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Byron Shire
March 6, 2021

What the world needs now is… grief, sweet grief

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Paul Bibby

Late last year Ella Rose Goninan lost a loved one.

‘I dropped everything and stayed with family for six weeks,’ the co-founder of Renewfest (the Shire’s festival of ecological renewal) says.

‘It was exactly at the time when I would have done a lot of work on the festival but I just couldn’t.’

She thought about postponing the event entirely, but there was one speaker who had already been booked in.

It was Stephen Jenkinson – a Canadian author and teacher who speaks with incredible insight and eloquence on a range of topics, most notably grief and death.

‘I just thought, let’s go ahead with Stephen and let’s have a vigil for grief and loss,’ Ella says.

Scores of locals attended a vigil for grief in Mullumbimby as part of a weekend of grief and renewal.

So it unfolded that The Shire experienced a different kind of ‘renewal’ last weekend; one that was perhaps more sober but with a no-less profound message for the future of the planet.

From lunch time on Saturday to Sunday night, a vigil for grief was held at the Mullumbimby showgrounds.

Around 400 people of all different ages attended, with up to 50 there at any one time.

Locals sat quietly in contemplation, walked in the Autumn sun, accompanied by birdsong and the deep, ethereal soundscape created by Ella’s partner and festival co-curator Luke Jaaniste.

Mr Jenkinson gave two talks during the course of the weekend – one on eldership and the other on grief and loss.

Drawing on 10 years experience working in the palliative care unit of a major hospital (which he described as being in ‘the death trade’) Jenkinson says that contemporary western society had become ‘death phobic and grief illiterate’.

‘Grief is a thing to be learned not a thing to be endured,’ Mr Jenkinson has said in multiple talks and interviews, as well as his award-winning book Die Wise.

‘I’ve been teaching that grief is a midwife to what it means to be alive and to be human.’

The author of four books argues that in western culture we have lost the traditional ceremonies and rituals that once imbued us with a deeper understanding of grief from a young age.

He describes this as a ‘radical moral intelligence’ that is an essential part of learning how to love.

Ms Goninan shares the author’s belief that our ‘grief phobia’ is part of a broader disconnection that is a root cause of the current climate crisis.

‘I think that when we lost our connection to grief and death we lost our connection to being fully human,’ she says.

‘We became obsessed with always having more – more happiness, more material things. And I think all of these were root causes of the climate emergency.’

A true and loving sense of grief was needed now more than ever, she said.

‘It has been my experience that the well-spring of grief is also the well-spring of true love, purpose and energising joy,’ she says.

‘These are the human qualities we need in bucket loads, to guide and direct us safely through and out of the current climate emergency.’

She said the vigil had been profound and moving for many, and suggested that those who attended make time for their feelings and ‘creating space for what is unfolding’.

‘If you are seeking further support, please be in touch, and we can see who in our community of carers we could connect you with,’ she said.


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