“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?” … Angeles Arrien
This weekend, I went through an incredibly healing grief ritual over two days, involving singing, dancing, telling stories and silence – with 18 other brave souls, led by Laurence Cole. Together, we dived deep into our individual, collective and ancestral pain and it was our imperfect offering. As Leonard Cohen sings: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
That’s a fitting explanation for grief.
For most of us, grief is a contained activity, to be “done” when it is “time.” The time is often when someone close to us dies. We “do” grief: we go to the funeral, we visit the grave, perhaps probate a will – but then we get back to living.
This weekend I learned more about the complex nature of grief. I learned that grief is a process waiting to unfold its gifts to us, in response to our attention to it. This weekend’s focus for me, wasn’t to grieve for someone who had already passed. I was thinking about my mother, who is still alive but suffering from dementia. She is here, but yet she is not here. I began the weekend with holding her in my mind – but near the end of the weekend, grief snuck up on me in a surprising way.
I found myself thinking about her father, my grandfather. I never even met my grandfather – so how could I have feelings of grief for him? He died decades before I was even born. The little I know of him is that he was killed during World War Two in the Ukraine. His wartime killing is the reason my mother had to flee her country and come to Canada. He is the reason, at least indirectly, that my country is Canada.
This weekend, in the comfort of a community gathered to support each other’s grief, I landed in my grandfather’s territory. I landed in the forest, where I’ve been told my grandfather died, pitchforked to death and never to be seen again.
To actually find myself able to imagine and feel his fear and to feel his sorrow and his confusion leaving this world and his five children and wife behind, is almost unbearable to feel.
But in the comfort of these other brave, grieving souls, in the comfort of a community gathering with the intention of doing “grief work” – I could touch that grief. It was hard work. Messy work. But through me courses my grandfather’s veins, through me courses his gift of life. What better tribute than to carry his pain for a small while in the desire to honour him, and thank him for my life. For my mother’s life. For his bravery in not running away when he first heard his life might be in danger. He stayed. An honourable man.
To hold these stories in my heart and to feel these stories of a people I never met is a gift. It’s a gift to me and to their memory.
This is the darkest time of year, each day darker than the next until December 21. Now is the time to open up our hearts and feel these loved ones. Their stories and their memories are calling to us to be felt, to be expressed, to be shared.
What are those ancestral stories you carry with sorrow and want to speak of, dance of, sing of, sit in silence with?
Frances Weller speaks of the Gift of Grief. He quotes William Blake in this video when he says: “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.”