Needing a community space to non-verbally process my delayed grief response of my parents’ death, I recently attended a grief dancing ceremony.
Grief Dancing Ceremony
As a kid, I became the natural caretaker of my two amazing parents. My dad suddenly died from a heart attack in March of 2006 (I was 18). And my mom died from a long battle with breast cancer in December of 2008 (I was 21). It has been almost 10 years that I have been without parents in my life.
Soon after my parents’ deaths, I advanced my care-taking knowledge and skills by becoming a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Initially I wanted to continue my 5 year long career path as a Public Health researcher, however becoming a mental health therapist seemed to be my natural next step.
I became dedicated to my successful and intensive professional path. As a result, I’ve also successfully avoided diving deep into my grief work until about a year ago.
Ready to Grieve
This past year, for what seems like the first time, I have achieved a sustainable lifestyle to support my grief work. I have begun processing the muck of emotional pain. And I can take comfort in knowing that if I ever get stuck, I have numerous loving individuals to help pull me out of the muck.
Even though I started my own individual grief process, recently I realized that I needed a community space to grieve. Somewhere I could connect with other grieving humans to normalize this potentially isolating process. Grieving a loss of any kind is a natural process. Unfortunately, in our culture it is nearly impossible to find a community grieving space.
Grief Support Groups
Yes I have been to many grief support groups over the years, but for various reasons going to a grief support group never felt like my ideal community grieving space. The focus on individual stories and experiences left me sometimes feeling more isolated. I know I have an unusual experience with my parents dying so young, but I don’t need this fact constantly highlighted. I want to feel connected, not unique.
And while I am a mental health therapist, starting my own individual therapy did not feel like the right answer. I desired to connect to other individuals in a grieving community. I just didn’t know how. And I didn’t know where.
Discovering a Local Grief Dancing Ceremony
Through the magic of googling grieving options in Portland, I stumbled upon Anat LeBlanc’s website and discovered her newly developed Grief Alchemy: A Somatic Ceremony. Anat highlighted that the key components of this grief dancing ceremony would be community gathering, sacred ritual, and embodied movement. Pulled from her website, Anat states:
“Grief, a universal human experience, lives in our bodies as well as our hearts and minds. In a culture that doesn’t understand or welcome grief, it can often grow stagnant inside of us – like a pond of water with no outlet. The ecosystem of our bodies becomes backed up and life’s vibrant flow diminished. Beholding and feeling our grief is an essential practice to keep our life-flow moving freely, opening us to experience the full color spectrum of the heart’s river – beauty and grief existing side by side.
Many cultures around the world have used dance and ritual as containers for the waters of grief. With intention and a safe space for our grief, we offer it a chance to be felt and moved through the instrument of our bodies.”
Intrigued, and feeling like I had no other tangible grieving options, I signed up for the ceremony.
In the therapy world, bridging the gap between the mind-body dichotomy is more commonly known as somatic psychology. There are various modalities to achieve this integration and they are becoming more commonly used within the pscyhotherapy realm.
For most of my life, my mind and body connection has felt incredibly disconnected due to various well developed barriers preventing integration. As an adult, I’ve struggled for many years to achieve an internal emotional connection. Eventually, I had to accept that my verbal and analytical self can become my biggest barriers from tapping into my emotional state.
Now, I am learning to embrace that I’m a somatic processor. Simply put, while I can verbally discuss my emotions, I’m better at processing and internalizing my emotions non-verbally through being connected to my internal state. I can achieve this connection either through active movement (e.g. dance, hiking, creating art), or internal focused stillness (e.g. meditation, massage) to honor and experience a lingering emotion.
In the past few years, I’ve also discovered that I tend to hold emotions physically within my body. I believe this was my body’s way of holding onto years of unprocessed emotion. Consequently, I’m still discovering ways to physically release many years of stored emotional pain.
Preparing for the Grief Dancing Ceremony
As the grief dancing ceremony day approached, I purposefully focused on my internal self. I made a mindful practice to begin dredging up buried emotional pain attached to my grief. My success resulted in feeling an ever increasing weight within my body.
The week leading up to the grief dancing ceremony day I felt like I carried an overflowing heavy backpack of emotions. And each day that backpack weighed down even more on my neck, shoulders and back. The day before the grief dancing ceremony, I also started to experience familiar emotional stabbing pains on the left side of my upper chest, near my heart. Though I’ve experienced these stabbing pains before, never had they felt so sharp and so painful.
