The Gifts of Grief
Grief is a beautiful, languid, and powerful emotion that is very different from sadness. Sadness, which we looked at last week, arises when you’re holding on to something that isn’t working anyway; sadness arises to help you relax and let go. Grief is different: it arises when something is lost irretrievably, or when a death occurs – be it actual death, or the death of important attachments, ideas, or relationships. Grief does not simply bring you the capacity to relax and let go (as sadness does); grief transports you to the deepest places when you have no choice but to let go – when the loss of vital relationships or vital attachments feels like (or is) death itself.
Grief will arise in response to many kinds of loss: to the end of a love relationship, to the irretrievable loss of your health or well-being, to the loss of a cherished goal or possession, or to a stunning betrayal of trust. Grief will also arise in response to never having had something we’re all supposed to take for granted, such as health, strength, security, or a happy childhood. Grief enables you to survive losses by immersing you in the deep river that flows underneath all life. If you can’t move into your grief, you’ll only experience destabilization and dissociation in response to the shock of loss, injustice, inequity, and death – instead of being cleansed and renewed in the river of all souls.
GRIEF: The Deep River of the Soul
ACTION REQUIRED: Grief arises when something has been lost irretrievably or when someone has died.
GIFTS: Complete immersion in the river of all souls
THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What must be mourned? What must be released completely?
The gifts of grief
(This excerpt is from the Grief chapter in my book, The Language of Emotions) A few years ago, I saw a TV news report about a young child who had wandered into a neighbor’s pool and drowned. The news crews got onto the scene quickly, and they caught the reactions of the large African-American family who had lost their little one. On the front lawn of the neighbor’s house, the entire family (including teenaged boys) were wailing, weeping, hugging, and collapsing to the ground, calling out to Jesus.
I was mesmerized by this family’s grief, both because it was so visceral, and because I had been socialized in white culture never to show true grief. In the funerals I had attended, everyone was hushed, dressed in their best and least comfortable clothes, looking uneasy, and offering bland platitudes. The mourners I knew sometimes cried, but they usually apologized for it. In my culture, there was no real grief – just polite, suppressed sadness and uncomfortable silence. The grief of this family, however, was real and honest, and I could clearly see the grief pulling them downward.
Like most people, I avoided the downward movement into grief for most of my life. All four of my grandparents died before I was eleven, but I didn’t grieve or mourn for any one of them, because I was unable to truly feel or process their loss. I never wailed, I never dropped to the ground … I didn’t even cry. I’m not alone in this. Grief impairment is everywhere.
Many people move to numbness, to rage, to acrimony, to distraction, to dissociation — many people will do everything but drop and grieve when death or irretrievable loss occurs. But avoiding grief doesn’t help; in fact, it only makes things worse. We trick ourselves into thinking that we can guard ourselves against all pain if we just refuse to grieve (or think about or prepare for death).
In that refusal, however, we make a tragic mistake, and each death and each loss, because we don’t feel it properly, just stacks itself on top of the last death or loss – like papers on a disorganized desk – until we’re filled with unfelt, unlived, unresolved losses and deaths. Without the ability to grieve, we are repeatedly traumatized by loss and death.
Grieving is necessary and sacred, yet in our grief-impaired culture, we move dead bodies into boxes and urns, and gather quietly in our somber outfits around tables full of food. We tell each other it was all for the best, or that little Bobby’s in a better world now. We devise perfect explanations and rationalizations, we imagine our dearly departed in heaven or nirvana, we anesthetize our emotions, we dissociate from our bodies – and we “hold up” very well (what an amazingly accurate description of grief impairment!).
When we see someone actively dropping into grief and mourning, we often turn away. It’s embarrassing, it’s frightening, it’s distasteful – it’s just not done! Many of us turn away from the grief around us, because we don’t want to feel anything that deeply. It’s too threatening, so we straighten our clothing and turn away. And that’s the real death – of compassion, of community, of feeling, and of understanding.
