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Artwork by Carmen Kelly

Understanding our Present Moment Means Coming Awake to Our Grief

Grief rituals can help us cope with the pain of modern times.

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“Life is a growth in the art of loss.” – John O’Donohue

I breathe deeply, inhaling aromas of fallen leaves and chimney smoke, as my bike carries me home, along the cascading loop of roadway on Cortes Island, traditional territories of the Klahoose, Homalco, and Tla’amin First Nations. It is nearly autumn, a bittersweet time of year here, when the last of the heat waves have come and gone, and along with them, the droves of tourists on vacation while the world burns. It is quiet once more, and I am counting cedar trees as the late summer sun weaves in and out of the clouds, reminding me of this season, between realms. The cedars are revealing unprecedented signs of stress; I have never counted so many that are on the verge—their branches are reaching out in burnt orange, only their tips edged in emerald. On my bike, I am floating by, wave after wave of these giant beings, some now gone, and most struggling to stay alive, and I am overcome, tears streaming down my face and taken by the wind.

I moved to this sacred wilderness over five years ago, and each autumn, I count the trees. This has become my ritual, at first an unconscious practice, made conscious by the overwhelming rise in summer temperatures. I count the trees whose needles are burnt and whose root systems have gone far too long without water. Each summer, these ancient beings wither, and my heart cannot be distracted from the pain of witnessing the premature death of our natural world. So, I sing to them. I cry and embrace them, and leave them offerings of gratitude. My Mother taught me to hug the trees and breathe deeply. This small, sacred, and private ritual of reciprocity continues to ground me into the multiplicity of grief and joy; loss and life.

READ: How Tripping with My Brother Helped Us Grieve Our Father’s Death

illustration of flowers
Artwork by Carmen Kelly

We are currently living and dying in extreme paradigms on our Earth home. As sensitive beings in direct connection with our external world, we can only handle the reality of so much loss and devastation before we become overwhelmed, retreating again and again to the false security of distraction. It’s arguable that a bit of numbing now and again is key to our survival in these tumultuous times, or we would simply collapse under the weight of it all: white perversion/supremacy, colonialism, injustice, pandemia, terror, madness, death. Since the Nineties, immigrant children in Sweden have been falling under a spell known as “Resignation Syndrome,” an extreme response to on-going trauma and displacement, where they become comatose and are only able to be fed through tubes in hospital beds, for months, sometimes years. The only way that these children begin to recover is when they are given a tangible sense of hope; a secure place to call home.

It’s no wonder that people are struggling to survive under the weight of our Earth home transforming around us; our interdependence with the natural world and each other has never been more obvious, and the consequences never more dire. So, how do we learn to compassionately embrace the ache of grief in our hearts?

To be awake to grief, we must practice understanding and embracing loss in all its forms. Tuning into our emotional landscape requires learned skills, ancestral knowledge, and a willingness and fortitude to dive to the depths of the sorrow that plagues humankind. Loss of friendships, family, jobs, pets, and life on this planet cannot be metabolized in our systems without the help of the grieving process. Without this necessary step, we remain hungry ghosts, filling ourselves up with all manner of ills, and dooming our lineage to repeat the harmful patterns of the past.

Even amidst what feels like unending chaos, there are glimmers of synastry and magic emerging. Many are returning to ancestral practices, while simultaneously building culture across dimensions through modern and ancient technology, and the sharing of wisdom. Access to ancestral practices and healing technologies remains an issue, with many choosing to capitalize on this wave of transformation by offering highly priced retreats and workshops with under-qualified and problematic leadership. Perhaps the selling of our grieving processes back to us is the true death knell of capitalism. Nature seeks to teach us that we don’t always need healing to look a certain way or cost a particular amount of money, and that grief will find us no matter how hard we try to escape its dark embrace. Winter is coming, so we better make the best of it.

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Ritual can be an intimidating, and even triggering, concept. Many of us have ancestors who were cast out, disenfranchised, and murdered for engaging in traditional ritual practice. These scars run deep and unconscious, requiring community support to address and heal. Many of us have found ritual at one time or another in unconventional and even very conventional ways. The rave and club scene, sports games, political parties, religious beliefs, fashion, sex, drugs, and music. There are as many ways to create ritual as there are to distract one’s self from it, but the difference between distraction and ritual lies in creating and cultivating intentional space, practice, and community. The act of creating and practicing ritual is inherently an act of grieving, because love and joy simply cannot exist without the acknowledgement of loss. When we ritualize our grief, we allow it space to breathe and expand, and we can ask it what it came here to teach us.

