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On Grief, Ancestry, & Love

This weekend I drove up the coast from Oakland to Oregon along the mythic shoreline, passing through old growth forests and sleepy coastal towns comprised of only a few main streets, their quaintness evoking a simplicity unfamiliar to the modern soul. The air was light but my heart was heavy with grief. A serpentine grief, merciless yet medicinal, it colonized my chest making it difficult to breathe. It was a grief triggered by heartbreak--a longing for a possibility that reality had slayed. Soon I would come to understand that this grief was not merely my own but rather a grief I had inherited--the unheard cry of prehistoric painbodies accumulated over millennia, clamoring for healing.

I was trapped in a small car with three other people for two days. My companions were compassionate, but I was embarrassed by the density of my despair. Exhaustion undermined my emotional stamina and my ability to let the grief move through rather than crush me. I was reluctantly consumed by it. I tried not to let it harden me, but I could feel it calcifying against my will.

On the second morning of our road-trip, we stopped to feel the ocean. I let the icy water numb my feet until they ached. I prayed to the tide: take it all away. Staring out to sea, I saw a huge, dark mass rise with the waves. A humpback whale. I forgot everything for a moment and broke into a sprint, tracking the majestic mammal's route along the shore. It came up for air every few minutes. It was calm, otherworldly. Ancient.

I looked up whale symbolism: Emotional rebirth. Power in vulnerability. Inner truth. Authentic expression. Creativity. Communication. Physical and emotional healing. Womb wisdom.

We arrived at the festival grounds that afternoon. A sign at the entrance greeted us. “Welcome to the new paradigm.” We were entering a transformational portal, if we chose to use it as such. I pitched a tent in the trees, removed from the congenial community campsite that had formed below. I needed solitude, to learn how to heal myself in communion with the earth.

Hours later I ventured into the bustle of the festival. I fell into conversation with an older bearded man whose eyes were soft and inquiring. “What can you tell me about heartache?” I asked him.

“I’ve been through it. I’ve been broken. Many times. But it has become more interesting over the years. I’ve learned to channel it into creativity. Into art. To appreciate its divinity.”

A woman with long dark braided hair and a cornucopia of piercings offered me a swig of Mezcal. “What can you tell me about heartache?” I asked her, grateful for the gentle burn of the smokey spirit in my chest.

“I’m 37, and I just met the love of my life a month ago.” She pointed to the man sitting next to her. “37,” she said. “It’s real. It exists. Don’t give up. You just need to keep going through it.”

The next morning, I woke feeling lighter, nourished by the glistening ferns and moss covered trees native to the Pacific Northwest.

A friend told me about Solsara: A Workshop on Being Human Together. The cynical New Yorker in me recoiled at the title.

“Lot’s of eye-gazing,” he said.

“What does it say about me that I kind of hate that shit?” I responded.

Wisdom told me I should probably go do that shit.

We were to pair up, make eye contact, share feelings, and then find a new partner.

The moment I made eye contact with another human, all my grief returned. It was as if being confronted with someone else's humanness made me defenseless to my own. I stepped away and faced the trees. Then I returned, challenging myself to be present in my vulnerability. The next prompt invited one person in each pair to share what they saw in the other person’s eyes, then find a new partner and repeat. Incapable of speaking, I opened myself to receive the reflections of strangers.

“I see joy. But also pain. Longing. Truthfulness. Resilience.”

“I see what’s on the surface—pain, certainly. Sadness. But also great strength.”

“I see a truth that’s longing to get out. And I see power in your truth.”

It’s a curious thing to have the same thing reflected back to you by multiple strangers.

It was by the grace of divinity that the next workshop scheduled was an African Grief Ritual.

The facilitator was a disciple Sobonfu Somé, a spiritual teacher from Burkina Faso. The Dagara tribe believe that grief belongs to and needs to be processed by the collective. She spoke about the different kinds of grief—compounded, intergenerational, ancestral, cultural, environmental, planetary. The facilitator spoke about the importance of releasing grief to cleanse our creative, emotional, and spiritual pathways. Many of us compartmentalize our grief just to get through the day—otherwise we’d fall apart simply listening to the news, with its ongoing broadcast of war, famine, and the rape of our planet. When grief accumulates, it can morph into anger, alienation, and resentment, or lead to disease, depression, and death. Unprocessed grief is passed down through generations. A grandfather’s unhealed trauma might manifest as mental illness in his grandson—or great, great, great grandson, if it remains unaddressed. Recent findings in the field of epigenetics support and shed light on this curious phenomena.

