A Ramble through Lamentation: Rituals for Expressing Grief
Getty Images/Alessandro Vallainc
Lamentation: the passionate expression of grief, mourning, sorrow, or regret: a song or poem that expresses sorrow for someone who has died or something that is gone.
Can Zoom provide a liminal space? Can communal ritual be successful online? Can we lament as a community through a screen? I guess so. I’m sitting at my computer, headset on, tears streaming down my face. I’m alone in my little wooden house, but with 500 other people. Five hundred of us, all around the world, dropped into sacred space and offering prayer and ritual lamentation for all people who have died during our shared COVID-19 time of crisis.
Maybe online ritual isn’t ideal, but it’s something. A now sort of response. It’s feeding a human hunger, a desire for companionship in times of woe. It’s feeding a hunger for acknowledgement of shared misery, a hunger for structures within which we might process our grief. A public naming of what ails us. It’s a place to gather, to take the time to place the proper importance on honoring the recent dead. A pandemic seems reason enough to call in the keening people.
There’s great power in collective grieving, in making grieving public. We have an innate need, which has been systematically squelched, to make our pain visible and audible. We want to wail, fall to our knees, hack off our hair, smear our faces with wet ash. But we don’t. We clasp our hands just so, turn away from each other and dab at our silent tears.
One must wonder at the invisibility of sorrowing in the Western culture. We lack a tolerant, understanding community to hold us in our wild grief. We’re taught to repress our deep, mournful emotions. We seldom witness a person crying, let alone wailing, weeping, or keening. Control is paramount. Being stoic the ideal. The average bereavement leave in the U.S. is three days. The societal undercurrent is to just get over it and to seek closure.
Mainstream Western culture doesn’t really believe the dead are still present or important to the living. It is my belief that Christian heritage is core to this suppression. Outward expressions of grief were thought to be pagan, heathen, and therefore unacceptable and were actively censored from the late 500’s onward. Lamentation became an atrophied human skill. Does this loss impact the interpenetrated worlds of our recent dead, our ancestors, and us, the living? I believe that it does.
One of the most charming yet frightening books on this subject I’ve read is, The Smell of Rain on Dust, by M. Prechtel. In it he explains the relationship between communal and personal grieving, ancestor-hood, “ghosts,” and problems of the living. According to Prechtel, examples of being well grieved include collective praising, lamentation, funeral fires, weeping, annual renewal of remembrance, actions taken to assure the person does well in the Other World, recitations of the person’s personal and ancestral history, processions, food offerings, vigils, tending of the body, singing, and communicating to the ancestors that there is someone to soon be received. A list your local funeral director may be a bit aghast to implement.
Prechtel says that the energy generated by good grieving is the force that moves our dead loved one from this realm across a vast universal space to their initiation into ancestor-hood in the Other World.
The chilling part of Prechtel’s work, the concept that I found so frightening, is that if our people are not well grieved, they literally can’t make the crossing, and longing to stay in this world, come back to us as “ghosts.” These ghostly souls will house themselves in the tenderest, most receptive members of a family. It’s a terrible burden to carry an additional unmourned soul—the ghost “sucks people dry of their own future.” These peoples’ lives are sacrificed to the well-being of the rest of the family.
Symptoms that this has happened to someone include being fearful, nervous, and unsatisfied. The host becomes unable to complete plans, has split motivations—their loves, projects, and desires feel cursed and constantly unravel. They often have problems with mental illness, alcohol and drug addictions, and they become very hard to love. When that person dies, then there are two souls to push across, taking even more energy with a higher likelihood to fail, and it mushrooms from there. More and more unhealthy, hard-to-love ghosts are created. The community and culture have more and more troubles. This construct makes an alarming sense to me and resonates with my lived experience.
The Wild Edge of Sorrow
Instinctively, we hunger for a wild and free expression of grief, for the on-going creation of well ancestors to run interference for us in the Other World, to allow ourselves to feel just how much we miss someone lost to us—for more than the allotted three bereavement days.
We see these concepts echoed in Francis Weller’s work, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. His “Fifth Gate of Grief” is called ancestral grief. One part of this grief is missing a relationship with the ancestors themselves, our Other World team. Another part consists of the burdens we carry of unresolved and unprocessed grief from generation to generation. This unmetabolized sorrow, like Prechtel’s “ghosts,” can also cause us trouble. Feeling numb, repressing anger, feeling depression, on-going sadness, episodes of addiction or eating disorders, magnified overreactions, chronic pain, and apathy are examples of the sorts of suffering that can surface. We can name it ghosts or epigenetics, the same dynamics are operating.
Our hunger for public grief and lamentation has also been apparent in the amazing success of Stephen Jenkinson’s world tour called “Nights of Grief and Mystery,” a couple of hours of lamentations and music on the human condition, death, lack of initiations for every age group in Western culture, disconnect from the ancestors, and our continuing abuses of the earth. Jenkinson’s 2019 offering was received with packed theaters and sold out shows. Cultural hunger made visible.
My own hunger and need for public lamentation and public grief has been peaked this year. I went against my brother’s wishes for no funeral or memorial because I felt a need to send him off with as much energy as we could so as to fill his sails to cross the void. I needed to offer a memorial, his friends and other family members needed to attend it, and I think my brother will forgive my transgression as he travels to the other world over the next year or so. I hope so anyway. And now COVID-19, and death showing up as deity, as a small “g” god, a force to be reckoned with daily and visibly, mortality’s momentary vector a novel virus.
I’m as reserved and self-conscious as any other recovering-Catholic-turned-pagan. I mightily resist my tears, am totally inhibited when it comes to weeping and wailing and get paralyzing stage fright when I must lead a song. And yet, and yet, I long to be a keening woman. The bean chaointe, the keening woman of the Irish wake—once a respected, awe inspiring psychopomp, leading the community through her spontaneous vocal inspirations to the very edge of the grave and the very edge of this world—transporting the newly dead to the Other World on her praising lamentations.
What would that be like? Channeling that power? Letting the raw wild energies of the sea, the sky, the stones, the life force itself, flow through you—to be an instrument of that visceral potency—to traverse the thin places on behalf of your community, your people, your dead? To know how, to be willing?
I ask you again, what would that be like?
Rituals for Grief
As a certified Life-Cycle Celebrant, I suggested a ritual to increase comfort with expressing grief:
A simple listening/witnessing circle (with agreements set out) can be a powerful way to begin making friends with grief. Participants are invited knowing they will have a safe place to share a loss of some kind. Gatherings can take place on line or live depending on the groups desire and your local gathering restrictions advisory.
The leader sets the sideboards for communications—things like; no interruptions when someone is speaking, no advising, problem solving, or rescuing, having an accepted acknowledgement of having been heard for the group, time limits, and any other protocols that make the ritual space safe for all.
The tone can be set at the opening with readings, music, or movement. It should be informal and comfortable. You could have an object that acts as a “talking stick” to help keep order in speaking and listening processes. The group simply practices talking openly about a loss and feelings related to that loss. Others practice compassionate listening. Emotions are accepted and allowed to be expressed without judgement. After the group feels complete, the leader can close with an inspiring or comforting reading.
You may also want to look in your community for a certified Life-cycle Celebrant® to assist (locate at Celebrant near you at www.celebrantinstitute.org); they are often facilitators for a Death Café , a highly respected worldwide organization leading the way for a safe setting to speak about death, loss, and grief in a communal, informal setting.
The Celebrant Foundation and Institute is the preeminent, global online institute teaching and certifying people to be a Life-Cycle Celebrant®, who are modern-day personalized ceremony professionals.