How Grief Manifests in the Body & Why Body-Based Approaches to Bereavement Support Improved Therapeutic Outcome

This is an abbreviation of a paper (lit review) that I wrote in 2015 as partial fulfilment of my MSc Bereavement Studies. More and more, in clinical practice, I see how effective a 'bottom-up' approach is to ensure positive therapeutic outcomes for those seeking support during bereavement. 

How does grief manifest in the body?

Modern medical science testifies to the physical effects of grief in the body in a very tangible way and this literature review will show that there is no shortage of research into specific biological phenomena that occur in the constitution of the bereaved, yet most of the bereavement support on offer is from a uniquely cognitive perspective. So what happens when the physiological aspects of grief are not addressed during grief work, are we only half-supporting that person? Most bereaved people do not think or talk themselves into grief; is it therefore logical to expect them to think or talk themselves out of it? Many bereaved people speak of the visceral discomfort they experience in their bodies following the death of a loved one and how lonely this unacknowledged physical experience can be. This literature review shall highlight how grief is manifested in the body and show ways that clinicians are working with it to date.

A bereaved Irish mother writes in her blog:

“As a Clinical Psychologist in adult mental health, I was becoming more interested in forms of therapy that complement the talking therapies. I was looking for ways “in” to trauma and the source of all the pain the
body carries. We are like the layers of an onion. Talking gets to some of the layers and how deep we reach depends on how safe a person feels in their relationship with a therapist. I was beginning to experience the healing work of creative therapies like art, drama, music and movement. Creative expression can bring people out of their head and into their heart, they can help us to access the deeper layers of the self.”

(Sheila Boland, 2015)

REVIEWING THE LITERATURE

The Physiology of grief

“Among the most common physical responses to loss are trouble sleeping and low energy....Muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, feelings of emptiness in your stomach, tightness in your throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, queasiness, nausea, headaches, increased allergy symptoms, changes in appetite, weight loss and gain, agitation and generalized tension”.

(Wolfelt, 2007).

Grief can result in significant decrements in health (Stroebe et al, 2007). The likelihood of bereaved spouses to suffer a sudden cardiac death rises significantly in the six months following the death (Mostofsky et al, 2011) and traumatic grief symptoms can precede illnesses such as cancer (Prigerson et al, 1999). The stress of grief can suppress the immune system (Vitlic et al, 2014). Other illnesses that have been linked to bereavement are ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and asthma, as well as endocrine changes (Jacobs, 1993). High levels of cortisol (O’Connor et al, 2011) are responsible for weakening the immune system and also causing the thalamus to produce less white blood cells, leaving the bereaved individual highly susceptible to a variety of illnesses and disease (Gray, 2013). Although decrements in health following bereavement have been significantly researched, “the mechanism remains largely unexplained, possibly due the perceived difficulties in conducting research at a time of great distress” (Buckley et al, 2012).

From another perspective, the physiological expression of grief has been subdivided into controlled (intentional, reflective) and automatic (unintentional/reflexive) by McCrystal et al (2011) who strived to validate the dual process model by correlating it with physical manifestation of the grief response:

This ‘automatic’ expression of grief is described by a participant in Hentz’s (2002) qualitative research:

“It was just taking over my body...going into the depths all over again. Although it is not as bad as the actual event, I went pretty low again. I stopped sleeping and I had symptoms like depression... it just kind of takes over for a couple of months. It is almost a sense of feeling that you are just falling apart.”

This lady is describing the embodiment of her grief (Munhall, 1992) – the concept that the body is the representation of our consciousness and all that we are and feel is reflected in the body: “Pain lives in the flesh as well as in words” (Desjarlais, 1992). In her study, Hentz’s concludes that “Traditional models of grief counseling with emphasis on cognitive, emotional and behavioral outcomes need to be revisited.”

Attachment, Neuroscience and Grief

Lindemann (1944) and Engel (1964) were among the first theorists to observe a biological response to grief and Parkes (1972) was one of the first to produce quantative research in mortality rates among widows/widowers. Hofer (1984) believed that those we have attachments to act as external regulators for our behavior which are lost when someone dies. These losses cause upheaval in the body and only eases with new attachments (new external regulators) are made. Research into traumatized adolescents (Warner et al, 2014) found that they had pervasive problems with self-regulation which is an immediate goal in the first phase of treatment (Cloitre et al, 2012). Dance movement therapy has been shown to have beneficial effects on these neurophysiological regulation systems (Schore, 2003).

Archer (1999) examines the similarities between separation reactions in children and responses to bereavement in adults. Archer cites research that showed when human infants were separated from their mothers, those with higher levels of separation anxiety showed increased cortisol levels (Tennes et al, 1977). Bowlby (1969) and Parkes, heavily rooted in psychoanalysis and influenced by evolutionary biology, made links between attachment theory and the grief response. This was similar to how ethologists viewed the functions of separation responses in animals, ensuring caregiving, mating, etc. When separation (or death) occurs, features such as depression, anxiety, sleep loss and nervous system arousal are typical (Parkes, 1985).

One of the very first studies on the functional neuroanatomy of grief was conducted by Gundel et al, (2003). They conducted MRI scans on bereaved individuals, prompting a grief response by talking about their deceased loved ones. They concluded that:

“grief is mediated by a distributed neural network that subserves affect processing, mentalizing, episodic memory retrieval, processing of familiar faces, visual imagery, autonomic regulation and modulation/coordination of these functions. This neural network may account for the unique, subjective quality of grief and provide new leads in understanding the health consequences of grief and the neurobiology of attachment”.

