Courage to grieve —
Reflections on grief and mourning from different cultural perspectives and life stages.
© All rights, Lone Mørch
“Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality.”
- Ursula Le Guin
In a world in hasty pursuit of happiness grief gets little attention. Get over it. Get back to work. Go do something new. Such are the messages, but underneath they reveal a discomfort with suffering and they make grief a private matter. Often the grieving person ends up hiding their sorrow, carrying it like a burden with nowhere to dispose of it. Sorrow left unattended, unexpressed, block our vitality and access to the soul.
Culturally, sorrow is perceived and dealt with differently. Let me give a few examples from my own cross-cultural experiences. At the end of a work contract in Nepal years ago, my colleagues hosted a farewell party with drinks, folk dance and a long procession of blessings — each of them draping a flower garland around my neck and pressing red paste on my forehead. Then they asked me to say something. But words paled in my attempt to express my love and gratitude for their friendship, as it blended with the sorrow of now leaving them. You don’t cry in public in Nepal. Ashamed, they ushered me into the Director’s office to wait for my tears to stop.
A culture well-versed in rituals for all things life and death, they have a way to channel their emotions though private and communal ceremonies of reverence and prayers and so perhaps, for them, crying in public isn’t honorable. In my family I was always the teary one. Having grown up in a Nordic culture devoid of such rituals and with a tendency to suppress emotions, I learnt to bottle up my feelings and hold them in until I’d burst. My tears would hold anything from shame for crying, anger for not being heard, sadness for not being seen, but also the happy-sadness when taking leave for a new journey, the love-sorrow of falling in love, the gratitude-grief when faced with loss, the humility when encountering the generosity of spirit and grandness of life, and so forth.
Ten years ago, I’m at a small Christmas gathering in San Francisco. My husband and I have just decided to divorce, but his sister aside, we’d told no one as to not spoil “the fun.” My mother-in-law already informed, pulls me aside and said,”Please don’t make a scene.” The rest of the day I stood there, choking on my emotions, while observing this in-law family I was about to exit. My husband joked with his uncle, drinking beer, as if nothing had changed. All of them had their version of ‘imperfect’ lives, but were busy keeping up the facade. Put on the happy face, this was the American way, which to me meant devaluating our feelings and the opportunities to connect with each other around those things that truly touch and change us.
In 2019, I have woken up from what now feels like a time warp, a trance, to my own midlife ‘wasteland’ and a world in crisis. The growth paradigm of the past 50 years has finally caught up with us and the benevolent world I grew up in have arrived at an impasse — we have become as alienated from the nature of our existence as we have from the beauty and intelligence of our living universe.
Perhaps the reason d’etre of midlife is to stop, look around and take stock of your life, only to realize that the equilibrium has shifted — life is now more about losses than gains. As I made my own calculations, I counted: the loss of a husband, an unborn child, several family members, three beloved pets, a few too many dreams, an unrequited love or three. Add to that, the loss of innocence, the loss of friends, places, youth, and the loss of time itself. In short, loss of who I once was. Though rich in memories, I was afraid to release it all, because without these stories and events, I was… no one?
My midlife wasteland was accentuated by the recent return to my native land after more than 20 years living abroad. When my soul nudged me to untether from America, I courageously succumbed to what didn’t really make sense at the time, let go of all my possessions and the business and community I’d built, to return empty-handed to my roots, open for a new experience in life.
I came unprepared for the reverse culture shock — both Denmark and I had changed and for the first time in my life as global citizen, I felt like an alien. Not only were my references, thoughts and language based upon other places and experiences than those around me, I was also uninvited to “the party” in a somewhat closed, cliquish culture. Underneath all my failed attempts to open doors, find work, discover a place I could live, pursue my projects, a deep resistance I didn’t understand lingered within. It grew heavier, but I kept pushing this invisible boulder in front of me, working double time to uphold a positive spirit and show a happy face, because, I could not afford otherwise. I was scared. In my eagerness to look ahead and find my footing, I’d not given myself to chance to grieve all I left behind.
Grief comes from the Latin word gravis, meaning heavy, weighty. Just like divorce hadn’t been part of my vocabulary, collapse didn’t exist as an option either. Collapse reeked of failure, weakness and dissolution. With no secure work and income, not even my own house, collapse wasn’t an option. Who would catch me? What would be on the other side of surrender? What if I’d completely fall apart?
A better question to ask might have been: why had I come to think that I alone should carry and solve the problems of my life?
