During this reflective month of January feelings of grief may come up, and our tendency may be to push them away.

Charlene Ray, an interfaith minister, licensed independent clinical social worker, and counselor for grief and loss, believes we can learn from emotions we normally have a hard time facing.

My husband Bill and I met Charlene at The Commons Cafe & Books on an overcast afternoon. She arrived wearing a cozy green cabled wool sweater she bought on one of her last trips to Ireland, which she considers a home for her soul.

Charlene Ray takes a moment to reflect at the Commons Cafe & Bookstore. Photo by Kate Poss

You might think that someone who spends her professional life listening to people’s stories of deep grief and loss would be down and out. Yet our visit with Charlene left us feeling uplifted and hopeful, even after her 39 years of social work and counseling others. She is as refreshing as a walk in a fragrant woods with birds singing all around. She said throughout our visit that it is the natural world that continually renews her.

“When our hearts turn cold and numb from grief we need to warm up,” she said in a 2020 TEDx talk for Sno-Isle Libraries, See Grief in a New Light. “We turn to nature for solace and healing.”

Since the plague of COVID-19 in 2020, Charlene said there’s been an increase of people experiencing grief for lost loved ones and former ways of life, along with increased anxiety.

Add these emotions to the current state of the world, and that’s a whole lot of feelings swirling around that could be numbing and paralyzing if we don’t take time to tend them.

“There’s an underlying anxiety that many people are feeling with climate change, wars, politics, racism, gun violence—all kinds of worries people have,” Charlene said. “I’m seeing more and more people in my practice, which is connected with grief and loss.”

But instead of denying these feelings, it is important to work through them.

Some of Charlene’s clients tell her they don’t know who they would be without their grief, yet there is a way to move on.

“A natural part of the grieving process is to hang on to grief,” Charlene explained. “People think if they’re not grieving they will no longer be honoring the one who passed. The relationship can continue, love can continue. It lives in our memories. Others have very real connections on a daily basis: ‘Every time I see a heart rock on the beach I feel you near me,’ for instance. Those things keep you going forward. Part of grief is realizing I don’t have to be in grief to keep the connection with the person alive.”

Others may say their grief is too big to let out, fearing they will come undone if they crack open the door to their packed away feelings.

Feeling in tune while out walking in the woods, Charlene Ray believes in the healing power of nature. Photo shared by Charlene Ray

“[In my practice] I acknowledge that grief is big,” Charlene said. “People might fear there’s no control—next thing you know you’re in a puddle of tears. The most important thing I can do is hold space so someone can feel safe with whatever the grief is. I’m not the expert on their grief—they are. I want to hold space and walk along side them, and offer tools for mourning, and coping with feelings and emotions.

“I see myself as a guide, holding the space, helping them move along the journey. That, is what most people get from our first session. I help them pull themselves together enough to leave the room. What keeps us in pain is holding the pain in. Once the pain moves through me, I’m not going to be stuck in pain. It’s a liberating feeling. It’s not that I’m over it. I will move through it, and it will live with me in a different way.”

Charlenes’s father died when she was 13 and it was an accepted part of the culture then in Chicago not to talk about hard feelings. She credits this experience as one of the catalysts which led her to her avocation of social work and counseling.

“The reason I’m in this was, after my father died, no one talked about grief or about him,” Charlene recalled. “I really loved poetry and I had this book with Emily Dickinson’s poem, Hope is the thing with feathers. Really comforting. It was the word hope that gave me the feeling things will get better. I knew I wanted to be a counselor, particularly for teenagers, because no one was there for me. That piece stays with me. My dad’s death became a gift.”

In her practice counseling clients whose children have died, Charlene works with a New York State non-profit, COPE Foundation Grief Support Groups.

“The founder (Lilly Julien) lost her daughter and was in deep grief,” Charlene noted. “[Through this foundation] there are lots of examples of people who have taken this tragic loss and found meaning after acute grief. Grief takes how long it takes. It’s not a linear process. Acute grief can last a couple of years. Seems wild in our culture with short bereavement leaves, where you get maybe a week off if it’s your child. The more traumatic and sudden the death, the longer that stage lasts. People become numb.”

Blue door, foxglove and clematis, from Charlene Ray’s website

On the Founder’s Statement webpage of the COPE Foundation, Lilly Julien writes: “In 1992, my 20 year-old daughter, Michelle, lost her life tragically in a car accident. In the midst of my grief, she came to me in a dream and said, ‘I’m okay, Mommy. You’re the ones who aren’t okay and you need to reach out and help each other.’

