The Music of Grief

“Our bodies are the texts that carry the memories and therefore remembering is no less than reincarnation.”
Katie Cannon, in The Body Keeps the Score

In January 1999, I attended a peacebuilding course at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I was a fish out of water —a Jewish mediator come to learn about conflict transformation from a group of innovative, intrepid churchgoers. Harrisonburg is a small town studded with contrasts. To get there, one flies into Washington, DC and drives south and west through famous Civil War battlefields. Once there, it is common to pull up at a stoplight alongside a horse and buggy driven by Mennonites in top hats and tails, long dresses and lace caps. The folks that run the Conflict Transformation Program there are modern pacifists with a history of volunteering in disaster relief and what they call ‘accompaniment’ in places around the world where there is great suffering. After WWII, they decided that there must be something they could do before disaster struck. Pro–active peacebuilding was born.

My roommate Jean, and her husband, had been missionaries in what was then called the Congo. We both arrived late at night, weary from our long journeys, I from New Mexico she from Minnesota. Explaining that she wanted to take a bath, Jean stepped into our shared bathroom to run the water. I remember how the steam billowed up into the cold night air, and the thrumming of the water as it poured into the old porcelain tub. The bathroom was accessed from a tiny, low–ceilinged hallway that linked our two bedrooms. Across from the bathroom door was a cubby with a black plastic dial phone, where I sat waiting for a call from my boyfriend. I felt awkward and trapped, intrigued in spite of myself as Jean stood in the doorway, steam rising behind her, and began to speak. Her husband was a church elder whose job included receiving war–weary local church dignitaries and listening to their stories. Sometimes Jean served tea or sat quietly nearby. I remember the adrenalin surge of my dislike of missionaries (still have it, but softer now) and my impatience with her gentle equanimity. Perhaps I sensed something ominous taking shape. Too late, the story was pouring out of her, so I listened.

Most afternoons, she and her husband would sit outside in the shade with their Congolese church guests, at a low formica table with broken chairs. One by one the men told their stories and began to weep. As they spoke, their tears became so copious they flooded the tabletop. Tears sheeted into their laps and poured onto the ground. As her husband leaned in to listen, Jean would wipe the table and wring out the towel. When Jean finished the story she shrugged. We may have hugged, I don’t remember. I sat, stunned, as she went into the bathroom, turned off the faucet, and closed the door.

During the next several years, I returned frequently to Eastern Mennonite for their Summer Peacebuilding Institute, where grassroots peacebuilders from more than fifty countries gather to teach and learn the art of building peace: In South Africa, Mennonite peacebuilders worked behind the scenes to build ‘human safety nets’ because they anticipated — correctly — that the fragile negotiations between Mandela and de Klerk would likely fall apart. In the US, peacebuilders from EMU helped sensitize both prosecution and defense lawyers in high–profile capital cases so that victims and their families were not re–traumatized. Liberian peacebuilder S. G. Doe explained his work with child soldiers and warlords in the civil war that was still raging when I met him. He told me, “…We must deliberately move into the field and lavish love on those incapable of loving.” I realized that, as I slept, someone on the other side of the world was awake and working for peace.

In late 1999, as a result of meeting some of these extraordinary ordinary people, I founded the non–profit everyday; name suggested by Bill Goldberg in conversations at Eastern Mennonite University in hopes of making their stories more widely known. Five years later, I found myself in Liberia, in the wake of the civil war that had just ended there. I was soon to learn that even the best ideas born of the human mind benefit from collaboration with unseen sources. On the eve of that trip I dreamed that the dead from the war were asking to be properly buried and mourned.

I am standing with two colleagues on the banks of an underground river. On the landing where we stand, near the water, I see three small suitcases that become three coffins that turn into three wooden boats. On the other side of the river is a burning tower, like the Tower card in the Tarot. In front of the tower is a Liberian friend whose name is Roosevelt. He stands quietly, holding a shaft of gray light. Ours eyes meet. He says, “Everything is ready.”

A few months later, I dreamed again:

I am on the battlefield of Gallipoli, walking through heavy artillery fire. I seem to be in a parallel reality. Bombs explode around me, clumps of earth and gore are bursting at my feet. Bullets whiz past, zinging right next to my ears. I walk, safe from injury, witnessing everything in slow motion. As I watch, a circle of women appears. One by one, they step onto the battlefield. Each of them claims a fallen soldier – a husband, a brother, a son, tenderly kneeling by the corpse, lifting him into her arms, caressing his face as she weeps. Each of them is singing her lament. A beautiful, terrible keening rises up, columns of wailing and grief.