And yet our innate capacity to mourn and grieve is never lost — which is a blessing, because moving intentionally into and through grief is an intrinsic part of becoming whole. In the Mexican culture, which honors its dead in an exquisite yearly festival called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), there is great wisdom about death. I found this saying on a Dia de los Muertos shrine bench at Chicago’s O’Hare airport: “La muerte nunca muere; la muerte es la ventana al otro mundo.” It means “Death is undying; death is a window to the other world.”
Grieving and the importance of ritual
Grief is a very powerful emotion that can easily overwhelm people, which is why all cultures have sacred grief rituals. Rituals (good ones) help humans process change, transitions, shock, and loss — yet in our modern world, many of us have lost our vital connections to the ritual traditions that help us create sacred space for the incredible shock of death and loss. We’ve moved our dead out of our parlors (parlors in traditional homes were actually built for wakes!) and into funeral homes – and we’re slowly losing our connection to community-based grief rituals.
However, we all witness people creating roadside shrines at accident scenes, or impromptu candlelight vigils for sudden deaths in their communities, so it’s clear that we still have a tremendous underground capacity for grief rituals. Fortunately, we can create new and meaningful grief rituals for ourselves and our loved ones, even if we’ve lost connection to our heritage.
In most funereal traditions, certain elements appear with regularity. There is usually a “shrine of the dead,” whether it’s the actual coffin or body, a shrine or altar, a photo, an image, or a collection of items associated with the dead person. Mourners nearly always gather in groups separate from the shrine, and those closest to the dead are given a position of honor nearest to the shrine. Music is often used to delineate the space of mourning, and people often speak out to the mourners about the dead, usually by standing with their backs to the shrine (but not too close at this time) and facing the area of mourning.
When the mourners are united in their collective remembrance of the dead – with their stories, their griefs, their songs, their laughter, their regrets, and their tears – they move forward individually and visit or commune with the dead by paying their respects directly to the shrine. When the mourners make their final goodbyes, they either return to the area of mourning and close the ritual with song or sermon, or leave the space of direct mourning and gather to share food and companionship.
Each aspect of a grief ritual helps delineate the dead from the living by creating a sacred space for the dead and a sacred community for the mourners to hold onto in this world. If these ritual components are overlooked, the delineation becomes blurred, and the mourners essentially cross over to a middle place where they don’t truly release their dead or join fully into life again. Without healthy ritual, many mourners, and their dearly departed, become trapped in a kind of netherworld.
Ritual exists to help us navigate and survive the necessary (and often wrenching) passages of our lives. Our unfortunate disconnection from meaningful ritual not only strips us of community and the sacred, but also of our ability to live, love, feel, and grieve fully. Most of us have participated in funeral ceremonies (which are often excruciatingly stilted), but I think very few of us have truly experienced the full release of our losses and our dearly departed into the next world – because we haven’t been given the time or the space to make the profound movements grief requires of us. In many areas of modern culture, funerals usually last a few hours, which simply does not allow enough time for mourners to create true communal space, let alone pay their full respects to the dead.
With my husband Tino, I had the great good fortune to participate in a number of indigenous West African grief rituals with Sobonfu Somé, who is a ritual keeper from the ancient Dagara tribe. This grief ritual lasted for two full days, but in Sobonfu’s village, they last for three (Sobonfu offers a number of grief rituals each year: see her website). I didn’t think there was any way to maintain direct grief and mourning for an entire weekend, but now, I don’t see how anyone can truly grieve in less time than that.
The practice for grief is steeped in ritual because grief is a lengthy and profound process; however, if you can simply focus your attention in your body, you can gracefully move into your own grief. Your body is a brilliant mourner, and if you trust it, it will convey you into the river of tears and bring you back out safe again. Your instinctual body knows grief and will carry you through the process if you put your trust in it.
A practice for grief
A central task during grief is to stay integrated by grounding and centering yourself instead of rushing off into distractions or becoming dissociated. Another important task is to create a shrine for the dead (or the loss) so that you can create a container for your mourning and some delineation between yourself and your loss.
When I work with highly empathic people, I use shrines a great deal so that these people can create some distance between themselves and their intensive emotional activation. In a very real sense, a good shrine (or altar) can help people move intense emotions out of their bodies a bit — so that they can catch their breath, yet not suppress, repress, or dissociate from their emotions or the situation. Grief shrines can help you separate yourself from your losses in a healthy way so that you can locate your sense of grounding and self-soothing, even in the midst of shock and loss.
