Grief. Letting go. Standing strong. Coping. Not coping. These are sentiments Vashti Whitfield knows all too well after having lost her husband Andy to cancer in 2011, and ones she is now using to teach others how to emotionally and physically prepare and process the concept of grief through her work as a global speaker and mindset and resilience expert...
Her documentary, Be Here Now, was filmed with Andy and created to help his last moments represent a time worth honouring, not fearing. “Driven by Andy’s passion to turn his own experience into something of value and purpose, the idea of bringing something creative and meaningful into what had suddenly become a very frightening and unpredictable unforeseeable future felt filled with life and creativity. And it gave us the opportunity to channel our fear of the unknown into something that could make a difference to others.”
Her experience with grief have made for a meaningful and deeply poignant career and life helping others in similar situations, often using her documentary as a tool to help illustrate the process of loss and in turn, creating a legacy. Unsurprisingly, Vashti’s approach on dealing with children and death is equally as inspiring, offering us invaluable insight and words of advice on how she navigated such a difficult time with her own two small children. “To tell a child that everything is alright when they are observing their frantic mum tearing back and forth from home to hospital, with multiple play dates happening instead of their normal routine and the dad in hospital for weeks at a time, is not ok unless you share enough and just the right amount of information for them to be able to make sense of what’s happening around them. And when death and or loss does finally occur they have been, in some way, included in the process.”
This is a heartfelt tale that will leave you feeling more appreciative of everything you have, and perhaps a little more prepared for life’s many unexpected curveballs…
Vashti will also be one of our incredible guest speakers at our next GRACE TALKS event in March 2019, so be sure to look out for ticket info on the site and across social media soon.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up and what your childhood was like? Do you have any vivid memories from when you were growing up?
I was born at home on the kitchen floor (!) of a little Welsh cottage in the U.K. to two very colourful and creative beings. My mother was a brilliant academic and my father, a talented photographer, and whilst they both came from very different backgrounds, they shared a collective love for diversity and adventure, and a passion for the pursuit of a meaningful life.
Our little VW camper-van consisted of me, my little sister, sometimes – coming-and-going – my father and my part courageous, part shut-your-eyes-and-hope-it’ll-all-work-out mother. By the time I was two years old, I had already been to India twice and by my fifth birthday, had experienced civil war breaking out around me as we careened through Turkey and across Greece, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
My childhood was filled with remarkable and yet often hugely challenging sensory extremes. From the vibrancy and unrestrained joyful social interactions whilst playing games in the foothills of the Himalayas, to the harsh, judgmental stares of the inhabitants in the small Welsh village we would then return home to.
From diving for starfish in turquoise Greek waters alongside our exhilarated and delighted parents, to the relentless hours of isolation spent in my Welsh bedroom listening to the emotional, and sometimes furious, discontent of two conflicted humans who, without freedom to roam, would quarrel like two wild tigers that had been caged and half-starved.
My childhood, although brimming with extraordinary adventures, was also fraught with a very premature exposure to conflict and danger whilst strapped into the emotional rollercoaster of living and travelling through a physically and emotionally volatile landscape. I believe this has emboldened me with a fearless lust for exploration, adventure and the drive to deep-dive into life’s offerings.
What were both your pregnancies and births like - did you enjoy that time, did things go to plan?
Having had the definition of an ‘earth mother’ who birthed both my sister and me at home accompanied by no one other than a non-English-speaking midwife, natural and/or home births just seemed like a path I would follow.
My mum had only ever talked about birth as this hugely remarkable and beautiful experience, which and in complete alignment with her encouragement for most things in life, I believed to be one of those exceptional experiences that we, as women, are privileged to experience.
My first pregnancy was pretty much a charmed experience. But my second found me absolutely exhausted to the point where reaching out for the toilet paper after a wee felt like too much hard work! Along with juggling a precious and very busy little two-year-old, my thyroid was hugely underactive so I did resort to medication and managed to get my energy back up.
At the height of my sudden and unusual need and desire for predictability during my second pregnancy, everything in our lives seemed to change. So, in addition to my watermelon belly and chasing around after a super active little man, I found myself having to move house and pretty much function as a single parent while my gorgeous husband pursued his dream having been given his first big break as an actor.
