In early winter 2010, Inquiring Mind sat down with Nancee Sobonya, a San Francisco Bay Area grief counselor and filmmaker, to learn more about her 2005 documentary, The Gifts of Grief. The film has spawned many workshops, retreats and community conversations around grief and has been screened both nationally and internationally in venues such as the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival, the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, and the International Conference on Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society. The film aired on PBS from 2006 to 2009 and has been translated into both Spanish and Dutch. For more information, visit www.giftsofgrief.com.
Inquiring Mind: What led you to make your film, The Gifts of Grief?
Nancee Sobonya: When I was seventeen my father died suddenly of a heart attack. He’d had no physical problems and was only fifty-four. My brother came to get me during my shift at See’s Candy. “I’ve come to take you home—Dad’s gone.” Life turned completely upside down. My mom was devastated and didn’t know how to comfort me. There weren’t groups. There weren’t hospices. I struggled on my own to figure it all out and felt very alone in my suffering. I started asking questions. I tried co-counseling, art therapy, drama . . . anything I could find. This loss led me into asking the deeper questions of life and death, and I became very interested in religion, especially Buddhism and Hinduism.
The teachings of the Buddha gave me a perspective to help hold and work with my pain. “Here’s suffering. It is part of what is.” I was certainly experiencing that. I found my way to India and Sri Lanka and sat my first meditation retreat at Nilambe, where the vipassana teacher Godwin told me to sit with Jack Kornfield when I got home. He said, “Oh yes, Jack in the U.S. Very good, very good.”
I returned to California still grappling with my grief and ended up at John F. Kennedy University in the Transpersonal Counseling Program. That’s where I learned of Stephen Levine and his work on death and dying. He was leading a retreat with Jack Kornfield down in Santa Cruz. Frank Ostaseski (who later founded Zen Hospice) and Daniel Barnes (who coordinated Stephen’s workshops for many years) were there, and let me tell you, our hearts were cracking open. Stephen was working with the core teachings of the Buddha—we all age, we all get sick, we all grieve and die. How are we going to cope with that here and now in life? Stephen held “conscious living, conscious dying” workshops for hundreds of people and sat with them in deep suffering. It was inspiring for me.
IM: Did you know you were headed for hospice work at that point?
NS: Forces were starting to converge. During school, I was also working as a nurse’s aide in Berkeley. I had grown close to a wonderful client named Bernice. Her family called me to the bedside as she was dying, and when I arrived, I found that no one was nearby or touching her. I said, “She needs me to be with her,” and I climbed right into her bed. I didn’t even think about it for one second. I just took her in my arms, and we did the “AH” breath, which is matching your own breath to the sick or dying person’s breath so that their rhythm becomes yours too. As you watch their breath, on the exhale you gently say, “Ahhhh.” There’s a kind of grace that enters when your breaths are synchronized. It can relieve tension and pain, and I believe the dying person senses the connection. So to be with Bernice, comforting and stroking her as she was dying, was an amazing experience. Soon after, I graduated and took a position at a local hospice. I stayed for seventeen years.
Over and over, I’ve watched how grief, when truly experienced, can transform a person’s life. So that’s how I came to make the movie.
IM: In Buddhism the suttas talk about relief from grief and lamentation. Certainly Buddhist practice supports practitioners in developing the capacity to meet pain.
NS: Yes, and if you can stay with it, you begin to see how the pain eventually passes. We move through grief by actually feeling our feelings. The Buddha didn’t expect us to be without emotion. He encouraged us to simply be aware of each emotion as it arises. In grief we are raw and vulnerable; we’re real. And that’s where we have an opportunity to embrace, rather than reject, what is happening.
IM: I’m reminded of something Lee Mun Wah says in your film: “Everyone experiences pain, but not everyone gets wise from it.” What do you think allows some people to grow wise, whereas others might not?
NS: In general, people who allow themselves to feel pain seem to have a deepening experience. Those who resist often turn toward distractions or addictions—alcohol, work, a new relationship, a new car, anything that allows them to skate over their experience—which prevents a new level of understanding. Being with the complex feelings of grief takes practice. As in meditation, you have to take a seat and allow whatever comes to come. “Here’s a big wave of grief. Okay.” Let the tears roll. Let the belly moan. See if you can just breathe and allow it. “I’m mad. I’m sad. This hurts.” It is information; feelings come and then they go. We need to teach people how to experience feelings in their body.
IM: I’m thinking of the popular advice “take three deep breaths,” which can actually be a very concrete tool for dealing with stress.
