Mourning & Memory

francis-wellerSome highlights from Francis Weller’s recent article in Utne Reader “To and From the Soul’s Hall:”

We need to create circles of welcome in our lives in order to keep leaning into the world; to keep moving grief through our psyches and bodies, so we can taste the sweetness of life. Modern psychological theory utilizes the terms attunement and attachment. The language has become somewhat abstract and clinical, but what it means is that we require touch in body and soul to help us respond to difficult times with kindness and compassion and also to celebrate the sheer joy of being alive. We need these experiences to feel that we matter—quite literally—that we have matter and substance, that we take up space in the world. When we sense this, we feel that we are worthy of deep and lingering attention and that we can, in turn, offer our caring hearts to others in times of sorrow and pain. No matter who we are, we need the heartening touch of another. Even those of us who are introverted will, at times, require the devoted attention of a friend or a partner who can offer a sensitive ear to our tender woes.
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At times, grief invites us into a terrain that reduces us to our most naked self. We find it hard to meet the day, to accomplish the smallest of tasks, to tolerate the greetings of others. We feel estranged from the world and only marginally able to navigate the necessities of eating, sleeping, and self-care. Some other presence takes over in times of intense grief, and we are humbled, brought to our knees. We live close to the ground, the gravity of sorrow felt deep in our bones.

The onset of grief following a significant loss initiates a shift in our daily rhythm. We enter into what some cultures refer to as a time of living in the ashes. Among the ancient Scandinavian cultures, it was a common practice for those dealing with loss to spend their days alongside the fires that were aligned down the center of a longhouse. They would occupy this physical and psychic terrain until they felt they had fully moved through the underworld where grief had taken them. Ash speaks to what remains, the barest semblance of what once was. James Hillman wrote, “Ash is the ultimate reduction, the bare soul, the last truth, all else dissolved.” The soul in grief feels reduced, brought to the place where all other thoughts or matters dissipate into ash.

This sacred season in the ashes was the ancient Scandinavian community’s way of acknowledging that one of their people had entered a world parallel to but separate from the daily life of gathering food, feeding children, and tending fields. Little was expected of them during this time, which often lasted a year or more. The individual’s duty was to mourn, to live in the ashes of their loss, and to regard this time as holy. It was a brooding time, a deeply interior period of digesting and metabolizing the bitter tincture of loss. It was a time out of time, an underworld journey to the place of sorrow and emptying. Whoever came back from this sojourn came back changed and deepened by this work in the ashes. And indeed, any who undertake real mourning return with gravitas, wisdom gathered in the darkness. These women and men become our elders, the ones who can hold the village in times of great challenge.
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Psychologists Mary Watkins and Helene Shulman explore the idea of non-redemptive mourning in their work with social injustice and violence. Non-redemptive mourning acknowledges that some losses should never be allowed to settle, like silt, to the bottom of our memory. Some losses, such as cultures that have been forever silenced, species that have disappeared, and traumatic events that affect whole communities and cultures, should be kept present in our communal memory. The experience of grieving in these situations is “not intended to finish with the past and return to ‘normal life,’ but rather to keep the past from slipping away in a present that continues to deny it.”

There is a direct relationship between mourning and memory. To counter the amnesia of our times, we must be willing to look into the face of the loss and keep it nearby. In this way, we may be able to honor the losses and live our lives as carriers of their unfinished stories. This is an ancient thought—how we tend the dead is as important as how we tend the living. In our quick-to-forget, future-oriented culture, it is easy to discard the ones who went before, in all their shapes and ways of living. Yet they are all ancestors, from the oak savannahs that have been cleared for housing tracts to marshlands filled for shopping malls. The dead are among us, and we must not forget them.

Francis Weller, MFT, is a psychotherapist, writer, and soul activist. The article in Utne Reader was excerpted with permission from his latest book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow (2015), published by North Atlantic .Books

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