Blog

Children's anxiety about pandemicMy neighbour Etta Cater (aged 7) was reading ‘What’s Worrying You’ by Molly Potter. Etta showed me the book. “The page that I find very useful is called ‘What’s Under the Bed’”. She noticed that there wasn’t a page on Pandemics. So, with her Mum’s encouragement, she was inspired to draw one. I have been writing my own article to address grief in these times, but I think Etta’s nailed it. She names some of the feelings we might be experiencing. “You might feel bored, scared, sad, like it will never end, worried or upset.” It’s really helpful for people to know that feeling these things is normal “when you’re on lock down”. These are just some of the feelings that come up with loss, change or anxiety. Etta also knows that it really helps to chat to someone when something is bothering you. She is aware that people might be living in places with different access to space to play in. She also reminds us, “remember it won’t last forever”. Her top tips are, “if you have a garden, play with your family.” Or if you don’t, “play a board game”. Thanks Etta for reminding me that parents and children everywhere are trying to cope with different ways of life.
www.mollypotter.com

 

Anxiety about the future

Many people feel anxiety about the future. We live with uncertainty in this age. We may be afraid of the possibility of social collapse, the breakdown of society under a pandemic. While this may be what we are focussing on right now, climate changes are still happening. More people are recognising how they feel in response to the times we are living in.

Eco grief and climate anxiety are surfacing. Many people are now more aware of global injustices happening now. Climate chaos looms in many people’s awareness. Threats posed by nuclear arms and nano-technology amongst others may sit in the background of our consciousness. Researchers, psychologists, psychotherapists, teachers and parents are trying to understand more and develop helpful strategies. How can we support those who are suffering from anxiety about the future?

“If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear. 
Joanna Macy

Climate grief or eco grief

‘Grief’ is an umbrella term that may include a whole range of emotions. These include: anger, sadness, fear, release, numbness, relief, shame and overwhelm. It is a natural response to any kind of loss or change. ‘Climate Grief’ is a feeling response of ‘grief’ (which may include any of the above and more). This is because of the changes that are happening in the world. In particular, climate grief centres round the issues sparked by changes in climate and biosphere. Anxiety about the future may be in response to the pandemic here now.  Feelings may arise as a result of current systems that feed social injustices, conflict, consumerism. These are just a few local and global issues that may cause feelings of grief to come up.

Worried about climate change?

Worry may be consuming those who are seeing news items and reading reports about, extreme weather events, temperature changes and documented changes in pollution. Grief is a reasonable response to habitat loss and species extinctions to name just some of the causes. Many people are simply noticing changes in their local habitats, insect and wildlife populations. Some people may be more aware of these changes as a result of their work, because of personal research, or lived experience.

Climate Anxiety or Eco Anxiety

Anxiety is a response on the fear spectrum that may include mental, emotional and physical symptoms. Fear of what will happen in the face of climate chaos, as a consequence of things that have already happened, is a reasonable response. Anxiety in the face of climate change is not irrational.

Anticipatory anxiety

Fear of what is to come, based on current information is known as ‘anticipatory anxiety’. It may be mingled with ‘anticipatory grief’. The definition of ‘anticipatory grief’ is more usually used to describe feelings of grief in the context of the impending death of a loved one. It is not unusual to feel this in response to something in the future. Especially for something that we anticipate will be painful, difficult or challenging.

What does anxiety about the future feel like?

Any of the symptoms of anxiety or grief may be present for someone who is experiencing anxiety about the future. It may include a complex mix of feelings, and different responses at different times. For different people feelings will also vary in intensity. In addition this may depend on the emotional load they are already carrying.

For some there may be a sense of heaviness on the chest, perhaps tears are often close to the surface. For others, there may be a dull underlying anxiety, a sense of unease that is hard to locate. Some people who are fearful of what is to come may be feeling jumpy, or easily tipped into overwhelm, anger, perhaps have a racing pulse. For others there may be an unusual sense of numbness or disconnection. Depression or hopelessness may be present.

Underlying anxiety about the future may be continually present in someone’s thoughts. For some it may be only when they think about their children or grandchildren for example. Sleep patterns may be disrupted. A whole range of physical sensations may accompany any combination of emotions.

Different reactions to uncertainty

We all face uncertainty in relation to changes in our world. People have different perspectives on the future for different reasons. For some people this is because they have had different lived experiences. Many people have absorbed information from different sources. This may be because they are within certain social groups or communities. Because of personality type, character, family history, culture, political awareness, and sensitivity of perception, people receive information about the world differently.

