My anticipation for this evening had been building for over a year. Francis Weller was giving a public talk at Royal Roads University about his newly released book “The Wild Edge of Sorrow – Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief”. Francis is someone whom I have looked up to and learned from for the past 3 years, and have since had the pleasure of being taught by.
As a psychotherapist, author and grief ritual leader, Francis spoke passionately about grief, community, ritual and spiritual employment. In poetic words, he emphasized the need for a ‘village response’ to our grief and pain, and the cost of living in a society that instead privatizes our pain and makes it a personal pathology.
He had a gentle presence and a good way with us in the audience. The evening was filled with moments of laughter, insight, and tearful eyes. I left feeling inebriated with joy and inspiration – his words speak the language of my soul.
I have been reflecting on his words and wisdom ever since that evening…
For many of us who are settlers to Turtle Island, and children of dominant Western culture, we have become untethered from ancestral practices of grief tending. We are in dire need to reclaim our ancient wisdom for participating in grief ritual within a ‘village’ setting – expressing our grief while surrounded by others. It is only in the container of the community that grief can truly be expressed and then released and transformed.
Grieving always needs containment and release. Grieving always needs the community to hold space and provide the compassionate container for grief to then be expressed and transformed.
As grievers, we cannot provide both containment and release for ourselves when we try to grieve and heal in isolation.
Yet, we live in a society obsessed with rugged individualism that strongly dictates that grief be done in isolation, behind closed doors. It is easy to feel shame in the midst of cultural story-lines that tell us to always be strong, be in control, and to hurry up. We may feel like a burden if we tell our stories to another.
Yet, grief is vulnerable, messy and moves at the pace of a sloth. Our stories of pain and loss need to be told, and often retold many times, as we live the transformation that grief invites us to embrace.
In North American culture, grief has mainly been ‘privatized’ – stripping us of our capacity to be in community and be intimate with each others pain and grief. This is a great detriment to us as individual grievers, and a detriment to our larger community, friends and family.
For grieving individuals, privatizing our grief only allows us to hold on to our pain, to contain it, for excessive amounts of time. Our societal conditioning forces us to carry our pain within our minds, bodies, and hearts, when it was not meant to be carried there for such a long time. Unexpressed grief is detrimental to our health – mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Pain is meant to be a visitor within our hearts; it is not meant to set up home there. Our pain seeks freedom from the cages of our chest. It seeks to be released and transformed.
For community, friends and family of grievers, privatizing grief does not allow for them to respond in a caring way and to fulfill their soulful obligation to be of service to those they love and care for. This comes at a cost to our relationships and connection to others.
Our capacity to be present to pain is something that we all innately know, and yet have become disconnected from. We have lost our village. Many of us no longer feel secure in our ability to share our grief with others. And, many of us no longer feel secure in how to respond to the grief of others.
Francis Weller reminds us that historically, and in many contemporary indigenous cultures presently, grief is a call and response process. He affirms that an individual’s pain is always a part of the larger village – not solely a private affair. It is necessary to have not just the calls and cries of the griever, but also the caring responses of the village members.
The griever needs the village to compassionately witness and hold the space for them as they express their pain. The village needs the griever so they can fulfill their own spiritual employment – the opportunity to respond to the griever in caring and nurturing ways.
To be spiritually employed is to fulfill our birthright as compassionate and loving people and to respond to a person or community in pain.
As I reflected on this call and response process that allows a griever to be held by others, and allows others to be spiritually employed, I realized more deeply the significance of its value.
Reclaiming our call and response to grief creates intimacy.
It creates the grounds for intimate connection between people. And it nurtures those vulnerable spaces that wisdom and love grow out of. I believe in all of our hearts and bones there lies an ancient ‘knowing’ that grief needs community to keep us in healthy balance as emotional, physical, social and spiritual beings.
I have experienced the detriments of societal conditioning in my own life. I spent years holding on to pain accumulated from early life experiences and losses, believing that I was somehow at fault and weak for not being able to get over their impacts. This unexpressed pain left me feeling isolated and alienated, and yet also highly empathetic to others in pain. I became the one everyone else came to for comfort and help, and yet I couldn’t seem to reach out for help myself.
Being strong and independent kept me distant from my pain, and kept it locked inside my chest. My pain nested in my body and I carried it around as dulled, achy and ever-present sorrow for years.
I still struggle at times to ask for help; to feel vulnerable in my grief. And, the more I create experiences for myself to grieve in community, witnessed by others, the more I trust in the healing necessity of grief shared. From this place I am able to create genuine intimate connections with others and offer compassion and forgiveness to both myself and others. And from this place I am now able to experience more inner joy and freedom.
I take comfort in knowing that by asking for help, I am also inviting someone else to step in to their soulful right to be spiritually employed.
I feel fortunate to have had opportunities to grieve surrounded by others holding the container for me. And, I feel fortunate to be spiritually employed to others, witnessing their pain and stories, and offering a container for them to release and renew their vitality.
What a gift to be spiritually employed!
I am now committed to creating more collective opportunities for people to experience the transformation that comes with connecting to a community of people around experiences of pain and grief. And subsequently the experiences of joy and vitality! I have been harvesting the insights from my own experiences, and eagerly learning wisdom from others, such as Francis Weller, to start leading collective grief rituals here in our community. I will have more information and details about these offerings in early 2016.
My hope is that we can re-remember and re-create the conditions for us all to live in intimacy with each other in our grief and spiritual gifts.
Shauna Janz, MA is a teacher, mentor, and facilitator at the crossroads of grief, trauma, ritual and ancestral healing. She is the founder of Sacred Grief offering immersive online programs for folks interested in deepening their skills in these areas.
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