These dreams and others led to everyday gandhis hosting Liberia’s first post–war traditional Mourning Feast. During a Mourning Feast, the extended family and community of a deceased person gather to resolve their differences and put any lingering conflicts to rest with the dead, who are then sent ‘across the river’ with drumming and dancing, taking the community’s conflicts with them. The ceremony concludes with a communal feast during which the act of eating from the common bowl is an oath of reconciliation. (I found out two years later that local dreamers had dreamed that the dead had told them: We, the Dead, have come together. We are united. It is time for you, the living, to do the same.)

As in most traditional/indigenous cultures, in Liberia it is well understood that if it weren’t for our ancestors, we wouldn’t be alive today. Therefore it is our pleasure and our obligation to honor them. But, since the war that consumed the country from 1989–2004, over 250,000 bodies were left scattered helter–skelter across the land. These rites had not been performed and the deaths had not been grieved, leaving the country in the lingering paralysis of unhealed trauma and unexpressed grief along with the anguish of failing to honor their dead.

‘Our’ Mourning Feast was peacefully attended by more than 5,000 people. And it catalyzed the community to continue with many, smaller feasts — for children, women, healers, the land, the forests, the animals, the birds and the water. One man, a traditional herbalist who cannot read or write and has never traveled beyond Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, dreamed that a goat was to be sacrificed at a particular stream in a particular village so that the blessings of peace (carried by the blood of the animal as it mixed with the water) would flow to Europe and the United States. After the ceremony, I was able to trace the stream on a map — barely a trickle at the site of the offering—and saw that, indeed, it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

In Liberia, as in much of Africa, animal sacrifices reflect a deep and conscious covenant with the natural world — not unlike the spiritual partnership of traditional hunters, in which the animals ‘agree’ to give their lives to feed the human community in exchange for mutual respect and devotion. In Liberia, the blood of the animal that is offered is understood to be a potent conduit for human prayers to reach the Other World (similar to the rising smoke of sacred herbs in Native America such as sage and tobacco).

To take a life is to enter into active partnership with Death. Therefore, these activities engender an exchange of respect and humility, creating tangible results in daily life, as can be seen in the way the Mourning Feasts inspired the community and released pent–up grief. More importantly, these rites create a dialogue with the Other World and among human beings in ways that acknowledge and engage with Nature and the spirit realm as the primary nexus of those relationships, seen and unseen, that establish peace through heartfelt exchange and mutual accountability.

Nature responds. Often, Nature initiates the communication, through dreaming and synchronicities — inexplicable coincidences too numerous to be attributed to mere chance, too timely to ignore, and cohering into a clear message or discernable pattern. It is our responsibility to learn how to pay attention and how to interpret the signs. Master General, a rebel commander who considers himself to be a traditional man and is also an Imam and a Pentecostal preacher, told us that, according to traditional understanding, elephants are considered to be a sign that peace is coming. Three months prior to the ceasefire that finally ended Liberia’s civil war, Master General and his troops were on their way to attack Monrovia. In the forest, he saw a mother elephant and her calf. “I knew that God had spoken,” he told us. “No more war in Liberia!” He commanded his men to lay down their arms on the spot, and decreed that anyone using a weapon from that moment forward would face a firing squad.

“How many men were with you that day?” we wanted to know. “How many men laid down their guns because of the elephants?”

Master General thought for a moment. “Thirty–six thousand.”2Elephants also mourn their dead. They have specific burial rites and can remember the exact location of their loved ones’ remains. Dolphins, chimps, dogs, sea lions, geese and many other animals mourn as well.

By following the dreams and listening to the community, a huge wave of creative energy and local wisdom was unleashed and successfully acted upon in ways that laid the groundwork for growth and development in the ‘tangible’ realm. One unexpected result was the profound and life–changing training that my colleagues and I have received over the years. It is intriguing to consider that Nature and the Other World seem to have undertaken (ha) the radical project of seeding change where it is arguably most needed: among westerners. This is accomplished, in part, by recruiting the least likely among us into experiences that broach no doubt whatever as to the luminous agency of the spirit world. (Go to any bookstore and you will find shelves of books filled with the stories of unwitting westerners who have stumbled into sacred indigenous teachings.)

