For this post, I recorded an interview with Leen, my former dance teacher and one of the most powerful women I know. A few years back, Leen lost her husband, William, in a work accident at Total. She quit her dance school, then also lost his baby in a second miscarriage, and crashed completely as a result. In this conversation, she makes herself incredibly vulnerable by sharing with me and you how she then found within herself the strength to deal with her losses and open up again to happiness, love and trust. Some time after her loss Leen went on a journey to find a way to deal with her loss through Yoga and other cultures, and now she shares her experiences with others as a Yoga teacher and Trauma, Grief & Relaxation therapist. She also re-learned love and now lives with her husband Johan and their beautiful baby son, Johnson. Her story is one of emotion, loss, love, pain, but most of all transformation. I am therefore incredibly grateful to be able to share this beautiful conversation with you here.
What exactly has been your daily activity for the last few years?
At the moment I am searching for the things that interest me most and I am in a transition where I am trying out a little bit of everything. I teach a lot of Yoga classes, but I also do therapy for trauma and healing, and I'm getting into Pilates because I can use my knowledge of dance in this. I actually stopped dancing for the most part because it didn't feel right anymore. I had a lot of trouble finding my way again and was constantly injured. I felt I had to leave this part of myself behind and that it was time for something new.
Can you describe the process of your loss and how you dealt with it?
The thing is, the last six months before William's accident was actually already a very intense period. I had had a miscarriage and that was already very hard on me. I stopped going to my dance school after the accident, which in a way was also my great love at the time. Then we were actually trying for a second one when William died. It wasn't until after William died that I found out I was 5 weeks pregnant again. This broke the pain a little for me and made me feel very warm because I was still carrying a piece of him in me. The difficult thing was that he had died together with our best friend, so the person you know best is no longer there. So I could not share stories with the person who knew him best, with other people, but not with him and that made it very difficult for me. The most difficult moment for me was when I lost my second child. That was exactly one month later. I really crashed in the recovery room after my curretage. That was my lowest point. I cried, screamed, kicked my legs out and felt like I couldn't breathe.
I do have to say that that first year after William's death ended up being the most exciting year of my life. I first spent a month or two at home with an alternate system of family and friends coming to care for me, which gave me tremendous support. However, then there came a time when I felt I wanted to be alone and needed time to process it on my own. So that's when I started traveling and felt that being abroad did me tremendous good. At that time, a lot of time suddenly became available because the school where I worked was reforming and letting all the last people go. I didn't have my dance school anymore because at the time I thought I was going to be a mom and so I didn't feel like doing it anymore. I had also given my own resignation at the ballet store where I worked. Everything seemed like some kind of sign from the Universe that I could go and quietly begin my grieving process abroad.
Then I went to do a Yoga training in Costa Rica with my backpack full of pain and sorrow, but I was really able to find myself here. You get to know so many people from different cultures, and the thing with such a training is that everyone is there with their backpack and everyone also deals with loss in a very different way from which I could learn a lot. After this I continued to travel to Israel, Spain, Palma de Mallorca, Singapore, Kuwait and Bali for further training.
I also started partying immensely that year, which a lot of people didn't find acceptable because it didn't show that I was grieving for William. I had never really been a party animal, that was more William. I then started going out to exhaust myself so much that I could sleep. So I didn't go out partying because I enjoyed it so much, I went out partying because the nights alone in bed hurt the most. I slept 1 to 3 hours a night for months and only those nights did I once sleep through 5 or 6 hours. I also really saw then which people could look through this and accept it, and which could not understand it. For people who aren't into this, a year isn't a long time, but for me that year was an eternity.
How did you find within yourself the strength to deal with trauma?
