The Hero’s Journey: Facing Grief and Loss through Poetic Medicine


As a Poetic Medicine intern participating with the Rediscovery Project at The Bay Area Brain Injury Network, I have the honor of sitting in circle with people who are not only being guided through the stages of the Hero’s Journey as a process of exploration in poetry and art, they are men and women living the Hero’s Journey.  As are we all.

One aspect of the Hero’s Journey is the descent into the Dark Night, the place where we face, and even open to, our grief and loss.  We find ourselves at the threshold of the uninvited and unwelcome initiation.  The place none of us wants to go.  The place we do not want to wake to find ourselves.  And yet, we do.

As the Rediscovery circle began an exploration of the Dark Night, of grief and loss, I began to ask myself “why?”  Why go to these places?  Why not hide?  Why not build walls?  But as Angeles Arrien teaches in her work in the wisdom traditions, “Where there is grief, there is sacred ground.”   Our deepest losses lead to some of our most sacred experiences.   If we don’t go there, we miss out on something essential to our spirits, to our growth, to our ability to hold wisdom. 

The poem, “I Sing” by Martin Jude Farawell speaks of what may be lost if we don’t risk the vulnerability grief asks, even demands, of us:

If I Sing

If I sing, I weep.

If I sing joy, even sing joy, I weep.

If I weep, if I weep, if cries splatter from me,

if I sputter snot and spit

down my chin, my shirt, your shirt,

if I shake and shake until you fear I’ll shake apart,

don’t be afraid for me, don’t be ashamed;

I will not break from this, will not die,

but from lack of it, from the closing,

and I will not close anymore, will not deny anymore

the child I was who could not

cry out has kept crying in

me.  And now that I can cry I will sing,

even if my song comes shoved out

on the wave of snot and spit I swallowed not

to cry, I will sing.

It is true.  If we build walls to hold grief inside, to hold tears inside, those same walls imprison our song, our medicine, our gifts.  By allowing our grief and loss to have expression and movement, we also create a path for what is sacred in us to find expression in the world, to have a voice and a presence.

As the circle at the Rediscovery Project explores  in voice,  poem, and art their grief and loss, I continue to question grief, try to bargain with loss, look for a way out.   But then I remember the words of Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem, “Kindness:” 

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

The only way is through.  Indeed, there is something important about understanding that our own sorrow is tied to the sorrows of all others — that we can see the size of  the cloth.  And it is in this brave act, this powerful vulnerability, we can shift into compassion for ourselves and others, claim the gift, stand on sacred ground:

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and

purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.

All too often, our culture expects us to handle our losses alone, or behind closed doors.  The Rediscovery Project is a place where people can voice and express and feel the often catastrophic losses associated with brain injury in a safe and supportive community of peers and expressive arts therapists.  Many indigenous cultures understand the importance of honoring and processing grief and loss within the community.  The Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso in West Africa holds regular grief rituals.  They do this as a way to help each person move and release the energies of grief in a way that is held by the group.  They also know that any individual sorrow impacts the entire community, and conversely some of our deepest personal sorrows are cultural or communal challenges.  At the other side of this three-day ritual is a time for each individual to be welcomed home, because making it through grief to the other side is a rebirth, a time that calls for community witnessing of the fact that this individual has been challenged, has survived, has grieved, and has made it to the other side a changed person, a stronger person, a different person.  It is time to greet them anew.  It is a time for acknowledgment.  It is a time to understand their new gifts and how those gifts are important for the community as a whole.

The poem chosen for the circle’s transition from the Dark Night to finding an awareness of the sacred was “Strange How Deserts Turn Us into Believers” by Terry Tempest Williams.

I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages,

because you learn humility.

I believe in living in a land of little water,

because life is drawn together.

And I believe in the gathering of bones

as a testament to spirits that have moved on.

If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place

that allows us to remember the sacred.

Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert

is a pilgrimage to the self.

There is no place to hide and so we are found.

At the Rediscovery Project, we are making this pilgrimage.  We are finding ourselves, each other.  Yes, there is grief.  Yes it takes courage.  But we are on Sacred Ground…Together. 

— Ivy Sandz . 2013