Tending Communal Grief

Updated: May 12, 2019



The disconnection from a sense of belonging is a wound as deep as colonization. By reconnecting to ritual practices for tending communal grief, we can begin to weave ourselves into a sense of self wider than the boundaries of our skin.

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Heart hurt heart sore heart break open inside my chest.

It’s not supposed to be this way.

How many generations’ tears are stored within these muscles?

Too close too hot too tight to bend to swallow the part of me that rises, running: the loss will catch up with you.

How long have I been here, distancing, ahead of the pace of my heartbeat?

What do I keep myself from looking towards, that corner of my eye where my own monsters dwell?

Close to the edge of my self. The process of calling back means traveling fully through the darkness.

I carry my sorrow to the earth. Squatting down and clawing through dry soil, digging deeper until moisture runs through my fingers in the dirt.

I lie flat on my belly, my face leaning over the hole. Deep with the earth I feel a resonance inside me and the rich vein of soil. Both are dark and close.

My breath comes hot and heavy, rich with nutrients. How do I begin?

Tending Communal Grief

The ecological devastation of our interior worlds precedes that of the natural world. —Stephen Harrod Buhner, "The Living Touch of Wild Earth”1

In old-growth forests, the roots of trees are connected to each other in a complicated interweaving of relationship. Forester Peter Wohlleben explains that “the root systems of neighboring trees inevitably intersect and grow into one another,”2 creating a mycelial neural network that spreads throughout the forest. Trees in the forest communicate with each other, passing essential nutrients and creating a microclimate to regulate the temperature of the forest. Each tree “is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible...even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.”3 Like ancient forests, many indigenous cultures have been able to survive for many thousands of years in an ecosystem of reciprocal giving with the other beings around them. These old-growth humans participated in a much stronger weaving of relationship, their “wise use and care for a huge variety of marine and forest resources, allowed them to avoid overexploiting any one of them while extraordinary art, science, and architecture flowered in their midst.”4

For humans who have grown up in today's dominant culture, our experience bares more similarity to the sidewalk trees on our city streets than to old-growth trees within the vibrant ecosystem of an ancient forest. Sidewalk trees are grown in factory farms, their root systems “trimmed to keep them compact in nursery beds.” When they are planted in the soil, they are too far away from other trees to begin to weave their roots into a mycelium of interconnection. Trapped in a perpetual experience of adolescence, their branches trimmed to make way for powerlines and their roots constrained by concrete, sidewalk trees are “the street kids of the forest.”5 They live stunted lives, cut off from the full experience of what it means to be a tree.

Like the sidewalk trees, humans living in the dominant culture are expected to live within a narrow set of characteristics far removed from the full expression of their humanity.

My settler-colonist European ancestors created this "monoculture" out of a cosmology of civilization based on relational violence and ecological extraction. They used colonization, enslavement, and genocide to force this "monoculture" onto old- growth humans, removing them from their root systems of relationship. The devastating shocks of our time—climate devastation, white supremacy, and economic inequality—are not anomalies in this monoculture, they are the system functioning in exactly the way it was designed to: the isolated individual in exclusionary war against an alien other. Issues we think of as separate such as "incarceration, war, racism, poverty, and ecocide" are deeply connected, as Charles Eisenstein explains: it "is impossible for one to exist without the others. All are part of the same unholy matrix."6

The "monoculture" is inherently traumatizing: our collective nervous system has long ago passed through the trauma responses of fight or flight and entered into a helpless freeze state, forced into a mentality that necessitates we numb our emotions in order to survive. It seems like there is no choice but to live our lives on the surface, ignoring the vast, undefinable grief for deeper relationships we don't even know that we've lost. Psychologist and soul activist Francis Weller observes "where there is trauma, the imagination stops."7 The "monoculture" only has room for a narrow selection of habits, akin to the "looping" of individuals with PTSD who are stuck in a traumatic memory. And so we precede as though the structures around us have not already begun to disintegrate, incapable of grieving our situation or imagining something different.

In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Weller explains that "Trauma always carries grief, though not every grief carries trauma. Therefore, grief work is a primary ingredient in the resolution of trauma."8 But in a society where the death of a person is the only culturally acceptable time to descend into grief, there is not enough space to practice this skill. The amount of time in which it is socially acceptable to grieve continues to be reduced, the DSM time limit on how long a person can be grieving before being diagnosed with depression over the years has been “slashed to three months, one month, and eventually just two weeks.”9 In most cases it is implicit that the bereaved person will endure their grief in private. But grief cannot fully be released from the body if it is experienced in isolation.

