Grief Rituals

Nov 03 2022

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Holly in the lightening tree on the Sharpham Estate

Trigger Warning: grief, miscarriage

This blog explores how ritual, nature and creativity can support grief. It offers three grief rituals for you to try wherever you are.

I’m writing this at Samhain (aka Halloween), when the gossamer veil shimmers between this world and the next. Thunder rolls around the Devonshire valley as heavy rain slams down on the flat roof of the wee rustic hut where I’m staying for the week. I’m cosied up under a pile of crocheted blankets, with a huge mug of tea, thinking about my four lost babies. I think about them most days, but this is my week off, so I have time, space and containment to be able to really connect with my grief.

Grief is what drew me here to Devon to live and volunteer at a meditation retreat centre for a year. Living in community and doing wholesome work two weeks on, one week off, has given me the structure and support I need to be able to explore safe and healthy ways of coming in and out of relationship with my grief. With support from nature, creativity and ritual, I’ve been able to regularly touch in with and take care of my grief. 

Grief is my teacher, my muse and my friend and I want to share some of what we’ve discovered together with you, dear reader.

This blog goes out to everyone who is grieving and to all those who are taking care of people in mourning, I hope it is useful and I send you my love.

Each grief is unique and each griever needs to find their own way to grieve. I haven’t got all the answers, but I offer up my experience as a friend holding a candle in the darkness. I see you, friend!

“I need a new ritual, I need a new prayer”

All grief is multi-layered, for me the grief of miscarriage is showing up as physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual:

  • There’s the physical grief of having been pregnant and having no baby in my arms to care for whilst life goes on.
  • There’s the emotional grief of having loved those babies and dreamed about who they might be.
  • There’s the mental grief of having fantasised about being part of a family.
  • There’s the social grief of being around friends with children and having to field ENDLESS ADVICE from well-meaning kindhearted souls.
  • There’s the spiritual grief of trying to make sense of a life without being a mother.

My grief finds all kinds of places to make itself known to me. It’s most prominent on significant dates, but it also gets triggered by smells, tastes, music, poetry and casual conversation. It pops up on my meditation cushion, when I’m cooking and when I’m alone in bed at night. Grief wants my attention!

How and when does your grief show up for you?

I’ve been exploring ritual as a container to help me hold space around my grief, so that I can experience it more fully, taste its flavours and appreciate the life and love that lives within it.

After publishing my blog about inventing a new ritual to celebrate my Deathaversay, several friends sent me the following video. This song is part of a series of musical collaborations which Sean and Abigail Bengson made with women who have stories to tell about reproductive liberty, called ‘Sovereignty Hymns.’  In this video, Abigail calls for a new ritual to help her come to terms with the loss of her two babies:

How did listening to that impact you? 

It gave me goosebumps. My heart swells with resonance as I listen to Abigail sing of her need for a ritual to honour her loss. I am with her as she calls in the ingredients for containment, for something bigger than herself to help her be with the enormity of her grief. She sings:

What do we need?
I’m going to need a bowl of water,
to pour all of my tears into,
to remind me that grief is a liquid
that flows back to the ocean,
not meant to be held on my back.

I’m going to need a line of ash to cross,
so I can walk from this world to the next,
I’m going to need to make the ash
out of all my old skins,
and the detritus of my failures,
the detritus of my sorrows.

What do we need?
We’re going to need a fire to tell
our stories to,
and a star in the sky,
to remind us that there is always
a light in the darkness,
and we’re going to need the darkness.

-Abigail Bengson

Water, ash, fire and darkness. Grief needs ritual to help it express itself and be felt. 

Here in England, we’ve just had the most astounding display of ritual, following the Queen’s death. From the endless sombre queue to see the Queen lying in state, to the lone Scottish piper who led the mourners out of the funeral, each component of the extended ceremony was carefully choreographed to help the nation honour her life and let her go into death. Whatever you think about the royal family, I’m sure you’ll agree they’ve got ritual nailed!

There isn’t a ritual for miscarriage. It tends to happen quietly behind closed doors.

Even though around 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage (according to miscarriage association), it’s still taboo to talk about it. Women are encouraged to not tell anyone they are pregnant until they are 3 months gone, as this is the window when they are most likely to lose their babies. I totally get this, it’s hard enough to manage your own feelings around miscarriage, let alone other people’s (oh hey, I wrote another blog about what to say to someone who has lost a baby), but if women don’t hear other women talking about their miscarriages, then when it happens to them, they are likely to feel alone and isolated, which is the perfect breeding ground for shame. And this is why I write about my miscarriages. 

Shame on top of grief is like a very sad cake covered in dog shit.

Grief is quite enough to stomach on its own.

