Earth-grief: Conversations for revealing and healing our kinship

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By Bridget Woods

 

South Africa has been, and is, immensely challenging and rewarding territory for me as a facilitator of change and transformation. The polarities of poverty and wealth, integrity and corruption, deep divides and radical inclusion, squalid settlements and pristine wilderness, intuitive indigenous wisdom and rational materialism all come as a package deal. We are already raw and resilient when the pandemic arrives to tenderise, globalise and, at the same time localise us, as it does for the rest of the world. We long to, and do, reach out for each other – across balconies, through glass and over fences. The space and silence created by our withdrawal invites back our wilder life – a genet visits me in my suburban garden and birdsong reaches my ears. They evoke a longing for what seems impossible in the face of a far greater evolutionary force already at work and gaining momentum – planet-wide environmental loss and disruption. 

In the latter part of 2021, co-facilitator and end-of-life companion Leigh Meinert and I were encouraged by our networks in the hospice and sustainability communities to offer a series of group processes over six months, exploring and embracing grief arising from loss in all its many forms. The four stages of ‘The Work that Reconnects’: grounding in gratitude, owning and honouring pain, seeing with new/ancient eyes and going forth (2000) inspired our design for the four in-person gatherings and our online interactions.

Conversation One

Coming from Gratitude

In the face of devastation and tragedy, and especially when we are scared, gratitude grounds us and holds us steady for the work that must be done.’ Joanna Macy

Gratitude for ‘life’, in our selves, each other and the world around us, while attending-to – inviting in, acknowledging and appreciating the many forms of loss in our lives.

.. .. Conversation Two

Owning and Honouring our Pain

The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe.’ Joanna Macy

Being witness to our stories of the many forms of loss and grief that have been present in our lives – its devastation and wisdom. Practices for right relationship and being-with loss and grief.

Conversation Three

Seeing with New/Ancient Eyes

 When we fully honour our many losses, we are called back to a life of connection and intimacy, of feeling and wonder.’  Francis Weller

Reflecting on the heart-opening, enlivening and compassionate insights emerging from our apprenticeship. Ways we come-back-to-life through loss and grief.

.. .. Conversation Four

Going Forth

We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than before.’ Joanna Macy

Practices and strengthened ways to love and live more fully having befriend sorrow.  Articulating our choices, commitments, and acts of courage as we go forth.

Perhaps what was particularly unusual about our approach was our invitation to bring and explore diverse and often unacknowledged forms of loss. For this we have to thank psychologist Francis Weller. His book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, reminds us of the restorative and life-giving capacities of sorrow that is fully (and often collectively) embraced. He describes ‘five gateways’ to enter into an ‘apprenticeship with sorrow’ – the loss of beloved ‘others’, of unrealised expectations and dreams, of places in ourselves untouched by love, as well as ancestral, collective and planetary loss. (Weller, 2015)

We all bring with us the dark undertow of ancestral and collective loss that accompanies our turbulent and violent history.

The 25 participants who have signed up for this six month journey are as representative of the social and cultural diversity of South Africa as they are in their experience of loss. Some have lost several loved ones to COVID and we all feel the loss of an old life and physical connection. Just as tender is the naming of unrealised expectations and dreams, or aspects of ourselves we are ashamed of. We all bring with us the dark undertow of ancestral and collective loss that accompanies our turbulent and violent history. Some of us, including academics in the field of sustainability, bear the burden of accelerating and irreversible planetary loss. 

Some way into our journey, it’s clear we have found in each other the courage to lean into these many faces of loss. Sitting in a circle, sharing our stories, listening deeply, and co-creating rituals hasn’t been easy for those of us who are way more comfortable with data and text. But as we begin to reclaim the lost practices of grieving and healing together – even rather awkwardly drumming, dancing and singing together – we have found ourselves crying, often laughing, reverent and sometimes wildly irreverent, as we find our way through the naming, exploring, witnessing and honouring of our losses.  I am surprised to see how quickly our kinship, our bonds, have been forged in this field of grief right from the first of our conversations. We know each other’s hearts long before we learn what we each do, where we live, or how we live.

I have met dismissal, rebuttal, or a swift change of topic when I have spoken of the enormity of the crisis we have co-created.

However, as I begin to design and prepare for a conversation focused on planetary loss, my co-facilitator finds me unexpectedly hesitant and tearful.  I am aware that many in the group have little or no real awareness of the extent of the ecological destruction well underway, and that for them, this grief might be abstract. I reveal that over many years, I have met dismissal, rebuttal, or a swift change of topic when I have spoken of the enormity of the crisis we have co-created. This decades-long denial has often left me feeling silenced, alienated and helpless – even ashamed. Kindred spirits have been limited to those few immersed in the evidential sciences, tracking and predicting the collapse, or to those whose world view is ecological by nature, and therefore deeply aware of our interdependence and participation in the web of life.

