How Making Space for Grief Can Promote Community Healing
Grief spaces and community listening circles in Ashland, Oregon, model ways for communities to navigate these trying times—from fires to COVID-19 to racist police killings.
After George Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota on May 25, 2020, there arose a global backlash in the form of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and uprisings against systemic racism. In the midst of this moment of reckoning, a Black teenager in the town of Ashland, Oregon, named Aidan Ellison was shot and killed by a white man who accosted him for playing music in a parking lot outside of a motel in November 2020.
Forty-seven-year-old Robert Paul Keegan was staying at the Stratford Inn in Ashland when he heard Ellison’s music, confronted him, pulled out a gun and fatally shot the local boy, according to a police statement.
“[Aidan Ellison’s death] just really hit home for me as somebody for whom music is a huge part of life,” said Ashland resident Dani Leonardo in an interview with the Independent Media Institute (IMI) in 2020. “I’ve been passionate about music all my life. I started playing the piano when I was really young. Both my parents play. It just gets me through; [it’s] a lifeline and it’s something I love dearly. I heard in the week following Aidan’s passing that he was really working on his music and writing rhymes and sharing little snippets of things he’d been working on with his friends. It is just really heartbreaking.”
Leonardo said part of what was most difficult for the local BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community—who make up a small proportion of the 92 percent white population in Ashland—was the lack of substantial response from the majority community to the shooting.
“There has been a whole saga of painfully subpar responses from the [white] community around that event,” said Leonardo, who works with the Ashland BIPOC Sanctuary. “Having grown up in Ashland [and] being a person of color myself, I’ve witnessed the impact of that event, particularly on my Black friends and the folks that I work with in the BIPOC Sanctuary. We’re just really feeling the lack of awareness of folks here around racial violence right now.”
The Ashland BIPOC Sanctuary, which is sponsored by the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, was started as a way to bolster the rights of the Black people who live in the city as well as the Greater Rogue Valley. It also serves as a safe space for the BIPOC community to gather and support one another.
“I see the [BLM] uprisings of 2020 as a sort of a reckoning with the history of this country and the ongoing violence against people of color and particularly Black people [in 2020],” Leonardo said. “We’ve been reckoning with that and also witnessing the ongoing legacy of racism in the nation.”
Leonardo recently began working with grief-tending ritual and facilitation after training with well-known psychotherapist Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, who facilitates grief ritual events around the Rogue Valley. Leonardo said Ellison’s death was just one of the many events in 2020 that highlighted the importance of intentional grief practices—from the global climate disaster and the summer’s devastating fires, which wreaked havoc in communities just north of Ashland; to the COVID-19 pandemic and all that it entailed; to the ongoing violence and racism that were brought to the forefront by the global anti-racism uprisings.
“If we want to address the injustices of the world, we have to first [start] by caring and by letting ourselves be impacted by these things that happen,” she said. “In order to really be strong and resilient and take action as a community, I think it’s so important that we learn how to collectively tend to the grief of what’s happening and figure out how to support each other and ourselves to keep showing up in the ways that we need to.”
In 2020, Leonardo began to facilitate grief rituals around the Rogue Valley. In particular, she began working with the BIPOC Sanctuary on grief-tending related to the many racism-related deaths of Black and other BIPOC people.
“Grief is a natural consequence of caring and loving something. It’s just the flip side of the coin of love,” Leonardo says.
She points out that in looking at permaculture and ecology, you become aware of the full life cycle—and the way death nourishes new life.
“For me, grief-tending is like composting; it’s part of what enables new life to emerge,” Leonardo says. “We attend to the death of things, or the loss of things, or that transformative force. It’s recognizing at the end comes transformation and that there’s really no such thing as the end—it’s just the beginning of something new. … Nurturing and tending to that process is how I see grief work. It’s necessary in order to let go and make space so that new things can grow.”
The BIPOC Sanctuary was born out of a collective of people who gathered at the Beloved Festival held in Tidewater, Oregon, in 2019, and its beginnings are detailed in an article by Kokayi Nosakhere titled “When and Where We Feel Safe.”
“The BIPOC sanctuary space became a healing space when we felt not just physically safe, but psycho/emotionally safe. We no longer had to justify the validity of our experience,” Nosakhere writes of the first BIPOC Sanctuary, which took place at the festival. “The persons surrounding us knew what we were talking about because they were actively sharing in the experience. The freed up psychic energy was transmuted into vulnerability; we could process our emotions.”
Following disastrous fires in communities surrounding Ashland in 2020, Leonardo also helped the local fire recovery organization Mi Valle Mi Hogar / My Valley My Home, to organize listening circles. These were circles for Latinx survivors of the Almeda fire, which swept up entire mobile home parks and poor neighborhoods in September 2020. Many of those hit hardest by the fires were Latinx working families who do not have access to basic supportive services like government-issued disaster relief funds, insurance, or even bank accounts. As the Rogue Valley already had a shortage of low-income housing options prior to the fire, the impact of the fire was devastating for many. My Valley My Home focuses on equitable, sustainable, and healing ways of rebuilding after the fire—an effort that remained far from complete almost a year later—with a focus on helping the local Latinx community.
The listening circles were weekly support groups designed to hold space for people to share their experiences of loss and grief, and to be heard.
“It’s also about having a place to put their grief,” Leonardo said. “With everything that’s been coming to the surface [since 2020] and what humanity is facing as a whole right now, it does feel like absolutely the time for us to collectively destigmatize grief and remember what it means to grieve collectively... And then we also need to embrace grief as a central part of what it means to be human.”