Grief Medicine: the Root of Transforming Wounds to Gifts

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“If the labels don’t shame you enough,
We have medication to numb you,
If that doesn’t work we’ll entertain you…”

These words took my breath away. They came from Sobonfu Some during our 3 day grief ritual. We came together to cleanse our hearts, to name, feel, and release the things that eat at our soul and yet we rarely speak about. It was one of the most courageous and honest groups of people I have gathered with. I share this experience with you because I want to include you in the healing in the “not alone-ing.”

Many of us in the room identified as “black sheep.” We are the ones that see and say what is often avoided and although we may not create the problems, the discomfort that voicing them brings to others can often create tension. I related to this deeply and over the 3 days I started to see how common this role was for many of us in the room. I mean who else takes time to go grieve? What was so inspiring was that Sobonfu shared how for the Dagara people of Burkina Faso this role is recognized and honored. The entire community will have a grieving ritual for 72 hours on a regular basis! Wow, this is how they tend to their “faucet” of the heart. Let it flow!

The ritual included 3 altars, one for ancestors, one for forgiveness, and one for grief. We sang a song, played drums, and the waves of the rhythm washed our grief from our memories and hearts onto the grief altar. Each time we were ready to grieve we simply walked toward the grief altar and someone from the group would have our back and sit with us to witness. Sometimes they simply sat behind us and sang. Sometimes they held and rocked us, or we crawled into their lap. They stayed with us until we were done… and if they needed someone from the group to replace them they simply signaled and a new person came in. The feeling of having full permission to grieve in the loving presence of a witness until we were done… that was one of the most profound parts of the ritual for me. So often I interrupt my grief because I’m worried I’m burdening the other person or the community. Yet here the structure of the ritual was such that the witness was fully in choice to be there. In fact they were honored, we were all honored to bear witness to each others’ grief as it returned our spirit back to us. As I took in the gift of this community support I grieved the times I have felt isolated or I have hidden the deep distress in my heart thinking I was sparing my friends or loved ones.

I started to have a taste of what it feels like to be in a community courageous enough to hold and transform our global history so our children can be free to live and to love!

Sobonfu said “pain gives language to what the soul is still carrying.” We were unloading our pain. We are asking “What did my ancestors know how to take responsibility for? What did they not know how to take responsibility for that I am willing to grieve?”

What were we grieving? We each had a story and the more we shared them the clearer it became how similar our pain was. I was grieving the loss of my partnership with my fiancé, the loss of our dreams to start a family, the loss of the false hope that our partnership would somehow protect me from ever feeling isolated in a way that haunted my soul. This separation opened in me a river of grief, an access to personal and collective grief that I had not been able to release before. Sobonfu told us “grief is not an individual experience, it comes from the source we all drink from, and you have been chosen as a voice.” Making the world a sustainable place is deeply connected to our ability to grieve together, because this is what creates sustainability for the human soul. The Dagara people do not ask if you are done grieving. They ask “have you grieved enough? If not, there’s something in you that needs to be brought back to life.”

“Tears are for love.
Tears show I care.
Tears show I’m standing by you.
Tears say I want to be alive.
Tears feed the ancestors.
Tears cut unhealthy ties…”

On the third day we started to call out collective griefs. “I’m grieving domestic violence,” half the room raised their hand. “I’m grieving someone who was murdered,” about a third of the room raised their hand and suddenly a wave of heat rushed through me as I remembered two dear friends of mine who had been murdered. “I’m grieving addiction,” almost the entire room raised their hand. Wow, so many people have been carrying this too. “I’m grieving mental illness…” I have never been in a group so available to feel, not just think about, but truly feel the pain and commit to transforming it. What stunning courageous souls gathered here. Thank you for being one of them by reading and feeling in this moment.

There is so much more to share. Here are some seeds I will plant soon:
• Intimacy for entertainment vs. opening the “faucet” in purposeful intimacy (polyamory, addiction to pleasure)
• Artists are one of the few socially acceptable ways to open the “faucet” in the U.S. A.
• Anger based identities that limit social change movements and how grief can transform our wounds to gifts for powerful leadership
• Healing our ancestors’ relationship to time and money
• Gender transcendence: how grief dissolves limitations, opens possibilities and allowed me to move beyond “female.”

Sobonfu Some has generously given us the blessing to share about this experience and wisdom from the Dagara people of Burkina Faso. Please check out her books, rituals, and magnificent soul at http://www.sobonfu.com.

Zahava Griss