Estimated watch time: 40 mins
Available credits: none
In this presentation, Alyssa Ackerman discusses the way different cultures cope with death and the grieving process. She shines the spotlight on techniques our society can use to address the grieving process in healthier and more helpful ways. Grief is innately human, and Alyssa explains how it’s something that should be shared — in all of its unique forms — instead of hidden.
After watching this presentation, the viewer will:
Alyssa Ackerman is a death doula and grief guide. She offers somatic, spiritual, and soul-based healing through loss (big and small). Her holistic approach to loss offers deep peace and guidance to support her clients individually and communally through grief. She is a massage therapist and energy worker, allowing her to tend to the spiritual and somatic pain often present through significant life transitions. She is a lifelong apprentice to grief, honoring and guiding the soul work that is necessary for our renewal.
Welcome to the Community Education Series, hosted by The Recovery Village and Advanced Recovery Systems.
Welcome, Alyssa Ackerman. She is a death doula and grief guide. She offers somatic and soul base healing through loss, big and small. Her holistic approach to loss offers deep peace and guidance to support her clients individually and community through grief. She is a massage therapist and energy worker, allowing her to attend to the spiritual and somatic pain often present through significant life transitions. She is a lifelong apprentice to grief, honoring and guiding the soul work that is necessary for our renewal. So with that, I will go ahead and toss it over to Alyssa. Thank you all so much for being here.
Thanks so much, Savannah. I am really happy to be here to be talking about mindful grieving. Initially, the idea of grieving mindfully was a hard one for me to wrangle ‘cause it felt like trying to tame something that, in its nature, is uncontrollable at some level. And that’s part of the healing that comes from it. But actually, as I explored this topic much more, it became really clear how powerful it can be to apply mindfulness practices to grieving and to support other people through grieving.
So yeah, Savannah kind of covered it in terms of who I am. I got into this work through hospice. I began my work as a massage therapist, and I immediately knew I really wanted to work with end-of-life, and I started doing that by volunteering with hospice. That was kind of the best training I could imagine because I had so much discomfort around being with suffering. I had witnessed two grandmothers pass in a really short period of time and saw how the discomfort of their family really impacted the quality of care and connection at the end of life. And for me, that was at the end of life. Grief, of course, is connected to really any big transition in life, whether it’s the end of our relationship, moving, changing jobs, the end of a dream — there’s a lot that kind of needs our attention, in terms of needs us to look at and actually grieve. Otherwise, we can carry it for a long time, and it can cause a lot of both physical and emotional symptoms long-term. So yeah, I work as a death doula and a grief guide and a massage therapist, specifically with kind of palliative and hospice care. I do bodywork and energy work and also kind of more ritual work.
A big piece of grief healing is witnessing it and having a container where it can be expressed and held in a safe way. A lot of the result is done through ritual work or grief support groups or sharing circles. So, I’m going to jump into it. We’re going to talk about grieving mindfulness and then have a Q&A, so if you do have questions, please write them down and we will cover them at the end. And feel free to comment in the box; I may or may not catch it through the presentation, but if I don’t catch it, we’ll save it for the Q&A. But before we get started, I invite you to just close your eyes for a moment and rest your attention on your breath. Just give yourself a little space to arrive to this present moment — this physical body. Allowing whatever is here to just be here without judgment. Begin to consider what your intention is for being here. It’s one hour. What are you hoping to get from this hour? What are you offering? Take just a few more breaths to allow that intention to crystallize. As you feel called, you can open your eyes and join us back.
If you feel comfortable, I’d love you to share your intention in the chatbox. If that feels good to you, it will help all of us get a sense of what we’re bringing — what we’re hoping to get here. And yeah, we’ll jump into today. Stephen Jenkinson is a beautiful writer. He works a lot with palliative care. He’s in Canada, and he says to grieve is to love something that has gone out of sight, and to love is to grieve something that has not yet done so. This is a huge opportunity when we can come to grief with this perspective because it can change your whole life when you really step into love as deeply connected to grief — not separate. So yeah, some of the myths of grief — one of them being that grief represents the end of love. Grief really is love in a different form, right? It’s love without someplace to go or without the same way of it being received. It’s still love. It’s still how you love that which is no longer physically with you. The idea that grieving means the end of love is something that is really interesting for us to consider and potentially shift our perspective on. Also, grieving can be something that’s thought of as marking the end. It is like the person has died or the transition has happened and it’s over, whereas realistically, like the way a family grieves something or a community grieves something, it’s a part of the legacy as well and it can be incredibly bonding. It can also be incredibly divisive. So, how the people grieve — either coming together or not — is a huge part of the legacy of that which has been lost.