Studies by Lang (1979) also show a correlation between that emotionally laden imagery and quantifiable autonomic responses, saying that we store emotional memories as associative networks that can be activated by external stimuli. It is with this knowledge that dance movement therapists work, implicitly understanding the connection between neurological processing and the physical body. The next steps should involve making this knowledge more explicit through empirical research, as identified by O’Connor (2005), with her invitation to a conversation between bereavement researchers and neuroscientists.

Trauma, Grief & Traumatic Grief

Grief and trauma are separate entities, but a person can simultaneously manifest symptoms of both if the death causes traumatic distress (Jacobs, 1999). Some people would argue that any death of a loved one, for many people, is a traumatic experience.

"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in”.

(Lewis, 1968)

Rando (1993) outlined some factors that can predispose individuals to traumatic grief such as sudden or unexpected death, accidents, child death, family member, death of someone close, “along with the bereaved’s predisposition to traumatic grief”. It is worth discussing the effects of trauma in the body because of similarities in the grief response. It is important to note, like grief, trauma is a very individual reaction. Some people will not experience trauma if they lose a loved one in very difficult circumstances, others may suffer trauma even though the death of their loved one was peaceful and expected.

In his article The body keeps the score, van der Kolk (1994) discusses psychic numbing, avoidance, amnesia and anhedonia as ‘responses to extreme experiences are so consistent across traumatic stimuli that this biphasic reaction appears to be the normative response to any overwhelming and uncontrollable experience’. It is also safe to say that the death of a loved one is often outside our control and, even when expected, can be overwhelming. Thus the physical responses to bereavement have many similarities to trauma, ‘shutting down’ or numbing, in between periods of intense hyper arousal or fight or flight responses.

“Despite the difficulties in conducting physiologically based studies in the early bereavement period, current evidence suggests that such a severely distressing life event is associated with increased cortisol secretion that potentially contributes to increased cognitive arousal resulting in sleep disturbance, especially in those with intense or prolonged grief reactions”

(Buckley et al, 2012).

Van der Kolk felt that talk therapy, exploring thoughts and feelings, was not helping his patients to move on, in some cases, it was making them get worse and there was an increase in suicide attempts among his patients. He recognized that these people whose bodies had been completely derailed by trauma would never be able to talk themselves back into equilibrium: “Their physiological housekeeping systems had been messed up by trauma” and that even a supportive therapeutic encounter wasn’t enough to reverse the profound physical and emotional changes wrought in his patients by pervasive trauma. This is backed-up by research on fear and brain functioning (Ledoux, 1998), which shows that the body, in a state of anxiety, stress or fear, increases adrenaline and cortisol production which reduces blood flow to the frontal lobes, leaving it difficult for us to access our thoughts (Homann, 2010).

Van der Kolk travelled to Puerto Rico in 1989 following hurricane Hugo and was witness to the devastating aftermath. The people, however, were quietly and successfully working together to clear the debris and making attempts to reorganize the chaos. Officials soon instructed the people to stop the work so that the damage could be assessed.

“Very quickly, an enormous amount of violence broke out – rioting, looting, assault. All this energy mobilized by the disaster, which had gone into a flurry of rebuilding and recovery activity, now was turned on everybody else. Preventing people from moving when something terrible happens, that ‘s one of the things that makes a trauma a trauma....Fundamentally, words can’t integrate the disorganized sensations and action patterns that form the core imprint of the trauma.”

As advances in technology became widespread, research was able to validate van der Kolk’s hypotheses. A neuroimaging team scanned the brains of eight trauma survivors. When triggered, they immediately dissociated and their left frontal cortex shut down, especially noticeable in the area responsible for speech, meaning that they found it difficult to think or speak (Wylie, 2004).

“The imprint of trauma doesn’t ‘sit’ in the verbal, understanding, part of the brain, but in much deeper regions- amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, brain stem – (similar to the grief response) which are only marginally affected by thinking and cognition. These studies showed that people process their trauma from the bottom up – body to mind – not top down” van der Kolk.

Van der Kolk then went on to postulate the need to help patients to regulate these core functions, acknowledging that words and language alone would probably not be sufficient.

The Limits of Talk

According to Stroebe and Schut (2007) there is “growing understanding about factors that either complicate the course of grief over time, raise the risk of other mental and physical disabilities or both. Progress has also been made in the design and provision of psychological intervention for those who need it”, however, there is no mention of progress in the provision of physical intervention for those who need it, despite the very clear understanding that grief has a definite physical manifestation. To date, the research has been conducted in segments; but what about the body as a whole? The body as a representation of consciousness?

Van der Kolk was one of the first ‘mainstream’ psychiatrists who highlighted the effects of intense psychological disturbances on the body. This brought him into a whole new arena of practitioners who had been working with somatic memory for many years.

Babette Rothschild was one of the individuals. Rothschild clearly outlines the psychobiology of our innate stress response which can be triggered by trauma. The Body Remembers (2000) was one of the first publications to bridge the gap between the scientific theory and clinical practice of psychobiology, as well as talk therapy and body therapy, with a body-mind integration being central to the process.

