Francis Weller on the five gates of grief, and the joy that lies beyond
Psychotherapist Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, is on the staff at Commonweal Cancer Help Program in Bolinas, California. In his work, Weller speaks of what he calls the five gates of grief. Grief is more than an emotion; it is also a core faculty of being human. Through the rites of grief, we are ripened as human beings, Weller writes. Grief invites gravity and depth into our world. With experience, we develop the capacity to metabolize sorrow into something medicinal for our soul and the anima mundi, the soul of the world.
Francis Weller spoke with CATALYST writers Erin Geesaman Rabke and Carl Rabke in anticipation of Weller’s forthcoming visit to Salt Lake City for a meeting with the Jung Society of Utah in November.
CATALYST: Francis, speak to us about the five gates of grief.
Francis Weller: When people arrive at my office, typically the complaint is one of depression. When I sit with them for any length of time, it becomes apparent that what they’re suffering from isn’t so much depression but oppression. They are weighted down by the unmetabolized sorrows of a lifetime. Not being able to identify them as grief, as losses, it’s hard to really mourn them.
Grief arrives at our door in many, many shapes. But culturally, the only one that’s really acknowledged is the death of someone or the ending of something that we love—a relationship or a house or a pet. Our grief is given credence by others in those moments.
The first gate is that everything you love, you will lose. That’s a fierce way to start. But it’s a deep, inherent truth that we get to keep nothing. Everything that we love, we will lose at some point along the way, either by our own disappearance or by theirs.
The other four gates operate covertly. They don’t arise to the level of being honored. So we’re left to carry in our backpacks, which soon turn into U-Hauls, this enormous legacy of sorrow.
The second gate is those parts of us that have never known love. I don’t know about your life, but in my family, my upbringing in the Catholic Church and in the education system, I was told very clearly what parts of me were not acceptable. My wildness, my exuberance, my eroticism, my imagination, my sadness, my anger… these all became pieces of me that I was told in overt ways by punishment or by shame were not allowable, so they had to be gotten rid of. Psyche longs for wholeness. It wants all of its capacities to be manifest and expressed in the world. So anytime it loses a piece, that’s a loss. And any loss is worthy of grief. But we cannot grieve for something that we’ve learned to hold with contempt. When those pieces arise in somebody else, we also judge and belittle them—or envy them, at times, as well.
The third gate is the sorrows of the world. This one is coming at us with such intensity and speed that we cannot duck it any longer—the Amazon fires, the disappearing glaciers. We just held the ritual a month ago for close to 200 whales that washed up on the shores of the coastline from Mexico to Alaska. These whales are starving to death.
These are the sorrows of the world. They touch us every day. For a long time we saw them as something outside of ourselves. But now we’re really beginning to feel how inseparable our experience of psyche is from what’s happening in the world. There’s a collective anxiety about what is happening to the fabric of not just society and culture, but to the very fabric of the environment. We’re in dangerous straits.
That’s the third gate. It doesn’t get easier from here.
The fourth gate is what we expected and did not receive. How could you long for something if it’s never been there? Well, it’s always been there. It’s what we expected and did not receive. It’s as if we were wired for the whole human experience that our deep time ancestors knew by heart, through experience.
They would gather to share rituals of grief and gratitude. They would sing together. They would share meals together. They would share dreams. They would hunt together. They would gather food and firewood. They would tell stories at night. They knew the myths, they knew the intimacies of the land base that they were on. This is what shaped us over millions of years and most precisely in the last 300,000 years when we became homo sapiens.
And now in the blink of an eye, we’ve abandoned almost every one of those coordinates. So we feel lost and empty in this world. We lack a sense of place and direction and belonging. But it’s still wired inside of us.
The tragedy is we end up blaming ourselves for this feeling of emptiness. “What did I do wrong that I feel so empty?” Well, what if this emptiness isn’t a lack on my own personal part, but an absence where culture failed to materialize the things that humans require to stay healthy and alive and exuberant?