Different trauma responses

Our ‘core wounding’ also plays a part in how we respond to the outside world. Through our personal history, we each develop coping strategies for dealing with stress. When a source of stress – perceived or unconscious – is present, our primary trauma response may be triggered. People typically react to threat with an unconscious activation of their primal responses. These responses may be greater if you have a dis-regulated nervous system.

The typical responses to threat are flight, flight, freeze and fawn (tend and befriend as it is also known). If you are feeling very angry, and you’re full of energy to stand up against injustice, ‘fight’ might be your pre-dominant response. Or are you rushing around in a busy frenzy of activity or heading for the hills? You might be in ‘flight’ mode. Perhaps you feel totally overwhelmed or aren’t able to engage with the world. Are you paralysed by indecision or apathy? If so, perhaps ‘freeze’ is your primary response. Putting your head in the sand and finding other distractions or ‘numbing out’ in addictive behaviors could be either flight/freeze or a combination.

Climate change grief is like any other form of grief

In relation to eco grief, the things we typically recognise in any form of grief may be present. This includes the well-known responses of shock, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There may be layers of emotions, or different feelings at different times. It is important to remember that just like any other grief, everyone’s make-up is different. As a consequence they will perceive and respond in different ways.

Different responses to the threat of climate chaos

Noticing your own reactions to the threat of trauma may be helpful. Observing your responses to global issues may also be illuminating. Acknowledging our feelings can help us to face our anxiety about the future. Notice if others are reacting in ways that are unlike our own responses. This can also help to reduce the shame and judgment between people who are reacting differently from one another.

For some, the preoccupation with every day life, their inner thoughts may distract them. As a consequence they may simply not register changes manifest in the outer world. Many people have been preoccupied with questions around possible system breakdown. This may seem irrelevant to those who are not registering any anxiety about the future.

Reflecting on how I feel

You may be feeling a complex mix of emotions. In trying to tease out how I feel, I notice that I am often in a ‘freeze’ state, finding it hard to access my sadness, or the energy needed for action. I am aware of much devastating environmental research, but too much information swiftly tips me into overwhelm. Anxiety about the future regularly visits me in the early hours of the morning. This often manifests as internal background noise, a low level sense of urgency and worry, that I only hear when I stop doing and pause. Typically for me, this is loudest around dawn. I try to track these responses, and notice my inner dialogue.

Nervous System Activation

For me, and I suspect for many others, news reports, or reading the latest scientific information on the climate and global news trends tend to ‘activate’ my nervous system. It triggers a response that puts my physiological system on alert. Physical symptoms may soon follow, such as fatigue or brain fog.

Strategies to help with anxiety about the future

Grief tending in community, which may include practices from Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects’, and the practice of ‘Deep Adaptation’ are designed to help process feelings, and can be excellent resources in coping with climate change. I recommend ways of working that help us to face our anxiety about the future, in an environment that encourages us to build resources, express feelings and connect with love. These are some of the things I have learned and witnessed from co-facilitating groups on this theme.

Coping with climate change

I regularly co-facilitate grief tending sessions called ‘Feeling Nature’. These experiential workshops are designed to offer time for gentle exploration for those who are affected by climate anxiety and grief. We offer a session that includes some simple embodiment practices, making a connection with nature, making contact with our feeling selves, being part of a supportive group, and some expression of feelings. These are strategies that I have found helpful in order to face anxiety about the future.

Embodiment

Time to slow down, to ground and rest the body, to focus on being present is helpful. Focusing on the sensations present in the body, can aid us to stay connected, rather than disconnect in panic. Being present helps us to co-ordinate mind, heart and body. As a consequence, this enables us to act more effectively. Mindfulness practices can be a great resource. These work particularly well when they include leaning back (rather than sitting up actively unsupported), assisting our Parasympathetic Nervous System to go into restore, rest and digest mode.

“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That is what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”
Joanna Macy

Getting in touch with feelings

Through dropping more into an awareness of the physical body, in a space that is ‘held by others, hyper vigilance which may be present, might be dialed down. We aim to build trust through creating a nervous-system-aware and friendly environment. We try to introduce a conceptual framework that allows participants to recognise and name feelings that they may be familiar with. Through doing this sensitively, we hope to soften the reactions of shame that often accompanies expression of feelings. People feel shame around what they feel and what they don’t feel, amongst other things. We hope to give permission for a huge range of authentic expressions of emotion.

