Grief, Eros and the Desire for Reunion

A few weeks ago I came across the work of Eithne Ní Uallacháin, an Irish born singer whose stunning voice and compositions have been showcased in her posthumously-released album Bilingua. Her song “Grief” appeared in my life thanks to the magic of Youtube’s algorithm, and midway through washing the dishes I found myself walking, entranced and with soap suds on my hands, away from the sink to discover whose enchanting voice I was listening to.

“Grief” opens with words from an 18th century poem, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire (“Lament for Art Ó Laoghaire”), written by his wife and set to music by Eithne centuries later. It’s a keen, a vocal lament for the dead — as was traditionally done at burials and wakes in pre-Christian Ireland and Scotland. (There is a documentary by Marie-Louise Muir “Song for the Dead,” available through the BBC about keening and its ancient roots, including more modern recordings.) 

Eithne’s modern setting of the piece then transforms into a meditation on grief and loss:

But grief can be translated from the light into the darkness;

In the belly of the shadow with all its shades digested,

Its true colors will unfold.

And grief is in the leaving and grief is in the losing

And grief is in the aging and grief is in the dying

But grief can be translated from the light into the darkness;

In the belly of the shadow with all its shades digested,

Its true colors will unfold.

An Irish keener, taken from Hall’s Ireland, Its Scenery, Character &c, circa 1850.

Its true colors are exotic, 

Its true colors are hypnotic, 

Its true colors are ecstatic, 

Its true colors are erotic…

A lifelong lover of traditional Irish and Scottish music, I was particularly bewitched by this piece because I have never before heard a singer call on the transformative and, yes, erotic aspects of grief, yet I’m intimately familiar with these themes from my own journey in the world of psychology, healing, ritual and sexuality. 

We culturally tend to consider grief as an emotion like sadness, something suboptimal, potentially embarrassing, not polite or respectable, perhaps weak or indulgent, and not to be wallowed in—rather, medicated, managed, stoically borne; in other words, denied. 

What a blessing, then, to find teachers like the late Sobonfu Some, whose teachings from the Dagara people in Burkino Faso invited Westerners to see grief as a spiritually healing practice that deserves communal tending, ritual, and encouragement from others. And Martin Prechtel, who wrote:

“Grief is praise of those we have lost. Our own souls who have loved and are now heartbroken would turn to stone and hate us if we did not show such praise when we lose whom we love. A nonfake grieving is how we praise the dead, by praising that which has left us feeling cold and left behind. By the event of our uncontrolled grief, wail, and rap, we are also simultaneously praising with all our hearts the life we have been awarded to live, the life that gave us the health and opportunity of having lived fully enough to love deep enough to feel the loss we now grieve. To not grieve is a violence to the Divine and our own hearts and especially to the dead. If we do not grieve what we miss, we are not praising what we love. We are not praising the life we have been given in order to love. If we do not praise whom we miss, we are ourselves in some way dead. So grief and praise make us alive.”

From The Smell of Rain on Dust, by Martin Prechtel. Source.

And in the realm of sexuality we have so very much to grieve. Working in this field, now, for the better part of the decade, I’m honored and privileged to have been a witness to so many people’s sexual stories: the beauty, tragedy, loss, violation, enchantment, power, healing and transformation. Working as a healer and spaceholder in the field of sexuality has given me a tremendous reverence of the hidden legacies of sexual joy, sorrow, trauma and resilience we all carry. 

It’s also given me a conviction that developing a respectful relationship with grief supports both personal and collective sexual healing, because grief is both how we bear testament to loss and how we express our love for what truly matters.

Having a respectful relationship with grief means seeing it as an important process that cannot be ignored or bypassed, and it requires acknowledging and expressing our emotions—not denying them, not punishing ourselves for having feelings, not castigating ourselves to “just get over it,” and not dismissing our sorrows through critical comparisons to other people’s pain. 

Yes, sometimes this means going back to past experiences that we might really wish we could just be done with. But the truth is that so many of us have struggled with difficult sexual experiences where we felt deeply alone and where the depth of the hurt was never fully acknowledged, even to ourselves.