So I have big questions about how we are to grieve planetary loss together – not just our little group, but as a species. Do we need first to have realised we are an inseparable and integral part of the very ecology we are dismembering to grasp the full scale, impact, and urgency of this loss in this sixth great extinction? And how do we not numb out when we do?

Like anyone facing their own potentially terminal illness, we face the stark possibility of our own death on a rapidly warming planet, alongside the daily extinction of species and eco-systems – and then we must acknowledge that it is largely because of us. That’s the cracker. Because of us. The ‘enemy’ in our ‘fight,’ the thing to be ‘fixed’ is not climate change, pollution, fossil fuel, biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse – it is us. 

How on earth do we make sense of that? 

Our very human tendency to avoid, repress or deny difficult realities or emotions is a subtle form of othering.

Paul Hawken points out that in experiencing floods, wildfires, extreme temperatures, and even pandemics, we are effectively being home schooled by earth’s feedback loops. We are being taught that ‘othering,’ whether in terms of viewing and treating a person or groups of people, or nature and climate, as intrinsically different from and alien to ourselves, has consequences. We and everything else on this earth, human or other-than-human, are, and always have been, inseparable; nothing can ultimately be excluded. (Hawken 2021) Additionally our very human tendency to avoid, repress or deny difficult realities or emotions is a subtle form of othering.  We pay the price of repressing or displacing aspects of ourselves with depression, panic attacks, and chronic anxiety. 

Yet even the process of embracing these realities has its own journey, not necessarily linear, but recognisable. Initial shock and denial turn into to pain and guilt, and then to anger and bargaining. A wide range of intense and sometimes overwhelming emotion can mean periods of depression and isolation as well as engagement and reconstruction, until with the help of meaning-making, we may find rest in acceptance. 

Given that participants in the group are at markedly different phases of ecological grief, from uninformed to those only just holding it together, this next Living with Loss conversation must cover some big ground. 

I feel odd and alone in my already well-honed feelings of guilt and betrayal, rage and resignation.

The facts are useful to inform, educate and sometimes crash through denial, but they leave us in our heads, and tempted to reason our way out and away from fully embodying what they tell us. I find myself infuriated by the last few minutes of an Attenborough documentary that reassure me there is ‘still time’ and offer some neat and simple solutions to the complex mess just outlined – but perhaps, for some, it makes the reality a little easier to digest. The brutal facts in the recent IPCC report and at Glasgow Cop26 get little attention and even less action.  I feel odd and alone in my already well-honed feelings of guilt and betrayal, rage and resignation.

On the other hand, stories or images of the very real suffering of our fellow planetary inhabitants, can be so shocking as to immobilise, even traumatise. In my own experience, recurring images of a confused and dying orangutan and her baby, repeatedly climbing up and down a single dead tree trunk in a forest laid waste to palm oil, haunts me for weeks. 

So how do we journey together when some have little to no sense of this loss, some are numb and overwhelmed by its immensity and others like me, are experiencing any number of emotions typical in grief – rage, sadness, anxiety, depression, helplessness and hopelessness.  

Much neglected in the West but still alive in our African traditions, rituals expand our sense of time and place and serve to honour, comfort, and strengthen kinship. We decide to build two important processes into the conversation – one that asks for mentorship from wiser ones and the other to remind us of our very recent emergence on a planet that has ultimately always sustained and supported life – over billions of years. 

…the calling is counter-intuitive: it must be to re-member ourselves into a living community far older and wiser than we are…

In naming an entire new age, the Anthropocene, after ourselves, we acknowledge humankind’s central role in either the demise or restoration of the finely balanced biosphere that gave life to us. The responsibility is enormous and yet the calling is counter-intuitive: it must be to re-member ourselves into a living community far older and wiser than we are, with a humility, a not-knowing, a deep attention and a willingness to ask for help. This resizing of my self in cosmic time and space, always softens and surrenders me. 

So we begin our earth-grief conversation with an invocation to our ancestors. We kneel and sit on the hospice lawns behind Shaun, an African earth jurisprudence practitioner with a deep knowledge of indigenous knowledge systems. He calls on his own Zulu traditions, making offerings of tobacco snuff and leading our requests to our deceased great and grand mothers and fathers for clarity, guidance and support. However unfamiliar these humble prayers and ancient rituals may be to some of our participants, they carry a reverence and respect that gives our work together significance. I feel a flood of gratitude: of course, I remember, we are not alone. 

