Unafraid of the Sound of Grief

celtic spirituality family Grieving story

“…they were not afraid of the sound of grief, which we are nowadays.”

Truly didn’t want to spend time in her room anymore.

“I feel like Nick is there. I miss him and I just start to cry.”
“Thats the last place you held him, in your room.”
“Its also pretty messy in there. Let’s go into your room together and I’ll sit with you while you clean.”

I rubbed her back as she sifted through the many piles of sewing materials, dismantled toys, and cardboard homes she made for her small, collectable figures. Her tears came and went. We talked about how well she did, holding her pet Guinea Pig Nick as he breathed his last breaths. We laid Nick to rest, along with several fish and some of our dog Bellas ashes less than a year ago. Our Dog Fish Guinea Pig Funeral was in March when the ground was still hard from winter.

“Do you feel like Nicks spirit is still here?”
“I don’t think so honey, but I’ll be sure to check in later. I think we just need to clear out the old energy and invite in the new.”
She nodded thoughtfully.

My ancestors knew well how to move grief. Keening, from the gaelic caoineadh (pronounced quee-new) is a tradition in many cultures, but it was especially well known among the Irish and Scotts. It’s one of those native rituals that I think everyone knows instinctively, like holding any kind of a ritual in a circle, or using drumming to raise your spirits. There’s just something basically human about keening.

My daughter already knows how to grieve much better than I, wailing so deep it shakes your hold on life. She taught herself how to grieve a few months after her mother died. She hasn’t stopped working that muscle since. She never stays mired in grief but she gives herself to it fully. When she’s done, she’s done… for now.

The practice of keening was reportedly ended by the Catholic church by the 1950’s, though the priests had been pushing against it for generations. The clergy were off put by women filing into the home after they had said last rites. They knew a tidal flood that couldn’t be controlled by the church was about to be released. Those wailing cries came from a depth, a wildness that was beyond the reach of the any kind of order.

There are not many recordings of keening, likely it was not considered a spectator activity when recording devices found their way to the rural countrysides of Ireland and Scotland. There are some recordings from elders who remember the rituals from their own youth. One woman who gave an expert rendition of keening said it was important to have gown up with it.

“We were unafraid of the sound of grief, which people are today.”

The wakes of her childhood would have lasted days to accommodate those coming from across the countryside. They were not just somber affairs, there were games and drinking and stories. Courtship could happen at such an event. But woven throughout was the sound of grief. If it were not present enough the keeners were there to bring everyone back to the somberness of the moment. They knew how to stir that deep cauldron, because of the many losses they had already faced in their own lives. They were professional grievers.

We have therapists. I get that, I understand why that happened. They are the people who help us with feelings, and grief is a lot about feelings. It can also be about existential change, and our therapists are good at helping us through that. But they’re not professional grievers, and that’s a problem. Some part of us knows if the person we’re with can really stand to be near our grief. We know if they’ve suffered loss or not. We know if they’re greif-ready. I think somewhere, deep down, many of us understand that grief is about much more than feelings.

Truly asked me, from the back seat of the car, if I still miss our dog Bella.

“Yes, of course I miss her. Every day.”
She reached forward, putting her tiny hand on my shoulder. “It’s OK to feel sad about Bella, Dad.”
Her hand felt so small, and so worldly. I melted. “Thanks honey, I think I needed that.”

Grief hits us in that place where our feelings, our spirits and our ideas about ourselves are all woven together. We don’t really have language to talk about that place, which makes it hard to understand what we’re experiencing when things get torn apart. There is a fabric of us that needs tending and mending. Grief is how that happens. Grief mends us.

Truly is constantly re-weaving herself, Tadg wants to make things less fluid. He is a young man, preparing to propel himself into the world. He needs a solid launch pad to push off from. I’ve just started teaching him to drive. We have the perfect neighborhood to learn in; lots of space, only a few cars on the road, plenty of room to make mistakes in. He’s not surprised anymore to hear True crying. First she grieved her Mothers passing for years, now each animal that comes and goes gets its due. He’s always respectful of her wailing. He knows she’s old enough now, she doesn’t need him to hold her every time she starts to grieve. We sometimes sit together, waiting for her tears to pass.

He doesn’t like to cry in front of other people, but he doesn’t fear grief in the world. He knows life has tragedy, but he also knows it’s a glorious gift. He’s so ready to find some of his own glory.

What does the world look like when we can no longer grieve properly? What happens when we can no longer mend the very fabric that has brought us to life? The world around us is burning now. Our usual season of forest fires joins those in Canada, Maui and now the Canary Islands. This is what happens when we don’t tend our own grief, we stop tending the world.

We let things burn.

I know that my children will have the hearts needed to express their grief, to mend what they can through their own keening ways. I worry for their bodies, for their lives, but not their hearts and souls. They already know so well, how to mend the world with their own hearts. They are both unafraid of the sound of grief.

May it be so for you and yours.

Blessings to you and yours during this time of great change.

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