Doppler sound effect on my memories. Wheeeeer-zooom. Like the race car coming, then gone.

Is this what I’m heading into? I took back my breath. I steadied myself through the tears. I put on one of the CDs of the old, worn out music I play over and over on my solo road trips. I veered right to stay on the path through Shelton towards Harmony Hill.


Mason County Fairgrounds on the left. I heard it before I knew what it was. I heard the sounds of drumming and chanting, I felt the rhythm of dance, I saw the image of Dave holding little baby Leah as they moved in the circle of life and ritual during a Native American ceremony. I felt witness once again to view Dave’s rare and deep instinctual connection to his Chippewa, Cherokee and Shawnee heritage once denied. A heritage to his offspring offered as a gift through memorial of his departure from Earth. I recalled his profound experience that a man of many well spoken words offered few to explain at that time. He felt it.

With each passing mile, I was leaving behind. And I was opening my heart. More tears fell.

Check In Leave Out

I arrived at Harmony Hill a few minutes before the buffet lunch. There was just enough time to be shown my room and make a cursory unload of my things. The weather was cold, brisk and, fortunately, dry. The surroundings are spectacular — water, mountains, trees — in a simplicity orchestrated by nature. I’d only visited once before but it had a feeling of coming home. I went to lunch in the lodge. How delightful to be immediately nourished and taken care of!

Hood Canal Union WAI was lost in time from the start. In a good way, because this was a time I sought out to be. A time of presence. But I was lost in time in a not so good way, because as I wandered around after lunch soaking in the atmosphere, I didn’t consider I was scheduled to be at orientation. Great. A few minutes late. To the circle. Walking across the room. What had I missed already?! Probably the reminder to turn off the cell phone. Eeek. In my pocket. Please don’t ring. PLEASE don’t ring! Don’t think about it ringing or it will.

Breathe. Fortunately, by the wisdom of those who travel before us, there was an opening ritual to leave at the threshold of our weekend whatever we needed to leave behind. There was no better symbol than that cell phone — my business line —  than to pull that phone out of my pocket to assure myself it was turned off! Perhaps I needed a visual declaration for myself. I took solace in that moment that I was truly leaving my work as grief coach at this juncture to do the heart work I needed for myself. As I had promised myself I would do.

The details of what happened between arriving and leaving Harmony Hill remains there. Those stories are for each to tell in our own way in their own time – like grief itself. The process is to be experienced – like grief itself. I could write out everything that was planned and completed – the rituals, meditation, movement, nourishment, curriculum, groups, who said what. But it doesn’t matter. The work is always profoundly personal. Maybe that’s why this beautiful place is their own best kept secret. I know I am compelled to honor our bonds formed there by leaving the proprietary work behind at their gate.

My Audacious Insight

My advent into and through this widowed life is profoundly personal. I have wallowed both in pen and thought over the last ten months since Dave’s death as to why I haven’t been as able to hit the publish button on my writing. I know some superficial why: I’ve been distracted on related business priorities; I have titles and starts but not the fleshed out writing; I make observations and connection to common universal obstacles of widowhood but don’t have passion from the inside for public release. As “caregiver Joan” I wrote my blog in pure Grief Reflections moment to moment. Although written in the perspective of my own journey, I was a part of the whole in the story of Dave and me. It was us. I proudly shared as a co-teacher in life, and about life, with him.

My widowed life is profoundly personal. I believe this comes about because as “widowed Joan” I am thrust into identity development. I don’t think of it as crisis! This is the new singular story of me. I am not in such a need for Grief Reflections any longer, even though I still live the consequences of loss. My identity change is an area more vulnerable than grief to me. This is a time of life review that reaches back before the days with my husband. My vulnerability is my mortality. Who am I going forward? For how long?

There is a core being within us that is our life long identity. The heart is also known as the core. I went on retreat to feel my grief with my heart. My identity from heart is blossoming from inside to outward through this profoundly personal journey. To find and embrace my own purity of heart in the form of (self) love is astounding.

Harmony Hill and Mother

Harmony Hill Retreat Center

I was unexpectedly wrapped by words and symbols of Mother at Harmony Hill. Mother Nature, Mother Earth. Earth Mother. Mother figure. Nuture. Nourish. Wise woman. Comfort. Home.

At the moment of giving birth to Leah, I also gave birth to my heart’s definition of (unconditional) love. I acknowledged aloud my gratitude the fulfillment of being a mother, for Leah, who is one manifestation of the union and love between Dave and me. (No pressure, hon! I said unconditional love.)

Birth. Death. Love. To witness each is profoundly personal.

The Mind-Body Connection

Grief is within our bodies.

I needed this reminder. Of course, I know about physical stress. I do those right things as best I can these days for self care. But I needed the feeling-my-body work, too. I needed to feel the meditation and yoga not as health exercises but as grief work, as heart work.

As one who moved her way into adulthood through years of ballet, gymnastics, modern dance and just plain going out dancing for fun, accepting the physical aging that has taken hold on me the last couple of years is not easy. My identity as a graceful moving capable physical being has taken a hit.