We follow this with a deep time walk, taking one step for each of 200 million years in earth history, marking the great evolutions of life and pausing for each of the five previous extinctions. We stop at the last micro movement that indicates humanity’s emergence, absorbing our microscopic place in this vast cosmic unfolding. It brings a heightened sobriety and attentiveness in the room, as if this vast and mysterious patterning and re-patterning of life is on the edge of another precipice, but this time, one we have been party to creating. I am reminded of Bayo Akomolafe’s words that “times are urgent, let us slow down.” (Akomolafe, 2021)

Somehow we do seem more able to attend-to and be-with the unbearable when the story is told and heard through the heart.

If there is any chance of meeting each other in this field of grief from our very different places, there needs to be a delicate mix of fact, feeling and embodiment in the experience. The stunning images and narration by Jane Goodall in ‘Mother Earth’ simply and gently point to the impacts of our self-serving cleverness and invites us instead to see and act from love, wisdom and interconnectedness. (Goodall 2017). We follow this with Chris Jordan’s reverent, terrible and beautiful images of albatross carcasses packed with plastic. His camera captures how his love and grief are inseparable. He describes his film Midway as “a love story for our time from the heart of the Pacific” with an invitation to journey with him “through the eye of beauty across an ocean of grief, and beyond.” (Jordan, 2017). This profoundly moving storytelling leaves us quiet and connected. Somehow we do seem more able to attend-to and be-with the unbearable when the story is told and heard through the heart.

Our most important work of the day takes the form of a system constellation. System Constellations bring the full intelligence of body, heart and mind (somatic, emotional and rational) to work with, and better understand, related elements within a system. This engagement with and in the system beyond the usual mindset and habits, enables fresh insights and relational shifts in often surprising and unpredictable ways. 

One of our participants, a woman training as a sangoma (African shaman), takes a central position in the room as ‘Mother Earth’ and one by one, we take up a role and position as we find and explore a relationship with her. 

At the first of our gatherings, Jess, who leads and teaches in a sustainability institute, expressed her fear at opening to the depth and strength of her grief, compounded over years by an academic intimacy with devastating statistics. Now she moves into the constellation and positions herself with her back to the kneeling woman, our ‘Mother Earth.’  She speaks. “There is no wild refuge left. No place on earth that is unharmed by human touch. Arctic Polar bears carry our industrial contaminants in their bodies… the coral reefs teeming with life that I marvelled at over years as a diver, are now bleached graveyards…” Her voice catches.

As a lecturer on ecological systems, Odirilwe knows only too well the ways our extractive patterns are unravelling the web of life and how he has compartmentalised his grief under the text books.  He has been quiet in earlier conversations but as he finds his place in the constellation, he expresses his anguish for the loss of wild creatures. Of all the mammals on earth today, he tells us, only 4% are wild. The extent to which animals now serve as food for a single species reverberates around the circle. As Henry, a student of ecology, shares his shame for the continued assault on the Earth’s great forests, ‘Mother Earth’ curls up on the floor and weeps. 

Nevertheless, some of us step in defiantly as fossil fuel, capitalism, consumerism, and colonialism, towering over ‘Mother Earth’ but unable to look her in the eye. Another participant finds his place curled up close to Mother Earth, as the indigenous peoples. 

This multifaceted grief for our wounded world keeps articulating itself through and between us.

This multifaceted grief for our wounded world keeps articulating itself through and between us. It’s becoming hard to tell where ‘I’ begin and end, and even what is right and wrong.  Our ‘Mother Earth’ is no longer weeping alone.

It is then that a few brave individuals step forward bringing gestures of compassion into this crowd of sorrows. These gentle expressions of surrender, acceptance and love soften the defiance and rage and shift some of the stances. Lali, who works with traumatised youth, stands over us, singing a song of comfort, and a kind of grace descends on our constellation. 

Nothing is solved – many still have their backs turned to ‘Mother Earth’ who is calmer now – yet everything is different. We have come back to life as this microcosm of kinship and co-evolution between multiple forms and expressions of earthly life has played out on the carpet in the middle of our circle. We quietly disband.

…whenever we journey (together if we can) into the heart of grief, we meet her close companion, love.