This can be especially true in the complex terrain of sexuality where ambivalence and eroticism can end up bewilderingly tangled: because what do you do when what’s violating also feels good? What do you do with difficult experiences and emotions that don’t meet our narrow cultural/legal definitions for “legitimate” sexual harm? Unwitnessed and unacknowledged, these lonely and bewildering experiences can become stuck, frozen places in our psyches, draining life force, injuring self-trust, and limiting our capacity to fully live. 

Attending a grief ritual last autumn, offered by students of Sobonfu, I found myself mourning the confusing, violating and difficult early sexual experiences whose impact I continue to unravel in my adult life — and, to my surprise, felt a huge wave of grief and love rise up out of longing for the supportive, clearly consensual early experiences I wasn’t able to have. I wept for that frozen intrapsychic place, the shame of a young girl who lacked boundaries and language to articulate her ambivalence, and I also wept for the slow, grounded, trusting, respectful introductions to sexuality that I now believe I truly deserved to have.

The more I wept, the more I viscerally felt love. It’s what Internal Family Systems therapy talks about as a the ritual of unburdening: releasing the shame and pain that’s frozen these parts of ourselves and welcoming them back home. Until you experience it firsthand, it’s difficult to imagine the palpable, full-body sense of relief at being whole again when a long disowned part is welcomed back. And actually, that’s how existential psychologist Rollo May defined eros: the desire to return to that which we truly belong to.

This ritual was not the first time I have mourned this. But a blessing of the way Sobonfu taught these grief rituals is that the grief is so communal, so embodied, so expressive: you’re not just thinking or talking about it, you’re hunched over on the ground weeping, crying, beating the floor and surrounded by other people who are similarly losing their shit. It’s the original keening, primal in its intensity. And embrace of our own intensity is so necessary in the journey of sexual healing and empowerment: we need to feel, hold and express the intensity of our eros, our orgasmic wildness, our grief, and our rage.

Sometimes in my private practice, in the work of reclaiming the parts of their sexual selves that have been immobilized and frozen, my clients go to a place of grief that they later report feels bottomless — simultaneously bottomless and euphoric. What interests me the most is how much can shift in someone’s life when they allow themselves to go to those depths. Actively grieving can thaw the glacial energies that have been taking up precious real estate within our psyches, and once liberated, that life force helps us feel more whole and present, flows through us as creativity, and supports our self-actualization. If anything, I’m amazed at how quickly things can change when people allow themselves to go there. After decades of holding back, the bowstring is often so taught that the arrow flies very freely.

Grieving alone is better than not grieving, I think. But grieving with others is better, because grief is relational.

Sobonfu wrote about moving to the West and feeling deeply disturbed at hearing a friend cry on the other side of a locked door, because in her context grief is a communal act and to shut oneself off to grieve is a sign that something is deeply wrong. Both her and Martin Prechtel’s teachings reveal the power of grieving collectively, together, being mirrored and seen and held in our grief. It speaks to our deeply embedded empathic capacities, to emotion contagion and the process by which my mirror neurons fire in response to your facial micro-expressions. You feel, so I feel; that’s being human. Your grief brings up my grief and it becomes our grief, shared. Transpersonal.

The Swan, no. 3, by Hilma af Klint.

 For Westerners, this might expose just how uncomfortable many of us are with grief and our emotions in general. No wonder we might prefer to sequester ourselves away, rather than take the risk to expose our vulnerable feelings and feel dismissed by people who respond with minimizing, “helpful” (not helpful) advice or quick offerings of tissues that feel more like a silent injunction to suck it up. I laughed and cringed the BBC documentary on keening because many speakers seem palpably uncomfortable with its emotional intensity. And there’s something about that bifurcation: an increasingly stoic culture uncomfortable with unfettered expression of emotion, even though its primal expression in music is such a cultural treasure. Plus a disapproving Church that condemns keening for being primal and primitive, and a dwindling number of women who keep the tradition alive.

Perhaps my deep love of Irish traditional singing goes hand-in-hand with the longing, loss and grief these songs often contain, with their gorgeous recollections of landscapes, moments and people lost to immigration, oppression, impermanence and time. Eithne Ní Uallacháin’s marvelous song goes a step further and actively names the creative and erotic aspects of grief. In the ritual I had viscerally felt how unprocessed grief and rage in my body had diminished my self-trust to the point that I’ve choked back many of the songs, poems and pieces I could have written and created, but the morning after, I woke up with my head full of songs.