That afternoon, we were coming together for a grief-tending ceremony. Curiosity, uncertainty, and a certain sense of trepidation that often holds hands with the unknown sat in my stomach… What does it mean, “grief tending”? I haven’t suffered a bereavement or any great trauma recently, do I even belong in that space? Why would I need such a thing?
The answer, as always, was nestled deep in the centre of the experience. It was something I needed to feel, to experience through my body, and not through my mind. Then, only later, once we had closed the ceremony, and dispersed from the space, and indeed, reaching far beyond that place, and into the now, I carry the thread of meaning that came from that afternoon, when I sat amongst my community and was both a vessel and a witness of grief, in its purest form. When I realised that grief is as natural, and vital to our well-being as joy, and that these two emotions lie together like night and day.
The group had been living together for 5 days, but it could have been 5 weeks, based on the depth of connection, grown from our shared experiences that week. Before we entered the ceremony, there was an opportunity for those who didn’t want to attend, for what ever reason, to opt out. Their decision not to participate was honoured and validated – they would hold the space from the outside…
The singing began before we entered the ceremonial space – a gentle chant, soothing and calming as we spiralled from our circle outside, and into the marquee, which had been prepared with space for two concentric rings. First, we sat in the outer ring, knees and arms gently touching connecting the circle – this ring would be for witnessing, and for holding space for those who needed to be in the inner circle. The second ring was lined out with cushions and sheep skins, creating a soft space, and in the centre, lay the four directions, and four objects, representing manifestations of grief: a thick wooden branch for anger, a bowl of dead leaves for sorrow, a rock, for pain, and an empty bowl for numbness. Beyond the circles stood the elders, and the space-holders, like loving arms, surrounding the us, keeping us safe.
The invitation was to move into the inner circle, if grief was felt trying to move through the body. We were free to sit or stand or move in that space. Should we feel the need to give voice to the grief, it could be expressed by moving to the centre and holding one of the objects, and speaking, shouting or screaming, and allowing the voice to come through. And so, the ceremony opened, and with it, the gates to our grief…
Almost immediately, three people moved into the inner circle, and so it flowed. People continued to trickle into the inner circle,“the ocean refuses no river, no river” we sang, over and over, unchanging. My first response was shock. I was shocked to see such raw emotion so physically close, so wild, so uninhibited. It felt hard to accept that simply witnessing was enough, that I shouldn’t be somehow trying to comfort them, to make things better… I was faced with my conditioning, my discomfort and distress at being in the presence of grief. Surely this was something that should be kept private, hidden? It felt uncomfortable, awkward. I wanted to look away, to protect myself from the realness, from the emotion. Suddenly, I felt an impulse to laugh, a nervous bubble; I felt ashamed, ashamed that I didn’t know how to respond. And slowly, this turned to another emotion, to grief. To a sense of loss, and sorrow for a place that had been tainted with shame and secrecy. A place that I had learned to be scared of, that existed not only within me, but inside of everyone.
The words spoken in the centre were not only of individual loss and trauma, but also of a collective grieving process. This was not about an ‘individual burden’, but rather a shared experience, the human condition. Whether we grieve for a lost child, a broken heart, an absent father, or the decimation of our planet, in this space, grief is welcome. It is neither awkward, nor uncomfortable, but beautiful and authentic, and it is essential, part of our essence. Here my ever deepening relationship with vulnerability was allowed to thrive, as finally I had the courage to step forward, and to be held. To be seen in a way that I saved only for myself, for my beloved, or beyond that, to be seen in a way, that I wouldn’t allow even myself to see.
I sat on the soft cushions, I sobbed and sighed, and allowed grief to move through me. But still, something in me held on, and it wasn’t until I felt the motherly presence of a woman close behind me, that I realised how alone I’d felt. How tightly wrapped my grief was, how carefully packaged, how quietly kept. She wrapped her arms around me, I could hear her voice, softly singing in my ear, giving me permission to let go, to sink into her embrace, and to be held. I let go. I allowed myself to be seen. I exhaled my grief, and it flowed…
Gently it ebbed away, and slowly the intensity of the ceremony subsided, a collective outward sigh, and we moved back to the outer circle. We began to stand, together, hand in hand, still singing. The time had come for a new song, as grief’s sister joy was invited into the space, and we sang together, an uplifting harmony, a celebration of life in all its manifestations. Until finally, as we felt ready, we tentatively emerged from this chrysalis, and into the community, to assimilate the experience.
The power of the ceremony was manifold. Beyond the personal learnings that I carry from the experience lies a bigger story. That of our collective grief, and the role of civilization in subduing, shaming and numbing that which is rightfully ours. The grief I witnessed in that ceremony exists in every person, in every town, city, community of this land, and we have been taught to believe that it’s not welcome, that it is ugly, or inappropriate or inconvenient. Grief is wild, untamed, uncivivilized. It sits in the pit of our civilized stomachs, and bulges to the surface in desires and destructive behaviour, only to be hidden by our civilized masks, and squeezed back inside.
It seems that rather than trying to hide or avoid the pain we inevitably feel, we could open the gateway to grief, and allow it to move through us. Perhaps then, we could move towards a more authentic, shared human experience. My question is, what would a society that had a space for grief look like? How would it feel to be accepted in our vulnerability? What could be possible if we were able to express our anger, our fear, our sorrow, our pain? How close could we sit then, to joy, and the undeniable truth that we are all wounded, and that we are all capable of healing?
For more about grief-tending ceremonies in the UK, see http://www.wayofthevillage.co.uk/
In recognition, also of one of the great wisdom keepers, is Sobonfu Some, who’s has been greatly influential in this movement. http://www.sobonfu.com/ The ceremony we experienced was inspired by Sobonfu’s work, alongside that of the incredible Joanna Macey, as outlined in her book, “The Work That Reconnects” http://workthatreconnects.org/