I could finally feel the heavy emotional backpack I had been carrying around for countless years. Though, I knew, even the day before the grief dancing ceremony, I had yet to fully discover my backpack’s true weight.
The Morning of the Grief Dancing Ceremony
The morning of the ceremony, an overwhelming internal resistance to participate started to manifest. I could still feel the emotional backpack weighing me down also wanting me to not move. And the pain in my chest continued to be sharp and stabbing. Instead of giving this resistance my complete focus, I sluggishly kept moving and prepared for the day.
As the time to leave for the ceremony got closer, I had a strong vision. My grief manifested into a beast that I would soon have to confront. I would be a gladiator preparing to walk into a lion’s den. And I knew exposing my true vulnerable self was going to be the only way to successfully tame the beast.
At each choice point of getting ready for the ceremony I had to stay focused on my motivation to participate. Without this focus, I could’ve easily stayed in bed for the rest of the day.
Instead, I internalized my struggle and posted on Facebook:
“Today, with a courageous heart, I shall finally step into my lion’s den and face my beast of oh so many years. And while some may talk, submit, or fight, I choose to dance. I hope to open my heart and gracefully bare my soul to this neglected beast. I’m so terrified. But I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. *deep breath*”
And then, still feeling incredibly isolated, I got in my car and drove to the ceremony.
Arriving at the Grief Dancing Ceremony
I found a parking spot and struggled to park for a good 5 minutes. My brain felt so disorganized. By the time I walked up to the front door of the ceremony, my body started subtly shaking. I took a deep breath and walked into the temporarily re-purposed yoga studio.
Once I completed all of the registering motions, I noticed the circle of 15 chairs in the yoga studio. The ever intimidating circle of chairs. I picked a spot and sat. I waited as people started trickling into the circle. Soon after, I got up to get a blanket. And then I sat again. And then I got up again to do something else. I couldn’t sit with myself, let alone within a circle of strangers. Some people made small talk. I stayed as silent and as disengaged as possible.
Eventually everyone arrived and sat in the circle. Anat briefly reviewed the day and prepared the group for the first portion of the ceremony. No names were exchanged. No experiences were shared. Curiously, through our new found anonymity we became joined in our grief. We had permission to freely express without expectations.
Preparing the First Two Altars
Anat started the music and we moved the chairs out of the circle. We first were invited to add our personal objects to two of the three established altars around the room. How we added our objects was entirely left to us. The first altar represented a connection with the present world, something that brings joy. I brought a small bunny stuffed animal gifted by my cousins long ago. This bunny is one of the few things my minimalist self has kept through many moves. On the stomach of the bunny my cousin sewed our long standing phrase of ‘hop hop’; a silly well-used phrase to capture the idea that ‘Everything will be okay, and is okay.’
The second altar represented a connection with our ancestors and Spirit. For this, I brought the shawl I bought in Israel that I wore when I visited the Wailing Wall. While I do not identify as religiously Jewish, I recognize a connection to my cultural Jewish heritage.
The third altar, left empty for the first portion of the ceremony, would be used to honor our connection to our grief.
Soon we began to dance, we were encouraged to physically move between the altars as needed to connect with joy or Spirit to stay grounded.
Beginning the Grief Dancing Ceremony
Anat gave little direction on how to participate in the grief dancing ceremony. We were given permission to freely express ourselves however needed. We could do anything from dance, vocalize, stomp, clap, be still, or even temporarily leave the room. Anat also designated a space for those who were open to physical comfort, such as a hug, from others.
The first playlist lasted about an hour. We were prompted that the music for both playlists would go in an order to represent the concepts of earth (grounding), wind (movement), water (flow), fire (energy), and ether (connection). The music played would be from a variety of cultures.
Dancing with My Grief Beast
Once everyone completed placing their objects on the two altars we were encouraged to start our dance on the ground. I could feel my body uncomfortably energized and incredibly heavy under my emotional backpack. And in this moment, I transcended into the enclosed den to face my Grief Beast directly for the first time.
Though my Grief Beast seemed ever ready to challenge me, it patiently waited with it’s intense golden eyes watching me as I struggled to move. First I had to ground myself. I pushed myself to move my body with the music. The slow rhythmic drum beats became my foundational heart beat. Slowly, I overcame the weight of my emotional backpack and stood up. I knew in order to confront my Grief Beast I would first have to let go of my emotional backpack. After, I would have to embrace my true vulnerable self, the only form of myself that could overcome my Grief Beast.
