The Well of Grief

“I sat with anger long enough until she told me her real name was grief.” — C.S. Lewis

Our times are characterised by loss. Like the changing seasons, it is not something we can prevent, or fight against. We will all experience the loss of loved ones; for the lucky among us, this won’t come too soon.

Grief is a universal emotion. The way we experience it, express it and share it varies widely from one culture to another. 

In some societies, the focus is on the loss, in others, on celebrating life. For some, grief is a private and individual thing, a feeling accompanied by the pressure of ‘keeping it together.’ For others, mourning takes a much more collective, embodied, and outwardly expression, with rituals such as dancing, singing or wailing. In the United States, grieving beyond a year is considered a disorder. Whereas, in Egypt, grieving after seven years is considered normal.

But we don’t just grieve the loss of people close to us. We can also feel grief for people far away, for relationships, the non-human world, for our cultures, and for ideas or beliefs we hold.

Philosopher Michael Cholbi says grief is an emotionally rich response to change, it registers the loss, makes it visible. While it is painful, it can be a source of self-understanding or self-insight. It is true that we can lose our way in the course of grieving, but he thinks the process can alter our conception of ourselves and how we relate to the world. Grief informs what we value, what we care about, and the central concerns of our future.

As our world is drawn into a multitude of crises, with inevitable losses, maybe we should walk towards grief, rather than away from it. What could grief reveal? Could we find in grief a companion, and in its collective expression an illumination for our current woes?

With climate change accelerating, we hear more and more about ecological grief, which refers to grieving for what is being lost: species, ecosystems, landscapes, but also the loss of knowledge about the land, traditions, and farming practices.

While the term ecological grief is only now entering our Western vocabulary, it has been experienced by millions, especially Indigenous people, for hundreds of years, through the consequences of colonialism. While it often begins with land grabbing and the displacement of people, colonialism also erases people’s culture, including their language, their ways of living, their dignity.

With wars and conflicts on the rise and the hypocrisy of international politics laid bare, we can witness every day how some people’s lives are worth infinitely more than others; they draw more grief. And when the ‘least privileged’ are being targeted, expressions of collective grief can be criminalised.

Bayo Akomolafe says that while our world sees grieving negatively, he suggests our times of loss invite stranger solidarities; “there is a strange kind of hospitality that comes in grief, there is a beauty, there is a welcome in lamentation.”

Our grieving for peace must not equate despair or inaction. Even though we are witnessing a loss of humanity, which has – and continues to – lead to collective trauma, we are beginning to see new expressions of collective grief: grief as resistance, grief as rest, as solidarity, as protest, as collective healing. 

In a conversation on grief with Bayo Akomolafe, Professor Sa’ed Atshan, and Cecilie Surasky, they suggest that what is happening in the Middle East is profoundly unhealed trauma and grief and its  re-enactment. And what we need is another kind of politics, we need radical accompaniment in grief and we all need to grieve together, in public.

Speaking about the loss of her son, Surasky says “[g]rief is the most extraordinary expression of overwhelming love I have ever experienced... It’s an opening,” and “it’s trying not to feel it, that’s what makes you broken … A refusal to let it take over your body (we call it the river), and to let the river take you. And if you let it take you… it expands your capacity for compassion, for love and care. But if you fight it, like the culture tells us, you run a very high risk of a kind of brokenness.”

Grief can be lonely, for every loss will be felt differently by every person. So it is in communion that we can find a sense of belonging, an opening, and compassion. It also gives us permission to stop, to rest, to breathe, to remember, and to celebrate. Through this, perhaps we may find a different way forward in these critical times. 

As Akomolafe suggests, “Is lying down on the earth, defeated under the weight of grief, another embodied form of intelligence no less capable than the tinkering archetypes of the problem-solver? Are there ways to see the world that are only possible when done through the shimmering opacity of tears?”

Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes


References
 

‘Death and dying: how different cultures deal with grief and mourning,’ John Frederick Wilson, The Conversation, 25 January, 2023. Read here.

‘Transformative Grief: Interview with Michael Cholbi’, in The New Philosopher Issue 42, Loss, #4/2023.

‘Climate Grief: The Emotional Impact of Climate Change,’ Leela Viswanathan, Indigenous Climate Hub, 15 November 2021. Read here.

‘Germany bans public grieving and solidarity with Palestine,’ 23 October 2023, The People’s Dispatch. Read here.

‘Across Lines: Grief. With Bayo Akomolafe, Professor Sa’ed Atshan, and Cecilie Surasky,’ The Othering and Belonging Institute, 16 November, 2023. Watch here.

‘Grieving is How Flowers Bloom,’ Bayo Akomolafe, 15 January 2019. Read here.

‘War on Gaza: I am not Palestinian. But if you are not grieving, something is wrong,’ Francesca Vawdrey, 19 December 2023, Middle East Eye. Read here

‘How to Process Our Collective Grief,’ Gabes Torres, Yes Magazine, 23 June 2022. Read here.

‘By sharing our loss, we fight: Collective expressions of grief in the digital age,’ Valentina Proust, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. 27 October 2023. 



Further Resources

‘The Lines that Whisper Us,’ Bayo Akomolafe, 11 October 2023. Read here.

‘Two German courts say pro-Palestinian slogans 'legal', after solidarity group wins case,’ The New Arab, 21 December 2023. Read here.

‘Permission to narrate,’ Edward Said, The London Review of Books, Vol. 6 No. 3 · 16 February 1984. See here.

‘Precariousness and Grievability, When is life grievable?’ Judith Butler, 16 November 2015. See here.

‘If I must die,’ Poem by Refaat Alareer. Read here.

‘The Well of Grief,’ Poem by David Whyte. Read here.

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