Last week, I met a man who will soon come to a circle being offered by my community here in the U.S. to speak the stories that haunt him from his time as a volunteer fireman — the water–swollen corpses he has pulled from rivers and ocean, the charred remains trapped in burned–out buildings, the mangled bodies of young drivers in wrecked cars. He is bursting to tell his stories into the container of the circle. He has had nowhere to put them. His sense of isolation has pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. His first question about the people in our circle: Do they do any drumming? It turns out that neuroscientists are discovering what the Ancients knew, what Indigenous people have always known, and what our broken hearts tell us if we will listen: that storytelling, theater, collective ceremony, rhythmic sound and movement heal trauma. This knowing is instinctive, primal.3The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Viking, 2014

At one time, our interactions with the natural world were also instinctive and primal. In the world of animal tracking, there is something known as ‘baseline gait’. It is the relaxed, unhurried movement of a contented animal moving through its environment, looking, listening, gathering the information it needs to thrive. This gait is visible in its tracks. But we humans, with our unrelenting electronic assaults on our nervous systems and the chemical assaults on our physical bodies; our shoes and our concrete; our computers and our planes and our cars, have lost our baseline gait. Our brains compensate by taking a zillion snapshots of the world around us, frantically cobbling together a partial but distorted composite picture of reality in a desperate attempt to inform us of where we are, what is going on and what we must respond to. From this fragmented hodge–podge, we make our decisions and plans. To this scramble we add trauma and unmetabolized grief. Perhaps this scramble is trauma and unmetabolized grief.

Proper grieving is one of the key indigenous technologies that open the doors between the worlds. The willingness to grieve engenders an emptying that creates space to listen and to hear. Grief, the dictionary tells us, is: “Deep sorrow, misery, sadness, anguish, pain, distress, heartache, heartbreak, agony, torment, affliction, suffering, woe, desolation, dejection, and despair.” It’s odd that we have so many words for something we tend to so little. Strange, too, that the word loss is not included, for grief is fundamentally about the loss of someone or something we love. Untended grief is cumulative, immobilizing. Traumatic. And what, exactly, is trauma? The dictionary says it’s, “A deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” I would add:… that permanently alters our lives for the worse, such that the world we once knew, and ourselves within it, become unrecognizable. It is this rupture of meaning that makes trauma so potent.

If not addressed, trauma hitchhikes from generation to generation, our constant companion, co–author of our lives. It will have its say, invited or not, whether or not we choose to hear its message. As a case in point Liberia was founded in the 1820s by freed slaves sent to colonize the land from which their forebears had been torn. The civil war there, similar to wars elsewhere, may have been the inevitable implosion of multi–generational trauma stemming from slavery, abduction, displacement, repression, colonization and exploitation.

Trauma is stored in our bodies and in specific parts of our brains.4The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, Viking, 2014 We become numb in that part of our brain that allows us to feel, to think clearly, to put things in perspective, to make life–enhancing choices. Everything bends to the will of trauma. It is as unmistakable and as uncompromising as, say, a pedophile, a torturer, or a terrorist with a bomb. Chances are, the people driven to these extremes are, themselves, victims of severe trauma and so the cycle continues and escalates.

In addition to the assaults on our bodies and our nervous systems, the renaming or misnaming of what we know to be true makes us crazy. Whether we call it ‘spin,’ or marketing or rewritten history, the result is the same. Our felt experience is the cornerstone of identity and meaning; when we are told that what happened didn’t happen, that we aren’t who we know ourselves to be, that our voices do not count — that corporations are people — our sense of reality crumbles. Remember that, in addition to stealing and renaming the land that was kin, one of the key strategies in the genocide of indigenous North American culture was to forcibly remove children from their families and send them to residential schools where they were given western names and forbidden to speak their own languages.

Like each of us as individuals, collective global culture arises from the history that formed it. The sedimentary layers of ancestral anguish have been sealed and fossilized, but are clearly visible when we drill down or when a disaster exposes a cross–section of its layers. Like us, it seeks to cope as individuals and families do, repressing painful memories, self–medicating, lashing out at the slightest provocation or seeking to ‘soldier through’ by focusing on routine or revenge. Perhaps the collective trauma we are carrying dates from the ascendancy of the church and feudal kings (likely already traumatized themselves) and their desire to amass ‘power over’ rather than ‘power with’, pointedly expressed in unrelenting attacks on nature, women and indigenous ways.

