Ecogrief...in a Year of Grief
Just as the bears and bees crawl into hibernation, so this month my energy for the outer world wanes and withdraws into my inner cave. Some days I slow to a crawl and some days sadness simply overtakes me. November has always felt sad, not only from the loss of the colorful leaf crowns from the trees and shrubs, the fall of flowers, the loss of voluptuous bird song, and the fallowness of the garden, but also the waning of our Elder Brother the Sun. As Kahontakwas Diane Longboat explains, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) say that if we live in tune with the daily work Sun does—getting up every morning without fail, moving up and across the sky, and setting to rest for the night—then we too will feel the slow dying of the light with Sun’s shorter work hours.
In a society that pushes through tasks and busyness no matter what, we do not take time to feel the slowing
rhythm, the depth of sadness, the cold and dark pressing in. Since children, many of us were told just to ‘get over it’, push through, move on, replace the loss, stay busy, distract yourself, stay strong for others…you will feel better in time. The noise and messiness of grief is somehow immature, unacceptable, uncivilized, leading to what some call an emotion-phobic society. We then need to grieve in private, if at all. And yet, grief, death and dying are as much a part of life as joy, life, and living. Western society has made it an iron clad principle to ignore and suppress anything to do with darkness, sadness, and vulnerability, preferring to celebrate light, happiness, constant growth, new and improved, never ending progress and profit. Yet, it is within darkness that stars shine, seeds sprout, rest and restoration occur, grief is composted, beliefs are let go, pain is felt, and silence lives. This is an essential human experience, and what November can teach us.
Theologian Matthew Fox calls this the via negativa…the necessary stage of “letting go and simply letting silence be silence, letting pain be pain, and sinking into nothingness”. Anyone who has been through a powerful transformation process—via death, divorce, life-threatening illness, or some other major loss—recognizes this experience of brokenness, loss, and emptiness. As many spiritual leaders have said, the heights of joy are only possible when matched by the depths of grief. We need to feel both, to be whole.
This emptying is necessary. Nothing new would ever find fertile ground otherwise. We must undergo the dark night of the soul and the listless loss of meaning and purpose, the implosion of our beliefs, identity, and/or life structure. Only then do we experience the time when tender seedlings take root, ideas tenuously show their faces, and embryos of the new grow. This is a very difficult, but vital, aspect of the spiritual path. If we as a human family are to make it through our current existential crisis, we must return to a cyclical understanding of life that allows for, and brings meaning to, darkness and grief, as the ground of potentiality. We would then see that some of the depression, serious illness, and addictions that grip so many of our human family, is unexpressed, embodied grief from a multitude of sources.
Certainly, this year of 2020 has been one of heightened grief. The deaths of so many globally from the Covid crisis, the many different peoples asking that their lives matter in a white world, the war and violence of one person or group against another, and the doubling of natural disasters displacing growing numbers of people (UN, 2020) is unprecedented. Fires and floods have taken so many living beings. But it is the dying of our planet, which is hidden in plain sight.
When I was mourning the loss of water in a wetland I regularly visited, providing connection and solace, my 80-something Dad said, “the water will return”, familiar as he is with natural cycles. The waters of another favorite lake, a stopping point for multitudes of migrating birds, could not even be seen from the viewing platform anymore. Each of these visits were filled with increasing trepidation as to what I might find. While he was right,15 years later the wetland water suddenly was higher than it had ever been…yet the birds were no longer there. Displaced for so many years, with shrinking alternatives for habitat, many died. The unpredictable variations in these cycles will become more and more insurvivable.
The abundance that my Dad grew up with at the beginning of the 20th century, with migrating birds blackening the sky, is failing. We must take an unflinching look at this if we are to move through it. As everything is connected, the rate and extent of disturbances in the Wild have a domino effect. There has been a shockingly precipitous decline in biodiversity, with most populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish declining by 68% in just 50 years (WWF, 2020)!! By 2100, between 20-50% of all the earth’s habitats and living species could be completely gone. This is almost inconceivable. While the planet has experienced mass extinctions before, this is the first time it is at the hands of humans. As Pullitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Klobert explains, we are in the midst of a sixth extinction.