It occurred to me that the grief I was experiencing was perhaps greater in scope than I'd considered. Its weight felt disproportionate to its catalyst. I began to interrogate it through a new lens. Perhaps my heartache had opened a portal through which the unprocessed pain of generations—along with my own unprocessed pain from childhood and throughout my life—had rushed in, seeking expression and healing. What trauma and heartache had I inherited from my lineage? I thought of my paternal grandmother, who lost her twin sister to the Holocaust, and my great grandmother, who perished in the camps. I thought of my mother’s biological mother, about whom I know little, and the pain she must have felt giving up her daughter for adoption. I thought of my own mother, whose adoption, I believe, robbed her of a deep sense of belonging and left her feeling perennially unwanted.

What other ancestral wounds were begging to be healed? When I tuned into it, my grief felt distinctly feminine. It was a grief of the heart, a grief around love. I wondered about the women in my lineage who suffered from a lack of love in their lives, from a lack of self-expression. Could I process their pain for them? Could I heal on their behalf?

The ritual began. The grievers were to congregate around the grief altar and grieved aggressively, any way they knew how--stomping, wailing, shaking, sobbing. Once they felt complete in their grieving, they could transition to the water altar, an area for cleansing and release. Those who were able to hold space--"the villagers"--were to encircle the grievers with their palms raised in prayer and their voices raised in song. A circle of drummers enclosed the villagers, creating a strong vibrational container.

At first I was timid. I suddenly felt that my grief was unjustified. I was surrounded by so much pain, I assumed others were processing a death or genuine tragedy. My romantic angst felt petty in comparison. But I channeled my ancestors, and I remembered the facilitator’s message that grief is collective and must be collectively healed. After a moment of stillness, a wave of emotion swept over me and took me to my knees. I placed my forehead to the ground, folded my arms over my head, and in that self-contained cave, l sobbed from somewhere very deep.

I grieved for the deep partnership and soulful communion I'd never experienced.

I grieved for the childhood wounds that prevent so many of us from loving out of fear.

I grieved for the earth’s wounding, which I could feel in my womb.

I grieved for the repression of the human spirit.

The drumming intensified, absorbing our cries and yells with thunderous compassion so that we were free to release them without shame. When I felt that there was nothing left to release, I rose to my feet and began to move in sync with the drumbeat. Others rose as well, and we moved as a single organism.

At the end of the ritual, we each placed a stone representing our grief into a bowl of water, which the facilitator then emptied into the forest as a symbol of release. I noticed a strange clinging sensation in my chest as she carried the bowl away and was surprised to discover that I felt some attachment to my grief. Some part of me wasn’t ready to let it go, this curious companion that brought such valuable lessons.

My moon, which normally runs like clockwork, arrived that afternoon, a week early. To aid in my release, no doubt.

That night on the dance floor, I was flooded with Eros--a refreshing counterpoint to the grief that had inhabited me for days. The music felt luscious, grimy, sultry in my body. I rejoiced in the life force moving through me. I let myself get extra saucy, danced with other bodies, felt ecstatic in my skin.

Mid-twerk on the dance floor, I ran into Tobin, one of the partners who had reflected my truth to me in the Solsara workshop earlier that day. We burst into laughter. I had clearly experienced a dramatic shift in my being since our tearful exchange just twelve hours earlier.

He wrote to me after the festival: “I wanted to say it was a highlight of my weekend to behold the pain in your eyes during the Solsara workshop, witness you grieve at the grief ceremony, and then see such a shift and lightness in you dancing. That whole process - Beautiful.”

I thanked him for witnessing me.

I am reminded of these words On Joy and Sorrow from the Prophet by Khalil Gibran:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

I feel emboldened by my intimate encounter with grief this weekend. Fear of heartache keeps us from loving. Fear of pain holds us back from life. I recognize that my capacity for grief is my capacity for joy, my capacity for heartache my capacity for love.

The grief ritual was the first time in my life that I felt connected to my ancestors. When I shared this with my friend Sabrina, she said something that forever changed me:

"I think about my ancestors trailing behind me with every step I take. I think about all of my grandmothers watching me and asking themselves, 'Maybe she's the one. Maybe she's the one to break the chains.' I am trying my damned hardest to be the one. It's how I live my life."

I recognize how the circumstances that have landed me on this planet in this body at this time make me uniquely poised to break the chains that have kept the women in my lineage from complete, ecstatic, fully embodied self-actualization. It is in their honor, encouraged by their gaze, that I am devoted to my own healing and self-actualization, to breaking all the chains, to becoming truly free.


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