I often offer to people in the midst of grief to be gentle with themselves. What does that mean? a community member asked me one day. How do you do that? That answer can only be found within her, for her.

But I wondered –as my hips that climbed all the stairs ached by my chosen participation, and my ears pounded sounds of my pulse from all the inner pressure of changing vertical and horizontal – I wondered if I act as gentle on myself as I can. As the weekend progressed at Harmony Hill I defined gentleness for myself. I applied it. From the mind to the heart, from the heart to the body, I gave “gentleness” form. Now I can say gentleness to me comes from that place of love as opposed to fear. How much easier to feel the movement of yoga rather than push my body to its edge of tolerance through fear that I have to fix it. I am not the dancer of physical strength and grace of once upon a time, but how fine it is to tap into the inner dancing artist that a younger woman had not honed.

Goats. Find a Horse. Gingerbread House.

What I loved about taking my heart into this experience is what I really wanted to feel most of all – the human connection with other people who deeply feel the loss of a partner. I wanted my turn to be with Harmony Hill Union WAthose who know what I know. And know that others can’t possibly know. No other support group will be the same. If we all did it all over, even together, our insights would change. And so would the stories. And so would the key words above. And these are probably not the three words others in the group might choose from their perspective. But maybe they would! And in a new paragraph (and two and three…) I could offer three more words equally meaningless to you but important to me.

For three days I removed my hat as an entrepreneur, left my public grief coaching work behind, set aside being a mom. I wasn’t obligated either by my own or other’s expectations to help anyone else in their grief. I went to feel instead of think. I was taken care of instead of tending to others. This time included Dave but wasn’t about Dave. I was sharing Dave as I knew him – my husband. The father, colleague, teacher were prominent, but I was there as his wife. I was simply a person, as several others noted, who now sleeps alone on just the edge of a king sized bed.

For three days I gave myself unequivocal permission to be who I found. I allowed love back into my life. There is more to gain than lose from love. By remembering, I could give this to myself. Dave’s love and partnership with me over our 30 plus years; all my recent grief reflections and working through loss; my inevitable emptier nest –These are all wrapped into this period of personal introspection and re-identification. My journey to Harmony Hill was permission to grieve for me.

There is something very magical when humans share a journey of discovery. Each of the stories offered by the members of our small partner loss group added directly to my Audacious Insight. The members from the large group, staff, and volunteers contribute often unknowingly. All the people before me who have climbed up around and through their own grief or cancers or caregiving at Harmony Hill left a bit of themselves there so I could have the experience I found. Grief is best traveled along with others. People who come together as strangers leave as friends.

I have new found friends I can walk with as a peer in grief. I look forward to getting to know each better as the individuals we have been and will become.

The Walk of Metaphor

There are three labyrinths at Harmony Hill, circular meditation paths steeped in tradition and design. I think labyrinths are very cool. On Sunday morning I was ready for my walk. It was quiet. The fog sat thick over the water and mist was hanging in the air, quintessential Northwest Washington. First I walked around reading the pavers dotted with memories, names and phrases meaningful to the purchaser and possibly us all. Then I entered through the gate to Gretchen’s Gratitude Garden.

Two steps and I began to cry. I’m not sure why. I slowly took a few more steps. I looked. I cried. I thought I remembered this garden full of life. Now comes Winter and the plants are sleeping. New life will come forth again I reminded myself. A flood of metaphors came to mind with each step. It was a journey of journey metaphorically! I was in my work and my personal life on the same path because they can’t be separated. Isn’t that where finding purpose and meaning from loss leads? Tears and smiles alternated. All the way to the center; all the way back out again.

Harmony Hill Union WA


Moving through grief always has its own timetable and its own individual path. One weekend of support and learning may be an awakening, start, bridge, fork in the road, resting place, hill top or any other metaphor along your way. You must continue to find the types of support you need in the moment through your grief reflection. Over time since your loss, how grief looks and feels will change. But at some point in your journey, being with peers or a knowing guide who can relate, validate, mirror, question and share loss will propel your healing in ways most can’t do on their own. Whether you meet up online, in person, on retreat or at a conference, real connections happen when we open out hearts through grief. You are invited to join me in the Navigating Grief community to discover for yourself.

If you’ve been touched by cancer, Harmony Hill offers holistic healing experiences to patients, caregivers, family and friends. Generosity of Spirit comes to mind, but there is not a big enough word to describe what awaits you there. The people of Harmony Hill offer an authentic life changing experience if you are willing to accept it. It has to be felt. Ultimately, this is a “to each their own” trip as is all of life. The generosity of spirit is matched by their generosity of gift. No one is required to pay for their stay during Harmony Hill sponsored programs. When you are ready, come. Create harmony for yourself. You deserve to find peace.


4 replies
  1. Carol S
    Carol S says:

    Dear Joan:
    I did not now what waited here at Navigating Grief–Glad I decided to check it out and will return—Also grateful to have experienced the magic of Harmony Hil.


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