Those who will not slip beneath the still surface on the well of grief
turning down though 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
What often goes unacknowledged during times of radical transformation is that every change we go through, whether it’s wonderful or terrible, expected or unexpected, societally accepted or rebel-hearted, involves release, loss and grief.
Because in order to move forward into something new, we, by definition, are leaving something behind.
While you are becoming, you are also unbecoming. While you are learning, you are also unlearning. As you are healing, you are also dismantling.
When you start a new job, you’re leaving behind an old job, old colleagues, that coffee place around the corner from your office. And, maybe more importantly, you’re leaving behind the path you once chose, the dreams you had for that particular role or position, the way you identified yourself as leader, or creative, or social justice warrior, for example.
When you become a mother, you’re leaving behind your old jeans and the idea of drinking your coffee hot for the next two to three years. But you’re also leaving behind an old self, perhaps a woman who travels the world on a wish and a prayer, or who was pursuing a big goal that required her undivided time and attention.
And so it is that it’s not just times of “obvious” loss, like death or divorce or illness, that grief can arise.
In my work, I’ve come to view every transition with what I call a “grief lens.” That means that I’m always quick to ask: what are you leaving behind? what is no longer? what are you releasing? what might you be experiencing un-tended grief over?
These are incredibly important questions, because I believe you can’t do the growth without the grief.
Untended grief will find other ways to get tended. It cannot be bypassed, despite our desires to do exactly that. So often, I witness women caught in the midst of a life transition or major change and feeling unable to move forward. Stuck. Or I see women desperately trying to re-create the circumstances of the life they actually are being asked to leave behind, hoping that things will go back to the way they were, and then suffering immensely when that’s just not possible.
Looking at these circumstances with a “grief lens” helps us to see where we might be avoiding complex feelings of loss, or where we might be trying to hurry through to the “other side” of radical transformation rather than doing the important work of sitting in the process of it.
The fear of grieving…
So many of us are afraid to grieve – afraid to admit we feel grief, afraid to work with it.
Some of those feelings are rooted in the fact that our culture has little time and space for transformations that are slow and unfurling: we feel a lot of pressure to move on, to move forward, to start the next thing. Also, tending to grief and sadness about the change that’s happening for you is hard. It’s uncomfortable. And, especially if it’s grief or sadness about something that the rest of the world sees as a joyful change, like having a baby or quitting your cubicle job, it can feel *not quite right* to express mixed or challenging feelings.
I also often hear from women who are afraid that allowing themselves to grieve will cause them to tumble into a dark hole of unrelenting sadness or depression. Whenever you’re doing grief work, it’s important to remember to create a strong container for your work – like a way to open the door to grief, to feel it and to work with it, but also a way to say “I can close this door when I need to, for my own wellness” or “I can get help with processing this.” That isn’t to say that grief won’t show up on a random Tuesday afternoon in the grocery store, or that it requires “closure” – all of the recent grief research shows us that grief needs to live in us and through us, and can’t be quashed down or compartmentalized into a linear experience of progress. But also, in our culture, we are more likely to need to cry enough than to stop crying.
Creating a strong container in the form of a ritualized engagement with grief can help you feel like you have some agency in your grieving process, and can help you feel safe and secure as you dance with grief, for as long as that dance needs to continue. You can do this by, for example, speaking to your grief, saying “I welcome you now” and “I am complete with my time with you for right now, but I will be back to continue tending to you.” Regular therapy appointments or times spent journaling can also be a form of creating a safe container for your grief.
How to choreograph your dance with grief…
In my experience, grief usually wants one of four things: to be felt, to be honoured, to be metabolized or to be released.
Feeling your grief might look like allowing yourself to cry, or allowing yourself a safe way to rage. You can do this in a way that resonates most for you: in the arms of a loved one or trusted space-holder, on the pages of your journal, on a walk through the woods. Feeling grief often feels like an opening of the flood gates. Something I often recommend is to write a “fearless and searching inventory” of everything you miss, everything that is no longer, everything you are mourning.
Honouring your grief might look like asking for witnessing, which is, in effect, like saying: these feelings are important and want my attention as well as acknowledgement, validation and support from a trusted other. Honouring grief might be holding a ceremony like a funeral (my ritual design teacher, Tiu de Haan, talks about holding a funeral for an idea whose time has passed: funerals don’t have to only be for the death of people and animals we love). You might also create something, like a poem or a painting, to commemorate the loss you’re feeling, whether it’s for a career path or a marriage or a person who is no longer in your life.
Metabolizing your grief might look like finding ways to make sense or meaning of your sadness and loss, like writing about it, talking about it with a coach, therapist or friend, or making a piece of art to help you process it. Whenever we metabolize something, we are taking in a change or a shift or an emotion and truly processing and integrating it, exploring what meaning it holds for our lives and how, in light of that meaning, we might begin to see it in a different way. In short, metabolizing allows us to hold on to what serves us, and begin to think about how we can release or come to completion with what doesn’t serve us.
(note: we can be quick to want to metabolize challenging feelings like grief, because they’re uncomfortable. We want to say “it was for the best” or “I’m a better person now,” often sooner than we truly feel that way – which is why we must feel and honour grief first. If we don’t, these are merely platitudes that ultimately leave our grief feeling untended).
Releasing your grief might look like creating a releasing ritual to let go of what is no longer, or giving permission for someone or something to leave your life. In this month’s episode of The Becoming Podcast (to be released in a couple weeks!), death doula Sarah Kerr talks about leading a visualization at funerals where every attendee pushes a metaphorical canoe away from the shoreline – a gesture of sending their dead beloved over to the other shore. One of my favourite releasing rituals is to light a fire and burn a representation of whatever I’m ready to let go of in the flames. But I take it one step further: I use the heat from the flames to make an herbal tea with healing herbs that will support me on my journey forward, so that literally the energy of my grief can be transmuted into my healing and growth. Again, it is important to remember that doing the work of releasing your grief doesn’t mean it doesn’t show up on a random Tuesday in the grocery store, but it does give you the opportunity to engage with your grief, to possibly transmute it so that it lives within you in a different way.
A ritual prescription…
Really, each of these steps that I’ve described to help you choreograph your dance with grief are rituals, or can be turned into rituals by adding a few meaningful details, supports, or the creation of a sacred space and time.
Sometimes, when I’m working with women to develop customized rituals to support their radical transformations, I think of rituals as prescriptions. For healing, for growth, for grieving, for exploration; for whatever is needed most.
And so, I want to invite you to write yourself a ritual prescription for your grief. Consider: does your grief want to be felt, honoured, metabolized or released? One of more of these might really feel right to you. Thinking about what you need most to process your grief, consider how you could ritualize the meeting of that need. Remember that ritual can be something that happens once or regularly and often; it can be something that is very simple, or something more complex. And remember, you can always reach out for support, and witnessing.
And also? Remember this:
“When you’re grieving for the thing you’ve got, it’s praise. When you’re praising the thing you’ve lost, it’s called grief”
– Martine Prechtel