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Can a book really change your life? This one just might

The Bridge Retreat was beloved by celebrities, and now coach Donna Lancaster has channelled that wisdom into a book. The author chats to Becky Barnes about healing from grief and living your most authentic life

“Face down on the floor in a ladies loo might seem an unlikely place for personal transformation, but that’s where mine began,” Donna Lancaster reveals in her new book, The Bridge.

Lancaster, a former social worker, has been working with people for more than 30 years to help them live their most authentic lives. Her new book is based on her retreat of the same name, and offers “a nine-step crossing into authentic and wholehearted living”.

I was one of the lucky 12 to attend the last-ever Bridge Retreat, which at its core was a radical six-day personal development experience run by Donna and fellow therapist Gabi Krueger. Previous attendees included journalist Bryony Gordon and singer Jordan Stephens, the latter of whom credits the retreat with saving his life.

Despite the retreat being held on Zoom – it was during the pandemic, after all – my experience of it was still completely transformational. It fast-tracked me onto a journey of healing my queue of heartbreaks, starting with grieving the pain of being given up as a baby for adoption. Grief and heartbreak was worked through with letter writing, being witnessed, and ritual and body work.

Those six days completely changed the way I see the world and set me on a path to pick up that wounded child and carry her with me as I began to work through the next 30 years of my story.

Donna Lancaster

Two years on and Lancaster’s retreats have moved to a shorter format like her “online gym for the soul” Deepening Into Life, or her two day workshop called The Grief Space.

“Essentially, ‘The Bridge’ is a metaphor for this idea of moving across from the negative past to a future of our own choosing,” Lancaster tells The Independent.

The book has been endorsed by the likes of Fearne Cotton and Thandiwe Newton, the latter who says one of her “…biggest regrets is that I didn’t traverse The Bridge Retreat before the pandemic. At least God in her wisdom divined this book”.

Lancaster continues: “This book is for anybody who is curious about their past, about how their past impacts their present, anybody who is curious about embarking on a healing journey and anybody that is ready to live a life that is deeper than the shallows that we are sold.

“You don’t have to burn your bridges, you don’t have to leave your past behind but you do have to make your peace with it so you can live unencumbered by what I call the ‘ghosts of Christmas past’,  which is all those negative aspects from your history still holding you back.”

The nine steps outlined in the book include how and why we get hurt, how we take on masks and roles, how grief and loss are essential parts of the human condition and the healing power of an apology. It moves on to true self-love, developing resilience, returning to joy and wonder before wholehearted living and how to deepen into life.

Throughout, Lancaster generously shares her own story, from growing up with an alcoholic abusive father to her own depression, and offers practical tips, exercises, reflections, rituals and poems to help people move from a life dictated by past challenges and struggles, to one where we can use the rich gifts of our life experience to live authentically.

I hope that people realise that healing is for the collective

Donna Lancaster

Lancaster says that some questions that may come up for readers include: “Where in my life am I still hurting? Where in my life am I still facing repetitive negative patterns?” She adds: “It’s about being willing to ask those challenging really difficult questions and how it relates to my past. And then it’s about making a map of our losses and heartbreaks and asking questions like where does this hurt live in my body?”

This, Lancaster says, is when readers of The Bridge will “really start to see how you’ve been shaped by your history”.

“It’s about remembering how I felt when I was four and my dad left, as an example. Then letting myself feel that in my body because grieving is an embodied process. Have I suffered enough with this old way of living to really do the necessary inner work so that I can cross the bridge to a new way of being in the world?” she explains.

Lancaster says that she hopes readers will take comfort and hope from The Bridge. “I hope it supports them to believe that healing is possible and necessary for all of us and I hope that people realise that healing is for the collective.”

The 4 most common misconceptions of grief, according to Donna Lancaster

Grief is only to do with death and bereavement

“People associate grief, which is a natural emotional reaction to any kind of loss, only with death and bereavement. When I say I do grief work, people think I’m a bereavement counsellor. In fact if I’m honest, bereavement is the least grief experience that I have, my experience of grief is much more broader as part of the human condition, which includes bereavement but mainly focuses on grieving the lost parts of ourselves.

“The misconception is that grief is only about death, whereas grief and grieving are about so much more than that. The truth is that grieving is actually more about life than death in many ways because the process of grieving brings us back to being fully alive.”

Grief is related to big tragedies

“People associate grief as only about massive tragedy so you can only be grieving, you can only be feeling so-called negative or deeper emotions - sadness, anger, fear etc about big events and that’s not true.

“You can grieve, as my grandson teaches me every day, for example he cried at the death of a bee and that’s so beautiful to be so innocent and wholehearted - and with the bridge we are getting back to that innocent joy and wonder. To be able to grieve and not be embarrassed that you cry at the loss of a bee, because how amazing is that? How wholehearted is that?

“It doesn’t have to be massive tragedies; you can just feel ‘everyday’ grief as part of the richness of the human experience.”

Grief is an individual experience

“There’s individual and collective grief and a lot of people don’t know about that. They have a misconception that it’s just about the individual, but we all feel collective grief. Like the war in the Ukraine, we feel it, we are carrying it on our backs and in our hearts, of course not as intensely as those people that are going through it but we carry some of their pain make no mistake.”

Grief is the price you pay for love

“Grief is love; if you love something or someone, including yourself, then we need to grieve the loss of those parts of ourselves, we need to grieve the people we lose through ends of relationships, or through ends of friendships, through ends of life, whatever that might be and allow space for that.

“I always say grief is love bleeding, it can be the painful dimension to love for sure but we can’t have the beauty and the bliss of love without the pain and the heartache of it too - that’s all wrapped up in it, so grief is not the price you pay for love, it is love.”

The Bridge: A nine step crossing into authentic and wholehearted living by Donna Lancaster is published by Penguin on Thursday, 7 July 2022 (Penguin Life: £16.99). Find out more about Donna Lancaster via Instagram and her website Deepening Into Life.

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