Peter Levine (1997) postulates that trauma happens, not because of an actual event, but because it is not processed sufficiently in the body. Levine felt that trauma could physically manifest because of the body’s inability to fight or flight, in war, for example, or during rape, thus resulting in a multitude of un-discharged arousal energy. Levine also went on to say that the traumatized individual, in an attempt to discharge this energy, will often re-enact a similar traumatic event over and over again, similar to how someone with complicated grief can not seem to let go of the yearning for the deceased. Similar to trauma, grief “can interfere with the ability to think clearly, to make decisions and judgments, and problem solve” (Shear, K). While studies have shown that CBT as part of complicated grief therapy is more effective

than psychotherapy, there is empirical evidence that at times of dysregulation, the benefits of cognitive approaches to regulation are significantly decreased
(Raio et al, 2013).

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a body therapy developed by Pat Ogden (2000) who witnessed the dissociation experience of her patients when talking about difficult events that had happened in their past, including bereavement. She found that by- passing talk was necessary to bring about true relief from symptoms and, like Levine and Rothschild, Ogden recognized that traumatic events were activating the right amygdala and triggering fight or flight mode. Her clients, on talking about their trauma, would experience a wide range of body sensations that they didn’t understand and couldn’t make sense of verbally.

A dance movement therapist is trained to identify and work with any bio- psychosocial situation that may surface during the therapy. Emotional, physical and perceptual processes are simultaneously engaged (Homan, 2010) in a dynamic interchange between body and mind. Could this be the highly energetic and physical solution to trauma that van der Kolk identified in the Puerto Ricans after Hugo? Traditional grief work is a verbal process that relies primarily on language initially, whilst dipping in and out of emotional states. With dance movement therapy (dmt), the body is the primary language which offers ‘direct access to implicit processing” (Homann, 2010). Only when emotions and feelings have been physically integrated does language come into play, to further cement the integration process. Rosenburg et al (1985), developed Integrative Body Psychotherapy which is acknowledgement of the need to include both mind and body for therapy to be effective: “Our success has come from recognizing that our being, our essential self, is grounded in the body; that ignoring the body is to have very limited lasting success in treatment of psychological pain”.

One study involving dmt to support bereaved parents (Callahan, 2011) showed that movement explorations assist in the discovery of the unfamiliar, while repatterning of negative body sensations into positive ones, guides the healing process after

tragic events (e.g., the release of negative tension through breath work ultimately promoted a shift to a slightly more positive outlook).

The above therapies do not rely on the retelling of the stories, but rather the physical implications in the present moment. This is perhaps, one of the key differences between treating trauma and grief, where the importance of the telling and retelling of the bereavement story (Neimeyer, 2000) is key to moving through grief and accommodating to the loss. However, when talk therapy won’t shift complicated grief, it is worth looking at physiological approaches such as body-based therapies and the creative arts therapies where the relevance of these therapies to bereaement may come fully into play.

What are the gaps?

Many of the studies on body-based therapies were conducted with few individuals, lacked comparison groups, were not randomly assigned and were only preliminary studies that needed future development with more stringent controls. There is a chicken and egg scenario where science tends to ignore therapies that have no empirical support and scientific funding organizations are slow and hesitant to support research in practices that are not backed-up by empirical research. This means that many potentially useful treatments that are birthed in clinical practice remain unproven and are often considered unethical by theorists.

Summary

Whilst there is plenty of research into the physiological manifestation of grief, there is a dearth of treatment outcome research on somatic interventions. Where these interventions are being successful, they are often not scientifically documented and most somatic interventions for grief have yet to be subjected to empirical investigation. Further research is needed to build on this growing body of evidence that movement or body-based therapies could significantly contribute to increments of health in bereaved individuals and help people to achieve a ‘new normal’ where talk therapy hasn’t been effective. Given that between 4.6% (Prigerson et al, 1999) and 22.2% (Horowitz et al, 1997) of bereaved people suffer from prolonged grief disorder, there is a compelling need for prospective longitudinal evaluations to determine if body-based therapies could effectively support people suffering from complicated grief, employing a ‘bottom up’ approach, linking theory to ‘proven’ clinical practice. Our bodies carry our experiences, our stories and our felt sense of everything that has happened to us. They carry a wealth of information when we can get ‘out of our heads’ long enough to listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us. As long as clinicians continue to treat grief as a primarily cognitive experience, treatment outcomes will be limited.

Open Floor Movement Practice in the Jungle refugee camp, Calais, Feb 16

Here is an account of my experience bringing Open Floor to the refugees in the Jungle, Calais. Just two weeks after my trip, French officials demolished everything that you see in this video, except the Good Chance Theatre. 

Day 1 of 4
We left Paris at 9am this morning, a three hour trip to Calais in front of us. The sun was shining in the windows and I was filled with hope and optimism for what lay ahead of us. An hour into the trip, it started to snow, followed quickly by heavy rain which pelted down relentlessly for the rest of the journey. My mind immediately went to our destination The Jungle, the people there living under tarps and tents, living for months, some even years, in these conditions that were just about manageable in our cozy hire car. 

We checked out the location of our accommodation and decided to drive around and get our bearings. The first thing to hit us when we arrived in Calais was the presence of so many police. Police van after police van lined the streets. It became apparent that we were nearing the camp when we started to pass hoards of young men, either walking to town or back to camp. No women, no children, just lots and lots of men. A wave of intimidation rippled through me, which I ignored. The entrance to the camp had a heavy police presence. I pulled up the hire car and jumped out to talk to them, they weren’t in the mood for a chat. “We’re going into the camp, we’re going to help out at the theatre, can you tell me where it is?” . “No, Madame”. I asked was it okay to bring in the car or should we leave it outside, “I don’t know, Madame, I don’t know what goes on in there”. “Okay, so”, I kept on with them, “is it okay to park our car here beside your van?”. “No, Madame”. I jumped back into the car and Stacey and I decided to go on in. Two other police men were just ahead of us so I thought I’d try my luck again. Initially they were as helpful as the first two, then one of them felt sorry for us and told us that cars go in and out all the time. He then wished us good luck. As we drove away, I really hoped that we wouldn’t need the luck….and we didn’t. 

