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On communal grieving

a personal reflection from WOVEN volunteer and co-founder, Jessica Land


For decades I’ve been aware that I carry deep sadness about humans’ destruction of our home planet. As an otherwise joyful person, I carried that sorrow around privately like a secret stew that sometimes stank or spilled but was, for the most part, contained. I’d learned that there weren’t many people interested in receiving my expressions of that grief so I kept it hidden.


Perhaps that grief fueled my orientation toward stewardship of the Earth, but as years went on it began to fester, pulling me toward despair and apathy. Still I wielded it alone, convinced that nobody could understand.


I often appreciate when life proves me wrong.


First, I was invited into a group of people who had gathered from all over Central and South America to honor the waters of our planet. After engaging in hours of ritual dance and singing, united in our reverence for Earth’s life-sustaining gifts, I found myself weeping like I’d never wept. They were tears of joy for finding people who could understand, tears of anguish for the ongoing destruction and my own role in it, and tears of gratitude for being in a space that invited and held a beautiful mess of human emotion.


Someone I’d never met before sat with me there, simply checking in with what I needed and responding to what came up. Thank you, Paula. I now recognize you as a grief tender.


I left that gathering with a broadened understanding of how communities can show up for each other. How strangers can unite through vibrations of song, rhythm, and dance. How being witnessed in grieving can sanctify grief.


I left there feeling lighter and more alive, but returning to my home culture left me feeling alone again.


I had a vibrant group of friends. We gathered and even occasionally shared in ritual, but none seemed to invite the unshed tears that continued to gather inside me. Again privacy protected my grief. I wrote. I occasionally drew. I moved on from a partner who didn’t understand. I listened for songs on the wind.


More recently, several gifts have helped me find community for grieving. One is Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow. Weller’s articulation of “The Five Gates of Grief" validated something I’d felt for decades but didn’t have words for: that there are many common losses we humans experience that go unacknowledged and ungrieved. We lose parts of ourselves, places we’re connected to, non-human beloveds like pets or trees. Sometimes we grieve the loss of loved ones who are still with us because we know someday they’ll be gone, or because they feel gone already.


The Five Gates of Grief provided shared language that has supported deeper connections in my communities. It has opened a pathway for honest sharing and compassion regarding the losses we’ve experienced. It has inspired us to gather and witness each other as we speak our grief into fire, or water. With each experience of being together in our uniquely beautiful and tender mess, we reinforce trust in this community’s capacity to hold grief.


And then I met Ahlay and Laurence. Laurence Cole, who says “Grief ritual is my idea of a good time.” Ahlay Blakely, who I’ve heard refer to grief ritual as “the only sane response” she’s found for her rage.


I’ve now participated in two grief rituals with Ahlay & Laurence, where song and rhythm unite people, invoking the ‘village’ that many of us long for. They carry the communal grieving tradition brought by Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé from Burkina Faso, infused with their own unifying songs about belonging, courage, gratitude, and shared aliveness.


Over a period of hours or days, participants become more aware of what others are carrying. This happens through sharing and listening to stories of sorrows that are alive in each of us. For me, I found comfort just hearing how many others feel despair about the destruction of our planet. It turns out there are many commonalities across stories of grief. The notion that grief is a universal human experience that we can feel and navigate together is reinforced by witnessing each other.


In this particular ritual space, everyone is invited to bring their grief to an altar, when and if they are ready, and to be with whatever arises. No one goes to the altar alone. At any moment, any member of the ‘village’ who feels they have capacity will step forward to support a person who is moving toward the altar. They are also accompanied by the singing and rhythm of the village, which is a powerful mover of emotion. No expression of grief is unwelcome or wrong. Silence, reverence, tears, sobbing, shouting, shaking. It’s all welcomed.


In those spaces I’ve learned to become curious about what shape my grief will take. Sometimes it’s reticence, shrinking, a child’s-pose bow to grief. Sometimes physical movement shakes something loose. For me, it takes time to be authentically moved to tears. When they come, my cries are often silent, as if kept to myself too long. But there have been times where I’ve heard my own or another person’s cries as the most imperfect and exquisite song.


 

What I’ve just described is a "container" for communal grieving. Thanks to Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé, that particular ritual has become increasingly available in North America in the past two decades. And it is only one of many ways to be with grief in community.


There are as many ways to grieve as there are humans on the planet right now. Grieving alone can be powerful and cathartic and healthy. Therapeutic support for grieving is helpful and transformative for many of us. Art of all kinds can be a vehicle for individual expression and for connecting individuals with collective experiences of grief. Many cultures acknowledge that tears, whether shed alone or in community, can serve as a potent offering in reciprocity for the gift of life. Various forms of communal grieving are embraced across cultures, from multi-day rituals to permanent grief spaces that a person can visit when the need arises.


The notion of communal grieving elicits real and valid fears. Fears I’ve navigated come from believing that strong negative emotions are better kept private, that they are a sign of weakness, and that vulnerability is dangerous within a highly-competitive culture. The strong, independent, younger version of me feared my friends would abandon me if I wasn’t ‘fun’ and positive all the time. I also still fear that the losses I find worthy of grieving might be minimized, the “you-have-a-good-life-others-have-it-worse” kind of dismissal. This is one I’m still working with.


Acknowledging fear feels important if we’re going to be in shared spaces with grief. The fear of being overwhelmed by one’s own or others’ grief. Fear of overwhelming others when we express our grief. Fear of being re-traumatized, especially when working through grief associated with trauma. From people who are working through grief from oppression, the fear of oppressive behaviors being played out in grief spaces. Fear of being “seen” in grief when we’re accustomed to hiding. Fear of feeling.


Stepping into communal grief space is an act of bravery, because fear is naturally present. We need that level of bravery if we want, as Laurence said, to “reweave what it's like to be human beings alive here with each other.”


Grieving in community has taught me that the goal is not to rid myself of grief for all time, but rather, to be honest about its presence, to embody and move it in healthy ways. If I am honest about its presence on a personal level and let myself feel it, I can expand into my full range of emotions. I've been surprised to find joy adjacent to grief, and aliveness amplified by my willingness to feel all of it.


As a community, if we can be honest about grief, we may find solidarity for navigating certain kinds of loss. We may deepen relationships. We may feel less alone. If we’re composting our grief together--what a rich compost!--perhaps we can turn our collective attention to sowing seeds for new life.


The grief I carry about humans’ relationship with our planet is still with me. Even so, acknowledging its presence and grieving with people who feel similarly has made me feel more compassionate toward myself and others, more joyful, more creative, and more alive. It has fed my motivation for continued action. Before, I felt weary. Now, I feel a renewed commitment to do what I can to heal my own and our collective relationship with the Earth. When I feel weary again, I’ll grieve. As Ahlay says in one of her songs “This work is holy, soul-cleansing slowly, again, again, again…./I trust this grief to return me, again, again, again…”


I believe that being honest about grief has the potential to transform people and communities, and I have a lot of questions about how to make that happen here. As a member of Woven, I am particularly curious about our role in supporting communal grief spaces that meet a broad range of people’s needs, with full acknowledgement that there is not a one-size-fits-all container for communal grieving.


How can we cultivate spaces that invite the honesty of grief and hold our whole selves with tenderness?

What do our community members desire and need, to feel support for accessing, sharing, and moving grief? How can we work together to address these needs?

What are our fears about grieving in community and how might we hold a container that alleviates those fears?

What potential benefits do others see from grieving in community instead of in isolation?


This is a conversation we are embarking on at Woven. You are invited.


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