NS: Yes, breathing is the simplest thing you can do in the face of pain. But you have to remember to pay attention to it. Breath gives the whole system space, which allows an intense feeling to swell but also to recede. A lot of people have forgotten this ebb and flow, so when loss happens, they are completely overwhelmed. They feel like they’ve just been hit by a truck, with no clue how to cope. So a simple practice of breathing can make a huge difference.
IM: What about those who have no practice?
NS: I have seen all kinds of people tap into reservoirs of undiscovered strength. Grief can take you to a deeper place of compassion, a place that touches the universality of suffering.
I’m reminded of a story Isabel Allende shared in the film. Her daughter Paula died at twenty-nine after being in a coma for a year. She said, “Once, when I was in the hospital in Madrid and my daughter was connected to all kinds of machines and life support, I became totally desperate. I fell to my knees in a corridor, and I was crying like a child. An old peasant man who was waiting there for his wife came over and said, ‘Stand up!’ I wailed, ‘Why? Why is this happening to me?’ And he replied, ‘Why not? Why not you?’ It was a revelation, and I realized that mothers for millennia, all over the world, have lost their children, sometimes all of their children, and they have borne it. So why not me? Why am I so special that I’m not going to be in pain? That my children are going to be safe? I’m not special at all.” Isabel experienced that movement from the insulated self into connection. Everyone on this planet will experience loss. And that’s where it links us to our humanity. It is the great leveler.
IM: While interviewing for the film, what did you find was most crucial for folks in experiencing and releasing their grief?
NS: They showed me that human beings aren’t meant to grieve alone. Being witnessed and supported through pain keeps the whole process moving. Culturally, we are programmed to navigate our difficult feelings in isolation. Having someone there who is steady and grounded helps us to ride out the intense parts of our hurting.
Imagine a kid who starts to cry—many times they are shushed or simply sent away. No one models how to actually feel what is happening. But a parent could say: “Okay, it really hurts, honey. Doesn’t it? I’m here with you. Let yourself feel it in your body.” We rarely have that kind of conversation with our children, yet parents can provide orientation and support for dealing with big feelings.
IM: I am mystified by this power of witness, and I’ve seen many people heal from the simple act of telling their story. What is it that a witness provides?
NS: The gift of being listened to. Think about how rare it is in today’s society to have someone fully listen, to deeply hear your love story, your deepest loss and pain. To tell your story, and have it be truly heard, is a life-affirming experience.
IM: For the people in your film then, do you think the interviewing process was transformative?
NS: Absolutely. The possibility is there with every telling. But not everyone gets to the “gifts of grief” part. Early on I spoke about my film in a class at the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation. A fellow student, Kenner, approached me at the break and asked, “What is this ‘gifts of grief’ thing you’re talking about? I don’t get it—gifts of grief?” Over lunch, I asked what sparked his interest in grief, and he replied, “Well, my second family was in the airplane that went down at the Pentagon on September 11. They were my best friend from college and my best friend from high school, who’d met, married and had two kids.” My mouth pretty much fell open. He talked about getting sick, spiraling in his job, being just completely wrecked. He really didn’t know how to hold this; it was too big. He told me, “I’m in this film class because I am trying to find a way to artistically make sense of it all.”
Before lunch was out, he’d agreed to help out with my film, but when I asked to interview him, he warned, “I believe in what you are doing, but I have to tell you that I’m not feeling any gifts. I won’t be able to give you what the film is about.” I said, “Kenner, that’s exactly why I want you to be in the film, because it’s not just about gifts. It’s about the process of grief—what we struggle through and where we have to go inside ourselves to deal with loss. I want to make a film that’s real. And you’re in the process. That’s all you need to speak to.” So that’s what he did. He said that maybe he would get there and maybe he wouldn’t. I believe his line was, “Check with me in forty years.”
IM: I appreciate that story, because everyone meets grief at their own pace, and Kenner’s voice offers a way into the film for viewers who are still in the throes of grief. How has the public responded to your film?
NS: It is clear there is energy to keep this conversation going in the community. People are thirsty to talk and to learn about grief. I’m currently working on a new film called Silent Sorrows, which sheds light on some of the unacknowledged losses in life, the ones we barely acknowledge or grieve—from divorce to addiction, infertility to retirement. We go through a multitude of changes that are simply part of living, part of samsara and the human experience. In grappling with any form of grief, you must endure incredible pain to get to anything that is transformative. Yet these passages are precious turnings of time, and they can bear rich fruit if we give them their due attention and honor.