Connecting with nature

Many people spend little time each day outside in fresh air, under the elements, among plants and wildlife. Being surrounded by nature, whether walking in the park, digging in an allotment or feeling rain on your face can be a really helpful way to soothe the nervous system, to allow time for resting and digesting. We regularly hold events in the city, so try to find small ways to bring nature into the spaces we hold – by placing elements on a shrine or visualising places where nature is a resource, for example. Spending time in nature can be simple and restorative. Although for some, being in nature can add an additional layer of grief – because there are fewer insects, less birds, blossom or snow out of season. While nature can be an excellent resource, increasingly it is helpful to connect with like-minded others in order to co-regulate nervous systems.

Connecting with people

Connecting with other people helps us to validate ourselves, and our experience both in person and on-line. Being with people in ‘brave spaces’, where we can be vulnerable is affirming. So that we can be witnessed and heard, it is important to find communities where our authentic expression of truth is welcomed. Ideally we will be able to express ourselves without being shamed for our feelings or beliefs. Heart-felt communication can help us to ‘co-regulate’ our nervous system with others. This can enable us better to return from a state of activation, and is one way to build resilience. The witnessing presence of a supportive group, whether chosen family, long term or temporary community, can change our relationship with our anxiety for the future.

Cognitive Dissonance

There is often a gap between what people say, and what we sense is true. When my feelings, picked up from the information I am sensing from the world, don’t match what I am told, it creates an uncomfortable mismatch. This gap between perception and what I am being led to believe is called ‘cognitive dissonance’. News reports, politicians, parents, teachers, and friends, especially on social media, may be saying things that do not match with my internal felt messages of what I am hearing from them. However, when my internal perceptions match with information I am hearing, there can be a sense of relief, and shared outlook. This confirms my intuition, and is supportive, rather than dismissive of my feelings. This can be an important element in coping with climate change, especially in regard to having a shared reality of the world around us.

Grief Rituals

Grief rituals can allow us to connect with something greater than ourselves, and to the mystery of life. This might include grief tending in community rituals and rituals from Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects’. Despite our different identities, words may  connect us through our humanity, in grief rituals.

The premise of ‘Deep Adaptation’ is that climate-collapse is likely, and changes are necessary if we are to face it together. Jem Bendell’s work recommends we address Relinquishment, Restoration, Reconciliation and Resilience in response, both in our own lives and beyond. ‘Relinquishment’, the first of these includes coming to terms with our own mortality. We can use the tools of grief work and mourning to begin the work of Deep Adaptation. This may include taking part in grief rituals.

In facing the future, practices that enable us to develop gratitude, presence, connection and love will build our personal resources. These help us to develop both emotional intelligence and cultural resilience.

“Love for this life is greater than fear”

Building personal resilience will help to buffer our fear of the unknown. It is important to build our personal resources. What do you love doing? What connects you to something greater than yourself? Where do you love to be? Who do you love? Expressing gratitude can help us find connection with love. Finding our delight for life in the present will resource us. Growing our gratitude will help us to live in spite of anxiety for the future. In the words of Joanna Macy, “love for this life is greater than fear.

The personal steps we can take include connecting ourselves to our bodies, our feelings, to nature, to our delight in the present. In order to re-frame the narrative of the industrial growth economy, we must listen deeply to one another. Finding our shared humanity to find our interdependence is necessary for building our resilience so that we may act now and with love.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 
James Baldwin

Links

See our article ‘What is Grief Tending?’
Joanna Macy
Deep Adaptation

Papaya, you deliver pleasure with your juicy flesh. Your perfectly ripe, too sweet-ness is matched with the tang of lime juice. Over-ripe, you become sickly. Under ripe, green and firm, I feel cheated. Unless you are shredded in sweet, spicy sauce and sprinkled with chopped peanuts. Behind your yellow unpromising skin lies your gorgeous flesh. Not pink, not orange, but on the cusp where salmon meets sunrise. Cut in two you make a six pointed star, bursting with black seeds. Or longways for vulval symbol of abundance. Any sense of not-enough is banished by the joy of your taste. I slurp and squelch into your intimate parts. Bowel mover, your casket of seeds eaten whole rid the gut of worms. You are ‘papaya’ to me now, but I still recall our first meeting. Nervous, shy 8 year old, I am presented with ‘paw paw’ by my parents’ old friend in the ‘Robinson Crusoe’ in Tobago. Overwhelmed by the strangeness of everything, I discovered that fruit grows on trees in strange shapes and unfamiliar colours. Picky eater, even then it was love at first bite.

