Grief and joy walk hand in hand, and you cannot have one without the other. -Sobonfu Some
It has been a stormy end of summer and fall, with many powerful changes afoot for all of us at the farm. Each of us is experiencing major transformation in different ways, and many astrological forecasts have indicated storms that can shake and release the parts of our selves and lives that do not serve. (For more about this, see Stargazer Li’s blog and podcasts: http://stargazerli.com/2016/11/gratitude-amidst-the-storm/)
A lot of old patterns and stagnant energies are moving and changing, and with that comes a lot of emotion! It is important to honor and make space for our feelings so that we can ride the waves and come out joyful on the other side. To this end, we hosted a small grief ritual on the full moon in November, informed by the teachings of Sobonfu Some (www.sobonfu.com), a West African keeper of ritual who for many years has facilitated grief rituals throughout the American west.
Grief altar from Seattle grief ritual with Sobonfu Some, 2015.
Here is the story of what we did at the grief ritual we created at the farm:
In the afternoon we cleared out a corner of a room designated for the grief shrine or altar. We cleansed the space and asked permission from Spirit to build a grief altar there. Then we gathered black and blue fabrics and pinned them to the wall to create a cone shape similar to the one pictured above but smaller, draping them down onto the ground. We set candles at the edge to mark the boundary (you don’t want to cross it during the grief ritual because it is seen as a portal to the Spirit world and we want to remain living) and a bowl of water with a candle in it in the center (to absorb the grief energy).
Everyone had arrived by early evening and we shared a brief meal together. Then Tracy taught everyone a song, based on the song Sobonfu teaches coming from the Dagara tribe, with these lyrics:
“Hey, you are not alone now.
Hey, I am here beside you.
Hey, we are not alone now.“
This song is set to a backdrop of drums and shakers, which we did our best to keep going throughout the whole time although we only had a small number of people so at times nearly everyone was visiting the grief shrine.
Next we gathered facing the grief shrine and lit the candles on it. We invoked the Spirits of Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Mineral, Nature, the Moon, and Grandparents and Children. Each of these beings was addressed by whoever felt called to step forward and say a prayer inviting that spirit and its unique gifts to be with us and assist us in doing our work with the shrine.
Then we began singing the song, and the shrine was open. Whenever someone felt a lot of emotion welling up, they went to the shrine and sat or knelt on the ground, and simply let their feelings flow toward the altar. Meanwhile, someone from the rest of the group followed them and put a firm hand on their back, witnessing their process and keeping watch over them, and being available should they request to be held. Everyone visited the shrine, sometimes multiple people at a time and sometimes just one. Some people screamed, some people sobbed, some people sat quietly, but all had a friend behind them to witness and support their process. (If the supporter began grieving, they raised two fingers for two people to step in and support them and the person they were helping so that they could step aside and kneel to grieve also.)
This went on for several hours, with the song continuing the whole time. We had agreed in the beginning to close the shrine at a particular time so that most people could be present all the way through the end. When it was time to close, we all held hands and stood facing the shrine singing the song extra loud and slow for the last time. Then we thanked the spirits for being with us and helping us to process our emotions, speaking aloud.
One person who felt grounded stepped into the shrine and picked up the bowl of water, passing it with eye contact to another who had volunteered to pour the water out on the earth. The person who poured out the water was asked to take a shower with salt water and change his clothes. When he came back into the room he was welcomed with cheers, smiles, clapping, and a lively round of “This Little Light of Mine”. Then he laid on the ground and we massaged him, expressing our gratitude for releasing the heavy burdens we had stored in that water.
(In the ritual Sobonfu facilitates, each person speaks the grief or griefs they are dealing with into a bundle of small items – items from nature, or from their personal life – and this pile of grief bundles gets buried at the end of the ritual. We didn’t do this because our shrine was only open for a few hours and we wanted more of that time to be available for grieving. Instead we treated the water on the shrine as our collective grief bundle.)
We cleaned up the space a little, chatted or sat together, sang a few songs, and then people left. Everyone was instructed to bathe with salt water and wash their clothes with salt water when they got home. The shrine was left up in case it needed to be opened again in the coming days, and after that we gathered all the items that were on it and either laundered them with salt water or soaked them in salt water for a day.
This was a very powerful experience for everyone, and all the participants said they felt really supported and also much lighter afterwards.
You can create this at home, all you need is a space and some fabric, candles, and a bowl of water. You can even visit your grief altar alone, or have a permanent one set up somewhere that you can open and visit whenever you need to. Just be sure to ask permission from Spirit and make a clear distinction when you open it and close it, with Spirit invocation at the beginning and thanks at the end.