Love and loss in the age of the anthropocene

How to find love, beauty and connection in the midst of all our grief

 “Embrace your grief, for their your soul will grow.” Carl Jung

Personal experiences of loss are now inextricably bound with planetary loss – the burning Amazon, rise of fascist governments, the desecration of sacred land, language and life.

To be fully alive to the regenerative cycle that forms the mystery of life, death and rebirth, we have to be able to dance with love and loss, and find the beauty and vitality of life in the dance.

“Expressing grief has always been a cathartic experience and a rebalancing mechanism, and I believe it is a part of building the foundation for any new story we might want to tell.”  Pat McCabe

An Age of Loss

We are living in an age of loss. The sixth mass extinction evokes deep ecological grief. The mass migration of people from their land evokes cultural bereavement. The destruction of war, globally traumatic events and our violent society leaves congested stories of trauma, in both daily life and ancestral lineages. The personal loss of loved ones is one of the only certainties in life.

As the stories around us of growth, capitalism, individualism collapse, and the new stories of interbeing, cooperation and connection are still being seeded, we have become numb to survive. Francis Weller describes this as an age of “amnesia and anaesthesia”, where we no longer remember the sacred art of grieving and its place in our communities. We are, as Stephen Jenkinson says, a “grief illiterate culture”. Yet grief is one story that unites us all. 

We live in an era where the human species is a dominant influence on our climate and environment. Bayo Akomalafe, describes the Anthropocene as “the geological age defined by extinction, displacement and death”.

Research shows the impact of climate change on our individual and collective mental health, as we’re often overwhelmed by feelings of anger, despair, hopelessness and fear. Aldo Leopold, American naturalist and author, described the emotional toll of ecological loss when he said “one of the penalties of an ecological education is to live alone in a world of wounds.”

Loss and Regeneration

Regeneration is the process of renewal, restoration and growth. Healthy ecosystems systems continually generate new sources of life in this cycle. Nothing is wasted, nothing is lost, it’s merely transformed. So how can we work with the full range of human emotions we’re faced with on a daily basis, how do we regenerate our bodies and souls? By sitting with both our joy and sorrows, and looking for the gold within it.

Bayo Akomalafe says “grief is generative. She opens up things that were once bound up and secure, exposes them to the elements, and therefore facilitates change.”

There is a regenerative force in nature, life, death and rebirth. Their contradictory powers bring death and restore life, a force visible in the cyclical wheel of our natural year and the monthly cycle of women.

The swansong of the deciduous trees in autumn in the UK, shimmering in their golden glory before they drop their leaves, as an offering compost for the winter ahead, is one of my favourite times of year. The smell of decaying woodlands as exquisite as a blooming rose in the heady heights of summer.

Nature knows the beauty of letting go. When we work consciously with endings, we’re working with the mysteries of the earth, acknowledging that without death, nothing new can be born.

 

Grief and Love as Sisters 

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” Kahlil Gibran

 In our western culture, we tend to pathologise grief, framing ‘normal’ reactions to the pain and different stages to be achieved. Grief isn’t a disease, but a normal and natural response to loss, and a fundamental part of our human existence. We need to reframe sorrow as a healing catalyst for change. 

We only grieve what we deeply love. I believe that learning how to grieve together is part of our collective love story. To be able to sit with being broken open and heart broken at the same time, is one of the paradoxes of our time. In our contracting and expanding hearts, we find the gift of gratitude – ‘everything is a gift and nothing lasts’.

“Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honours what it misses.” Martin Prechtel

Grief is a proper response to loss, and our grief an eternal echo of love. When we come together in the right containers, in sacred spaces, to witness each other in our love and loss, we commune in service to a love that unites us all, a universal love. We find that the central energy of sorrow is a vital life force, when welcomed and witnessed can metabolise our sorrows.

 Grieving and healing are inextricably linked. To be able to heal the pain of the world, we first need to feel it. By daring to feel, we restore life. Opening up to the depths of our sorrow, enables us to become more authentic in expressing ourselves.

