Why going to a grief retreat is what we all need after the pandemic

I can’t say therapy sheep are something I’ve heard of until I arrive at the 12-acre Sussex estate that is Mending Hearts’ HQ – although Google suggests I’m last to know about their healing properties. This is not only officially A Thing in the UK; in Germany they were keen on a fleecy cuddle while human contact was restricted during the pandemic, with loneliness escalating apace.

Along with the stocky Blacknoses, who barely bat an eyelid at being embraced by the bereaved, Fair Oak Farm is home to iridescent peacocks and peaceable alpacas masticating mindfully beside eco-treehouse digs set into ancient woodland (equally calming to come back to post-outpouring in group therapy).

Really, how to hug livestock is the least of my concerns as I settle into this, my first ever experience of a “grief retreat”. Sketching self-portraits during the icebreaker art class, it’s clear one bewildered attendee has been bundled into the car by their offspring, intervention style; darkness issues from their brush. I’m daunted by this unreachable, off-the-Richter grief in the room and wonder what I’ve let myself in for at the heartbreak hotel.

Animals are on hand to provide extra ‘therapy’

(Amanda Nicholls)

Its 16th-century farmhouse – a curling country lane away from Mayfield’s striped medieval inns – sits among smart shepherd’s huts, yoga/cinema barns and a massage studio, the layout conducive to a community feel. Nature’s solace is on tap: views sweep across the heaths and hazel coppices of handsome High Weald. The table tennis outhouse doubles as a surprisingly soothing backdrop for cathartic conversation, with its quiet ping, pong, while a tumbledown gypsy caravan adds ramshackle charm.

Six months since losing my dad, I still don’t know how to grieve around people. Instinct has taken over and put me in the anaesthetist’s chair – and whenever the numbness wears off, mine is a private grief that creeps from under my pillow at night. But if I’m already living with this alien presence – one who I intentionally avoid spending time with – perhaps the anonymity of a few more strangers, united by profound life experience, might be freeing. I can get to know them all at the same time.

Whether outwardly coping or visibly petrified, everyone has a black cloud in common. But how does a retreat, welcoming everyone from divorcees to the recently bereaved, navigate the complex spectrum of relationship mourning?

Whether outwardly coping or visibly petrified, everyone has a black cloud in common

It’s not binary and there’s no one-size-fits-all. The concept is in its infancy, undertaking challenging yet worthwhile work to create a safe, nourishing space in which to grapple with pain in all its forms. Many retreats screen, and are only recommended for those ready to move forward – to get out of their comfort zone. It’s another avenue to investigate if you’re willing to experiment with alternative support, as oversubscribed mental health services groan under post-Covid pressure and people find themselves ineligible for access, or reluctant to reach out.

Mending Hearts has us toasting marshmallows around the firepit after wholesome veggie dinner: black-eyed bean, spinach and coconut curry followed by saffron and pistachio rice pudding. Mornings are aromatic, thanks to banana bread baked in the Aga. Past the buttoned-up memorial, we’ve little left of ritual in the West and, in addition to self-analysis, grief retreats are about reclaiming it: dining and drinking together; channelling emotions creatively; singing (moving Kundalini mantras and disco classics are equally acceptable); clearing throat chakras and easing communication with gong baths.

Art therapy is also available as part of the retreat

(Amanda Nicholls)

There’s a loose schedule (nothing too rigid) and a host keen to accommodate any requirement vocalised. Gilly Da Silva tells her tale of coming through divorce and thriving, while a Myers Briggs personality workshop outlines our very individual responses to change. Counsellor Heather Mallery caters to the gamut of psychological needs, delving into differing stumbling blocks of divorce and bereavement and introducing the Gestalt two-chair technique to give voice to words wistfully unsaid. We become each other’s therapists during chats in the snug, volunteering impartial, compassionate advice and uplifting perspective as we find crossover between grief and infidelity and the feeling that years of life have been stolen. “If you saw a stranger crumpled in the road, you’d help them up,” Heather says. “That’s what we’re doing for each other.”

It’s about enriching, illuminating encounters with those from walks of life we wouldn’t come across in the echo chambers of our own circles, where there’s often an unspoken expiration date on grief support – anything spilling over the designated mourning period is deemed excessive. Once the fraught hubbub of a funeral is over, the clucks of concern dry up and we’re forced back into the round hole of regular life – even when the peg’s changed shape. Away from the expectation of familiar roles, with people who can’t judge this current you against the old, you can start again and befriend grief, courting it as a skill instead of fearing and confining it.

If you saw a stranger crumpled in the road, you’d help them up; that’s what we’re doing for each other

Distilled, a retreat offers a tranquil environment to explore pain; remedial escape of one place for another, facilitating a new way of seeing yourself; flight from everyday noise; and no-strings-attached succour. While the business of Mending Hearts is explicit in the name, the idea is to tend to the scar tissue of trauma – not “fixing” grief, but respecting and welcoming its lessons, and living well alongside it. This working holiday centres on the emotional labour of loss and forging a future beyond it.

In a time of colossal collective turmoil, much of which we’ve had to process alone, two thirds of bereaved people have reported social isolation. We’re reeling from myriad personal, local, national, global hits – friends, family, freedoms, jobs – and hardships – FaceTime farewells, detached digital remembrance services. The long-term legacy is unknown but history suggests disorientating excess death weighs on the world’s psyche for years. With UK deaths projected to increase over the next 20 years, it’s time to make grief less taboo by leaning into it and building communities around it.

More getaways are materialising, from the psychotherapeutic to the spiritual. A “respite caravan” has popped up in Aberystwyth to help bereaved military families, for example. Ours is a rollercoaster – it’s no Nine Perfect Strangers, but for some it’s categorically not their cup of tea – whose end result is growth and connection. People I’m acutely anxious for show inner courage. I even cry around them.

Guests can also opt-in to yoga classes

(Saltwick Media)

Nature, new characters, consolation and camaraderie combine to healthful effect. Yes, you can self-care independently, but sometimes taking time for you – choosing action over inertia – is a big ask, so a programme of carefully prescribed activities may be just the ticket. Do your research: it’s early days for some retreats and many of them are on a learning curve. Make a checklist of things you consider important and ask questions, but manage expectations. Maintain an open mind, don’t anticipate a cure and know that even if it’s not what you envisioned, you will learn something valuable about yourself in the process. I come away with 10 unlikely friendships – including my alien lodger, Grief, who I’m finally on better terms with.

A grief retreat, like life after loss, is what you make of it. The support tribe you leave with can travel with you wherever you go. Our grief gang? The WhatsApp is alive and well… and we’re hiring a barge next.

Alternative grief retreats

April 2022, Powys, Wales; £445

18 and 19 November 2021, London; £360

17-20 December 2021, Scottish Borders; £750

20-25 February 2022, Isle of Mull; £1,390

28 February-4 March 2022, Shropshire; £285

6-8 May 2022, Derbyshire; from £250

16-20 May, Somerset; £2,400

20-23 May 2022, Devon; £1,190

Travel essentials

Mending Hearts is at Fair Oak Farm from 10-14 March 2022; from £995 including meals, drinks, activities and group therapy. One-to-one therapist sessions and treatments such as massage cost extra.

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