The Well of Grief
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief
turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.
At this time of year we sit in a transition moment between summer and fall. Vacations are ending or have ended, children and college students are contemplating returning to the classroom, and in the Northern Hemisphere, most of us are aware that within the next two months, we may experience the first frost or even the first snowfall.
As we say goodbye to summer, there may be some wistfulness, some sorrow that it all passed too quickly, and the chilly winds of autumn will be here before we know it.
For many, summer is a time to forget all of that—warm days and nights, cannon ball dives in the swimming pool, perhaps even a summer romance. As a child, I remember how short-lived all summers seemed to be and how onerous the return to school felt in the fall.
Life is short, then you die. Summer is short, then you go back to school.
No one enjoys feeling sad. We do everything in our power to evade, avoid, distract, delay, bypass, bargain with, deny, dismiss, and repress sorrow. Yet one man has the courage to ask us to consider signing up for “an apprenticeship with sorrow.” That man is psychotherapist and author, Francis Weller, in his new book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and The Sacred Work of Grief. (North Atlantic Books, 2015) This book is an instruction manual for those who understand that as the author writes, “Bringing grief and death out of the shadow is our spiritual responsibility, our sacred duty.” (xviii)
So why should we consent to an apprenticeship with sorrow and read this instruction manual for doing so? From my perspective, the answer is quite simple: Unacknowledged and unexpressed grief is the most oppressive and agonizing burden that humans are carrying at this moment in history. And not only humans. Almost daily we witness media footage of animals whose mates and family members perish, and the surviving creature sits or lies beside them for hours or days engaging in what can only be inferred as deep grieving. How can we know the grief of hundreds of species of animals that go extinct each day? Or—how can we blithely deny that they are mourning the loss of their fellow creatures?
We live in a culture in which, as Weller writes, “…grief has been colonized by the clinical world, taken hostage by diagnoses and pharmaceutical regimes” whereas on the other hand, “…grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential experience of being human.” (xviii)
Grief is nearly an obscenity in this culture. When the word is uttered, it may be followed by some reference to Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief or the usefulness of grief support groups or bereavement leave. The latter, of course, is a wrinkle, a glitch in one’s otherwise “productive” life for which one is allowed perhaps a week in order to “get done with it,” “get over it,” and certainly “put it behind them.” The moment one attempts to have a serious conversation about grief or suggest that it might be an important healing process, one is accused of being morbid or “dark.”
On the morning of June 6, 2015, I briefly watched the funeral of Beau Biden, son of the current Vice-President, Joe Biden. As so-called mourners entered the church and took their seats, I witnessed one of the most tightly controlled and sanitized displays of grief repression imaginable. I saw few tears and a host of well-behaved people who vigilantly maintained an image of composure, and when President Obama gave the eulogy, his five seconds of “tearing up” made international headlines.
Whereas our culture assumes that public grieving is somewhat childish, Francis Weller passionately asserts that “Grief is the work of mature men and women.” Moreover, it is not a private matter that we should isolate within the four walls of our home or conceal by wearing sunglasses in public. Many indigenous cultures and generations of our ancestors understood that grief is a communal event. It is, says Weller, “…an intensely interior process that can only be navigated in the presence of community.” (116) For many tribes, community grieving was a way of maintaining “soul hygiene” because the community knew that when people do not grieve, they become toxic to the rest of the community.
To develop an apprenticeship with sorrow, we require community support—safe spaces where we can grieve with others, our bodies reverberating with the grief we feel and that others feel with us. Hence the grief rituals that Francis Weller regularly offers—rituals which not only allow people to discharge their grief, but which bond people deeply in an intimate circle of sorrow and celebration.
In my work with grieving individuals and in the grief workshops I offer, I commonly hear two misconceptions. One is the assumption that the myriad types of grief we experience are separate from each other, as if we could compartmentalize them. People often ask me if the workshop is for people grieving the loss of loved ones or if it is for people grieving our withering planet or if it is for people who have a terminal illness. When this happens I share Francis Weller’s explanation of The Five Gates of Grief which include every type of grief we can experience and how they are interrelated. In his 2011 book on grief Entering The Healing Ground, the Five Gates are clarified, but then explained in more depth in The Wild Edge of Sorrow.
Additionally, people often express to me their concern that if they begin grieving, they will never stop, and they fear becoming “stuck” in the grieving process. In fact, as The Wild Edge of Sorrow explains, we are much more likely to become “stuck” in our grief if we do not acknowledge it and continue to avoid feeling it. For indeed, as Francis Weller has often written, depression is frequently un-metabolized grief.
Allowing ourselves to take the risk of letting go and relinquishing control, we experience what Weller calls “a state of derangement.” This is not a state of psychosis or emotional breakdown, but rather “…a state that is beyond our normal way of perceiving and experiencing ourselves and the world.” This requires a letting go, and “Derangement is necessary because our current emotional ‘arrangement’ is not working…This carefully ‘arranged’ relationship with life denies us the freedom to receive the support we require from our community in a time of loss.” (86)
But what more does an apprenticeship with sorrow offer us? Do we merely discharge our grief and move on?
In fact, conscious grieving paradoxically deepens our appreciation of beauty, enhances our creativity, and very often, enriches our capacity for experiencing joy. As Francis Weller notes, “Grief helps us stay closely related to the other face of this mystery which is gratitude. The tension between these two sisters, grief and gratitude, is what helps us to avoid leaving this life ‘sighing and frightened, or full of argument’ in the words of the poet, Mary Oliver. We are freed to love this life, and when we are asked finally to release it, we can let it go.” (132)
Never in the history of our species have we so desperately needed to engage in conscious grieving. Not only are we carrying decades of our own grief, but we almost certainly are carrying the grief of past generations and the grief of other species. In fact, I believe that other species are asking us—perhaps even begging us to grieve their losses. When he is able to grieve, says Weller, his ability to feel this planetary pain “puts me back in a profound state of relatedness to where I live, to the watershed, to my home.” (143-144) Some may assume that given the state of the planet, grieving is pointless. Yet The Wild Edge of Sorrow asserts that, “…we have to keep some sense of our deep soul obligation to the planet alive, no matter if we are leaving. I feel it is an imperative that I do whatever I can to register the sorrows of the planet. We have to remember that much of the grief that we are feeling isn’t ours. It isn’t personal. We are literally feeling the sorrows of the watershed.” (143-144) In fact, the entire Earth community has a right to our bearing witness to their losses.
I recently interviewed Stephen Jenkinson, known to some as the Griefwalker. In the interview he spoke of the etymology of the word “catastrophe.” The Greek prefix cata, refers to a descent—a going down and inward. “Strophe” is a suffix that is associated with braiding or interweaving a connection. In summary, Jenkinson asserted that this time of “catastrophe” compels us to descend—to go downward rather than soaring; to focus inwardly as much as we pay attention to the external world—and, to do this together in connection and community. For Jenkinson, conscious grieving is a skill that we must develop at this moment of loss and demise. And he further concludes that our work is to open to the descent together and to create communities of individuals who are practicing the skill of grieving for ourselves and for the Earth.
Grief work is unique to each person grieving. There is no one way to grieve in a world where everyone and everything is inundated with sorrow and loss. Nevertheless, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, empathically and compassionately shows us how to begin the descent and how we might intertwine our journey with the journeys of others who long to engage in the sacred work of grief. For there, in the cold, dark well are bright, golden coins of joy and gratitude.