Grief: A Shamanic Perspective


One may have heard the term Shaman. One may also have an idea of what a Shaman does. It is said that a Shaman works in Soul Retrieval, but what does this mean? The largest part of soul retrieval is not something mystical at all.

Let us conjure up images of sacred dances and animal costumes. We can imagine rhythmic drumming and the full moon. We can dream up rituals and megalithic sites. Then… We can forget those things. The biggest mechanism for soul retrieval is not anything mystical at all. It is something with which any adult is familiar. It is grief.

Much of life is loss and gain. Psychology refers to this as behavioral economics, a cost-benefit analysis for what we need in our emotional relationships. Even in the most toxic of relationships we can find something we are gaining. Work with a qualified therapist can be invaluable to identify the thing, as harmful as it may be, that we gain for all the emotional expense we pay. We get something out of it! A good therapist knows that you wouldn’t be doing something, as harmful as it may be, if you didn’t get something out of it.

Yet I can remember a time in my life when there was nothing I gained. It was the death of my father. Struggling to sign the paperwork at the funeral home, my whole being rebelled. I was dealing with the first two stages of grief simultaneously, denial and anger. It felt like the funeral director wanted something for this. I was so angry. There was nothing I would give for this. Every other time I had lost something, there was a tradeoff. Now there was nothing. Another stage of grief we call bargaining, but how do we bargain with loss? What if there IS loss and nothing to be gained?

When we lose someone as close as a parent we are introduced to this aspect of life. Something has been lost for which there is no price. It sometimes seems that we are losing ourselves. It can be devastating. It may take a person time, even years, to work through this, but there IS a mechanism.

You see, in relationships we are often co-arising. As you are, I am, we could say. There aren’t proper words to describe this in English, but other languages have ways. There is an inter-are as the poet and monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes. ”We inter-are”, he says. We co-arise. There is some of myself in the other, so to speak.

We can understand this in family relationships. A mother is not a mother without her child. Understand? If a mother had no children, she would not be a mother.

The maxim “Energy cannot be created or destroyed” is foreign to psychology, but understood in physics. There is something we can’t lose: our soul. Grief is the mechanism by which we call our spirit back from the places we left it. Grief is soul retrieval.

My example of the loss of my father shows this. So much of my energy as a son to my father was caught up in something. Clearly, it was caught up in the role of son. Being in family and being in a certain role takes energy. This energy is contained in that role. Grief is a mechanism which brings that energy back. There were behaviors that I, as the son of my father, would engage in, which I found were no longer necessary. This was liberating.

A child may rebel against a parent, for example. When the child finds himself parentless, he has lost something. But he hasn’t lost his soul. This cannot be destroyed. He may find that all those rebellious behaviors are no longer necessary. They existed because of the container and role of being a child with a parent. He no longer needs to rebel. There is nothing anymore to rebel against. The rebellious child role can be restructured into a caregiver role or any other. The energy comes back as we grieve and it is available again to become something it never could before. It is not mystical at all. It is energetic.

Children cry all the time and, believe it or not, it is the same thing happening. A child has many cries, but sometimes a child cries in self-defense. Children are much more natural and have no barriers to grief. A little person is handled and obstructed on a daily basis. What is his/her defense? If a child is picked up and placed unceremoniously into a car seat, for example, they cry.

Think of what an affront a child deals with as a matter of course. They are told no! They can’t have that thing, for one, that thing that is EVERYTHING to them… Playtime and all their friends, the whole world to them, may be over. We’re going home! What do they do? They cry. They are grieving, in a way. They are keeping their spirits safe, by calling their spirit back when their little personhood is obstructed and man-handled. Children use grief and it keeps their spirit safe. It retrieves their soul, we could say.

It is important to cry. It is important to grieve. Boys as well as girls, men AND women. As mystical as it sounds, it is soul retrieval. Instinctually, we seek to care for a crying child, but his/her soul retrieval should be protected. Crying is actually not always an invitation for another to impose their care. It would be of great help if we knew what this aspect of soul retrieval was all about. We all feel a little lighter after a good cry. If we know about grief as soul retrieval it would add much light to the world for us all.

There are three specific practices I can delineate in working with grief as a Shaman. The first is to call on specific place markers or “War Stories,” which can be protectors of the places we leave our spirit. Songs in our life often serve as these markers. A person will often remember where they were or what they were doing when they first heard a specific song. Years later, when the person hears this song, they will be brought back to the place and time where this song was particularly meaningful.

To tweak the spirit and induce the grief response, it may only be necessary to sing this song. Do your best! One does not need to recreate the song or sing it as well as the original artist, but often strong emotions are associated with or “place-marked,” by the song. As a songwriter myself, I know that in creating a song, grief can be induced. Singing along with rhythmic drumming does make up a specific practice to induce the grief response.

A person should be in a supportive environment. Often it is not socially acceptable to show grief. People naturally want to stop the process or know why a person may by crying. These are all barriers to the proper flow of emotion. When you are experiencing grief, you should have a space protected from having to explain and you should definitely be able to go into the experience and not stop it. “Don’t cry” is not at all beneficial for a person. “Why are you crying?” is equally disruptive to a person who is calling their spirit back. A person often needs to be alone. To cry, drum, and sing at the same time may require a special place far away from others to engage in a full soul retrieval.

A second practice is called “Grandfather Fire.” A fire ceremony can be used to release energy trapped in a specific object. Sacred objects are often destroyed by fire, but more often, writing on a piece of paper is the object to be consumed by Grandfather Fire. A person can journal and slowly and contemplatively share specific portions of their journals to the fire. Gazing into a fire can induce grief. As pieces of one’s life written down are offered to the fire, a grief response can come about.

At the monastery where I practice, as well as in my church, there is a “burning bowl” ceremony. Fire is a great way to release the past and induce a healing response. We not only leave our spirit in people and places, but sometimes we leave our spirit in things. People often say that an object has “sentimental value” and, in my tradition, this is not generally seen as a good thing. An object with too much sentimental value is “heavy” and really more of an emotional burden than it is something which uplifts.

A good rule of thumb is to think of what would happen if a sentimental object were lost, broken, or stolen. If this event would be a great burden, then the object itself is a burden. Taking time in ceremony to consume something in the fire may be necessary if the weight of memories and sentiment are too great. We should seek to have a happy, light, and mostly impartial view towards our possessions. Our main relation is functionality.

And lastly, my tradition has a specific expression made to mark the end of a relation to a person, place, or thing held dear. The expression is to hold the object in your view and then to bring the hands to the chest as if one were thrusting a knife through one’s heart. This expression is generally reserved for a goodbye to a person or place that has held deep meaning when one thinks that they will die before they will ever see the person or place again.

A person of my tradition is taught to live with their death ever present in their mind. A person who is going to die treats people and places with great care. NOTHING is taken for granted. If a person is leaving home for example, there are no assurances the person will ever be back. To make this expression is to show the great grief one has at leaving.

A shaman works with grief as soul retrieval. Energy cannot be created or destroyed. Grief calls our spirit back from the places we left it. Loss DOES exist, but a role a person once played which has become manque or dead can be transformed into a living entity. It is all just a stage in the game and a place in the journey. We are not here to stay. There are no permanent residents on Earth among the living. We are all just passing through and at the end of our lives, the sum total of our personal power, all that we have touched, felt, and done will be reworked into our next incarnation.

Soul loss can appear as ailments, from drug addiction to mental illness. One never sees what is lost, only the hole it leaves behind. A person whose spirit is filled with happiness and joy, with all the things they love, will be protected. Fill your spirit with the things you love and when there is loss, take time to grieve. It is natural and protective. We are always lighter for the process.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.