Many scientists are scared, from those researching the Arctic to the Great Barrier Reef…as we all should be. Indigenous peoples are anxious, as their identity is inextricably tied to the land and animals. We should be especially worried for coming generations. In Coming Back to Life, Joanna Macy and Molly Brown say, “Pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural; it is an absolutely necessary component of our collective healing.” Unless we learn to grieve again, to feel and let pain flow again, we will not be able to undertake the necessary transformative changes. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The Earth is not just the environment. The Earth is us. Everything depends on whether we have this insight or not.” Our kin, human and nonhuman, are dying. We belong to each other. So, as Charles Eisenstein says, “the reason it hurts is because it is literally happening to ourselves”. This is called ecogrief, with all the anger, hopelessness, anxiety and despair.
What do we do with the ecogrief we have for ourselves and all our kin? Currently, our societies uses therapy to address grief and depression, but traditionally it has been ritual and ceremony that has enabled humans to move through such life-altering times. Grief is not just feelings of loss, it is an activity…one with sound and sights, of wailing and of rending. Grief is neither quiet, nor controlled. Resisting grief leads to long term suffering. We experience grief because of how much we love. Grief honours the loss and the love behind it. The Jerusalem wailing wall is one example of how ancient cultures provided for the public expression of grief. Candlelit vigils with deep song and prayer, winding through city streets to pass by sites of violence with gifts of honouring and remembering, such as I experienced in El Salvador, are another. These both allow for a collective process and an expressive and safe container for grief.
Get cozy in a comfortable position, perhaps with pillow and blanket. Gently close your eyes. Feel the weight of gravity on your body, the heaviness. Begin by taking a long deep breath in. You should breath into your diaphragm, not just the usual shallow chest breathing. Relax your belly muscles. Now, feel your abdomen expand with your breath. Exhale all the way out, drawing it out, letting your abdomen deflate. You should feel your belly relax. Breath in again, letting your belly rise like a balloon filling with air and then deflating naturally. By the 6th belly breath, you should be feeling more relaxed.
Bring your mind to the loss you are experiencing. Notice what changes in your body, doing a scan from head to toe. Keep breathing and notice the sensations of sadness in your body. Perhaps there is a lump in your throat, a heaviness in your chest, or a brokenness in your heart. Keep breathing as the sensations flow through you, allowing compassion for yourself. Let the tears come and just ride the wave, over and over. Allow this until the waves end, releasing the sadness. Stay belly breathing until you are calmer. When you feel ready, open your eyes, and slowly move again. (Thanks to Hilary Jacobs Hendel, Psychology Today)
If you, like me, have witnessed the demise of a species or a loved place, write an obituary for it, either in poetry or prose. This is not an intellectual enterprise, but an emotional one. This helps to express the unlanguaged feelings that you are carrying deep within and enables them to flow and release. (Thanks to Phyllis Windel in Ecopsychology edited by T. Roszak).
Drumming and Grief
Years ago I made a handmade drum in a sacred space. I now build a large fire in my backyard and drum, speaking to the fire, letting the anguish out, flowing with the tears and loss, allowing the smoke and drum beat to carry one’s grief to the heavens. I may place symbolic items into the fire, letting go of the grief and despair. Doing this with a small group can be especially powerful, expressing grief and being heard, in the presence of each together.
Based on the work of Chellis Glendinning, Macy and Brown (1998) developed the Truth Mandala and the Despair Ritual for larger groups of twenty or more. The Despair Work ritual is quite intense. Details are offered in their book. The Truth Mandala is a process for truthtelling. Four quadrants are created on the floor with rocks or candles, and participants sit or stand in a circle around it. One quadrant has a stone in it for the hardness of fear, one has dry leaves for our sorrow and grief, one has a stick for our anger and outrage, and one has an empty bowl for the emptiness we feel. All people commit to confidentiality as well as to the healing of our world before the process begins. Then, people are free to move into each quadrant, hold the symbol, and express themselves as they wish. After each expression, the group responds, “We hear you.” When the ritual seems to be drawing to a close, perhaps 60 to 90 minutes later, invite people to continue their truthtelling beyond the ritual, as such a process enlivens our connections, courage, and action. It cleanses our emotionbody so that we can tap our energy source and clear thinking more readily. May this month help you express the grief that may be welling up.
 Ritual as a sequence of activities either individual or collective for a symbolic purpose. Ceremony, as a kind of ritual, is the collective creation of sacred space or solemn observance (Neale, 2011).