When I interviewed Alice, it was nearing the first anniversary of her father’s passing. I was taken by her fierce commitment to fully experiencing the process of her loss in a way that reflected her innermost beliefs: each and every individual is a part of a larger system committed to homeostasis and the integration of multiple perspectives and forms of wisdom.
Systems theory is defined as an organized collection of parts that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. Systems are always changing and adapting depending on what is impacting them. Sometimes the impact can be so great that the entire system redefines itself in order to find balance. As a coaching consultant and experience architect, Alice Chen works with individuals and organizations to collectively find peace between the parts and the whole. She does so through coaching, facilitation, and program development.
A few days prior to our conversation, Alice and I had gone on a long walk around Lake Merritt in Oakland. When she was sharing about the death of her father, she noted how different she has been in her experience with her grief in comparison to the death of a long-term relationship that she had ended a few years earlier. An ending that had caused her a lot of grief and anguish. She notes, “I think one of the things that I’m just struck by is [that] I feel okay and I feel pretty good, which on some level I feel guilty saying that because it’s such a big event.”
Alice’s father was diagnosed with cancer in February of 2016. When receiving the news, she remembers feeling consciously responsible to be an active participant in how she chose to show up through the process of his treatment and deterioration. In the art and act of letting go, she got to mindfully decide if she was going to tell stories that would cause her to suffer or simply be with her experience and all of her feelings as the situation unfolded.
As two coaches who work in a similar fashion, Alice’s sharing is a gateway for us to explore how to both embody and teach the somatic experience of feeling one’s feelings and releasing one’s emotions. Alice describes a moment she had on an escalator in the LAX airport when she was overtaken by emotion upon seeing an advertisement for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As a trip to this amusement park was the last her family had taken while her father was still alive, intense emotion rose up inside of her. Instead of squashing the feelings or hiding them until she was in a private place, Alice intentionally allowed her grief to come up and spill out. Not only did tears roll down her face, but she chose to look at the advertisement longer than necessary in order to embrace the depth of her sadness. By the time she reached the end of the escalator, the tears had passed and the deep overwhelming sadness had moved through her. She remembers:
“I just wrapped my arms around myself and was like it’s okay. It’s okay to have those moments where sadness overwhelms you and flows through you. It is perfectly normal. You’re fine. You’ve got this. And then it was gone and out and done and I picked up my suitcase and I kept moving.”
Our conversation flows into the questioning of timelines and why we as a society hold ourselves to staunch guidelines for when we should be over something or moved on from someone. Alice names that in her personal experience with suffering, she puts a timeline on something as “a way of . . . trying to get some control over something that I intuitively know I don’t really have control over.” Because she has been committed to not putting a container around the evolution of her grief with her father’s passing, Alice is exhibiting a new form of emotional tolerance—one in which she is aligning herself with her favorite saying: “Inner peace is who we are without our story.”
Alice dives into a story about the intimate relationship she had that lasted for eight years. She describes it as an odyssey or a saga—a story that has been rich in healing traumatic places inside of herself. She notes that it was the “single most important [and] transformative experience that [she’s] ever had in [her life].” Through this experience, she “learned how to communicate right with herself,” which put her on the path to becoming a coach and led her to really think about what she wanted to be in the world and not just what she wanted to do or accomplish.
When Alice met the man that she had this long relationship with it was an immediate, electric connection. And yet from the beginning, she felt a tension inside of her—an intuitive knowing—that the relationship wasn’t right. However, she was in a stage of her life in which she wasn’t ready to trust that inner voice, so she didn’t. She states, “I just kept going. I seriously did because [he] had these beautiful blue eyes and we had so much fun together and when I was with him I really felt alive in a way that I don’t think I had ever felt before in my life.” As relationships help guide us toward deeper truths about ourselves, Alice confides that she had to go through the depths of that relationship in order to mine the wisdom from it. She had to be “confronted with some real truths in order to grow into the best or a better version of [herself].” It was from this relationship that Alice learned how to let go of the unrealistic expectations she held herself to and the controlling ways that she attempted to meet standards of perfection.
As Alice contrasts that period of time in her life to how she has currently chosen to be with her father’s passing, she laughs and says, “I love this idea that you’re running toward the thing you need to work on because I feel like when we run away or when we try to go around it, life will continue to present the same lesson over and over again until we have learned it.” She may have run away from the truth in her relationship with her ex, but she has learned from the past and is consciously choosing to move into the pain of losing her father through the lens of joy. Not only is she doing this on an individual level, but she also participated in the passing of her father on a systems level. As he was moving from this life and onto the next, she was present in the transition of her father’s soul. In her willingness to be present she learned that death is not the end. The death of anything or anyone is merely the beginning of an integration of many parts into one wildly wise, collective whole.