After having assisted as a support at several friends’ and colleagues’ births, I knew that things don’t always go according to best-laid plans accounting only for soft music, aromatherapy candles and unassisted, intervention-free births, so I opted to work with a midwife at the birth centre. That way, should complications arise, we could easily be wheeled up the corridor to the labor ward for excellent medical care.
Both of my children were born in the bath, with Andy right beside me, in addition to the presence of an incredible midwife and dear friend. I feel very passionately that having been given the opportunity to be present at multiple labours and births prior to experiencing birthing my own babies, was not only life-changing but enabled me to understand the intricacies of not only bringing a baby forth but of the inevitable transformation from man and woman into mum and dad. Whilst I was physically becoming a mother, working with this tiny little human being to have him/her safely enter the world, beside me I was also watching the boy that was my husband truly transform into man and a father.
After my daughter’s birth and during my maternity leave, I began studying with Birthing Rights Australia to become a doula which was rudely, but rather wonderfully, interrupted by another birth of sorts as Andy finally got his big acting break with Spartacus and we scrambled to jet off to America.
My belief about birth, as it is about death really, is that we are poorly-educated on the two most impactful processes in the life cycle available to us. And that, unfortunately for the vast majority of us, both transformations are anchored in fear of loss, pain and the unknown.
Your husband, Andy Whitfield, sadly died in 2011 from cancer, which has been chronicled in the documentary you both made titled Be Here Now. What was the process like creating something like that together?
Driven by Andy’s passion to turn his own experience into something of value and purpose, the idea of bringing something creative and meaningful into what had suddenly become a very frightening and unpredictable unforeseeable future felt filled with life and creativity. And it gave us the opportunity to channel our fear of the unknown into something that could make a difference to others.
The process of recording our own independent video diaries, and the interviewing and filming Be Here Now, really helped to diffuse the low-level atmosphere of anxiety and tension that could have festered and then monopolised our special time together. When we had to talk to camera, in our commitment to be nothing other than fully authentic and transparent, that would not only help us release pent-up thoughts, but would force us to share what we might be holding back for fear of upsetting or burdening each other.
We had complete control over who we had work with us on the film and given my professional experience, it was easy for me to select who did or didn’t get an invite to be a fly on the wall in our life during that time.
The filming of the documentary just went on – the management, direction and planning of it became the responsibility of our amazing director Lilibet Foster who allowed us to just be who we were and do what we needed to do.
After Andy’s death my involvement in and with the documentary took on a whole new shape.
How did you find strength during that time?
To be completely transparent about that time, there were many moments I did not find myself being strong. Sometimes standing in the shower, I would find myself sobbing uncontrollably and feeling horribly guilty for imagining the worst case scenario. Allowing myself to be vulnerable in moments alone, and often in front of the camera, actually recharged my capacity to be less fearful and more present and appreciative of the day-to-day moments.
I later began to study grief as my way of learning to understand my experience, which then taught me how important a daily process is when preparing to let go of something, someone or a situation of huge change and loss. In retrospect, my tears in the shower were very much my processing and letting go in order to then step back into the reality of the present, which is where there were still so many important and magic moments to be lived and shared.
People often ask me how I can and could be so strong and I truly believe that when strength is anchored in purpose and has absolute clarity of intention, even if it is to fill the next five minutes with as much richness as possible, we find a way. It’s only when we get too lost focusing on the pain and fear of letting go, or our fear for ourselves or those that we love who might be somehow suffering in the future, that we lose our resilience and capacity to embrace our adversity.
We all, especially parents, have a fiercely primal and protective aspect to our psychology. When I allowed myself the painful exploration of what life would be like for the kids growing up without beautiful Andy physically in their lives, the lioness in me would plan just how I would and could make it all work. And while it was a gut-wrenching experience, subconsciously I knew that however hard it would and could be that it would all work out, and that to steal precious time worrying about it, while with Andy and the kids, was nothing short of useless. Which then allowed me to choose, with great intention, where to place my energy, my focus and my love at any given time.
