As a teenaged girl I learned how not to cry, a legacy handed
down through the women in my family for generations. Stiff
upper-lipped working class British women did not cry. It was
in my fortieth year that I began the path back to the beauty
and sacredness of my tears. I was apprenticing for five months
to a powerful teacher. Nearly every time we would sit in a
workshop circle to speak, I would begin to weep. By the time
the talking stick got to me I'd be starting already and would
choke back sobs as I struggled to get out what I had to say,
which was rarely about my weeping. I thought of my tears as
a huge annoyance and just wished they would stop. They were
chokingly difficult, embarrassing, and I just spoke through
them, apologetically and with my head hanging, at least in
few weeks into my apprenticeship I finally "got"
one of the truths about sacredness, that everything can be
regarded as sacred. So I began to start to think about how
to begin to start to think about understanding how to begin
to start to think of my tears as sacred . A labyrinth of a
sentence to describe a labyrinth of a process. Of course I
passionately wanted the tears to just go away, but I was unable
to make that happen. So instead I passionately chose a completely
different path, one of honoring my crying, taking in crying
as nourishment, looking for the gifts of my tears. Around
that time I found a quotation, perhaps by Hildegarde of Bingen,
that said something about tears being the aroma of holy work.
That really made me cry, which I noticed as well. I began
to craft a theory for myself that said when new parts of me
opened, they would be ritually bathed in my tears. I spoke
about this in circle and about my growing power to offer my
tears in beauty. I wrote this poem upon witnessing, in a ritual
once, a remarkable woman who had done some work in this regard.
The woman in the jaguar mask
knew why she was there;
Felt every step of her journey from scared to sacred
As she stood holding the heart of our circle
From her own place on the circumference.
We all sang generously as the small fire in the center
Licked at our boats of curled white bark,
At the leaves inside, cargoes of cast-off baggage
Set free to the passion of immolation!
As we sang deeply to open ourselves, her unscheduled solo
It was a soft moan wrapped in a slow wail,
Her voice weaving the sounds in
With the music of our chant.
Staccato sobs suddenly tripped my heart on
The keening roller coaster ride.
Her lips spread in a narrow grimace gate,
We heard the pain rushing through.
The sounds tumbled us
Into old sorrowful corners,
Sang us the tune of
Our own lamentations.
And the tears that spilled from her eyes
Scalded all our hearts with grace.
I come to wisdom about grief from another path as well. In
my work with the four directions I have discovered emotional
attributes there; perhaps some essential qualities about each
direction that touch me in a particular emotional spectrum.
It makes perfect sense, if I am a being of Earth. I have taken
on the task of honoring these essential qualities in circle
and they have grown in power for me. West is the direction
of Grief and Joy, all the stories in between, of sadness and
loss and openings and letting go and the mystery of love .
In the West, Kwan Yin slowly practices Ta'i Ch'i as her soft
brown eyes speak compassion to our hearts, offer arms to hold
us as we grieve. Kwan Yin tells us that when grieving is held
as sacred, women will be safe once again.
Mother Kwan Yin (1)
May I walk in peace and gladness, May I walk in mercy,
May I walk in peace and gladness, May I walk in mercy.
Divine Mother Kwan Yin, may this heart be home to you,
Divine Mother Kwan Yin, may this heart be home to you.
Grief is a normal complex response to loss. Loss of life
of course, but also loss of innocence or trust, loss of hope
or safety, loss of our way, so many losses. The small losses
of life are rehearsals for the larger and largest ones.
In our bodies, grief can be a physical presence if we hold
it in - in our muscles, in our throats, our bellies, our breasts,
our hearts, etc. Emotions exist and travel in waves, or spirals.
The word emotion comes from the Latin emovere , meaning to
shake or stir up, to move out. I believe emotions arise in
our heart and, as their name states, ideally move through
us and out. Transforming us as they move, often moving us
It is essential to process grief over time, to literally
move it through our bodies. When we hold onto unfinished waves
of grief, or any emotion, those unfinished waves have a charge,
which grows over time. They can take up residence in many
parts of us, affecting our flexibility-spiritually, physically
and emotionally. These accumulations are not toxins, needing
to be cleansed. Instead they are memories and reminders of
unfinished business. If we do not experience the transformative
powers of feeling our own emotions, we are unfinished, we
are not yet mature. Emotions ripen us.
In her book Music and Women, (2) Sophie
Drinker speaks eloquently of ancient and traditional religions
who knew the importance of honoring grief.
"It is easy for us to misunderstand these primitive
wail songs because, with our overintellectualized and overdepartmentalized
approach to music and to life, we have lost the simple yet
profound consciousness of the oneness of joy and pain, of
birth and death, that is in them.
