Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?
Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.
I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!
Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.
Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.
That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.
In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.
In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.
In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin
I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.
In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.
Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?
Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.
Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.
People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.
In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.
The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!