Grief is Intimacy with Life
An interview with Rebecca Card on the importance of accepting our grief.
Rebecca Card is a Wilderness Rites of Passage Guide and Cultural Mentor. She also organises and facilitates 8 Shields programs and is a grief tender. I wanted to chat with her about grief and its effects, both for us as individuals and culturally. The changes wrought by the pandemic and Lockdowns are causing many of us to face parts of ourselves that remained hidden before. The massive societal shifts around the world that have taken place in the last year have been both drastic and shocking. Who would have thought, eighteen months ago that our world would look the way it does now? These changes have also unearthed deep feelings of grief, but that might not be a bad thing, for as Rebecca says, you cannot fully participate in life unless you accept that one day you will lose it.
I started by asking her what role grief tending plays in her working life?
Grief has been a part of my work for the last few years. Pre Lockdown I held grief tending ceremonies on Dartmoor. I initiated them because I needed to tend my own grief, in a witnessed and held space. I can express it on my own, but there is real power in doing it within the folds of community.
I am also part of a group supporting people in their grief which meets once a week, and I work online on a one-to-one basis. The momentum for grief tending built during the first Lockdown and I have held grief ceremonies on Zoom over the last year.
I want to clarify what you mean by grief. Is it explicitly to do with death or is grief more nuanced than that?
I think that many people feel that grief is only present when someone has died, but that is what we describe as bereavement. The truth is there is grief in so many aspects of life. There is a lot of unaddressed grief in our culture. For example, you cannot care about the natural world right now and not feel the grief of what is happening to it.
Can you define grief?
Grief is anything ready to move in us. It is almost like a being, who requires our attention for us to live fully. Unaddressed grief has the potential to create depression and often leads to addictions. Where addictions are unaddressed grief exists, where there are feelings of heaviness or stuckness, grief is often present.
If we allow grief to move through us, then we have a deep intimacy with life. When we let ourselves be up close and personal with what life is inviting us to be in a relationship with, authenticity exists. That could be our own emotions. It could be friends, or the animal that is dying, the flower that is blooming. We cannot be present with life without feeling the grief of all those things as well. The two go hand in hand- intimacy and grief.
Francis Weller, who brought the importance of grief to the Western world, talks about the Five Gates of Grief. The first gate is accepting that everything we love we must lose. We cannot fall in love with life and the things of life without feeling the grief of it.
What is happening is that through the culture of consuming, we are numbing out. We don’t feel in relationship with life, so we are not feeling grief. We are not feeling anything.
During Lockdown, there is a heavy, empty feeling around, and a lot of us are using Netflix, alcohol and other substances to avoid facing these feelings. Do we need to feel them, to go through them - because they are pretty unpleasant?
Yes, it is pretty unpleasant, that feeling of hollow emptiness. Where do we start? Often there are years and years of patterning to deal with. It could be your patterning, it could be my patterning, but actually, this is systemic within our society, so when you ask me that, it is hard to know where to begin. I could sit here and say, ‘yes, of course, put down the glass of wine, turn off the TV, feel that feeling,’ and some people might be able and ready to do that but not everyone. They may need support to express their feelings because the patterning is to NOT feel them. To do everything not to express them.
There is another way we can approach this- what would it be to take ourselves out to the natural world regularly and allow ourselves to feel the beauty and the magnificence of nature? There is something about resourcing ourselves through that intimate relationship with the world outside ourselves and our own stories, by going out into nature and feeling gratitude for it.
Grief and gratitude are married. My gratitude, for that ash tree in my garden, the more time I spend with it, the more intimate with life I feel. I am letting myself experience that, but then I have to be okay when that ash tree dies, and there is going to be a lot of grief because I am now in a relationship with that tree. I don’t want to live my life any other way. If I want to be intimate with life, I need to accept the grief that includes.
Grief has a bad name. People think, ‘I don’t want to go into grief, it is a dark thing, it is a bad thing’, but when grief moves there is a lightness, and there is a beauty and a joy that comes.
It is our birthright to feel that level of joy, probably at birth and during our infancy, we had it available to us, but because of our conditioning and culture, it has been replaced with depression and other difficult experiences.
Going back to your question, yes, I fully encourage people to be with the difficult stuff, but also, what if we let ourselves experience all of the rest of life, in an appreciative, praise kind of way? Getting up close and personal with your favourite oak tree or intently watching the house sparrows and how they go about their day. That is letting life in and not numbing out.
You’ve talked about how the denial of grief is systemic in our culture. What effect do you think it has on the way we live our lives, and how could that change? Can we learn from other cultures that manage to incorporate it healthily?
Definitely! Some of the earth-based people of this planet are still tending their grief regularly. For example, the San Bushmen go into trance dance and for them, that is moving their grief. They call it, ‘dancing the nails out’.
I know people who have visited the San Bushmen, and they come back deeply touched at how clear and connected they are in the way they act and speak — not needing, not grasping for anything.
Another example is the 8 Shields Model. Studying this map is where I learnt about the importance of grief. It was derived from observations of earth-based people and what their practices of connection are. One thing that was observed was the tending of grief as a cultural practice. People in societies that incorporate grief tending are generally healthier, both psychologically and physically. There is authenticity, and they live their lives in a full and connected way. That isn’t happening in this culture, the one you and I are a part of. There are blocks and sicknesses, mental and physical health problems, and in my opinion, a lot of that is because of unattended grief — we are not dancing out the nails.
Then there is all the ancestral grief we hold. We come into the world carrying a whole lot of trauma that isn’t even ours. It belongs to all of us, it comes from way back. From the colonising and historical trauma perpetrated, either by our ancestors or to our ancestors, usually both and it is still happening. Unless we start letting these feelings out, we will be in a stuck, sick place, and that is not what the earth needs right now. In my opinion, the planet needs us to be showing up for ourselves and therefore, for each other. To move this stuff through as best we can.
It is a big task. There is a backlog because we have left it for so long, so it is easy to sit here and say it, but yes, it is a huge undertaking.
So, where do we start?
On a practical level, it is going back to allowing ourselves to feel our feelings. There is a cut off with many people and often a strategy where our psyche stops us and closes us down. We are told from a young age not to show emotions.
How do we allow ourselves and each other the space to feel the feelings? It could be that after Lockdown, we sit in circles and see what arises. In the meantime, we could go to the ocean, a body of water, or a tree that can hold us. Or we could create a space in our homes and just sit and see what wants to come.
Lean into the natural world and offer gratitude. I want to encourage reciprocity and being in a respectful place with the earth.
I hear you saying that grief has a lot to do with movement, so can things like exercise help?
Yes, definitely. Also, tears are something moving — any movement or sound. There is the Irish tradition of keening, which is the grief sound. There is a reason for that- it supports other people to connect with their grief.
Also, just to say, rage can be a huge part of grief. Usually, if there is anger, there is grief underneath it. Sometimes it might be helpful to express the anger. Pounding a stick on the ground or screaming into a big roaring river.
Once the anger has expression, we might drop into the grief, so include the anger, despair and frustration. All those things that many of us are feeling a lot of the time. Especially now, the feelings of being hemmed in — ‘can’t do this, can’t do that’ — how about feeling it and allowing the frustration to be expressed?
Thank you to Rebecca for participating in this interview. If you would like to know more about her and what she does visit her BrightSky profile here: