The leaves believe such letting go is love
Such love is faith
Such faith is grace
Such grace is god
I agree with the leaves
It is All Souls Day/el Dia de los Muertos/the Day of the Dead. My Mexican in-laws taught me a lot about this holiday the year I married. Juan and I spent a month in Oaxaca and for many years would travel there this time. I was blown away by the beauty of the holiday and the sweet relief of coming together as a community to grieve those we miss and to laugh and celebrate their lives. We built altars (called “ofrendas”) piled high with flowers, favorite foods and pictures, decorated graves, danced and sang, laughed and cried and held each other remembering with the same sweet sorrow the old folks who had died years ago and the little baby who had died just earlier that year. That was the year I learned that letting go does not mean forgetting. I learned that in fact, remembrance was the only way to let go.
It’s raining as I write this. The kind of cold howling windy rain that rattles the windows. There is no longer any doubt that we moving from the bright days of summer, through the awe-inspiring golden fall into the quiet dark days of winter. While I welcome the gifts of this quiet time of year (I love to wrap up in blankets with my book in front of the fire) if we are honest we see that his transition requires a lot of letting go.
You can see it outside in nature, the trees are letting go of their leaves. Birds are letting go of their homes and flying south, perennials are dying back. Outside so much of the natural world is dying or leaving or retreating. With less light the animals are less active. Everything is slowing down and getting down to the bare essentials. The light is quickly disappearing. I can understand why so many traditional cultures choose this time to collectively grieve and to practice letting go.
We modern humans are not so practiced with letting go and in fact, we resist it. At the day to day level, we resist letting go of activity and the hum of daylight and summer. We use electric light to keep going as though we have eternal sunshine. We also struggle with the bigger losses. When facing death, divorce, the loss of a job, or even the loss of the way we had hoped things would turn out, we often feel pressured to move on with it, to “get over it” and get back to the business of being happy and/or productive. Its as though we have no space for our grief as though it can’t exist side by side with the movement of life.
When you think about it though, its crazy because even the happiest and most joyous transitions in life involve some loss. My recent graduation from school has been exciting & wonderful. And yet graduating meant separating myself from a community that I love deeply and value greatly How many new parents grieve the loss of their old freedom and spontaneity(and sleep) in silence and shame because the world expects them to be nothing but overjoyed with their new lot in life.?
We grieve because something precious, something we valued has passed or transformed. Its as natural as breathing. Grief can exist side by side with joy, but too often, we barely give it its due, so anxious we are to move on and just feel the joy.
So afraid of being swallowed up with sadness we stuff it down. Sometimes it stays buried but sometimes the grief is so big and we have no way to navigate it. It overwhelms us and we feel stuck and drowning in a wave that never breaks over us.
What happens to grief that is unprocessed? It gets stuck in our body and creates illness. The Chinese medical classics tell us that unresolved grief is one of the major causes of disease. It damages the Lungs and sinks or consumes our qi. It impacts other parts of our system too—creating blockages and taxing our ability to make energy. Sometimes we can be caught in a cycle of low-grade funkiness, and exhaustion or life loses its zest and everything feels flat.
So many traditional cultures understand that we need practices to help move our grief. We too can adopt some of those practices to help us more smoothly navigate life.
In the face of losses, big and small we can:
Give ourselves the space and permission to feel what we feel. We need to treat ourselves kindly and gently. I used to think that cultures that required mourning family members to wear black for a year were repressive. Then I learned the color was not meant to isolate but to help signal to the community that a little extra kindness was required. Wearing black said, “I’m working through a loss and need a little space.” No questions asked, no explanations needed. Just be kind—not for a day or 10 days but for a year or for however long is needed. Can we give ourselves the space and permission to work through our losses without predetermined timelines and expectations that “I should be over this by now”
Acknowledge the value of that which we lost and discover the pieces that we can hold onto—the “gems”. I was mired in grief after my divorce. In an effort to help me, my friends and family reminded me often that “I was better off without him” and tried to help me forget him. And despite their good intentions, from that mindset, no matter how much I tried to move on, I was stuck in anger and sadness. Then I found a new practice to help me move through the grief. For weeks every night I made lists of everything I valued about Juan and what our marriage had given me. Some of those things were gone, but others stayed with me—my amazing son, my new appreciation of spicy food, my love of Mexican art, an exploration of the Divine Feminine,, my home. Finding the gems allowed me to acknowledge what my heart knew—something precious (our partnership) had passed–and then to see that not all was gone. Through remembrance, I was able to focus on that which remained with me–permanently mine.
Create rituals of remembrance. As one of my teachers says, working through grief is not a “one walk dog”. We often feel the sting of a loss – especially the loss of a loved one for years—maybe even a lifetime. Creating regular (daily, monthly or yearly) spaces to acknowledge this reality gives us the space we need to keep going. This is one of the many things I love about the Day of the Dead holiday—the regularity of it. It comes every year and we have things we do every year—ritual and rhythm help life to keep moving.
Practice letting go in small ways. When I was really struggling with the end of school, I helped myself by cleaning out closets. No joke. The energy of letting go of clothes and other stuff I didn’t need, and the process of discovering what was of value in my closets helped me with the bigger task of discovering what I could retain from my school experiences even as I was letting go of my regular school routine and weekly community.
Working with our emotions such as grief, anger, sadness and fear can help us keep flowing and healthy, even in the face of hard times. Wishing you much coziness on this windy chilly day. Feliz Dia de los Muertos! May you find joy and comfort in remembrance of all you love!