The idea of grief as something to get through is another myth, and it’s a challenge with that perspective. When we come to grief as something to just get over and get through, it creates a lot of pain. I think it creates a lot of suffering and pressure to hurry up and learn your lessons from it so you can move on and not be a burden to other people. There’s a lot of pressure around being a burden and feeling upset in front of other people because it can be really hard for us to know how to support someone who is suffering, and we don’t do it in public that often in modern Western culture. So, we don’t always see examples of that. This idea of getting through grief — again, reasons that something that will go away — you may always think of this person. You may always miss this person or the dream or the person that you were — whatever it is that you’re grieving. And that’s something that you will kind of check off, similar to mindfulness. It’s not like you get to a point and now you’re like, “Okay, done, I’m mindful, I can stop. I’ve hit the endpoint.” It’s something that gets woven into your life. Like, mindfulness meditation starts as so overwhelming. It takes all of your attention to just try and sit quietly or keep your attention focused, and as you practice it, it becomes kind of effortlessly integrated into your life. And grief is something that, though I wouldn’t say it becomes effortlessly woven into your life, it does become woven. And then you are able to have happiness, enjoyment, as well as sorrow and grief together.
Grief is something that happens to you. Stephen Jenkinson really speaks a lot about how grief is a skill, and a lot of people are speaking about this more. It’s a skill and it’s an activity — like, it’s an active process. It’s something that we have to do in order to feel. Grief really is the medicine that the broken heart needs. The act of grieving, the idea that there’s something wrong with you, there’s something wrong if your grief looks this way or it doesn’t look this other way — you know, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross did it. She did great work bringing in the stages of things and helping us understand things. But at the end of her life, she really regretted creating that system. She spoke towards having regret for that because they allowed us to judge whether the way we’re breathing is normal. And that’s something I hear so much in my work — like, “Is this normal? Is it normal to cry this much? Is it normal that I haven’t cried yet?” It’s all normal, and it takes many different forms.
One interesting thing about grief is that it’s totally universal. It’s innately human. We will all experience it and it’s completely unique. It’s not going to look the same, even if it’s the same person grieving through life, different things or different people. The same thing is going to look totally different, so it’s going to progress totally differently. That’s a little bit of some structure around shifting our perspective, and some of the either medicalization or the way we pathologize grief and just opening it up as an invitation for us to have a relationship with our sorrow and come to know it more. Kind of like when I think about fear, I’m not trying to become fearless — I’m going to have a relationship with my fear. It is going to sit in the passenger seat. It can’t touch the radio or the windows. It is not driving — I’m driving, and there’s wisdom in it. There’s a relationship. I’m not kicking it out; that doesn’t work anyways. But coming into a relationship in a good way. And thank you for sharing your intentions — I see them coming through. That’s really helpful.
So yes, we’re all grieving, and I’m calling out a few authors here that I really love that I highly recommend, if you’re interested. After this course, I will give you my email, and please use me as a resource. I have other resources to share as well. So, Stephen Jenkinson and Frances Weller — his book is “The Wild Edge of Sorrow.” And he really writes beautifully and has worked with grieving for many, many years in his practice. He talks about these five kinds of grief or these gates of grief. So this idea that everything we love, we will lose, which is really heavily seen in Buddhism — this idea of impermanence and integrating that into our lives. The places that have not known love, the parts of ourselves that we have totally rejected and not looked at, have shame and guilt around the sorrows of the world. This is so, so big — right now especially, I think. And in certain traditions, there’s — in the Dagara tradition, which is from West Africa, they do these grief-tending rituals. And the song that they sing to hold the ritual translates to, like, this is too much for me to carry, help me carry this. This is too much for me alone. And that there’s also a belief that we all carry a piece of the cosmic sum of grief, and it’s our work here to transform that. It’s collective, it has the potential to connect us. But the sorrows of the world are here for us to carry, look at, and transform. What we expected and did not receive — this is a huge one, and I don’t think this should be underrated. This one feels really big, but I know a lot of times, we can push it aside thinking it’s not as big as other people’s grief. So, “I should just be happy. I should just be grateful.” And we can be both, but it’s really important for us to be present with the sorrow around even what feels like small things. And then ancestral.