We drove onto a dirt track, flanked either side by vast, empty spaces. We later learnt that these had recently been bulldozed to keep residents of the Jungle from living too close to the motorway. Just past this space and the Jungle experience began. The first hut on the right hand side (made with wood and plastic sheeting) was a shop. I pulled down the window and we were greeted by a very smiley young man who put his hand into the car to shake our hands. I asked him if he knew the way to the theatre, but he didn’t understand me. “The Theatre? Good Chance? Dancing? Music?”. He shook his head, lost. I then did a little boogie with my body – “Ah, yes!”. He jumped into the back seat along with a friend – “drive, we show you”. We drove into the camp, our car parting seas of young men who were walking together, chatting, smoking, on phones. Rocks and potholes filled with water and mud were all over the path which we followed. We passed tents, make-shift shelters, caravans and works-in-progress for about 400meters – each one sitting right on top of the one before, the ‘road’ snaking among them. People looked at us, but mostly didn’t react in any particular way. There were lots of white-skinned people standing around talking to each other, many young volunteers from the UK, some there for a few weeks, others have been there for a few months, each doing whatever they can to make a difference.

Our two new friends brought us right to the theatre and then jumped out of the car, wishing us luck and off they went. It felt like a safe, hospitable and friendly environment. I felt good there, it reminded me of a trip to Morocco last year, albeit without the colour – the Jungle is very grey and colorless. We met with Amy and Benin, two British volunteers who have been managing the Good Chance Theatre. It was evident on arrival that the Theatre is a popular space – a volleyball match had just come to an end and lots of young Afghani lads were still hanging around, in good spirits from the game. They had recently been donated the volleyball net and the young men were loving this new sport. As we went in, hand after hand was thrust at us, along with names that I couldn’t pronounce and knew that I probably wouldn’t remember. They were curious about us, what we were doing here, what sort of dance were we going to offer. Before I knew it, I was standing alongside one of the men, following his steps and learning my first Afghan dance……

Another young man was standing at the side of the tent, singing. He had a beautiful, distinct voice, singing in a language that I didn’t recognize. He glanced back subtly to see if we were listening to him. Amy, our hostess, was at one side of the tent having a heart-to-heart with a young boy who couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old. He looked sad and she was giving him her full attention. I wondered about his story. When Amy was ready, we chatted about the logistics of the next few days, the times we would work, how we would work, with whom we would work. Although there are twenty or so different nationalities in the camp, the main users of the Good Chance Theatre are Afghan teenage boys. 

Amy and her colleague Benin invited us to dinner in one of the local Afghan restaurants. The Jungle is full of restaurants, shops, hairdressers, even a nightclub – all self-organized and set-up by the residents, sometimes with the help of volunteers. 

We walked past some of these shops and homes, I was trying hard not to stare or look shocked, trying to appear as though I was right at home there. But my peripheral vision was hard at work, taking it all in. The horse trough filled with water where men were cleaning their feet – perhaps getting ready to pray? The young boy, maybe ten, wearing a pink coat with fur-lined hood – who had owned that before him? Did he care that it was pink or was he just glad not to be cold? The graffiti on some of the shelters “Fuck privilege”, “Never give up”, “Open the borders”. I wondered how they felt about us privileged ones walking among their homes. I was struck by the beauty of these men, by their smiles, by the way they greeted us, by the hands of friendship that were being thrust at us whenever we encountered someone new. 

Benin ordered some tea for us, along with 2 plates of spinach, 2 plates of beans, 2 plates of rice and some bread that resembled naan. The tea came, full of honey and milk – we drank it gratefully. The restaurant was quite large, bigger than many of the restaurants in my hometown of Greystones. There were groups of men sitting around, and a few young boys. One boy came up to our table to talk to Amy. His upper lip was just beginning to sprout hair; maybe fourteen years old? He was a beautiful looking child, who smiled and greeted us politely, declining Amy’s offer to join us for dinner. I wanted to ask about him, where’s his family, does he have a mother, is he here alone… so many unanswered questions. I kept quiet, not wanting to be an annoying newcomer. Apparently there are a lot of annoying newcomers, people who think they are doing good, coming in at weekends and chatting to residents, but mostly taking photos of people who don’t want to be photographed or just being voyeuristic. I checked myself for that too, more than once. Benin told us that a group of about 10 French and British volunteers had come in one weekend and didn’t talk to anyone, they set about collecting rubbish. They spent the weekend collecting rubbish and removing it from the camp. He told us that it was the single most useful act of support that he had witnessed since his arrival. 

A TV was playing in a corner with a group of youths watching it. In another corner, three men were talking intently to each other, affectionately touching each others legs as they spoke. I could see nothing but community and connection everywhere I looked. Another young boy came over to our table and made a beeline for Amy. He had an iPhone in his hand and wondered if it was Amy’s – her phone had been stolen the day before, this kid had just bought the iPhone for €30 of the busy black market that opens up every evening as dusk falls. Stacey wondered if she’d be able to upgrade to an iPhone 6 for €30 and got quite excited for a few minutes. 

