by Bonnie Glass-Coffin, (for “Life Passages” course/APDS)
“Holding Space.” I first heard this term at a very difficult medicine ceremony that I attended with my dear friend and mentor don Oscar Miro-Quesada on the slopes of Mount Shasta, in the Summer of 2006. At that event, a young woman had experienced a kind of “Spiritual Emergency” (cf Grof and Grof 1989). The intention for the evening had been to hold a collective vision of healing for the Earth. More than 50 of us had gathered for the occasion. Those who were willing would commune with a particular plant-spirit medicine to help “hold the vibration” as we created an immense container where we would deposit our images and our intentions of a natural world full of life and vibrancy. But, as the medicine began to swirl within us, magnifying the beauty we were co-creating, one young woman began emoting loudly. She screamed and cursed and stomped around the room, appearing to embody all the world-destructive power of the great Goddess Kali.
At first Oscar engaged with her energies. But with his every response—from verbal affirmation of her angst and rage to an eventual wrestling match with her in the center of our ceremonial space—the calamitous energy that she was manifesting became more intense. The anxiety and distress she emoted became palpable in the room as people began calling out to her. My heart began racing and I felt myself beginning to panic as each scream and yelp moved out from her throat, piercing my body and my focus. The flow of beautiful images I had been conjuring was repeatedly punctured by the static of her moans. My visions became dark and thorny vines began ripping and squeezing the tranquil scenes I struggled to hang onto. An immense darkness threatened to completely engulf me. The panic I felt rising inside reflected outward, bouncing off my co-participants and magnifying with each constricted breath. As my heart continued racing, I heard Oscar’s voice in the distance. “Don’t engage her!” he shouted. “Just hold space.”
The young woman continued shouting and cursing as she moved around the room, snarling and taunting all present. Eventually, though, as the rest of us disengaged and her antics were met with impassive stares, this dark energy waned. Eventually she was escorted from the room and her altar was buried deep in the earth until morning. It was a deeply unsettling experience.
A few weeks later, I remember asking my friend Amy what Oscar really meant as he admonished us to all “hold space.” As I recall, Amy said something like, “holding space is about being the container. It’s not about doing anything. Instead it’s about offering the love and support to another of allowing them to have their own experiences, regardless of how overwhelming the thoughts or feelings they are encountering on their path may be.”
At the time, I didn’t really understand. It had seemed to me that we had simply all ignored the young woman as she struggled with her demons. It felt as though we had somehow let her down, and then even banished her from the circle. But, as I sat by my mother’s side from January to May of 2014, I developed a deep appreciation for this term. During the months without food and the weeks without water—during the inexorably slow withdrawal of her body, her mind and then her spirit from this plane—I “held space” for her transition. As I watched her decline, completely unable to “fix her” or to control the process, I found myself each day opening more completely to the awe and the gift of letting go. I found myself opening more deeply to Trust. It was the perfect medicine for a mother-daughter relationship forged, as mine was, through a lifetime of trying to solve my mother’s problems and smooth her path in hopes of gaining her approval and her love. Holding space for Mom was an amazing experience of healing—for me.
For as long as I can remember, my mom seemed to hide behind the trope of “etiquette,” aloof to authentic conversation and unable to give much of herself to those closest to her. My father described her as fragile and sensitive. I found her constant need to be cared for and her sense of appropriate (rather than authentic) behavior completely draining. I had, at one point, described her to my friends as a kind of “Death-eater” or “Dementer” (from the Harry Potter books) who sucked the life-force energy from those closest to her.
Far from being able to express any kind of care for others or gratitude in her life, for anything, my mom had always seemed most comfortable playing the archetypal role of “victim.” I knew from family lore that she had struggled with a kind of deep depression after my birth—so deep that she was hospitalized for a month and heavily medicated with Thorazine and Amytal for a long time after. I always attributed my lack of deep feeling for her to this interruption in attachment so necessary for mother/child bonding in the months immediately following birth.
I had forgiven her long, long ago, of course, but I had coped and accommodated my loss by deeply denying to myself that I had much—if any—feeling for her. My two older brothers were also distant from our mom. Both had left home as soon as humanly possible after they turned 18 and had not looked back. While other families get together frequently, our little family of five had only been together 3 times in the almost 40 years between 1972 and 2010, when my father passed away. I am the youngest, the only girl, and the only one who lived within 1000 miles of our parents. So caring for them in their later years fell, without question, to me.