Well it is true that besides losing my husband there were other things in my backpack. I have a history of sexual abuse and during my trip in Bali I also had to face these very consciously due to circumstances. In Bali there was a coaching program that I wanted to learn how to coach myself, but for this I wanted to undergo this coaching myself first. I got three days of therapy, then went into silence for three days, and then got two days of therapy again. In the beginning with that therapist things went very well. After a while it went a little too well for his liking. He then approached me sexually, knowing that I had a difficult past with this. I then had to make a choice: either I get out of here and walk away, or I stay. I then chose to stay, and then it actually only got worse at first. I was all alone in a hut among the rice fields, with no electricity and only a knife to cut fruit and some fruit and water. At one point, a few hundred yards from me, I saw a farmer undressing and satisfying himself, and I then stiffened with fear. I sat in my bed that night, with the fruit knife clutched in my hand, ready to defend myself. I knew that my greatest fear of being abused again could potentially be fulfilled again, and had an epiphany there at that moment. I went so deep into that fear then, that at one point I surrendered completely to the Universe. I was too tired to fight anymore. I thought that if something had to happen to me, then so be it, and I made an immense switch of complete surrender on that day. That night was the first night since William had died that I had been able to sleep through so deeply. So that mindswitch of accepting everything that happens to you has been with me ever since. I just surrendered completely and let fate decide what should happen to me. That has put me in a very different light in life and has taught me to stop fighting against what is happening and to accept everything. The more resistance you put up, the harder it becomes. This is not to say that you should let people walk all over you, but that you just find your strength in accepting that which you cannot change, and that gives a lot of peace.
How have you been able to make a transformation out of your loss and come to terms with your loss?
I think just because so much happened after William died I was able to go through such an intense transformation that really changed me. I changed so much as a person through those experiences because I was pulled completely out of my comfort zone. I discovered many new aspects of myself.
For me, the greatest transformation has come from turning in silence. There are many people who reproach me that I started running from my problems by traveling, but in fact this is just the opposite. I started traveling mainly to find myself again and to consciously turn into silence by, for example, going for lots of walks. In silence and especially through the power of nature I asked myself the question: what is still worth living for? Silence and nature brought that answer for me by really sitting on the beach, looking at the sea and thinking: there are still too many beautiful things to keep living for.
Writing has also done a tremendous amount for me. I wrote to William every day for at least a year. I wrote to him in a very honest way, even about the things I was ashamed of at the time. I still shared everything with him. So I literally wrote everything off of me, which felt really good. So it was really the combination of sitting in silence, but not staying with those thoughts by writing them off, that did it for me.
Is there any way you can be grateful for this transformation, despite the trauma below?
Ja, dat heeft me echt gevormd tot wie ik vandaag ben. Ik zou vandaag niet mijn Yoga kunnen doorgeven en mijn therapie kunnen doen met mensen als ik dit niet zelf zo diep had meegemaakt en gevoeld. Mijn kijk op mensen is ook helemaal veranderd. Ik zie Johan bijvoorbeeld veel intenser dan ik William gezien heb. Niet omwille van hem persoonlijk, maar omdat ik nu voel wat het is om iemand te verliezen en hoe waardevol liefde dan ook is. Het heeft mij liefde op een veel intensere manier kunnen doen ervaren. Dat zou ik nooit geweten hebben als ik niet op zo’n pijnlijke manier ook liefde verloren had. Ik beleef liefde nu veel intenser en puurder. Iedere dag en ieder moment beleef ik vanuit een veel grotere dankbaarheid.
How are you living towards your baby son now, after experiencing two miscarriages?
My biggest fear is of course losing my son and I was very scared of this in the beginning. The pregnancy was very exciting because Johan and I both didn't know if it would work. Johan did not allow himself to feel much before Johnson was born. The best moment of my life was when Johnson was born and Johan started crying very hard out of pure emotion and relief.
It is somehow normal that in the beginning I was so anxious about losing my little son, but also in this I felt after a while that it was time to let go. You can choose to live your whole life in fear and contraction, full of stress, or you can accept that whatever happens has to happen. In this you can also find peace. So I have really been able to let go of this and try to let go of Johnson as much as possible. Ultimately, he needs to be able to learn from his pain and setbacks instead of me locking him in a cage to keep him safe. It's not about me, it's about his life.
