The Veil of the Soul-Making

[Part 2 of “The Parting Glass” series]

the deeper the sorrow 
the greater the joy

-William Blake

Grief has always been, in our entire story as a species, until the industrialist and capitalist age, a communal process. In ancient Scandinavia, it was common to spend a prolonged period “living in the ashes.” Not much was expected of you while you did the essential (grief) work of transforming sorrow into something of value for yourself and your community. Many other cultures observe a year of mourning filled with observances and rituals to help the grieving stay connected to their sorrow and not let it drift away. The Māori of New Zealand still practice a ritual grief chant, called the Haka, which feels like a primordial scream into the darkness, but it also binds the grieving together - their loss, their burden is shared and recognized. 

Whereas today, I feel that we’ve lost that past cultural wisdom. We’re conditioned to believe that we need to do it alone. We take a week of bereavement leave, at best, and then we get back to work and attempt the exact opposite of collective and communal mourning. Instead of coming closer to our grief, we try to push it away. What we’re doing is trying to compress the terrain and depth of our loss. But when we limit our grief, we also limit the territory and possibilities of joy, and we end up living these small, muted lives.

When we live flatline/muted lives, we end up chasing external stimulants and depressants; because we don’t feel alive (wanting to die is just another side of that coin). Deep down, we know we are meant to have a more passionate, imaginative, and creative existence. As children, we are enchanted with and astonished by the world, yet as adults, we often end up barely breathing and calling it a life. One of the most prominent alarms, at least for me, is being unable to distinguish the difference between joy, pleasure, and the absence of pain. I conflated all three well into my mid-twenties because I had such a limited experience with the actual depths and complexities of what it means to be a human being. I was incapable of processing my sadness and grief; I wasn’t strong or equipped enough to dive into those depths - I could only try to numb or water them down. That never works long-term. 

Addictions, for the most part, are just attempts to cope with intolerable states. Depression is often just as much an intolerance to suffering and isolation as it is a clinical medical issue. We treat them like they’re the root - but they’re usually symptoms of un-metabolized grief and suffering. Wouldn’t it be remarkable if people were referred to trauma treatment with their Paxil prescription? Imagine how the world would change. In my experience, I have continually witnessed depressions and afflictions in others that are more similar to oppressions: decades of loss, sorrow, and trauma that have never been touched with kindness, compassion, or community. People are left with an untenable situation: to try to walk alone with this terrible weight of grief and shame on your back without knowing where to take it or even if you can put it down. 

Having a strong sense of community is imperative to having a strong sense of identity. I still struggle with this myself, and always attempt to carry most things, especially my intimate shame and grief, alone - save the work I do in therapy. But the psyche knows we are not capable of handling, much less processing our grief alone. So it holds back from going into that territory until the conditions are right — which they rarely are.

I believe, allegorically speaking, that part of what our grief is waiting for - is for the village to show up. I think that can just be 2-3 people; all that matters is that we have a community that is willing to hear our sorrow, at a specific time, without asking us to turn down the volume. Being listened to, attentively, is the first step to being understood, which allows us to connect, heal, and transform our lives. Communal grieving, by its very nature, confirms our worth: “I am worth crying over. My losses, my sadness, my joy - it all matters to those closest to me.” 

John O’Donohue has this concept that I adore, which he called the “reverence of approach.” He said, “When we approach [things] with reverence, great things decide to approach us.” What if, instead of trying to outmaneuver grief, we came to it with reverence? Grief is not a passive state we are “getting through.” I cry every damn day because the sorrow and loss I feel are so tremendous, but I also cry because this life is wonderful and beautiful. I think we’re only capable of carrying as much compassion as the level of sorrow we hold in the other hand. The most tender-hearted people I know are also the strongest. 

To let grief work its alchemy on us yields gravitas, by which I mean the ability to be present with the bittersweet reality of life, which always includes loss. There’s no way to be spared sorrow. I wouldn’t even wish that (to be spared) upon someone. But we shouldn’t get stuck in our grief - it’s not a permanent mailing address. We can’t live in the same static place forever. As Rilke wrote, in a letter to Sidonie Nádherná von Borutín after the death of her father: “…I am very concerned when I imagine how strangled and cut off you currently live, afraid of touching anything that is filled with memories (and what is not filled with memories?). You will freeze in place if you remain this way. You must not, dear. You have to move.“ I believe Rilke was talking about moving forward hand-in-hand with our grief, not running away from it. 

Grief is a companion that walks beside us on the journey. Everything I love, I will lose. That’s the deal, the pact, the combined terror and beauty of life. I’ve lost two intimate partners tragically, one to a drunk driver and the other in a myriad of psychological ways years ago before cancer took her recently. And I can let those losses, that tremendous and harrowing grief shut down my heart — and miss the love and belonging all around me — or wrestle with that angel, as Mary Oliver put it, and come out transformed on the other end. Right now, that angel has me by the throat, but I’m not tapping out. I know there is something at work in my soul, which I do not fully understand.