I was always closer to my dad than to my mom. So when I promised him, on the day before he transitioned from this world on February 25, 2010, that I would care for her always, I made that promise to help him let go, rather than because of any sense of responsibility to her. From the day he died until the last several months of my mother’s decline in Spring 2014, as I did her finances, took her to her many appointments, sat with her through lonely nights, distracted and entertained her during empty days, it was more because of the duty I felt to my dad than because of any empathy for her condition. Before her dementia got the better of her manners, she always thanked me kindly for the visit, told me I needn’t have bothered, and assured me that she was fine—even when she clearly wasn’t. We spoke only of trivial things. For me, the niceties masked much deeper pain. But, because she wasn’t honest either, I always had an easy out as I continued going through the motions of caring.
My Dad’s was such a quick transition. An unexpected trip to the hospital one day for a minor illness and he was gone the next. My mother wasn’t with him because of a bad fall, taken just minutes before I had planned to leave his side to bring her to the hospital so that she could sit with him awhile. Because I had hesitated, as I told myself for a long time afterwards, she didn’t get to say goodbye.
For nearly three years after his death, because of her ever-deepening dementia, she relived the loss and her inability to say goodbye, often claiming he had abandoned her and blaming him for the loss, but as often asking why I hadn’t taken her to see him. She could never seem to remember the circumstances of the day that had led to her absence by his side. Instead, she would simply relive the loss, over and over again. And I would relive my own guilt.
As her dementia worsened, my mom’s personality changed. She would sometimes remove her wedding ring to hide it from imaginary thieves and then forget where she had put it. It would be lost until the staff at her facility or I would find it—hidden in her bed sheets, or rolled in toilet paper that was stuffed in the back of a drawer. Sometimes it would take several days to locate it. Eventually, I decided to take the ring from her room so that it wouldn’t be lost forever—thrown out by mistake in one of those rolled-up pieces of toilet paper. On several occasions while her ring was lost, she would blame me for stealing it, threatening me with lawyers, with dis-inheritance of an imaginary fortune, with banishment. Some days I simply stayed away because being near her was too hard. I cried a lot. Yet, I still tried to comfort her. Partly this was to keep my promise to my dad. Partly it was because our walk had always been about me trying, desperately, to gain her approval.
At one point, for example, I remember sitting next to her in her bed on a straight-back chair until becoming numb. But, when I moved across the room to an easy chair, telling her it was more comfortable for me, she snapped, “I don’t care if you’re comfortable, I need you next to me.” Her “good behavior” filters were going together with her personality. It was a very painful time.
As I learned is true with many dementia patients, my mother had little capacity to “decide” when she might want to depart and so her body hung on for an amazingly long time. She stopped eating (in late February, a full two-and-a-half months before her death). She stopped taking in any liquids more than fourteen days before she passed. As I spent more and more time by her side, my own moods swung radically. On some days, I just wanted her to be freed from her suffering. At other times, I found myself wanting, more selfishly, to be free of it. Sometimes I cried for her. Other times I cried for myself. For the relationship we never had. For all the times I gave to her hoping for something she was incapable of giving in return. Still, I sat beside her.
Sometime about three months before my mother’s transition, I began reading two very special books as I worked on other papers and other courses for the MDiv degree with All Paths Divinity School. The first book was “Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction” by Margaret Guenther. This book gave me insight about how to speak and how to listen. As my mother moved from chair to bed, and while she was still quite verbal, I began encouraging her to share stories of her life and I began connecting those stories to the story of love, of acceptance, of forgiveness that I believe to be the core of a spiritual-walk.
As I became exposed to these teachings, I began to become a conscious midwife to my mother’s transition process. I began to practice being much more direct with her, “what do you want me to do for you?” Through the teachings in this thin volume, I came to reframe and even celebrate her direct statements of need, “I don’t care if you’re comfortable, I need you next to me,” became a cause for celebration as I read Guenther’s words that, “[t]o be able to say what one truly wants or where one is in pain is a great step toward achieving order in one’s spiritual household” (1992:26). I remembered then how many years my mother had acquiesced to others as she denied herself. I began realizing that this process of transition was her process. I began transforming my own role from the “one who does for,” to the “one who waits with.”
