Your Grief is Your Sister

Part One

            It all began to fly apart almost one year ago. Depression about the planet, and the fate of the wild animals cut me apart like a hulking surgeon wielding his shiny scalpel while towering over me. I could feel his breath, and I felt bound to the operating table.

            This was not my first time being dismembered by this hopelessness about the planet and her relations.

            And this was new because a crippling anxiety came with my depression that made me shake for some hours every day as if I were receiving errant electric shock treatments. I had never had a breakdown with such anxiety before.

            And it was all partnered to a knowledge, a CERTAINTY that some doom was coming that was so great that none of us could survive it. I could not only feel the grief of the earth and animals, did not only convulse as I shook with my own panic, but knew that all of this? All I was going through? This was the warm up for some catastrophe of such proportion that the world was going to be ripped apart.

            Being a shamanic practitioner is like being a sword fighter in some ways. The sword cuts and swings in two ways. In one, shamanic power feels much more like a magical wand, able to ease suffering, cure illness, and help us all evolve.

            That's the sweet side of the sword. This story explains the second way the blade flashes.

            Many years ago, I engaged in a powerful shamanic initiation, the Bound Shaman, where I was shrouded by a blanket, with both hands and feet tied with rough rope that also wrapped taut around the blanket in a series of knots. I could not breathe or move. We were told some teaching might come from our helping spirits while we were suffering, and perhaps, they would free us of the suffocating blanket and painful knots if we sincerely asked for a teaching.

            It was pitch black as I was bound and gasping for air. Drums began to pound. Almost instantly, my shamanic helping spirit asked me this question in a loud voice, “Do you want to exchange hearts, which will mean we will be in charge of your spiritual growth and work for the rest of your life?” 

            I have always jumped before looking, one of my best and worst traits. I did not take even a breath before I said yes. I innately understood this would mean whatever I went through in my quest to serve, to ease suffering in others, I would be called to work in the way the compassionate spirits deemed proper and right, and not in my own way or at my own speed. 

            And the second I said yes, all of the many knots in the ropes flew loose without my doing anything. The ropes unknotted themselves, and the blanket leapt off my body. All in under a minute.

            No, this is not metaphor. This really happened. This is how shamanic power resembles the sword; it can cut through that which binds us.

            And so when I was finally in recovery from my depression, I asked the spirits why I had to go through such a gut-wrenching, destructive year to learn something. And what, really, HAD I learned? 

            They told me I had to go through the  dark episode because I needed to experience deep grief to learn new lessons.  

            They told me that very soon, millions of people would be caught in their own versions of overwhelming grief. My spirits had put me through my ordeal so I could better understand, and therefore, be of more service to people searching for meaning, succor and healing. 

            All I know how to do now is share what I learned as we all sit here in our post-election reality. Just days before a stand off, which is coming to Standing Rock on December 5, 20016.

             Still, in the past three weeks, my body felt like a rearing stallion in a small, dusty corral with lariats from too many cowboys roping my neck like a noose, forcing me to be still and not jump the fence. I could not eat, could not sleep, and my body often felt clenched as if it were preparing for that one punch to the gut that could do me in.

            The paradox of living serenely with the unexpected teachings I received, while also tumbling in my body's ancient response to fear, does not belie the truth of what the past year taught me. Actually, I feel a little grateful now that I went through that breakdown because it surely did break some things down.



             The gift proffered me as I began my recovery was that grief is now my sister.

            In my desperation during my breakdown, all I begged for was the cessation of pain. Of course. When the pain is that intense, all you want is for it to leave or at least lessen. But when it didn't do either, I began to learn, haltingly and with reluctance, that I had to learn how to respond differently to the pain or I would not survive.

           The first thing I was forced to remember is that grief is not the flu. You just don’t get over grief as you would bronchitis, carry a bad cough for a month or two, and then your life goes back to normal.

            Normal is a word we have to retire from our language for a while.

            Grief is chaotic. It is not orderly or predictable. Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote about the stages of grief, and, as a culture, we have learned about its substance, but not necessarily how it plays out. Grief may be universal, but it is experienced by each of us uniquely.

            I think there may be a mistaken belief that grief's stages are tidy and sequential. As if denial were step one, anger were step two, etc. A sensible vertical staircase.

            No, it swoops in like a thousand different ropes to tie you up, and you suddenly feel gut-wrenching anger. Then, quite suddenly, those ropes pull back. You think you’re done, but new ropes fly in and bind you to depression for an hour or a day. Unexpectedly, it changes again, and the denial charges in, binding you. Hundreds of feelings, like ropes, snake around you to strangle you with ever-changing knots. 

           The only way I learned to survive was by adopting and welcoming grief as my big sister.