The function of grief. I’m in Portland, Oregon, and there’s a lot of energy and focus around spiritual growth and this ascension — like, spiritual expansion. And I believe that the work of grief is soul work, and it is kind of like the human anchoring — kind of the deep roots of the tree that need dark. We need the darkness, the silence. We need to come into a relationship with our soul in order to continue growing spiritually. And that’s just one perspective, but the grief work can really root us down into our humanity and into the earth and into our collective connection because it’s really relational. So, the river and science of tears. In the mind tradition, they believed that when someone died, the way that the soul was brought to the world of the ancestors was on a river of tears. So, it was the job of the people who were grieving to help that soul get there, and that was done through the process of mourning. And I’ve seen that through a lot of different cultures — this idea of becoming an ancestor, the act of centralization, is something that falls on the grievers. And it’s an important role for all of us who are grieving that which we have lost. It helps us seek that soul in the world of ancestors, which is one belief.
And the science of tears — as humans, we have a few different kinds of tears. The tears that we release when we have a big emotional experience — they not only are a natural pain reliever for us, but they also create bonding and they trigger an empathy response from those who see the tears. It has this function and this potential kind of bonding that it offers. Love and gratitude, grief and love, like a praise and grief combination. When you really get down to it, the sorrow and the sadness and the grief and the longing are connected to a gratitude or having loved something so much. They’re deeply connected, so it can help us see that more clearly.
Legacy — I spoke to that a little bit earlier. Like, the legacy of the person or the thing that doesn’t end upon death. Human death or dream death or the end of the job. The way we transition, the way we grieve, is a part of that legacy. Richard Rohr says pain that is not transmuted will be transmitted. Pain that is not transmuted will be transmitted, and I feel this to be so true. Often, when we kind of put things aside and we don’t do our own grieving and our own feeling, we can transmit it to the people we love and the people that are closest to us later on, kind of unconsciously even. I feel like that really is an invitation for us to come into feeling. Feeling our own sadness and sorrow and grief. In my work as a massage therapist, it became very clear to me, as I learned more about the role of the physical body in PTSD and other situations. In grief work, we were doing a lot of talking, a lot of emotional processing, which is so healing and helpful, but we were not integrating the body. So, we talk a lot about why we feel how we do and how we feel, but until we can really physically be in our bodies — feel safe to be in our bodies through these big emotions — there’s kind of a limit to the growth and the healing that was available. So the work of coming into the body, having a safe space to do that, and also doing the emotional speaking about processing, in combination, has been a huge part of my work.
There is some strange intimacy between grief and aliveness, some sacred exchange between what seems unbearable and what is most exquisitely alive. Francis Weller, he really talks a lot about grief ritual and the need for grief to have a container and also expression. Both of those things are held within the ritual, creating a really safe space for people to come together and emote and to grieve in whatever form that takes. I really highly recommend his work, to either read it — he’s not doing rituals right now because of COVID, but there are grief rituals that are happening around the country and the world. If you’re interested in exploring that, you can always connect with me afterwards and I can help guide that.
I just want to take a quick pause and, again, I would invite you to just close your eyes and just settle into your breath and take a few breaths here to allow what we’re talking about to settle in. Checking in at your intention. Noticing if there are gaps there. If you feel like there are things that you want to make sure we get covered that haven’t been touched on yet. Noticing if you have any questions. That is going to wrap up the kind of overview look at grief; this is a pretty condensed version. And then I’m going to jump into mindfulness and how we can apply mindfulness practices to the process of grieving and to supporting other people in their grief as well.
So, I’m just curious if any of you practice mindfulness activities, and if so, you can put it in the chat. Like, do any of you meditate or do Qigong mindful movements or practice mindfulness simply in your day-to-day life in small ways? Whether it’s really being present with brushing your teeth or while you’re driving, or it’s really sitting down on a mat for an hour to meditate. I’m curious if any of you do practice those things already, and if so, what is your intention? For what results do you practice those things? Mindfulness practice means that we commit fully in each moment to be present, inviting ourselves to interface with this moment. Full awareness with the intention to embody, as best we can, an orientation of calmness, mindfulness, and equanimity right here. And right now, I think this does a really good job of kind of highlighting mindfulness.
