Reposted from Sun Magazine
For a man who specializes in grief and sorrow, psychotherapist Francis Weller certainly seems joyful. When I arrived at his cabin in Forestville, California, he emerged with a smile and embraced me. His wife, Judith, headed off to garden while Francis led me into their home among the redwoods to talk.
I had wanted to interview Weller ever since the publisher I work for, North Atlantic Books, had agreed to publish his new book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Over the previous few years my father, grandfather, grandmother, father-in-law, and sister-in-law had all died, and I’d also moved across the country and was missing the friends and community I’d left behind. I’d been living with a free-floating state of unease, but I’d largely sidestepped direct encounters with my losses.
In his book Weller invites us to view grief as a visitor to be welcomed, not shunned. He reminds us that, in addition to feeling pain over the loss of loved ones, we harbor sorrows stemming from the state of the world, the cultural maladies we inherit, and the misunderstood parts of ourselves. He says grief comes in many forms, and when it is not expressed, it tends to harden the once-vibrant parts of us.
Weller’s own experience with grief began at the age of fifteen, when his father suffered a massive, disabling stroke, dying eight years later. The long process of dealing with his sorrow eventually led Weller to his current vocation. Today, at fifty-nine, he uses what he learned whenever he sits down with a client in his psychotherapy practice or facilitates one of the grief retreats he organizes. Having been a therapist for more than thirty years, Weller says, “I sometimes think my work is simply to let people feel their losses.”
Weller holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay and two master’s degrees — in clinical psychology and transpersonal psychology — from John F. Kennedy University. He trained with the West African healer Malidoma Somé for two years in the U.S. and then accompanied Somé back to his home country of Burkina Faso for further study. Somé and Weller then taught together for five years. Somé says, “Weller guides us into the difficult geography of sorrow and brings much-needed medicine to a culture . . . [that denies] the daily losses that surround us.”
In addition to his practice, Weller is a staff member at the Commonweal Cancer Help Program, which supports cancer patients who have a life-threatening diagnosis. In 2002 he founded WisdomBridge, which seeks to combine the wisdom of traditional cultures with insights from Western spiritual, poetic, and psychological perspectives. He leads rituals designed to help participants release their grief through writing, singing, and movement. For the last seventeen years he has led the year-long Men of Spirit initiation program through WisdomBridge. Weller has also taught at Sonoma State University, the Sophia Center in Oakland, California, and the Minnesota Men’s Conference.
Our conversation at Weller’s small kitchen table lasted several hours. He often quoted philosophers, poets, and sages, saying he’d committed many verses to memory because they helped him in his work. At one point I reminded him of an earlier offer of lunch. We laughed as we realized that we’d become so intent on our discussion, we’d forgotten to eat.
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