Last weekend I attended a grief workshop. Sobonfu Some brings African traditions to the West to help us move past our collective and individual suppression of our grief. She says, “There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit. People know there is something missing in their lives, and believe that the rituals and ancient ways of the village offer some answers.”
Her website says:
“Destined from birth to teach the ancient wisdom, ritual and practices of her ancestors to those in the West, Sobonfu, whose name means ‘keeper of the rituals’ travels the world on a healing mission – sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land Burkina Faso, which ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries yet one of the richest in spiritual life and custom.
“Recognized by the village elders as possessing special gifts from birth, Sobonfu’s destiny was foretold before her birth, as is the custom of the Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso, and was fostered by early education in ritual and initiation in preparation for her life’s work. ‘My work is really a journey in self discovery and in building community through rituals,’ says Sobonfu. Dagara rituals involve healing and preparing the mind, body, spirit and soul to receive the spirituality that is all around us. ‘It is always challenging to bring the spiritual into the material world, but it is one of the only ways we can put people back in touch with the earth and their inner values.'”
The weekend workshop consisted primarily of an extended ritual to support the 120 of us in releasing grief that perhaps was a reaction to a recent loss, but more typically had accumulated over years from a variety of losses and could be a reaction to international and global pain as well as personal. The village that here came together to support us in this release was mostly strangers, but still very quickly came to offer a lot of genuine support.
It takes a village to heal a grief.
When early in the workshop it was my turn to announce what losses I wanted to offer for healing, I said that it was the death of my best buddy Monty last January and the recurring loss every seven to ten days of all my good feelings – about myself , my life and life itself – when my depression comes rolling in.
I realized just a few minutes after my turn that the other loss I would offer for healing is the very loss of my ability to deeply feel and release my grief. Once I was very good at surrendering to tears, having reclaimed this ability through personal growth experiences in my mid-twenties and on. But depression itself has crushed some of this spontaneous and natural release. And even my psychiatrists have acknowledged that the mood stabilizers that I take to even out my ups and downs also tend to dampen all my feelings. It’s a tough call, but I continue to opt for the reduction in emotional pain that the meds afford me.
I haven’t cried over Monty yet. I guess it will happen when it’s meant to – but I also believe that surrounding myself with support can help to get at it.
When I am manic, I am more able to connect with feelings and to release them than when I am depressed. I was depressed at the workshop and predictably stayed fairly frozen right through from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon – though there were moments when it felt like something might be moving within me. On and off, touched by someone else’s grief, I felt spontaneous shudders roll through my body. When I would take my turns – with another ten to twenty people in various stages of deep breathing, wailing and screaming – to approach the grief altar (you chose whether to do this, how often and for how long), I progressively got more aggressive about also screaming and loudly crying, though my crying was without tears and my screaming felt hollow and without connection to genuine feeling.
On Monday, the day after the workshop, I was inclined to say that nothing meaningful had gone on for me there. But I noticed on and off through the day, in the middle of a kind of typical depression, waves of genuine sadness. I felt like crying, for no reason that I could lay my hands on. I was nowhere near actually crying, but I felt some of the feelings that might lead one to cry. If I was not depressed and not behind the cash register, I might actually have cried.
This morning I learned in an email from my close friend Byron that his son-in-law Phil has been diagnosed as having “terminal cancer”. I believe that I have never met this man. His wife Sarah, my friend’s stepdaughter since her late teens, I have probably not seen for 20 years or more. But I felt a genuine fondness towards her after just a couple of meetings back then – and certainly they and their three children, all still young, are an important part of Byron’s life.
My brother is still very much alive, but every day his cancer threatens him and his family with the spectre of his absence.
But, still depressed, I was unprepared to have such a visceral response to the news of Phil’s cancer. I felt really sad for Phil, his wife Sarah, their three kids, Sarah’s mother Nancy, and Byron. When I started to launch into an email back to Byron, I said to myself, “You just sit here and feel this for a minute.” And so I did.
Then I decided, for whatever reason, that writing this post would keep me closer to the feelings. I could follow it by writing to Byron. There’s a risk that writing would drive me up into my head and lose the visceral connection, but so far – as I go back to connect within – I still feel some shudders and seem to not have lost the thread of my genuine feelings. It’s feeling like writing is really helping me to process the feelings, is keeping them real for me.
Now I will let go of writing, will go back to just feeling the feelings – for as long as that feels alive for me – then probably write the email to Byron. And I will bless myself and my grief, which now seems to include some people who I had not previously considered to be part of my family, but now do.
Did reading this stir in you any feelings for this family, whom you really do not know, or about any people closer to you (and including you) who are experiencing illness, loss or pain? It’s OK to feel it, to find somebody to talk to about it, to describe it in a comment here. It’s all part of staying alive.