By Nala Walla
Ask modern people about the word grief and we will usually mention sorrow, depression, death, and anguish—something we have developed all sorts of medications to “treat,” something we pray won’t happen to us. And when we are unavoidably visited by grief, we commonly consider it to be a private matter that we don’t burden others with. Grieving is something mostly done (or avoided) behind closed doors.
Standard dictionaries list the word grief as a synonym for depression, for nervous breakdown, for misery and trouble. Consider this definition from Merriam Webster:
1-deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.
2-keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss
3-trouble or annoyance.
Synonyms: sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, heartache, heartbreak, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, woe, desolation, dejection, despair.
But what if grief is not any of these things? Is there such a thing as Good Grief?
A look beyond conventional definitions of “grief as affliction” reveals some radically different views. When we consider traditional cultural practices, we find grief holds a position of great importance and, at the same time, of striking ordinariness. And a variety of rituals, customs, and village-scale ceremonies are regularly held to support—not suppress—the grieving process. Such rituals reflect acceptance of the naturalness and inevitability of traumatic human events such as deaths, disasters, betrayals, and failures of all kinds. Grief is not viewed as a personal shortcoming or pathology, nor a problem to be solved. On the contrary, the power of grief is harnessed to transform people into more mature human beings.
In his beautiful little book Grief and Praise, Mayan elder Martin Prechtel reminds us that grief is a necessary part of life, without which, we remain armored and stunted, and “in some way dead.”
It is true that grief is an interruption into normal life like the necessary swelling and opening of a seed for it to sprout and grow to full flower. Whether we know it or not, human beings are relegated to the fact that without grief, we can never grow ourselves into real people…When grief does as it is meant to, it turns sorrow into an ecstatic, out-of-time, inebriated symphony at the very direction of the divine…
This more holistic view of grief recognizes the paradoxical association of grief with gratitude, with joy, with spiritual growth and aliveness. When we understand grief in this expanded way, we see that our culture has it backwards: depression is not grief, but the repudiation of grief. To avoid grief is to disconnect ourselves from one of the deepest sources of our vitality, and thus be turned into zombies. Grief is the medicine, not the toxin.
GRIEFWORK AS TECHNOLOGY
“Grief is not a feeling. Grief is a skill. And the twin of grief is the skill of being able to praise, or love, life. Which means, wherever you find one authentically done, the other is very close at hand. Grief, and the praise of life, side by side.”
–Stephen Jenkinson, from the film Griefwalker.
These days the word technology is typically used in reference to mechanical devices such as computers, and to advances in the programs that run them. But the meaning of the Greek root word techne is, “skill.” And in our modern societies, our grieving skills have fallen by the wayside, resulting in unfathomable illness—physical, emotional and spiritual.
Rituals for grief are truly valuable social-cultural technologies that enable us to turn the inevitable stresses and traumas of human lives into vibrant growth and spiritual connection, instead of becoming isolated in a mire of resentment or victimhood. What if we were to spend as much effort developing these “soft technologies” as we do silicon-based “hard tech”? To recover the transformational power of grief to transmute potentially crippling experiences would be nothing short of revolutionary for our culture.
With so many distressing current events on the world stage—from natural disasters, to war, genocide, political turmoil, climate change, systematic impoverishment, and ecocide— the need to revise our relationship to grief is becoming more and more urgent. And because the above list is already layered atop of generations of ungrieved exploitation and abuse, we now stand facing a tidal wave of emotions demanding our immediate attention.
The technologies of grief can help us to allow these strong emotions to have their necessary affect on us, to carve us into our new shapes as deeper, more ripened human beings and human cultures. Instead of becoming paralyzed by rage and despair, we can learn to renew our capacity to love our world and take decisive actions to safeguard what we love. In this sense, griefwork is an essential practice for activists or anyone hoping to make this world a better place.
LEARNING TO TRUST GRIEF
Around the time my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I started experiencing an intensely sleepless period usually referred to as “insomnia.” I had recently become a mother myself, and felt the enormous strain of caring for a toddler while simultaneously navigating an unfamiliar landscape of big city hospitals, multiple crosscountry flights, and a flood of feelings and memories that had come unbound. Few would be surprised that the pressure I was under would create a state of hypervigilance or anxiety. And few would hesitate to recommend every manner of pills and potions to “cure” me.
In hindsight, however, I can see how the diagnoses of PTSD and insomnia created a problem out of my natural impulse to grieve. As a new mama, I had very little time during the day to reflect, to write, to cry or wail, and my body was plainly demanding that I spend some time processing the powerful experiences I was going through. But the prevailing view of insomnia as pathological now heaped midnight panic on top of an already-large pile of sorrows and mourning—whenever I woke at night, I would instantly spin off into judgement “Oh no! Not again! There is something really wrong with me!”
I have since come to understand my “insomnia” as a soulful call for a deeply quiet space beyond the busy-ness of the daylight world. My nighttime waking has become a profoundly healing and connective time for me, as I am learning to trust my body as a faithful herald, calling me towards what is right, not what is wrong.
THE NORMALIZATION OF GRIEF
Death is only one of many commonplace events that can initiate a grieving process: divorce, loss of a job, estrangement, betrayal, abuse, retirement, empty nest, fire and flood, moving to another house or town, the cutting of a beloved patch of woods, and countless others. Even experiences generally considered joyous such as marriages or births are usually mingled with sadness and loss. Yet, because our culture amplifies the cheerful and minimizes the painful parts of life, we become badly lopsided and alienated from the rich complexity of our experience.
Each of us can start the process of re-definition by recognizing that grief is not equivalent to sorrow, sadness or despair. Grief is not an emotion at all, but rather a powerful skill and human technology. Normalizing grief gives us permission to seek and offer support so we can once again experience the alchemical potential of powerful emotions such as sorrow, despair and rage. If loss is part and parcel of human life, then instead of fearing and despising grief, we are wise to restore griefwork to its noble position as necessary and beautiful skill, smartly woven into the fabric of life.
I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow
And called out
It tastes sweet, does is not?
You have caught me, grief answered
And you have ruined my business
How can I sell sorrow
When you know it’s a blessing?
–Jalal au-Din Rumi
Nala Walla, MS, NTP, CGRS
Integrative Wellness | Ancestral Nutrition | Somatic Griefwork
Nala Walla is a wellness educator, homesteader and performer known for her creative crosspollination between body-based healing arts and ecology. She holds a masters degree in Ecosomatics, and is founding member of the BCollective: an organization dedicated to the evolution of sustainable and humane culture. She currently co-hosts the Grief and Gratitude Lodge with Laurence Cole on Marrowstone Island, and maintains a private practice integrating Nutritional Therapy, Somatics and Griefwork. More info, including published writing, is available at BWellNow.org and BCollective.org.