Balancing Grief and Joy in a Time of Uncertainty
“Grief is love that has nowhere to go.”
Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Halifax took our breaths away with truth as she shared this bit of wisdom she learned from one of her students in an Irresistible podcast episode titled, “Grief in a time of not knowing.”
For the past month and a half, I’ve been contemplating the role of collective grief in this global crisis with hesitant curiosity. During the first week of widespread shelter-in-place, organizers on a support call I attended shared their grief of having worked arduously for the past year to bring their organizations to alignment on a 2020 strategy in a year when so much is on the line, and that suddenly all those plans were going to need to change radically. As the weeks go on, more folks in our midst are losing loved ones to COVID-19, or even experiencing the ordinary losses in our lives that are now compounded by the inability to gather in our usual rituals of collective mourning.
I can hear the wise ones in my life—the organizer elders, the healers, the therapists—warning how deeply important it is that we hold the grief of this moment skillfully, collectively. That our movements must provide a space for that grief and rage to be held and alchemized into connection and collective power, not allowing it to fester into alienation and disillusionment. But I’ve felt intimidated by the question that naturally follows: “So how do we do that well?”
We have so much to learn about grief, and how we both pause and stay in motion in the face of unthinkable loss. So many of our movements’ most powerfully galvanizing moments are connected to tragedy—natural disasters compounded by racism and economic injustice, loss of Black lives at the hands of police, the pain of families separated by deportation, deaths caused by lack of health care, domestic violence, and more. And simultaneously, some of the most visionary and joyful group cultures are alive and thriving in the very movements that have faced such depths of unimaginable loss.
As a podcast supporting social justice leaders, we usually release conversations and practices that folks use together in their organizations, their meetings, their retreats, their direct actions. But with so much shifting so fast, our organizations and institutions are scrambling to adapt in a million ways. We cannot always expect our political homes to have the capacity to also be the main site of emotional support in our lives.
So we launched Irresistible Care Circles, a weekly virtual gathering place that has served more than 1,000 social justice leaders in the past five weeks. Social distancing brought us face-to-face with our community as we laughed, cried, breathed, played, sang, and rested (yes, literally napped) with hundreds of social justice leaders from around the world through our video screens. Gathering in the presence of elders, kids, and pets helped soften and reopen us in a time of so much contraction.
We’ve been brought back to life by the compassion we’ve witnessed. We heard hundreds sing together—songs of freedom and liberation, songs of gratitude and pain, songs of faith and hope. Together across time zones, continents, ages, and socioeconomic contexts, we lifted our voices together as one body.
We’ve also witnessed incredible courage. On the week we held space to honor our pain, a woman on the call from New York City shared with 150 strangers about the refrigerator trucks filling with the bodies of the dead in her neighborhood. She shared about the pain of seeing so many discarded people, and how she’s reflecting on the ways throughout her life that she’s looked the other way as so many continue to be discarded and marginalized daily. Immediately the chat box lit up with similar reflections. It was a courageous moment, and one that brought folks into a greater sense of agency and responsibility to one another.
Be it through mutual aid, healing circles, grief rituals, or direct actions, we grow our resilience when we gather with the intention of holding one another’s wholeness. In doing so, we assert and embody one of the most fundamental truths —we are not meant to survive alone. When we allow ourselves to see and be seen in the fullness of loss and joy—as extensions of one another’s lives—a deeper sense of compassion, courage, and feeling becomes possible.
In the commitment to connection across distance, and inclusion of the full spectrums of grief and joy, we extend to you two opportunities to join with our community this week:
• Explore grief: Listen in on the wisdom of Roshi Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and pioneer in the field of end-of-life care. Roshi shares with us about the loss, intimacy, and possibility available in the unknown in this week’s podcast episode titled “Grief in a Time of Not Knowing.”
• Cultivate joy: This Thursday for the final installment of our Care Circle series, we’re teaming up with Thrive East Bay Choir and YES! Magazine for a free all-ages virtual event called “Singing for Joy: A Night of Inspiration.” Come cultivate joy and inspiration with us from your living room, and listen and sing along in community to movement songs that will lift your spirit. Reserve your spot here.
As Roshi Joan Halifax tells us, “We won’t be returning to a landscape that we left, but to a landscape that is yet to be revealed.” There is loss in that reality, and there is the bubbling joy of possibility. We’re here for both, together.
To browse more than 130 conversations and practices at the intersection of collective healing and social change, visit www.irresistible.org/podcast. To access resources specific to a social justice response to COVID-19, see www.irresistible.org/covid.
Kate Werning (she/her) is the founding Director of Irresistible, a media project supporting the healing and sustainability of organizers & social justice leaders worldwide. She has worked as an organizer for the past decade, is a lead trainer with Momentum, and founded Hoop House collective home in Brooklyn, NY. She is currently sheltering-in-place with her family in Wisconsin. Headshot by Emily Hlaváč Green Photography Kate Werning wrote this article in collaboration with BJSTAR, (they/them) an experience designer committed to building a just, thriving, and sustainable world through supporting and strengthening groups working within the intersections of climate justice, abolition, anti-racism, and radical black queer feminism. BJ has trained with Wildfire Project and Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, and serves as a Circle Keeper with Irresistible.