Grief is an emotion that has come up a lot for me during the pandemic. I'm sure it has for all of us, as we've all lost something profound in this experience, whether it's been the loss of connection with our loved ones, human touch, our jobs, our autonomy, and so on.
But grief – and an accompanying sadness and sense of aloneness – was also a continuous presence in my life long before COVID hit.
In the workshop "Grief with Arielle Schwartz" in the Rooted Global Village, Arielle mentioned that when we are grieving one loss, we're more likely to remember other historical losses, especially ones that haven’t been resolved.
And so, yes, the grief that has arisen due to the pandemic has perturbed the memory of other losses in my life. And it can be hazy sometimes as to which layer (or layers) of grief I'm actually in.
When it comes to my lifelong experiences of grief, I have never experienced the death of someone close to me. But of course, loss and the things we grieve come in so many forms.
I have felt grief over the loss of connection, emotional attunement, and sense of safety I now recognize was missing in my early life.
I have felt grief over the memories, opportunities for connection with both myself and others, and physical health I lost due to being dependent on alcohol for many years.
I have felt grief over the self-worth and dignity that was crushed and took years to rebuild after a verbally and emotionally abusive relationship stole them away.
I have felt grief due to tremendous heartbreak separating from a partner who I still loved immensely but knew I could no longer be with.
I have felt grief learning about my family history and the traumas of those who came before me. I have grieved for the generations that likely never had the chance or capacity to grieve for themselves.
I have felt grief over the isolation, lack of social connection, and separation from my family that I have been experiencing due to the pandemic. I have grieved that receiving a hug has become too much to ask for.
I am still processing much of these and other losses.
There are many communal rituals of grief and healing that take place in the world. Arielle Schwartz mentioned one such ritual that involved an altar and community support: When the grief moved through you, you'd go up to the altar and be supported by others. And when you felt grounded, you would stand behind the person expressing their grief and hold space for them. And those roles could shift at any given time.
How beautiful would that be? To be able to let go – like in that trust exercise where you let yourself free-fall backwards into the sure arms of your partner – and then also be the one to catch another so they could finally release their own heavy weight.
Francis Weller, in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, explains that grief has always been communal. He writes: "Subconsciously, we are awaiting the presence of others, before we can feel safe enough to drop to our knees on the holy ground of sorrow."
Many of us have been holding ourselves up, barely, because we sense a void in our lives of another or others who will create that safe container in which we can at last liberate all we've been clutching near to our hearts for fear that we'll fall apart if left to grieve alone.
Francis Weller describes a communal grief ritual he experienced where stories of loss, death, abuse, worthlessness, and rage were shared, and a grief shrine filled with photos of lost loved ones, species, and cultures was created. To a backdrop of drumming and singing, the participants approached the shrine and expressed their grief through shouting, kneeling, shaking. And through it all, no one was alone, everyone was tended to by another.
In our individualized Western society, I've never heard of anything being done like that. Not that it's not happening anywhere here, but it's certainly not the rule of thumb. The default expectation is to gather the strength on your own to carry on.
I wish we could grieve together.
I wish we could readily create spaces and rituals where our grief could be unburdened and witnessed in community.
I wish we could normalize the experience of grief and pain experienced due to the loss of any kind, without judgment of how "big" that loss needs to appear or how immediately it "should" have occurred to still maintain relevance.
I wish that when we cried tears due to heartache, that we never got the response: "But it already happened. There's nothing you can do about it. Move on." Rather, that we'd all have been taught the value of just holding that person (literally or figuratively) and letting them have their moment of grief.
I envision a circle of us around a bonfire. We share about each other's losses, our experiences of grief. We ask each griever what the community can do for them. Someone plays a slow, steady beat on a hand drum, evoking a sense of the heart, of connection. Some folks, if so moved, write down what they are grieving on a piece of paper, then toss it into the fire to unburden just a bit more of themselves.
At the end of it, some of us might feel a momentous release. Others might feel a calmness within. And we all might still feel some pain, because grieving isn't a process that gets "resolved" in one shot. But we'd all feel less alone. We'd all feel seen and heard. And we'd all know that if our grief rose up again, there would be safe arms outstretched to catch us.