Once, leaving Andy to sleep off a chemo session, and after dropping Jesse at a kids’ party (on my way to get the groceries) I stopped at a tattoo parlour and had BREATHE tattooed onto my forearm. It was a gentle reminder to myself that the first thing we do entering into this world is take a breath and the last thing we do before exiting this world is the same.
And in order to make my way through this remarkable journey I was on, all I had to do was to slow down and breathe to give myself the strength, the perspective and the opportunity to live, lead and love in a way that serves the very special people depending on me.
There is huge power and truth in vulnerability and making the documentary while simultaneously going through cancer, Andy’s physical breakdown, coupled with guiding Jesse and Indi through the process, created an honesty and authenticity that allowed me to be whoever I needed to be in order to make it rich, raw and honest for those who would later watch the documentary.
Observing my now-thirteen-year-old son be able to express his emotions, his fears, his successes and his sporadic grief, without seeing himself as anything other than strong, despite there being a tear rolling down his face, wonderfully illustrates the power of us all occasionally not coping. And that, by the way, is one of the key reasons we chose to release the Be Here Now documentary: we were and are absolutely committed to enabling, encouraging and creating opportunities for one and all to feel less alone when travelling through some of life’s most challenging experiences.
Is there anything that made the grieving process easier for your young children at the time - what sort of tools or rituals did you search for and try?
Evidentially, children who are living with someone close to them like a parent, family member (or even a pet), who is terminally ill, or where there is obvious change and or loss ahead like a separation or a divorce, it is absolutely critical that their reality is matched with enough information to allow them to somehow make sense of what they are observing.
To tell a child that everything is alright when they are observing their frantic mum tearing back and forth from home to hospital, with multiple play dates happening instead of their normal routine and the dad in hospital for weeks at a time, is not ok unless you share enough and just the right amount of information for them to be able to make sense of what’s happening around them. And when death and or loss does finally occur they have been, in some way, included in the process.
Obviously, this doesn’t take into consideration when there is no time to prepare and where shock and often denial are overwhelming and confusing.
Because children mostly live their lives in the present, there needs to be a level of normal brought back into the mix after loss: seeing their friends, going to school, one-on-one time. It is often in these moments that processing can begin whereby along with the ‘normal,’ you can create a conversation about how they are feeling.
Sometimes children will unexpectedly, and often shockingly, just dive in with observations such as, ‘Yeah, we had a great day at the beach. I got a new soccer ball! Did you know my dad is dead? I want to get some ice cream now.’ It’s a natural way for them to process their thoughts and feelings despite that on some occasions their honesty will undoubtedly and painfully tear wide open our own tender little hearts.
After Andy died, more than anything, the kids loved having their mum ‘back.’ So along with the normal day-to-day, we did things that we’d not been able to do for a long time.
The kids would also write or draw pictures for Andy wishing him a great next adventure in the sky. I’d have extensive conversations with Indi about the type of butterfly dad would appear as and she attempted to catch almost every one that would fly by just to say, ‘hi daddy.’ Allowing them to create special things, rituals, a shoebox full of memories, is a great way of helping them to process. We even had one of Andy’s god-daughters, who had herself lost her own father at a young age, make a paper airplane with a message on it for him which she then attempted to launch from their huge garden wall to try and get as close to ‘heaven’ as possible.
We also donated to nominate a huge Morten Bay fig tree, in Sydney’s Centennial Parklands, as our ‘daddy tree.’ It has a little plaque under it which reads, ‘To daddy bear from Jesse Red and Indi Sky’ and we talk about the daddy tree having lived long before us and that it will live long after us, an easy-to-understand example of the often brief cycle of life that as a living creature we may sometimes have.
There are multiple trees around the park with plaques on and when, on occasion, the kids choose to visit the tree, it reiterates so poignantly that death and loss are a natural part of life.
But here’s what doesn’t make it easy for them and what I would vehemently discourage you from unconsciously doing: do NOT bestow upon the oldest sibling or in my case my eldest son, the enormous weight and responsibility of now being ‘the man of the house’ who’s now responsible for taking care of everyone. Or, ‘you’re the oldest so it’s your job to take care of mum!’