            You must set a place for her at the dining room table for every meal. You need to find her a bench that is all her own that can sit with you in front of the fire. Along with the benches you have crafted for all your feelings of love and compassion and kindness.

            Because grief is how we love something that has died, and it compels us to find new ways to lean into life without our lost beloved. When we lose someone we love, we miss the unique way that our beloved presenced life. Every single being on this earth has a singular way of presencing life.  

            When my dog Gazer died, I swam in grief for three years. I mourned the curl and swish of his tail. The arch of his back. His face, and he had the face of a guru. The way he used my feet as a pillow every night. His partnership in my shamanic studio.

            And, without really acknowledging it, my heart did know that I signed up for that grief the moment I first held him as my puppy with pure delight.

            Grief is the sister that will teach us that our lost love is meant to propel us to new ways to see, to feel, and most importantly, to love more. We may well never lose a distinct kind of sadness, but we are also catapulted into falling in love again with life or we do not survive.

            I do not know a single person who has not been grieving, who has not been rocketed into the heart of the grief beast in the past few weeks. Because she DOES feel like a beast when she first shows up. All we want is to feel safer, and to be held. I think that’s the way all the kids might be feeling now. They may not understand why the world has changed. Or they are older, do understand some of the facts, but they need to be comforted. Their need to feel safe is very, very real.

            Our bodies go into flight or fight, of course, but this is only the first thing that happens with grief. Denial makes us feel completely untethered, an uneasy float just above the scowl of reality. It makes us reel, stumble and sometimes crumble for a time when we try to find the ground again.

            Denial shows itself because we can, in no way, accept the loss we are experiencing. It is present in the desire to drink, play games, take a drug of any kind (medicinal or as a shot of vodka or a joint or an immersion into media, etc.). Overcaring. Overworking. There are too many ways denial can dress herself up to list them all here. But denial urges us to do anything that will soften the harshness or distract us for a time.

            Denial has a bad rap. She has a purpose; she teaches us we can only take in so much before we become paralyzed. Some of the healthy and even not so healthy (hello, big plate of warm chocolate chip cookies with a shot of perfectly chilled Grey Goose) are really OK to indulge in just so long as that particular lure doesn’t become habitual.

            Sometimes, we need to see denial as a pause button to slow down the speed of grief.

            And maybe before you finish the last cookie or shot, suddenly denial leaves and depression grips you like a python.

            Depression is a liar because it will tell you that you are worthless, and nothing you do will ever make any difference. This is a powerful and seductive voice, and you must realize it is terribly, terribly destructive and wrong. You repeat this when it shouts at you: You are a liar and you can talk on and on, but I KNOW you are a liar. So keep talking if you want, and while you’re yammering? I am going to take this one, small step. 

Sing your love to the water.   

Sing your love to the water.


          Then, if you're lucky, you have the nerve to take a shower. And then maybe start making phone calls. And maybe take a class on social justice. And maybe protest on your downtown streets when it is essential. Or just kiss the dog and nap or, at least, close your eyes.

            Depression is the teacher we never wanted to meet because when it comes, especially in grief, it forces us to dig down into our subterranean strata, to find where our power is hiding. And, tired as we might be, it beckons us to stand up in the truth of our power, our own unique gifts. And, always, stand in love if we are to grow through the experience, and not be lodged deep in grief's belly as a permanent residence. 

             Bargaining often feels strangely rational. We will, we promise, become better in X, Y and Z ways if only things can return to normal or if we can ease the pain. But as it evolves, bargaining can also help us to connect to right action. Sometimes what we actually must do to evoke change is turn what we think is true and familiar into a snow globe.  We need to shake it up. The flakes contain all the solitary aspects of our reality without denying its complexities as they fall and drift in the globe. When we can begin to bargain with our hearts to become more than we ever thought we could be, we are making a very good bet.

             Acceptance can grip us into a seductive, false peace if we allow ourselves to succumb to the notion that we will agree to live a much smaller life. We will conform to the new abnormal. We will bow our heads, and just take it.

             But acceptance can also mean we are ready for new, startling changes, even if we can only stagger to stand up in the beginning. We can breathe again. We work with others, also caught in their grief, to continue to sculpt our communal soul to enliven right action. 

           All the stages can toss me about like I am caught in a huge undertow throughout the days and nights these days. When I was a very little girl, I used to escape from my parents when we went to the beach, and run down to the ocean to jump into the sea waves. I loved being caught in the undertow. My little body was more pliant than my old one now, but the swirl and swish and upside-down-feeling, this merging with water entranced me. I felt like seaweed. It was so very welcome then, the undertow. Somehow, my body knew if I relaxed and held my breath, I'd go for a ride and then just pop to the surface. I learned fast that if I tensed up, I'd bang my knee and claw in the wrong direction for the surface. 

