Grief Support Groups

December 22, 2009

Last night Ted Wiard, my dear friend and mentor, founder of Golden Willow Sanctuary (, invited me to attend the grief support group that he and I led together for several years.  It seemed like a good idea for me to stop by and take a sip of my own medicine, and tend my seasonal aching heart.

It turned out to be a Winter Solstice ceremony and potluck supper.  When I walked in and saw the table of food, I almost bolted.

“I am so NOT in the mood for a party,” I whispered to my friend Julie, who companioned her lover, Curtis, through his death from a brain tumor two years ago.

Julie laughed and took my arm, leading me to comfortable chair.  “How much of a party scene could there be with a bunch of grieving people?  We’re all in this together,” she reminded me.

And so we are.  That’s the extraordinary thing about grief groups.  Like the Hajj – the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim tries to take, where all the pilgrims dress in the same simple white shrouds and are there for only one purpose: to praise God – grief equalizes us.  In a support group, vast expressions of diversity melt in the common fire of loss and love.

I have sat in hundreds of circles where Latinos and Caucasians, blue-collar high school dropouts and world-renowned neurosurgeons, experienced Dharma practitioners and daytime soap opera addicts, take refuge together and find tangible solace in each other’s company.  When others give voice our secret heart, we are validated.  We find that we are not the freaks we had started to suspect we were for feeling lost and angry and numb and clairvoyant and ecstatic and hopeless and more alive than we have ever felt – often all at the same time — in the face of profound loss.

Although I had not attended a grief group since I took a break from facilitating them a year ago, there were many people there whom I had worked with on their path through grief and loss.  To my surprise and delight, both Ted and the group deeply honored me in their ceremony.  Where I thought I was going to show up and anonymously draw on the power of the circle to remind me that I am not alone in my sadness and yearning this time of year, I received much more than I came for.  I was able to hear how my simple willingness to bear witness to others’ pain made a real difference in their healing and transformation.  And, while there were of course some tears shed, there was also a lot of laughter, as there always seems to be in our groups.  I left uplifted.

Grief groups do not make the pain go away.  They are not a magical pill we can pop to “get over” our loss.  As we like to say in group, grief is not the flu and there is no quick fix.  Attending a support group is not an item on some grief to-do list; you can’t just check off that detail and be done.  Grief is a life-long journey of healing and discovery, one that, if engaged with an open mind and a humble heart, can result in an ongoing process of transformation.  In this way, our losses become our teachers.  Our grief becomes an authentic spiritual path.  Bereavement support can be a significant part of that path.

If you have not already done so, I strongly encourage you to find a grief group wherever you live.  It may be the greatest gift you can give yourself when you are feeling isolated and alone, especially now, while the rest of the world seems to be celebrating, and your own heart may be breaking… again.

Let me know how it goes.

Holy Days

December 19, 2009

Dear Ones, I wish you well as you navigate the dark waters of the season.

Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s – these may amount to nothing other than daggers turning in your shredded heart.  Take comfort.  You are not alone.  A tribe of mourners surrounds you now and wraps you in our imperfect yet tender embrace.

Your loved one is an empty place at the table, I know.  A throbbing void.  And the mad rush of spending and wrapping and cooking and schmoozing can make you feel like an alien.

You want to escape, maybe.  Disappear into the jungles of the Yucatan or the anonymous casinos of Las Vegas.  I invite you instead to drop more deeply into this very moment.  Give yourself permission not to do the tasks that crowd everyone else’s to-do lists.  Go on strike.  Breathe through your loss, your pain, your longing.

The greatest gift you can offer anyone now is unconditional mercy for your own sweet self.

I send you warm hugs through the ethers.



December 3, 2009

My heart is breaking.  My president has ordered 30,000 men and women to Afghanistan.  They will kill and be killed there.  This is not all they will, do, I understand.  But there is no denying that there will be tremendous suffering.

I am not a politically inclined person.  I try.  I make a concentrated effort to keep myself informed about local and global issues, particularly those connected to human rights.  I understand that to be a citizen of this world requires the continuous cultivation of awareness and willingness to engage in community, with the intention of making a positive difference.  But it is a challenge for me to drag myself out of the contemplative realms where I am so comfortable and into the messy human condition where the games that are played are incomprehensible to me.  I do not understand the rules.

