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You are here: Home Resources E-Newsletter Archive Spring 2017, Issue XVI The Healing Rituals of Grief, Part 1: The Well of Grief

The Healing Rituals of Grief, Part 1: The Well of Grief

Journeys mentor Alex Eisenberg dives into the well of grief, speaking to her personal experience and beliefs about the power of active grieving, in part one of her series on The Healing Rituals of Grief.

by Alex Eisenberg


The Well of Grief

Those who will not slip beneath

the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water

to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,

the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering

the small round coins

thrown by those who wished for something else.

David Whyte


I am on my knees sobbing. Drums and feet pound the floor behind me, vibrate through the air, stir my fast-beating heart. Beside me and at my back, others are on their knees or feet, bellies or sides wailing, cursing, praying, yelling, and flailing in a candlelit dark. Someone unleashes a scream. Other voices follow, whooping in warlike cries of encouragement. A song of all our voices streams out across the hours—a heart-wrenching sound that by itself can bring me to my knees.

This is not a disaster zone, except perhaps the disaster of many shattered hearts. This is not is not a war, unless the war is on war, complacency, and numbness. This is grief ritual. And this is--as one of the facilitators always likes to say--“my idea of a good time.”

We say that about grief ritual only in partial jest. Over the past three years I have gone to five of these weekend-long Grief Ritual Retreats, as well as other shorter version of the ritual, and they have honestly become a “highlight” of my year—I look forward to them almost like a holiday. This is because every time I have gone, I have left the ritual feeling more human, more refreshed, more enlivened, more empowered, more connected, and more often than not, more joyful than before. The connections I have made by grieving with other people are some of the most enduring and precious relationships I could imagine. I have found that when we grieve we are touching into our deep love and our deep longing--to share that, and be witnessed and supported in it, is inherently transformative and connective. I can truly say this community ritual has saved my life several times over.


I started going to these retreats primarily because I have carried a lot of grief in my heart over the 27 years of my life, and these rituals help me lighten what feels to be an incredible burden. I've kept going back because I discovered that expressing this grief with others on the profound level that is invited and held during the retreat helps me remember and clarify what I cherish in this life, who and how I want to be, and what my gifts and work in the world are.

But in the process of working through my own grief, and of immersing myself in the study of grief through reading books, attending retreats, and witnessing experiences of profound grief, I have started to understand communal grieving as, not only a special opportunity, but as an essential foundation for healthy individuality, community, and culture. I have come to believe that unacknowledged, unexpressed, and/or suppressed grief and pain lie at the heart of most of the violence, hate, and dis-ease enacted and perpetuated in the world. In the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election, which happened to be the weekend before the most recent grief retreat I attended, I found myself witnessing an increase of pain, rage, sorrow, shock, confusion, despair, and ultimately, grief about the state of the world and the nation. That particular retreat brought issues of collective grief and rage to forefront, and illustrated to me the depths of pain many people have around our social and cultural wounds. It also gave me glimpses of how those could be transformed and healed, which I will go into in more detail in Part Two of this essay.


The anger and fear I have been witnessing outside of myself mirrors my own. Through my personal experience I have discovered that beneath my fear, and beneath my anger, and beneath my numbness, I find my grief. And it is not just MY personal grief I find, but a well of collective grief that gathers and sits somewhere just underneath the surface of all our lives, pulling us down like gravity. The word grief even has the same root as the word gravity: gravare, gravis. Grief and gravity are forces that pull me toward the earth, heavying my body and my heart, and sometimes bringing me to my knees. I don't, however, see these heavier, darker emotions as negative forces to will ourselves out of or anesthetize ourselves to, as seems to be a trend in mainstream culture and even some spiritualities. On the contrary. I think we must embrace our fear, anger, and grief in order to transform them into the energy and inspiration we need to stand up, walk on, and do the work that needs to be done to create a more beautiful world. But first, let us fall to our knees together and wail.

At the retreats, this is exactly what we do. We sit on the ground in circle and share our grief through words, tears, movement, silence. We learn to embody and unleash the wild sounds and contortions of the body that our grief evokes (or that evoke our grief). We dance and sing and drum together until, one by one, we collapse to the floor to sob or scream.


Yes: scream. While we may typically associate screaming with fear and anger more than grief, screaming is common at grief ritual. I remember during my share in the opening circle of my second retreat I said “I don't even know why I am here again--I don't feel sad anymore, I feel angry! I feel like I should be at a Rage Retreat instead!” But my rage was heard, and welcomed. Later that day I truly understood, unequivocally, that the roots of my rage and fury was grief and pain. This is not to say that my anger or fear were unreal, invalid, or less important to engage with. Again, on the contrary: at that retreat I raged and screamed for hours. I unleashed my fury until the fire of it burnt to ashes. And then I grieved.