Now standing, I began to move and dance through my emotional backpack. As we approached the music representing water (flow) and fire (energy), I could feel myself becoming more internally integrated. I cried as I started to finally feel the full weight of my emotional backpack. The pain weighing on my body for so many years. I felt intense anger as I danced like a boxer ready to fight my Grief Beast. Consequently, I became exhausted. Instead, I slowed my movement knowing I had to be more thoughtful in my fight. I cried again as I allowed my body to purposefully move and drift.
My Ancestors and My Grief Beast
As I continued to dance, I started to feel my ancestors in the den behind me, ready to support me in my battle. And though I initially thought I would be focusing my grief work on both my mom and dad, during this time I could sense my dad’s presence to support me against my Grief Beast. I became connected to my dad’s incredibly joyful and positive energy. It was as if my dad said to me, ‘I may not be alive to dance with you if and when you get married like I promised, but I am always here to dance with you.’
I cried tears of joy as I sensed my dad. I took comfort in his wonderful love and slipped off my backpack. An emotional backpack I knew I no longer had to carry. And I stood in my den completely vulnerable, with my ancestors supporting me from behind, and my Grief Beast awaiting to fight in front of me.
The music started to transition to ether, and Anat announced that we were approaching the end of the first playlist. She encouraged us to try ending our dance on the ground. Feeling equally empowered and vulnerable, I slowly made my way down to the ground to meditate while laying on my back. I allowed myself to drift, free from thought.
The music ended and I stayed laying on the floor with my eyes closed. I waited until I felt ready to fully reconnect back into the yoga studio. At this time some people chose to journal before having their lunch. I decided I needed to go outside and walk in the sunshine. I continued doing my best to avoid interacting with anyone. Verbalizing anything to anyone seemed near impossible.
As the sun filled me with more warmth, I reflected on the ceremony thus far. Even though I used the full space of the yoga studio to dance, I tend to dance with my eyes mostly closed. Because of this, I did not know how everyone else was choosing to participate in the first part of the grief dancing ceremony. However, I did catch brief glimpses when I opened my eyes to navigate the room. Each time I could see everyone being courageous and emotionally honest in their journey. Everyone appeared to be utilizing the grief dancing ceremony in their own unique and emotionally powerful way. And through each individual’s honest experience, everyone’s emotional courageousness fueled the community of individuals to stay present in experiencing their own grief.
Eventually, I sat down, alone, to eat my lunch on a park bench facing the sun. Once finished, I went back inside to join the newly reformed circle of chairs and wrote in my journal until the second portion started.
In my journal I allowed myself to freely form and verbalize what I needed to do to prepare myself for the second portion of the grief dancing ceremony.
The first entry focused on my Grief Beast.
“Do not fight, submit, or talk. Instead experience. Dance. Connect. Move together. Move apart. Be still. Either way, join and have a relationship with the beast. The beast holds things besides grief and pain. The beast possesses emotion, tenacity, power, and overwhelming gentleness. The ability to connect with others. But before I can repossess these things I’ve missed for so long, I need to connect with my Grief Beast.”
The second entry focused on my inability to connect with my mom during the first portion of the grief dancing ceremony. I directed this entry to my mom.
“Hey mom. Come here. Be with me. We are connected. We have a relationship. But I need you to be here. To feel what I miss. And grieve what I never had. It’s okay, I’m ready. Stop protecting me. Because this disconnection from pain is disconnecting me from you and others. I’ve only briefly glimpsed at my joy, and can only feel so much love. I’m ready. Face this beast with me. Please.”
Dancing in My Grief and Reconciling with My Beast
As the second portion of the grief dancing ceremony started, Anat encouraged us to break up into groups of 3 and share our grief. She said it could be as brief or as detailed as we wanted. I purposefully chose to go last in my small group and very briefly verbalized my grief. I identified that I originally thought that I would be to grieving both of my parents today, but instead I realized that the second portion of the ceremony would be solely focused on grieving my mom.
The music started and we were encouraged to add our final item to the third altar, the grief altar. First, I chose to place my dad’s Santa hat, initially brought for the grief altar, on the Spirit altar. Then I added my mom’s favorite Grover stuffed animal to the grief altar. The music, though different, flowed in the same emotional order and with the same cultural variety. This time the playlist would be a bit longer than an hour.
And I danced.