I can, however,  feel when the rules are being broken, when core values are violated and basic human dignity trampled.  This emotional energy enables me to overcome my resistance and rise up in defense of the defenseless.  Without this felt response, I am paralyzed.  This is why contemporary “sacred activist” Andrew Harvey speaks of the necessity of “following your heartbreak.”  Accessing that place inside that viscerally aches for the pain of the world can be the best guide for finding a path to be of service.

The other night as my husband and I sat listening to Barak Obama’s speech on NPR, I burst into tears when the Commander-in-Chief announced his decision to send a surge of troops to Afghanistan.  I knew it was coming, but when I heard those words it was as if he had plunged a dagger into my own heart.  And the more he justified it with his eloquent rational explanations, the more I cried.  This is a man I had campaigned for with all my energy.  I supported him because I felt he shared my vision of a non-violent solution to the violence in this world.  I felt betrayed.  Logically, I was almost persuaded.  Spiritually, I was unequivocally outraged.

As I watched myself having this emotional meltdown, I inquired about where this response might be coming from.  Then I remembered what it was like to grow up during the Vietnam era in an actively anti-war family.  My mother was a folk singer.  My lullabies were protest songs (which I sang in turn to my own children 20 years later).  I shared these memories with my husband after Obama’s speech, and sang him one of the ballads that had branded my heart most deeply:

“Last night I had the strangest dream I ever dreamed before / I dreamed the world had all agreed to put an end to war… I dreamed I saw a mighty room filled with women and men / and the papers they were signing said they’d never fight again… And when the papers were all signed and a million copies made / they all joined hands and bowed their heads and grateful prayers were prayed… While the people in the streets below were dancing round and round and swords and guns and uniforms were scattered on the ground.”

Why do I remember every line of that song?  Because my mother sang it to me with such passion.  Because the charcoal drawings she made in her basement studio were of brown-skinned fathers holding their napalm burnt children in their arms, taken from front page photographs in the New York Times.  And  also because at the same time that American teenagers and Vietnamese families were dying in a war that made no sense, my own brother was fighting a heroic battle against the tumor that was invading his ten-year-old brain, and he was losing.

Later that night, when I tried to sing my husband another song I loved from my counter-culture childhood, this one from Don McLean’s American Pie album, I could not get through it:

“The grave that they dug him had flowers gathered from the hillsides in bright summer colors / and the brown earth bleached white at the edge of his gravestone / he is gone… When the wars of our nation did beckon / a man barely twenty did answer the call / proud of the trust that he placed in our nation / he is gone / but eternity knows him and knows what he’s done… And the rain fell like pearls on the leaves of the flowers / leaving brown muddy clay where the earth had been dry / and deep in the trench he waited for hours / as he held to his rifle and prayed not to die… But the silence of night was shattered by fire / as guns and grenades blasted sharp through the air / one after another his comrades were slaughtered / a morgue of marines / alone standing there… He crouched ever lower, ever lower in fear / they can’t let me die / they can’t let me die here / I’ll cover myself with the mud and the earth / I’ll cover myself / I know I’m not brave / the earth, the earth, the earth is my grave…”

This childhood wound is primal, anguish for all the innocent bloodshed mixed in with the loss of my big brother and the all-pervasive quality of my parents’ grief.

Coincidentally, my own daughter died only weeks after the attacks of September 11 and the beginning of our war against Afghanistan.  At that time I was acutely aware of the suffering all over the planet, the fire of grief and loss that was sweeping through lives on every side of the conflict.  I felt connected in every fiber of my being to mothers everywhere who were sharing the hopelessness and despair I was suffering over the death of my child.  And I knew that my comfortable life shielded me from the daily terror of senseless violence that compounded the simple tragedy of losing a child.  This compassion was not abstract.  It rose from the core of my mother-heart.

So, for me, war is intensely personal, and always has been.

Tell me: what breaks your heart?