Francis Weller’s Gates of Grief

In his book ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’, Francis Weller explores 5 Gates of Grief. I return to these regularly as starting points to feel into my current inner landscape. I find the territory of grief endlessly fascinating, and am inspired by Francis Weller’s approach. He offers the Gates of Grief as a way to recognise and understand different kinds of loss.

“Grief and love are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held close.”
Francis Weller

Gates of Grief

1 All that we love we will lose (Francis Weller)
2 The places that did not receive love (Francis Weller)
3 The sorrows of the world (Francis Weller)
4 What we expected but did not receive (Francis Weller)
5 Ancestral grief (Francis Weller)
Optional extra Gates of Grief which I find helpful to explore:
6 Trauma (Francis Weller’s optional gate)
7 The harm I have caused to myself and others (Sophy Banks)
8 Anticipatory grief – fear of what is to come (Sarah Pletts)

 

Gates to grief as starting points

I refer to Francis Weller’s 5 Gates of Grief, plus an optional one. In addition to these, I use one from my teacher Sophy Banks. I also include one that we use in our own workshops. Francis Weller’s Gates of Grief offers a map, one way to identify and acknowledge the challenges and opportunities that change may bring. They are intended as starting points, as ways in to feelings. There are many possible sources of grief and myriad emotional responses to each of them. Using these gateways as a framework, I share some of my own journey with grief. I wanted to reveal a spectrum of ordinary grief from my everyday existence.

What does grief feel like?

Every grief is different. Every life will include suffering and loss. We will each respond to these challenges in our own way. How we feel and experience each loss or change will be different. Grief is not a competition. Every loss is significant. In this article I try to answer the question ‘what does grief feel like?’ from my own experience. Most people will experience changes that are described by the Gates of Grief in their lives.

1 All that we love we will lose (Francis Weller)

The first Gate of Grief reminds us that change is universal.

I was twenty-three, had just started working, and my father died suddenly. I was totally unprepared. Reaching for chocolate and alcohol, they sedated me through the initial shock. I was too embarrassed to make a fuss, to go and see his body. My mother didn’t cry, so I didn’t feel that I had permission to. At his funeral I finally let tears come, noisily. A well-meaning friend of the family shushed me up, just when my feelings had begun to flow at last. I remember the surreal quality of trying to continue living normally in spite of this grief. It felt as though there was a pane of glass between me and everyone else. Sharp pains often literally stabbed my chest. I kept thinking I was having a heart attack. Observing these new sensations, I felt bewildered. My whole torso ached as though it was bruised.

The whole experience turned my life upside down. I started to re-assess everything I thought I knew. Deaths before my fathers’, had happened before I was born, or were hidden from my view. In a dramatic life review, this brush with mortality inspired changes in my diet, lifestyle, work, home and belief system.

A Life Long Fascination

At age 9 I found a dead shrew, which I discussed with my mother. “Why did it have to die?” I asked, and she wrote a poem. My father sometimes buried caskets of ashes in the churchyard, “Where do you put the bodies?” I asked, assuming they contained just the heads. Clearly, death was something that I considered, even as a child.

Looking at death, becoming more familiar with the process has become something that is an ongoing enquiry for me. Intimacy with dying inspires me to live more whole-heartedly. Ever since the death of my father, I have tried to find opportunities to spend time witnessing the process of dying, and learning how to grieve well. In the three decades since he died, I have spent time with family and friends who have died, including my mother. For me, being in the proximity of a good death feels a great honour.

With every loss, I still feel the familiar squeeze of my heart, but it can also be an opening into profound communion and love. With each subsequent death since that first big one, I have been aware that there can be a cumulative effect. Relationships have ended in heartbreak. (I ranted and raged, I ripped up carpets, broke furniture, cried myself to sleep, and moped). I have been through sudden losses of health, (which left me in a permanent state of listless depression) and the chronic decline of ageing (with cruel loss of memory, libido and my glasses). Some of the deaths I have been able to feel most acutely have been beloved pets. Each loss has opened my heart.

2 The places that did not receive love (Francis Weller)

With the second Gate we identify places that may have been neglected or rejected.

My everyday childhood wounding felt like a chronic “benign neglect” (as Chris Riddell calls it). Although I was loved, I longed to be touched, to be held more. As the child of someone with a mental health condition, I often felt a sense of ‘proximal separation’. This is a situation where you may be near to someone, but they are not attuned to your needs.

“A child can also feel emotional distress when their parent is physically present but emotionally unavailable. Even adults know that kind of pain when someone important to us is bodily present but psychologically absent. This is the state the seminal researcher and psychologist Allan Schore has called ‘proximal separation’.”
Gabor Maté ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’

I grew up hungry for my parents’ attention. This left me feeling angry, confused, hyper-vigilant and needy. As an adult I have unravelled many layers of this onion of grief through therapy, and by learning to parent my neglected inner child.