  1. You make some very interesting points. I would say your shamanic way might be much better than drugging and therapizing people as psychiatry did to me after the passing of my sister. I want to make, in my opinion, a very important point, after the passing of my sister and then my father, it does not make me not a daughter or not a sister. Oddly, enough as sad as the passing of a loved one is, I am more my father’s daughter and more my sister’s sister than I was when they were living. The saddest thing to me is that since they are no longer here, I can directly tell them how much I have learned about life and my life, in particular. I, also, can no longer apologize to them for my wrongs to them. The problem, in America, is that we have excellent ways to deal with grief, especially in the small town and rural areas of the South and Midwest. Actually, each area of the country has its own unique way to deal with the time of grieving. Think of New Orleans. The things we do can cement community bonds. In the South, we have in addition to the funeral or memorial service; people bring food to the grieving family’s home. Many churches will have potlucks and dinners for the family. The church and community work hard to make sure the family is taken care of. This is important as it aids in the grieving process and the family is not made to feel alone, which they are not. The church service is of great importance. My father, who was an Army Chaplain during the Vietnam War, told me that the funeral service was not for the dead, but for those who remained—those still leaving. It was Jesus who told us, “Let the dead bury the dead.” The problem we have is that with urbanization and secularization and even more compounded by covid restrictions, much of these necessary rituals have been left behind and even trashed. Sadly, many have lost family members during this time and have not been able to go through the necessary rituals, including the funeral service because of the covid restrictions imposed in their jurisdictions. I am concerned that this will cause great repercussions both personally and otherwise in the next years. What I am trying to say is we have already excellent ways “programmed” into our culture to deal with the grieving time. However, increasingly we are being kept from using these naturally healing rituals. Thank you.

    Report comment

  2. Interesting, thank you, Nagual. Shamanism makes more sense to me than the DSM “bible” theology. Which from my understanding, is really nothing more than a “bible” of scientifically “invalid” stigmatizations.

    “It is important to cry. It is important to grieve. Boys as well as girls, men AND women.” I did a piece of art I call “Tears of Both Joy and Sadness.” It actually made my brother tear up, in joy, when I explained that I was crying out of joy in the piece, based upon the toast he gave at my wedding. But I’ll add to that title “is not a disease,” for those in the psychological and psychiatric industries who believe tears of both joy and sadness is “bipolar.”

    “Crying is actually not always an invitation for another to impose their care.” Then most definitely, mere distress should not be invitation for another to impose their care either, yet that is exactly what the mental health industries do.

    “Songs in our life often serve as these markers.” My healing journey – after my “great escape” from psychology and psychiatry – most definitely took the form of a lyrical libretto love story. Where songs from my life reminded me of all my friends from my life. All of whom seemed to want to help me heal. It was a staggeringly serendipitous experience, but also a mystical, mysterious, musical awakening to my dreams and subconscious self. Perhaps, in a way, you could say it was kind of like finding a part of my soul, about which I knew nothing.

    “Fire is a great way to release the past and induce a healing response.” I did an oil painting right after I escaped psychology, psychiatry, and unfortunately I also had to leave my childhood religion, since they have “partnered” with the DSM “bible” believers. Nonetheless, in that piece I painted my former church engulfed in flames. And what was kind of weird was that same summer a large Catholic church in my hometown of Chicago had a burning roof. All while a song which included these lyric was playing on the radio.

    Fill up my cup, mazel tov
    Look at her dancin’, just take it off (I feel-)
    Let’s paint the town, we’ll shut it down
    Let’s burn the roof

    I had nothing to do with the Catholic roof burning, of course. But I had just painted a ‘Blue Chicago’ piece. And I most certainly was dancing after my escape from psychiatry, since withdrawal from the psych drugs can create a super sensitivity manic psychosis. And dancing was a good way to get that excess energy (mania) out.