The last gate is what I call ancestral grief. The more I sit with this one, the more complex it becomes, because I began to really understand that almost none of the grief I’m carrying is mine alone. Most of the grief I carry began, as Rumi would say, “in some other tavern.” It began a long time ago when certain severances began to occur among my own lineage, my own ancestors, when there was breakage in the connection to a place, to a culture, to a language, to traditions, to foods, to plant base, to myth. When all of those began to be eroded and corroded by departure, we began to live a life of sorrow.
Another thread is what happened particularly for you and me. I’m talking of our European ancestors. When they arrived here, they didn’t come as humble guests. They came to dominate. The destruction of the native cultures and the landscape—it’s something that’s still, 500 years later, a deep wound in the psyche of this culture. The importation of slavery is another grievous mark on the soul of this culture that we have failed to honor. We can still hear it every week in the acts and gestures of racism and violence towards people of color. We have not addressed this to any degree at all, in any satisfactory manner.
Those five gates of grief impact us every single day. And so again, another plug for numbness and denial, unless we’re given a container large enough for us to be courageous enough to face them and really acknowledge the grief.
Can we create that container? There seems to be a gap in our cultural connection with ritual, but maybe we can create that container for ourselves or each other.
I think that’s absolutely right. We are ritual creatures. Watch children—they’re constantly generating rituals of some sort or another. We’re wired for it. It doesn’t have to be so grand as going to a grief ritual with somebody leading the way. It can be very modest and humble. What I’ve noticed over and over again is people are longing for the permission to speak about it. We’re afraid to talk about it because it’s become so private and whatever becomes private carries a certain mantle of shame around it.
It’s also a secret longing because if you walk down the street and look carefully, you can see it in everybody’s eyes. And if we stop anybody and say, “Are you okay?” and if they could really trust the question, they would say, “No, my heart is breaking. I’m utterly lost. I don’t know what to do. But thank you for asking.”
We need a place. It can be very simple and small: Invite a few friends. Serve good food and drinks. Light a candle, say a poem or a prayer. Ask for some support and help to face what, at times, feels overwhelming and dense and impossible to carry on our own. I’ve seen this literally thousands of times with people who’ve come to these gatherings. There is this sense of spaciousness that begins to open around the heart once we can begin to acknowledge fully the depth of sorrows that we carry.
Do you think that doing personal grief work makes one more available to meeting these times and the grief in the world? Tell me what personal grief work looks like.
Well, just what you’re talking about, you know, for example, meeting the places that have not known love.
If you go talk to a therapist, that’s the majority of what’s happening in that room. You’re talking about the places that have not known love. Or you’re talking about the ending of your relationship or something like that. It is grief work. Absolutely. To name it as such helps to identify that what you’re talking about is sorrow.
We tend to pathologize these things. “What’s wrong with me?” And if we can help at all, we can just say, we know what you’re experiencing is loss. You’re feeling a profound sense of grief. I’ll often say to most of the people I sit with that our work here is learning to tolerate contact in the places where your sorrow lives. But ultimately you are going to need a larger holding space because what psyche wants, and what psyche expects in order to really put the grief down, is a larger vessel with more bodies, more sound, more hands, more engagement, a side- by-side weeping. Even if you’ve never done it in your lifetime, when you have the experience of it, some part of your psyche goes, “That felt right. I was not alone in my room crying. I was side by side with another one of my kin doing the same thing, expressing their own version of the sorrows.”
But we all have sorrows. We have people coming [to California] from Australia and England and I say, “It’s wonderful that you’re here. But your presence, itself, is a symptom of the sorrows at the core of our grief. You know this is not happening in every community. Then you have to travel literally 10,000 miles for the privilege of being able to cry next to somebody else without embarrassment.
So personal grief work, yeah, do it, but as a means to build your courage to step into a larger space with others and become bold enough to say the truth of your own experience. After a while you begin to recognize that it’s actually a communal cup—the Shared Cup of Grief that we are holding.
