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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

The Journey of Grief and Loss | June 4, 2023 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

Grief is a language that goes straight through all the barriers to the heart and soul of anyone who hears it. We are afraid of people who grieve because we don’t want to feel that. We have so many kinds of grief buried inside of us that we don’t want to open that door. If we open it the dam might break, and if the dam breaks, then all hell might break loose.

The opening words are from, Sobonfu Somé, a Dagara teacher from Burkina Faso. Suffering a great deal of loss herself, Somé was able to draw on her indigenous experience as well as her life in this country in order to help people deal with the pain and suffering associated with grief and loss. She makes the observation that we tend to fear grief because we fear death. We would rather not hear of it and then we do not want to feel the grief. It is true that if we do, a whole river of grief may cause the dam to break…all the other grief in our life might have to be felt and dealt with.

I have been reflecting on this fact for the past week after the death of my daughter-in-law’s father. There is a feeling of grief, heavy in the house. It is being felt by everyone, including two-year old Freddy and 7-year-old Lily. I have also had to feel this grief and it sure has unleashed the river…the connection to other grief in my own life. It is June and I lost both my mother (last year) and my father (2004) during this month. Somé’s words echo with me as well. I have shied away from feeling the feelings that come with loss…with death. I have been unwilling to allow myself the space to grieve these and other losses in my life. And I am not alone. I find in my work as a psychotherapist, this is something that is the norm among the people that I see. But we sometimes have the opportunity to look this grief head-on…to examine the toll it has been taking on our emotional life and physical health. This is a rare opportunity in our culture. We no longer use grief rituals the way they have previously been used. For the most part, we hold in our grief, especially after an acceptable amount of time, after which we would cease to be grieving and would begin to be seen as mentally ill. We no longer set aside time and space for grieving. Aside from the funeral or memorial service, we are expected to move on…even to distract ourselves from the loss and “get over it”. We are often left in our own solitude around our loss and lack the support of the community…of the rituals that have been associated with grief. There are so many rituals associated with grief. The following example comes from the Gaelic tradition. It is an explanation of the significance of the bell in “telling” of a death:

This communication of a death was a powerful way for the community to confront the loss…it would have been difficult to ignore. The same author goes on to discuss the traditional mourning that makes room for the expression of raw grief…of deep suffering.

Of course, this practice is not unique to the Gaelic tradition. We know that this is an integral part of the African and African American traditions as well. The tradition of allowing…or actually encouraging the expression of grief is still alive in those traditions. A space is provided for the deep river of grief that naturally arises during these times. And it is the listening to the sounds of this grief that can release our own feelings. Without these rituals, this is a difficult task…a difficult transition. We are not alone as a species in grieving…or marking the death of one of our own. Here is a recording of the reactions of magpies to the death of one of their fellows…

The magpies, much like examples we have seen of elephants, are clearly struggling with this death. They are vocalizing and intermittently “touching” the deceased bird. The lone bird left at the end is perhaps the partner, the parent or the child of the bird that died. This is clearly not an experience limited to only the human species but is likely common to all animals…and maybe plants as well!

Touching grief is one thing, but working through it is quite another…changing our outlook and making room for it. Denise Levertov described this process this way in her poem, Talking to Grief:

Ah, grief, I should not treat you

like a homeless dog

who comes to the back door

for a crust, for a meatless bone.

I should trust you

I should coax you into the house and give you your own corner, a worn mat to lie on, your own water dish.

You think I don’t know you’ve been living

under my porch. You long for your real place to be readied before winter comes. You need your name, your collar and tag. You need the right to warn off intruders, to consider my house your own and me your person and yourself my own dog.

This describes the process of welcoming grief into our homes so beautifully. We are to welcome this process and trust it, even though it is not easy…even though it may take some coaxing to bring it in…even though it will take some work to honor it…to make it our own. Yet, in a way, this description does not go far enough in illustrating the alienating and dark experience. This process can be arduous and grueling…we may be existing for a time in darkness and isolation, such as Rainer Maria Rilke describes in his poem, Pushing Through…

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone; I am such a long way in I see no way through, and no space: everything is close to my face, and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief so this massive darkness makes me small.

You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in: then your great transforming will happen to me, and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Those flintlike layers can be almost impossible to penetrate. Rilke sees no way though…there is no space…everything is close to his face and as hard as stone. There is a darkness there that is undeniable…it is so massive that it makes us feel small. Still, he persists. He makes the journey through, with a fierceness that allows him to break in. The hope is that this grief work will yield transformation…not just of this individual, but all that witness the struggle. This journey through grief is impossible, I think, without the support of others and the belief in a spiritual presence and creator. It is impossible to come to terms with the loss without a spiritual perspective…without the ability to shift our perspective to a more cosmic one…one that includes all of us and all of our experiences…one that provides space for love and space for grieving our losses, as individuals, as a species and as a part of the entire cosmos.

I’d like to close with the words of Sobonfu Somé again. She said:

Losing someone we love is an initiation. Our life changes. It is not going to be the same again. All our relations with other people and ourselves are forced to shift. We become a new person. Although a part of our heart breaks, that spirit love continues to flow, helping to show us the way, if we allow it, to the higher states of grace and wisdom we were born to reach.

It is this grace and wisdom that we hope to find…it is the spirit behind the loss…the love that seems to nourish the growth we experience…growth in wisdom and stature, according to Thurman. We come in Thurman’s words to the most ancient insights of religion namely that…

…there is a Purpose that invades all the purposes

and a Wisdom that invades all the wisdoms.

To seek to relate oneself to such a purpose and such a wisdom is to seek

to know God and to walk in God’s Way.

It is this purpose that we have an opportunity to revisit in our grief. The loss of a loved one…the loss of a relationship…the loss of innocence…the loss of species on this planet…all losses change us but remembering that we are held in the embrace of the feminine spirit of Wisdom…the breath of the Holy Spirit embracing all creation. This Wisdom that invades all wisdoms was so beautifully expressed by Hildegard in her song, O Virtus Sapientiae. This is a haunting tune that reminds us to find ourselves in this embrace…a trinity of spirit…a single way of life…rooted in the wisdom of the earth and the sky…in the air and the water. Here is the translation:

O Wisdom’s energy! Whirling, you encircle and everything embrace in the single way of life. Three wings you have: one soars above into the heights, one from the earth exudes, and all about now flies the third. Praise be to you, as is your due, O Wisdom.

May we praise you Lady Wisdom, nestling in your protection and care. And may we transform our moments of grief into growth in wisdom and stature…that we may reach the higher states of grace and wisdom we were born to reach.

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