It is more often than not I have to traverse through my fear and anger, express it and sometimes even actively address it in material or interpersonal ways, before I can access the well of sorrow beneath. I believe that to be an incredibly important, perhaps indispensable, process; one to embrace and not try to skip over or suppress. I think anger and rage in particular, but also fear, are of utmost necessity to feel and give heed to, especially in such outrageous and fearful times. They are indicators telling us something is wrong, and are the fuel that give us the courage and strength to do something about it. They are real and valid and need safe space to be expressed, rather than dismissed, suppressed, demonized, or shut up. I think it is only in facing these emotions and learning how to work with them that we can ensure they will not rule us or propel us into vengeance, bitterness, or depression. Thankfully, in grief ritual, all of our emotions are welcome. So I rage on. And, almost inevitably, the heat of that rage will melt away and melt me down until I slip slowly into the deep clear pool of sorrow.


Getting to the sorrow part isn't any easier than feeling the rage. I find myself wailing, in front of the beautiful handmade arches of the fir and cedar and flowering altar, for all manner of pains I have experienced, witnessed, or even just heard of. I cry for my own pain to be sure, but the cries and moans of those around me evoke deeper, more hidden griefs longing to be expressed. And the deeper I go into those the more I find that everyone's grief is truly being siphoned from the same well—that our pain is a tapestry or a web that is all connected, and if you tug on one strand you will find it connected to all the others. My grief for the heartache, loss, or violation I have experienced personally melds into grief for the the heartache, violation, and loss of those around me, and then for that of all people, and then for the harms against wilderness, for the animals caged up in factory farms, and for the victims (and even the perpetrators) of violent acts, and for the endless wars, and more. At a certain point in most retreats my grief feels all-encompassing. And yes, it feels like too much to hold. Often I am afraid I will never stop crying. But the ritual container and community has enough capacity for all of that. I cry until I am done crying. And by the end of it maybe I am still sobbing, but it is out of gratitude, or maybe I am laughing, or maybe I am just feeling lighter like I could fly. Sometimes not, but very often this purity of joy is what lies on the other side of fully experiencing my anguish.

Regardless of what I am expressing in the ritual, whether I am wailing, screaming, or am just curled up a ball of myself, I know I am not alone. The ritual is designed so that the people who are actively grieving at any given moment are not only supported by the dancers, drummers, and singers (which are continuing throughout the ritual), but are also more directly witnessed by another individual. This hands-off but direct witnessing of each other helps catalyze and ground everything that gets expressed. In turn this strengthens the fabric of empathy, compassion, trust, support, and mutuality in the community of grievers. Knowing I have been patiently and lovingly witnessed by an individual throughout my time at the altar, and by a whole community who are moving and singing for me (for all of us), makes it feel safe to dive to the heart of my pain and face whatever is there, and then gives me the will to stand up when I am done, and turn around to rejoin the community where I will dance harder, sing louder, give more passion to my drumming, and be fully present for the others who are grieving.


This grief “work,” as I often call it, is not a chore, but it IS hard. It takes energy, dedication, courage, and vulnerability; it takes a willingness to look closely at, and feel deeply, things we don't necessarily want to see or feel at all. But active grieving (and raging)--and in particular, being witnessed, held, and accepted in doing so—helps immensely in moving and transforming all manner of pain. I have seen how it serves to halt the cycling perpetuation of harm that we so often see in the world at large and in our interpersonal lives. I find that through my expression of rage and its dissolution into grief, I discover an increase in forgiveness, compassion, love, and empathy for others; and I find myself less stagnated in depression, dis-ease, or feeling defeated. This helps keep me from becoming retaliatory or withdrawn, and at the same time helps me affirm the validity and wisdom of my emotions and experience. It connects me to a sense of both meaningful empathy AND meaningful justice. And it inspires me toward courageous and often more clear-sighted action, by allowing me to see what is actually true in a situation, and therefore what is really needed beneath the logistics of my mind or the desires of my ego. Often a similar anger will flare up in again after a retreat, but it feels like a purer, clearer form—one I can act on with clarity, integrity, and grace. All of these personal transformations I believe to be common experience for people doing this work. Because of that I believe grief tending of some form is essential for all peoples to engage in, especially now, to help us navigate the heightened emotional territory we find ourselves in as we begin to acknowledge and work to heal our collective wounds. I will explore this dimension in greater detail in part two. Cultural or personal, these gifts of grief are worthy of our work, and of our courage. 

Grief work has opened many doors for healing in my life, which has, in turn, bolstered my love and passion, emboldened and affirmed who I am, and allowed me to become increasingly effective in all that I attempt for a more beautiful, just, and soulful world. Perhaps most noticeably and undeniably, the deeper I have dived into the well of grief the more I have discovered and been able to revel in the glimmering golden coins of gratitude and delight.


Alex Eisenberg is a writer, earth tender, and youth mentor who will be guiding with Journeys for her fifth summer this year.

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