Frances Weller offers five gates of grief to help us welcome grief as a natural part of life and living. The First Gate: Everything We Love, We will Lose. The Second Gate: The Places That Have Not Known Love. The Third Gate: The Sorrows of the World. The Fourth Gate: What We Expected and Did Not Receive. The Fifth Gate: Ancestral Grief.
As I pass through the midlife portal, all of these gates have been blast open. But in a society where we live in the illusion of (self-) control, succumbing to grief requires courage. Even amongst the self-proclaimed spiritual awakeners, your life and sense of self seem to rely on the idea of control of your destiny, by harboring only positive feelings, vibes and energy to manifest a life of more bliss, more success.
Conversely, collapse implies relinquishing control. It leaves you naked, vulnerable, at open sea. We fear this collapse, in part because we are expected to ‘keep it together,’ but also because, as a community, we have lost the ability to invite sorrow in as a path to deepen our relationship with ourselves and the world.
In her book Dispossessed Ursula Le Guin writers about suffering, loyalty and time, and seems to say, we bond not in love, but in our suffering. “Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality.”
Buddhist philosophy addresses this root suffering of human existence directly, saying the way we approach our pain determines the degree to which we will in fact suffer in our lives. So how do we approach grief?
Looking to the past for inspiration, Frances Weller illuminates the ancient Scandinavian tradition of ‘a year in the ashes.’ It was a common practice for those dealing with loss to spend a year by the fire. Spending time with the fire and the ashes were holy time, a period of digesting and metabolizing the bitter tincture of loss. From this sojourn people came back changed with wisdom gathered in the darkness. When we communally honor this time of living in the ashes, we invite a deepened relationship with death which, in turn, keeps our bond with the living world vital and sustaining: the two states are mirrors of each other, reminders of the great round of life, which must include the reality of death. ( The Geography of Sorrow, The Sun Magazine).
Without such conscious practices let alone the time to let our grief breathe, we are left bereft to our own devices of fumbling through the underworld of loss.
At some point this Spring, I simply stopped. I said no to opportunities and pulled back. I needed time with the ashes. I walked barefooted on the beach to connect with earthly physicality. I surrendered to the need for rest. And in the rest, sorrow was safe to surface and shiver and shake through me. While this now feels inevitably, I’m certain, I could only do this, because I felt adequately held by a few people, who didn’t judge, nudge or otherwise try to fix me — they knew grief and how to let me be with the fire and the ashes of life.
Grief humbles. Scrubs down. Melts frozen bodies. Opens hearts. Grief cannot be rushed.
Ursula Le Guin writes, “It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.”
There’s a reciprocity at play here. As we are given time to do our grief work, we also grow stronger with gravitas, the weight to carry not only our own grief with dignity, but also our communities through hard times. Without a community to witness and hold our grief, we cannot ‘graduate’ and take our place as the wisdom holders, and I suspect, respected elders in the community.
Right now, most of us are overcome with an ominous ecological grief, against which our personal lives and sorrows may seem insignificant. Could this grief in fact bring us together and activate our global heart and mind to change the course of our world? As Frances Weller says, some grief is not meant to be resolved and set down. Sometimes grief helps us hold what must be carried by a people so that we may never have to endure such pain again. He talks about this grief as a kind of protest against the current trajectory of our world, a refusal to numb out and anesthetize in a destructive soul-less system, and to use it to come back to life.
Someone recently said to me, “Grief is love without a recipient.” It struck a deep cord and forced me to reframe my sorrow to a sense of reverence — for all the ways I love my life and everything in it, past, present and future. Frances Weller’s turns it on its head and says, “Love is a way of grieving that which has not yet slipped away.” In this way, love and loss are two sides of the same coin, both touching the impermanence of all things… including grief.
After taking time to deepen, letting the grief ebb and flow, I’m noticing that levity finds its way to my heart and gait again. Light and dark is part of our human experience, and we must learn to pendulate between the two, and come to trust that the ability to really feel joy is equivalent to our capacity to embrace sorrow. When we dare to exist between these two poles without shame, we naturally become more authentic and with that, comes a tremendous freedom and a gratitude towards all that life is offering.
© Lone Morch 2019
This essay was first published October 1, 2019 in the German IP / Integrale Perspectives, kindly translated by Karsten Rehrmann and Cordula Frei.
Podcast: Charles Eisenstein — Of Grief and Reverence (E04) — A New and Ancient Story
Tagged: grief, life lessons, courage, vulnerability, how to grieve, cultural perspectives on grief, ursula le guin, frances weller, a year in the ashes