            Finding ways to relax is a bit like looking for treasure on a map these days. Ah, there are the dog kisses I was searching for. Holding hands with my husband beckons a warm softness to feather me. Stepping outside into the rain is as important for me as a jolt of coffee in the morning to wake me up. Bare feet to make sure I am still on the earth who seems especially and gloriously indifferent to the angst. She has the ability to startle me back into recognizing the beauty of the forest.


Part Three

             When, in a shamanic journey more than a dozen years ago, I asked the spirits, “How do we heal the earth?”

            The spirits gave me this answer.

Humans suffer, they said, “because you have broken everything down into its parts. Into gender. Into race. Into religion. Into sexual orientation. Into political beliefs. Into economic strata. Into nationalism. So many, many boxes. And as long as you do not see and live in the oneness, you are doomed to stand outside of the rest of the one tribe. And every single being on this earth IS our tribe. Your suffering is your isolation.

Humans must learn that there is one tribe only.”

            They were saying that evil, as a separate spirit, does NOT exist. Evil is created when humans, with forethought and knowledge, create suffering for someone else. 

             When evil becomes naked, and it festers and grows, it can infest you, but you have a much better chance if you lance the lesions so they can finally heal. And like Pandora’s box, when opened, the evil cannot be contained again. And while this is enough to drive you crazy, it also means you have to find ways to rise to a new and particular devotion to try to find concrete ways to transmute evil.

             Devotion, humility and reciprocity are essential. My actions, no matter how many I take, may not be enough to do much good. I am only one. The hope can only be birthed and fed when there are a millions of us who are part of the one tribe. We share our feelings. Our needs. Our ideas. Our strength really does lie in numbers. We need all of us.

           It is the actions themselves that accumulate, teach and help us to link arms. With all peoples – humans, animals, plants, the earth herself. It is the action to make our final stand just as the indigenous people are doing at Standing Rock.

            This, we proclaim, is where we are rooted. We will not retreat. We will not kill, but we will die if that’s what it takes. We will not cooperate with evil doers, but hold up a feather to stare down a gun. We will not participate with violence, but we will pray for the oppressors because they are suffering too. They MUST be sick and suffering or they would not be behaving as they are. This is the hardest part to accept, and it’s a hard  discipline[1]

            This discipline is big love. Big love rises like a geyser. Big love is the way nature works. Big love is really having a very fine understanding of your own flaws as well as your humanity as a part of the one tribe. Big love stands up. 

             I think it's important to know and accept that transmuting both grief and hate to big love takes time and a methodology. Patience and self-compassion, as well as communal compassion, must perch on our shoulders as we rise to our feet to work with nonviolence, noncooperation and prayer. 

            And in between your right actions and all this work? Float the blue river and the white rapids, and swim ashore to rest, to tend your heart on a soft, green bank under starlight. You will see others on the banks with you. The night is shorter when you look at the stars, and listen to the quiet breaths of friends who lie near you. These stops along the way are necessary because this work requires tremendous focus, and is exhausting. Sometimes, quite suddenly, it can also feel exhilarating for a flash before tremors return. I live for those flashes.

            Remember, it's not only Joni Mitchell who says "we are stardust" anymore. Every single person on this earth has a unique radiance.

            Every single person on this earth has the capacity to heal and harm. Every single person on this earth has a soul that can sing and scream. We get to choose how we grow. 

             Each of us are not charged with stopping the suffering for the world entire, but to find our own small ways to use whatever talents we possess to ease suffering, and, yes, to even find a way into making love to joy again. Decide to salve where and when you can because you, alone, cannot save the world.

            It takes community. It takes understanding that we are all not the same, and we do experience grief differently even while knowing we are one tribe only. All flesh and sinew and blood with our ancient brains. It means evolving, accepting a new kind of gutsy diversity that might just unify us. 

            Most importantly remember that the same tsunami that knocked us down rose from the ocean. And the ocean is big enough hold both the tsunami and compassion.

           Suffering sometimes wears down our sharpest edges. Suffering is not always optional, my spirits have told me. It does have a purpose. Think of yourself as a sharp rock, and these storms that have come will ultimately smooth off your roughest edges. The rain does the work if you allow the torrent to come.

             This all has to happen because YOU are valuable. I need to read your words, too, and eat your cookies at fundraisers, and listen to your songs. I need to dance to your tune as well as mine. I need to support your protests, and watch you walk the miles as I did when I was younger. I need to see you in my classes, and I need to be your student, too. I want to lean on your shoulder, and I want you to lean on mine. I have Bear with me, and he's strong enough to hold us. You have spirits with you, too. We need them all.

            It is time for us to remember and claim, finally, that we cannot just be animal human anymore. We now must become animal humane. This evolution can cut the ropes. And therein lies all our hope.


[1] Shamanism is one discipline that can help teach you how if you need a practice to show you the way.