Sometimes in our culture, grief can feel like he-who-must-not-be-named — something so big, amorphous and terrible that it can be scary to even mention it, lest we conjure it up. But the conundrum of this way of thinking is that grief is already with us, and it’s as natural as joy, laughter, and everything else we experience. Grief is a necessary and inevitable part of life as a human being.
We all feel the weight of loss, we all grieve, and eventually, we all die. What would happen if we took a page out of the book of most any ancient culture (and many existing cultures around the world that have a closer, less fearful relationship with grief and death) and moved intentionally into the emotions, the fears, and the heaviness—with community? We know from research in psychology that when it comes to our difficult emotions and traumas, repression is not the way out. Most times, the only way out is through.
Where There Is Grief There Is Love
When we work with our grief and tend to it, rather than bottle it up, it can become a portal into deeper love, feeling and connection with life. As Neil Young puts it, “Only love can break your heart.”
Francis Weller, the well-known psychotherapist who guides grieving circles and teaches people to facilitate grief tending work, writes in his book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief”:
“Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close.”
Birgitta Kastenbaum, an end-of-life guide/death midwife and doula who offers grief-tending through Bridging Transitions in Los Angeles, says where there is grief there is love. She shares that often the language presented around grief, especially in American and Western European cultures, is so often about “getting over it.”
“[Grieving] was always about something to get through and presented something really negative,” she says. “There was a sadness for me in that because, with our grief, we also hold on to love. With our grief, we hold on to memories. They are intertwined. Often when we push away grief, we're pushing away our memories, our love, all the beauty, all the wisdom, all the gifts that come with that process.”
While many continue to tip-toe around grief, there is a growing movement by people like Weller, Kastenbaum, and many others, for a revival of grief work. Many people around the U.S. and the world are holding grieving circles, offering grief-tending rituals, and collaborative art projects. breathwork, somatic movement and other avenues—both ancient and new. More and more people are accessing and moving through grief on purpose, and together.
Kastenbaum points out that while in U.S. society we tend to be what she calls “grief illiterate,” the same is not true everywhere in the world.
“The only thing we know about grief [in this society] is that you're not supposed to have it—and if you have it, you’ve got to get rid of it,” she says. “When we look at other places the world over, we see that they have ways in which they hold grief.”
She says those ways can be as simple as an altar with a photograph and a candle or a prayer that is repeated each morning. Or, they might be as complex as a week-long festival dedicated to grief and mourning, with myriad traditions and rituals throughout.
While our culture has largely forgotten how to grieve, Kastenbaum says we all have the natural capacity to move grief through ritual.
“I think by nature, we are ritual makers—we just are,” she says, noting the way that children will often create rituals around grief on their own—whether that means speaking words, writing a note, making a drawing or collecting a bouquet of dandelions to place on a buried hamster.
“When something dies, or something happens, [children] pause,” she says. “They naturally have that ability to create ritual. We might be adults, but that's still in us.”
She points out that the size of a ritual doesn’t equate to its meaning. Small and simple rituals can be just as powerful as grand, ornate gestures, she says.
“Lighting a candle every night for somebody that you are actively grieving—that could be immense in the quality of the meaning that you are creating,” she shares.
She says ritual has meaning for us as humans, and without ritual for something as intense and transformative as grief, there is a significant sense of disconnect.
Ritual, with other people, she says, is how we want and need to make sense of grief.
“We don't want b to just book an appointment and sit across from somebody for an hour and tell them everything that's wrong with us,” she says. “That's not how to honor grief. That's not how to hold grief.”
Grief Circles for All
Kastenbaum co-facilitated grief tending rituals that were free and open to the public on the street in Berkeley, California during the Bioneers Conference in April 2023. The conference, which began in 1990, is focused on ecological healing and solutions for people and the planet—an area that carries with it immense grief for many.
She says several years ago she and other people participating in Bioneers were noticing how prevalent eco-grief was and decided to begin integrating grief-tending work throughout the event. In 2023, Bridging Transitions held a series of grief-tending circles in a public grief tent on the street. Some of the circles zeroed in on death and dying, and others were specific to eco-grief. In the circles, the facilitators would share basic ground rules—like taking turns speaking and listening without feedback to what each person shared.
Kastenbaum says she thinks the reason grieving circles like the one at Bioneers can work for anyone, even strangers off of the street, is that universally we want to be seen and witnessed in our grief.
“There's something about recognizing that you are not alone,” she says. “Sitting in, in a circle, you hear everybody's stories and see that there's this communal thread, this tapestry that we're all a part of. And each thread is different, but when we weave together it makes us stronger.”
She says part of the grief tent organizers’ hope at Bioneers was also to show people how easy it is to do grief tending work. She says all it really takes is to create a space that feels safe—whether that happens in your living room, a park, or somewhere else.
“There has to be a sense of safety for people to be able to share—so a little bit of ground rules around what it means to sit in this particular circle, and how we are going to hold each other—but then, that's it. We are just being present to one another,” she says. “The hope is that there was a little bit of a spark there, like, ‘Ah, I could possibly do this too.’”
Creating Nature Altars for Grief
The grief tent at Bioneers also offered people the chance to participate in creating a communal grief altar made from rocks, sticks, moss and other natural matter that was collected. Paper and pens were laid out, too, and people were invited to write out their grief and tuck notes into the altar.
“The idea was that grief needs a space to lay, to be able to rest,” she says, noting that people were invited to lay down their grief at the altar. “The beauty is that this altar was alive, it was fed by our grief and transformed,” she says. “When we started on the first day, there were very few things on the table. And at the end it was filled. And that, too, is something really powerful for people to see: how we can transform something… From this grief, we created beauty.”
She says this is something anyone could easily do at home, share in their community, or incorporate into a memorial. She says all it takes is to create a space for people to write and/or add natural elements to a dedicated space to symbolize their grief, and witness the transformation together.
Grief Is Part of Life
Grieving is one of the most natural things we do, so reframing our processes of death and grief as portals into our capacity for love and connection (rather than the Boogie Man to be avoided at all costs) normalizes what is normal.
While our culture would have us apologizing for our tears, swallowing down our grief (even physically, with pills), and rushing through the uncomfortable parts of life, my own experiences (especially experiences with sacred plants) have shown me that doing so is a disservice to life itself.
We’re meant to be with all that comes, and when we tend our grief spaces, incredible gifts of the soul can emerge. Grief can be a way to honor the duality of this impermanent earthly experience. Another quote from The Wild Edge of Sorrow says it well:
“My grief says that I dared to love, that I allowed another to enter the very core of my being and find a home in my heart. Grief is akin to praise; it is how the soul recounts the depth to which someone has touched our lives. To love is to accept the rites of grief.”
April M. Short is a journalist, editor, yoga teacher and feminine rites practitioner. She's an editor at the Independent Media Institute and helped co-found multiple psychedelics-focused media outlets. She has spent more than a decade in independent media working in both digital and print journalism, and her writing is published in the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Yoga, Salon, The Conversation and many others. Follow her yoga and ritual work on Instagram: @AprilClarkYoga.
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