    I hope the psychological and psychiatric industries may garner some insights from shamanism. Since I think I’ve read that people who’ve experienced psychosis are not considered sick in some cultures. But instead, they are considered special, and are often helped by shaman to become shaman.

    “A person whose spirit is filled with happiness and joy, with all the things they love, will be protected. Fill your spirit with the things you love and when there is loss, take time to grieve.” I think that having a love story within my dreams is what helped me during my unusual healing journey and awakening.

    But “that’s me in the spotlight losing my religion,” does also describe me. And I used to believe that churches were supposed to behave like extended families. So I am still, to some extent, grieving the fact that my childhood religion has “partnered” with the DSM “bible” believers. And together they are running a multibillion dollar, primarily child abuse covering up, criminal collaboration of industries.

    It’s betrayal and “abuse of power” on a staggering scale, so much so that it’s almost unfathomable. But I still grieve the loss of my former religion, since I still believe there are good people who used to attend the ELCA churches. So maybe that means it’s good news that my very large childhood church, now only has about ten people still attending it?

    Report comment

  3. One of the best articles that I have read recently. In my long journey through the mental hell system, I have come to appreciate the role of altered states of consciousness. I also recognize that this is something that our modern western society is almost entirely divorced from. Altered states of consciousness are powerful, yet they are not inherently good or bad. The individual experiencing them has the responsibility to successfully navigate them. Ideally, there are members of the community (elders, perhaps) who are familiar with a wide range of altered states of human consciousness and can guide others through them. Unfortunately, in our society, which expects and even demands comfort at every moment, the power of the altered state is lost in a paradigm that seeks to pathologize them. Having just a simple understanding of altered states, one can see that they conform to our views about them. Thus, if grief is seen as unwanted, negative and pathological, then so it is. However, such a view point does little to help the individual navigate it because grief can just as easily be reframed (with a certain proficiency and experience in navigating altered states) as something conditionally positive. that is, the positivity of the grief is a potential that rests within it and if the individual knows how to access that positivity, then they can use the altered state of grief (or another altered state) for their own personal (including spiritual) growth.

    Our modern American society is probably bankrupt when it comes to understanding and appreciating altered states. Perhaps this is due in part to the pervasiveness of the scientific paradigm in our modern world. Everything must be framed in the language of science. If we cannot do so effectively, then it is dismissed by large segments of the population. While science is an amazing achievement of modern civilization, and a profound investigative tool, it has great difficulty penetrating subjectivity, which is exactly where the altered state is interpreted to be positive or negative. Perhaps it is this same difficulty in penetrating subjectivity that prevents psychiatry from from being a meaningful and pervasive force for helping people. that is, helping people in such a way as to make nearly all those helped feel truly helped, instead of helping a tiny percentage and coercing the rest into feeling and talking as if they were helped.

    After spending nearly 2 decades in a psychiatric detention center (see my series here on MIA I have come to be quite adept at appreciating altered states and successfully navigating them. Detention, especially long term, is a major altered state that requires skill to be able to convert into something positive. I wish that our society would begin to appreciate altered states and their inherent value for human evolution. However, if the best we can muster is to tell our youth to “say no to drugs” and “abstain from sex” then not only have we overlooked a universe of altered states and reduced them to two (drugs and sex), but also we have not even prepared our youth for navigating altered states. Maybe beginning to teach our youth the significance of grief as you have outlined is a good first step. Not only does it not involve taboo drugs or sex, but it is something that touches all of us at some point, including young children. Perhaps if we can get our youth to appreciate the power of altered states beginning first with one that is normally seen as negative, then we can begin to shift broader cultural attitudes toward a deeper appreciation of the powerful potential of altered states. Ideally, I envision a world where people are prepared to meet the altered states of so-called mental illness with the skills necessary to successfully navigate them and covert them into the powerfully positive transformational growth experiences that they can be. Thank you again for writing this article, I hope to see more from you and your unique perspective.

    Report comment