The Five Gates of Grief

The Five Gates of Grief are listed by Francis Weller in The Wild Edge of Sorrow.  Quotes from the book are given in italics.

The First Gate: Everything We Love, We will Lose

I remember when Shenanigan died, and Bella, knowing that grief is the price of love.  I chose to get Mocha, knowing that someday I will grieve her death.  I have lost very little that I love to death.  The people I loved who died, Ron and Evvie, had not been part of my life for years, so I didn’t feel the loss as much as I would have, if they had been a part of my daily life.  Older women who were important to me: Mama Greene, Aunt Betty, Aunt Carolyn, I lost to senility before they died.  I lost my parents to alcohol before I was born.  When they died, I felt relief.  I have lost a lot of things to depression, friendships I was unable to keep up, work I loved — showing Sacred Sites, Dancing the Sacred Calendar — that I was unable to promote.  Actually I guess I lost my marriage to depression and also to PTSD.

“My 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.”   p25

The Second Gate: The Places That Have Not Known Love

What we learn from our parents: “the slow insidious process of carving up the self to fit into the world of adults.  We become convinced that our joy, sadness, needs, sensuality, and so forth are the cause of our unacceptability … that these pieces of who we are … are, in fact, shameful…”    p 34

One of the things that has confused me is that everything I was, was not OK for my mother at some time.  My joy, my sorrow, my enthusiasm, my curiosity, my creativity, my sensitivity, my needs, all would bring a reprimand from my mother.  This didn’t leave very much.  Thank God I went to a good school, where my creativity and intelligence were supported.  But I still find it difficult to be creative without support.  I bought myself paper and paints after going to Aviva Gold’s Painting from the Source, but I was never able to do very much with them until I started seeing an art therapist.  One creative outlet I do have active in my life is writing, but writing is mostly intellectual.  My other creative outlet is teaching circle dance, and it’s the group support that makes that possible.  Something I only noticed on rereading Weller is the presence of needs on the list of things not loved.  I realize that my needs have totally disappeared, I have a very hard time recognizing and owning them, and as for loving them!  My needs are a nuisance that I should just ignore — I’m rarely able to become aware of when I’m tired or hungry — taking care of my own needs only became important when I had to do it in order not to become a nuisance to those around me.  My needs for comfort, support, to be part of a group working together on a project, have never been acknowledged or allowed.  I’m beginning to allow myself to feel my grief for the fully creative life I never got to live.

There is too much here, too many quotes I want to write down, especially on trauma.  I think I have to go on, and then come back.

The Third Gate: The Sorrows of the World

From where I sit, I can see trees, rocks, grass, bird feeders.  The trees are second growth, they are spindly and crowded, this lot was clear-cut before it was sold.  The rocks were put in place by a bulldozer.  Grass is grass, it always returns.  The bird feeders are put out there by me, and I watch chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, juncos, siskins, redpolls, gold finches, red squirrels, chipmunks.  I have seen a fox out there and a pair of cardinals.  I watch the seasonal changes: green trees, colorful fall trees, bare winter trees, white snow, and then the twigs growing red in the spring.  I can only hang the feeders in the winter.  In the spring, as soon as the bears come out of hibernation, my feeders are stolen away.  I have lost a large number of feeders, and now am wiser and bring them in as soon as the weather gets warm.  I have seen bear, moose and deer, and their tracks in the snow.

When I was a child, there was a big woods behind our house.  I spent a lot of time out there.  I was able to roam over three hillsides separated by three streams.  The first one was what I later learned was second growth, spindly crowded trees, lots of undergrowth.  The second hill had bigger trees with more space between them.  The third hill had huge beech trees, with a lot of space between and the ground was covered with only mayapples.  Later, when I learned about forest succession, I understood the difference.

Now I understand how lucky I was to grow up with so much access to nature.  But it means I have a lot of pain as well.  It hurts every time I see a dead animal on the road.  It hurts that I no longer see snakes and toads and frogs on a trail I hike regularly.  It hurts to know that the wood thrush, with its incredible song, is on the endangered list because its winter habitat is being destroyed.  I used to push my grief down, criticizing myself for being “too sensitive.”  But I have also found myself unable to love human beings, but feeling a great love for trees and birds, the mountains and the ocean.  It’s good to know that I am not alone in my grief, and that many other people share my sadness.

“Human biologist Paul Shepard said ‘The grief and sense of loss, that we often interpret as a failure in our personality, is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.’”   p50

The Fourth Gate: What We Expected and Did Not Receive

“There is another gate to grief, one difficult to identify, yet it is very present in each of our lives.  This threshold into sorrow calls forward the things that we may not even realize we have lost.  I have written elsewhere about the expectations coded into our physical and psychic lives.  When we are born, and as we pass through childhood, adolescence, and the stages of adulthood, we are designed to anticipate a certain quality of welcome, engagement, touch, and reflection.