The wail alone..... sounds mournful in our ears. To observers
of women who sing with tears streaming down their faces, it
may seem an expression of inconsolable grief. But its intent
is actually to ensure rebirth." (3)
The traditional women she spoke of in her book often used
sound to move the energy. Keening is a sound of wailing practiced
by Irish women at wakes and funerals. Arab women have used
wailing for centuries; there are strong traditions in Islamic
countries where such practices still live. Women of many other
countries - Greece, Italy, Sicily, Eastern Europe, China,
the Pacific Island nations, etc. - also use wailing, wild
crying, moaning and other sounds to express the pain, and
to speak out loud for the community's grief. Some teachings
of the Mayan culture say that grief and praise come from the
same place. Grief is thought of as praise for what we have
lost, and praise is not sincere unless the realization of
mortality and loss is brought to it.
For a few years I searched in vain for someone to teach me
how to wail. I also searched for those sounds within myself
and in circle with other women. In workshops and rituals we
invited and evoked the sounds in different ways. Spontaneous
crying is not the same as formalized grieving, so we have
sought specific sounds of grief together. As students of women's
mysteries, we consciously asked to remember the sounds of
grieving. Within chants we found musical phrases that sounded
like moaning or wailing. We sang them over and over so we
knew the sounds, knew the pathways in our throats. Then we
would do a ritual for this work, taking on the roles of the
wailing women. It has felt like a learning and a remembering.
What do we wail for? We often call upon a grief we all share,
a grief for the hurts and violence around children, around
women and the earth, around animals, the loss of species because
of greed. Or we mourn all the witches who have died from hate
and intolerance, Or we mourn those who have died unmourned,
forgotten and alone. There is never a lack of reasons to grieve.
a women's circle, the grieving feels like old territory, ancient
knowing. Everyone holds the space; some women weep or cry
or moan, some sob quietly or loudly, some stare in silence,
some drum or chant, some move and some stand still, each holding
a place in honor for the tears and the grief. Loss is part
of life. When the fabric of our family, community, world is
rent by loss, grieving helps reweave the torn places. Whether
we make the sound or hear it, something shifts in our nervous
system. One of the reasons an infant cries is to reorganize
its new nervous system, particularly if he or she has been
taking in a great deal of information. It makes sense for
adults as well; loss is a lot to take in.
When we love, we open our hearts to take someone in. When
we lose them, we must open our hearts to let them out, more
difficult since our stories and lives are woven with theirs.
The sounds help to shift the grief so it is reorganized, not
all of it, but enough to make room for life to continue and
eventually, for joy again. It is an enormous gift of our tears,
the capacity for more joy.
When we hold something as sacred, we don't try to ignore
it, or medicate it or run from it. What is sacred is respected
and held in wholeness and holiness. What is sacred is safe.
When we have the support of friends and family in our grieving,
we are not alone. Grieving together truly makes community
and helps heal pain as we gather to tell praises and stories
of beauty about the one we have lost.
Wanting to do magic to heal the spiral of life that is my
family, I have wailed for my grandmother and her sisters.
For my grandmother's mother, whose name I share. I offer my
wailing to the women long dead in my family, and their many
many unshed tears. Blessed be the tears of the women. Let
us all make such offerings to our ancestors who could not
weep. Let it be in beauty. Let it be in sacredness. Let it
be for the healing of all.
(1) lyrics to "Divine Mother Kwan Yin",
a chant by Marie Summerwood copyright 1999
(2) Music and Women, by Sophie Drinker, The Feminist Press
at The City University of New York, 1948
(3) Music and Women, page 26
Marie Summerwood views grief
as a spiritual necessity. She teaches grieving from a Wise
Woman perspective. Her own experiences and her observations
of women inform her teaching where the truth and beauty of
grief free the heart. Marie has been leading workshops on
this topic for nine years.
Summerwood, Wise Woman Center cook, has been a lover
of food and nourishment for many years. She taught macrobiotic
cooking for 10 years, then found cooking with weeds (at
Weed's) to be a natural next step. Cooking in the Wise
Woman Tradition uses any food, any technique needed for
the right nourishment of the moment. It is a sacred recognition
of the cycles of our lives, and the will to bring to it
what will best nourish. Marie recognizes that one of the
deepest spirals of life begins in the kitchen. Read about
Marie's love for her magnificent
cooking at the Wise Woman Center. Learn more
about her fabulous CD
Women's Sacred Chants.
Marie teaches at the Wise
Woman Center, in Woodstock NY :
October 8-10, 2004
"I reclaim the power of grieving
out loud. I know the amazing beauty of tears. So do you."
Our spiral journey through life will bring
us to places of grief that need to be grieved. We are
healed by the grieving we do to celebrate the connections.
Let us come together to remember the sounds, and offer
our voices together. 3 days: $250-$375.
Register for this workshop