by Kristin Masters

When I look at the intensity of pain in my communities, the country and the world, at the unaddressed suffering and untended hearts all around me, I can easily slip into overwhelm that can range between rage and depression.

There are many days when my inability to tolerate our collective suffering drives me to my addictive pulls. I’m prone to sitting alone on the green, cat-scratched sofa, reaching for chocolate covered almonds and netflix, frozen in my existential loneliness. Even writing this threatens a shame spiral.

Like many of us, I have been socialized by the dominant culture to attempt to manage my grief alone, in closed rooms, with locked doors. Part of the way we’ve beencolonized is through the denial and theft of our collective rituals of grief. The Irish have largely lost the practice of keening. Indigenous Canadians were prohibited from practicing community grief rituals. Seeking isolation is a strategy encouraged by whiteness itself, by our socialization that values independence and a bootstrap mentality.  

And yet, I know that these solitary coping strategies help no one, and have a high cost, as for many of us the pain is too great to bear alone. Without a compassionate witness, it can be too scary, or overwhelming, or disorienting to stay with the grief and mourning long or deeply enough to allow its healthy movements. We pop out of mourning to avoid the understandable discomfort of grieving alone, but we end up carrying it around like a heavy sack laden with heartbreak and despair, weighing us down. If I can catch myself during the overwhelm and reach toward the grief, held by my friends and community, I can merge back into active hope.

Without the capacity to mourn, we distance ourselves from our personal losses. From loss of relationships, of important people from our lives and our world. From loss of our dreams. From loss of our physical abilities and capacities. From loss of places that meant something dear to us. We cannot distance ourselves from loss without separating from life itself.

At my workshops on loss and grief, I ask people why we don’t grieve. One of the most common answers is that they are afraid of the overwhelm of their grief, of losing their mind or ability to function, of crying for the rest of their lives or cycling into an eternal depression. And we’ve all heard people say they’ve had other friends and family members say, “You’re not over this yet?”

We’ve all heard these lines, as if there is a deadline on grieving. And since we think we should be over it, and because so often we don’t have companionship we trust to see us compassionately in this vulnerability, we suffer the losses alone. We isolate, on our sofas, in our apartments, reaching for TV shows on repeat, sugar, another beer or shopping for things we don’t need.

If we find ourselves in despair about the world of injustices or about our planet’s massive losses due to global warming, we might get the message that this isn’t ours. We’ve been told that only our personal losses, the ones that affect our own bodies and families, are the ones that are valid to grieve. We may get the message that expression of heartbreak about someone else’s loss is pathological, as if our capacity to recognize our interconnectedness and to feel for one another is a sickness. This false thought separates us further from one another, fails to acknowledge our interdependence and shared humanity

How can this be different?

I’m motivated by a belief that truth telling and grieving together, in community, can be life affirming and healing. If we look back into history, we can see that our ancestors had practices that supported grieving in community. Look into most any cultural background far enough and we see that we used to have a place to take our heartbreaks.

From my experience in decades of leading Joanna Macy’s, “Work That Reconnects,” I’m a firm believer in the value of encountering our heartbreak in warm, receptive community. When we sit together to express and hold our collective losses, we have the ability to stay with it, to feel the window of welcome for expressing grief widen because there are others there to hear us, to catch us when we fall.

Let me describe a scene to you from day 3 of the NLSJ intensive last year, a gathering of 70 people with a wide range of race, class, age, LGBTQ+ and every other identity. We had already hit some seriously hard stuff. We had made and witnessed microaggressions and mistakes. There was a lot of defense in the spaces between us, and trust was shaky.

That’s when we started our collective grief circle. We opened the circle with a video called, “Cultural Ways of Healing,” with Jerry Tello. It is a deeply moving piece. The feel in the room got real and started to deepen. We asked each person to write on a piece of paper what breaks their heart. One by one, people stepped into the circle and read what was on their sheet, giving voice to one place of heartbreak.

As each person spoke, everyone else in the room sat or stood in witness, allowing themselves to be moved by what they heard. A palpable field of compassion started to grow as each heartbreak was acknowledged, and it continued to expand with each person who stood to name their personal or collective heartbreak.

The grief circle impacted the whole group of us and our trajectory together. It seemed to me that we came together by recognizing the differences in our heartbreak and the places that were similar. We came together in our felt sense of vulnerability and interdependence. We dropped in. There was still plenty of work to be done, but there was a way that we stepped forward with less guardedness and more tenderness, with an increased understanding of the magnitude of the task ahead.

Can you imagine how different your own experience would be if you had a place to be held, to be heard with heartfelt empathy for the losses that break your heart?

Can you imagine how different your experience could be if you had a community sitting with you when you heard someone else’s heartbreak, so you were released from having to hold it alone, but could lean into the circle to hold it together?

Can you imagine what your actions in the world would be like if you had a regular, safe space to mourn and be known for what you care about?

While I hold these as dreams that currently fall far short of reality, at least in most places, I invite you to join me in making these dreams more and more possible in more and more communities.

Kristin Masters is a certified CNVC Trainer from Santa Cruz, CA who is committed to using the principles of compassionate communication in addressing issues of oppression and power imbalance. Kristin has a long history of leading diversity work, mostly from models based on the work of Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, working as an associate alongside Lillian Roybal Rose for a number of years, following five years active with NCBI (National Coalition Building Institute). Kristin is committed to supporting all of us to step forward as allies and accomplices, most especially other white people to take action in the face of racism. As a leader of Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, she offers an invigorating and empowering approach to social change work.

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