Grief as a Companion

Over the past 18 months, most of us have been touched by loss, ranging from deaths and illnesses of loved ones, to loss of jobs, businesses, homes, health and connection to family. On top of this, we carry the collective sorrows of our world.   It has been challenging to find ways to grieve, especially given that our western culture doesn’t do grief well.  We often rush past grief, don’t know what do, move on and carry it on our backs or in our bodies for a long time. 

I want to honour my grief, bring it out of the shadows and process it. Invite grief to be your companion.  Just acknowledging the range of personal and communal sorrows I have experienced over the past couple of years has the potential to be overwhelming: the losses and illnesses of family members and friends, a huge health set-back and the impact this has had on my professional life and not being able to see my grandkids or meet my now 17-month-old great grandson in person.  And in our world, the sadness of discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools, the death of George Floyd and innumerable environmental disasters can weigh heavily. 

I have found psychotherapist and author, Francis Weller ‘s work to soothe and validate me in my grieving process, to help me make grief my companion.  In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, he suggests western culture often handles grief through amnesia and anesthetic:  forget and go numb.   I get that.  When my brother died, many years ago now, some two months or less after his death, people were saying time to move on; when my nephew died, I recall my first day back at work after a compassionate leave, I sobbed all the way to the session I was facilitating, did the work, and then sobbed all the way home.  Making it even more challenging, these were both young men who took their own lives. Suicides can be especially hard to grieve, to talk about and to support. Bereavement leave in many organizations is often 3 or 5 days, and then what?  We are a ‘get back to work’ culture.  

So, we keep grief in the shadow but carry it in our body and our soul.  As Weller says, when grief is not acknowledged or expressed it can harden the once vibrant and joyful parts of ourselves.  When we make it our companion, it can be healing and open us to grace.   Of course, this process is such an individual experience, there is no right or wrong way to experience it. Just as we don’t want to ignore it, we don’t want to get stuck in it either.  If we see it as an ongoing process, like having conversations with a companion, it has the potential for transformation.

Weller’s suggestion that we take on an apprenticeship with sorrow, speaks to me.  He views having a relationship with grief, developing practices that keep us steady in difficult times and staying present to ourselves, as central tasks in our apprenticeship to sorrow.  He adds:

In the traditional language of apprenticeship, this would be called achieving mastery.  In the language of soul, this is the work of becoming an elder.  An elder is able to touch grief deftly and is able to craft sorrow into something nourishing for the community.

If you want to spend time with grief as your companion, you’ll find it helpful to consider Weller’s five gates of grief:

  • What we have loved and lost
  • The places in us that have not known love (shadows)
  • The sorrows of the world
  • What we expected and did not receive
  • Ancestral grief

Check out The Wild Edge of Sorrow for rituals and resources that help move grief through our bodies and souls.  Much of Weller’s approach involves communal grief, not doing the work alone.  He also mentions how grief and gratitude go hand in hand.  As I read this, I was reminded of a piece on gratitude I wrote and included in one of my Live-Well Workshop Manuals many years ago.  Holding grief in one hand and gratitude in the other.


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