Who’s to say how much heartbreak or trauma will push a person to violence, or a culture to collective madness? It could be as straightforward, as complex, as insidious as the ‘christening’ of unimaginably large tracts of ancient indigenous home terrain with names that bear no relation to those by which these places were originally known – names that expressed an intimacy, a depth of relationship unimaginable to those who imposed the labels. Dehumanization is a potent provocation. To be abused, ‘othered,’ or ignored is to become invisible, non–existent, debatable. We are chopped down, becoming the trees that silently fall in the forest.

My Pakistani friend Hassan is a profound peacebuilder. I met him at Eastern Mennonite, too. It was his practice to go to remote villages where tribal violence had broken out. He would camp at the edge of a field, fly a white flag, and invite farmers and warlords alike (sometimes they were one and the same) to come tell their stories. He once told me, ‘Violence, too, is a form of communication.’ It is the communication of last resort.

As with what cannot be spoken, what we cannot hear matters a great deal, and not only in the human realm, where the silence of exclusion is already overwhelming. “There is an information density…of between one and ten million bits per half hour of whale song — which is the approximate amount of information contained in Homer’s Odyssey. In other words, whales are communicating each half hour the same amount of information as that in an entire book that would take us hours or days to read.”5Stephen Harrod Buhner, Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm: Into the Dreaming of Earth, Bear & Co., 2014 (And, because of their size, and the fact that they traverse the ocean from surface to depths and along their epic migrations, whales distribute vital nutrients across vast liquid expanses. In recent years, the ever–increasing traffic of container ships and super tankers is killing whales at alarming rates.) The cacophony of modern life is devastating animals whose mating calls and echolocation signals cannot be heard above the human din, interrupting vital life–sustaining systems, and depriving us of essential, encyclopedic realms of magic and connection. We find ourselves living a new and terrifying creation story whose divine authorship has been supplanted by machines. The trauma of separation from which we suffer globally is not God’s banishment. It is our man–made exile from the Garden of the Earth in all her resplendent, thriving, complexity. Grief is the key that unlocks the gate to reveal the path that leads us home. Home is our place within the entirety of Life.

We are disconnected from our bodies, encased in our cars and offices and cities of cement. Like rats in a cage, we exercise on our treadmills and stationary bicycles; we spend our days in mindless, repetitive motion on assembly lines, or frantically buying and selling and making deals in offices high above the ground. At the opposite extreme are those trapped in the backbreaking labor of subsistence or drowning in the floods of displacement. In mechanized cultures, we sit and stare at our numbing screens, connected primarily by social media (friends: really? tweets: really?). As a society we are doing exactly what a traumatized individual does: engage in superficial, promiscuous false connection or edit, isolate and shut down until we snap.

It seems that the sheer volume of heartache pouring in has caused it to stop pouring out. The escalation of atrocities made possible by the sudden, depersonalized, mechanical efficiency of modern warfare has replaced the undeniable reality of hand–to–hand combat and its strangely personal code of honor. Colonization, the slave trade, the holocaust, the nuclear bombs, the killing fields, the genocides, the clear–cutting, species extinction and now the impending collapse of the global ecosystem have reshaped our shared landscape and our responses to it. We are at sea in a toxic soup and trauma is at the helm.

When we face our demons together, they begin to shrink and transform. In time, they can become our allies, and we theirs. American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Lama Tsultrim Allione has revived the ancient Dance of Chöd, originally pioneered by an eleventh–century Buddhist teacher — a woman named Machig Labdrön.6Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, Tsultrim Allione; Little, Brown & Co., 2008 In this practice, we invite our demons to take physical form. We enter into dialogue with them, eventually changing places with them, and asking them what they want from us. We listen until we have heard them fully. Then we dissolve ourselves to become the exact food they crave. We melt into the nectar that feeds them most deeply, and they feast until they are sated. When this happens, they often transform from a demon into an ally. It is an ancient practice, so powerful that in earlier times even epidemics could be stopped when monks agreed to feed the community’s demons in this way, so that the energetic patterns that gave rise to the illness — i.e., that forced it into a corner from which it could only snarl and attack — were addressed with kindness and generosity.

I often wonder what would happen if we could spark a global campaign of apology, of taking responsibility for and grieving the outcomes of our earlier decisions and those of our predecessors – likely made from that reactive, traumatized state that seeks self–protection or self–medication above all else. Who would we become as we gazed into each other’s eyes and atoned, together, for the world we have made, for what we have done and undone? I am reminded of the dream that came to a dear friend, a single phrase: Not enough tears.