My upbringing also gave me a confused picture of sexuality. I finally came to know and understand my sexual desires in my forties, when I came out as bisexual. This brought an incredible sense of relief and expansiveness, but it also left me feeling immensely sad for the part of me which had been hidden, clothed in shame, unrecognised and uncelebrated for many years. I howled and wailed when I was able to own this, in the company of those who could hold me while I grieved.

3 The sorrows of the world (Francis Weller)

The third Gate is where we feel for global causes of suffering.

The sorrows of the world often feel so huge that they are hard to contemplate at all. I try to connect with the injustices I see on the news, and worse, the ones which have dropped out of the news but continue to cause harm. But it’s hard to identify with the abstract. When I’m in the park, I try to notice warning signs of unwelcome changes. Keeping my eyes open, I observe dwindling insects, and flooded paths.

Local as well as global signs of injustice can be spotted. I try to meet the eyes of street dwellers, exchange greetings. A burning sensation accompanies my anger at the poverty that co-exists with the wealth of this city. Feeling solidarity, I know too many people who struggle with perilous work, insecure finances, disabilities, health issues, depression and anxiety. I try to grow my compassion. Recognising abuse when I see it, to sense my own blind spots is important. Keeping engaged, to keep feeling the world’s sorrows is for me a way to develop compassion.

4 What we expected but did not receive (Francis Weller)

With the fourth Gate, we face our disappointments and loss of dreams.

I didn’t receive the welcome I expected when I was born. I spent three days in an incubator before I met my parents. This is a small but crucial part of my pre-verbal blueprint.

I have often been curious about my interest in the landscape of loss. I suspect that in some ways grief feels really familiar, as though it is the water that I swim in. Before I was born, my older sibling-to-be was stillborn. After me another sibling came stillborn. I grew up with a sense of unintended aloneness.

Once I had grown up and found a solid relationship to explore, I caught a disease, which led to ME (CFS). My thirties, which I had assumed would be filled with rewarding work, fulfilling creative projects and having children, were spent being ill. In retrospect this was an incredible journey, during which I travelled deep into all the parts of me, which needed healing. Mourning the loss of all the things, which I hadn’t done, hadn’t been, and the biological children which I hadn’t had. This was necessary as I gradually worked on returning to health. I did a ritual to end the ambiguity of possible future motherhood, an early private grief ritual. It helped me to let go, and choose a different future for myself.

5 Ancestral grief (Francis Weller)

The fifth Gate helps us to recognise the pain that we carry for those who came before us.

I was a quirky and curious child. My instincts propelled me, with a good nose for the truth. Asking impertinent questions led me to open all the closets to see if there were skeletons inside. As I grew older, I became more conscious of the things that weren’t spoken in my family. I have grown more familiar with my ancestors’ stories, doing research to find out more. With illumination, it feels as though their undigested pain, grief and suffering causes less of an unconscious undertow in my life now. I chat to them, light candles and make offerings, knowing that they did their best, sometimes against the odds.

Family Constellations has been a helpful way to recognise patterns that I carried for others. Now I feel supported by some of my ancestors.

6 Trauma (Francis Weller’s optional gate)

The sixth Gate is where extremes of shock and brutality might lie.

I recognise that I have so far been extremely lucky. There have been traumatic moments, but not huge wounds. I have weathered small operations and accidents. I became seriously ill abroad, had emergency surgery, but recovered feeling predominantly relieved, rather than traumatised. When shocks happen, I can fall into a state of collapse. I am learning to recognise and recover when this happens. I try to count my blessings.

7 The harm I have caused to myself and others (Sophy Banks)

This extra Gate allows us to identify what makes us feel regret or guilt.

I regret things I’ve said and done to others out of stupidity, ignorance and selfishness. How I have trodden heavily on the earth, when I intended to step lightly. Speaking too often with judgement, and more frequently thinking that I was right or better than… Will the friends and lovers I have betrayed forgive me? My courage failed, when I might have said more, done more or stood up to injustice.

There were too many acts of self-betrayal. I said ‘yes’, but my body needed me to say ‘no’. I try to be kind to myself now, even when I make mistakes. I’m learning to let go of things more easily. I’m still getting things wrong often, but I try to say sorry, to learn and to befriend my shame and guilt.

8 Anticipatory grief (Sarah Pletts)

In these times of change, this final Gate represents the fear of what is to come.