“Pain for the world—the outrage and sorrow—breaks us open to a larger sense of who we are. It is a doorway to the realisation of our mutual belonging in the web of life …. when we open our eyes to what is happening, even when it breaks our hearts, we discover our true size; for our heart, when it breaks open, can hold the whole universe.” Joanna Macy.

 

Community Grief Tending Rituals

Francis Weller, in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow, explains that grief has always been communal. With the support and compassion of others, we can gently unwrap the shame and pain we so carefully hide from the world, the ritual providing release and renewal. He says:

“We possess the profound capacity to metabolize sorrow into something medicinal for our soul and the soul of the community … what was learned was not meant for us alone, but was meant to be tossed like a seed into a fertile mind, awaiting community, a hungry culture.”

At some level our souls know the importance of community and ritual. Visible in the public outpouring of grief after Princess Diana died in the UK, and in the multitude of beautiful and heartbreaking grief shrines to those who died on September 11th in New York. We know we must come together, that this is what is called of us when faced with loss, but we’ve forgotten how to be with our pain.

My first experience of a grief ritual was alongside 150 people at the New Story Summit in the gardens of Findhorn in 2014, beautifully described by Joe Confino in The Guardian in his article Grieving could offer a pathway out of a destructive economic system. It was the ‘Wiping Away the Tears’ ceremony from the Lakota Native American tradition, where they read out how the white man desecrated their people, land, beliefs and culture.

A few years earlier, I had begun to research and remember what it means to be indigenous to my land in the UK, studying the Celtic traditions. The ancestral home of my lineage, the Clan Davidson – Tulloch Castle – was just down the road from Findhorn in the Highlands of Scotland. Lying face down on the earth, I found myself howling with grief at the disconnection of my tribe, land and culture, as my ancestors and the earth spoke through me. I had entered the deep pool of collective sorrow through the gate of ancestral grief. 

Grief as Soul Activism

 “It is our unexpressed sorrows, the congested stories of loss that, when left untouched, block our access to the vitality of the soul. To be able to freely move in and out of the soul’s inner chambers, we must first clear the way. This requires finding meaningful ways to speak of sorrow … learning to welcome, hold and metabolize sorrow is the work of a lifetime”. Francis Weller

We see the dualism between nature and humans breaking down in the Anthropocene. The process of grieving, connects us intimately to the wildness of nature and the erotic relationship with all life. We enter a dance with the world soul, the anima mundi, remembering our souls are part of the same spark of creation.

It has never been more critical that we find our soul’s calling in these times, and remember it as a deep well of wisdom. Stephen Jenkinson, says, grieving is the midwife of the soul, it calls us into adulthood and maturity.

“Death needs a new cosmology. Death is not a black hole where things cease to be, if you want to live well, keep death close. Hope includes hopelessness, and grieving is showing gratitude for that which has been lost. What would it be like to treat grief as a power? Even our hopelessness, as forms of decomposing and falling away, is sacred.” Bayo Akomolafe

The regenerative Anthropocene has community at it’s heart. In community, we find we’re not alone, we belong to a web of life. Coming together to tend to our grief, we acknowledge that sorrow is a communal cup that we all drink from, one story that unites us. In the intimacy of being witnessed in our pain and vulnerability, we break down the walls between us, opening up to a shared love for each other, all beings and the earth. Communal grieving is a practice of loving life together.

My deepest prayer is that the sacred art of grieving becomes a part of our new culture as regenerative humans, as we mature into adulthood as a species. That we see grief is a sacred power. I extrapolate that communal grieving is a vital spiritual and social technology for the coming challenging times.

 

The work is informed by the teachings of Francis Weller, Joanna Macy, Sobonfu Somé, Malidoma Some, Martin Prechtel, Maeve Gavin, Stephen Jenkinson, Bayo Akomolafe, Sophy Banks and Jeremy Thres. And my dearly beloved ancestors.