My daughter is still young enough to want to cuddle up with me when she’s scared or just in need of comfort. I cherish those times when we get to nest together in that way, her brother stopped joining us when teenage years hit. Our habit of snuggling was especially important after their mother died. My daughter was five and her brother was ten at that time. In the weeks that followed her passing we holed up in a large earthen studio on our land, sleeping together on two queen sized beds pressed side by side. We were taking refuge in each other’s spirits, nesting within each other and the larger spirits of our family and the land.
Grief helps us sort through the shamanic tools, traditions and rituals we’ve explored throughout our lives. When grief challenges us, stripping away all pretense, we are able to clearly see what resonates most with our own spirits. All of us have ancestors who knew this well. Many of the techniques we modern practitioners use to heal our spirits, commune with nature, and work with helping spirits were tested over thousands of years in some of the harshest circumstances. We are the beneficiaries of their struggles with grief and loss.
For us modern people, it’s easy to wish that grief is something we can quickly master. We want our lives to return to “normal” so that we can be productive. What we don’t realize is that we are grief’s students. And not just once, but each time it visits us. The first step in working with grief shamanically, or using any other tools, is to acknowledge it and say “yes” to it. Once you do, you will find yourself working at grief’s pace, the pace of seasonal changes and glacial melt. The good news is that grief is a gateway to an even deeper experience of the sacredness of all things. If we trust it as a teacher, our own practices can open even more powerfully to life.
Into the embrace of animals.
Though deeply exhausted during my year and half of caregiving, I was able to continue to journey for myself. Buffalo spontaneously showed up early on during her second bout with cancer. As my stress and exhaustion grew I journeyed to meet Buffalo and his herd in the lower world. Without any communication, Buffalo would sidle up beside me. I crawled onto his broad shoulders, warmed by the sun, and collapsed. A quote from that time:
“I felt my body dissolve into his heft, let gravity pull me deeper as the herd wandered across the never ending plains. For a brief time gravity felt like my friend, instead of the enemy of every day. I was a child again, small and vulnerable, the many burdens of adulthood slipped easily away. The ache of my bones disappeared along with the loneliness that comes from being a caregiver…”
Animals have such a deep understanding of death, I have found them to be a constant source of strength. As a sickly child I spent many days curled up with our family dogs, resting in their warmth and sense of unhurried peace. While immersed in grief, I found almost any threshold to communion with the animal spirits to be wide open for me. Animals in particular seemed to know exactly how I was feeling and how to support me. They can hold all of our grief and still look at us with open loving hearts.
Nature holds all.
I also found refuge in the many extraordinary natural settings available in the Monterey Bay area, where dense Redwood forests give way to dramatic coastline. After dropping the kids off at school, I would drive to a forest or beach, giving myself to the spirit of those sacred places.
A redwood circle became my favorite place to journal and leave offerings. I could rest and breathe in the rich forest air. Kneeling, I placed my hands on the ground and felt my heart sinking deeply into the duff, chanting: “My heart is in the Earth, the Earth is in me, my heart is in the Earth, the Earth is in me…” This simple exchange allowed my body to relax and release the fear it was holding.
At the ocean I became a Seal and played with the many relatives I found there. Putting on headphones and listening to drumming, I journeyed to them, shifting into my Seal-self. I developed a practice inspired by the Celtic shapeshifting tradition known as the Fith Fath. Rather than merging with Seal spirit, I called Seal forth from my own spirit, as I danced by the edge of the waves. I was tired then, swollen, but glad to feel the freedom of moving in the water in a different form. To passers-by I must have looked like an old man searching for his keys. Perfect camouflage.
There is nothing I felt during that time that nature could not hold. I think many of us wrongly believe our grief belongs only to us. Nature can be a partner in grieving, if we understand that grief and other feelings can live in nature just as they live in us. In that way our own grief becomes part of life, a part of the waves, of the branches and leaves decaying on the forest floor. Grief does not belong to us, it is simply a part of the world and everything in it, including us.
Rituals of saying goodbye again, and again.
A few years after my wife’s passing, a fellow shamanic practitioner and dear friend, Ann Riley, journeyed for me about my grief. I have a very active dream life, one in which my wife visits often. I was feeling the need to separate more from her, to encourage my grief to ease. “You need to write her letters,” Ann told me,” then burn them to send them to her, to let go more. You can write others, too. It’s a beautiful practice. Don’t do it just once, do it a few times a year at least.”
I began a practice that grew to include all of the people I know who have passed, my daughter sometimes joins me. “Dear Terry, we miss you every day… Dear Dad, I was telling Tadg about…” We write our letters and then slip them into the fire, watching them quickly turn gray before dissolving into ash.
There are things I need to say to those who have passed on. Having a regular practice of communication beyond dreams or journeys has helped me to feel lighter. I also feel connected to them in a way that does not burden me. They are loved ones who are not here, but they are not really gone. Someday I will join them, just not today. There is a comfort in that.
As people who travel between the worlds, it’s important to know our boundaries with the spirits who have passed on. This is not always easy when your partner or another beloved family member dies. Shortly after my wife died my spirit wandered while I slept. When I awoke I felt like I was encrusted with a taxing energy, as if I had spent time with death itself. I sought the help of other practitioners, but I also used simple gestures of communication, like this writing ritual, to ease my longing. I needed a way to connect with her spirit, but a way that was respectful of both of our current states.
Francis Weller, a well known psychotherapist and author on the subject of grief, points out that historically, grieving has never been a solitary activity. Isolation seems to be a feature of our modern life, which works against grieving. Being a parent of two young children is an antidote against isolation. Their need for attention, as well as the satellites of friends and family who care for them, have kept me connected in grief to many others.
It is this closeness with my children and our community that has been the strongest medicine. My spiritual practices strengthen me, making it easier to show up for them as a single parent. But our most basic ability to connect with other human beings around grief is our greatest tool in healing. Our hearts need to connect with each other, sometimes even nest within each other, in order for grief to teach us and flow in the way it needs to. If we are to address suffering around loss, our work as healers needs to focus as much on creating community around grief as it does on working with helping spirits. Shamanism, after all, is ultimately an act of community healing. We are circles within circles.
Here is part of a poem I wrote from that time:
We came to the woods
to learn how to live inside each other,
seeds within seeds.
To learn the songs
all life sings.