The autumnal equinox today marks the peak of fall, though it doesn’t seem that way when the weather hereabouts bounces between humid and crisp. Seasonally, it’s a good time for processing grief. One of the main hurdles our culture presents to health-giving living is that it’s always telling us to “stuff” this or that emotion—anger, sadness, frustration—the dark emotions.
But when we do not process these emotions, the energy lodges within, where, depending upon the mountain of variables present, it may begin to create dis-ease.
I will focus specifically on grief here. What happens when we do not grieve? How can we create time and space for its expression?
The Metal Phase in Chinese Medicine
In Chinese medicine, autumn is considered the time of the lungs and large intestine. The associated element is metal and the associated emotion, grief. For optimal functioning, think of the shiny quality of metal with respect to these organs. The large intestine should be smooth and the lungs “shiny” to allow for the free-flow of qi, or vital life force, throughout the body.
Despite all the oddities of weather and climate this year, right now I feel attuned to the seasons, in terms of where Chinese phases suggest we should be—in the time of grief. Likewise, in North America, many tribes recognize the medicine wheel, through which we can understand various cycles—annual, individual, collective and so forth. This time of year is represented by the direction of the West and, depending on the tribe, its color may be black. It’s a period of endings, reflection, and soul searching.
Of course, grief can come any time of the year, with or without any trigger.
What’s most important, whenever grief comes, is to acknowledge it, accept it, allow it to flow.
Why do we grieve?
Because we feel a sense of loss. This loss could be a lost object, a lost love, a lost job and the lost identity that comes with any of these things. If we decide to “stuff” our grief, we may end up experiencing an emotional overlay of anger, frustration, even apathy.
We Americans live in a culture that doesn’t respect loss. We are all about the gains, even though we would not know the sweetness of the gains without knowing the pain of losses.
The band America could not have sung it better than in one of their later songs, “Paradise”:
Caught between the fire and the ice
No need to think twice
It’s where I want to be.
Like a weather vane
Following the wind, the sun and rain
The ecstasy and pain and all that comes between….
As mentioned, our cultural mores tell us to “stuff it” when it comes to grief. Those who show or share their grief are too often perceived as wimpy, when, in fact, those who can are the more courageous among us. It takes courage to attempt to understand the source of losses, of pain, and then to focus on how to integrate losses.
Grief as Mental Illness?
In fact, the American Psychiatric Association in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V is considering giving grief that lasts too long a name—“prolonged grief disorder”—and classifying it as a mental illness (which would then be treatable by pharmaceuticals and go into people’s permanent medical records). Rather than encourage people to experience grief, it would seem the classification might encourage them to suppress grief, and that could create illness.
If the cause of most grief is loss, the root of loss is perceived separation from all that is, especially the love in “all that is.” We probably have no better training ground for dealing with losses than here on Earth. Friends and loved ones die and we may feel a sense of abandonment. A project goes awry and we may come down hard on ourselves for “failing” (trying substituting “learning” for “failing” for at least a month and see how that feels).
In my spiritual belief system, the primary loss is the apparent separation from Creator. I say apparent, because the work we do here is meant for us to understand that there is no separation, other than that which we ourselves create.
But we experience the feeling of separation, and therefore loss, from birth onward. We aren’t exactly as our parents wish us to be. They cannot love us unconditionally, no matter the guidance in all the self-help books, mostly because they do not love themselves unconditionally. The process continues as we age, with friends, teachers, coworkers, supervisors, neighbors, etc.
We Choose How to Deal with Grief
What’s important to keep in mind is that we always have a choice as to how we deal with our feelings of loss.
As shaman Ross Bishop notes in the second edition of his Healing the Shadow, “You cannot release your pain unless you have both accepted what happened and grieved the loss.”
Further, Bishop says, “The greatest obstacle to forgiveness is grief. We must deal with the feelings of anger and loss about what happened.”
Bishop, who links shamanic journey work and inner-children work, places this sort of grief in the context of parent-child relations: “Their withholding love hurts us, but because children blame themselves for parental failings, the anger gets turned inward and then it becomes corrosive. Bringing all these old feelings to the surface is messy and unpleasant. We would much rather leave things the way they were because after all, we are getting by.”
But leaving the messiness messy does us and those around us a disservice by preventing us from becoming fully human. As Bishop notes, “In a culture that values success and achievement, we believe we have more important things to do than cry over something that happened 30 years ago. Grieving is courageous because while we are in the middle of it, it seems as if it will never end. Most of all, grieving takes courage because we have no idea what comes after grief.”
The process of grieving may initially reinforce our attachments to people and places and events with whom we have shared connections. By reinforcing them, grief deepens our relationship to them and, as we come to appreciate and honor the connections and ourselves, we are able to let go while at the same time come out of the experience more whole.
Creating a Safe Space for Grief
How do we create a safe space in which to grieve, especially in a culture that encourages us to look away and move on?
Most people are busy and may feel grateful for busyness to distract them from the process of grieving—may even add activities to their to-do lists in order to avoid grieving. Doing so does not necessarily serve their better interests, though.
For those who are busy, taking even five or 10 minutes in the morning or evening to light a candle and remember the times they spent with the person (or place or event) they are grieving can be helpful.
Another tool could be a grief circle, in which a small group of committed people uses a talking stick to give each person (the stick holder) a chance to express herself or himself, if they desire. No one speaks except the person with the stick, and this gives the speaker the chance to be heard and the listeners the chance to listen without judgment and without thinking ahead to what they’ll say. In fact, participants may find they have much in common and through that, may process their grief more fully.
A very special way of processing grief may be to attend a sweat lodge, if one is available. The first sweat lodge I attended happened to be one at which I spent crying the first two of three days. Grief around my father’s family seemed to come out of nowhere. And the space—the belly of Mother Earth represented by the lodge—was ideal for grieving, because everyone was able to feel and express whatever they needed without feeling judged. Just be sure to know the people offering the lodge as well as their commitment to your safety.
Given the fact that the heat of the Grandfather stones and the water poured over them actually helps the lungs and that much is removed via the skin, I could not have been in a better place to release some long-held ancestral grief than lodge.
An organ of elimination, the lungs are the “seat of grief” in Chinese medicine which is why it’s important to support them during the grieving process. This is where certain plant medicines can help.
Entire books could be written about herbs and the respiratory system. For general respiratory support, I like the combo of herbs my teacher, Kathleen Maier, uses: Equal parts mullein, rosemary and sage leaves as well as hyssop (Hyssopus) leaves and flowers. I make this as an infusion and steep covered for no more than 10 minutes to capture the volatile oils, which are part of the medicine.
Any one of these plants by itself could provide assistance: The mullein leaf provides some mucilage along with pain relief. The rosemary warms and stimulates and helps to clear stagnant build-up of debris. Sage, taken hot, stimulates secretions and sweating and can be helpful for sore throat. (Taken cold or lukewarm, it offers other virtues.) And hyssop assists with cough, irritated throat, and reducing dryness in the bronchi.
That’s a super-short list of plants that help humans with respiratory difficulties. Determining what to take for a respiratory condition is much like trying to name all of the colors of orange in autumn: one may help a specific sort of cough whereas another works on the lower respiratory.
As an herbalist, I do not diagnose, treat, prevent or cure illnesses, but I’m always open to questions about how plants may help people to maintain their health.
I hope you will take some time during today’s equinox or this autumn to process some of your grief.
Shaman and author Ross Bishop will be in our area later in October. For more information go here.