Petrichor: What The Smell Of Rain Teaches About Grief

Grief rituals allow emotional storms to pass [Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash]

The word petrichor is as beautiful as nature itself. It combines the Greek petra (stone) and īchōr, which in Greek mythology is the “ethereal fluid that makes the blood of Gods immortal.” Petrichor describes the sweet scent of freshly fallen rain, a smell somehow grounding and expansive.

As clouds gather before a storm, there’s tension in the sky and tension in our bones, as if we’re intuitively hardwired to sense an incoming downpour. After a storm, the air changes. The clouds clear. Petrichor fills the air, and we’re hardwired to enjoy the sweet scent of relief.

This natural phenomenon can be compared to emotions. It’s intuitive to use metaphors of weather to describe how we feel. That’s because we are nature, and cycles of emotion mimic the cycles of Mother nature. But so often, the thinking mind does all it can to prevent storms. The thinking mind is averse to clouds, and rainfall.

But with no rainfall, there’s no petrichor, no sweet scent of relief reassuring us storms are okay, that they’re necessary, that rain sows the harvest for tomorrow’s growth, that grief is part of nature, too.

Rain Dance

Native American tribes used the ceremony of the rain dance to call upon the Gods, requesting they supply enough rain for a bountiful harvest. The Cherokees saw this ritual as communicating with the physical and spiritual dimensions — rain is said to contain the spirit of past chiefs, who battle evil as they fall from the sky, towards Earth’s soil.

Across the world, cultures have performed similar acts of “rainmaking.” The Ancestral Puebloans lived in the Four Corners desert region of the United States, between 7,000-1,500 BCE. Their culture viewed rain as a sacred gift from the Rain God and would hold ceremonies and rituals in gratitude. The Zuni, their direct descendants, crafted the following prayer:

“Cover my earth mother four times with many flowers.
Let the heavens be covered with the banked-up clouds.
Let the earth be covered with fog; cover the earth with rains.
Great waters, rains, cover the earth. Lightning cover the earth.
Let thunder be heard over the earth; let thunder be heard,
Let thunder be heard over the six regions of the earth.”

I wonder how easily we allow ourselves to hear the thunder? To what extent do we let the great waters of emotion cover the Earth of our experience? When did we become afraid of emotional storms?

Types of Grief

Grief isn’t only a response to the death of a loved one. Grief is a natural response to many forms of loss, as 2020 has so veraciously highlighted. Job losses, lost future-visions, relationship breakups, losses of freedom, the loss of identity, can all ignite feelings of grief. They’re all equally valid. And they happen all of the time.

As a society, we’re deeply out of touch with true, deep, heartfelt grief. Many of us fear being devoured by the pain, instead choosing to push it away, into the confines of the unconscious. Yet like the cycles of nature, grief is there to be felt, to be expressed. There must be a storm before the sky clears.

A closed heart dulls the connection to life, to this very moment

When grief isn’t felt or expressed, the heart closes. But our attempts to numb pain can’t target specific emotions. Instead, we become numb to the full expression of the human experience. Grief may be a burning ember in the pit of the stomach, masked by bitterness, anger, regret, disenchantment.

A closed heart dulls the connection to life, to this very moment. It makes us feel separate and limits our point of view. My path of awakening made me confront the scalding rawness of grief. For a long time I was terrified to feel. If I felt, I reasoned, I’d be consumed. So instead, I detached. I oscillated between numbness and anxiety, never fully feeling the tender sadness in my heart. It would surface. I’d push it away.

Life Is Suffering, Isn’t That Great?

In my darkest moments, those days of unending despair, when I was trapped in the prison of my mind, when I saw no way out, I was liberated by the concept of duḥkha. This might seem strange, seeing as its ethos is that all life is suffering.

My early days exploring Buddhism revealed this to me, and I felt validated. Yes! Life is suffering! Now what? Fortunately, the Buddha offered a path away from suffering (if he didn’t, he probably wouldn’t have been as revered as a spiritual teacher!). I was fascinated to learn that the only way past suffering was through it.

As I deepened my meditation practice and applied a mindful approach to my internal landscape, things changed. Learning to accept the presence of emotions and thoughts transformed my understanding of how to process grief. Letting go of resistance towards the burning ember in my stomach led to a soothing realisation: this pain will not consume me.

I realised making contact with that which I feared was so, so much easier than the tension, anxiety and unease that resulted in resisting the nature of emotions. This was life-changing.

Reconnecting To The Heart

A spiritual awakening is largely the process of reconnecting to the heart. From the heart radiates joy, peace, love, compassion. Yet to drink from the truest, purest nectar of the heart, we must move through the heartbreak, the pain, the stuff we once refused to feel. It’s no coincidence the period when my depression felt fixed and rigid when I was terrified of grief.