My grief rituals tend to be impulsive, sketchily planned, with room for surprises along the way. I set an intention, I gather some bits and bobs and then I see what happens. 

Afterwards I write, making sense of what I’ve experienced on the page.

I’m going to share three of my recent grief rituals with you as inspiration / permission for you to maybe follow your impulses and invent your own. I have a lot of support in my life, which allows me to dive into this stuff on my own, but if you’re drawn to this kind of work and it feels too much to hold on your own, please look for a guide to hold the space for you, maybe a therapist or a friend. 

It may feel bonkers, but it doesn’t really matter. If your grief is calling for ritual, follow that impulse and do what you can.

The Empty Nest

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Empty nest, autumn leaves

Last week I found on the ground an abandoned birds nest, carefully crafted out of twigs, moss and cat hair. 

So much love and care had gone into making a sturdy, soft home, but no baby birds lived there now.

Yesterday, on the eve of Samhain, I cradled the nest in my hands and walked slowly up the hill to the natural burial ground, overlooking the Sharpham Estate. Amongst the simple grassy graves were clusters of grievers, spending time with the memories of those they loved.

I don’t have a grave to stand beside, so I stood by the fire-pit emblazoned with the words, “In my end is my beginning.” 

The autumn winds whipped at the bundle of twigs, moss and feline fur in my hands, but I kept it safe and protected.

I thought I might leave it there in the burial ground as an offering to the ancestors, but the fierce winds told me to seek shelter.

I processed down the hill towards the woods, collecting a basketfull of colourful leaves on my way.

The Great Oak called out to me “Hey Holly, bring your nest here, I’ll take care of it.”

At the foot of the Great Oak, I carefully arranged the brightly coloured leaves in a mandala and placed the nest in the middle.

Looking at what I’d assembled, I was reminded of the Growth Around Grief model, where rather than try to shrink the size of your grief, you are encouraged to let it be and to build a life around it, which I guess is what I am doing here in Devon.

Invitation: Go out into nature and find something to represent your grief. Sit with it, get to know it. If the impulse takes you, decorate it with whatever is around, then sit with it some more.

Walking With Grief

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: The lightening-struck tree

I attended the “Walking With Grief” online festival in September this year. ‘Walking With Grief’ came from Dancing On The Edge, a collective of artists from all around the world. They posed the question (on their website): What if we linger a moment with the loss we feel? With our personal and/or collective grief, the grief in our bodies, our political or climate grief? What if we try to listen to our grief together?” 

The artists made a series of audio adventures, exploring their relationship with walking and grief. We, the listeners, were encouraged to listen to the sound files whilst walking through our own terrain, then each evening we met on Zoom for a carefully guided listening circle, where we shared how the experience had impacted us. 

Each day they sent prompts for us to explore our grief in creative ways. One of these was the simple invitation: “Take your grief for a walk.” 

I took up their invitation and was surprised by what unfolded. I wrote the first draft of the following story-poem-thing immediately afterwards and I edited it down a bit for this blog.

It’s still quite raw, so be warned and feel free to skip this bit if you are feeling particularly fragile today.

I tried to take my grief for a walk today.
“Keep up,” I said, striding away
down the tree-tunnelled path,
towards the wide, salty river.

“I can’t,” she croaked,
“I don’t want to come.”

“Come, come, it’ll be good,
you’ll see, hurry along!”

“It won’t! You can’t make me!
I want to go back!”

“Back where?”

“Back to the woods
where my babies are buried,
back to my life as it was, as it was,
back to the house where we lived together,
back to the days where we dreamed of our kids.
Put back the sofas, the tables, the chairs,
roll out the rugs, reassemble the bed.”

“Those days are gone, love,
Your babies are dead,
He has moved on now,
Strangers sleep in your bed.”

“I don’t care! I don’t care!
I want it all back!”

“I know love, I know.
Look, walk with me now,
There’s beauty right here,
just take a look ‘round.
Look there at those hills,
how lovely and soft!
Look there at that river,
so fast, fresh and free!
Take in the wild birds
singing their songs,
The world is alive, love,
Let it dance you along!

“But I want to go back.”

“I know love, I know.”

“Why can’t I go back?”

“‘Cos that chapter is over
We’re here for a while,
Being nourished by nature,
until we work out what’s next”

“But I want to go back.”

“I know love, I know.
Walk with me darling,
I’ll show you a tree
that’s hollow in the middle,
yet alive as can be.”

“Like me?”

“Yes, like you.”

Gazing at the lightning-struck tree,
I put my arm around my sweet, sweet grief.
Her shoulders shook with heavy sobs
As she saw herself reflected
In the wounded, determined oak.
Suddenly she bolted, escaping from her clothes,
running naked up the hill, screaming…

“Put back the sofas,
dig up the babies,
tell the new girlfriend
to let him go!”

