We are living at a time where there is much to grieve. Covid has led to loss of lives, jobs, and social connection. The loss created by the pandemic dovetails with a loss of faith that our systems – public safety, healthcare, politics, education – serve our collective best interests.

Hopefully there is now also a growing awareness of the need to acknowledge a false narrative about our history. This acknowledgement is a reckoning of the profound systemic losses that have been, and continue to be, inflicted and endured in patriarchal western culture. This culture has perpetuated racism, genocide, othering, and broken promises. 

Martín Prechtel, an author of First Nations and Swiss ancestry, wrote a pertinent and beautiful book called The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. Its primary premise is that the modern world has lost the art of grieving. As individuals and as a collective, we must learn to grieve in order to return to the beauty of life, to sing the praises of what we love. Only when individuals and nations can grieve the profound losses that have been both endured and caused can there be true healing, restorative justice, and the peace for which we yearn.

What happens when we do not?

Unable to grieve, we are reactive, with no way to disseminate intense feelings. We see examples of anger and violence as the primary expression of pain every day in the news. In addition to anger and reactivity, other prominent and unhealthy ways of deflecting grief include numbing out, blaming others for their own suffering (sometimes called “victim blaming”), and perpetuating cycles of trauma.

Martín talks about our un-grieved sorrows being turned into fear and destructive forces of “weapon-bearing monster power.” These continue to ravage the world as unhealthy substitutes to grieving what we have lost and the truth of the damage that our forebears have caused.

Un-metabolized grief gets passed on to future generations, something they never created themselves but “must now bear and continue promoting.” When something bad happens, rather than grieving, our culture turns to a perpetual cycle of revenge. Revenge only serves to deepen suffering as we double down on blaming others rather than addressing the root of the pain.

Martín says, “Wealth is deferred grief piled up.” Our culture is commodified. Money has become an end in itself and is a poor substitute for things that we love. Our capacity to celebrate life has been compromised. By recognizing that the pursuit of wealth does not help us live fully, and has impaired our capacity to see beauty and love vibrantly, we take an initial step toward learning to grieve what has been lost.

How do we learn to grieve?

First we must name what is to be grieved. We must correct our history that has lied about the losses inflicted on others. A more honest rendition of the past may be experienced as a loss to those of us who are privileged, as we acknowledge that things we hold dear have often been attained at the cost of people who have been cheated and treated as less-than. 

We need help to grieve, to be joined by others who give us space to take stock and fully express our grief. Too often we are expected to get over loss quickly. Expressions of grief make people uncomfortable. On the one hand we are encouraged to grieve by mental health professionals, while at the same time powerful expressions of grief are met with discomfort and even pathologized.

We need accompaniment in grief, people who allow us the full range of our experience. These same people keep us from tipping over into anesthetized harmful behavior or toxic, reactive anger. And we must learn to accompany others as they go through the same. 

Only in the safe space of community can grief be borne. But in our modern world, people are missing communities in which they feel seen and understood. Without a collective to help us hold our experience, there is no safe space to help us bear pain, learn the art of grieving, and become true stewards of peace and justice.

Let’s develop a culture with tools to hold and express this well of grief residing inside us. For help, we can turn to teachings like Prechtel’s in The Smell of Rain on Dust, which provides examples of how cultures make room for the full expression of grief and ideas for rituals around authentic grieving.