Because whatever kind or empowering thing you think you are saying, you are in fact doing the complete opposite. Their job is to be a kid or a teenager and to play out all the normal behaviours of their needs.
And lastly, but what I believe to be hugely important, we allow Andy to still be very much a part of their lives. There are, where appropriate, daily stories shared that allow the kids to experience their dad’s impact on their lives, be it a chat with Jesse about when Andy’s voice first broke, or what he was most frightened of. Or with Indi, who remembers far less of her dad, a story about how he would tickle her feet until she fell asleep while I’m in the middle of doing the same.
They have a deep sense of their dad, because I bring him contextually into their lives with stories, with knowledge and with making the effort to share the little things about him that might enable them to feel a stronger sense of their own self by associating. Until, and often even at certain times now, they no longer want or need that.
You’ve said before that grief, loss and death can often teach us things - what do you think Andy’s death has taught you?
Andy’s death has taught me more than I can possibly put into anything less than probably a multitude of future books to come.
But I’ll share with you what has been the most profound and impactful lesson and has helped me become a tireless, fearless and even more passionate facilitator of human potential and also who I am as a mother, a father and a guide to my two beautiful children.
I have learned to never let my own fear to stand in the way of another person’s journey.
And if you can still bear to read on despite my having used ‘the J word,’ what I really mean to say is that it’s essential to monitor the frequency with which we choose or unconsciously attempt to deter, criticise, neglect to encourage or suffocate the space required for the people that we love to navigate the life lessons thrown at them.
This means without trying to control, fix, solve and/or remove any painful or challenging situation that we, in our own discomfort, find it unbearable to see, fee and allow.
We are who we are by being given the space, support and encouragement to learn just as much from our mistakes as we do our own successes.
As an adversity and resilience coach, I am often observing the partner, parent or caregivers pushing, requesting and championing a course of action or approach and whilst it comes from a deep intention of love and overwhelming desire for the best possible outcome of the individual, it is not always what they want and or in alignment with who and how they to choose to live. Or, in some tender and beautiful situations, to die.
The question I now always and only ever ask is, ‘What do you need from me?’
Women in particular can be so hard on themselves, particularly after having children and dealing with such a monumental shift in identity. What do you suggest they do during this time in order to feel confident and relevant?
My suggestion, and hey, this is NOT an overnight process, is to own the fact that you are no longer the person that you once were, but in fact someone with a whole other complex level and layers with a brand spanking new opportunity to embrace who you are and craft just who you want to be.
So instead of buying into the mentality of, ‘wow, she’s back to her former weight in only 3 months AND juggling twins AND a CEO role AND looking smoking in a tight-fitting dress’ (which people, women included, seem to need to comment on, as if because you didn’t get back to how you were, you have somehow disgraced yourself as you are).
It takes courage to be who you are now because in our utter state of ‘my god, I have no idea what I am doing,’ we do the number one no-no when trying to regain confidence and relevance: we look outward for guidance, for information and for the obvious ‘this is what everybody else seems to be doing’ which, quite frankly, many of us are just not up to. This is usually the point at which the wheels begin to loosen and wobble.
So much of the work I do with women (and men, knowing now an enormous amount of friends and colleagues who are stay-home dads) is owning what you are doing like a boss! You are helping to raise, love and influence the next generation and your own little legacies! So instead of looking at this opportunity as work, lean into and learn from all the messy ups and downs.
Also, don’t go it alone. Find other like-minded friends to stumble with you through this whole new chapter of your life you are navigating. Secondly, and just as I am doing right now with a producer returning to work, with two small babies in tow, is to create and allow time and space to re-examine and explore who you now are and have become as a result of your new role, your new core values and what you will – as sad as aspects of it may feel, let go of in order to build and craft the new you.
Some of us will mourn the freedom to jump on a plane and travel regularly for work as a very real loss – and that, for the time being, might need to be grieved. But it is on the other side of that temporary letting go that we craft and potentially create new opportunities, collaborations and/or life experiences. I often work with the Gallup Strengthfinder which allows anyone to see their innate and definitive top five strengths.
