Embracing the Darkness: Francis Weller and the sacred life of grief

There are 20 days until the Winter Solstice, which means 20 more days of moving into the darkness before the light begins its slow return. The solstice makes a threshold between the waning and waxing of daylight, and is perhaps the most sacred day of the year for me, as I am one who has always been drawn to darkness and who at one point in her life turned toward nurturing light instead of darkness, which was no easy feat.

The darkness of November has always brought me grief often I name it Seasonal Affective Disorder. But this year, I moved into November on the heels of a private loss that evoked the deep life of sorrow in me. We all have these losses from time to time as humans on this earth, but we don’t always know how to cope with them, let alone embrace them. Swimming, in the perfect silence of the empty house, I thought of the grief we carry and often squander.

I walked through the woods and built a fire beside the pond and felt all the lives I would not live and the grief I harbored for the loss of each one. In the woods, I search for bones. I have found skulls, carcasses, the empty shell of a turtle. I covet the remnants of death because I want to draw close to death. I never want to turn away from that mystical doorway, and I want to let it soften me, just as grief will do if we allow it. But what I did not realize, until recently, is that I most likely covet death because the other forms of grief are not recognized or ritualized by my culture.

skull & fire

In his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: The Sacred Work of Grief, Francis Weller writes that grief is a threshold emotion and when we cross through it we enter the world of community, of conversation, of sacred ritual. If we compress the sorrow of grief, we also compress our capacity for joy. In our culture we don’t have sacred communal rituals for expressing grief and we limit and restrain the experience of grief, which is why, Weller argues, we are a culture of secondary satisfactions like entertainment and shopping, but also a desire for power, wealth, status, rank, priviledge. Empire, he says, is one of the most egregious expressions of secondary satisfactions –we always want more. We are conditioned by our culture to never feel like we have enough. This is one of our greatest sources of grief and loss, our greatest wound.

Primary satisfactions are much simpler and yet sometimes they remain forgotten in our daily lives: human touch, laughter, shared meals, story telling, kindness offered in times of sadness, and rituals that mend and tend to the sacred world around us.

Weller writes of the five gates of sorrow, which go beyond the first gate of loss through the death of those we love.

Here are Weller’s the five gates of sorrow as outlined on in Apprenticeship with Grief from the website Pathways to Resilience:

Gate 1 – Everything We Love We Loose: this is the only gate we recognize on a cultural level, and yet, we seldom give it the space it deserves.

Gate 2 – The Places That Have Not Known Love: this gate refers to the aspects of self we deny in order to fit into family, peer groups, and the broader cultural systems.

Gate 3 – The Sorrow of the World: tending our Earth grief. As Francis Weller puts it, “We are born expecting a rich and sensuous relationship with the earth and communal rituals of celebration, grief, and healing that kept us in connection with the sacred.”

Gate 4 – What We Expected and Did Not Receive: For Weller, this gate has to do with “the expectations coded into our physical and psychic lives” due to our ancestors evolving for at least 200,000 years in relational environments and societies. The contrast of our contemporary life creates a type of deep grief that, Weller believes, we seldom have the language for or space to acknowledge.

Gate 5 – Ancestral Grief: The grief we carry in our bodies from the trials and tribulations of our lineages.

This year, during November I nurtured my grief, I did not turn away from it, I lit fires every day–a candle, a bonfire, a small fire beside the pond, a fire in the fireplace, and the flames comforted me. I sat in meditation, willing myself to soften to the sadness I felt, to let it in, to let it speak. I lay in hot baths filled with bath salts my beloveds had gifted me, sniffing tinctures made for grief, eating pie, walking through the woods, dragging my children along behind, running, and gazing at the moon. And, amazingly, I did not get depressed. I cannot say what will come, but after all these years of running away from the grief without even realizing it, I have finally sat still with it and let it heal me. That is the work of grief and we must engage it if we are to find the wild joy of our living.

I hope to make these next 20 days of darkness sacred through the rituals of lighting fires and candles, sharing food with my family, laughter, and snuggles. I will also be writing here about grief and sorrow, and how embracing this time of darkness can lead to a richer, fuller life, not constricted by a denial of grief. I hope you will join me.

-e