I had expected the camp to be more dirty, more smelly than it was. There was a bit of a whiff walking past the portable toilets, but I’ve seen and smelt worse at Electric Picnic. I did see one man pissing at the side of the road – a French policeman. 

We ate our dinner and thanked the chef, paying him €22 for the five of us who had eaten and drank and then Benin walked us back to our car. Back at the car, there was a group of guys, some of the ones that we had chatted to earlier. One of them looked at me and asked me to give him my passport – “I want to go to the UK” he said. I told him I’m not British, I’m Irish. “I don’t care, I’ll go to Ireland” he retorted. “I don’t think you’d get away with it” I said, “you don’t really look like me”. “I can be a woman, I can dress up”. I smiled at him, it was half a joke and half desperation. “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?” I said, “we’re starting at 12.00”. He looked down at his feet and responded “I didn’t come here to dance, I came here to get a life in the UK”. 

We drove out of the Jungle, about 2 hours after we had gone in. Three minutes later and we were back in the centre of Calais, surrounded by opulence and privilege. The juxtaposition hit us like a ton of bricks. I asked Stacey to pass me the packet of chocolate biscuits that we had left on the back seat of the car, but they were gone. We looked at each other and laughed – “those guys took our biscuits”. But as we were closing up the car, we spotted the box under the passenger seat where it had fallen – we were humiliated and humbled in equal measure.

Tomorrow at midday, we will introduce Open Floor Movement Practice to the people of the Jungle... x

IMG_3298.jpg

Day 2 of 4
We started with a good breakfast and discreetly managed to slip some croissants into my laptop case for lunch. With plenty of time, we drove down Rue de Garennes towards the main entrance of the Jungle. Today, however, there was a police blockade across the entrance – looking for passports. We had left our passports at the hotel, so turned the car around. A young man approached us, looking for a lift to the train track. “Jump in”, we invited. Driving back down the long Rue de Garennes, he rolled down the window and roared out a big “hello” to several groups of his friends that we passed along the way, jeering at them that he had got a lift. “They are my friends” he said. “They WERE your friends”, I answered and we all laughed. Then the tone changed – “Can you help me get to the UK, I need to get there?”. Stacey told him that there was nothing we could do, that we would help if we could, but we simply couldn’t. He thanked us for the lift and jumped out of the car, turning to give us a thumbs-up sign. 

Fifteen minutes later we were back at Rue de Garennes, passports in hand. There was a delay up ahead of us as the police thoroughly checked everyone’s passports on their system. As we waited, I spoke to the policeman who had stopped us. I asked him about his job, was it difficult for him. “Yes, it’s difficult. There are some people who have really left difficult situations behind, but there are others, bad ones, who are just taking advantage. They’re not all nice in there”. Then he got annoyed with me – “Don’t you have problems in your own country? Why do you have to come here to see our problems?”. 

We eventually got in and followed the same path as yesterday. Our next hold-up was a large sanitization truck which was in the middle of the road, a man in an orange coat using a power hose to clean out the toilets. I was impressed with how thorough he was and glad that someone was doing that job. Just before 12, we arrived at the theatre and started to set-up our laptop and equipment. Very soon, a group of young men surrounded us. One small boy took over the mouse and started navigating his way with ease through my iTunes library. He was six years old, same age as my twins at home. Someone asked me if I would take him home to live with my family. I hoped so much that these kids would get out soon, and be afforded a proper life somewhere safe. 

Around the edges of the dome, another fifty or so men stood or sat watching us. No matter how much we coaxed, mostly they wouldn’t budge, content to just sit and watch. Some brave souls did join us though and we started off our session with about 8 or 10 people joining us in a circle. We did some body scans, warming up the body from head to toe, slowly introducing some movement, focusing our attention in our legs and feet, using the feet as anchor. I didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak mine, but we managed to understand each other and take cues from the body language. Twenty minutes later, we were taking turns leading the group from one side of the room to the other, taking turn leading while everyone behind imitated and followed – it was a lot of fun! Some of the younger men started taking risks, trying to get Stacey or I to imitate their very suggestive hip gestures and the men around the outside laughed when we wouldn’t do it. 

We really had to think on our feet, working with this group, people coming in and out of the dome all the time. Some people game for a dance, others wanting none of it. Nobody spoke French and some had very broken English – giving instructions was going to be pointless, so we had to use our bodies to teach. We muddled through the first hour, managing to encourage the few who were dancing to keep moving and Stacey got the guys on the outside involved by clapping to the music. Then one young man arrived with his phone and asked if we would play some Afghan music that he had. This immediately brought life to the dome! Several of them took to the floor, forming a circle and finding a common rhythm. I joined them, as did a man from Eritrea and another man from Sudan. Amy was delighted, she told me that it was the first time she had seen the different nationalities dancing together. The men were really beautiful to watch as they moved, spinning their arms around, flicking their heads as they turned, a real feminine grace about their movements, which I’ve never seen in Western men. Each one seemed exceptionally handsome, their shyness making them seem quite vulnerable too. As I twirled and turned with them, following their lead, sometimes getting hit in the face by a moving arm if I went the wrong way, I really thought to myself, “Wow, this is a moment in time”. We had come to bring Open Floor Movement Practice to the refugees in the Jungle and here they were gifting us with their own dance, their own medicine. 