Without communal spaces to tend our collective grief, the grief often stays stuck inside our bodies, an unwanted toxic presence, both depression and oppression.10 Solitary grief is traumatizing, especially when the grief is seen as something shameful that must be hidden from others. As Peter Levine describes in his research on trauma release, trauma cannot be healed in isolation, humans physiologically need someone else present to safely release into their emotion.11 As our grief builds up unwitnessed, we attempt to distract ourselves with what Francis Weller calls “secondary satisfactions,” which manifest in the various forms of consumption and self-numbing promoted by our culture.

Grief rituals offer a communal space in which to process grief. Similar to Peter Levine's Somatic Experiencing practice, in which the compassionate witness is a necessary element in healing trauma, Francis Weller describes that any ritual has two main processes: Containment and Release.12 In a grief ritual, the container is provided by the group of people supporting the griever in the release of their emotion. The release happens when the griever is able to express their grief in an embodied energetic way and send their emotion towards a larger-than-human presence, which some cultures refer to as the sacred, some as the earth, and some as the ancestors. Through this ritual process, the grief is released from people's bodies and given to a sacred presence capable of transforming the toxic emotion into something life-giving.

Francis Weller defines five gates of grief that impact our ability to live fully connected lives. Only one gate has to do with the death of someone we love, which Weller defines as the knowledge that "everything we love, we will lose."13 The other four gates are "the places that have not known love," "the sorrows of the world," "what we expected but did not receive," and "ancestral grief.”14 In his earlier book, Entering the Healing Ground, Weller explains that while the first gate is poorly supported by our culture, the other gates are overlooked even more:

"The other four gates receive virtually no attention at all in modern culture. Consequently, the grief that accumulates at these thresholds remains untouched and we feel the growing weight of untended sorrows. This is often what is misdiagnosed as depression. We are pushed down, overwhelmed by so much congested grief.”15

In a culture with a baseline of loneliness, the aching desperation and fatigued despair that the medical-pharmacutical-industrial complex has labelled as “depression” is an extreme expression of unwitnessed grief. Johann Hari describes this in his recent book Lost Connections, explaining that what has been described as a chemical imbalance in the brain is in fact a complex constellation of societal disconnections such as "lack of meaningful work, lack of connection to other people, childhood trauma, disconnection from nature," etc. 16

When looked at in this way, the monoculture's concept of mental health becomes greatly complexified by the biological impacts of living in a culture that lacks the essential social nutrients our bodies have evolved to expect. As humans, we are meant to be intimately connected to our ancestors, throughly embedded in the ecology of place, we are meant to grieve through rituals, to feel held by a community wider than our skin’s limit. We are meant to be playful without shame, to inhabit a world in which the sacred is always speaking to us, living in a way that honor’s our soul’s deepest gifts and nourishes the “beingness” of all life.

The necessity of our time is to expand our imaginations by fully grieving our culture’s disconnection from authentic sources of nourishment. Grief brings us into full relationship with what we love, what we long for, what we will fiercely protect— orienting us to a sense of self expanding out beyond the boundaries of our skin. When experienced as communal ritual, our grief becomes an initiatory journey to reconnect us in deeper relationship.17

In the following essays, I will explore this journey of reconnection through five “Imaginal Initiations” that invite us to move from a feeling of isolation into a wider root system of belonging.


1. How does the accumulated grief of the “monoculture” exist inside your body?

2. Does your self-perception change if you see loneliness and depression as frozen grief?

3. What kind of communal ritual can you imagine that would support you in grieving?



1 The Living Touch of Wild Earth (Part 1). 2014, https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/ resources/audio-video-archive/stephen-buhner-the-living-touch-of-wild-earth-part-1

2 Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Harper Collins, 2017, page 10

3 ibid, page 4

4 Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. First Edition edition, Milkweed Editions, 2013, page 349

5 Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate. Harper Collins, 2017, page 174

6 Eisenstein, Charles. Climate--A New Story. North Atlantic Books, 2018, page 157

7 Weller, Francis. Grief Ritual Workshop: Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. Holy Wisdom Monastary, Middleton, Wisconsin8 The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, page 70.

9 Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury USA, 2018, page 41

10 Weller, Francis. Grief Ritual Workshop: Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. Holy Wisdom Monastery, Middleton, Wisconsin.

11 Levine, Peter. In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. North Atlantic Books, 2012, page xii

12 The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. North Atlantic Books, 2015, page 73

13 ibid, page 23. 14 ibid, page 30-69.

15 Weller, Francis. Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World. WisdomBridge Press, 2012, page 23-24.

16 Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions. Bloomsbury USA, 2018, page 158-254.

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