Strains of “In the Bleak Midwinter” have been accompanying me on my wintertime walks. Yet “bleak” is the last word I would use to describe these glorious winter days. The sparkling snow, dazzling sunshine, and deep blue of the sky against white birch branches offer solace to my soul. Still, the carol rings true, for in this midwinter, bleakness – a sense of desolation, loss, and despair — shrouds the land. Many dear to me have suffered tragic losses – of brothers, mothers, sisters, children, friends, partners and spouses – to cancer, suicide, alcohol, a hit-and-run driver, injury from a fall, dementia, sudden death, and sheer despair. An aggrieved world spins out tendrils of affiliated losses — of community and country, safety and security, watersheds and wild places, touch and tenderness and trust; family and faith — whether in god or humanity or the future. Thousands have lost the tangibles of jobs, shelter, savings, and physical capacity, and millions more the intangibles of dreams deferred, hopes for a nation, and belief in the basic decency of our fellow humans. And then there are the ordinary, everyday losses. As a friend recently posted, “I am grieving. I miss Sunday breakfasts at the cafe. Live music. Dinner parties. I miss seeing people smile in the grocery aisle.”[i] We are all suffering utter and ongoing loss.
In The Wild Edge of Sorrow, Francis Weller illuminates five gates of grief: 1) loss of someone or something we love; 2) the places that have not known love – the shame and shadows we hide away; 3) sorrows of the world – shared communal grief, primarily over the devastated earth; 4) what we expected and did not receive — to be valued for our gifts, to know that we matter; and 5) ancestral grief. The first is the clearest, the one most acknowledged by the world. When a loved one dies, we have our lists of friends and family to notify. We share our loss publicly through obituaries and memorial services, even Facebook, which has become a place of collective expressions of tribute and grief.
We are finally recognizing the reality and impact of the last, ancestral grief, as awareness grows of historical and intergenerational trauma, the role of epigenetics in passing our losses genetically through generations, and the ways those living today carry the wounds of past generations. More and more, we are beginning to understand the ways the harms of wars, concentration camps, genocide, medieval torture and burning, boarding schools, enslavement, intimate partner violence, plagues, and so much more continue to live on in us. We are fortunate that mental health practitioners and spiritual companions and healers are finding ways to work with and heal this ancestral grief.[ii]
The third, the sorrows of the world, Weller describes as the Jungian anima mundi, that we live in a communal field of consciousness, including the spiritual energies of all the beings on earth. “Climate grief” or “ecological grief” have become widely recognized by mental health practitioners. With rising sea levels, disappearing ecosystems, wildfires, floods, mass extinctions, the ticking clock on irreversible climate change bring increasing grief and anxiety over the loss of life on earth. We also suffer the loss of connection with the land the wild places disappear, are cut down, mined, polluted, or paved over. The grief of the forests, the great plains, the wild rice beds, the mangroves, the oceans, and all the creatures on earth may be resonating in our bones as well. The sorrows of the world encompass as well the ways we as a nation and as a world have been impacted by the rise of authoritarianism, the politics of hate, and terrorism, and most recently, a global pandemic that threatens and diminishes the lives of everyone on the planet.
The second and fourth are more hidden and obscure. The second Weller describes as “ . . . the places often untouched by love . . . profoundly tender places [that have ] lived outside kindness, compassion, warmth, or welcome. . . . wrapped in shame and banished to the farthest shores of our lives.”[iii] These are the losses of those parts of ourselves we have buried or stunted because they were met with punishment, ridicule, shame, or neglect. They may arise from trauma, whether developmental, acute, or the microaggressions that accumulate over time, and that we so often silence out of pain or shame. It is also the place of regret – of ways we have harmed ourselves or others, of abandoned dreams and the paths not taken, of passions not pursued and relationships ended. And always, these are the things we keep hidden in our hearts. Unshared, they fester, deepening the loss.
The fourth, what we expected and did not receive, is the most difficult because it is the hardest to name. These may be things we don’t even know we have lost. We may experience them only as a vague feeling of missing something. Part of this is the way we are hard-wired to anticipate a certain amount of welcome, belonging, kinship, home, and community. It also loss of a feeling of purpose – that our gifts are valued and of use, that we know we are of worth and that we matter in the world. It is a feeling of emptiness, what Adrienne Rich called “the void.”[iv] This may be the greatest area of loss at this moment in our collective story. What most of us expected was for the simple sureties of life to continue – to be able to share a meal with a friend; play with grandchildren; go to concerts, plays, birthday parties, meetings, school, church, work, the voting booth; find stocked shelves at the grocery store; be with a dying loved one in the hospital. What we expected was a polity invested in the common good over rigid devotion to partisanship, a valuing of a peaceful transition of power, a commitment to basic rights of the vote and political assembly, a growing openness and inclusivity that all might be welcomed into the beloved community.
Grief cries out for recognition and release, ritual and renewal. As a people, if we tend to grief at all, it is primarily at the first gate. We bring food, comfort the mourners, gather together in rituals of mourning, are present to all that arises. But we have no funerals for the wounds we hide away, no flags flown at half-staff for an embattled polity, no wailing walls for an earth on the precipice of irretrievable climate change, no coffins to hold the tears for all we had once hoped for, if not counted on — whether that be that our work in the world be valued, a collective desire for the public good, or simply a smile in the grocery store aisle. It is here that task of healing begins.
Part 2, tomorrow.
Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1979.
Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015.
[i] Jana Studelska, Facebook Post, 1/9/22
[ii] So much good work is being done in this area, it is difficult to list all of the many resources. Of particular value to me in this have been: Joy DeGruy, Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing; Eduardo Duran, Healing the Soul Wound: Counseling with American Indians and Other Native People; and Resmaa Menakem, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. I am also particularly grateful to Shirley Turcotte and the other indigenous elders and healers for all of their healing work and wisdom in Indigenous Focusing-Oriented Trauma therapy training and practices.
[iii] The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 31.
[iv] On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, 191.
BIO: Beth Bartlett, Ph.D., is an educator, author, activist, and spiritual companion. She is Professor Emerita of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She also served as co-facilitator of the Spirituality Task Force of NWSA. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including Journey of the Heart: Spiritual Insights on the Road to a Transplant, Rebellious Feminism: Camus’s Ethic of Rebellion and Feminist Thought, and Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior. She has been active in feminist, peace and justice, and rights of nature and climate justice movements, and has been a committed advocate for the water protectors.