“I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher.” —Johnny Cash
This summer at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, I attended “Grief Ritual: A Daylong Workshop for Collective Healing,” with Dagara healer Sobonfu Somé and Buddhist teacher Spring Washam. Designed to penetrate our barriers to grief, the daylong offered a sacred container in which to express the pains and emotions of loss. I have never experienced the meditation hall so aflame. In the morning we sat in cool stillness, following our breath and listening to the teachings with quiet curiosity. By afternoon, we were wailing and dancing, the incessant drumbeat carrying our sorrows toward the colorful shrines we’d created, our losses laid bare in prostration or in carefully cradled croons. Mothers mourned lost children, daughters grieved their fathers; there were survivors of cancer and addiction, infertility and childhood trauma. Folks risked expression of their suffering, and for many of us, I believe it was healing.
To truly enter that ritual space required surrender—not just to our emotions but to each other. Alert and present, we helped one another in and out of the center circle. When a mourner approached the grief shrine, someone else would follow as witness, placing hands on the mourner’s back as he bent to grieve at the altar. There, the witness remained steady, using her breath to keep the experience grounded until the mourner’s wave of grief had passed. Toward the end of the ritual, we processed outside to burn bundles—small tokens tied together to represent our grief, each item a symbol of personal meaning made tangible. Together we sang the songs of the ancestors while smoke rose from a fire stoked entirely by loss. For one day, our cushions were cast aside and some other kind of dharma was stirred. The buddha born of Burkina Faso was welcomed in body and spirit, and I am grateful to Spirit Rock’s Diversity Program for honoring the teachings of all the directions and for enriching our practice with the wisdom of embodied release.
During the grief ritual I wasn’t surprised to meet my feelings for an old friend, Stine (pronounced “Stee-nah”), who died over three years ago while hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On that beautiful autumn day, she and husband Brian were delighted newlyweds, chatting about future children and playfully tossing the red, orange and golden leaves at one another along the trail. When they stopped for a snack, the deteriorated log on which they were sitting broke loose, sending them tumbling down a steep hill. The log hit both hikers but struck Stine in the head, neck and chest, killing her. She was thirty-two years old. They had been married two months earlier, and Stine, a zooarcheologist, had just completed her doctorate in the department of anthropology at Harvard. The two were planning to live near her parents in Stine’s native Denmark, where they would raise a family and both teach at the University of Copenhagen.
Stine was a light; she carried a glow that could change the mood of a room. Her core philosophy was “to increase the amount of joy in the world,” and the amazing thing is, she actually managed it. She upped the joy meter with tea lights and flowers, with tiny notes and enormous smiles. Stine made a festival of everyday tasks and found beauty in even the frozen bones (her “homework”) stored in our freezer. She would trot through the door and open her hand to reveal some tiny found trinket—a colorful feather, a heart-shaped rock—her blue eyes blinking with a mischievous twinkle.
As a hospice chaplain and grief counselor, I am no stranger to loss. But Stine’s death shook me like no other, and the mystery of her passing remains fresh. Confusion, simple sadness, dark wonder and despair are all frequent players in my Stine musings, but on the day of Sobonfu and Spring’s grief ritual, for what felt like the first time, I met anger. Perhaps it was the West African rhythms or the sweat dripping from my over-danced pores, but as I wept at the shrine and rocked with the drums, a soft moan welled up from my gut. The mind popcorned its usual questions of why and how, but no thought formed fully, as the body continued to careen, working its grief. Limbs took the lead and threw themselves to the ground in their own extended sob and pounding. I was used to feeling pain over Stine’s death. I am familiar with the surges of loss that sometimes show up and overtake me, lament flooding the moment so intensely I could swear it is not my grief alone. But on this day, that welling lifted me to my hind legs and I began to scream. My face contorted with such ugliness and horror, it felt as though Kali herself were ascending my windpipe and would soon be expelled in putrid flame. How could Stine be taken?
My anger at my friend’s death swelled and mutated into something like revolt against life itself. It was blind rage against samsara, against the inevitable pain of being human. Every hurt I’ve endured bubbled up and began to blend with those of others in the room. The intensity of pain was almost nauseating. But the structure of the ritual was designed to hold this, to contain by some measure the depth of darkness to which one could fall. There was my supportive attendant, steadfast in each moment of my experience. There were guides on either side of the shrine, eyeing the mourners to ensure that no one grieved alone. And the timeless beat of the drum carried on, willing the wails of the others and the entire circle of watchers toward cohesion, our perimeter held by humans dancing with abandon. Because of this ritual container, my immersion into pain felt bearable. I managed to stay with it, and in time I slipped to the far side. I mean to say that I succumbed. I experienced the fullness of “this is how it is.” Amidst the writhing fever of pure anguish, the deepest part of my being took a bow.
When I spoke about Stine to over 400 people in Harvard’s Memorial Church, I began each section of the eulogy with the simple insistence, “I am not going to try and make sense of this loss.” I repeated the line because I truly could not understand. My brain reeled and reeled, trying to compute what my heart refused to register. In truth, I have spent hours trying to make sense of this particular loss; I’ve shed hundreds of befuddled tears. In my vocation I am able to recognize that things “just happen,” that suffering is a part of life, that some questions will never receive an answer. But this training has offered little consolation for those questions that now have long blonde hair, an insatiable Danish smile, and a whole life that just disappeared.
Stine’s death keeps me at the edge of practice. It cuts straight through my so-called understanding that we all must die. Impermanence is a great little concept, but what happens when life smacks you upside the head with a two-by-four? Can we accept the truth of impermanence then? Experiencing the pain of change when you’re knocked on your ass isn’t the problem. Accepting it is another matter entirely. Surely my resistance adds an extra layer of suffering, but what are you gonna do? When the pure misery of loss comes calling, do we rail against what is happening or take several deep breaths and allow the pain? Dharma includes a practice of allowing the pain. It’s about breathing through it, leaning into it, softening enough to let it in, and practicing staying soft as it rips your insides to shreds.
Not long after the grief ritual at Spirit Rock, I realized that Stine’s story pulls the proverbial rug out from this issue’s theme of “Passages” here at Inquiring Mind. We have been following the loose model of birth, coming of age, marriage/ordination and death. But wait! For Stine, for her parents and her husband, the cycle of life didn’t follow this tidy little arc; death doubled back and made a damn mess. We foolishly believe there is a trajectory that life should follow, and even I—a seeker, a practitioner, a grief counselor (!)—have internalized the false promise of this arc. My intellect has made peace with loss, but deeper, unknown molten places have been furious at the gods, at the universe, at the First Noble Truth—and I haven’t even known it.
Stine’s death was a rite of passage for those of us who loved her. It was the hardest of lessons, taking us from relative innocence to the deepest shade of jade. But the grief shrine became the place where I experienced accepting that shit happens, that we are not in control, that logic and reason and plans can be fickle bitches. Pain is a portal: if we can abide our inner burn, it will be ultimately immersed into the reservoir of human suffering. Sobonfu’s ritual, including every person who participated, gave me the chance to find my anger and to give it voice. And because I was held by forces larger than mine alone, I could risk Kali, I could stare down death and kneel to her branding.