I could feel my body energized from my core to my tips. Almost instantly I was back in my den, facing my Grief Beast. My ancestors, including my dad, cheered me on from behind. I danced through the different types of music, all while staring into my Grief Beast’s golden eyes. Cautiously, I approached my Grief Beast. We started to dance together. Learning to trust each other. Testing boundaries. Becoming familiar with our different rhythms. I became disconnected to time. And eventually, I became reconnected to my mom.
My dance ended before the music was over. I laid on the ground near a wall and curled up under a blanket with my eyes closed. Tears of utter exhaustion and relief filled my eyes. I could no longer sense my Grief Beast staring at me. I drifted. My emotional backpack had disappeared. Though, my body did feel heavy, as if I had actually physically wrestled with my Grief Beast.
My Final Journal Entry
The playlist ended and we had a few moments to recollect ourselves before joining back into a circle. After I opened my eyes, I picked up my journal and wrote one last entry for the day. Though a brief entry, I did not need any more words to express the sentiment. This entry was from my mom.
“I am here. Always. I love you.”
We all sluggishly made our way back to a circle of chairs for group processing. My body felt more exhausted than compared to any other form of physical activity that I have ever done.
In the remaining hour, we were encouraged to one by one share as little or as much about our experience. Throughout the group processing everyone highlighted how meaningful and powerful the grief dancing ceremony was. Everyone, including me, expressed gratitude toward Anat for creating such a healing space to be emotionally courageous within a community. A few people shared that they have been emotionally numb for years, and this space was the first time they felt able to freely cry and experience intense emotions. And while what we were grieving and how we grieved varied quite a bit, we all felt incredibly connected.
Having Witness to My Grief Experience
When it was my turn to share, I also highlighted how sluggish I felt and how powerful of an experience I had. Briefly, I described my dance with my Grief Beast, and this image seemed to resonate with a few people. I stated that I could no longer see my Grief Beast, because I had become reintegrated with everything the Grief Beast represented.
Finally, I felt able to verbalize what I had been avoiding for so long. I shared in this community of people that I was not only grieving the loss of my mom, but the loss of never having the feeling of being taken care of by a parent. Especially the feeling of missing out on having a mom. While yes my parents were amazing people, their physical pain constantly consumed them and prevented them from being the amazing parents I knew they could be.
I grieved over the different childhood I had compared to my two loving older brothers. And I could finally let go of the childhood burden I placed on myself in 6th grade when my mom was initially diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer; I did not fail at keeping my mom alive. My mom’s death was not my fault. As my mom’s caretaker, I couldn’t have done anything more to help her.
As I finished processing out loud, I also pointed out to the group that I have never been more vulnerable and connected to group of people. And we didn’t even know much about each other, including our names. An eye opening realization.
Final Thoughts: Meeting My Teacher
One of the last people in the grief dancing ceremony circle to share their experience was an older woman. She shared that she had lost the love of her life only a few months ago. She described, with ever flowing tenacity and wisdom, that grief is a unique process needed to be experienced. And she normalized the struggle and described how she is honest in her experience, regardless of cultural norms. This woman validated and embodied what I have been attempting to embrace for oh so long. To be fiercely honest with my self and others. To help change the norm.
Lastly, this woman talked about how wonderful of a teacher grief can be. Grief is a fundamentally normal, yet a life changing force. Grief helps to change priorities, alter perspectives, and when truly embraced, promotes motivation to live a deeply meaningful life. In that moment, I recognized my teacher from a previous powerful vision I had. Grief is my teacher.
One morning, about a year ago, while meditating outside in the sun, a vision appeared of me sitting around a campfire at night. To the right sat my mom, to the left my dad. And in front of me was my teacher. I had no other description or connection to this thing in front of me other than it was my teacher. To this day I can still go back to this meditative vision, especially when I am soul searching for answers.
While I have already brushed up on it’s wisdom, Grief has so much more to teach me about life. Each day I try to take at least a few more steps on my long, exhausting, difficult, and soul enriching journey. I’m still struggling to move forward, to be purposeful with each step. At times I still feel my emotional backpack creep back onto my body, and I have to thoughtfully focus energy on taking it off again. As my body processes and releases so much stored emotion, I still experience regular physical pain and exhaustion.
But, at least now I have reclaimed my Grief Beast. I have the emotion, tenacity, power, and overwhelming gentleness to help me power forward with climbing my emotional mountain.