Part 1 was posted yesterday.
As a society, we are not good at grief. Three days max, then we are expected to be back to work, keep the economy humming – shop, go to the movies and the mall, “put on a happy face.” Required to wear a cheery countenance, we deny our suffering and the suffering of others. However, loss unacknowledged compounds its effects. Grief will unleash itself somewhere, whether manifesting in excessive consumption – of food, alcohol, Netflix, stuff; or in unquelled anger, violence, hatred, enemy-making, and scapegoating — all of which have been erupting onto our world in devastating ways; or in the unmetabolized pain we pass on to the next generations. It is essential to our individual and collective well-being that we welcome grief, and tend it.
Two ancient stories, the Sumerian tale of Inanna[i]and the Shinto tale of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, offer insights into healing the pain of grief. In the first, we find Erishkegal, Queen of the Underworld, in mourning. Her grief over the death of her husband and her displacement from her seat of power and reign, unacknowledged by the world, have left her angry, bitter, vengeful, and murderous. When Erishkegal’s sister, Inanna, hears Erishkegal’s anguished cries and wishes to comfort her, she decides to make the difficult journey to the Underworld. Stripped of an aspect of her power at each of the seven gates to the Underworld, she finally arrives — naked, humbled, and bowed low, only to find that her sister is angered by her presence. In her bitterness and hurt, Erishkegal turns on Inanna and orders her hung on a hook and left to die. Knowing the dangers of her journey, prior to her descent, Inanna had asked her faithful servant, Ninshubur, to send help if she did not return in three days. Help comes in the form of two creatures formed by Inanna’s Father Enki, who instructs them to mirror each of Erishkegal cries back to her. So small as to be undetectable, they fly unnoticed down to the Underworld, and when they reach Erishkegal, they moan with her moans, cry with her cries, scream with her screams, echo her every pain. As they validate her loss, and tend her woundedness with compassion, Erishkegal begins to heal, and finally releases Inanna.
Asian American feminist thealogian Rita Nakashima Brock shares a similar Shinto tale of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, who, wounded and angered by the rageful and desecrating acts of her jealous brother, retreats into a cave of silence, and winter descends upon the land. She is finally lured out by the noise of celebration outside the cave. The gods and goddesses have placed a mirror at the entrance to the cave, and so fascinated is Amaterasu by her reflection that they are able to block her return. The moral Brock draws from this story is of the need for good mirrors. In order to begin to heal, we must first be willing to acknowledge and share our pain to those who will reflect our pain, brokenness, and suffering back to us. Brock writes, “In our pain is the power of self-knowledge that brings us to a healing wisdom and compassion. We will not be made whole and healed until the truth of our lives can be seen and told, . . . telling our own pain in a community of sisters who hear our gentle murmurs of loneliness and suffering and mirror ourselves back to us.”[ii] We must be those mirrors to others as well, to moan with their moans, cry with their cries. “We must learn to listen to, hold, and support others for their empowerment and ours.”[iii]
We can release the grip of grief in our lives through first acknowledging them and then creating ongoing ways to share our losses, especially those we hide away, to have them heard and mirrored back to us and compassionately tended. To begin, we must be present to each of these areas of loss in our lives. Francis Welller suggests that we approach each of these gates of grief in silence and solitude, with a reverence that “offers the gentleness and patience to coax our sorrows into our open arms.”[iv] But this is only the beginning of the work of grief. We also need it heard and held by those who can mirror our pain back to us with compassion. He recommends that we begin with a friend or two, but we may also need the healing embrace of a larger community. The particular cruelty of the pandemic is that it denies us what we most need to heal our grief — physical comforting, spaces for sharing our stories, singing and sobbing together, coming together in consolation, and this has compounded the effects of grief at this moment in time. So, it is especially important in this time of utter and ongoing loss that we both seek out and be those good mirrors to each other in those places that we can.
It is also vital in these times when so many are isolated from human companionship, to remember that we need not feel alone with our grief. Medicine can be found in the land. Bring your losses to the trees, to the waters, to the four-legged and the winged ones, and they will hold them. We can create rituals of release and renewal with fire and water, stones and sand. “The cure for susto[v],” writes Linda Hogan, “ . . . is written in the bark of a tree, in the moonlit silence of night, in the bank of a river and the water’s motion. . . . in the mist of morning, the grass that grew a little through the night, the first warmth of sunlight, the waking human in a world infused with intelligence and spirit.”[vi]
A modification of Job 12: 7-8 has also been accompanying me on my walks of late, reminding me in this midwinter of our lives to . . .
the birds of the air, and they will comfort you;
Ask the beasts, and they will heal you;
ask the plants of the earth, and they will give you peace.
Brock, Rita Nakashima. “On Mirrors, Mists, and Murmurs: Toward and Asian American Theaology.” In Plaskow, Judith and Carol P. Christ, eds., Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. New York: Harper Collins, 1989. 235-243.
Hogan, Linda. “The Great Without.” In Hogan, Linda and Brenda Peterson, eds., Face to Face: Women Writers on Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening. New York: North Point Press, 2004. 154-158.
Strouse, Charles and Lee Adams, “Put On a Happy Face.” Strada Music Company, 1960.
Weller, Francis. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Wolkstein, Diane and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. New York: Harper & Row, 1983.
[i] ”The Descent of Inanna,” inscribed onto tablets around 1750 BCE, was discovered in the ruins of Nippur, Sumer’s spiritual and culture center, in an excavation between 1889 and 1890. It would be decades before the 14 cuneiform tablets were translated and woven into a coherent tale. It is believed to be oldest written story on earth.
[ii] “On Mirrors,”240.
[iii] Ibid., 237.
[iv] The Wild Edge of Sorrow, 93.
[v] Indigenous peoples of Latin America understand trauma and its accompanying grief as “soul loss,” or susto.
[vi] “The Great Without,” 157-158.
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.