Grieving: the first act of life

By Caroyln Baker

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So modern people are not bad or lost. They are stuck in a blast furnace of banality where all of that technology and so-called advancement have been purchased at the price of losing the most basic of human prerogatives: the art of being deliciously out of control to grieve their dead. It is a terrible source of grief in itself not to be able to grieve.

~Martin Prechtel, The Smell of Rain on Dust~

Edward Abbey famously said, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Clearly, if we find ourselves engulfed in despair, anger, fear, or any other painful emotion, one way to move through it is to “minimize” it on the screen of our emotional operating system and take action on behalf of whatever cause is calling us. What is more, it is not enough to just feel our feelings about the obscenity of planetary pillage that the human species has wrought. Even though our action cannot undo it or reverse the inevitable, it is the least we can do in response to environmental ecocide, and it is a means of practicing good manners toward all of the species that have not yet vanished.

That said, it is equally irresponsible to take action while repressing, ignoring, or minimizing our feelings. This essay attempts to address why this is so.

First, it is precisely because of denying our emotional response to the miracle of life on Earth that we are in the process of eliminating it. It is likely that as children, we experienced moments, perhaps even hours or days, of enchantment with the natural world. Although we may have known intellectually that we aren’t actually frogs, birds, bugs, flowers, or streams, our physical bodies may have felt as if we were. We may have become so immersed with these living beings that we experienced ourselves as part of them. That experience, or what Carl Jung called participation mystique, is what people of all ages in ancient cultures experienced continuously. The most excruciating anguish of all when indigenous cultures are uprooted, conquered, and forced to assimilate into modern cultures is the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense of union with the ecosystems which is brutally violated in the process.

Grieving: The First Act of Life

Adults in modern culture rarely experience a visceral sense of connection with the Earth, and the absence of that experience impairs our ability to recognize its limits. If I don’t feel another human being in my space, I am almost certain to transgress their boundary. Likewise, if I do not feel the physical and spiritual presence of nature—in fact, if I do not recognize that I am not a part of nature but that I am nature, my exploitation of it is guaranteed.

But even more fundamental than these moments of intimate connection with nature which we may have had as children and possibly even as adults is the fact that being born into the world is a monumental, profound act of grief—and gratitude. In his 2015 book, The Smell of Rain on Dust, Guatemalan shaman, Martin Prechtel states:

The heaviest of losses comes to all of us when we as babies in the womb lose our mother’s heartbeat when we are born. The loss of our mother’s heartbeat and the loss of the hungerless life in the womb are so traumatic and gigantic an event in every child’s immediate beginnings as to cause all of us as newborns to utilize the very first inhalation of our lungs to cry out in grief…All of us were born masters of that hopeful, life-giving sound of grief the day we rolled in, the sound that all humans somewhere know instinctually for grief. It is a newborn baby’s grief wail that is the most profound form of praise for being alive. (10, 18)

Thus, when we are told in this culture not to grieve, we are being instructed to suppress the expression of an emotion so fundamental, so embedded in our bodies from birth that failure to grieve is actually a violation of a basic human instinct.

What is more, early on, ancient cultures developed sophisticated rituals for coping with loss. Whether the loss of a member of the village or a member of the Earth community, these cultures recognized that loss is a part of life—and that grieving loss is healing for the individual and for the community. Likewise, they came to understand that when losses aren’t properly grieved, the people experiencing them become toxic to the community.

The Delusion of “Private Grief”

But it is important to remember that these rituals were community events. There was no such thing as “private grief” or “I don’t want anyone to see my tears because they might assume that I’m weak or it might be too much for them or I don’t want to embarrass anyone or myself.” Moreover, the community assumed, because they collectively experienced, that tears falling from our eyes is as natural as rain falling from the sky. In fact, it was axiomatic that everyone needed everyone else’s grief. As people grieved, they embraced and praised each other for grieving and viewed their collective grieving in a manner similar to how modern Christians view the communion or Eucharist ritual. Grieving together allowed them to partake of and celebrate each other’s pain.

In the twenty-first century, we are orphans without community. As Prechtel says, we avoid grieving for many reasons but among them is the sense of “There is not village for me, a village who would not only listen but understand. I have to tribe that would admire the depth of my grief as a praise of what I have loved and lost, and consider it a tribal asset.” (43)

Grief and Praise

Yet there is still another aspect of grief from the indigenous perspective that we have lost in our grief-phobic milieu. Grief is not only the act of mourning what has been lost, but also of praising it. In fact, from the indigenous perspective, if you don’t grieve what is lost, the extent to which you loved it is suspect. “Grief is the best friend of praise,” and according to Prechtel “Because they are best friends, both Grief and Praise live together in the same building, but in opposing quarters: in the left and right chambers of Love’s great thumping house called the Heart.” (6)

From my experience, conscious grieving has two consequences that the world has never needed more than it needs them in this moment: Gratitude and love. When I deeply connect with the reality of planetary ecocide and grieve it, I become unspeakably grateful for Earth, and I love it on a deeper level than I could have imagined. In other words, grieving is an act of generosity.

