Why grief work?

My conscious relationship with grief started to develop more than a decade ago when I began attending grief rituals with Sobonfu Some. Sobonfu came to the West from Burkina Faso, in West Africa, to teach the ancient wisdom, rituals and the practices from her lineage, the Dagara people. The Dagara have a profound connection to what we could refer to as the "original instructions" of humans living on this planet. During that same time, I was actively engaging in community building, working with local families in the realm of education and nature connection. My experience with grief work has been specifically linked to connection with myself, with others, with spirit —  unlearning patterns of disconnection and allowing natural patterns of connection to be restored. And, from the very early stages, it became clear that creating spaces for connecting in community would become a significant part of this work.

So when my husband, David, was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in May 2013, it came as no surprise that people would point out “You know, everything you’ve done in your life up until this time has prepared you for what's coming.” Even in my shock, while feeling (for lack of a better word) devastated, this remark rang deeply true for me. Although I'd attended grief rituals for years, I'd never experienced the loss of a close loved one. When David was first diagnosed, I had an intuitive knowing that I would, one day, share our story.  At the time, of course, I hoped the storyline would be one of miraculous cure. That was not the case. Instead I get to share a different story. One of deep healing and intimacy, community building and transformation.

Throughout my experience with David's disease and his subsequent death, I would receive what I have come to call memos from life — bits of information and wisdom that I'd somehow never come across, even though I'd been alive on the planet for a half century.  Over and over again, I found myself astonished, wondering how I'd made it to 50 years old not knowing much at all about the nature of life. Why had I never heard about the inextricable connection between love and grief? Between vibrant life and death? The loss of David has also been a loss of innocence, walking a new path of heartbreak with my eyes wide open, knowing with my whole being that everything I love I will lose.  And choosing to keep loving which has expanded my heart and appreciation for life in ways I never knew were possible.

These insights brought me a sense of responsibility — a calling to share the memos, to honor my experience with David. Some days, I feel it so strongly that I want to shout it all from the mountain top. Although this is a calling I never would have chosen for myself (I feel it chose me), I'm honored to pass on these memos, these bits of truth. In many ways, these memos are the reason why grief matters. Because through our shared experiences of individual and collective grief, we can come together to create a trail of breadcrumbs for our future selves and future generations to follow.

Collectively, it is time. We are all being called to develop a relationship with grief — whether it's sourced from the loss of that which we love, from the sorrows of the world or from "what we expected and did not receive", as Francis Weller puts it.  At this point in history, we’re being asked to show up as our biggest and brightest selves. It’s an “all hands on deck” kind of moment in time. The work that must be done includes learning about this thing called grief, feeling the emotions around it and mastering the skill set required to dance with it, so we can each bring our gifts fully forward and discover what’s possible.


Grief is a difficult friend, the kind that will steamroll your plans and barge in uninvited and overstay its welcome. And yet I am so grateful to have allowed myself to befriend my own grief. Journeying with grief (and allowing myself to be journeyed by it) has been the most deeply transformative thing I have ever experienced. Had I not befriended grief, had I declined the apprenticeship grief offered me (as Francis Weller puts it), I wouldn't know how alive I can truly feel. I can only imagine the stagnation, the isolation, the avoidant behaviors in which I'd be entangled (and the myriad of unintended consequences across all aspects of my life) had I not answered when grief came knocking.

We hear stories about people withering away after a huge loss or becoming paralyzed by trying to preserve life as it once was. May these stories serve as cautionary tales of unmetabolized grief. Choosing not to deal with our grief is only one path out of many we can choose. Some people believe this is the only path. They put a lot of energy into trying to jump over the barriers grief creates, searching for a work around, an easy way to simply not have to deal with it. I fully understand the desire to bolt. After all, why would you want to intentionally dive into something that feels so dark?

My experience is there is no real work around.  The only way around is through, by allowing the grief to journey you, by surrendering to it — over and over again.  It’s not easy, but it’s also not easy to stuff the grief away. When you compartmentalize grief and try to sweep it under the rug, it leaks out in unintentional ways. It can surface as irritation, a defended heart, anger, loneliness, etc., and it will ultimately impact all aspects of your life. Many paths begin with grief and we lack information and guidance about how to walk them. Grief can also be a pathway to fully realizing our gifts, to becoming our most radiant selves. When you allow grief to move through you, joy is the natural consequence.

Whether you choose to surrender to grief or tuck it away, both routes are challenging. But by choosing to surrender to grief, you get to access joy in a profound, transformative way, whereas if you stuff grief under, it will build up and leak out sideways.  Needless to say, I highly recommend the deep dive. There is a wholeness in welcoming grief, in reclaiming all the parts of ourselves, in remembering the true nature of who we have always been and who we are becoming at our core. This wholeness tastes sweet because it is earned, it rewards our bravery.

When I speak about befriending grief, it's important to remember this does not mean grief should be a constant. By its very nature, grief is movement. It’s a form of sacred energy in motion.  When I recommend welcoming grief, I mean it as if hosting a visitor — not a roommate. When grief knocks on your door, invite it in, pour it a cup of tea then let it back out the door. This cycle of coming and going keeps the grief process in motion, and allows you to peel off deeper layers with each visit.  The journey with grief is a spiral path; each time we touch it, we do so from a new place.

Navigating our own discomfort is a vital component of the grief journey. When the discomfort of grief becomes a habit, this results in stagnation. Some people will build an addition for grief onto their home. They get stuck with grief and the stuckness eventually becomes "comfortable".  But the discomfort we experience in grief can also become a practice, a conscious choice to feel the grief and allow it move through you. You don't need to build the addition on your house — let grief move on instead.

When grief has moved through you, it will leave you transformed. Renewed. Altered. What the experiencing of grief takes away makes room for change. Suddenly you find that you've made space for a new chapter in life, one that’s unfamiliar and, therefore, most likely uncomfortable. Where there’s discomfort, there’s both potential magic and potential avoidance. Be aware of this tendency to avoid as you move through the deep dive into grief and step out on the other side. New shoes often require some getting used to, no matter how much we want them.

Like wildfire burning through a landscape, grief can change everything.  And like wildfire, the new growth can look very different from what existed before. Whether you are actively grieving, experiencing the dissolution of your reality, navigating the space in-between and wondering who you are now, or ready to emerge into your next chapter, grief will meet you where you are. I’m honored to offer teachings, stories, and invitations to interactive experiences with the intention of supporting you in developing a relationship with this wild force that is grief.  I invite you to let grief rewild you.


© 2016-, Donna Helete. All Rights Reserved.