Grief Is Praise

“It is important that we should air our lives from time to time by removals and excursions into the fields and woods [to] starve our vices,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his journal. This aeration of our inner soil by reverently stepping onto wild soil is a passion my daughter and I share.

Next summer we will hike for 30-days, a full lunar cycle, on the John Muir Trail - a 211 mile stretch of breathtaking wilderness in the high Sierras. This summer we are preparing our body and psyche through a series of week-long excursions into the wild. During a recent 32-mile hike in a remote section of Yosemite we slept under the stars, bathed in icy mountain rivers, watched with mesmerized amazement at the tenacity of trout swimming upstream and witnessed the playful interaction between a mama bear and her cub. We could smell the salty, mineral sweat of the deep Earth as we walked lightly on her surface.

Each trip into the wilderness takes us deeper into the mystery of ourselves and we remember that we are two legged animals learning new ways of tuning into the natural rhythms and seasons of our inner landscape and our planet. We begin to feel a sense of belonging to the Earth and in this union, this sacred relationship, we become family to the forest community similar to what naturalist and journalist Michael McCarthy poetically expresses in his wondrous book The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy, "There is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues, ... [that] the natural world has not left us, we can actually love, very fiercely, the natural world." Joy and human becoming through nature, with nature, is our birthright and my daughter and I set out to claim ours. 

Sometimes, when a bird cries out,
Or the wind sweeps through a tree,
Or a dog howls in a far off farm,
I hold still and listen a long time.

My soul turns and goes back to the place
Where, a thousand forgotten years ago,
The bird and the blowing wind
Were like me, and were my [sisters].

My soul turns into a tree,
And an animal, and a cloud bank.
Then changed and odd it comes home
And asks me questions. What should I reply?
— Hermann Hess, translated by Robert Bly

As we slowly traversed the Earth, the bear, the trout, the mosses and trees, the living, listening water became our sisters. Five days later we said goodbye to our forest family and began our drive home to urban civilization, from our rear view mirror we could see in the distance an enormous blaze of wild-fire scorching the mountain side. The black plume of smoke rose like a mushroom cloud into the helpless broad, blue sky. Feeling equally helpless, shock and horror spread across my daughter’s innocent face and she erupted into gut-wrenching tears. Her deep soul and generous heart, capable of fierce love, risk and loss exploded in her tiny chest. Her immense heartbreak, sadness and empathic expression of true grief for her tree-sisters burned inside her, scorching her soul vis-a-vis their soul. Her unbridled grief surged and settled in the most amazing sequence and I silently, reverently, gratefully witnessed this natural unfolding and healing in awe and beauty.


It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

Martín Prechtel, Mayan teacher, healer and author, writes in his gorgeous grief-focused book The Smell of Rain on Dust that, “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.” An authentic, unabashed, unapologetic grief is how we praise those we love, our universe and Earth. As we wail we are simultaneously praising with our whole heart the life we have been awarded to live. Grief is praise. The full expression of grief is necessary in the diligence of becoming a whole person.

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 some way dead. So grief and praise make us alive.
— Martín Prechtel

Grief is natural. Grief is necessary. Grief is an “obligation to life to make more life.” Grief is what all living beings experience when “what or whom they love dies or disappears.” Prechtel clarifies that grief is not what we feel when our expectations go unmet, or our hopes are squashed, or when we lose what we thought we deserved. This, he councils, is disappointment and should not be confused with grief.

My daughter’s poetic and generous grief for her tree-sisters is a mirror that we, as adults who have forgotten how to grieve, or who repress our grief, or dismiss our grief as unnecessary, unreal or unwarranted, can hold up and emulate. Grief as a form of generosity which praises life, the people and the sacred situations we have lost can be acknowledged, spoken, practiced in our lives when we lose a job, our health, a friendship or a loved one.

If we haven’t “lived” and “lost” enough, or we have anesthetized ourselves away from it if we had, or enjoyed the lazy comfort of victim status, then we cannot praise. If the way we live does not praise life, then we are not alive.
— Martín Prechtel


Especially potent times to practice the full expression of our grief arrive with the loss of sacred relationships -- those precious and rare times when a magical soul-to-soul connection grabs hold of you and takes you places you would have never gone otherwise. When you can feel destiny’s ghostly hand on your shoulder leading you into an unknown future that will forever be changed by this single magical encounter. Once touched by its sensuous spell, it pulls you in, and, for a time, you can think of, do, nothing else. Then as quickly and mysteriously as the magic arrived, it just as suddenly vanishes and in the absence a spaciousness opens and you realize that life was being lived outside of time and space for a prescient purpose.

...and like our eyes, firmly locked together,
as if to say, there is something we do not know
about the way we were sent as companion voices
to walk this world, together or apart.
— David Whyte, Trespasses - Pilgrim

This type of mystical soul-to-soul encounter wherein time slows and in a half-waking, half-sleeping state you feel yourself inexorably pulled into a shapeshifting relationship, and like two black holes colliding in space, the gravitational pull is unfathomable and utterly exhilarating are by design transformational catalysts. Gravity folds the space around you, shifts light waves, such that in those brief moments together you use up all your shared and particular time everywhere in the cosmos and forever.

...Did I know you even before I met you?
Are first meetings some frontier
already existing in the world
to which both are invited?
and without which
neither could have existed?
— David Whyte, Trespasses - Pilgrim

These mystical collisions are extremely rare and it is this mysterious tonality and quality that makes the loss feel like dismemberment from one’s own soul, just as my daughter felt the dismemberment of her soul with her tree-sisters. "Love is the mother of grief and praise," reminds Prechtel, who concludes that "love is health." We too, like my daughter, can give over to the full expression of our grief by fiercely loving those we've lost through our praise. When we express our own authentic, unabashed, unapologetic grief as praise for those we've loved we are inviting in, even calling in, more life, more love. Grief is praise.

You have given me a gift
such as I’ve never known.
You have given me a gift
such as I never even
dreamt of finding in this life.
— Franz Kafka

Let us grieve as a form of praise for all the goodness and beauty, in a sincere and honest attempt to give life to the gifts we generously receive in our life. This type of praise is so beautiful, writes Prechtel, that “even when it fails, it’s like a kid’s first homemade kite, so beautiful as it crashes to the earth, for the magnificence of even its failure feeds the Holy somehow and makes us breath by breath a little better at it every time we try,”


Try. We must try to practice grief as an eloquent expression of our love for one another. Our relationships depend on our effort, our planet depends on us too. Our earnest effort heals our heart, our soul and our ecosystem and keeps the world healthy. If we screw up, just unscrew it: ask forgiveness. Do better. "Praise and the depth of our grief expressed for one another keeps the world in love. Love is health." My daughter was undeniably transformed by the timing and juxtaposition of her sojourn in the wilderness and the blaze of wild fire. Her living expression of grief will unequivocally influence how she inhabits her world now and in the future: through love.

Try to find the rare soul who can and will praise all that [life has given and taken] with no passive malice in its true grandeur, and you will have found someone who has loved all the way and lost more than the rest, and when they grieve their losses, there is no way of mistaking their grief, it will be a powerful praise of who and what they’ve lost and that grand force of nature that took it away because they are in love with all of it.
— Martín Prechtel