The heroic fiction that I can somehow muscle my way through life alone is abruptly confronted when you get cancer. That diagnosis has a strange grace to it. And if we are honest, we are confronted with that same reality that no, I cannot do this alone. I need others. I need companionship. I need support. I need people to walk this with me.
There’s a part of me that wants to paint it as a kind of grace that’s inviting a different outcome.
I don’t think any of us know what’s going to happen. The thread of hope that I carry, thin as it is, is that grief will save our asses; that the broken heart will have the ability to remind us of what it is we love—and rather than closing down and going paralytic or into passivity, that it stirs something that Pema Chodron called “the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart”; that somehow the shattering of denial and the illusion of heroic responses actually generates a truer, more full-hearted version of courage.
A full-hearted response includes the suffering, the wounding and the damage. There’s that ancient Greek phrase that “in your wound is your genius.”
Hopefully what is generated is a heartfelt response. First, of grief. And maybe out of our grieving, there’ll be gestures of affection where we begin to build something small and humble and intimate and close to the soil that isn’t quite so arrogant and quite so presumptuous of authority.
It seems like a very organic process to me. There’s this impatient, modern mind that wants to either get to the bright side or DO something, you know? I’ve heard you say before that grief is like the stepchild that’s ignored or devalued in our culture. I both want to ask again about the importance of making time for grief and also do you trust that those gestures come out of grief or could we end up just circling the drain and crying together about how it’s all going to shit? How do we make that transition into the heart’s affectionate gestures without bypassing the necessary descent?
Action devoid of affection is partly how we got into this trouble in the first place. Wendell Berry says it all turns on affection. What do we love? If we really listen to what grief is about, it’s almost invariably tangled up with what we love.
Another thing I wanted to add before I forget is let’s not reduce grief to tears. Grief is also outrage. It’s protest. It is an adamant refusal to allow things to proceed as they are.
James Hillman, one of my finest and the most beloved teachers, said, “The surest sign of a soul awake is that it’s outraged.” When we do the grief work, we make a lot of room during the weekend for that outrage—for bellowing and sounds that come up out of the viscera. There’s a protest in us and I can feel it wants to do something, but I have to first acknowledge it. I have to first feel it. I have to get on my knees and scream it.
And something happens. Even in the invocation to the prayer we say before we start the ritual, which is not by rote, but by the moment that’s there, I’ll often say we’re doing this not only for ourselves but so that our hearts might open wider, so we might love this world more fully—that we might commit ourselves more completely to the repair, to the mending, to the healing of our rivers; that we might bring the salmon back; that we might do one small gesture that helps to breathe life back into the anima mundi—to the soul of the world.
Our grief is a gateway into a deeper affection and a more robust commitment to showing up. It’s also, paradoxically, the gateway into a hell of a lot more joy! The heart that’s oppressed by untouched sorrow is not a very happy heart. It’s a sullen heart, a weary heart. But I have seen so much joy erupt towards the last few moments of the grief ritual. A joy enters the room that is unmistakable. It’s not game show joy. It is truly heartfelt. The “oh my God, I’m alive!” kind of joy.
Grief is not just an emotion but it’s a human faculty. We need to be skillful in it so that we can keep it moving and keep metabolizing it into some form of medicine that we can take back into the community.
Sorrow has the capacity to reshape you. In a long apprenticeship—let’s say your apprenticeship is as a carpenter—you’d be sweeping shavings in the corner for the first year or two, then you might be able to cut a board for your teacher, your master. But over time you would go through the whole process and, in the end, you would be declared a master carpenter. In soul work, the long lineage of apprenticeship with sorrow doesn’t lead to mastery. It leads to elderhood. An elder is someone who has digested the bitter tinctures of life and has metabolized them into something medicinal for the community. That’s another grief that we carry right now: There are so few people who have really digested their sorrows into something meaningful and something that can really address the bewilderment in the eyes of the young ones.