Are you experiencing Happiness now? How are you now facing your past and life?
I am happy, but I also know that there are still layers of my grief and pain to be processed and that my process is not yet done. Now with Corona I am confronted with this more often and I have also had difficulties again. Sometimes something suddenly comes up that I did not know needed to be processed. Then I have to go back into silence to do this. For example, the other day I was confronted with the fact that I never got over the loss of my dance school because so much happened after that that I was never able to give it a separate place. Not only did I lose my husband, my best friend and the dream of having two children, but I also lost my dance school, which for me was my everything and my biggest dream. I put my heart and soul into that dance school and actually for me that was also a kind of child that I had lost. Dance was a big part of my life and after William's death I searched for a long time to find a place for dance, but I just couldn't do it anymore and it felt more like a struggle and not something I could get happiness from. So letting go has also been a big step, to choose for myself and my own happiness.
So what do you see your passion or purpose in next? And how do you see the purpose of life in a larger scale?
I used to be very much concerned with the outside of the body and how to bring out a story through the body. Now I'm mostly concerned with the inside, but I'm still concerned with the human and am still concerned with movement. So in my trauma healing I use the physical to process things.
On a larger scale, I see the purpose of life as something that is constantly changing. What is my life purpose now may be something else tomorrow and so I find the underlying purpose in this is acceptance of the movement of life.
Were you already over William's death when you met Johan, and how did he handle it?
No, not yet. I do have a lot of respect for Johan in that respect. He handled that tremendously well and never sought competition or competition in that. I liked William from him as well. He never said a bad word about William and was always very respectful, which I am very grateful for. I have always had a lot of admiration for how he handled it then and still does now.
Have you ever been able to forgive the people who caused William's death?
I've never actually asked myself the why question. I lost William and German and whether there's a culprit for that or not, it's not going to bring them back. You also can't really begin to grieve if you're still clinging to such an external lawsuit to bring justice or find a culprit. So I actually accepted that very quickly. William also had a very bad car accident two years before he died where a giant van fell on his car. Everyone who was there at the time expected a corpse to be taken out of the car but William got out of there without any breakage. He even made it onto the news list of the biggest miracles of the year with that. For me, his death was a sign that he really should have died in that car accident already, and that made it easier for me to accept it. That accident also had a huge impact on the last years of his life.
What advice do you give to people who are dealing with intense loss or trauma themselves?
Above all, talk a lot with many different people and don't necessarily listen to everyone's advice, but feel what works for yourself. Trust from that feeling that things will come back right, but don't let decisions depend on others. Also dare to trust in the things that come your way and that they can hurt a lot, but can also open a lot of doors, despite the pain.
Do you have a life motto that you really carry with you?
I once had a crying fit at dance school during a very intense period, and then that teacher said to me, "It's okay, cry all right. "Crying is air for a heart full of sorrow." That's really the only phrase that has stuck with me like that over the years. Our hearts are so filled with stuff and it's good to let that out for a change. Besides, we don't have to be strong either. We can just feel lost, experience pain, and express it. You will never hear me say, "good luck. Go through the pain to be able to learn and transform from it. Afterwards, the pain will have a nicer place than if you try to suppress it.
Do you have some kind of spiritual practice or something that you do often or a meditation?
Yoga and the physical actually gives me a kind of meditation. Like my dance, I've always been very physical and so I find my mindfulness mostly in the physical. Something else I do is I always pick my coaching sessions very far out because then I can put on classical music in the car, drive for a long time and let my mind race.
This conversation with Leen showed me a completely different side of the mindfulness I'm used to: not too optimistic or looking for happiness, but a very raw, realistic, deep and accepting side. One of my biggest mottos in life is "Peace over happiness," and to me Leen stands as a wonderful example of this. By accepting pain and trauma and not fighting against it anymore, we free ourselves, and get to the core of who we really are inside.