I have been close enough to death myself not to fear it too much. It was a useful rehearsal. It is the death of those I love, who love me, that I fear more. I don’t know what will come, but I try to keep an awareness of the change that is inevitable so that I can face it bravely. Sometimes I feel swamped by fear of the unknown. When that happens, I try to feel connected to the ground and the stars, and to connect through love with others.

Learning to mourn well

I am an ‘apprentice to grief’. We all arrive with different strengths and weaknesses. Our losses and the way we respond to them will be different. The more I love, the more there is to let go of, to grieve. There have been times when I couldn’t find my tears, and others when I poured everything out in great laments. Trauma has cleared from my body in shakes, sweats, tingles and silent shivers. Sometimes tears of sadness have come unexpectedly, and often I enjoy a good weep over a sad film. I have been gradually learning to mourn well.

Grief tending has been a way for me to channel my sorrow. It has helped me to excavate what lies below the surface, to weigh my sorrow, and give it enough space and attention. We often use these Gates of Grief as doorways to stir feelings in Grief Tending sessions. If they resonate with you, use the Gates of Grief to see what they bring to the surface for you.  For further reading, see ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’ by Francis Weller.

Links

Francis Weller, Sophy Banks, Rose Jiggens Family Constellations, Dr. Gabor Maté

You burst into our lives like a cabaret artiste. Each spring you put on a show of florid pastel pink. You wave your petals provocatively at us, trouncing all the other plants and trees near by. With exhibitionist style you ruffle your frills like a can can dancer, revealing glimpses of muscular brown limbs. In twilight you blaze as though electricity, not chlorophyll pumps through your veins. Then we are compelled to watch as one by one you drop your petals. All modesty relinquished, we wait for your shame-free naked form to be revealed, just in time for a new costume of leaves to grow. I wait for this annual lap dance, for this invitation to be wordlessly near to you, for a brief chance to admire your display.

Learning how to feel

In dealing with grief, first we must learn how to feel our pain. Next, learning how to express our feelings is helpful. This takes practice, and may need support. In order to express your feelings you need to risk feeling vulnerable. In western industrialised society many have lost the skill of grieving well. Learning how to express your feelings is important when dealing with grief. The supportive environment of a grief tending group can help, in order to cope with loss.

“In the village, there is the belief that when anyone passes, no matter what their place in the community, something valuable to everyone is lost. Every death affects every person. Everyone grieves together. One thing that is often overlooked in the West is the importance of collective grief. When a death is not grieved by the whole community together, it leaves the individuals who were closest to the deceased shattered and alone. They end up without a path back to the life of the group.”
Sobonfu E Somé from ‘Falling Out of Grace’

Cultural resilience

We need to reclaim our feeling selves in order to come to terms with the difficulties we face as individuals and as members of a society. People in a healthy culture are connected to nature, to cycles of life and death and to each other. Through dysfunctional class, gender and educational norms, for many people it has been a coping strategy to learn how to hide your feelings. However, expressing feelings is a healthy way to start dealing with grief. Repressing our feelings can make them grow unmanageable and distort. Acknowledging loss enables us to become more whole physically, mentally and emotionally. Rather than avoid pain, when we allow it space it changes our relationship with it. Moving through our feelings helps us to deal with loss. 

What is grief tending?

Essentially, ‘grief tending’ is giving time and space to tend to our grief in a group setting. It is a skill that can be learned to help when coping with grief. Being witnessed by a group can be powerful. Being part of a supportive group that comes together to do this work can be life affirming. Grief Tending may take place in an existing community of people, a group of people who come together temporarily to share this experience, or a group who meet regularly for an ongoing grief tending practice. In mainstream western society, dealing with grief is generally shared with a one-to-one counsellor at best, and at worst hidden away in private, solitary spaces.

What does the process involve?

The process usually involves a grief ritual where feelings may be expressed with or without words, framed by other activities. It may include words, but it is not solely a talking based practice. There is an arc of experience. At the beginning of the process the facilitators aim to build trust between group members. We call this ‘building the banks’. Then there is some exploration of the participants’ emotional landscape or ‘stirring’. At this point the group shifts into ritual space, where deeper expression may happen. Finally a period of integration or ‘soothing’ allows participants to shift gradually back to every day mode.

What’s the point of grief tending?

The aim is not to heal or fix grief. However, grief tending can be both healing and therapeutic. Grief tending is a practice where processing feelings can happen. During a session, there will be exercises that encourage participants to connect to positive resources, as well as gentle exploration into more uncomfortable feelings. It can also be a valuable tool in building resilient culture.