I didn’t keep much of a journal during that special time. But I did write occasional notes to myself as I sat by her side, day-by-day, over those four months. I wrote notes to myself about how frustrated I was and about how difficult it was to get my ego out of the picture as I began more consciously holding space for her transition. I wrote for example: “I gave her a hug, this morning, hoping for some kind of acknowledgment that I am here…that I am helping. She only winced in pain. I asked the nurse for more morphine.”
I wrote notes about forgiveness and about the deepening relationship that comes when we simply allow the moments to unfold, together. As Guenther reminded me, midwifery to the soul meant I was not in control of the process even when the outcome was expected and known. So I strove to detach a bit and found myself to be more at peace when I did. It helped to be a “witness-with,” rather than attempting to orchestrate the flow.
I realized, at some point during the long weeks that I sat with Mom, listening to music that might soothe her, reading to her from books that might ease her pain, that my entire life had been about trying to fix her. Yet, from Guenther I was learning that, my role was not to repair, make right, or otherwise “help.” Instead, it was to simply to be present with her, to share in what we were co-creating, and to feel the love between us grow as we sat in this space together—even when she couldn’t acknowledge that I was at her side. As I noted one day when I truly began to understand what holding space is all about: “What a gift you have given me to be able to just sit and witness you…You gave me the gift of Life, Mom. That is enough.”
This perspective, as Miller and Cutshall note in their book, “The Art of Being a Healing Presence” was about opening to transformation in myself, even as I allowed for the process of transitioning to be my mother’s. By opening myself to become a healing presence, I realized that I didn’t need to fix her but that I could just witness and honor her, knowing that I was not in charge (and that I was not responsible for her choices).
As I let go of this fallacy and instead just settled into each moment, I realized there was a Power beyond both of us who was “in control.” I relaxed some then and finally began to Trust. This was a tremendously liberating feeling and I cried a long time the moment I first had this insight.
As a result of this deep surrender, I became more authentic with my mom during each passing day. I found myself more easily expressing my grief and joy and I settled into letting my own emotions flow. I committed myself to really envisioning her inherent wholeness, and I became more open to receiving whatever gifts might come through this willingness to wait on the Mystery.
The gifts that came from this new perspective were, indeed, amazing. One day, for example, while deep in prayer that Mom might be able to receive the blessings of the moment in whatever way would be in her highest good, I leaned close and hugged her gently. She hadn’t spoken in weeks. Since reading these two books, but mostly since allowing myself to be since I could not do anything at all, I had been more at peace. In that moment, I was in a place of complete Trust. I felt connected to a Power beyond either of us, and I felt suspended between worlds, as she was.
At that moment, I needed nothing from her. I had written earlier in the day, “sitting with you in these hours of waiting allows me to experience the thinning Veil even as you do.” In that space, I was allowing myself to be filled by the Connected-Presence that was freely available to us both across the Veil. As I leaned close, the words she spoke (which were among her last to me) were these, “thank-you, thank-you, thank-you, thank-you.” She spoke these words slowly and deliberately. In them, I heard the validation and gratitude I had yearned for my whole life. Yet, because they came when I no longer needed this acknowledgement they were even more deeply received. They came four times—solid, earthly, and foundational, like whispers from the four sacred directions of our three-dimensional world. I heard them resonate through her four stages of life, from birth, to youth, to elder, to ancestor. In that moment, I felt her spirit lift above the limitations of her body and her mind. I felt her speak directly from a place of higher vision. It was a deeply healing moment from beyond the Veil.
The timing of my mother’s passing was also amazing. In retrospect I realize that she was clearly doing work—not just for herself and her own soul’s evolution but for many, many others as she labored. This beautiful woman, who had been so apparently unable to give and receive before beginning the long journey of her transition seemed completely transformed by the process. But, physically, it was almost unbearable to watch.
By the tenth day without any liquid in her system, even her hospice nurse was surprised at how the body was hanging on. We were turning her every two hours and her body’s ability to regulate temperature was failing. Her legs and feet were icy-cold even as her midsection was hot to the touch. She gurgled as she breathed, between bouts of apnea that lasted as long as a minute. Her pulse was thready, and vacillated between being very, very slow and very, very fast. Still, she was somewhat conscious, even with the maximum allowable dose of morphine, and she groaned each time we turned her. I prayed and begged for her release. When I went to get some lunch, I called Oscar in tears and said I couldn’t take it anymore. He agreed it was time and helped facilitate a ritual of release. And still, her body held on for four more days.