Ritual is powerful in particular because it does not answer to the frenetic pace of capitalism and colonial systems of oppression. Ritual requires a divestment from urgency, and an intentional turn towards active rest. In Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community, West African Elder, author, and teacher Dr. Malidoma Patrice Some says, “We need ritual because it is an expression of the fact that we recognize the difficulty of creating a different and special kind of community. A community that doesn’t have a ritual cannot exist. A corporate community is not a community. It’s a conglomeration of individuals in the service of an insatiable soulless entity.”

READ: Can Ayahuasca Heal Grief?

illustration of hand letting go of flower
Artwork by Carmen Kelly

Once we begin to find comfort in ritual and solace in grief, we can consider the multitude of ways in which grief rituals can be integrated into our lives. Perhaps these concepts are intimidating to Western ideologies, because much of our experience with grief and loss is shrouded in mystery and purposefully inaccessible. Consider the funeral industry and how it separates loved ones from the sacred process of managing death, while capitalizing on the vulnerable states of people by charging inexorably high prices for caskets, urns, and funeral proceedings. It’s important to remember also that grief ritual is not for death only, but a process that can be applied to losing anything of significance in one’s life. Taking pause to recognize the grief of a role ending, a friendship dissolving, or the fracturing of family members due to belief systems and abuse, is as vital as mourning any other loss. Life in all its fractured states needs to be recognized and upheld as sacred. By acknowledging pain through grieving, we begin to heal our bodies, minds, and spirits. When we do this work in community, we can begin to heal the illusion of separation and isolation.

Grief rituals can look as simple as holding space for crying, singing, making art, writing, talking to another person, screaming into the forest, swimming in natural waters, listening to music, eating nourishing and comforting foods, dancing, sitting quietly, breathing deeply, and praying. Any practice that we have access to that lends itself to acknowledging our emotional state, even for a brief moment, can be enough. While we unravel ourselves from racial capitalism and white supremacy, it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which we can gaslight ourselves into not “doing” grief “right.” When my Mother died, I was young and alone in my experience, and the only advice I received was to “stay busy” and “move on.” So I tried to continue working and socializing, and kept myself so occupied that when I paused for any amount of time, I became overwhelmed with anxiety and turned to the only coping mechanism I understood: using substances to numb the pain. I didn’t have Elders or connection to ancestors to guide me through my experience with the trauma of my loss.

The path of ancestral veneration is paved with grief—there’s simply no by-passing our individual or collective healing journey without acknowledging our lineages of loss, love, struggle, and joy. Barbara Meiklejohn-Free writes on ancestral reconnection in Scottish Witchcraft: A Complete Guide to Authentic Folklore, Spells, and Magickal Tools, “The ritual you will undertake in your journey to discover your past, present, and future will forge and create a deep bond of honor, respect, and mutual understanding—in effect, you will have healed the lineages of your ancestral past, fostering new beginnings for future generations to come.”

Defining your ancestors can be a particularly useful practice for understanding our interdependence with each other and the natural world. We’re not only ancestors of our family bloodlines, known and unknown, but also to teacher ancestors who we may be unrelated to but who play a pivotal role in our physical manifestation on Earth, ancestors who you may be connected to from a past life, and the ancient ancestors who we share this planet with and whose DNA lives in our blood and bones: the planets, rocks, trees, mycelium, animals, atmosphere, and water.

When we engage in our most primal instincts and senses with intention, we are engaging with our ancestors. We are opening up to the possibility of ritual as divine, the divine as mundane, and the mundane as ritual. Grief contains a multitude of emotional states, and becomes an act of praise for the wonder of being alive.

In August of 2019, I found myself in ritual with one of my ancient ancestors, the psilocybin mushroom. With a small group of friends and a seasoned guide, we set the intention to ask our mushroom teachers to help us through the confusion, anxiety, and grief of climate and ecological collapse. Time lost its meaning, the trees outside swayed and sparkled and laughed with us (and at us….), water in the house stopped running, and I howled in agonizing pain, tears streaming down my face for what felt like eternity, my body heaving as I received visions of bodies piling up in mass graves and cities emptying. Five months later, a novel virus began to spread around the globe, turning our lives inside out and becoming the most deadly pandemic in US history.

When we approach the grieving process with reverence, respect, and intention, we allow Grief to hold a place in our lives as an ancestral teacher. We cannot experience the full spectrum of the wonder of being alive without integrating the grief we hold about the nature of our very existence: that we are born from the blood memory of our ancestors; from stardust, and we die, dissolving back into our Earth home.

*This article was originally published in DoubleBlind Issue 7.

DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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