Grief tending is not an alternative to ongoing one-to-one therapy to deal with grief. These two ways of working complement each other. We encourage seeking one-to-one support in order to find continued support after a group session if necessary, especially if deep-seated emotions have been touched.

What is the benefit of grief tending?

In a relatively short time, grief tending can help someone to:

Deal with grief
Process feelings
Lighten their emotional load
Give access to joy and laughter
Bring connection with others
Surface buried emotions
Aid the process of clearing trauma
Bring a sense of perspective
Reveal the size and weight of grief
Expose numbness or disconnection
Open more to love
Connect with the cycle of life

Who is grief tending for?

Grief tending is for anyone dealing with grief and loss. This practice allows any loss to be felt and mourned. Every loss is meaningful. Many are familiar with responses such as shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance following the death of a loved one. However, there is often less awareness of the difficulties that may accompany other kinds of change. A range of complex feelings can accompany any loss or ending.

What happens in a grief tending ritual?

There are different variations of grief rituals. The exact grief tending ceremony being offered will depend on the practitioner, the space where it is taking place, the time available and the number of people who are taking part. When we offer grief tending sessions, we try to find the most appropriate event format for the situation. We bring our own creativity, experience and strengths into each session. Alongside grief rituals, there will be a mix of embodied exercises that may include movement and relaxation.

Grieving with others may sound strange

Grieving with others may sound strange, but it can help to cope with loss. We encourage everyone to be themselves in a grief tending session. You will not have to do anything you don’t want to do in one of our workshops. We encourage participants to take care of their needs within the session. In a grief tending session you work with whatever issues come up for you. Supportive community can be hard to find. You will usually experience both being emotionally held by others, and being a part of that holding circle in a grief tending ritual. It may sound weird, but expressing feelings can be a relief. Participants are often surprised that it can also be fun. Building the connection between group members can normalise grief, and help to recognise the common feeling of shame around what they do or don’t feel.

In the eye of the storm?

Grief tending is not a first response method of help. If you are very recently bereaved, in the first throws of deep grief, this is probably not the time to work with grief tending. If your mental health is unstable, it is also unsuitable. Please seek advice from a health care professional if necessary.

Grief tending can be an excellent way of processing feelings. If you have been holding on to grief from the past it may be helpful. Perhaps you feel that you have got stuck in grief, and long to move through it. Working with grief in community can be a great tool if you want to explore a variety of themes, or just have a vague sense that grief may be lurking.  If you are working with a therapist, grief tending can also help to surface material to explore more deeply in therapy.

Processing feelings is important

A wide range of feelings may be ready for expression. By identifying what may be present and how to express this, we learn skills that develop emotional intelligence. There is a growing awareness in therapeutic circles that processing grief is an important part of wellbeing. This may include complex grief or undigested emotions from the past. Grief tending as a tool for dealing with loss, also helps in building resilient culture.

Where does grief tending come from?

A number of different influences and teachings have come together in grief tending. Sobonfu and Malidoma Somé of the Dagara people originally brought rituals from Dano Village, in Burkina Faso to Europe and America. This included a traditional form of grief ceremony. Sobonfu Somé (who died in 2017) trained Maeve Gavin in grief tending in community. Our teachers Sophy Banks and Jeremy Thres worked with Maeve Gavin (who died in 2018).

Francis Weller (‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’), Martin Prechtel (who was adopted by the Tzutujil people of Guatemala), and Joanna Macy (‘The Work that Reconnects’), are practitioners whose teachings and writings influence the work of many practitioners working with grief in community.

Bringing together ancient and modern

Grief tending brings together wisdom from both ancient and modern threads. Improved understanding around shame and trauma in clinical settings, mean that techniques are also developing for clearing and recovering from it. Experts in this field include Peter Levine, Stephen Porges, Carolyn Spring and Pete Walker. In grief tending we use ‘titration’, to touch in and out gently to grief.  This is a trauma informed way to work with grief.

Is grief tending spiritual?

While some of the roots of grief tending may come from communities with shared spiritual practices, grief tending is non-denominational. Different practitioners will have their own flavour and personal belief systems. While participants of all faiths and none are welcome, the practice may include shrines, ceremonies, the elements, nature, and an awareness of something that is greater than us.

Finding a practitioner

Our own work takes inspiration from our teachers and the writings of many others alongside all that we have gleaned from our own creative and family lives.
If you want to find out more about the grief tending sessions we hold look here.