On Wednesday afternoon, after spending the night with her on Tuesday, I was at my wits’ end. Only then did it occur to me to ask for help and to reach into the tradition that I have practiced with the kind of blind-faith I usually reserve for moments of life-threatening emergency. I pressed the most sacred stone from my healing altar into her hand and begged all the powers of the Unseen World to assist her. I cried the tears of someone with no options, with no strength, with no hope. I let go in a whole new way. And then I left, calling to the heavens that I had done enough. I shouted in my head that I “choose life” and that this witness to her death was beyond my ability to hold, anymore.
Later that evening, about a half-hour before I planned to head back down the hill to be with her, and just about 8:45 pm, which is a time when people in the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition all over the world are “linking up,” to create an immense container of healing and of light, my mother’s body finally released the spirit that inhabited it for more than 91 years. I realized almost immediately that she was being assisted in her transition by all the powers of the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition that I had called upon—and by all those touched by this sacred practice who were “linking up” that evening.
This experience helped the “doubting Thomas” in me to realize, once again, that I don’t have to be in charge because there is a Power infinitely greater, infinitely wiser, and infinitely more loving than I can ever imagine that is loving and holding, and caring for me. This Mystery champions and acknowledges me in ways that release me from all loneliness, all sense of disconnection.
Only later did I realize that the night of my mother’s passing was also the night of the Wesak Moon. It was the night of May 14, 2014. And although I have no way of knowing, I choose to believe that her soul’s work, during all the weeks of her body’s labor facilitated a final karmic release for her soul as well as for many, many other souls—freeing and guiding these directly to the Bliss of the farther shore.
As Heather Plett has so aptly described in her web-based article, “What it means to hold space for people as well as 8 tips on how to do it well,” (http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/) when we hold space for others, we walk alongside them “in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control.”
This definition of holding space is one that I know deeply, as I have been able to experience it with my mother. But, now, as I re-read more than a year later the notes I wrote just five days before her transition I am reminded of yet another gift she gave me through being witness to her passage:
I realized today that your difficulties making decisions over the course of your life and your tendency to put things off—always waiting for tomorrow—has driven me to the opposite extreme in my life. This apparent deficit of yours is probably what allowed for my own soul’s evolution to take place, for I have never been afraid of risks and have opened deeply to experiences in ways you never did. I realize now that this has probably been our soul-contract and it helps me to understand—no, more than understand it fills me with such gratitude—how it is that our dance was always meant to unfold. I feel such overwhelming love for you right now.
The whole time that I assumed you were the one struggling to accept yourself, and in dire need of an “awakening” I now realize that you have been the Bodhisattva I needed on my evolutionary path. For your lack of willingness to engage with me or anyone, to reach across the void of human relationship has left me no choice but to engage, deeply. This has been such a gift to me. You have been such a gift to me. I love you, today, in a whole new way. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Mom.
As Heather Plett also reminds us on her website, in holding space for others, we often find them holding space for us. As I held space for my mother, she held space for me. And, as we held space together, we were both held in the arms of the Great Originating Mystery for whom nothing is mysterious. As we waited together, we were both given all that was needed for our souls’ respective unfolding. As we waited together in the space of unknowing, we were both held tenderly—yet firmly—in Love.
BONNIE GLASS-COFFIN, Ph.D, is an internationally recognized professor of anthropology at Utah State University. She has studied with Peruvian curanderos since 1982 and is author of The Gift of Life: Female Spirituality and Healing in Northern Peru. She began apprenticing with don Oscar in 2005, experiencing the transformative power of these wisdom teachings and integrating these deeply into her life. This deep apprenticeship has enabled her to take a leading role in presenting OMQ’s life-work to a wide audience. She currently lives in Logan, Utah. Visit Bonnie’s website at bonnieglasscoffin.com.
Grof, Stanislav and Christina Grof, eds.
1989 Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Tarcher Publications.
1992 Holy Listening: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Lanham: Cowley Publications.
Miller, James E. with Susan C. Cutshall
2012 The Art of Being a Healing Presence: A Guide for Those in Caring Relationships. Fort Wayne: Willowgreen Publishing.
2015 (March 11) What it means to hold space for people plus 8 tips on how to do it well. Published online at http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/. Last accessed 7/27/15.