After our earth-grief constellation we take time out in the hospice gardens to craft a lament and love letter. As in coming to terms with any endings, it feels necessary to honour Gaia, to acknowledge our waywardness and to ask for forgiveness.  In taking this kind of responsibility for what is harmful and hurtful we reaffirm our intra-being with the earth. We are getting to trust a strange truth, that whenever we journey (together if we can) into the heart of grief, we meet her close companion, love.  

We close our earth-grief conversation with an invitation; to invoke a descendant, seven generations from now, to honour the life we each have lived; to acknowledge a way we have seen and been in the world and the gift this has been for others and the world around us. How hard it is for us to imagine another valuing who we are in these strange and difficult times, yet how beautiful when the answers come, knitting our kinship with all things, past, present, and future, visible and invisible, with strands of love. 

Thank you, our descendants say to us in turn, for healing the separation, for trusting the stillness, for being present, for opening your heart, for knowing there was always enough, for loving your shadow and shame, for staying with the trouble, for leaving room for the unimaginable, for taking on a life – and for living and for loving so well.

So as we spiral into Going Forth, we recognise a dual role: as companions at the end of the life of a system which no longer serves, and as midwives helping to birth the new. Perhaps it isn’t helpful to rage at the already dying and at ourselves, but instead to witness with compassion the dissolution of institutions, patterns and mindsets and, without any preconceptions of what is birthing, simply give our full attention to how we can be of service to life itself.

…we learnt that grieving together reveals a deep and healing kinship, and a radical form of inclusivity, that might otherwise be called love.

There is no recipe for loving and living more fully with our earth-grief or indeed for creating meeting places between the uninitiated and those in the depths of it, but we did learn a few things that may serve us in these pivotal times: That sharing stories of loss break open our hearts and connect us, that our bodies when given a chance, intuitively find ways to collectively heal, that ritual moves us through grief with grace, and that gratitude is indeed the well-spring for strength and courage. A vaster perspective beyond the limitations of space and time reassures us that in some way the innate intelligence of life has ‘got this’, but perhaps most importantly, we learnt that grieving together reveals a deep and healing kinship, and a radical form of inclusivity, that might otherwise be called love.  

As for me, I learnt that far from being odd and alone in my earth-grief, it is precisely this that confirms my inseparability from all life on this planet. To paraphrase the beloved Joanna Macy, our anguish, anger or fear arises out of the depth and the truth of our connectedness with all beings. In my heart I know that the song that wants to sing itself through us, is both a beautiful requiem for an irreplaceable planet and a song of joyous rebirth. (Macy, 2000). 


Earth-grief; Conversations for revealing and healing our kinship © 2022 by Bridget Woods is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/


Macy, J.  (2000). Personal guidelines. Retrieved from https://workthatreconnects.org/spiral/the-great-turning/personal-guidelines/

The Work That Reconnects. (2000). The spiral of the work that reconnects.
Retrieved from https://workthatreconnects.org/spiral/

Weller, F. (2015). The Five gates of grief. Chapter 3. The wild edge of sorrow: Rituals of renewal and the sacred work of grief. 

Hawken, P. (2021). Calling team earth, ending the climate crisis in one generation. Podcast hosted by Tami Simon or Sounds True. Sep 28, 2021. Available at https://resources.soundstrue.com/podcast/calling-team-earth-ending-the-climate-crisis-in-one-generation and Hawken, P. (2021). Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation Podcast hosted by Jeff Krasno of Commune. Sep 23, 2021. Available at https://www.onecommune.com/blog/podcast-paul-hawken-ending-the-climate-crisis-in-one-generation

The Work That Reconnects. (2000). The spiral of the work that reconnects.
Retrieved from https://workthatreconnects.org/spiral/
Akomolafe, B. (2021). Slowing down and surrendering human centrality. Greendreamer podcast episode 317. Available at https://greendreamer.com/podcast/dr-bayo-akomolafe-the-emergence-network

Goodall, J. (2017). Mother Earth. Video available at https://youtu.be/48mxaQtbUdU

Jordan, C.(2017). Midway, a love story for our time from the heart of the Pacific.  Film trailer available at https://youtu.be/iQQIYKEY9Bw


As a consultant, teacher and facilitator, Zimbabwean-born Bridget partners diverse Africa-based organisations in their leadership and organisational development with initiatives that include retreats, summits, team workshops, and next level leadership programmes. She brings skills in change and complexity, leadership maturity, regenerative organisation and mindfulness. Bridget’s studies and work in the evolution of egoic to ecological worldviews are greatly influenced by Buddhist ecologist Joanna Macy, Integralist Ken Wilber and ego-development theorist Susanne Cook-Greuter. websites: www.fireglow.co.za www.geniusoflife.co.za

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