Excerpts from The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, by Francis Weller.
✨ In that moment, I understood powerfully the cost to a child who had to be the one to make the overture of repair. If I hadn’t gone in there, my son would have had to ingest his fear that I did not want to be his father any longer. The worst part of it, however, is that he would have felt it was his fault – if he hadn’t been so exuberant, so needy for my attention, I might still hold him in my heart. He would feel he had to restrain these parts of himself in the future if he was to receive my love once again.
✨ Shame ruptures our connection with life and with our soul. It is, indeed, a sickness of the soul. When feelings of shame arise, we pull back from the world, avoiding contact that could cause or risk exposure. The last thing we want in times of excruciating self-consciousness is to be seen. We find ourselves avoiding the gaze of others, we become silent and withdrawn, all in hopes of slipping under the radar. I remember sharing with the audience that the goal of the shame-bound person was to get from birth to death without ever being an echo on the radar of life. My tombstone was going to read “Safe at Last.” Gershon Kaufman, one of the most important writers on shame, has said that shame leaves us feeling “unspeakably and irreparably defective.” It is unspeakable because we do not want anyone to know how we feel inside. We fear it is irreparable because we think it is not something we have done wrong – it is simply who we are. We cannot remove the stain from our core. We search and search for the defect, hoping that that, once found, it can be exorcised like some grotesque demon. But it lingers, remaining there our entire lives, anxious that it will be seen and simultaneously longing to be seen and touched with compassion.
✨ Grief rises and falls with every breath, clings to the chambers of the heart and makes each step we take a challenge. It is a dense space, filled with sensations that carry our tears and our palpable aching. We cannot escape these times; we cannot outrun what is intimately entangled in our moment-to-moment world. It is now that our apprenticeship is most called upon. We are asked to stand alongside these difficult and painful visitations, these epiphanies of lamentation.
✨ At the core of this grief is our longing to belong. This longing is wired into us by necessity. It assures our safety and our ability to extend out into the world with confidence. This feeling of belonging is rooted in the village and, at times, in extended families. It was in this setting that we emerged as a species. It was in this setting that what we require to become fully human was established. Jean Liedloff writes, “the design of each individual was a reflection of the experience it expected to encounter.” We are designed to receive touch, to hear sounds and words entering our ears that soothe and comfort. We are shaped for closeness and for intimacy with our surroundings. Our profound feelings of lacking something are not the reflection of personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect. Liedloff concludes, “what was once man’s confident expectations for suitable treatment and surroundings is now so frustrated that a person often thinks himself lucky if he is not actually homeless or in pain. But even as he is saying, ‘I am all right,’ there is in him a sense of loss, a longing for something he cannot name, a feeling of being off-center, of missing something. Asked point blank, he will seldom deny it.”
✨ When we are born, and as we pass through childhood, adolescence, and the stages of adulthood, we are designed to anticipate a certain quality of welcome, engagement, touch, and reflection. In short, we expect what our deep-time ancestors experienced as their birthright, namely, the container of the village. We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the earth and communal rituals of celebration, grief, and healing that keep us in connection with the sacred. As T. S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land “Once upon a time, we knew the world from birth.” This is our inheritance, our birthright, which has been lost and abandoned. The absence of these requirements haunts us, even if we can’t give them a name, and we feel their loss as an ache, a vague sadness that settles over us like a fog. This lack is simultaneously one of the primary sources of our grief and one of the reasons we find it difficult to grieve. On some level, we are waiting for the village to appear so we can fully acknowledge our sorrows.
✨ It is challenging to honor the descent in a culture that primary values the ascent. We like things rising – stock markets, the GDP, profit margins. We get anxious when things go down. Even within psychology, there is a premise that is biased toward improvement, always getting better, rising above our troubles. We hold dear concepts like progress and integration. These are fine in and of themselves, but it is not the way psyche works. Psyche, we must remember, was shaped by and is rooted in the foundations of nature. As such, psyche also experiences times of decay and death, of stopping, regression, and being still. Much happens in these times that deepen the soul. When all we are shown is the imagery of ascent, we are left to interpret the times of descent as pathological; we feel that we are somehow failing. As poet and author Robert Bly wryly noted, “How can we get a look at the cinders side of things when the society is determined to create a world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes in which we are made to believe that there is no death, disfigurement, illness, insanity, lethargy, or misery? Disneyland means ‘no ashes’.”
✨ Silence and solitude allow us to move beyond thought and into our embodied experience. Grief is felt, sensed in the viscera of our bellies, the inner walls of our chests, the curve of our shoulders, the heaviness in our thighs. Grief is registered in our sinews and muscles. It feels laboured, as though a great weight has settled on our chest or a heaviness has entered our bones. We know grief by its felt experience; it is tangible. It is here, in our sighing and sensing body, that we encounter the terrain of sorrow.
✨ Hundreds of times in my practice as a therapist, I have heard how fearful people are of dropping into the well of grief. The most frequent comment is “If I go there, I’ll never return.” What I found myself saying one day was rather surprising: “If you don’t go there, you’ll never return.” It seems that our wholesale abandonment of this core emotion has cost us dearly, pressed us toward the surface of our lives. We live superficial lives and feel the gnawing ache of something missing. If we are to return to the richly textured life of soul and to participation with the soul of the world, we must pass through the intense region of grief and sorrow.
✨ It is important to look into the shadows of our lives and to see who lives there, tattered, withered, hungry, and alone. Bringing these parts of soul back to the table is a central element of our work. Ending their exile means releasing the contempt we hold for these parts of who we are. It means welcoming the full range of our being and restoring our wholeness. Until then, we will continue to carry a feeling of worthlessness and brokenness.
✨ We will, in truth, spend many of our hours alone with our grief. In the cover of our solitude, we encounter another layer in our apprenticeship with sorrow. Here we are asked to hold an extended vigil with loss in the well of silence, slowly ripening our sorrow into something dense and gifting to the world. Our ability to drop into this interior world and do the difficult work of metabolizing sorrow is dependent on the community that surrounds us. Even when we are alone, it is necessary to feel the tethers of concern and kindness holding us as we step off into the unknown and encounter the wild edge of sorrow.
✨ Grief keeps the heart flexible, fluid, and open to others.
✨ This beautiful poem by Rashani Réa, “The Unbroken,” offers us a glimpse into what we may find nestled inside our deepest sorrows.
There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken,
a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable.
There is a sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy
and a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength.
There is a hollow space too vast for words
through which we pass with each loss,
out of whose darkness
we are sanctified into being.
There is a cry deeper than all sound
whose serrated edges cut the heart
as we break open to the place inside
which is unbreakable and whole,
while learning to sing.