I’ve been circling my grief for a long time. I’ve spoken about it. I’ve written about it. I’ve shown up at grief rituals. I’ve wept and shouted and raged in woodland ceremonies, touched the edges of the losses I’ve experienced in my life and occasionally been brought to my knees. I’ve been witnessed in my grief. I’ve been congratulated for being the kind of man who can express it. All the while, even as I knelt before those grief altars tears streaming down my face, a part of me has been watching myself and has judged that I am going through the motions.
This is not to say that I think the grief I’ve expressed has been inauthentic, or that I haven’t been connecting with it as honestly as I can. It’s simply to say that, despite my best efforts, I am far from being wholly in touch with my grief. There is a big part of me that is still dissociated from it, and understandably so. It’s a deep well and it goes back for generations.
Today I’m reminded that I’m an apprentice to grief, a beginner at the sacred practice of grieving. A friend’s father has recently died. Another is dealing with her mother’s dementia. Another lost her father when she was a small child. Another lost her mother. Nick Cave lost a son and writes as someone who knows what it is to live with the most profound grief possible. I tremble with a sense of deep unknowing at what each of these terrible losses must feel like.
And while I have not experienced losses like these, I have nonetheless experienced losses that are profound, as we all have. The perspective of Francis Weller and his Five Gates of Grief is helpful. In our culture we only have an appreciation of the first gate, the grief associated with losing someone or something that we love, and we are in some sense disconnected from the other four.
- All that we love we will lose
- The places that did not receive love
- The sorrows of the world
- What we expected but did not receive
- Ancestral grief
Each of these gates provides a way into a particular aspect of the grief we all feel on some level, whether we’re aware of it or not, grief that is simply a part of life, a part of being human.
During the first few months of 2021 my world fell apart. Quite unexpectedly the ground upon which I had been standing collapsed and I fell into a deep well of grief. Some might call it a Depression but I prefer to use the word Descent.
Practices and routines that at one time had felt reliable, familiar and supportive had slowly and painfully over the preceding months revealed themselves for what they were: Grief management strategies. My relationship with food in particular demonstrated itself to be a complex and elaborate way to structure my days and my weeks in order to feel a sense of security and control. Certainly this over reliance on food to manage my anxiety was exacerbated by the pandemic, but the pandemic simply pointed at something that was already there.
The grief that I began to feel lurking beneath my food routines gnawed away at me like a dull toothache and was never far from my awareness. I decided to “hold on” until after the Christmas festivities with its permissions to indulge, muted though they were, with no idea of how terrifying it would be to finally, and without any particular choice in the matter, “let go” on New Year’s Day. A tidal wave of grief hit me and I was swept away.
There was not much to hold onto as I descended on this wave. Friends and loved ones offered support but struggled to understand what I was going through. It didn’t help that in this time I withdrew from the world and from the love they offered. These words from Rainer Maria Rilke, shared by Francis Weller in a talk of his I found during those difficult days, spoke clearly and directly to the heart of what I was feeling, and provided some hope to balance the despair I was feeling at times.
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
I understand that what I experienced in those dark winter months was a Descent to Soul. I descended into a place within myself that is more honestly and vulnerably and wildly me, a place beneath the respectable face I have learned to show the world, a place of chaotic and powerful forces – raw, messy, scared, confused, angry, full of questions, full of grief… and full of potential… to step into a version of myself that is more real, more vulnerable, more integrated, more aware of my limitations, and more fiercely and unapologetically in touch with my grief and my joy… at least I hope so.
In his new book The Journey of Soul Initiation, Bill Plotkin writes about this process. In words which uncannily describe what I experienced, he describes the Descent phase of this journey as a process of dissolution.
“Dissolution is not merely severance from your everyday community and social roles. Rather, this phase is the conclusive dismemberment of who you believed you were, the unconditional disintegration of what you understood the world to be, the definitive end of the story you had been living, the unqualified dissolution of the identity, the persona, the mask you had been walking around in, everything that enabled you to get done whatever you considered essential to who you were, who you could become, how you could serve your people. Everything.”
Plotkin concludes his description by stating that “dissolution, in understatement, is challenging”, which made me laugh out loud when I read it. It’s a huge understatement. It is incredibly challenging, and I know I did not go the whole way down.
This was not my first Descent. It was perhaps the third or fourth phase of dissolution I’ve experienced in my adult life, which is to say during the last 10 years or so, when I began to show up in my life with the energy and awareness of someone approaching mature and healthy adulthood.
I’ve written a lot about the solo land quest I undertook four years ago that supported me to descend as far as I was able to at the time into what Plotkin calls “Soul Canyon”. It was a deep dive but not as deep as I believed at the time. I returned with a sense of deeper awareness, renewed purpose and a greater sense of personal responsibility. I was also undone by the experience, and compelled to confront many of the strategies I have developed in my life to keep my face resolutely turned away from my grief. Ultimately this quest changed the direction of my life and invited me to step more fully into what I’m sure will be a lifelong apprenticeship to grief, and it’s companion, gratitude. Grief, gratitude, sadness, joy, anger, fear, love. I’m an apprentice to all these things.
I understand that such an apprenticeship is a necessary aspect of mature and healthy adulthood, and that these inevitable and cyclical Descents, these mini deaths, when navigated consciously, clear away that which has become stuck within us and create the space needed to further deepen into these feelings and emotions and in so doing continue the lifelong process of fully realising our unique gifts.
I’m honoured to have begun mentoring and guiding others through their own solo quests. I am no more and no less than a fellow traveller, frequently stumbling and faltering on my own path, with enough familiarity of the territory to have a few tricks up my sleeve, but more importantly to appreciate that our one and only true guide must be found within ourselves. John O’Donahue nails it in his Blessing for a New Beginning:
Your soul senses the world that awaits you.
If you’re feeling your soul calling you to adventure then a solo quest might support you at this time. I will be co-guiding a quest on Dartmoor with Rebecca Card between 25th May and 3rd June. Please get in touch if you’d like to explore with one of us if this is the right time for you to take this step.