There have been moments where I’ve felt my heart-open expansively, as if breathing for the first time, before being completely floored by floods of tears. This visceral, embodied expression would’ve been judged as unwanted in days-gone-by. Yet the more I understood my heart’s language, I realised life is best lived on the verge of tears.

Okay, not literally, as if we’re about to break down any moment. That’d be inconvenient. But the subtle messages of connecting to life intimately and sensing the pulsing heartbeat of existence itself are the choruses of goosebumps, chills through the spine, a knowingness sensed, not articulated — these all express as a tender surfacing of moisture in the eyes or full-blown waves of teary gratitude.

Returning To Wholeness

Is it all poetic and subtle and imbued with beauty? Absolutely not. I got a visceral insight into authentic grief when I attended a Holotropic Breathwork workshop. People scream at the top of their voices, they bawl their eyes out, cry for help, grunt, dance, laugh hysterically, cry some more. It’s messy. Really messy. But it’s true healing.

Miraculous is the language of existence

Stan and Christina Grof’s pioneering work demonstrates the innate power of emotional healing. Holotropic means “moving toward wholeness,” from the Greek “holos” (whole) and “trepein” (to move in the direction of something). The healing that takes place during these altered states appears miraculous. But miraculous is the language of existence.

Experiencing the healing power of emotions is another reminder that nothing you are capable of feeling will consume you or destroy you. Allow it. The fear is the fear of letting go, of losing control. But when the clouds form, do we try to push them away? Or accept a storm is imminent, and know it will pass?

I’ve made contact with grief enough times to understand its functioning in a way I never used to. Each time, there is a tension point — a gap of resistance, the part of me that doesn’t want to feel the feeling. Only when I surrender to the process do the feelings fully surface.

I might cry. I might be floored. But every single time, once I allow the natural cycle and let the storm pass, when I let the rain fall, then my heart opens, and I feel a genuine sense of relief. After, the world looks different. My senses are more lucid, more alive. It’s as if all the energy used to suppress the natural flow of emotions natural surfacing is free, my consciousness is clear.

The Innocence Of Grief

There were many barriers I had to confront before fully opening myself to the experience of grief. As a man, I was conditioned to always “put on a brave face,” that “emotions are weakness,” and I should maintain a “stiff upper lip.” All of these false beliefs had to be unlearned, discarded, cast aside.

Furthermore, my experiences with depression made me wary of grief. For a long time, I was afraid of relapse, and struggled to discern the difference between “healthy” emotional expression and “clinical depression.” I lost loved ones and experienced heartbreak without a single tear.

A lot of reflection, endless hours of meditation and reconnecting to other intelligence, such as intuition and instinct, allowed me to slowly discover the truth. Grief is innocent and tender, it wants to be held and nurtured. There is a peaceful, nurturing energy behind all emotions — their nature is holotropic.

The benefits of grieving are so pronounced that I incorporate a grief ritual into my spiritual practice. I went years without properly grieving — it wasn’t that I didn’t feel sad, or angry, or cry my eyes out at times. But I never surrendered fully to the process. 

Grief Rituals

Grief rituals aren’t only for big losses. I turn to a grief ritual for any sense of loss, because no matter how seemingly mundane, it still keeps me stuck or blocked, to some degree. Now, attuned to the subtleties of my heart, I realise how frequent mini-moments of grief are, and how much I used to push away from my experience.

I know when my heart is hurting, I know what it feels like to ignore that, I know when making time to grieve is the best thing I can do. So I stop, when I can. I light incense, meditate, connect to the pain. I listen to sad music. I do whatever it takes to feel what is there to be felt.

Without true grief and the healing it provides, we float in a liminal space, afraid to fully feel all of life’s tones, for some feel unbearable. I encourage you not to fear grief. It can feel overwhelming, it can feel too much, but the too-muchness is the holding on. Let go, swim in grief, let the waves wash over you. Let the rain fall, let the storms come, let the thunder be heard, let the great waters cover the Earth.

Just like the rain, grief is a gift, a reminder that what we’ve lost meant something. If we learn not to fear the storms, if we dance in ritual, then our tears become the ethereal fluid of the Gods, then we experience relief.

And once the storm has passed, we breathe again, then we smell the sweet scent of petrichor, a reminder those tears sow the seeds for today’s healing, for tomorrow’s growth, the harvest of an open heart.

Published by Ricky Derisz

Spirituality Coach and Meditation Teacher devoted to understanding the human psyche and nature of consciousness. Undergoing a life-long process of minding my ego.

2 thoughts on “Petrichor: What The Smell Of Rain Teaches About Grief”

  1. Ellen says:

    Gah, so beautiful & poetic Ricky. What a read.
    It all resonates deeply. I feel the catharsis in grief you talk of… and allow myself to feel it.

    1. mm
      Ricky says:

      It’s my pleasure that the poetry here has allowed you to feel. I re-read this and reconnected with the bittersweetness of grief. All a learning process of ever-changing inner tides.

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