Have you been in a quiet forest when a dead tree falls? It does indeed make a sound. If you’re nearby, that sound can be quite impressive. It starts with a couple of loud cracks a few moments apart, then builds with more and faster loud bangs, the snaps of breaking branches, the crashing noises of branches and leaves against one another, then a ground-shaking thump.
There may be a few last small sounds as broken branches follow the main trunk to the ground. Then, silence. Complete silence. If there were birdsongs before, they’re now still. No bird or animal makes any sound, as though all of Nature stops for a moment to witness the fall and to honour the fallen one.
Trees grow for a long time. When they die they may remain standing for many more years before they fall. The most spectacular few seconds of a tree’s existence are in that fall to the ground.
Think for a moment of grief as a tree, and the releasing of grief as a tree falling.
Let’s step aside from the metaphor for a moment and define “grief”. There is a teaching from the Haudenosaunee people that says the natural state of human beings is one of peace, and that anything that is not peace is what they call simply “grief”. Grief, in this understanding, includes the full range of all of the negative emotions that we can name and list: anger (from mild annoyance to rage), sadness, fear (from mere concern to blind panic), shame, loneliness, confusion, abandonment, rejection, and so on. So when I use the term “grief” here, it means anything that is not peace.
Grief of various kinds exists within us as part of being human, and eventually we may recognize some of our grief and know that it is time not to carry that grief any more. That awareness and decision is like the death of the tree: when we are on some level wanting to let it go, the grief stops growing. Then there can be a period of dormancy, when perhaps we explore the lessons of the grief, and it slowly loses its power like a tree losing leaves or needles. And one day, we are ready to release the grief, just as one day the tree is ready to fall.
Releasing grief, when it is done consciously and ceremonially, is like a falling tree: dramatic, sometimes noisy, and when it is over, done. The value of a ceremony in releasing grief is partly in the structure of the ceremony, and partly in the witnessing of the release. The silence in a forest after a tree falls and the silence in a circle where grief has been released have a similar feeling to them: awe, heightened awareness of what has happened, and gratitude for being a witness.
Sometimes a falling tree won’t reach the ground. There isn’t that final thump. This happens when a tree gets hung up in the branches or trunks of other trees. It isn’t able to finish its journey. Grief, too, sometimes doesn’t get released – it gets hung up in other grief. When this happens, we need to recognize that griefs are not isolated from each other even as trees aren’t completely separate. We need to explore how various kinds or sources of grief interweave, and deal with them using the many tools we have available.
April 6, 2022