One young boy danced with us for the whole two hours, an orange scarf in his hand which he used as a prop for his dance. He moved with such grace and ease, he was a joy to accompany on the dance floor. He was young and playful, grabbing my glasses and putting them on himself. His dance was full of sensuality, longing and soulfulness, he was so out place in this grey, desolate environment. I wondered how he kept going, how he held on to the joy. Perhaps he was new enough to the Jungle and soon would be like the men who lined the sides of the dome, sullen, withdrawn and somewhat desolate. Another Sudanese man had been hanging around at the edges of the dome. I held my hand out towards him and with a smile, he took it and joined us for an Afghan dance. Later, I sat beside him on the bench and asked if he had any Sudanese music on his phone. I watched him unlock his phone – a photo of his mother as a screensaver with the words ‘I love you’ written across the photo. He gave me his phone to play a song, it was a slow one, a gentle African rhythm. We danced to his music and I noticed how so much of the movement was in the legs and hips, really grounding, unlike the Afghan music which screeched to incredibly high pitches and often grated on the ears. After his song was over, he joined his hands together and bowed towards me, then put his hand on his heart and said ‘thank you’. He told me that he’d be back the following day with more music and his friends. At that moment, I knew that what we were doing was ‘enough’. It wasn’t quite Open Floor, but we were tuning into our group and taking our lead from them and what they needed – and that is what Open Floor is all about. As Pema Chodron says, ‘Start where you are’. 

It was a long two hours for Stacey and I, we were both exhausted at the end of it. It had taken so much effort to engage the men and to try to communicate with them and encourage them to move with us. One young boy was very aggressive towards us, pretending that he was going to punch Stacey, stamping on my foot, kicking the table with our equipment on it. He was about fifteen years old and he was so ill at ease, just not okay in his skin. We later learnt that he is travelling alone and has a lot of psychological problems because of where he comes from. I left feeling disappointed that we hadn’t won him over.

After our session, we took a little walk around the camp. Today, we saw a fair few women and children. Three little ones were settling a doll into a buggy, taking care of their baby between them – they couldn’t have been more than three years old. Some older kids, maybe four or five, were playing in a makeshift playground. Kids bikes, buggies and rubbish were scattered throughout the camp in between the huts and tents and toilets. We found an Eritrean restaurant that had all the basics, like beer, wine and a selection of hookahs in many different colours. A lot of art and graffiti cover many of the wooden walls, peoples prayers for freedom, release from the jungle, love and peace. 

And then we drove back to Calais, the French port town where life goes on as if there aren’t 6,000 people living on mud across the river.

Day 3 of 4
We were braver and better prepared today, we managed to steal an entire baguette from the breakfast buffet, along with a selection of cheeses, meats and fruit. Stacey had organised a bag specifically for this purpose, so we didn’t have to fill my laptop case with food again. We headed off in the car, definitely more subdued than previous days, knowing that we had some hard work ahead of us. The police stopped us once again, checking our passports. The police at the entrance to the jungle wear a lot of armour on their clothes – big padded shoulders and arms – they look like terminators. The two who stopped us today were friendly and kind, one joking with the other that he felt like an idiot using the walkie-talkie and wanting his friend to do that. Driving through the same road as we had done on previous days, Stacey and I agreed that it really was such a dismal place – grey, black, wet, muddy – with just flickers of colourful hope every now and again, where someone’s art suggested a better reality to come. When we arrived into the theatre, there were a group of men and boys sitting around a heater. They had removed their boots and were trying to dry them out in front of the heat. The first person up to me was the boy from yesterday, who had been aggressive. I found out his name and his age – actually he’s only 12, not fifteen as I had guessed. I needed to set up the table and I asked him to help me, which he willingly did. Today, I won him over and we are friends.

We brought an orange from the breakfast table and used this to get some games going. We played a name game, throwing the orange around in the circle – it went well for some time. One young man really wanted to dance, so we let him lead us to screechy Afghan music, back and forth across the room as we followed, imitating his hand gestures and his steps. The outskirts of the circle started filling up with lots of people, all very willing to be spectators, but too shy, too reserved to move with us. Some of them had a flicker in the eye that told me there was a potential dancer inside, others had just gone through too much for it to be a consideration at this time. 

There was a new boy in the theatre today. He was dressed in some sort of armour that resembled a black ninja turtle. He danced and moved and ran in between us, full of energy. But that kid needed so much more than dance, he needed a punch bag, he needed to scream, he needed to be lanced – so much anger inside him that he could barely contain it. At one point, he asked me to knock against him with my body, which I did. I banged against him as he banged against me, this went on for some time, until my arm had had enough and I drew it to an end. He was annoyed about this and kicked me as he walked off. He threw a punch at someone else as he left the theatre. The people in the Jungle are having to learn so much about containment.

As we moved in the centre of the theatre, doing our very best to encourage onlookers to come and join us, there were quite a few scuffles going on – three different fights in the space of about 30 minutes. We learnt that the French police had announced that 1,000 people are to be evicted from the Jungle in the coming week and this has caused much tension and fear among the residents. I’m not quite sure what this means – where the hell do they go?

Then Amy arrived in breathless, apologizing for having been missing, but someone’s home had caught fire and she was involved with helping to control the blaze. The smell of the burning home was wafting into the theatre as we danced around in circles to the same Afghan song, over and over again “Armani, Armani, Armani, Armani”: clap, spin to the right, spin to the left, clap, clap, turn. I thought to myself if I spin anymore, I’m going to throw up, but I kept going and I didn’t throw up and soon found myself quite enjoying the rhythmic repetition. Then a new man joined us. He was disheveled and unshaved, his clothes were filthy and I thought by the look on his face that he was either drunk or on drugs. As his two friends dragged him into the circle and thrust him towards the other dancers, I found myself constricting in my body. And then he started to move, dancing in the circle with the same grace and dedication as the others, a look of utter yearning on his face as he moved to long- forgotten music from his long-forgotten homeland. I hated myself in that moment, for having judged him at first. The more I watched the faces of these brave souls as they moved around and around together dancing to each others music, accepting each others cultures, supporting each other, encouraging each other, the smaller and smaller I felt. They have so much to teach us here. 