If your grief relates to physical death, your shrine can contain photos, personal items, or reminders of your dearly departed. If your grief relates to the death of a relationship, a goal, an idea, your health, your trust, or that which you never had, your shrine can contain any items that symbolize your loss. It’s important to place something disposable in your grief shrine – something that can eventually be buried or burnt in a funeral ceremony – so that you can signify the end of this ritual as clearly as you signify its beginning and its unfolding.
Your grief process can be undertaken individually, or in a community or family group. If you include others, let them place their own items in the grief shrine as well, and make sure that their access to the shrine is not hindered. If you can place this grief shrine in an accessible, though private (as opposed to central) part of your home, you can delineate an area of direct mourning that you (and others) can enter and leave as you move through the layers of your grief. In this way, you can maintain your shrine for as long as you need to grieve.
Two days, two weeks, two months – it doesn’t matter how long the process takes (mourning periods differ from person to person, and from culture to culture). What matters is that you have a secluded physical space where you can work through your grief in your own time, sanctify your loss in your own way, and release your losses and your dead into the next world through the quantity of your emotions and the quality of your mourning.
When you move into your grief, you may feel a tremendous weight upon you. If you don’t understand what’s going on, you may feel crushed and suffocated by loss – and you may dissociate in response. If you can remember that the movement required in grief is downward, you’ll understand the necessity of this heaviness, which anchors you and presses you into your body so that you can feel the weight – and the depth – of the situation. The proper questions to ask in grief are What must be mourned? and What must be released completely?
When you move through grief in an intentional and ritual-supported way, you’ll feel pain, but it won’t crush you; your heart will break open, but it won’t break apart. If you can send your grief – in tears, in rages, in laughter, or in total silence – into your shrine, you and your heart will become conduits through which the waters of life can flow. If you let the river flow through you, your heart will not be emptied; it will be expanded, and you’ll have more capacity to love, and more room to breathe.
When you’re done grieving, you won’t need or want to erase the memory of your loss – instead, your loss will become a part of you: a part of your ancestral lineage, your strength, and your recognition of the fragility of life. You won’t become bulletproof and grief-hardened – instead, you’ll soften into the true strength that arises when you connect to grief and loss in sacred ways.
When your grieving process is done – when you have no more intense emotions to send into the shrine, and when you feel that you’ve achieved some closure – you (and anyone else involved in your grief ritual) should take some part of the shrine and wrap it or seal it in a way that signifies closure to you. Take this bundle and burn or bury it ceremonially, and dismantle your shrine completely (you can continue to display photos or items from the shrine, but you should remove them from the shrine area and place them in new configurations).
It’s important to create a clear end for your grief ritual so that the parts of you which feed on imagery will be able to demarcate the end of your formal mourning process. It’s also very healing to mark your closure with music and a food-based celebration of some kind. Party!
What to do if your grief won’t end
It’s very important to make a distinction between being caught in grief because you’ve fallen into the netherworld, and being caught in grief because your grieving process has not yet completed itself. Most of us are rushed through our public grief and left to do our real grieving on our own – without ritual, ceremony, or community. In many cases, trapped grief is actually just unfinished grief.
If your grief is stuck simply because it is unfinished, walking yourself through a ritual practice for grief (and creating a shrine or altar) may help you complete your grieving process. Grieving takes its own time, and it won’t leave you until the ritual of your grief is finished. If your grief ritual isn’t quite finished, you’ll know it by the quality of connection you still have to your lost person, idea, or situation – you’ll still feel a wrenching physical connection and a sense of unfinished business that requires more time to feel and process.
However, there is a form of grief called “complicated grief” that seems to involve areas of the brain that are prone to addiction. In essence, you can become physically addicted to grief! If you’re still actively grieving, crying, physically missing your loved one (or the idea or situation, etc.), and spiraling into anxieties and depressions more than 6 months after a death, please see your doctor or therapist and mention the possibility of complicated grief. Current data suggest that this form of grief can affect your endocrine system, your sleep, and your hormonal balance, so don’t ignore it!
