From Grief to Joy

After loss, Franbcis Weller advises, find other people with whom to express your grief. This is not the time for self-reliance. It hurts to keep grief private. Mourning with social support leads to the possibility of joy. That is his basic message in his new book.

As a psychotherapist he helps clients go beyond the U.S. pattern of friends saying, only a brief interval after the loss, "put it behind you." And as a workshop leader, Weller arranges the equivalent of a village to support, at least briefly, a member who has suffered a loss.

Now North Atlantic Press has has published some of his wisdom in The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grieso. In nine poetic and often counter-intuitive chapters, Weller is inspired in part by the recent insights of great psychologists such as C.J. Jung and by the long-time pattern of human evolving in tribes and villages, within whicb our ancestors could share grief.

He was helped in the latter by co-teaching with Malidoma Some, who comes from a country in West Africa where people still live in tribes and villages. Weller learned the former, the psychology, while earning two masters degrees at John F. Kennedy University.

The author sees the US as a culture that encourages mainly the upward journey (or as the state of New York says in its motto, "excelsior"). But as shamanic cultures know, it is the downward journey that makes it possible to move into joy and, as Weller's subtitle says, "renewal."
Weller has brought his message to the men's movement, to patients with terminal cancer, to observers who see the "ongoing destruction of our planet," as well as to private clients. He has observed an increased willingness to move into public grief. In his own training, Weller initially found it hard to express his grief in public, but hugely rewarding once, as he says, "the dam broke."

Weller uses the metaphor of "gates" with regard to grief. He discusses five of them, starting with the gate of what Buddhists call impermanence. Second is the gate of "places that have not known love." Third: the sorrows of the world. Fourth: dashed expectations. And fifth: "ancestral grief."
Like so much else, grief has been in the closet, either denied or not ready for prime time. Weller writes about "a layer of silence." I recall meeting a veteran of World War Two at a party and asking him about his experience in Europe. He said he had never talked about it, in part because no one who could understand had ever asked him and really wanted to listen. It was then 40 years after the en of that war. (Disclosure: speaking of then, I should add that Mr. Weller wrote the Foreword to Gift of Darkness.)

The author knows there are even more gates into grief, one being trauma, whether suffered in war or sexual abuse, for example. If we ever notice an end to progress (for many, purchasing power stagnated decades ago), that would be another gate.

In our culture it's counter-intuitive to think that, as Weller puts it, stories of sorrow shared in a group, could possibly be "rituals of renewal." The author quotes Joanna Macy's claim that "the heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe." When I first heard that claim, working in citizen diplomacy as Macy and her late husband Fran did, I was skeptical. How would dwelling on sorrow lead to anything positive? I was wrong, and I'm not the only one.

Weller's book on "the wild edge of sorrow" represents a challenge to denial, whether of loss or dangers, and a celebration of working together rather than singly. Above all, it offers an entry to what he calls "the healing ground."