After an hour or so, we had to shut down the music to respect the Muslim prayer time. All the nationalities reminded us that this was prayer time and we needed to respect this. I was impressed how all religions tolerated this interruption out of respect for their muslim friends. Stacey and I were glad of a break, we happily sat in the theatre for an hour while we waiting for prayer time to come to an end. It was such an effort to keep everyone engaged and moving with us. Stacey told me that she had a pain in her face from ‘fake smiling’ and I told her that I thought that’s what had given me a mirgraine the previous day – keeping up the smiles and appearances while sweating inside, wondering what the fuck we really have to offer these people? Neither of us have ever met with such resistence and such willing participation all at once. During the break, we spoke with some of the men in the space. There was quite a nice conversation happening around the fire until one man decided it was a good idea to grab my ass. I left that conversation but it did leave me wondering about the safety of the jungle for the women and the young people there. That’s why they tend to stay at home or in the women and childrens centre, where they are safe. Another man from Afghanistan told me that he had been living in the UK and has an Indian girlfriend and a three-year old child there. He was working in a pizzeria in Birmingham and had stolen £50 and was caught. Now he couldn’t get back into the UK. He asked me if it were easy to get into the UK from Ireland, if he could take a coach from Belfast or a boat to Liverpool and do the police there check passports? Life is on pause for all of these people as they dream of freedom on the other side of the English channel. 

Our Sudanese men from the day before returned and were much quicker to take to the dance floor today. They were happy and smiling – Stacey had downloaded a bunch of Sudanese music which we played for them. It was a relief to dance to the slow, steady rhythm of the african music as all the Afghan spinning was making me feel quite dizzy and unsteady! Before leaving, one of the men asked for an Open Floor t-shirt, and with much embarrassment, asked us if by any chance we could pick him up a pair of shoes in size 42, “no problem if you can’t”. I could tell that this man didn’t usually ask for much and that this was taking a lot of courage on his part. I could quite easily imagine this man in a doctors white coat, helping to deliver a baby in our local maternity hopsital, he was so kind, so well dressed, so well spoken. We’ll shortly go for a drive to find a shoe shop for our friend, it will give me some relief from the total anguish, frustration and hopelessness that I feel on behalf of these people who need and deserve so much more. 

Feeling today like such a tiny, miniscule, insignificant drop in a very large ocean, Stacey and I with pains on our faces from ‘fake smiling’.

Day 4 of 4
And today was a whole new experience. After a rough night, Stacey had to come to a really difficult decision not to join me in the Jungle today. She was full of a cold and chest infection, which I had been generously sharing with her all week and her body had finally succumbed. I drove off alone, unsure what the afternoon would bring. We were scheduled later than usual today, as there was a visiting theatre group from Wales coming to perform their play at the theatre. I arrived into Good Chance at 2pm, my rucksack with laptop and speakers on my back, unsure if I would need them today. I knew that time was tight, because of the visiting play and they might need to give the time afterwards to another visiting drama group. I was ready to Open the Floor if needed, I was also ready (and pretty willing) to step aside for someone else, if that’s what was called for. A few people had gathered on the make-shift benches as I came in. Eyes greeted mine, smiles were sent in my direction. A few men came up to me and asked if we’d be dancing later, “hey, you’re back, good to see you”. The men who had been dancing with Stacey and I on the previous days were genuinely happy to see me and sat down beside me to watch the drama. “We dance Open Floor after?”. I felt a huge swell of emotion rise up inside me which I quickly swallowed down, raising my eyes up to the roof in the hope that gravity would bring the newly emerging tears back down where they were coming from. We’ve done more than enough, I thought to myself. I settled in to watch the play, ‘Scattered’, about a young Syrian Asylum seeker and his new found friend in Wales. https://youtu.be/zEPPoeDRFNQ Usually performed around Wales in schools, this was a very poignant audience for them. The Syrian boy, telling stories of his family divested by war, all dead now except his mother. The Welsh boy, telling the story of his parents imminent separation and the devastation that this was causing him. I scanned the room, watching the faces watching the actors, this was far-reaching for all of us gathered there. When the play had ended, I had a few words with the English director who had brought the play there. He was deeply moved to have watched his art performed for this audience, he was searching for words to tell me how this had been for him. They had brought some bunting from the UK, made by children from several schools, each triangle with a message of hope for the people in the Jungle – you’ll see the bunting in my photographs.

There was a lot of chatter and games in the theatre as the play finished. Amy asked me what was my plan for the day and I told her that I was happy to lead more Open Floor, or okay to stand aside too, if they needed the time for another group. One of the Sudanese men had invited me to see his home and have a coffee with him, so I told Amy I’d come back in 20 minutes and see what she wanted to do for the afternoon. Myself and Maki headed off through the southern part of the jungle, past the women and children’s centre, the church, the mosque, the school and the bookshop – all the places that are due to be bulldozed next week. After a few minutes, I heard someone call after me, it was Amy. “come back”, she was calling, “they’re all asking for the dance!”. I turned to Maki and smiled – “We’ll do coffee later, okay?”. I felt so good that they wanted more Open Floor, more dance. I felt that all the money we had raised from our friends and colleagues was all worthwhile and that our offering was making a difference, however small and transient. 

