Why We Need The Journey Of Grief
By Carolyn Baker
Volumes have been written about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief,” and more recently, a number of authors addressing the plethora of losses confronting our planet have referenced the Kubler-Ross model as a viable one for assisting us in emotionally navigating the transition from an industrial to a post-industrial world. However, when we speak of grief, we find ourselves immediately in forbidden territory with respect to the culture of modernity, and regardless of how liberated from it we may feel, contemplating the topic of grief reveals the extent to which we are still unwittingly its obedient children.
Within industrial civilization, our assumptions about grief have been formed by the illusions of infinite growth and humanity’s pre-destined, unbridled progress. Therefore, to grieve is to admit “defeat.” What is more, grief “should” be a private matter. It’s fine to lock yourself in a room and fall apart, but in public, anything less than dry eyes and a stiff upper lip reveals a weak, debilitated human being who rudely imposes her defective character on others.
In the workplace, some employers provide “bereavement leave” for employees, but the unspoken message is that all grieving should be completed in those few days, and bringing one’s feelings or messy tears back to the workplace is unacceptable. Get over it. Put it behind you. Life goes on. And if you can’t do that, then perhaps you’re clinically depressed and need medication sooner rather than later. After all, other people do not want to be burdened with your sorrow. They have work to do, and so do you. Don’t impose your grief on others. Keep it to yourself.
I do not wish to idealize indigenous cultures because they have their own challenging issues, especially at a time in human history when so many are joining the numbers of extinct societies and peoples around the world. Yet in many traditional societies, grief is revered as a primary agent for solidifying the community. For example, for the people of the Dagara Tribe of West Africa, the funeral ceremony is particularly treasured. They believe that the most valuable contribution they can make to the deceased and to ancestors in the other world is grieving the deceased thoroughly and completely. Dagara grief rituals can go on all night or for several days, followed by a joyous feast and dancing.
The Dagara believe that as William Blake said, “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.” In fact, Francis Weller, quoted above, tells the story of attending a Dagara funeral and afterward, encountering a Dagara woman who was beaming with joy. He had not seen her at the funeral and assumed that she wouldn’t have been so happy had she attended. Thus he approached her and told her that he noticed how happy she was and that no one as happy as she was could have attended the funeral. Her response: “No, I was there, and it was wonderful. You see, I’m so happy because I cry all the time.”
In this moment, incalculable deaths are occurring on this planet—deaths of species, deaths of rivers, mountains, forests, oceans, and farmland. Humans appear to be killing themselves and the entire planet. Has there ever been this much death on earth in its history? Even if we hermetically seal ourselves from all contact with the media and live in total isolation, something in us knows the severity of our predicament. We know that the death machine and climate catastrophe may now be irreversible. We know in our bones that not only may our own days be numbered, but also the days of most of life on earth. The only sane and appropriate response to this horror is deep, gut-wrenching, heart-rending grief that reverberates in the marrow of the bone. Now is the time for many, many funerals on a variety of levels, taking a host of forms, but what we must now recognize is that nothing, absolutely nothing about our grief is “private” any longer. The entire human and more-than-human community is inextricably and irreversibly involved. Now is the time for conscious, courageous, community grieving.
In a few weeks, from May 23-27, the second annual Age of Limits gathering will occur in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Held in the lap of exquisite wilderness, the gathering offers riveting conversation, engaging speakers, and delicious food. In addition, participants will have an opportunity to join others in a grief observance through which individual experience, small group interaction, and large group conversation enfolds them in deep connection with nature and with the community.
This kind of experience allows the individual and the community to enter five different doorways or as Francis Weller names them, the Five Gates of Grief. At the first gate, one grieves for the loss of someone or something we love. Many are familiar with this kind of loss but know little of the other four.
At the second gate, we grieve for places within us that have been wrapped in shame and banished from our awareness. The “infinite growth” paradigm feeds our shame and causes us to live small. These aspects of ourselves we perceive as defective, yet when we grieve the loss of them, we are able to restore our humanity. Sometimes this grief comes out in the form of anger or outrage as we welcome home exiled parts of ourselves. In any event, the parts of us that we have sent away have almost always served to protect us and keep us alive.
At the third gate we register the losses of the world such as the ones I have mentioned above. At this gate, we open to the great grief of the world and our loss of connection with nature. We allow ourselves to feel with the dying species and the polluted rivers.
At the fourth gate we realize that whether we are aware of it or not, there is much that we expected but did not receive. One of those expectations was the presence and support of community. Or as Francis Weller says, “On some level we are waiting for the village to appear so we can fully acknowledge our sorrows.” A grief observance offers a kind of “village” in which we can safely feel our grief and be honored rather than shamed. Related to this gate is a feeling of emptiness many people in our culture feel, as well as a sense of purposelessness—not knowing how to offer our gifts to the community and have them seen and appreciated.
Finally, at the fifth gate, we recognize ancestral grief, that is, the grief we carry in our bodies from sorrows experienced by our ancestors or wounds inflicted by them. These ancestors may not be just our blood relatives or even part of our families. They may be members of tribes or groups of people who once lived on the land where we grew up or now inhabit. The grief of abuses toward Native Americans, African slaves, and the killing fields of some battlegrounds remain in the collective unconscious. As a culture we continue to carry the wounds inflicted on our ancestors and wounds they inflicted on people of color, women, children, and the earth.
It seems that congestive heart failure is one of the leading causes of death in this culture. Speaking metaphorically, I can only wonder if much of the “congestion” of our hearts stems from our inability to grieve. In fact, grief opens our hearts and fills them with compassion. When we grieve, we not only feel more alive, but as the Dagara woman suggested, our tears facilitate palpable joy. What is more, when we grieve with the support of the community, we not only realize that we are not alone, but our connection with the community deepens and grounds us in the soil of trust and resilience. Grief is also powerfully supports our activism, assuring that we act not just from our heads, but from the heart and soul.
The “age of limits” is the age of living with less, downsizing, cutting back, and reducing the scale of our impact on the planet. In other words, we cannot have all of the growth we have been taught to desire. On the other hand, when we engage in exploration of the inner world by traversing the landscapes of grief and other emotions, and particularly when we do so with the support of the community, we soon discover that we really can have all of the infinite growth we desire and that in that domain, there really is no “age of limits.”