Somehow when we read what comes out of a 30-minute questionnaire, which you can do whilst feeding an infant with one eye closed, we suddenly become reminded of who we are and what we are capable of, within any situation, in any different working areas.
And in order to help nudge us into remembering how, if we use our own unique strengths and talents, we’re so much more brilliant and capable than we give ourselves credit for. Talking and sharing authentically and continuing to learn about things that you are genuinely interested in will allow you to get out of your own way and embrace the best version of yourself that’s always on offer.
You’re an internationally-renowned facilitator and executive coach, author and speaker - what does this diverse career look like day to day for you?
It always begins with the same daily ritual: meditation, coffee, sunrise, beach soft sand run or walk and/or some form of yoga or stretching or strengthening exercise my body. These days, rather than being driven by routine, pushing myself, or proving myself, I just go with the flow of what feels right that morning. My morning flow is absolutely critical in honouring how I operate and who I am as a result of making connecting with the ocean, my body, a quiet mind. And then I sit bolt upright with what I call, ‘creativity-making coffee!’
I am someone who is driven by my core values, the importance of a balanced lifestyle and the inclusion of my children’s rhythm and routines, all existing in harmony. I try to schedule all of my work as a coach, facilitator and speaker to be in alignment with the other aspects of my life that I consider to be of equal importance.
I just returned from taking a senior executive, Melbourne-based client for an ocean dip in Bondi, followed by a spontaneous burst of, ‘you must experience Messina ice-cream’ post-session.
Next week I’ll be delivering a performance – resilience workshop in Hobart with a corporate client where I will also meet an LA-based client who is flying into Sydney and going via a day in Tasmania to explore MONA, where they will soon be exhibiting.
I am currently also gathering and conducting research for a book on the importance of using grief and grieving in western culture which means I’m currently coaching a number of couples where one of the two is either terminal or experiencing a highly degenerative disease. This work often takes place during my weekends in order not to impact the couples’ schedules too much. This work is rich, poignant and hugely insightful and feels a privilege to include outside of the busy day-to-day.
And then there is, of course, the Be Here Now film legacy continuum where typically I travel twice yearly to speak and present at various events and conferences on how to embrace an inhibited life, how to develop and harness greater inner leadership and the all-important topic of building and crafting our own inspiring and impactful legacy.
There has to be a diverse variety of projects that have new challenges woven through them as I am completely incapable of living a go-through-the-motions type of existence. I love to create and craft innovative coaching workshops and/or deliver material that is absolutely useful, meaningful and relevant to the audience. And everything HAS to not just feel real but be authentic; whatever I am working on and whomever I am working with, the material and content has to be facilitated, created and owned with absolute authenticity.
Other than that you’ll find me writing at Bills in Bondi, which I call my home office, or grabbing my two kids for a late afternoon skate, surf or swim.
Balance, variety, fun and freedom are what keep me energised. Working, coaching, speaking and the ongoing learning journey of studying neuroscience, psychology, spiritual and emotional human experience within the meaning of life, loss and death are what give me a never-ending source of purpose and meaning in my life.
Your aim is to help people live their best life and leave a legacy. What are some tools we can all put in place in order to live our best lives?
I think the key here is, again, creating a structure and honouring rituals in your life through which you can find your own flow and achieve a sense of balance. Healthy mind, body and spirit is the goal, keeping in mind that we all need to work from where we’re at in life and we may not always get it right or have everything in order all at once.
It’s important to have an awareness of what your ‘best life’ really looks and feels like so spend some time visualising what that is or means for you and work backward to put steps and supports in place to allow yourself the ability to feel supported. If you need some alone time, work on creating that in your daily life even in small steps.
Authenticity is such a complex word in today’s age of social media. How can we all be authentic and ensure we’re being true to ourselves and our life path?
Firstly, as human BEINGS, we are our authentic selves without ‘doing’ anything. When we TRY, we move out of self and into inauthenticity. Our brains trick us into wanting to be, have and get and in order to get ‘there,’ we have to go outside of self. I mentioned going outward is a big no no and will always be an unsatisfying adventure because the answers are inside all of us.