“Michelle’s message inspired COPE, (an acronym for Connecting Our Paths Eternally) and has been my ongoing source of inspiration. Ironically, it was in the process of building COPE, and connecting with other parents who had lost a child, that I found healing. At the time I didn’t want to heal. I only wanted to find a way to stay connected to Michelle. It has been said, ‘Death ends a life, but not a relationship.’ Through COPE I found purpose and a new relationship with my daughter.”

In addition to her private practice, Charlene has announced several virtual classes she will be conducting around grieving and loss.

A misty walk photo from Charlene Ray's web page on a series of classes she will offer on Death Reverence
A misty walk photo from Charlene Ray’s web page on a series of classes she will offer on Death Reverence

One is the Death Reverence Series conducted on four Sundays 4-7 PM via Zoom with Charlene Ray on Whidbey, and from Ireland, her friend Tonja Reichley. Tonja lives in a small seaside town in western Ireland. Tonja has led journeys to holy wells, sacred springs, old wise trees, and holds classes about herbs, myths and rituals of Celtic practice celebrated through Irish holidays. The four seasonal workshops include meditations on:

    • Jan. 28—Imbolc, which honors the life of Irish goddess/saint Brighid, considered a patroness of crafts—including blacksmithing, weaving, dyeing, brewing—healers and midwives, poets and language, farm work and cattle. The nearly lost art of keening will be explored as well. Imbolic marks the beginning of spring, and is halfway between the winter solstice, and the spring equinox.
    • May 5—Bealtaine,  “grief as a threshold to embodiment,” marks the beginning of summer, and is halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.
    • Aug. 4—Lughnasa, “seeing the harvest as an end or death.” This holiday marks the beginning of autumn, and is halfway between the summer solstice and the fall equinox.
    • Nov. 3—Samhain,Cailleach—storming into your bones.” In Celtic lore, Cailleach is the ‘queen of winter,’ who builds mountains, freezes the land with her staff, and herds deer. Samhain is halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

“Our Irish ancestors walked with death in a way that has dramatically changed in modernity. Understanding how we as humans have honored death through the ages and how we have grieved can offer wisdom for living, dying, and grieving in these times,” Tonja writes in her description of the series.

In addition to the four classes on Death Reverence, Charlene and Tonja will host a Death Reverence Pilgrimage in Ireland Oct. 12-19 of this year. As of this writing there are still three out of a total of eight reservations still available.

“We (Tonja and Charlene) decided that some people would like an immersion in Ireland,” Charlene said. “We put together a weeklong pilgrimage in October. We will visit ancient sites and burial grounds “

Charlene said visiting these sacred places is “…acknowledging this is what happened and experiencing our ancestors’ rituals around death and grief.”

Additionally, the pilgrimage will explore more recent traditions around Irish wakes and keening, “…practices to move grief out of the body,” Charlene noted. “When the keeners came, it brought grief out of the body. People could mourn. Some would keen to move the spirit to the next realm. I find that people are hungry for these rituals and wish to explore these practices.”

Charlene Ray, left, and Tonja Reichley, guides for an October Death Pilgrimage to Ireland. Photo from Charlene Ray’s webpage

In her busy life, Charlene takes time to immerse herself in the natural world.

“You can find nature anywhere, even in the city,” Charlene said. “Even when I was young and had no one to talk to, I went to the trees in my backyard. Now I go into the woods, the garden, by the ocean, to renew my energy. My pets. Ireland really re-energizes me and fills my soul. You have to stay current with self-care. Otherwise it’s hard to sustain. You find nature on a smaller scale. You can you find a tree, water, even a house plant that become your nature. We can find it everywhere. It’s on a different scale on Whidbey versus the city.”

Craggly oak overlooking Valley of the Moon, Glen Ellen CA. Photo by Kate Poss

Enrolled in a program on the art of dying with OneSpirit Learning Alliance, Charlene recalled one of her classes was on African American Grief and Loss.

“It highlighted all the loss that communities of color experience because of racism,” Charlene said. “There are so many non-death losses to be aware of, and, of course, the grief from all the death. I want people to be aware of this, and how white people contribute to this grief.”

When she has spare time, Charlene is writing a book on grief, about how a connection with nature can help pull us through this natural emotion.

“If you love someone, you’re going to grieve,” Charlene said.

To learn more about Charlene Ray’s array of practices to nourish the soul, visit this website.

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