American author, teacher and peacemaker, the late Fran Peavey, traveled the world, sitting on public benches with a sign that read, American willing to listen.7Fran Peavey, Heart Politics, Black Rose Books, 1985 When did we stop listening? Are we willing to listen now? If so, perhaps we will hear the sounds of our ancestors weeping, and recognize that weeping as our own. Perhaps we will hear the weeping of Creation herself.

Trauma is suspicious of love and impervious to reason. It refuses to negotiate. It has been cheated before and so it is wary and slow to trust. But if we begin to dance, to sway our bodies and tap our feet, it will dance with us. When we are moving together, trust will grow. The rusty hinges of the heart creak open. Memory returns. At this late hour, as the Ebola of greed devours us, I believe that all of it — all of it—is traceable to the reservoir of trauma and unexpressed grief pooling beneath us. Because grieving is pro–active, it lifts us out of the immobilizing torpor of trauma. If we truly want to change the world, we must tend to our grief and, literally, return to our senses. Do we have the courage to grieve deeply enough to unwind trauma’s spiral?

My friend and colleague, Bill Saa, lost his brother Raymond during the Liberian civil war. Raymond was tortured to death – his body hacked away piece by piece until he died. He was then buried in a shallow roadside grave. For several years, Bill worked to learn the circumstances of Raymond’s death, to locate the makeshift grave, and to find Raymond’s killer. When he had found the grave, Bill met with the local elders of the nearby village, then gathered friends and family, including people from the community, to help unearth the body so that they could bring Raymond back to the family compound, bury him there and hold the requisite Mourning Feast. Though the grave was a shallow one, the exhumation stalled. They were unable to pull the remains from the ground. A local elder recognized the problem. He cut a branch from a nearby tree and offered it to the earth in exchange for Raymond’s bones. Speaking to the earth, he explained that the people understood that after so many years, the earth did not wish to relinquish her son, but that the people wished to return the body to his human mother and father so they could bury him properly in the family compound. The elder then offered the branch in exchange for Raymond’s remains. When the prayers were complete and a libation offered the body came free. The following day, they arrived at the family compound with Raymond’s bones and shreds of clothing. A great, deafening cry rose up from the waiting crowd, a chaos of shrieking and shouting and anguished wailing that lasted far into the night.

Meanwhile, another brother, Nat, plotted to kill the murderer. A few of us from the US happened to be in Liberia when Nat dreamed that he had found Raymond’s executioner and was on his way to kill him. In the dream, Bill put his arm on Nat’s shoulder and told him, “Please don’t do it.” Nat vehemently affirmed his plan. But later that day, he had a change of heart. He joyfully phoned everyone in the family to tell them the news that he now wished to join Bill in forgiving Raymond’s killer. A few weeks later, Nat and Bill met with the killer and told him, “You deprived us of our brother and our parents’ son. Therefore you must take his place in the family.” From shared grief compassion is born. Deep grieving makes room for miracles.

Last night a friend told me a story of a poisonous plant he found growing in a pot, in the corner of a room, in a home he was renting. The plant had been left behind by previous tenants. (He left it, too, when he moved out.) One day as he sat meditating, he felt his attention being repeatedly pulled to the plant. At last he turned to face it, and began to listen. He heard the plant say, “That’s better. Now we can have a conversation.”

“What would you like to tell me?” asked my friend.

The plant said, “You humans are so very, very sensitive. Your bodies are designed so that you can feel and hear and sense so many tiny, exquisite things. But your ways of living now have caused your receptors to become congested. You can no longer feel these things, or hear or sense them. You have lost this capacity that is your birthright, and so you have lost yourselves.”

“What can we do to open ourselves again?” asked the man.

“Grieve,” said the plant.

It happened that someone had lent my friend an elephant tooth. He spent the next three days sitting with the plant, cleaning that tooth, and weeping.

About the Author

Cynthia Travis is a writer and documentary filmmaker, and is Founder & President of the non–profit peacebuilding organization everyday gandhis ( Since 2004, peacebuilders from everyday gandhis have been working with traditional communities, women and ex-combatants in Liberia, West Africa, and with selected schools and communities in the US. All projects arise from dreams and community dialogue. She recently launched the new blog, Borders and Edges ( In a former life she was a teacher and mediation trainer for children in California and New Mexico. She lives in a small intentional community on the Mendocino Coast.

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