If you are looking for a practitioner, trust your gut instinct to find a person or practice that is appropriate for you in your current situation. Ask questions to find out more about their approach to dealing with grief.
Find some other UK practitioners here.

You can find some reviews of books on dealing with grief on our blog here.
Other sources of information and inspiration are on our links page here.

“We are designed to receive touch, to hear sounds and words entering our ears that soothe and comfort. We are shaped for closeness and for intimacy with our surroundings. Our profound feelings of lacking something are not reflection of personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect.”
Francis Weller

We have recently come from a village where each family makes incense. I remember the dark room with a fire that scents each fist of incense sticks with lingering wood smoke. Through a doorway on the street we walk into a temple. Here is a coil of incense burning on an altar. It burns before a statue, the image of a teacher or temple guardian. Temples lie behind the street facades. A parallel world exists behind the financial exchanges of cafés and shops. These red and gold shrine rooms offer a different kind of exchange. A stick of incense, piece of fruit, bar of chocolate or can of beer is offered. These gifts are to give thanks, and the giver asks in return for a blessing. This particular statue, may be an unknown teacher to me, but a little gratitude feels necessary. Today, we are all alive and well. We have much to be thankful for. It feels important to be in right relationship with ‘the unseen’. I bow my head, light incense, give thanks, say a prayer and ask for my own blessing. We may be away from home, but hope that our ancestors and guides are with us on our journey. I trust they are keeping a protective eye on us.

Away from the cavernous temple hall, with PA system and meditating monk, I climb upstairs to the balcony. From here I can see the roof, and look down on the umbrellas of women who grill sweet potatoes and corn on the cob. Turning a corner, I find a secluded shrine to Avalokiteshvara, which pulls me in. Many shiny gold arms wave at me. I catch my breath in this quiet spot, find the space to pay attention to my own practice. This involves saying thank you for the things that spontaneously spring to mind. I thank those who guide and help me. I speak an intention. Then I ask for blessings for all beings. A very versatile bodhisattva, Avalokiteshvara, (pronoun they) are known with many names, including Kuan Am in Vietnam. They are represented as male in some traditions, female in others. One head, five, or eleven, symbolise the many ears to ‘hear the pain of the world’. On hearing, they are willing to bear the pain of the world. They have many hands, usually 2, 4, 22 or 1000, which may carry useful tools to deliver acts of kindness. Their hands symbolize reaching out with love in infinite ways. This personification of compassion, represents the archetype of kindness. Avalokiteshvara shapeshifts taking the most suitable form to each situation, when appearing in the human realm. For me, trying to be kind starts with myself. Then expands outwards, to use my surplus energy to be in service to life. This small rupa seems to be talking to me. I’m listening.
www.learnreligions.com/avalokiteshvara-bodhisattva-450135
O’Brien, Barbara “Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva” Learn Religions Feb 11 2020

I sit beside your punctured hand. Always so stoic in the grip of pain, it makes it hard to know how severe the sensation is. You avoid needles, often faint during blood tests. I know that this is a new edge for you. Still, you remain sanguine. I sit beside you reading. You are plugged into headphones. Your father is leafing through documents. We are all simultaneously recalibrating. “How serious is this? How long will this last? What are the implications?” We have handled medical emergencies abroad before. We are a flexible team. We know the ropes here. But riding on a bus in the middle of nowhere while sepsis began to crawl up your arm has shaken us. Now we have found a good hospital, doctors, and the relief of an IV drip. But we all saw death around a bend on the road, and it sent us a message. I see the vulnerability in the flesh of your hand. I feel the bond of family. We are navigating another rite of passage. Love is the only thing that seems to matter.

I am a ‘thanotourist’, as in thano meaning death. (‘Thanatos’ is the Greek god of non-violent deaths.) I am interested in places associated with death. I want to know more about funerary customs, in order to recognise the old ways, and find new ways that might serve us better. In Vietnam, I see the highly decorative boxes of grave goods that can be purchased, to accompany the dead. These symbolic artefacts are offered at funerals for the deceased to take to the next life. Decorative boxes include paper clothes, shiny accessories – shoes, watches, necklaces and glasses. The people who are left behind do their best to offer respect and auspicious gifts for the grave. Here, a culture with many customs and superstitions around the dead meshes with Communist Party tradition. Hence the former leader, Ho Chi Minh lies in state while party members and tourists pay their respects. His body, embalmed rests waxen in a highly polished mausoleum on a high dais, which sits on a sunken floor. Guards with twinkling bayonets stand frozen below, eyes ahead. I file past on a raised walkway, listening to the pin sharp silence of this heightened ritual.