You can also experience stuck grief when you’re trapped in the netherworld of distraction and dissociation, as I was as a young person. In this situation, you may not be able to identify your emotional condition. You won’t feel true grief, because you won’t actually be in the territory of grief. You’ll be in the territory of running from grief, rationalizing grief, numbing grief, or making grief unreal. As a result, you may feel furious, depressed, anxious, panicky, or even suicidal. You may feel isolated from humanity and yourself – cheated by the dead, and betrayed by the living. You may also have trouble reaching out for help, companionship, or counseling.
Reach out anyway. You’re in the emotional rapids, and you need human contact, counseling, and community in order to finally allow yourself to drop into the river and grieve.
Honoring grief in others
The first guideline for creating sacred space for grief in others is not to rush in and pull them out of the river – not to sermonize or philosophize about death, the past, or the future. Grieving people need to be treated as sacred vessels through which the river of life is flowing in all its power and all its beauty – as people who have one foot in this world, and one foot in the next. Mourners are in deep ritual space, and your behavior should be reverent of that.
It is very hard not to interfere with platitudes, homilies, and pep talks, but you must restrain yourself. This is the time for you to hold the world at bay and let the mourner fully experience his or her grief in words, in sobbing, in rages, in complete silence, in despair, in fits of laughter, in denial and blaming – or in whatever way the mourner chooses. If you can see yourself as an assistant to grief instead of as a counselor, you’ll be able to take your proper place in this ritual.
The second guideline for creating sacred space for grief in others is to be separate enough from the death or loss (or to have grieved it fully enough yourself) to be able to act as a ritual keeper, instead of a fellow mourner. If you haven’t yet grieved the death or loss, you’ll most likely drop into the grieving along with the mourner – leaving no one to hold the space for the ritual. The analogy about securing your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs applies to this situation. There is no shame in being in the river of grief – it’s a beautiful place to be – but the profound movements in grief take all your energy. If you’re in mourning yourself, you won’t have the capacity to create sacred space for another, and you’ll need to call in someone else to help you and the principal mourner.
To be clear, you don’t need to be emotionless and indifferent to be a good support person – that’s not the movement required at all. You just need to create and maintain clear boundaries between yourself and the mourner’s deep process (the Empathic Mindfulness skill of Defining Your Boundaries — from The Language of Emotions — is really helpful here). Your grounding and focusing abilities are also very important, because you’ve got to be able to move emotions through you as they arise.
Grief travels (because it’s a communal emotion as well as a private one), so even if you’re focused, you may move into grief right along with the mourner. If you do, breathe deeply and relax your body consciously so that the grief can flow through you. In this way, you can welcome and honor the grief while maintaining your position as an assistant.
If you can set up a grief shrine or area of mourning (with music, photos or sacred objects, candles, privacy, or anything that occurs to you or the mourner), you’ll be able to establish sacred space for the mourner and yourself. When a ceremonial container exists, the mourner can pour their words and emotions into the shrine – instead of into you (shrines also help people achieve some separation from intense emotions — without repressing or dissociating from them). Your task as an assistant is not to collect and process the mourner’s grief in your own body, but to create a container and shrine that allows the person to release the emotions, the losses, and the dearly departed into the next world.
When the grieving is finished, move yourself and the mourner away from the shrine (or the mourning area), and have something to eat or drink as a way to ground yourselves. Follow your instincts as to whether to break down the shrine. The mourner may want to preserve the shrine and continue grieving alone – now that there’s a sacred space for grief.
The mourner may also want to read through the Grief chapter in The Language of Emotions to gain input on how to proceed. Honor the mourner’s wishes and close your session with thanks to the shrine. Check in with all of your Empathic Mindfulness skills, and make sure to burn contracts or rejuvenate yourself when you have time alone for a few minutes. Working through grief (even as an assistant) changes you, and when you can rejuvenate yourself intentionally, you can integrate those changes gracefully. Amen.
Thank you for supporting empathy and emotional awareness in our waiting world; you make a difference!
In the next post: Ingenious stagnation: Understanding depression