So we set-up the music and got started. Many of the men asked where Stacey was and when I told them that she was sick, they stood in to help me out. One of them took over the DJ station, taking care of my laptop and the speakers. Another took my phone from me and said he’d shoot video and take photos. We were a community today, all of us doing our thing and supporting each other. As we began, there were more people dancing in the centre of the room than sitting on the outside – Hurray! We danced and danced and danced. Today, they were tolerating the western music much more. Many European volunteers were coming into the space to check out the session and I explained to my largely Afghan friends that we had to include them and they obliged. We had westerners dancing to Afghan traditional music, we had Sudanese, Iranian and Egyptian men join us for a rendition of ‘Black Betty’. Many of the men from previous days came and a whole new group were there too, lots of young people and some Arabs too. At one stage I was dancing with a young boy, both of us giving it socks, when a knife came tumbling out from beneath his jacket – “good to be prepared” I said, and we both laughed, as he picked it up and tucked it away underneath his clothes again. This is just the way that life is in the jungle. 

I was wishing that Stacey was here to see this, everyone moving today without inhibitions, really enjoying the space. I knew that it wouldn’t have been like this without the painstaking groundwork that we had both put in during the previous days. As each song came to an end, there was the usual scuffle of about 10 people around my laptop, each of them thrusting their phone at me to play their favorite song. I’d plug in the phone and the group would respond by dancing or grabbing the phone off the cable and putting another one in. I was braver today and made them wait their turn, making sure to play music that was appealing to the other cultures present in the dome. They still managed to play ‘Armani, Armani, Armani’ at least twice during the three hours that we danced today. It reminded me of a working with a little boy who had autism, several years ago. I had played Norah Jones' "Come away with me" during our first session together and for every session afterwards, he wanted that song. The familiarity and repetition gave him much-needed comfort and containment. I wondered if the same was happening here in the theatre with the repetition of this song?

Just after six, it was time to end. It had gone so well, I was happy to leave on such a high note. “One more, one more, one more” they all called. “Okay”, I said, “one more, but this one will be from MY country and I want you all to dance with me!” I did a quick search and the first Irish song that I came across was ‘she moved through the fair’. A group gathered in a circle, first ten then fifteen, then twenty. We shuffled and swayed and moved to the gentle tones, people taking it in turns to move into the centre and offer a dance of gratitude for being able to dance here together like this. I felt so deeply moved and grateful as I watched these beautiful connections and sense of belonging unfold before me, so intrinsic to Open Floor and what it’s all about. 

It was getting dark, I had promised to have a coffee with Maki and I was aware that Stacey was back at the hotel unwell. I literally had to grab my speakers off the guys who didn’t want me to leave “more dance, more dance”. After packing everything back in the car, Maki and I took off towards his home. I had 6 brand new thermal vests tucked under my arm which my friend Barbara had given to me to bring over. As we walked through and around the thick muck (it had been raining all day) we passed a little girl, about 7 years old. Maki told me that I should give them to her as she stays with several women. I handed them to her and her face lit up – “give them to your Mama” I told her. She ran off in the direction of her house, delighted with herself. As Maki and I balanced to keep ourselves on the banks at the sides of the puddles, a little toddler came towards us, right through the centre of the large puddle, kicking up the water with her boots. Maki and I laughed at her freedom, “just like my kids, I laughed”. 

It was surreal, going into Maki’s home – a 2m x 1.5m wooden box, covered in black plastic. Inside, the walls were lined with duvets and blankets and even some colorful bunting – it was so cozy! There was just enough room for two single beds, a box in between them and a suitcase shoved down the end of one of the beds. He had lit some candles and had hot coffee ready for me in a flask. He seemed really happy to have a visitor in his home and I felt so privileged to be invited in. Maki poured me a coffee and began to tell me about his life in Sudan, how he had made it to Libya, spent 18months there before going to Italy and from there to France, where everyone believed they would make it across to the UK and find a better life for themselves. He showed me some of his drawings in his sketch book. “Can I tell people about this Maki? Can I take your photo and share your story?”. “Yes, share”. He said that it was good to have the theatre, it was good to have the dance, “thank you for bringing yourself, for coming here and dancing with us” he said that the dance had helped him to keep a light shining inside, “because it’s hard, you know, to keep that light shining”.

Epilogue
Amy arrived at the door to Maki’s house looking for me, her tires had been slashed again and she needed a car jack. In the end, I gave Amy a lift back to her campsite to pick up her car jack. I got to spend 30 minutes with this incredible young lady. Amy works at the Good Chance Theatre as a volunteer – Front of House, so to speak, she has been with them from the beginning. Over our time there, Amy was always checking in with us, making sure that we were okay, that we had everything we needed, reassuring us that we were doing a good job. I watched her interact with the men each day, joking with them, listening to them, setting boundaries when boundaries were needed, overflowing with compassion when that was called for. Nothing was beyond her, she stood her ground, encouraged everyone to participate and participated herself when she felt that this would help to break the ice – we literally couldn’t have done it without her. She was clear, compassionate, resonated with huge levels of emotional intelligence and not once, did I spot a trace of ego about her or her work. Amy is eighteen years old, she left school a few months ago and will study English literature in University College London from next September. The world needs more Amy’s. We need people like Amy to be the decision makers and the policy makers of the future. I hope that Amy’s parents and family and friends know how wonderful this young woman is!