Cape House Books invites you to read the first chapter of Healing What Grieves You by Julie Lange Groth. For more information about the book or to order a copy, visit our Healing What Grieves You page.
This is a book about dealing with the spiritual aspects of deep grief using the ancient tools of shamanism. From earliest times, human communities have turned to their shamans, or medicine people, for help in surviving the harsh realities of life.
The shaman had a special relationship with the spiritual realms that gave him or her the ability to access important information, guidance, and healing. Without the tools and technology of modern society, these abilities often were a matter of life and death in traditional cultures.
In tribal communities, the shaman predicted where the hunt might be most bountiful so the people did not go hungry. The shaman knew the medicine ways of plants in order to heal the sick. The people often turned to the shaman to foresee how severe the winter might be so they could decide whether to pull up stakes and migrate to a warmer clime.
Shamans the world over recognized that everything in existence—animal, vegetable, or mineral, person, place, or thing—has a spirit. The special ability of the shaman was to communicate on a spiritual level with any aspect of creation in order to access its wisdom, memory, and healing power.
Consider the memory of a stone that has witnessed creation over millennia, or the perspective of a giant sequoia tree that has been suspended in a constant dance with earth and sky, sun and air for hundreds of years. Ponder the strength of an ant that can carry many times its own weight. Think about the experiences of a river that nourishes and refreshes everything it touches.
As human beings, we can appreciate all of these natural features on a physical and mental level. But we also are spiritual beings who can comprehend the things in the natural world as fellow spiritual beings that have much to share with us. In fact, we often hear native people referring to natural phenomena in familial terms, such as Grandmother Moon, Brother Bear, and Sister River. It was the shaman’s job to serve as intermediary with these “spirits” to bring help and healing to the people.
Among the commonly used tools of the shaman were ritual and ceremony, drumming, song, dance, and storytelling. Each served as a kind of prayer, a way of reaching out to the spiritual realm on behalf of the people to help them fulfill their needs, hopes, and dreams.
One of the most important roles of indigenous shamans was tending to the emotional and spiritual life of the community. Shamans helped to resolve disputes, ease troubled hearts, and restore peace during turbulent times. A combination of psychotherapist and priest, the shaman understood that the very survival of the community often hinged on the ability to live together in harmony and balance.
Shamans were especially important during times of loss and tribulation. If a sudden flood overwhelmed the village, claiming lives and property, it was the shaman who helped the people come to terms with their losses and summon the strength and resolve to go on. When a hunter was killed by a wild beast, it fell to the shaman to help the community heal from the loss of one of their own.
In the more than twenty years I have worked as a shamanic practitioner, I have experienced firsthand the power of the shamanic path to heal deep grief. In fact, my own profound loss led me into this work.
My sixteen-year-old son, Justin, died suddenly in 1993 while using nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas. He was the youngest of my three sons. His death, which was a devastating loss to our family and friends, completely flattened me. Justin was kind to everyone he met, both humans and animals, and I think he was most at home outdoors when he was surrounded by the wildness of nature.
Justin was a drummer. Back then, I did not understand the power of the drum as shamans do. In fact, I didn’t know what a shaman was and held no particular spiritual beliefs. Whatever I thought I knew about anything was turned upside down in the maelstrom of emotions that follows the loss of a child.
Still, in the absence of all those comforting, accepted beliefs I learned during twelve years of Catholic school, a new awareness was finding its way onto the vacant slate of my soul. Something was happening to me that I could not explain. In my moments of greatest despair, I felt invisible hands lifting me up, carrying me from one day into the next. While I often cried myself to sleep, I sometimes woke up with a wonderful dream of Justin still fresh in my memory. When I went on my long walks, hoping to outrun my deep sadness, I sometimes encountered moments of sweet transcendence upon encountering a rainbow or a pond mysteriously covered in white feathers. I thought of these moments as grace, something I didn’t really understand, hadn’t earned, and certainly didn’t deserve. But there they were. I felt taken care of.
Some of the greatest moments of grace came on Wednesday evenings when Justin’s friends, my older two sons, and their friends got together at my house. At first we were an ad hoc support group. Many of us were musicians. Some, who already had become interested in African drumming, brought their drums, and the evening often evolved into a drum circle.
Today African drum circles happen spontaneously on beaches and city streets, but in 1993 they were something of a new idea in our little rural New Jersey town. People of all ages and backgrounds arrived with various types of percussion instruments, such as drums, rattles, and cowbells. Usually one or more experienced drummers set the rhythms, many of which have their roots in Africa or the Caribbean. Others joined as they felt moved to do so.
I had never drummed before, but this communal kind of music doesn’t require particular skill or experience. Everyone has a place in a drum circle and it just feels good to play. It was easy to imagine Justin in our midst, enjoying the whole thing. I noticed something interesting: no matter how depressed I felt before the gathering, I always felt much better afterward.
Word began to spread about the drumming circles and soon the gathering had outgrown my basement. I found some larger spaces that we could use for free and we started holding open drum circles once a month. People of all ages and interests showed up. The bigger the group, the more profound was its healing effect on all of us. As people arrived, especially teenagers, I often could read the stress of their day on their faces. When the circle was over, their faces were bright and full of energy. (Years later I read about scientific research1, 2 proving that drumming circles elevate mental states, improve immune response, and provide other health benefits.)
Sometimes we had more than fifty people playing together, and there often were drummers I had never met before. One evening a woman about my age introduced herself to me and, in the course of conversation, told me she was a shaman. I asked what that was and she explained she was trained through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and that she played her frame drum while “journeying” to spiritual realms.
I asked her if she would teach me and my friends to journey and she agreed. I found a gathering space in a nearby community center and invited some friends who enjoyed drumming. That afternoon changed my life. The woman played for us as we all lay on the floor, as if to meditate. A journey is somewhat like a meditation, except that the goal of meditation is to empty the mind, whereas a journey begins with a specific intention that leads the journeyer into insights, visions, experiences, or realizations that are beneficial.
I later learned that the particular rhythm the woman played put us all into a light trance, which made it easier for us to access spiritual realms and encounter loving, benevolent, helpful spirits. That day I met my first helping spirit, Turtle, who has been at my side ever since. She helps me to stay grounded and in balance. After my first journey, I was hooked. Not long after this first experience, I began my formal studies in shamanism.
At the time, I didn’t realize that this work was the best possible medicine I could have chosen to heal from the loss of my son, or that it would turn out to be my soul’s path in this lifetime. I was just following the bread crumbs of spirit, exploring the wonders that awaited me at every turn.
It wasn’t until ten years later, while on my vision quest in the Green Mountains of Vermont, that I came to understand my soul’s mission. I learned firsthand that the practice of shamanism offers powerful healing tools for healing grief and I felt a calling to bring something I call shamanic griefwork to the world.
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