I think of mindfulness as having three pieces. That kind of presence. So, coming into this specific moment, whatever it is like, without thinking of the future or the past, but physically, presently here. Acceptance of how it is. Not wanting it to be different, but just noticing where there’s pain and where there’s ease without judgment. And intention — why are we here? So, benevolent solitude. How are you in your solitude? Are you able to be present, to be even joyful? Are you able to be present and accepting of that, or does being alone make you feel like you need to change it? Practicing benevolent solitude is really a beautiful practice for grieving, but also just preparation for grief in the future — of creating a good relationship with one’s solitude.
Embodiment is so important, and “The Body Keeps the Score” is a book I highly recommend around embodiment and the importance of the body in healing. Just being able to find islands of safety within the body, being able to ground ourselves in this physical body when we are having a flashback or we’re having a deeply emotional experience because that can be what brings us into this present moment. And often, we can try to distract ourselves from being in the physical body when there’s any kind of pain, physical or emotional. We can do many other things to keep our attention outside of the body. But the importance of coming into the body, whether it’s through meditation, through mindful walking, through bodywork, through mindful movement like Qigong or Tai Chi.
These things can really, really support us in our quality of life. And that’s where people who are grieving, but also for us — those who are supporting people who are suffering or grieving — can we be embodied and be present to them in a good way? So much of that depends on our own relationship with suffering — our own relationship with our own suffering. These practices are really important for our own grief and for supporting others. Free handwriting, like freewriting. The expression piece is really important for grief as well. And we used to die mostly at home, so most of us would have been exposed to dying and grieving and these things within the family. We would see that expression as a kid growing up in that family; we would see the grownups around us grieving, and that doesn’t happen as much these days. A lot of dying happens in institutions or hospitals, and a lot of grieving happens kind of behind closed doors. Allowing grief to move through us is what prevents it from kind of hardening and restricting us and hurting people we love later as we transmit it later if we don’t transmute it now. Writing is a really, really beautiful way for that, and just free-writing.
I’ve heard death doulas talk a lot about, you know, sit down and write for 10 minutes and then burn it. Never read what you wrote. And there are other cultures that have ceremonies where they support the grieving people, and the people who are grieving kind of stand in the middle of the circle and they say everything. They speak and wail and mourn and grieve in front of everybody. And everyone agrees with whatever that person said, even if it is in anger and rage. You know, if this person’s brother was murdered and they’re speaking out about wanting to get revenge, the people will listen and agree, but they know that is not action-oriented. It’s just moving through this person, and they’re holding this person through that and there’s witnessing and there’s expression. There’s a safe container for that to happen and for it all to be spoken.
So, writing is one way. Song. Any kind of creative expression. Art. A big way that I think is really beautiful is — and is spoken about by [name of person] — is the ocean. Going to the ocean. He talks about going to the ocean or a body of water and giving it all to the ocean or that body of water, and not to save for later. To make it into something beautiful that you’re going to profit from. He was, like, you give everything to the ocean, and that is how you get your life back. Not trying to create with it. Just the process of breathing, in that way. Ritual — a lot of these things lead us back to ritual. Having a really sacred, safe space where grief can be expressed and witnessed, accepted, and thus moved. And thus, renewal is possible and that growth is possible. And we can come back to the village with medicine.
Acceptance, being another really important piece of mindfulness — this whole practice of non-judgment and self-compassion, and equanimity that is talked about so much in meditation practices. Being able to be with whatever is present, like clouds coming in and going like a horse. A wild horse coming into the village. You can chase that horse out of the village for miles and miles, or you come, you let it have its moment, and then it continues. And there’s acceptance, however, it looks. You’re not wishing it were different. The acceptance piece is a huge one and it can be practiced so much through mindfulness, meditation, and just the daily kind of commitment or attention to this focus — to this acceptance. Compassion is a huge part of that. Equanimity is the same idea. Like, can I be okay regardless of what’s going on? And I don’t really mean regardless — I mean, seeing what’s going on, can I still be okay? And this lesson I really liked is one about becoming a lake. Often, when there’s something really hard for us and we’re really upset about something, we can really, really focus our whole world around that thing.
