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The grief of being alive

Five years ago I lost my Father- and very nearly lost my Mother at the same time. It plummeted me into a new phase of my life and a sudden and intimate relationship with grief beyond my previous experience. What I learnt very quickly is that grief is contained and restrained in this culture and that the wild wailing and raging that was coursing through my body had no place to go.

We all carry grief. We have all lost, regretted or longed for. For some the grief is too much to bear, and it causes a distortion of the mind or an early departure from life. For most of us there is inevitability in that the older we become, the more grief we will know.

In the last few weeks grief has come into focus again, this time I have had the opportunity to meet it in a different way.

This journey took me to a talk in a very cold church, resting on a site in the land that has been a place of worship for thousands of years, long before the Romans brought the story and Christ and Christianity. The speaker was Stephen Jenkinson - who has been named by some ‘Grief Walker’. I was mesmerised. He is a powerful speaker, and it was a powerful place. His experience of many years working in palliative care has brought him a lot of clarity as to how we deal – or don’t deal – with grief. He described our culture as ‘deathphobic’- and proposed that we are so addicted to this deathphobia that we collude and deny it to the point that it has become an invisible thread in the fabric of our lives. His work is compelling - there is a link to his website at the bottom of this writing.

Then on the weekend I attended a Grief Tending Ceremony. We were at High Heathercombe, a centre set in the wild beauty of the Dartmoor National Park (many great things happening there- link also below). The weekend was beautifully crafted to allow us to feel different flavours of our grief and gently soften through the many layers of protection that surround it. Strands were woven from different traditions and approaches (see acknowledgements and links below). It felt so powerful to witness each other. We were no longer alone in the deep sadness and grief we all carry, and it was easier to bear. As the tears flowed, anger surfaced, the un-namable named, whispered and howled, some space began flowering in my heart. I went out in the wild weather on the moor - horizontal rain lashed my face, soaked through my clothing and I felt light and joyful and deeply grateful for being alive. For to realize that it is safe and good and important to feel the depths of my longing, leads me more deeply and intimately into relationship with life, into a raw and simple existence with the present moment.

And a few days ago, one-step further into the realm of my discomfort. I asked to be witnessed by a group of friends in expressing my grief around the excruciating journey of not conceiving a child. In their loving presence, my body allowed the shuddering sobs of many years struggle to be released. Ice melted and I emerged like springtime, renewed and refreshed, washed clean by the tears, and open to the potential of life feeling different. Spaces have opened up inside me previously filled with solidified pain, much of which was a story of self-judgement. The yearning continues, but for now it is not overwhelming; its flavour is sweeter, not so tainted with the bitterness of self-pity, and it can flow more freely, now out of the shadow and imprinted with my friends’ loving witnessing.

What becomes clearer to me is that when we deny and shut these painful things away they do not disappear. They linger and fester in the depths of our being, stifling our life force, creating internal barricades that also block out love, joy and gratitude. Through my experience I have felt and seen how what appeared insurmountable and impenetrable on my own, dissolved and transformed through the simplicity of permission and loving presence.

The sea of grief holds gifts waiting in its depths. Let us remember how to dive into it together so we can face where we are with honesty and find the courage to live life as we dare dream of.

With deep gratitude for all that hold me on my journey...

Links and resources:

High Heathercombe: course centre in the beautiful wilds of Dartmoor

Stephen Jenkinson 'grief walker':

Sobonfu Some, African elder offering teachings on grief and ritual:

Martin Pretchel, 'spiritual activist' elder, offering teachings on grief, initaition and ceremony:

Francis Weller author:

Joanna Macy: Deep ecologist and creator of 'the work that reconnects'

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