We ALL carry grief and having a place to express and alchemize it is hugely important if we are to live truly healthy lives. Respected psychotherapist and grief counselor Francis Weller has written about five different types of grief which he calls “Gates”. They are as follows:
Gate 1) “Everything We Love We Will Lose”—At this gate we lose relationships, we may lose a home taken away by foreclosure; we lose a career; we lose friends and places that we loved. We may lose body parts through an amputation or mastectomy. We may lose an animal. Anything that we love, we will lose, and our hearts will be broken.
Gate 1 poem: For Those Who Have Died – A poem by Eleh Ezkerah – These We Remember
‘Tis a fearful thing
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
“Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
What death can touch.
This kind of grief says that I dared to love, that I allowed another to enter the very core of my being and find a home in my heart. Grief is akin to praise; it is how the soul recounts the depth to which someone has touched our lives. To love is to accept the rites of grief.
Gate 2) “The Places That Have Not Known Love”—These are places within ourselves that have never known love because they have been wrapped in shame or guilt. They have been banished and sent away. These are the parts of us that we perceive as defective. Often our grief about these parts isn’t expressed through tears but through anger and rage. So the path to healing is to grieve these parts of ourselves because they affirm that we are worth crying over and that our losses matter.
These neglected pieces of soul live in utter despair. What we perceive as defective about ourselves, we also experience as loss. Whenever any portion of who we are is denied, we live in a condition of loss.
Gate 2 Poem: Coleman’s Bed – A poem by David Whyte on the ways we are in vited to welcome back the outcast parts of our being.
Be taught now, among the trees and rocks,
How the discarded is woven into shelter,
Learn the way things hidden and unspoken
Slowly proclaim their voice in the world.
Find that inward symmetry
To all outward appearances, apprentice
Yourself to yourself, begin to welcome back
All you sent away, be a new annunciation,
Make yourself a door through which
To be hospitable, even to the stranger in you.”
Grieving, by it’s very nature, confirms worth. I am worth crying over; my losses matter. Below is another poem that speaks to the Third Gate.
Gate 2 Poem: The Healing Time – A poem by Pecha Gertler
Finally on my way to yes
I bumped into
All the places
Where I said no
To my life
All the untended wounds
The red and purple scars
Those hieroglyphs of pain
Carved into my skin and bones,
Those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them, the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I life them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
Gate 3) “The Sorrows Of The World”—This gate of grief opens when we register the losses of the world around us. Whether we realize it or not, the daily diminishment of species, habitats and cultures is noted in our psyches. Much of the grief we carry is not personal, but shared, communal. It takes everything we have to deny the sorrows of the world. Pablo Neruda said, “I know the earth, and I am sad.”
To open our hearts to the sad history of humanity and the devastated state of the Earth is the next step in our reclamation of our bodies, the body of our human community, and the body of the Earth.
Western psychology would most likely suggest that the grief we are feeling is related to our own experience of being diminished as a child, a metaphoric clear-cut, as it were. What if, however, the feelings we have when we pass through these zones of destruction are actually arising from the land itself. What if we are not separate from the world at all? It is our spiritual responsibility to acknowledge these losses. What if this is the animas mundi, the soul of the world, weeping through us?
Gate 3 Poem: Kindness – A poem by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak it till your voice
Catches the threat of all sorrows
And you see the size of the cloth.
Gate 4) “What We Expected and Did Not Receive”—Most of us have so many of these that we have forgotten them or hidden them deep inside. Because it’s in our DNA, we expected to be received and held in a loving community as children. Because it’s in our DNA we expected to be lovingly guided through rites of passage in our adolescence. Because it’s in our DNA, we expected to find and live our purpose in life, really knowing and really contributing our unique and extraordinary gifts to the world. In other words, many of us feel spiritually unemployed.
How do we know that we miss these experiences? I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that when these things are finally granted to us, a wave of recognition rises that we have lived without this love, this acknowledgement, and the support of this village all our lives.
Another facet of loss at this gate concerns the expectation of purpose in our lives. Depp in our bones lies an intuition that we arrive here carrying a bundle of gifts to offer to the community. Over time, these gifts are meant to be seen, developed, and called into the village at times of need. To feel valued for the gifts with which we are born affirms our worth and dignity. In a sense, it is a form of spiritual employment – simply being who we are confirms our place in the village. That is one of the fundamental understandings about gifts: we can only offer them by being ourselves fully. Gifts are a consequence of authenticity; when we are being true to our natures, the gifts can emerge.
In our modern culture of hyperactivity and stress, we are seldom asked what we have carried into the world as a gift for the community. The frequent (and obscene) question is: “What do you do for a living?” Or worse, “How do you earn a living?”
Hidden within the losses of this gate lies our diminished experience of who we are.
Gate 5) “Ancestral Grief”—This is the grief we carry in our bodies from sorrows experienced by our ancestors. This includes the sorrows of our ancestors that we may not even be consciously aware of, and it includes the collective sorrows of the abuses perpetrated onto and by our ancestors. Examples include: The Civil War, Native American genocide, the Nazi holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Much of this grief lingers in a layer of silence, unacknowledged.
We hold this ancestral grief in our beings, even after many generations. This sorrow becomes concentrated over time, gathering grief unto itself, and is carried in our psyches unconsciously as diminished inheritance. The psychic inheritance of our ancestors was meant to be a blessing, but instead it is a layer of heaviness. The stoic façade and behaviors of these past generations left behind a legacy of unattended pain. Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel says that we are surrounded by the ghosts of unwept ancestors.
* These are excerpts from Francis Wellers’ writing in his excellent newly released book,”The Wild Edge of Sorrow“, (October, 2015) . To learn more about the Five Gates of Grief, I recommend that you read this book, as it provides the foundational philosophical underpinning of the Coming Home to Grief series.