“How do we even know that we miss these experiences?  I don’t know how to answer 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.  This realization calls forth grief.”   p54

I felt this wave of recognition when Erica started giving me constant positive feedback, telling me I was brave, telling me of the loving look on my face, pointing out the comforting position of my hands.  I had never had anyone notice those sorts of things about me, and tell me about them.  This is what is called “mirroring” and it’s what the mother does with her baby to give her a sense of who she is.  Whatever my mother did failed to give me a correct sense of who I am.  When Erica started telling me good things about myself, I felt like a starving person presented with a feast.  I felt a sense of delighted joy: THIS is what I was suppose to get and have been hungry for all my life.  As the weeks went on I began to find it difficult to take in, I would put my hands up as if to say “Stop!  Too much!”  I don’t know why I am so resistant.  Possibly because it turned my life upside down.  The sense of “me” that I had had all my life was at least familiar if not exactly comfortable, and now it was being destroyed.  But if I let myself believe I was the exuberant, creative, courageous person Erica was describing, I would have been guilty of the worst possible sin according to my mother.  Over and over she had said to me “Don’t think you’re so great.”  So I did my best to be small enough for her.

I have found this extremely difficult to write.  I’m feeling so much pain.  I have to keep stopping and watch the birds coming to the feeder, be aware of the flames in the fireplace, and of the warmth of my dog next to me.

Stuck to my refrigerator with a magnet is a print out of a blog post on Mary Oliver’s line “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”  I say “If my life has been narrow, if I’ve failed to live as wide and wild and courageous and generous and creative a life as I would have liked to, and as I think I had the talent and capacity for, it’s not because I was weak and cowardly but because I was up against major damage I couldn’t even see.”  The loss of that life is another reason to grieve.

“We are designed to receive touch, to hear sounds and words entering out ears that soothe and comfort.  We are shaped for closeness and for intimacy with our surroundings.  Our profound feelings of lacking something are not a reflection of a personal failure, but the reflection of a society that has failed to offer us what we were designed to expect.”    p55

“Another facet of loss at this gate concerns the expectation of purpose in our lives.  Deep 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.” p57

One of the most painful things in my life is having trouble finding people who want what I have to give, and when I find people who do value what I have to give, I don’t believe them.  I don’t begin to know how to “market” myself.  That’s just too hard, most likely because of Mom’s injunction to not think I’m so great.  My gifts are: teaching traditional dances, creating special rituals for seasonal celebrations and other occasions, dancing the Sacred Calendar, the Sacred Sites presentation, teaching archeoastronomy, teaching Observational Astronomy.

The Fifth Gate: Ancestral Grief

“This is the grief we carry in our bodies from sorrows experienced by our ancestors.  Much of this grief lingers in a layer of silence, unacknowledged.  Many of our ancestors arrived in the Americas after leaving their homes, family members, and communities behind.  Some arrived here after being abducted and forced into slavery.  These generations often survived without a feeling of home, living with only marginal connections with the Old Ways to guide them.  The traditions that had nourished and held their people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years were difficult to sustain on the new continent.”  p63

Remembering the movie about the Irish immigrant (Brooklyn) I think about my Scots and Irish ancestors, and the ones who left their families behind to come to America.  They knew at the time that they would probably never see each other again.  I can feel the sadness of those left behind, and of those who went to a new country.  “I never knew what happened to them.”  This sentence made me practically cry, and it resonated with me for quite a while, and I couldn’t remember any incident in my life that would account for it.  I also feel pain for the Indigenous people of this continent, how they were driven out, massacred, forced to make a living in a habitat they do not know…   I’ve watched Dakota 38 many times, heard their history, watched with gladness as they reclaim their pride in a ritual of reconciliation and forgiveness.

There were also the family losses: of my Uncle Jesse who died at age 19 from leukemia.  I remember Mother saying he was her boy, that she dressed him and took care of him.  She must have felt his loss, as did Granny & Gramp and Aunt Carolyn.  But I’m sure he was never adequately mourned.  Those were the days of the stiff upper lip, of “carrying on with head held high,” of never showing your emotions.  When I cried I was sent to my room.  Aunt Carolyn’s first husband died in the war, we assumed in combat, but I heard from someone, don’t remember who, can’t assess its truth, that he killed himself.  Another family secret never told.

I think of my delight and sense of connection to my Celtic ancestors, to their music and dance, to the history written in the neolithic stones, and to the “old nature religion of Western Europe.”  The books that spoke of ley-lines and cosmic energies, my own travels through Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.  Somehow that made up for the rupture with my ancient heritage caused by workaholic and crazy grandparents and alcoholic parents.

When we dance the old traditional folk dances I often feel a sense of all the circles of people who’ve danced that dance, way into the past.  When I was first teaching folk dance in Franconia, we met in the gym of the elementary school.  When the weather was right, we danced outside.  One spring Equinox, we had been dancing inside all winter, but it was sunny, though there was still considerable snow, especially on the mountains.  We found a paved patch near one of the doors which was clear of snow, we were in the sun and could see the mountains, and we began to dance.  Suddenly a bird flew by.  I had the oddest feeling, I saw us all wearing print skirts over many petticoats and many colored kerchiefs on our heads.  The words that came were “We’ve been doing this for thousands of years.”  Later, after we had built Neskaya, Laura Shannon came to teach a training in “Women’s Ritual Dance,” dances she had learned in Greece, Armenia, Bulgaria and Romania.  At one point she taught us a song, sung by two sets of women singing alternate lines, holding the last note so that they overlapped.  We were outside in the stone circle with tall trees looking down.  She started beating a drum and sang the verses while we sang the chorus, and danced.  Again I had that feeling of being part of a continuum who have danced this dance to the sound of their own voices for millennia.  I feel hugely fortunate to have connected with this much of my ancestral heritage and honored to be among the people who are trying to keep it alive.

A friend told me about Francis Weller.  This man is amazing.  Here he is talking about the five gates and more.


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