The story is that a student and a guru — the student was really upset and complaining a lot. And the guru was like, okay, go get a cup of water and salt, and they put a handful of salt in his cup of water and he drank it and it tastes horrible. And then he has him go get a handful of salt and they go to the lake and they put it in a lake. He drinks it, and of course, it doesn’t taste horrible; it just tastes like water. And the idea is, like, can we expand so that we’re holding that which is really sitting and bothering us as a part of the equation? Not the complete situation, but can we expand ourselves to hold multiple experiences and feelings? Intention — what’s our commitment? What are we focused on doing here? Yes, grief can be transformational, but I hesitate because there can be a sense of, like, “I’m going to go through this in order to transform,” or I’m going to do this so that I can become enlightened, and that is not what I mean. But just if we can come into our grief work with intention and quality of presence and care and that compassion and equanimity, and really understand it as a skill. Understand that some of our work here is to transmute the pain that we alone are carrying alone and collectively carrying.
This idea that grief is the medicine for the broken heart. Like, grieving is what we have to do in order to heal. Again, that doesn’t mean to get rid of grief, because grief is love — it says love, just in a different form. Frances Weller speaks about this man who came to a grief-tending ritual with him, and he was like, “Okay, my wife just died, and I just want to figure out how to do this grief thing so I can not feel this and move on.” And Frances Weller was like, “This is how you love your wife now. This grief you feel is how you now love your wife, and though it will change, as love does too, it is the same in that way.”
Some practices I want to highlight before we jump into Q&A. Somatic grief work. This is something that I do a lot of. Often, with the end-of-life work I do, I’ll get called in to work on someone who is terminal, and I work on him or her with the family in the room. And ideally, the family is getting work too, because if you are supporting someone who’s going through a big transition, whether it’s death or a big medical procedure or just something big — big transition in life — you are experiencing a lot of stress often. So, supporting the caregivers through bodywork, setting up a ritual or routine where they already have a relationship with a massage therapist before the traumatic event happens so that it can easily continue and they have something that is routine and gets them to feel really safe in their body. And then the other benefits of bodywork in terms of relaxation and improving sleep and digestion and anxiety and depression and these kinds of things. But somatic grief work — like, often getting called in before the event or the death and then continuing beyond.
Meditation — just coming into the body, practicing all of those three parts of mindfulness — that presence, acceptance, and intention. Remembrance ritual — this is huge. So many people really fear death because they’re afraid they’re going to be forgotten. And then we look at a culture that often doesn’t have big remembrance practices or rituals, like, even in our own personal lives. So that’s been something I personally have woven deeply into my own practice — of having the ancestral altar, having regular remembrance rituals where I speak about and tell stories about my ancestors and look at their pictures and listen to the music they loved.
I offer this for others who are reading as well, and it doesn’t have to be someone who’s died. You can have remembrance rituals around a dream that you had that is no longer, or a relationship that ended, but there’s more for you to look at within that relationship. A lot of different areas — that need for remembrance, or understanding that there was wisdom and it was important that you went through that. And grief tending ceremony is, for me, that is so huge in terms of healing and how we can support each other and build resilience. Though it’s healing for the griever, it helps everybody build resilience so that we can show up to our loved ones when they are grieving in a good way. We can be really present with them. We can listen to them. We can help just validate how they’re feeling. Like, no matter how it is, we can hold them in a good way and witness them and love them and accept them, no matter how that grief is looking that day. Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground — that’s Oscar Wilde.
So, I just want to leave you with my contact. Please know that I am a resource. You can email me for anything; like, definitely connect if you have questions. We’ll jump into Q&A here in a moment, but if you have questions going forward, please connect with me. I am really passionate about this topic and I mean, again, I’m in Portland, Oregon, but I do a lot of remote work as well. Whether it’s remembrance ritual, tending ceremony, bodywork. Energy work is another really beautiful way to heal through grief — that expression, that creative writing, or whatever form you want to use to help release and help give voice to the grief.
I also host these monthly death salons, which are different than death cafes. Death cafes are a really beautiful place to come together and talk about mortality and grief, which I think we just need more space for in our world. So, the death salon is something that I am doing, I’m hosting. If you’re interested, you can connect with me as well. That really brings it to a close, and we’ll do a Q&A here. This is the last quote I want to leave you with: The roots of resilience are to be found in the sense of being understood by and existing in the mind and heart of a loving, attuned, and self-possessed other.
I just wanted to say thank you so much, Alyssa. I think this has been really insightful. And thank you all so much for coming today. We host these every Wednesday from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., so we hope you can join us for the next one. Thank you so much. Thank you for watching this video. We hope you enjoyed the presentation.