Describe a typical morning in your household.
We’re at that wonderful stage where the kids are old enough to get themselves ready…YEAAAAAH!
I usually tiptoe out at around five am for coffee and some beach time. Then, armed with some fresh fruit and bread, I’m back home around 6.30 to join two stirring little lovelies. We then all get ready and have brekkie together. There are, of course, the usual ‘make your bed’ requests about twenty-seven times. On the days I do have to leave super early to facilitate, my son is brilliant at completely managing himself and I am wonderfully supported by my dear friend – a powerhouse of a woman who also juggles solo parenting – where I can drop Indi at her best friend’s house so she can tiptoe in to wake up her sleepy BFF.
I am an absolute morning lover and always try and bring awareness to the fact that it is a new opportunity each and every day to experience something new. So I’m conscious of the start to each day being something that’s not just space filled with stress and rushing. This is critical to me. So even when that is the reality, acknowledging all the loveliness of the pink clouds from our kitchen window, or bringing the kids a fresh-baked chocolate croissant on a rainy day, or even painstakingly and patiently standing beside them while they make the scrambled eggs, throwing in a few wisecracks about what an awesome partner Jesse will make knowing how to make the best fluffy eggs ever, is what turns the rush into memorable moments.
Because THOSE are moments that we remember.
What is your definition of self-care and how do you make time for it?
Time alone is critical, but I also really crave time with my kids connecting, eating foods that my body likes, learning something new and feeling like I am being of service or making a difference on a daily basis. I thrive on being creative daily, even if it’s just a rich conversation with one of my clients.
Exercise, movement, the ocean and meditation are critical not only to my mental health but to my actual well-being. Whilst I am often described as being hugely strong physically and emotionally, my immune and lymphatic systems cannot cope without me being fairly diligent with nutritious foods and movement.
Ah, the time conundrum. Now that my kids are older it is SO much easier to create and make time but previously, I used every extra cent I had to pay for someone to come even if for an hour in the mornings to watch the kids so that I could start afresh. Or sometimes I’d bring a babysitter in once they were asleep so that I could hop on my motorbike and watch a dark Nordic film at the cinema and lose myself in a story to help connect with the other sides of myself that rebooted the ever-committed mummy.
I am my best when I make space required to have me be that and I coach and inspire others to do the same. There will always be the belief, and often the excuse, that there isn’t enough time, but it’s usually more about how we need to rejig to attain that reboot, recognising that sometimes we need to do it in a different way than we’re used to.
What are some of your ultimate mum hacks to share - any tips or tricks to make the days and nights run smoothly?
There are no true ‘hacks’ in the world of parenting. We all have challenges and the key is to set up a structure that works for your individual family and to try and inject some consistency with an eye on being flexible and releasing attachment to how things ‘need’ to be in order to keep things running like a well-oiled machine. It’s our insistence on this idea that things can and will always be smooth, easy and perfect that continues to keep us from embracing the way things that have us chasing ideals that don’t exist.
Where are some of your favourite places to take the kids around Bondi and Sydney?
The ocean, of course, for sunrise and sunset
Gertrude & Alice bookstore and cafe
Poetica monthly at the book store
The Shop for the best salad ever!
Bondi skateboard park
Jump off the rocks at North Bondi
Our garden…with half the neighbourhood dropping by!
Vashti's little list of loves:
Long black coffee at 5.15am with the early morning crew at the Republic bakery.
Learning to skate on a Cruiser.
Watching my daughter take on the waves and my son win his first skate comp.
Creating everything from dark short stories to what seem to look like highly produced illustrations on the super fab new iPad pro…love it!
Sharing time with some very special human beings whose time left is brief.
Watching some epic new dark dramas on Netflix.
Afternoon dips and dives with my cubs at Bondi.
Writing the content for a New York keynote and the soon-to-come amazing workshop series for 2019.
Planning how to combine my speaking tour next year with some epic family adventures.
Running with sneakers on – I’m usually a soft sand runner.