Francis, tell us more about the fifth gate of ancestral grief. For those of us raised in a culture where not much attention is brought to any kind of living relationship with ancestors, can you offer some ways of doing work around and with ancestors?
We live in a culture that perpetually idealizes progress. We’re always moving forward. However, in the process we often abandon history. In a sense, we abandon the dead. But the dead are still with us. Much of the sorrow that’s in our bodies is inherited. There’s this new term, the “transgenerational transmission of trauma.”
We are the current curators of the sorrow. It didn’t necessarily begin in my lifetime, it began generations ago. It could have begun as a consequence of a rupture of connection to a homeland. Maybe our ancestors began to drink, maybe alcoholism became a way of coping. The wounding of that alcoholism didn’t stop in that person’s lifetime. It affected their children and they maybe became alcoholic or they learned how to cope with alcoholism by basically abandoning their own lives. And that gets passed on generation to generation.
So why is it useful to talk about the ancestors? Well, in part because we want to understand the depth and breadth of what it is we are being asked to face and to deal with.
There’s another part, too. We need their help. They need our help. In the ancient ecologies, it was understood very clearly that the dead are not gone. They are still living in our dreams and in our bodies, in our moods and in our feelings, in the places where we struggle. Asking them to participate in our rituals is part of reestablishing that deep ecology of the sacred.
We’re one of the only cultures that has a nearly nonexistent relationship to the dead. But it’s become a vital part of my personal work, and a meaningful part of the work we do around grief. It’s part of the repair. I also sense that the healing that comes out of the grief work goes in all directions. You know, it’s not just “I feel better;” it seems to somehow mend griefs and losses that were not addressed, including deaths. As Martin Prechtel would say, there are so many unwept ancestors who are crowding the streets and can we finally help them get to a place of ease? Then they might be able to become more active as beneficial ancestors.
In the last minutes of our time together, I want to circle back to what you said about a heart that has suppressed ungrieved sorrows of a lifetime is also not very joyful. What about joy? Is it okay to feel joy, or is it our obligation? Is that part of an offering? Is it a betrayal of the travesty of what’s happening in the world to really be joyful?
No. No. I will not say it’s an obligation. I think it’s an outcome—an inevitable outcome from living fully into this moment. The intention of the grief work is to get us current. I like that word “current” in multiple ways: “current” in the sense of “in the present moment.” Most of our lives is actually spent chewing old bones, old hurts, old wounds, old grievances. We rarely pivot and get into our current life. Another part of that word is to get into the current, the electricity, the vitality of life—and to get into the current like a river, the flow of life. So that word is very rich in its syntax and multiple meanings. When we really honor our grief, it’s inevitable to feel joy. I remember saying to this African woman in Burkina Faso, “You have so much joy.” And her response was, “That’s because I cry a lot.”
Joy is a consequence of fully accepting our human nature and not forgetting the exquisite beauty that is still abundantly around us and the sweet gestures that come from our children and our friends, the acts of kindness from strangers. There’s plenty of reason to be sad. Yet there’s also a parallel number of things to be exceedingly grateful for. To have that erupt into moments of joy is part of what, in turn, inspires us to love this world much more completely. Why save anything to the end?
Erin Geesaman Rabke’s photography was on the cover of the August CATALYST. Carl Rabke’s most recent CATALYST story was “Psychedelics Revisited: Michael Pollan and How to Change your Mind” (Dec. 2018). Both are Guild-Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners and Integrative Embodiment Mentors. To listen to the full, unedited version of this interview as well as other interesting podcasts, visit embodimentmatters.com/podcast/
Francis Weller in Salt Lake City
November 8, 2019, 7-8:30pm (doors@6:30)
Hosted by the Jung Society of Utah
Topic: “An Apprenticeship with Sorrow”
Free (donations accepted)
SLC Downtown Library (210 E. 400 South)
For more information: jungutah.com/
NOTE: The weekend Grief Ritual, November 9-10, is sold out.