Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake

Tom Golden LCSW


When we experience a strong grief we will experience increased chaos in our lives. We are moved out of our routines and habits and thrust into a time and place that seems chaotic and unpredictable. What is this thing we are calling chaos? We can understand this a little better if we turn to nature as an example. All things in nature operate within a dynamic system. This dynamic system oscillates between two poles, stability and chaos. Stability is maintained for a period and then chaos is experienced, moving the system out of its patterns of stability and into something new, different, and life-changing. For instance, I have a favorite tree in my yard. This tree has a remarkably-shaped trunk, looking a little like a Coca-Cola bottle with a gaping wound wrapped around it. (To see a 14kb jpeg image of this tree click the tree---click "back" to return) I have often wondered what brought the tree into this shape. Was it a massive vine, lightning, or disease? Whatever it was, it was chaos for the tree; it took the tree out of its stable growth pattern and changed its outward appearance and growth forever. You can think of the many trees in a forest and begin to get an idea of how the chaos they have experienced has shaped their growth and appearance. Each tree comes with its own ancestry from its seed and is then subject to the chaos of its location in the forest--from soil conditions to weather to amount of light to insects, fire, and the hand of man. Each tree moves in and out of the interplay of chaos and stability, producing its own unique essence.

People are also dynamic systems, and grief is a time when chaos is present in more than usual amounts. When we are out of our stable pattern, many things change. One of those changes is that we are extremely sensitized to even very tiny variables. Thus, people who are actively mourning speak of the smallest incidents sending them into a wave of grief. Examples such as hearing a particular song, or seeing a certain product in the grocery store, which normally would have no effect on a person in a stable pattern, suddenly can take on mammoth proportions. Hearing that song or seeing that product taps into the grief, and the grief is brought into consciousness in all of its fullness. This is the way of chaos.


It is natural for people, just as it is natural for all of nature, to be oscillating from stability to chaos. Grief is one of the times in a normal life cycle when we will experience more of this chaos than at others. Grief is not a pathological state; it is a normal life event that throws us into instability. This instability also has its own pattern, and if we look hard enough we may get a glimpse of it, a glimpse that shows the intricate pattern of the chaos itself. It is within this pattern that new and deeper parts of ourselves reside. Many times, however, the pattern of chaos is not noticed until years after the grief. The patterns of pain and chaos from our grief are a double-edged sword. They are painful and difficult, bringing chaos into our lives. But they also help us move into a more developed level of functioning.

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing pages 29-30.
Tom Golden LCSW

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027