Violence And The Absence of Grief

I believe there is enormous wisdom in the indigenous perspective of grief—wisdom that has withstood the test of time. Enter any city or community in the modern world, and one finds people carrying unfathomable quantities of grief. We all know the messages the culture gives us about grief: It’s a private matter; don’t burden others with your grief; grief shows your weakness; stay strong; real men don’t cry; keep busy; get over it; put it behind you; it’s time to move on because life goes on; if you grieve too much or even just a little, you’ll get stuck in it; if you don’t get over it, you’ll get depressed—and on and on ad nauseum. Meanwhile, none of the grief gets metabolized, and as a result, it invariably becomes toxic to one’s own body and psyche and to the community. In fact, Martin Prechtel writes that “…it’s a fact that grief, if not metabolized, almost always goes to some form of accusatory violence in the end—either externalized, exported, or internalized—or all of the above.” (83)

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, endless war, largely perpetuated by industrially civilized nations is a tragic fact of life. While externally, we can cite resource accumulation and imperialism as the culprits, and they are, on a deeper psychological level, ancient cultures who practiced conscious, collective grieving understood that without doing so, wars will erupt and continue indefinitely. “What this means on the level of human society,” says Prechtel, “is when the sorrows of war’s losses go ungrieved, we are guaranteed the coming of another war, or violence breaks out in the streets…A new war declared on any level is what happens when all those involved cannot, will not, or are not allowed to grieve the sorrows and terrible losses of the previous generations of war.” (98)

The world recently witnessed an act of domestic terrorism perpetrated in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist young man against nine African Americans. If you were fortunate enough to see some footage of the black community’s response to the tragedy, you undoubtedly saw black people wailing, screaming, crying loudly, and behaving in a desperate, “disorderly” fashion. That’s because this is a community that knows how to grieve. Unlike most white people responding to similar carnage, the sorrow of the black community is generally not sanitized or well-behaved.

Moreover, this is a community that one moment can wail and cry out in grief and in the next moment, pick up the protest placard and march in the streets for justice.

Where is it written that we must either grieve or take action?

Grief and Beauty

One of the most powerful and practical results of conscious grieving is the potential of being transformed by it and then creating beauty from it. Prechtel notes:

Grief as a spiritual enzyme waits for our sorrows and then is secreted by our soul, not to soften our losses, but to utterly change them by metabolizing the impossible emptiness and confusion of our losses into a spiritual substance that can definitely be digested into the matrix of our ongoing existence. We are changed by this, and have to allow ourselves to be changed by this metabolization of our losses by grief and allow grief to instigate in us what it always has: the ultimate and only legitimate source of all human expression of beauty, real art, and kindness through living. But we have to allow grief’s fermentation of our losses for this to take place. (92)

Frequently I am astonished at the creations that eventually ensue from participants in grief workshops that I have facilitated. One person paints an extraordinary picture she had been contemplating for years but couldn’t quite begin; another person buys a drum and decides he wants to tell stories and folktales to inspire his community; yet another person decides to write a song and add it to their repertoire of musical offerings in public events. In each instance, one feels the “teeth” of grief in these creations which makes them authentic and poignant—that mysterious blend of beauty and sorrow and what Prechtel refers to as “a tear turned into a bead for the world to wear as a necklace.”

Take action we must as ecocide rages, but if we only take action, the fire of our activism can easily become an inferno that burns us out and drives us into egoistic action that lacks heart and may even be injurious to ourselves and the community. The fire must be balanced with the tears of heartbreak because only in heartbreak do we find our compassion and our deepest humanity. And in fact, it may be that discovering the depths of our humanity is the most important outcome any of us can experience as our planet continues to wither and die. In other words, through consciously grieving, we discover richer, sweeter, and more robust layers of love than we have ever known.

But there is yet another reason to grieve regardless of what the future holds or doesn’t hold. Cultures that understand the power of conscious grieving have arrived at their understanding for one reason beyond all others, and that is the capacity of grieving together to bond the hearts of individuals by way of their sorrow. As we descend into the well of grief together, we discover that we have never been and never will be separate. Could this be the missing piece in those many intentional communities we hear about that fall apart or cannot sustain the differences between their members? It may be that when grieving replaces groundrules, love happens, and from it, unprecedented solidarity.

I recently had the privilege of facilitating a grief weekend workshop in Providence, Rhode Island in which 15 people gathered for three days to engage in deep, conscious grieving. Each time I facilitate a grief workshop, I am in awe of what happens when people do this work, and I find myself challenged to verbalize what happens in me as I witness the power of such an event. I touch into something timeless that issues from ancient memory and that has never been more relevant to the future than in the present moment.

We need each other’s grief as food for the soul—as medicine for the community. And it may be that the Earth community itself is asking us to grieve for the same reason. In fact, conscious grieving together may in fact be our final moral obligation. After all, if we will not grieve Gaia’s destruction, who will?

Conscious grieving in a safe, supportive container is anything but passive, pointless work. Indeed, it is the most consequential and meaningful work we can be doing in the era of extinction.

Yes, action is the antidote to despair, and as Griefwalker Stephen Jenkinson writes:

Here’s the revolution: What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins, natural human skills that can be learned first by being on the receiving end and feeling worthy of them, later by practicing them when you run short of understanding. In a time like ours, grieving is a subversive act.

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