Grief Inquiry 2

(May 14, 2021)

Hello friends.

This is the second of four weeks of shared inquiry around grief.

I am trying to metabolize the isolations of this time. I feel the huge zoom-out of awareness that has come with so much coordinated loss. I desire many small ceremonies.

These prompts are an effort to bring a quality of presence to what already is, so that we can recognize and tend the processing we’re doing together. So we can let sticky spirits move through. So we can pre-figure collective transformation. But, mostly, so we can treat as precious what is precious.

If you want accountability, feedback, or just to build connection, I would love to hear your reflections. Please reply to this email. This week is a talking prompt.

When do you feel most safe to touch grief? 

Consider your week.

Where and when were you more likely to be present with sadness or loss?

What helps you step toward acceptance and what helps you step into action?

This week’s prompt: 

I invite you to ask someone in your life to hold space for your grief. It could be the vegetables you are cutting for dinner. It could be your ancestors. Maybe a rose bush in a gravel lot, or a close friend, or both at once. 

Practice staying aware of your surroundings as you touch grief. What other feelings or sensations are here? Can you ask for help making a space for grief that feels right-sized for you in the moment? What sensory supports (smells, touch, sound, qualities of light) can help you feel rooted and safe as you intentionally engage grief? 

A Zen chant:

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to grow old; there is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health; there is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die; there is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change; there is no way to escape being separated from them.

My deeds are my closest companions; I am the beneficiary of my deeds. My deeds are the ground on which I stand.


I chose the photographs included here (from a roll of film short in the late spring of 2019) because – like so many of my photographs – they represent routine interactions with aliveness. Contrary to the narrative of “capturing” a moment, I use the camera as a tool of release. The shutter click is the pause between hello (breathe in) and goodbye (breathe out). When I look at the images later, they show moments that exist forever, but which I will never be alive in again. 

This week I heard from a friend who is suddenly swimming in the sadness that she’s held off for a year. I looked into another friend’s eyes as she celebrated her 50th birthday with friends, vaccinated, and acknowledged that she’s not ready, not resourced enough to move toward grief yet. Walking with a different friend, grief came up again and again: Palestine, infertility, loss of connection in marriage. We talked about fear, and how it chokes imagination.

With another friend, the conversation was about mental health narratives, SSRIs, and the lack of spiritual support available as we come of age in this culture. A different beloved and I sat in mourning together for the ways we’ve been trapped in projections of what other people want from us, trying to hold on to our place in the world by hiding our limits and changing desires. 

We grieve how common this strategy is. We grieve that it doesn’t work. We grieve that it works so well. We grieve the cultural power dynamics and lack of social support that make this strategy so important for so many, invisible for others. We grieve human vulnerability. Which is to say: we honor potency, we laugh at the stink, and we turn the compost. Where do we have choice? What are we Not going to do?

In all these cases, grief was mixed with joy, with laughter and routine. Connection and care allowed for an acknowledgment of complexity. I was aware of the light and air around us. We were outside. We chose each other. We were held by flowers. 

At other times this week, I was with the peelings off a sweet potato when I touched the sadness of having, when some do not. It was my ballot, and my hope for the candidate I chose, that let me make more time for (breath in, breath out) the huge injustice of how much work black and brown women are asked to do to change a system that places their needs last. It was my delight at the relentless cheep of baby birds that let me pause to notice multiple neighborhood nests wedged into decommissioned exterior light fixtures on buildings that will surely be demolished in the next wave of gentrification. 

There is a voice in me that judges these moments, and judges me for telling you about them. Can’t I just be grateful? Happy? It says if I don’t like something, I should stop feeling and get to work changing things. I hear the urgency in this part of me: the need to contribute, to be effective. This part of me is worried that grief will paralyze us. 

In the Zen chant that I opened this writing with, I often find the last stanza about deeds challenging. My white, Western, colonial, Christian American understanding of “deeds” is all about filling a resume full of evidence of goodness, proof of my deserving. The Zen tradition, though, is rooted in a Japanese cultural world-view where paradox and non-linearity are surfaced again and again. 

Noticing how I project my cultural conditioning emphasizes the work of the prayer: what am I clinging to, here? What imagination might be possible, with less fear? 

In the meditation hall, we chant these words and then we do as little as possible: all deeds reduced to breath, blood moving, body weight balanced: awareness of whatever comes through. I am indeed the beneficiary of my breathing, of my loving, of my life. Not as a means to an end, but – click of the shutter: an ending, out of which so much possibility flows.

Published by Devon Riley

lately: youth work, parenting, sorcery, books, walks in the woods

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