Clutching her clothes,
I ran after her,
Catching her and wrapping her
in a soft, warm hug.

“Sweetie, he’s gone.
The babies are gone.
The house is now somebody else’s home.
You live here
and Nature is here
and I am here with you, little one.

“I can’t go back?”

“No love, you can’t.
Shall we have a cup of tea?”

“Have you got any hot chocolate?”

“Sure, come with me.”

How did that land for you, dear reader? 

To be honest, I feel a bit embarrassed about putting that story in the public realm. It’s been a year and a half since my last miscarriage and nearly as long since my partner left. There’s part of me that thinks I should be over the raw, desperate stage of the grieving process by now, but as we all know GRIEF IS NOT A LINEAR PROCESS!

What this story clearly illustrates is that my impatience towards my grief is not really that helpful!

A big part of my grieving process has been about learning how to meet my grief with compassion. This story is a good example of the awkward tussles that happen when I try to force my grief to accept healing on my terms. 

Grief needs to be met wherever it is. Don’t cajole it or try to cheer it up. Don’t punish it or shame it. Just listen. Take your time. Ask it what it needs.

Before this walk, I hadn’t really been conscious of my grief for several weeks. I’d been working hard, trying to set down my roots and find my place here at the retreat centre. Looking now at the heat of this altercation, it seems that I might have left my poor wee grief alone in the shadows for a bit too long. 

The Walking With Grief festival gave me structure and connection with other grievers, which allowed me to come back into relationship my grief in creative and compassionate ways.

Invitation: Take your grief for a walk. Let them lead!

Grief Disco

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Buddha, candles and flowers in the meditation room at The Barn

Baby Loss Awareness week happens each year in October. On the final night they invite people all over the world to participate in the Wave Of Light, by lighting a candle for all the babies who have left this world.

On this night, I was alone in the retreat centre for the first time, so I took four candles to represent my four lost babies into the meditation room and lit them on the altar, under the gaze of Buddha. 

Tuning into the support of the collective Wave Of Light, I sat in meditation, listening to how grief was showing up in my body, offering myself gentle touch as the tears flowed.

Grief told me it wanted to move, so I asked Buddha if I could play music and dance in his sacred space and he said, “Yeah sure, whatever.” 

With Buddha’s permission, I hastily grabbed my speakers and asked grief what she’d like on the playlist.

“Sad piano and strange time signatures please.”

At first, it felt very naughty to play music and dance in a silent contemplative space, but as I gave over the reigns to my grief, my self-consciousness dropped away.

Grief expressed herself in beautifully lyrical and gloriously wonky movements and when she finished dancing her dance, I lay on the floor, feeling peaceful and calm.

I felt so held by Buddha, by the music, by the meditation space, The Barn retreat centre, the land that it stands on and all the people who had lit candles across the globe, I improvised a song of appreciation right there on the carpet of the meditation space.

Invitation: Find somewhere safe to sit quietly with your grief for a while. Tune into your body, where do you feel the grief inside you? What does it feel like in there? What colour is your grief? What shape is it? How big is it? What substance is it made out of? Does it have a sound? A smell? Does it move or is it still? Ask your grief what it needs: perhaps some gentle touch or kind words or movement or a song? Follow your flow.

What does your grief need?

This blog shows some of the ways that ritual, nature and creativity have been helping me to connect with and express my grief. Through finding my grief in nature, tuning into the grief in my body, moving with grief, walking with grief, writing with grief and connecting with others who are living with grief, I’ve been able to give my grief space and support to let itself be known to me. The more I get to know it, the more I get to love it. It’s no longer something I’m trying to heal and move on from. 

When I listen to my grief, instead of trying to fix it or push it away, it tells me what it needs: structure and freedom, connection and solitude, nature and creativity, stillness and movement, compassion and time. 

What does your grief need?

Links from this blog

I am living and volunteering at The Barn meditation retreat centre in Devon for a year. 

I am sporadically blogging my way through the year, in a series called 'The Barn Diaries.' You can sign up to my mailing list at the bottom of this page to get them sent directly to your inbox.

For the full set of Soveriegnty Hymns go here.

For more from The Bengsons go here.

For info about the Walking With Grief festival, go here.

For info about Baby Loss Awareness Week go here.

For the Miscarriage Association go here.

Holly Blog: How To Talk To Somebody Who Has Lost A Baby

Other Holly Blogs: Growing Through Grief And Loss

Other links

The UK based Grief Festival have just made all their talks available for free on youtube here.

Cruse have lots of great info for anyone struggling with grief, go here.

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